The Dying Butterfly by D.L Fletcher

It's been a long time since it all began. It started slow; A few people sick with some unknown disease back in China. The news would show the citizens there walking around in their makeshift or painters masks. You felt for them, but we couldn't help breathing a sigh of relief that it was them and not us.
The Dying Butterfly
The Dying Butterfly by D.L Fletcher
Eventually as the illness spread ripping through their country governments all over the globe began taking action in an effort to keep it from their borders. Here at home the effort was small at first. It was only recommended that if you were experiencing any ill symptoms you wore a mask. Signs at stores and clinics began popping up asking about travel history that nobody payed any attention to. Eventually screening at the borders and airports came in. The news only reported a few potential cases that never panned into anything, so you felt pretty safe. But we weren't safe. As cases began popping up in Europe, Australia, and a few in the U.S it became clear that whatever it was had broken free. Eventually it was announced that there would be no more travel in or out of the country. Planes just stopped flying. If you were here and you wanted to go home it wasn't going to happen anytime soon. If you were out there and you wanted to come home it wasn't going to happen for you either. Everyone was just plain stuck where they were, so we thought, but people are rarely ever stuck. When we want something badly enough we figure out a way to get it. People began boating, swimming, driving, running, whatever it took. The people that smuggled themselves out, or those that smuggled themselves in didn't have to make their destination in order to spread the virus. When the first case showed up in Canada that's when it seemed real for us. That's when we really started talking about it. It wasn't Oh those unfortunate people in China, or Oh that poor child that lost her mother and father in Europe we heard about on the news anymore. Now it was what the hell are they going to do to keep us safe? Suddenly it was a whole new kind of real, and we were scared. People began buying extra food, can goods, toiletries, batteries became near impossible to find. But even through our fear we believed they would somehow stop this. We began convincing ourselves that the prepping wasn't necessary. It was just a silly precaution. You did it only on the off chance that things didn't get better. Like most things in life that turn bad they usually get worse before they improve, so we knew it would, and we braced for it. But I mean when does something bad not turn around to something good again? It always gets better... Right? It was coming for us, we were just too stupid to believe it. I'm trying to recall that first sign. You know, the one where you say there it is. That's the one. That's the thing telling us something is off here. The one that says everything is going to be different from here on, but I can't think of what it was, what it could have been. The world was always changing, and changing fast. We just missed it I guess. It could have been any number of things. Like maybe the inoculation for the flu. Or maybe the H1N1. Maybe the bird flu started it all, or mad cow, or something in the making way back to the black plague. Who knows. Could have just been something in the air, or a simple bug bite that changed everything. I will tell you one thing for sure though. The T.V. ...The movies...they don't tell it like it really is. The way they glorify the world ending or something so dramatic happening that it changes the world in a way we no longer recognize it. Oh no. It is far different in real life. When the illness started popping up the top dogs in health care joined forces in an effort to learn what we were facing, and how to eradicate it. The illness was like... like Ebola meets rabies only on crack. You start off with a fever, nausea. Eventually you start hemorrhaging out your eyes, your nose. You can see the blood oozing through the surface of your skin. For some they are fortunate to not live past this stage, but for most the fever breaks, the hemorrhaging ends and the patient is alert and well again. Initially we thought that was it, they made it through when we watched this on the news in other parts of the world. We thought, huh...that's not so bad; low death rate...Not such a big deal. But nope. We eventually learned that that was just the second phase of the virus. Turned out there was a third and final phase. The phase they tried to hide from us at first, what we now call the dead phase. The patient begins to hallucinate. They become agitated, confused and hyperactive. Now take all that and add sleep deprived. Yep, to make things that much prettier, they can't sleep. A normal person gets cranky when they don't sleep. These people, well...you have never seen pissed off before them. The health officials in the very beginning referred to it simply as the Rabid Virus. We knew it wasn't that simple, but no big deal we thought. The infected will get shots. If it was too late for them it would be unfortunate but the rest of us will get inoculated, and this will all be over, but that didn't happen. Eventually they changed its name saying that it wasn't rabies related, calling it something no one could pronounce. The name didn't matter though. What mattered was how to avoid catching it. Turned out it had to do with the saliva. Who cared if they sneezed? Inhale it all you want. It needed to get through the skin and into the blood stream, and sadly they bite, and they won't stop. If you got bit you got this kind of rabies infection if you weren't fortunate enough to die. If bitten, with your heart pumping rapidly from your panic the virus is circulated through your body landing in every organ. It multiplies so rapidly that it only takes hours to start showing outward symptoms. In the very beginning the news about the growth of the disease was buried in with the weather and sports. Eventually it became a bigger portion of the news beating out who made what play off or the hurricane building along some coast. It flowed night after night. It crept into the afternoon news, and it was even the cause for some emergency broadcasts. Of course they hid from us what they didn't want us to know. You know the part that said we were doomed. Instead they gave us news that offered fictitious hope, promising they were closer to a vaccine. They even tried to tell us that the number of infected had been on the decline. That might have flown if we didn't see their eyes on the big screen. Eyes can't lie. As people figured out they were only telling us what we wanted to hear, the looting began. I expected, as many of us did, to find military making their way into our streets declaring martial law, but it never came. My dad and Brad took it very seriously from the start. They began loading our garages with gasoline and food. I am sure dad was the one personally responsible for the battery shortage. We had more flashlights and wind up radios than anyone would ever need, or be able to carry if it came down to lights out. I knew when they started buying guns and ammo off the street that it was getting beyond serious. But I have to admit a part of me thought they were going a little overboard. At least I’d hoped they were. They started prepping the house putting boards by the windows ready to be hammered up to keep people out. They had us fill pillowcases with sand, stacking them at the base of the stairs in our home so if the front door flew open we had something to hide behind, on what I figured would be an off chance that they would be armed and shooting. Dad started filling every bottle he could get his hands on with water loading them into the van, on the trailer parked in our garage, and in our prepacked bags of personal necessities. Those necessities were mainly packages of dried food. We had two shirts, three pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks, a bottle of tablets to purify any water, and one thin jacket he bought at a Mountain Co-op that promised to be light, waterproof and warm. He bought us each one when he loaded up on that dried air tight food that hikers and mountain climbers take with them. I remember rolling my eyes at the thought of eating one, not to mention how ridiculous I thought he was being. I even went so far as to tell him that I thought he was being melodramatic. But the day came that I ate my words as I sat starving, grateful to have one of those packages to eat. CHAPTER TWO One of the last moments before the news began to flow I was outside in my back yard. It was morning, I was eighteen, and my biggest dilemma in life was what university I was going to attend in the fall. I woke to birds chirping outside my window. In the winter the birds were quiet, but in the spring their singing was new again, easily stirring me from my slumber. It was a sound I loved most days and cursed on others. Today, the sun shining I could feel spring making them a welcomed sound. Rising, I slid on a pair of gray track pants, black tank top and a long sleeve purple plaid shirt I didn't bother to button up. Sliding my feet into a pair of fluffy boot slippers I pulled my long dark hair into a messy ponytail as I exited my room. The house was bright as mom had opened every curtain we had in the house. She loved the natural light pouring in. I often gave her a hard time about it being too bright, but truth was I enjoyed it; It made me feel alive... energized. Except for the birds the house was quiet. I made my way to the kitchen pouring a mug of coffee mom or dad had brewed. Wrapping my fingers through the handle, and as far around the warm mug as they would go I picked it up heading for our living room toward the patio door. Leaving the kitchen I started to walk the off white carpet of the large family room feeling guilty for leaving foot prints in its freshly vacuumed tracks. Mom has been busy this morning I thought scanning the room noting the blanket on the cream colored sectional was folded. The wood coffee table that mom and I had left cluttered too exhausted to clean it at the end our movie night was now spotless, and every shelf and glass surface was reflecting the sun from the dusting she had done. Standing at the edge of the off white carpet I peered through the patio door to the garden outside spying my mom on her knees. Her long dark hair hung loosely under her round floppy white hat hiding her face, and her long pale linen dress was tucked under her knees. She was working on some weeds with the trays of geraniums beside her that she bought the previous day from Home Depot, a large store for all your building and renovation needs. When I was little it only took up a small piece of the yard allowing me plenty of room to play. As I grew so did her garden. Year after year she added another flower bed. As each spring approached she started prepping me for the new addition. If you are a glass half full kind of person you could say she was prepping me for the space I was losing. She would say it like it was something I should get excited about. I remember the first time. We stood at the patio door looking outside. I was five, the snow was almost gone, the sun was bright, and through the glass you could feel its heat. She looked down at me with a gasp like something amazing had just occurred to her. "You know..." she excitedly exclaimed. Realizing the startle she gave me she slouched "Sorry beautiful. I didn't mean to scare you." then her smile returned "I just got so excited with this great idea I just had." Her enthusiasm was contagious. I had no idea what I was excited about, but I was. "What mommy? What is the great I idea?" I asked practically bouncing. "Well...since you don't require quite as much space this year, I was thinking it would be so nice to add a flower bed along the patio." she said with the biggest smile. She was truly fired up at the thought. "It would give the patio some added color and comfort when we curl up in the chairs to read, or when we entertain. Not to mention the smell." she said closing her eyes taking a deep breath in through her nose. It looked to me like she could really smell them. I couldn't help but follow suit taking a deep breath through my nose. When I couldn't smell them my excitement started to dwindle. I looked out at the yard, visions of me and my friends playing ball and mom sweetly yelling twice as often as she already did out the patio door at us. "Watch you don't let the ball go in the gardens rodent! You'll wreck our pretty flowers." Yes you heard right...she called me rodent. She had sweet nicknames for me too, but rodent was the main one. I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it either. It added character and I think it helped develop my sense of humor. Anyway, my vision came true. She did yell that out to us like it was my garden too. I resented them a little more each year. At least until I got big enough that I could freely run the neighborhood. Then I just didn't care where she put them. Now I love to watch her work in her garden. It seems to give her added peace. With my warm mug wrapped in my hands I smiled to myself as I stared out to her through the patio screen listening to her hum while she worked. Sliding the door open I was greeted by a gentle spring breeze. The warmth of the sun on my face it invited me outside. "Hey mom" "Morning rodent." she said smiling up at me before turning her attention back to the weeds "How did you sleep?" "Good" I shrugged placing my mug on the long glass table. I reached over to adjust the big black umbrella to shade my seat. Falling into the red cushioned patio chair I lifted my feet out into the sun resting them on the cushioned seat across from me. I loved the gardens, and appreciated the time and energy she put into them. I remember sitting in that comfy patio seat watching her, taking in all the beautiful flowers and plants around me as I drank my coffee. Needing a little noise I looked to the battery operated radio that sat in off position in the middle of the table. Flicking it on I played with the dials and the antenna. Landing on a station I liked I tinkered a little longer until I was content with the reception before I made my way to kneel beside her. Picking up a small garden shovel I silently counted the seconds. "So have you given it anymore thought?" she asked leaning forward digging a hole for a flower she held in her gloved hand. Wow, 30 whole seconds I thought tilting my head to look at her while trying to hide my smirk. I knew she tried incredibly hard to act like the idea of my moving out didn't bother her, but we couldn't be in the same room without her finding a way to wiggle the question in, or just directly asking me. See I had been accepted to two universities. One was Carleton University right there in town. Meaning I would be home a little longer. The other was Queen's University in Kingston. An easy commute home on weekends, but too far to commute to and from school from home. Meant I was moving out. I knew in the fall I would be attending one of them. Up until that very moment kneeling beside her I hadn't made up my mind. "Yes mom." I said digging my hole a little deeper as I glanced at her through the strands of hair that fell over my eyes. Without looking at me she placed the flower in the dirt "Oh?" she said. She tried to act natural, like it was not a big deal, but I could see her bracing herself for the worst. I turned my attention back to the hole I was digging in the loose soil grinning "I've decided that Kingston is a great school." "It is." she said, her voice cracking just slightly. "But the program at Carleton is good too." "True." I saw her nod as she buried the flower's roots. "If I go there" I said still grinning as I shifted my eyes to her "I get to see my friends all the time." Before I knew it I was flat on my back, mom landing a countless amount of kisses to my face. "So I was thinking Kingston is much better for me." "Oh shut up." she laughed tickling me. Squirming to get away from her tickling fingers and through my belly giggles I couldn't control volume of my voice as I choked out "I was just thinking less distraction is better." We interrupt this broadcast to bring you breaking news...A new flu strain is causing wide spread panic in China… Mom's tickling stilled and my giggling fell silent... Mom pushed herself off of me causing me to grunt at her weight. Shushing me with a wave she moved closer to the radio. I rolled my eyes at being hushed as I got up and moved to join her at the table; both of us falling into cushioned chairs resting our elbows on the table to listen. Public Health in China reported early this morning that four patients have died in hospital with sever flu like symptoms in the last week, while approximately one hundred more have presented with similar symptoms. A blurb from an earlier interview came through and a man with a very thick Asian accent spoke. As we know the flu virus can change each year. That why we get the flu shot. For those that are old or those that are very young it can be very dangerous; even life threatening. This strain is nothing like we have ever seen and the symptoms so sever we have decided to quarantine all ninety seven patients. We have also asked citizens here to keep their distance from each other to help stop the spread. I hadn't asked where dad was, so I have no idea where it was he was returning from. "Oh...you heard did you?" he said stepping out onto the patio. "Shush!" mom and I said waving at him to be quiet as the reporter spoke again. Health Officials say there isn't reason at this time to believe it will spread beyond their borders, but are warning all citizens to get their flu vaccine. Though they don’t recommend traveling to China at this time they ask all vacationers that plan to go to be cautious... Mom reached out flicking the radio off "Poor souls." she breathed as a monarch butterfly landed on my perched hand. I slouched back in my seat propping my feet up on the chair my mother had just vacated. As she turned lifting herself up onto her tip toes to kiss my father good morning I stared at the butterfly. It appeared to be watching me as I watched it. Slowly twisting my hand at eye level I looked at it, seeing its beauty from every possible angle. It appeared so fragile I couldn't help but wonder how it survived the elements. You are beautiful and fearless I silently told it as it fluttered its delicate wings without taking flight. I could crush you; but it clearly didn't believe I would. Moments later it took flight around the yard. I watched as it fluttered where it wanted to. It flew into the shrubs, around the gardens and up over the fence only to come right back. I found myself envious of its freedom. Free to fly where it wanted; free from daily grind, the repetition, the dreaded routine. I couldn't help but wish for that kind of liberty. *** Here I sit in a black high back desk chair in front of an antique typewriter, since gone are the days of powered word processors and Internet. A candle flickers in the darkness to light the mahogany desk I am pulled up to. I can only assume the battered state of the desk is from the days of looting and ran sacking. A battery operated two way radio hisses on and off beside me as I listen for any trace of people trying to reach out to anyone that may be paying attention. In our travels I came across a very large stack of paper that I insisted on loading up and bring back with us. I must have one hundred packs stacked on the floor beside me. In order to put the paper to good use I added a typewriter to my list of things to find. I have to say that I was shocked at how quickly Mr. Clay found one. I actually thought it was an impossible task...But here I am. I am trying to document the journey I took to get to where I am; the journey we all took to get to where we are. I know I will never fill every page piled on the floor, so instead I opened my home to anyone that wanted to write about something...anything. With no television to watch or mobile phone to play on keeping people busy this typewriter has become a source of entertainment for some. I often wake or fall asleep to the ticking sounds of the letters hitting the platen. As much as we managed to put a grain of sand, if looking at the globe as a whole back to some semblance of what it once was before the virus, I still find myself in need of a stroll down memory lane every now and then. I want to go back to the beginning. You know? Start all over again. I want to pretend none of this happened and everything is how it was many moons ago. I want to go back to being in love, where my biggest disappointment was not being able to see my boyfriend on Friday night. I want to go back to the days of rolling my eyes at some ridiculous thing my folks found hilarious; the days when I didn't realize how much I appreciated and needed them. The story goes when mom was pregnant with me dad wished for a son. He told me when he was blessed with a daughter he refused to sit idly by while my mom raised a prissy little girl. He said he was going to have his son regardless of the gender I was born as...And he did. He insisted I be enrolled in kick-boxing and football. I wasn't very good at either, but there was some really great bonding to be had for us in those two sports. Mom on the other hand insisted that I at least be allowed to entertain the fact that I was a girl, introducing me to glitter, nail painting and shopping. Dad was never excited when I showed him my messy painted nails or batted my blue eye shadowed eyes, and mom was as equally uninterested when I came home boasting over-zealously about a touchdown at a football game I had just had. Thinking about it, between being called rodent, and the lack of enthusiasm they had about things that worked me into a hyper frenzy it’s amazing how they still managed to make me feel so loved. They truly were a confusing pair. They both wanted so much of my time. They were forever in my business, always telling me how much they loved me, how beautiful I was, and how proud of me they were. Yet, I couldn't get mom on board with anything dad and I loved, and I couldn't get dad on board with anything mom and I loved. I guess that kind of made the things we did ours. And when something is just for you and the one you share it with, it is just that much more special. Anyway, together they decided on calling me Holly, and get this, our last name is Wood. They said since their favorite vacation was in Hollywood, and that is where I was conceived, it was perfect. I personally don't believe they ever went to Hollywood. There wasn't a shred of proof of that vacation anywhere. I think that story was a cover. They just didn't want to tell me that they thought it would be downright hilarious to call me that. I am pretty sure in their twisted minds it was a joke that they thought was just too funny not to do; even if it was at the expense of their beloved daughter. Holly Wood didn't open the door to teasing like the name Anna. Anna...Anna Banana... It didn't open the door to teasing like the poor child named Ronald when they're last name is McDonald. In my head I can hear the kids tormenting that child right now... There was a kid I knew James, his last name was Bond. Right now all I hear is Bond...James Bond...not as amusing as Ronald McDonald, but you get the point. Whenever I told someone my name they would look at me in that tone that said, I want to laugh, but I am going to make sure you aren't pulling my leg first. I would press my lips and nod, shoulders and all as I rolled my eyes “Yep. Holly Wood.” and they would roar in laughter. On a rare occasion I received that look of empathy instead of laughter saying something along the lines of Awe...man...your parents are just mean... As a kid I didn't get the hilarity, but as an adult I realized that even though the name really wasn't all that funny, it showed the twisted sense of humor my folks had. A sense of humor they passed down to me. I had such a great bond with both my folks. With mom the bond was gardening, fashion and all that glittered. We talked boys, trashed fake two faced girly girls. Something I learned early in life was girlfriends were over rated. They weren't loyal. They had no problem talking you up to your face and trashing you behind your back. Girlfriends were more along the lines of a keep your friends close and your enemies’’ closer kind of thing. Like any rule there is always the exception, and my mother was that exception. She was more than just my mom, she was my friend. She told it as it was. She offered advice when I needed it. Sometimes the girlfriend in her would sit off to the side while my mother would talk, but more often than not mom sat off to the side while the friend in her offered non bias advice. She had no problem telling me how unfair I was to my boyfriend, or if my butt was getting a little wider. We could fight like sisters sometimes, but more than anything she was my best friend. With dad the bond was father and son like. We talked sports, we went to games, and we did renovations on the house together. The picture I am painting you might think I am quite the tomboy, but I'm not. I am very much a girl, and dad, he never did forget that. If he saw that I was sad about something he got me to open up. He didn't shut down the boy problems either. In fact he would give me the male perspective, almost always being fair to the boy. When we worked, if something was too heavy, as it often was, he lifted it. If there was a possibility I could get hurt he took over. He just wanted me to be able to do things for myself. He always said "There's nothing sexier than a girl that can use a drill. When I met your mother she was slinging one in the parking lot of this diner. When I heard it power up I turned my head to see." Then his expression would turn dreamy as he smiled imagining it. "And there she was; this young hot thing winking at me as she hit the power bringing the drill to life. I knew right then I had to marry her." I heard that every time we worked at some point. If mom was close by she would roll her eyes. "Jim. Why do you tell her such ridiculous stories? Don't listen to him rodent. I was the cute little thing in a short form fitted waitressing uniform bring him his dinner. It was food and a tight body. There was no drill involved." With a wide grin he would bop his brow "Oh Georgie...there was a drill involved." Mom would roll her eyes again "How can you take a power tool and make that sexual?" she would ask not actually wanting or expecting an answer. It amazes me looking back how after all their years together he still chased after her. He worshiped her, and she adored him as much as he drove her crazy. I miss their banter and the laughter that would filter out to me from whatever room they were in. You never realize how much you will miss someone until they are no longer there. Just like you never realize how easy something is until the thing that makes it simple is removed. I didn't realize, none of us realized all the things we took for granted like the people in our lives, housing, health care, getting clothing, buying food, turning on a tap for a glass of water until those people and those luxuries were gone. Before all this, the days of power, the Internet, and television we were happy being disconnected from one another. Why? Because we always assumed when we closed our eyes at night, everything would be just as was when we woke in the morning. The day I stared at that butterfly; the day I made the decision to attend Carleton University, I had no idea how dramatically the world was changing. CHAPTER THREE Following that first broadcast it came out that it wasn’t flu related after all. We watched the news intently, but it offered us little information. It seemed that they hadn’t any idea what it was that we were facing. I should say what they were facing. As for what we did learn, the knowledge we gained was that the number in quarantine had increased from ninety seven to one hundred forty and was still climbing. The news showed a large room that resembled a gymnasium with healthcare workers moving about in full personal protection equipment tending to the bed upon bed of patients with terrible flu like symptoms. There were many cases that had begun bleeding out their eyes and nose. Once the bleeding began it was ruthless, seeking any point of exit, slowly seeping to the surfaces of their skin. Like most bugs that swept through, the very young and the elderly were at greater risk of death. So far in that respect this appeared to be no different. In fact whatever this was, it appeared the odds of survival if you fell into one of the high risk categories was less than five percent. The death toll was nearing fifty percent. Ninety-eight percent of those were either very young or elderly. Of that ninety-eight percent that was almost every baby or senior citizen that had fallen ill up to that point. It was heart wrenching to see those people so sick. We could only pray they would find a vaccine or... something and stop the spread. *** "Do you have a battery powered radio?" Joyce asked. "Some music would be nice." The hydro had gone out hours earlier bringing the people in the neighborhood to life. Joyce and Brad, mom and dad's best friends and our neighbors made their way over having nothing better to do. In fact the entire neighborhood seemed to have exited their homes. People were on their front steps enjoying the warm spring night, or out for walks and mingling with neighbors they never had time for. Being in the city with all the lights it was difficult to get a good view of the starry sky on the average night, so parents were taking advantage of the blackout walking with their kids to the park to do some star gazing. I found the buzzing created by the outage exciting. It seemed we all did. Losing the amenities we took for granted on the average day was exhilarating. Of course it was temporary, and anything that has an end in sight is bearable, or as in this case enjoyable. The weather was warm, we were pretty certain we were in no danger, and because the illness wasn't right in our back yards everyone completely forgot about the sick on the other side of the globe for the night; even the news did. *** "We do, but the batteries died the other night. We have been listening to it more than usual lately." Mom said apologetically as she moved around the patio lighting the bamboo torches. I always loved when the torches were lit. Their flames flickered all around the yard sending a beautiful glow into the flowers below them. With the torches and the patio umbrella lights illuminating the yard it reminded me of an outdoor wedding. It was just so elegant and cozy. "I have one back at the house." Brad said moving to stand. "I'll go get it. Maybe we can hear what's going on with the power." "That would be great" mom smiled "Holly and I will go in and find some snacks and pop for us all." "Actually Jim" Brad said looking to my father "How about you come with me? You can help me carry over some beer, and mix for the girls. We can make a little party of this," At the mention of beer Dad glanced at my mom with a grin raising his brows in question. I found it amusing when he'd asked my mother for permission to drink. He hardly had to ask her. He was a grown man, but it never failed, he always did. Looking up at him from her cushioned chair she giggled "Why are you asking me? Just make sure he brings the Kahlua." *** "Look who I found!" dad announced opening the wood gate stepping back into the yard. The only thing he carried was a small radio as Tony; my boyfriend of the last three years was hit by the gate swinging back at him since my father didn't have the courtesy to hold it open for him. "Jim!" mom chastised as she rushed to help Tony who was now struggling not to drop the beers that were overflowing in his arms. The gate bouncing into him off balanced the load. As he tried to catch one can it sent another leaping to get out. That continued for the few seconds it took mom to reach him taking a couple from his arms. Dad just stood back chuckling at his handy work. Tony placing the last couple cans on the table rolled his eyes "You are such an asshole Jim." "What?" dad shrugged pretending he didn't know what Tony cursed him for. Tony could only smirk shaking his head at him, his eyes saying, Game on Jim. Game on. "You could have at least given the boy a bag to carry them all in." mom said with a playful glare causing dad to chuckle again. Mom she reached for the radio. "Ah." dad grinned, his already tall frame towering over her as he raised his thick arm up with the radio in his hand teasing her. "I will do it." “Fine” mom pouted up a him not truly upset. Unable to fight the urge he leaned down kissing her nose before falling into a cushioned patio chair going right to work at finding some news about the power outage. Tony pulled the tab on his beer. "Where's mine? dad asked glancing up, the radio hissing and squealing as he continued to play with the dial. "Over there." Tony said his head gesturing toward the opposite end of the table dad sat at. Dad and Tony got along great. They were always playing some prank on the other, and they completely lacked all mutual courtesy. You know, like offering the other some assistance like holding a gate open, or like now where offering a can of beer would be the polite thing to do; at the very least pass one when asked. It started back when we first began dating. Dad didn't want me in the car with some random guy he had never met, so he insisted before I could go anywhere with him Tony had to come over for dinner. The night started as expected with mom and dad grilling him. The questions were pretty typical. Are you going to finish high school? Are you going to attend college or university? What are you planning on studying? Tony answered everything politely and Dad was very impressed when he told him he was going to study medicine, eventually specializing in cardiology. As the evening progressed dad's questions become pretty ridiculous and the bantering began. I thought great...the relationship is doomed before it even takes off. Tony is not getting that dad is just screwing with him; so when dad asked Tony to drive him to the corner store I expected Tony to take him, drop dad back home and just leave. I visualized how I would find Tony at my locker the next day where he would tell me that we should just be friends. The store was only about five blocks up the road. About ten minutes after they had walked out the door I heard the doorbell buzz. Disappointed that dad had scared the one boy I really liked away I stayed in the kitchen cleaning as mom left to see who it was. "Tony!" I heard over the running water. I turned off the faucet leaving the kitchen to see what he would possibly have returned for as my mother shifted to see passed him into the street. "Where's Jim?" she asked. Tony adjusted his jacket squaring his broad shoulders "Well ma'am" he said fighting the smile trying to creep across his lips. "Mr. Wood asked for a ride to the store, so I gave him one; but I wasn't sure he would be impressed if I was still there when he came out since he never told me to wait. It is a beautiful night after all. If it was me, my being there would have annoyed me and made me feel robbed of a beautiful stroll since I would have felt obligated to take the drive. I didn’t want to be that person” he winked “So I left him there." Mom smirked at him with a sideways stare Tony...Tony...Tony...she said shaking her head as she waved a finger at him "I think I really like you." Tony’s shoulders bouncing as he tried to hold in a building laugh. "Would you like some desert?" she asked inviting him back in. I remember when dad swung open the front door, his face twisted in a scowl, his hair all disheveled. I assume from running his hands through it as he cursed Tony on his way home. Seeing Tony at the table he froze. The bag of milk in his hand dangled at his side as he stood glaring at Tony. But Tony didn't miss the glimmer of amusement in dad’s eyes. Shoveling another fork full of pie into his mouth he met my father's glare. I am pretty sure dad fell in love with him right then and there. I know I did. After that first date things were well...interesting. Dad had someone who liked to play; and dad loved to play. They developed a prank filled relationship, always trying to top the other. They argued, they were rude to each other. If you didn't know them you would think they were serious. Their relationship was aggravating, fun, and at times downright hilarious. *** Dad placed the radio on the table having found a station that was free of static. Sounds of the 80'e softly filling the air around us we fell into fun chatter. Mom started grilling Tony on the surprise destination for the trip he was planning for him and I. All Tony had told me up to this point was he was planning a trip in celebration of my graduation, and his successful completion of his first year of university. We still had a few months before we actually accomplished both of those, but Tony said it would take a few months to plan the trip. "Shush..." dad said silencing everyone as news came across the radio waves. A woman spoke. At 2p.m. Eastern Standard Time millions were left without power after a nuclear power plant shut down earlier today causing a widespread blackout in the U.S and Canada. The cause at this time is still unknown, but terrorism has been ruled out. The woman shifted gears talking about how the lack of power was impacting businesses, the general public, and eventually air traffic. Thousands of travelers are stranded at affected airports across both nations. Here is what one man interviewed earlier had to say. It isn’t their fault that we are all stuck here. We are making the best of it. Some people have cards and travel games they have been willing to share keeping the kids entertained. The airport staff have been giving out water and the restaurants have been handing out coffee and food. It hasn’t been so bad. We’re all just making the best of it. It will be a trip to remember, he chuckled. The woman speaks again. While the travelers seem to be faring just fine the blackout hasn’t been without its issues. Over 2 billion in damages has been reported so far, and officials estimate another four billion by the time it is restored. The male co-host takes over Since the cause is unclear hydro is asking all citizens still with power to conserve where possible while they work at restoring the power to all without. They also ask those still in the dark to go around unplugging anything that is draining on the system as it is unstable and could over load it as they work at bringing it back up.” The woman speaks again If you are still in darkness, rest assured that every effort is underway to restore power to you... "Well that's good news" Brad sighed. "It's not terrorists..." Conversation kicked up around the table about the power outage as I tried to listen to some of the interviews over the radio with people still in darkness. Each interviewee repeating almost word for word what the interviewee before them expressed. At first I was afraid this was a terrorist attack of some sort..." One woman being interviewed began. Only able to half listen, I heard another man say "Now that I know it isn't terrorism my family and I have just been out enjoying the night..." "I find it refreshing to have nothing to do and no lights." another woman told us "It forces us to get out and mingle, or sit out and enjoy the fresh air where we would otherwise be locked inside on our computers, or in front of the television." “Well there you have it” the reporter said to his co-host. “People are enjoying the dark tonight.” “Yes it seems they are” the woman replied.” If it had to happen it couldn't have happened on a better night. The weather is perfect.” Then she turned her attention back to us listeners... “and we can expect this weather to hold for the next few days. Temperatures will remain in the...” Do you need something to drink?" Tony asked pulling my attention from the radio. I heard mom laughing with Joyce, and dad and Brad deep in conversation about survival. Meeting Tony's beautiful dark sparkling eyes I smiled "That would be great." *** The power outage lasted a total of thirty four hours for us. When the lights came back on we never praised the power. There was no one that even uttered the words hey look, lights! No one we knew made promises to unplug more often, and even if we had thought too, we never would have stuck to them. We didn't stop to realize how precious the luxuries we had were. We just went back to normal, immediately falling into our routines. Mom and dad like everyone else returned to work. Tony and I returned to school. The candles were blown out and the computers were flicked back on. We all reconnected to our devices as the memory and joy of the power outage faded into the past. I can only assume we simply expected that the power would return; as it did. We never for a second thought it was permanent. That is the other thing I find funny about us as I reflect. We thought, or it at least crossed our minds that it could have been a terrorist attack, yet no one really felt like they were in any danger. Vulnerable maybe. Actually most likely more violated I think, but not truly threatened. How is it that we thought that something or someone got that close and we weren't afraid? How is it that we thought as teenagers often do, that we were untouchable, that it wouldn't happen to us? Is the human race that cocky? Were we just so spoiled that it never entered our minds? Or were we just that naive? I say we all returned to normal, but I should have said it was the new normal. When things change so gradually we don't notice the shift in our behavior; our routines changing. We're like a frog placed in cold water and boiled slowly. I didn't notice until recently when I was mulling over the past that our new normal became spending hours flicking through the stations chasing news on the illness, or how when we were online that we were searching out any new information that the news might not have provided us yet. Our new normal was no longer spent looking up music videos or sitting on Facebook. I didn't notice that just about every conversation we had revolved around the virus they were at this point referring to as the Rabid Virus. We had been informed that the sick were acting crazy. They were biting and frothing at the mouth. We had no reason to think anything other than it was soon going to be over. It being referred to as the Rabid Virus allowed us to sigh relieved for those close to it. We knew there were shots for rabies. If it was too late for the ones infected it would be unfortunate, but the rest would be okay. The predicament we were in didn't appear quite so complicated or threatening anymore. Not that it did before we had this information, and not even after a case showed up in Australia. It was too far to touch us on our side of the globe we thought. The news told us that the hospitals and clinics would be doing a travel screening. The intent was to seek out those that could potentially be infected here at home, placing them in quarantine in an effort to halt the spread of the virus. The questions were: A. Have you been to the infected countries? China or Australia? B. Have you been in contact with anyone who has been to the infected countries? Pending the response to the question they would continue with the following: C. Are you experiencing any flu like symptoms? I.e. Fever, vomiting, aching D. Are you experiencing any unusual bleeding? The issue it appeared was that the staff asking the questions didn't really know how to proceed if someone answered yes to any of the questions; at least from the one time I heard a patient and a nurse interacting at my family clinic. This patient answered yes to question B. The nurse spent the next twenty minutes trying to find out what to do with the patient that had also answered no to both C and D. In the end she was told by whoever she spoke to on the phone that she herself did not need to be placed in quarantine, and the patient was of no concern. That made no sense to me as I listened. If the questions were asked to avoid spreading the illness, then it made sense that if the person was exposed something be done. The patient wasn't even examined. He was free to move around and possibly infect others. Of course what do I know I told myself as I sat playing on my phone waiting for my appointment. These questionnaires eventually were just about everywhere you went, the stores, clinics, hospitals, but few places even bothered to go through it with you. Other places trusted the public to read the posters posted just about everywhere. I guess they thought we were responsible and considerate enough to follow the recommendations the posters offered like stay home if sick, or to wash our hands, but no one paid any attention to them either. Those that walked around, not necessarily ill with that virus, but obviously ill were never stopped or asked to leave. Heck not a person even attempted to avoid them. That is how invincible we felt. I have to wonder if anyone was actually trained on the procedure when someone answered yes to A or B regardless of what they answered to C or D. Was there even I procedure? Maybe Public Health knew we were screwed and put the questionnaires out in order to provide the public a false sense of safety. *** Part of our new normal at home included Dad and Brad stocking and talking supplies. They would sit in the kitchen or on the patio looking through fliers for deals on things they thought we would need should it turn really bad. On this particular day they were out on the patio. Brad, our attractive middle aged neighbor and friend was ex-military and highly trained in survival. He was informing dad that the best place to get survival gear was at Mountain Co-op. He suggested dad get his hands on some Pro-Pak meals. These were air tight, vacuum sealed freeze dried meats, potatoes, macaroni, whatever the meal was inside. He also recommended getting a small pot and small burner. “We need to get the kinds of things hikers buy.” I heard Brad say to dad “You know? The stuff that keeps their packs light yet allows them to carry the maximum amount of supplies.” I thought they were being a little ridiculous at this point, but even after expressing my thoughts dad and him went to Mountain Co-op and stocked up. When he returned he presented mom and I with large backpacks and all kinds of supplies to go in them. Mom was angry that he had spent the crazy amount of money he did, but he assured her it was in our best interest. Dad had both mom and I pack our bags allowing us only two clean shirts, three pairs of socks, and three pairs of clean underwear. After some argument I finally got him to agree on a spare pair of track pants. Of course my argument involved all kinds of sarcasm and eye rolling. I remember him looking at me, his eyes more serious than I had ever seen them "Holly, you laugh, but while you are laughing hear this and don't forget it." "Okay dad." I said smirking at him. "Should the lights go out we will only have a small window to get out of the city quickly and safely. We need this pack." he said loading the remaining space with the freeze dried foods, water purifier and water treatment. "This food and the water cleaners will be essential should we need to go on the road. Do you hear me?" I couldn't help but swallow trying to push down the fear that waved through me "Okay dad." Dad got up leaving my room with the promise of adding to the bag. Just as quickly as he walked out my phone rang erasing any fear I had just felt. We has a human race tend to put things that should concern us aside; shrug off the things that frighten us. We tend to believe that something so far away could never reach us, or something in our own country, city or town could never touch us personally. Believing this, being this naive, or this stupid we give way to the boil slowly analogy. We allow things to creep up on us, never truly seeing the danger until it is about to erupt. The unfortunate thing is when it is about to erupt it's too late. My dad and Brad were smarter than mom and I gave them credit for. *** It was only a matter of another few weeks before we were informed that health care officials were saying it wasn't rabies related after all. They offered us no thoughts on what else it could be, making it obvious to us that they really had no idea what it was. It also became clear that whatever it was had broken free. Cases were popping up all over Australia and now Europe. Europe was a lot closer to home... To keep the virus from our border they began screening at the airports. health care workers and military medical personnel began working collaboratively checking all passengers that landed on our soil for fevers, strange bleeding and aggression. They had quarantined a number of suspicious cases, but luckily none of them panned into anything. CHAPTER FOUR Up next at 6:00, Global News with Cynthia Goldsmith ... right after a few words from our sponsors... Mom reached for the remote turning up the volume on the T.V. This was what we did now. We sat around the coffee table in our living room me, mom and dad along with Brad and Joyce. It had become kind of a routine all of us having dinner together waiting for the news. Good evening...the professional brunette smiled back at us from the set of Global news; a large view of the city behind her. The virus that Health Officials previously thought to be rabies related remains unnamed as it continues to sweep East Asia, along with parts of Australia, Europe, and now...parts of the U.S. The Texas patient originally thought to have the simple flu has proved to be in fact infected, while four more patients in New York have been placed into quarantine. The U.S. Health Officials have beefed up all screening at international airports, saying that anyone exhibiting flu like symptoms will be held in quarantine for a minimum of ten days. Though the number of new cases has greatly reduced, it was announced earlier today by Canadian Prime Minister George Herter that he is taking our safety even more seriously as he ordered all travel in or out of the country to cease as of 8:00 a.m. tomorrow. This was part of his statement earlier today... The screen flipped to our white haired Prime Minister standing at a podium addressing a number of reporters and us at home, as cameras flashed all around him; two Canadian flags proudly hanging from their poles, one on his left another on his right. In a meeting with Public Health earlier this morning I was told that though this virus is something they have not seen before, they are very close to having all the answers they need to start working toward a vaccine. They promise to continue working around the clock until they can exterminate this virus. They hope in the next few days to have more information. Public Health was able to comment that although anyone that catches the virus goes through a great ordeal, just about all healthy individuals make a full recovery; but as we know the real danger lies on the elderly and the very young. The biggest piece of information they gave me was confirmation that the number of new cases is slowing daily. Although it is too early to celebrate, this is great news for us, but as the leader of Canada I need to look out for all citizens and do my part in protecting not only our borders, but the potential spread to other parts of the world. I feel that it is still a threat to us that needs to be stopped. So it is with great trepidation that I announce the grounding of all flights in and out of our country as of 8:00 a.m. tomorrow. Although the number of infected is on the decline, we as a government feel it is a necessary step in protecting our citizens. Arrangements have been made for all travelers that will be unable to make the final flights out at no cost to you. I ask those that cannot get home to contact the airport nearest you for available hotels. Please be advised that passports must be produced upon checking in... The screen flipped back to Cynthia. In Prime Minister George Herter's earlier statement he also asked that all individuals feeling any flu symptoms to stay indoors and to contact the Public Health number at the bottom of your screen. He asked that we not be alarmed as we begin to see more and more health care workers in full personal protective equipment moving around in our neighborhoods... *** "It's in the U.S." Brad sighed falling back in his seat on our sofa. He lifted his arms spreading them wide resting them on the backrest, his eyes still on the now silent screen "They don’t have a clue what it is and they have the balls to tell us that they are close to working on a vaccine? I bet the spread isn’t slowing either. They just aren’t telling us.” "And...here we go..."Joyce groaned, her eyes rolling at no one specifically "Can we not enjoy the positive here?" Brad lifted his arms, his palms up in question "What positive?” he snapped. With a loud exhale he dropped his arms back down on the backrest "If they don’t actually know what it is, and it is still spreading then there is no positive." The doorbell rang and Tony walked in. "Hi" he said glancing at each of us "Did you hear the news?" "Yeah we were just talking about that." dad answered pulling the lever on his recliner to sit up. Tony made his way to me giving my shoulder a welcomed rub. "Brad thinks they are feeding us a line of bullshit." dad continued "I have to say I agree with him." "Yeah, I was listening to it on the way over. I'm having a hard time believing they’re giving it to us straight myself." Tony replied with disappointment in his eyes. Pinching his slacks he lifted the legs slightly as he moved to sit on the couch next to me facing dad and Brad "It doesn't make sense. The number of infected is on the decline, and yet they're going to stop all air travel?" "I think we need to start looking at prepping for the worst." dad stated. "Isn't that what you have been doing Jim?' Mom asked pointedly as she rose from her seat. Bending she picked the garbage up off the coffee table "I mean all the spending from our savings on all that mountain gear?" than with a huff she asked "Would anyone like another coffee?" Everyone nodding she turned to get the brewed pot. For me I took from the news that yes, the very young and the old are in great danger, but that left everyone in between... lucky? I couldn't possibly think of what they could be hiding, or why they would hide anything at all. To me and apparently Joyce they were closer to figuring out what it was and were working at finding a vaccine. To top things off the spread was slowing down. That was fantastic news! Did I miss something? Mom returned pouring everyone a fresh cup of coffee. Brad reached for the cream and Tony moved reaching for the sugar as the conversation shifted; the three men arguing their thoughts on the best methods of survival should the world turn to crap in a hurry. All of which I thought was stupid idea after stupid idea. Joyce and mom sat laughing at how ridiculous they were, but the real joke was on them when the guys started getting up to see what dad had on hand for possible barricades. I heard Brad telling dad while they moved about the house assessing points of entry that since they lived directly next door they could pool their resources, protecting one home rather than being spread out protecting two. With that they made their way over to Brad's to see what he had that could be helpful in holding down one big fort. It wasn't long before the three of them began lugging over large pieces of wood leaning them up beside windows. Mom wasted no time giving them all a piece of her mind at their idiocy. "Jim you are not leaving my home filled with all this unnecessary clutter! Put that all way!" she demanded getting in dad's space. She would have been in his face if she was tall enough. Brad tried to tell her that it was most likely not needed, but it was better to be prepared. "If it turns ugly Georgie we need to cover the windows with these boards. We won't screw them over the window unless it is necessary." he said as he reiterated that something just wasn't sitting right with him on this. Joyce could only expel a sigh, her eyes saying this level of paranoia was a far cry even for Brad. I gathered she had been somewhat down this road with him before, and having seen their basement with shelving upon shelving of can goods and bottled water, he was clearly a better to be prepared rather than an, oops my pants are down kind of guy. *** Boards propped up beside all windows the house looked like it was being prepped for some major renovations when I woke the next morning. Dad was just coming in the front door as slowly made my way down the stairs. His hands were full of bags labeled Mountain Co-Op. Mom is going to have a seizure when she sees he spent more money on this survival crap, I thought to myself. "Hey rodent." he smiled at me. "Hey..." I replied looking at him like he lost his mind as he made his way to the living room to put down his bags. "Jim!" mom barked. I squeezed to the railing as she came marching past me down the stairs. "That better not be what I think it is..." she warned. Mom almost to the living room, me on her heals dad’s eyes pleaded with her. "Georgie, you are just going to have to trust me on this." "You know I do honey" she said a little patronizingly. "But this is going a little overboard don't you think?" "I'm telling you Georgie...I am with you in believing that this is all unnecessary, but I can't take the chance that we are not prepared." dad said as he moved about the living room emptying his bags "We have never seen anything like this. It would be irresponsible to just assume nothing will become of it. Please make sure to pack these." he said presenting mom with two light jackets to put in our bags made for running. Mom reached out taking the coats passing me mine as she nodded in defeat. I am not sure if the defeat was that she had finally accepted that we were about to go through something unimaginable, or defeat that she wasn't going to win with dad and had to let him play out his paranoia. Dad smiled at mom appreciatively "Thank you Georgie." he said, and went back to unpacking the bags. As I turned my attention to the pink coat mom passed me I remember reading the tag. It read something along the lines of a promise that the incredibly light material would keep us dry and warm in below zero temperatures. I hoped I never needed to find out. I couldn't imagine the thinness of the material keeping me warm in any season other than late spring. I think dad was only thinking of the space they would save in the bag. He had to be... Dad continued emptying what appeared to be bottomless bags, piling candles on the coffee table, and pack after pack of every size of battery, six flashlights, three windup radios, two sets of two way radios, and more of the freeze dried food. He also presented us with sleeping bags that would attach nicely to the outside of our packs. Once the sleeping bags were fastened to the outsides of our packs and all the new supplies were added, the bag for running was no longer small and compact. Looking at them and knowing all the contents inside, they looked like they would knock us over. I was quite surprised when I picked mine up it was still light. I still wasn't convinced we would need them, but at least if it came to that I knew I could make it down the stairs with mine on my back; maybe not out the door, but at least down the stairs. As long as we were remaining in the house I would have everything I needed--Really though, this was no laughing matter, and I was starting to see that now... *** All flights being grounded caused a certain amount of chaos. People wanted to go home. Others wanted to come home. We viewed on the news as the military and border patrol arrested hundreds of people trying to sneak in or out of our Country either by car or on foot. Others were being stopped by coast guards along the Pacific, Newfoundland or the Maritimes Regions. Dad along with Brad and Tony, who had already thought the beginning of the end had begun stepped up their efforts in protecting our fortress. Dad began collecting water in every bottle or jug he could get his hands on. He bought large bottles of water from the store, three or four a day. Brad began collecting gas loading it in the garage and on our utility trailers. Mom even began doing her share gathering small survival books on edible and healing plants, and bought a large variety of vegetable seeds. Joyce stopped rolling her eyes getting to work at putting together medical kits. She worked at a pharmacy and began smuggling out antibiotics, and inhalers while also buying all the necessities like gauze, slings, safety pins, cotton, alcohol and antibiotic creams. She even made sure we had the simple stuff like Gravol, Advil and Pepto-Bismol. Dad and Tony bought a trailer load of sandbags. They unloaded them into the backyard so neighbors wouldn't get suspicious, where Brad and I carried them into the house building barricades. One at the front door so if it were to be opened and someone started shooting, we had something to jump behind. I remember telling dad that shit would never get that real and they were insane, but mom had to kick the insanity up a notch insisting that the sandbags go into pillowcases so they didn't look quite so depressing. Dad who was always so in tune with mom could see that her request wasn't about how pretty her house appeared. He knew she was afraid and seeing the bags just heightened her fear. If putting the sandbags into pillowcases was going to help her he was happy to oblige, sweetly responding without complaint "Yes Georgie darling. I understand. You get me all the cases and I will be happy to pretty up the sand for you." The other barricade was in the living room facing the patio door. I remember asking my dad why we didn't just leave right then and there rather than do all that work to protect something we had no power to hold on to. His eyes met mine. I can see his eyes so clearly right now. They glistened from the tears that filled them, reflecting the love he had for us as he said with a soft smile "This isn't to protect the house Holly. It's to protect those in it." Then his smile faded and his tears dried up as he took a deep breath "We need to save our resources darling for when there aren't any resources left. If we run now, we burn through everything unnecessarily. We will be looking for food and water when we should be working at getting as far away as we can. This is all to make sure you, your mother and Joyce are safe." CHAPTER FIVE Before all flights had been grounded the pertinent details about the virus were buried; kept from us. The news about the virus in general was buried in with sports, the weather, the day's events and gossip about the rich and famous. At first they had led us to believe it was rabies related giving us hope that it was something that already had a cure for. When that no longer flew they told us that they were closer to finding all the answers; they were closer to a vaccine. They told us it was improving, that the number of infected was declining, and that the death rate was low. They said we were safe. Protect the very young and the old and all would be well. They wanted us to not be afraid; that the virus ran a brutal course that we could walk away from. But none of it was true...So much we didn't know... When they couldn't keep it from spreading they eventually had no choice but to tell us the truth; that they really had no idea what it was. Pinned to the news in our living room with boards propped up against walls and sandbags in floral or plain colored pillowcases built high in front of the doors, we found out that the virus had made its way to our soil as new cases continued to develop in the U.S. Thanks to those that wouldn't stay put. They told us there was no need to panic as the rate of newly infected was still developing much slower than they were in the beginning. In small towns rumors traveled and traveled fast. In the city you were lucky to know your neighbor's name let alone anything about the person that lived around the corner, but with the virus everyone knew someone who knew someone who knew something about it. The street and our friends became our news anchors. Rumor had it that the government had cleared out a prison in preparation for the virus's arrival. It was said that the reason we never saw an interview with anyone that had recovered was because no one recovered from it. Anyone who got sick became a crazed person that lunged and ran at you growling as they clawed and bit trying to tear you apart. It seemed like a horror movie to me. Impossible...I thought. As the rumors grew shelves at stores started emptying fast as people began getting the notion that stockpiling was a good idea. The virus that was once only a small part of the news became the main focus as things like the weather, sports, and gossip became buried in or not spoken about at all. The news anchors, government officials and Public Health tried to set the rumors straight in order keep the panic to a minimum, and order in our streets. We were told that people got well. They said that big dogs in health care had discovered that the virus was spread through saliva. There was no need to panic. The sick could sneeze and cough all they wanted, and we were free to inhale deeply as it wasn't passed on through aerosols. You can't get it they told us unless the skin is broken and large deposits of saliva enter the broken skin. It is under control. We as citizens wanted to believe them, and we almost did. See, there is a phase right before you go insane. That phase was what they showed us on the news. That phase was the one that made us all believe at first that the sick got well. They convinced us that we were in fact panicking; that the precautions we were taking were unnecessary. Masks came off. Stockpiling must have slowed as the shelves were staying somewhat full in the stores, but it wasn't long before the truth was leaked. The part they tried to hide from us. In time they had no choice but to come clean about the second phase... Yep, it was all just smoke and mirrors. Turned out it was just a phase within the virus. A phase we eventually called the Dying Phase. It was the stage between sick and crazy... The quiet period... the one that played with the emotions of the damned...The last moments of clarity... The fever broke, the hemorrhaging stopped. The period before hallucinations, agitation, confusion and hyperactivity were to set in. The part where you never sleep again... We knew the sick were known to bite and froth at the mouth. We had been led to believe that the high fever was the cause of the hallucinations making the patient mentally unstable, causing them to lash out and bite. What we didn't know was that it was the stage that followed the Dying phase; the final stage in the virus's process that you didn't recover from...the Dead Phase. When that truth came out, when they confirmed the rumor about the Dying Phase my future seemed to have been flushed away. University seemed like it was out of reach. Tony and I who had been talking about marriage...it now seemed like an impossible dream. With the new mayhem taking place Tony never went back to school. After he started university his parents moved to Italy. His mom was Italian and wanted to go back home to be with her ailing father. She didn't like being so far away from him and leaving the entire burden on her mother to care for him. Tony's dad was French Canadian. He didn't want to go to a foreign country, but he knew how much it meant too much to Maria to be with her dad. With everything going on I was terrified Tony would pick up and go to them. I knew it was selfish of me, but I needed him. I got up from the couch trying to hide the sudden depression that had swept through me making my way to the kitchen. As I opened the fridge I heard Tony, his tone deep and heartfelt. "We will marry Holly. I promise." It takes my breath away still to think about how well he knew me; how easily he could read my thoughts and emotions. I turned to him letting the fridge door close as he looked into my eyes adoringly. I wanted to believe him. He was the love of my life, my rock, my everything. I wanted to have his babies and build a life together. I just couldn't see how that was possible. I remember looking at him with tears in my eyes silently arguing with him that we were damned. He moved placing his strong hand delicately on my cheek "Don't look at me like that Holly." he softly pleaded. "We aren't giving up yet. There is plenty of time for everything we want in life. I will keep us safe." he promised before kissing me softly. With both strong hands he cupped my face meeting my eyes again "I won't leave you Holly.” he smiled pulling me to him to hold me while I held him “ We will always be together." For a few moments I felt safe. We will survive I thought. We have to. There is too much Tony and I still have to do... *** Sitting here at my desk typing away, my last candle almost gone, it is like it was yesterday when he said those words to me. He is still my one true love. Oh what the virus stole from us... It still amazes me how fast time passes us by with the world so different. An entire new pace has been set with far fewer distractions keeping us occupied, yet it does. It was yesterday three days ago, a month ago, three years ago. The day when Tony held me in my kitchen promising me we would still have it all. When dad told me he was protecting us with tears in his eyes. When we sat at the patio the night of the power outage, and the day I sat in my yard staring at the butterfly...It all feels like only yesterday, but it wasn't yesterday. So much time has passed...So much heartache has been lived since then...So much has been lost... *** The news about the Dying Phase had people stockpiling again. Only this time it was worse. Shelves were just empty. Stores couldn't keep up. People were fighting over the last canned good. Eventually when a new shipment came in, it never made it to the shelf. Security was beefed up when the deliveries arrived as fighting became common practice. People were line up at loading bays and buying boxes as they were being pulled off the trucks. Could have been toilet paper, they didn't care. Everyone just wanted as much as they could get their hands on. It got to the point that dad and Tony refused to let me go to the store at all. I have to admit I was relieved. It was dangerous. Although while they went I was home pacing with mom hoping they made it in an out safely. Eventually the shipments started being robbed before they even made it to the stores. We expected the military to come marching down our streets with their military vehicles rolling behind them, and weapons in hand as they instituted martial law. But day after day, night after night as we heard women scream, babies cry, and car alarms going off and they never came. The police did what they could to maintain order as all levels of police teams came in breaking up the few clusters of rebellion that broke out. Firemen worked around the clock putting out fires that people lit around the city. Paramedics worked side by side with both the police and fire department helping innocent people and the trouble makers that were injured in the mayhem. I knew with that it was all starting to come loose at the seams, but I didn't realize how bad until dad began buying guns and ammo off the street. Dad along with Brad and Tony would spend their evenings counting rounds or sharing the new weapon they just purchased. They would repack the two trailers and vans adding whatever new supplies they gathered making sure there was still room for everyone, and that everything was packed on securely. It won't be much longer now...I thought. CHAPTER SIX Emergency broadcasts were typical now. The news was constant and the pandemonium was swelling rapidly as new cases continued to develop around us. We hadn't physically seen an infected person yet, but the news was telling us that they were in our city. *** I had decided long ago to save myself for marriage. Tony never pushed the boundaries I had set. He never grumbled or made me feel guilty for refusing him when the affection went beyond my comfort level. Now with the world crumbling I had conceded that marriage was never going to happen. There seemed to be little reason not to be with the man I loved. Tony and I were in my basement stretched out on the sofa talking about a future that was never going to happen. "I want to be with you..." I whispered. "Whoa..." he said concern flashing in his eyes. He leaned up resting his head on his palm so he was now looking down at me. Tenderly he brushed my hair back with his free hand. The concern in his eyes faded as a playful smile crept across his perfect lips "You have no idea how long I have waited to hear those words." I couldn't help the giggle that escaped me, but my amusement was brief as I took his hand placing it on my breast "I mean it." I whispered. Removing his hand he placed in gently on my hip closing his eyes. Exhaling, his eyes opened meeting mine. I could see sadness in them. "No Holly. You don't. Not like this." "We will never get married" I tried to reason with him "I don't see the point in waiting anymore." "We can't Holly." "Why? All this talk of a future is just a fantasy" I blurted out gloomily. Tony regarded me like I grew a second head "How can you say that?" he argued "None of what we talk about is fantasy." I rolled onto my back with a huff as tears filled my eyes "It is! The world won't get better." I chocked "It will only get worse. We will never get married and have all those babies, or live in that big beautiful house we dream about." Tony lifted his body to climb over me. "Where are you going?" I asked. Standing beside me as I laid on the couch he bent kissing my forehead. "Out" he said. I leaned up onto my elbows confused. "Don't worry" he grinned "I'll be back shortly. *** Mom came downstairs about ten minutes after Tony had left me acting strangely happy. "I do miss the days of doing our hair and makeup." she smiled holding my curling iron and makeup bag. "Mom..." I groaned still lying on the couch "I really don't care about my hair today. "Oh...rodent..." she whined "It will be fun. In all the bad it would be nice to find a little slice of normal. Don’t you think? We always enjoyed doing our hair and makeup." she coaxed with a soft smile. When I didn't move to sit she reached down taking my hand pulling my limp body. "Come on." she ordered cheerily "Sit up. Let's get pretty." "Ah...fine..." I grumbled so not up for it. "Oh goody" she said practically bouncing as she turned to plug in the iron. Mom pulled up a stool taking a seat in front on me playfully narrowing her eyes on me. With her index finger she gestured for me to lean forward. With a huff I pushed off the back of the couch slouching forward placing my elbows on my knees as I landed my chin unenthusiastically into my palm. Mom regarded my lack of excitement disapprovingly "You could at least pretend to enjoy this." she said pressing her lips together with a sideways glare as she pulled out the foundation. As she went to work on my face we fell into what at first was mom pulling conversation out of me, but before long it came naturally. It was like many months ago; before the virus. We laughed and talked, we bickered. It was heaven the piece of normal she brought to that basement. I hadn't realized how much time had passed until I heard the basement door open. Coming down the stairs was Tony with dad on his heels. "You two look beautiful." Tony beamed at me in his decent down the stairs. "Did we look that bad before?" I snorted. His eyes grew almost dreamy as he took me in "No..." he said closing the gap between us. Standing before me his hand grazed my cheek, his eyes locked with mine “You are always beautiful” he said smiling tenderly at me. Kissing my nose he moved kneeling before me. I suddenly felt a little like there was a plan in the works, and I was the only one in the dark as I noticed my parent's standing back observing us excitedly... almost giddy. "What is going on?" Tony smiled broadly up at me from his knelt position "Holly...earlier you said that all of our talk is just a fantasy..." "Tony..." I blushed trying to get him to stand. "No Holly. Listen" he demanded sweetly "I have something to ask." I couldn't keep the tears from my eyes as I began to understand what was going on. Mom doing my hair and makeup, the happy expressions on their faces as they stood back, and Tony on his knees. "It has been almost four years since that interesting first date." he winked at me with a grin. I wiped at my eyes with my trembling hand giggling as memories of that night flashed in my head. "I know this is earlier then we had planned, but no one has ever felt more like home to me then you Holly. You are where I always want to be. You are my... everything, and it would make me the happiest man on earth if you would be my wife... Holly Wood...will you marry me?" I couldn't control the tears that spilled over trailing my cheeks or the crackle in my voice as I looked into his eyes "Yes Tony. It would be my honor to be your wife." “I was hoping you would say that” he chuckled as he moved to stand. Reaching into his shirt pocket he pulled out a small box. Fumbling he flipped it open taking out a small solitaire diamond. With both our hands trembling with excitement and nervousness he slid it onto my finger. "I have one more surprise Holly." I looked at him confused. What more could there be, I thought. "As I was saying a moment ago...Earlier when we spoke you said that with the way the world is everything we talk about is all fantasy...I want to make our fantasy come true. I want us to marry today." All I could do was stand stunned, a stupid smile on my face... Tony laughed "Don't go catatonic on me now Holly" he teased "Today cost me a fortune." Snapping out of it I punched him playfully before throwing myself into his arms. Burying my chin into his neck I inhaled his scent. “So…?” he asked, his arms still wrapped around me. "Yes." I bounced unable to contain my excitement. "Good" he laughed moving creating space between us. "If we are going to make our wedding you have to be ready in" he looked at his watch "15 minutes." Staring at him I knitted my brows "I don't understand." "Go see Joyce upstairs. I sent her for the dress since I can't see it before the "I do's". Brad ran like a mad man convincing a friend into skipping all the useless details required for a marriage license. It's waiting at the church your dad and I booked with Father Lew for 13 minutes from now..." Then he leaned in with a silly grin "So……” he said leaning in “if you want to get married honey...you…kind of got to move now." *** Joyce had picked up a slim-line satin gown with Swarovski crystals accenting the V-shaped neckline. The rear of the dress was low showing my back; its edges filled with embroidered beading with a sheer appearance. It was breathtaking. As I stood staring at my reflection in the full length mirror in my parent's room wearing the elegant wedding dress, my makeup done and my hair in a beautifully curled up do courtesy of my mother, I couldn't control the tears that welled in my eyes. I couldn't believe how they all pulled together to make my dream of marrying Tony come true, and how they pulled it off in an afternoon. It was perfect. Mom came up behind me. Her reflection smiling at me “I always pictured a build up to this day. You know… like planning it.” she said sarcastically. My eyes meeting her reflection I giggled. “In my mind I saw me driving you insane as we planned it. But not because I wanted to” she stated, her hands ironing out an invisible wrinkle in my dress. “I just wanted to be that overbearing mother you cursed as you stormed around your room messaging moisturizer to your hands telling Tony what a bitch I am; that this is your wedding not mine, and all the while I am just trying to make this the best day ever for you..” Mom paused, her expression a combination of joy and sadness she met my tear-filled stare “You’re beautiful rodent.” The moment bittersweet my eyes dipped, and my head bowed. Meeting our reflections again I smiled at her, both our eyes damp “I love you mom.” With a tissue she dabbed at her mascaraed eyes smiling softly at me “I love you too rodent.” In that mirror we stood for a brief moment in time staring lovingly at each other. I don’t know what she was thinking in that few seconds, but my mind played a lifetime of nursed wounds, bedtime kissed, great advice, heated arguments, comforting hugs and belly aching laughs. “Okay enough of this.” she inhaled tossing the tissue into the trash beside us “You ready to get hitched?” *** Mom climbed into the driver's seat of the silver minivan starting it as Joyce and I climbed into passenger seats. Everyone buckled in, the garage door opened, she pulled out driving us the two blocks down the street to the church. The only thing to distinguish the building from any other small office aside from its location in a residential area was the name, St. Peter's United Church, and the large cross fastened to the outside of the gray brick. The small church appeared to stand tall and proud as mom pulled into the parking lot; its large heavy wood doors propped open ready to receive us. My hand in my mother’s and Joyce’s arm around me we entered the small pale colored church. Just inside the doors a frail woman smiled warmly up at me from the organ, the slow hymn she played filling the space. Together the three of us rounded the corner pausing at the beginning of the aisle. The church was bright yet charming with its cream colored brick. It didn’t have the typical wood pews, but instead black chairs with chrome frames that were set up in rows ready to receive its parishioners. From the back of the church I lifted my eyes looking straight ahead. There standing on the alter was the reverend who later introduced himself as Reverend Lue dressed in a long white linen. I couldn’t help the adoring smile that swept my face when I first saw him. He was a short elderly man who seemed almost adorable as he stood completely absorbed in the bible he held in his hands. My eyes finding Tony who stood before the alter I froze. I wasn't frozen because I was frightened. It was the sheer shock of it all and how amazingly handsome he looked even with his back as he stood in his black tux with his head bowed. Reverend Lue lifted his eyes from the sacred writings he was reading smiling warmly at me before reaching out touching Tony's shoulder. Tony raised his head turning to face me as dad pulled my attention away stepping out of the shadows offering me his arm. "You look beautiful darling." The smile he wore was one I had never seen him wear before. It was a combination of happiness, and pride with a hint of sadness. Something you see in films at the birth of a child, on a baby’s first day of school, when they leave for college... or....when a father gives his daughter away. "Thank you daddy" I smiled as he I dabbed away one of his tears. "You ready?" he choked. "Yeah daddy" I choked through happy tears having never been so certain in my life "I'm ready." Tenderly he nodded "Okay darling” he said clearing his throat “let’s give you away." I linked my arm into his. Meeting Tony's eyes for the first time since dad turned to me we began our slow walk down the short isle. I will never forget the way Tony's eyes glistened in the small church, the expression of utter joy on his face; his love for me visible for all to see. Only one that has experienced true love can understand what we felt in that moment as he waited impatiently for me to meet him at the altar, and as I walked, but wanted to run to stand at his side. I don't remember much after Father Lue said "We are gathered here today to join Tony Gardner and Holly Wood in holy matrimony... other than the vows we took promising to be faithful; to be there for each other through better or worse, through sickness and in health until death do us part...since Tony and I were too busy being lost in each other's eyes. When the ceremony was over Tony and I, along with our four guests Mom, dad, Brad and Joyce made our way back to our house where mom lit the torches and umbrella lights. Dad turned on the CD player so no sad news would taint our perfect reception. We had a barbecue and all the traditions of a normal wedding like speeches, the first dance as husband and wife, and the father daughter dance. I even threw the bouquet of freshly picked flowers. *** Tony and I finally alone we made our way down to the basement. Through the flickering glow of the candles soft music played. "Do you like it?" he asked moving to stand tall before me. The unfinished space was made up to look nothing like it was earlier that day. Tony during our reception had found the time to setup the cot and light what seemed like a hundred candles. "It's perfect" I breathed. "I'm sorry it isn't a honeymoon suite in a beautiful hotel." he said disappointedly. I shook my head with a small smile "It's better than a silly hotel." Holding my gaze he slowly reached out taking my hand in his as he moved closing the gap between us until there wasn’t any distance left at all. My head to his chest I listened to the sound of his beating heart as we swayed to the music softly playing in the background. The song ending and another starting I shifted gazing adoringly up at him; a wave of electricity rolling through my belly when his loving eyes met mine. I would say it was the suddenness of the day that didn’t allow me to prepare for that moment that had me so nervous, but it wasn’t. I had been prepared for it for a long long while. In fact saving myself for marriage was a lot tougher than I had ever anticipated. So many times I wanted to give in; throw my promise to the wind. If it wasn’t for Tony not allowing us too I would have. Now here I was with my husband, a man I adore more than the air in my lungs and I was vibrating with anticipation “You’re trembling.” he quietly spoke holding me tighter. Nuzzling into him I nodded, Tony twisting his head to see me. “We don’t have to you know” My eyes looking into his, the soft smile etched on my lips I whispered “I am not trembling because I am afraid Tony.” As if reading my thoughts he slid his hands into my hair. I couldn’t help but close my eyes in anticipation. I was thankful he didn’t make me wait too long before allowing me to feel the tender touch of his lips on mine. Needing air we parted only our lips as we stood forehead to forehead. Tony’s hands tangled in my hair. I could feel his breath on my face as he chuckled quietly. "Mrs. Gardner?” "Yes?" I giddily replied. “I love you” he breathed through the soft music. In the flicker of the candles that danced around the room I backed up smiling playfully. Reaching my hand behind me I pulled gently at the small zipper of my dress. "I know you do." With a quiet chuckle his strong hands skillfully touched my shoulders sliding the thick straps down my arms where I allowed the dress to fall to the floor. His eyes dancing in the candlelight he traced my body. "You're beautiful." he softly spoke. Slowly, my hands at his waist I slid my fingers under his shirt that was untucked many hours earlier and traced his muscular core, lifting his shirt as my hands explored. When I couldn’t lift his shirt any higher Tony raised his arms up pulling it off over his head as I watched his abs flex with his movement. I continued to follow his body with my eyes seeing the definition in his neck, his shoulders, his chest... Although I had seen him shirtless many times it felt like the first time, and I found myself hungry for him. Tony bent scooping me in his arms, his eyes lovingly locked with mine, his breaths heavy. Carrying me to the cot he gently laid me down. Standing there before me shirtless in the candlelit room I followed his thick hands that were now playing with the button of his dark suit pants. I could feel his eyes on me and should have been self conscious being exposed to him the way I was, but I was too busy taking in his beauty. Slipping out of his remaining clothing he gracefully crawled in beside me. Body to body he lowered his lips to mine; the warmth of his strong hands on my skin sending goose bumps rippling in the wake if his touch. That night with Tony was everything I had fantasized it to be and more; the touch of his hands, the loving look in his eyes as he explored me, and me him. In that basement we for one night forgot about the world outside that room as we moved elegantly... gracefully...perfectly together... CHAPTER SEVEN It's been a week since my last candle melted away. I had my trading items ready in an effort to get more ever since I lit that last candle now that money is useless in this new world. You can't protect yourself with money. Now, we purchase necessities with items that someone else finds of value. If you have nothing to trade, sometimes the knowledge or skill you have is valuable enough to buy you what you need, like food if you have had a bad run at hunting or growing it, or fresh water if you were unable to get any from the rain or streams. Here there is always someone or a group of people needing help tending their small farm or building something. If you can use a shovel or weed a garden that may buy you something you need or want. If you can use a hammer or know how to cut angles, or if you can offer ideas on how to hook up electrical using a generator or batteries you are valuable. If you can't help with any of that, then being able to prepare food or fetch water for those that are working is appreciated also. The point is...pull your weight and we share. Don't, and you will eventually starve or have to move on in search of food or water, most likely never to be heard from again. This isn't a world for the greedy and self-centered anymore. It's all about team work. It's not perfect. More often than not what we are looking for the market doesn't have. Odds are it will eventually have what you need, but rarely right when you need it.. It took a week before candles came in. Mr. Clay had found them when he was out scavenging and only had twelve he was willing to trade. In a place with one hundred and three people and growing I was lucky. I managed to get six of them trading a couple pairs of shoes for his little girls. Six isn't enough though. I will be going back to look for more. If in another week none come in, I will have to scavenge for more myself. I like to have at least a couple dozen. I hate the dark. We spent far too much time in it. *** When I woke the morning after our wedding I was more in love with him then I was the day before, if that was even possible. He never failed to make me feel so important; the wedding...my first time making love. He made it not just an experience, but a gloriously beautiful act. Someone might catch my eye here or there, but not a person in the world no matter how strong or beautiful could ever steal my heart away from him. It belongs to Tony. It always will... Tony and I spent three whole weeks in matrimony bliss. We weren't able to tune out what was going on around us, but we were able to pretend it away here and there as we enjoyed our post wedding high; but like every time someone escapes from reality, you eventually have to return to it. For us it was when the air waves went dead. Phones ceased to work, cell lines died, the news...gone. For a moment...there was silence...not even a hum from the electricity. That hum was a sound we were so accustomed to that we didn't realize it even existed when we turned everything off with that sigh of relief to have what we thought was silence. We also didn't realize what a blessing it actually was to have that buzzing until it was gone. The sun was only just beginning to set. We were sitting down to dinner as a group like we had done every evening since the power outage one year and two months before lights out. The news played in the background as we kept conversation light, but our ears still tuned for key words from the screen behind me. I remember it like it was yesterday; at least the final words. Up until then the update was always the same. Except the number of infected they were no closer to a vaccine. Of course not... You have to know what it is first in order to figure out how to cure it. Part of the regular reporting prior to lights out was the number of murders. Murder was now at an all-time high. So high in fact that the news couldn't keep up with the reporting of them. They eventually lost count, just like they couldn't cover all the robberies and fires that had been sweeping the country. Emergency personnel had pretty much given up at this point rarely coming if called. It was becoming a free for all. There was something that shifted in the reporters tone. It was like he didn't know he was going to be telling us this before the moment he had to say it. It was like it just flashed before him. Hearing that shift, the stutter as he spoke, we all fell quiet turning our attention to the screen. The final words...they were scary. His eyes expressed doom. He knew we were screwed. I can't recall what he said before his final words, but in the end his final words said it all. It's beyond...anything we can control. Good luck to everyone... May god... bless our souls. Right after he said that we looked at each other in awe. So this is it...I thought. It's actually at a point of no return...I felt a chill as the realization hit me. We're alone...it's just us...This is it... I still get a chill when I play those final words over in my mind. Five minutes later the snowy screen went out, the lights seconds behind it. We checked the phone. Not like we had anyone to call, but it was dead. For a fraction of a second everything was silent. Not a beep, hum or a buzz. Nothing... Then a woman screamed outside as a man yelled threatening someone pulling us from our shock and into gear. We had practiced this drill a number of times over that last few weeks. Brad picked up the two way radios from the counter tossing each of us ours. Tony flicked his on so he could communicate with Brad. Dad flicked on his so he could communicate with Joyce. I flipped on mine so I could communicate with mom. The plan was we drive out of the garages together. The constant communication through the radios would help ensure that we did. We wasted no time checking for any of the necessities not packed. Mom ran to check the bedrooms and bathrooms while dad quickly made his way to our garage wasting no time connecting our utility trailer to our van. I moved to grab the bags for running and Tony ran to check the basement as Joyce headed for the a-joining door dad and Brad built connecting their house to ours so we didn't need to exit either home. Joyce's job was to run through their home checking for any last items not packed while Brad ran connecting his trailer to his van. Meeting dad in the garage I loaded the bags for running and jumped in. Dad twisted buckling himself in glancing back at me "Buckle up darling." he ordered calmly. "This could be a bumpy ride." As my fingers nervously fumbled with my buckle Tony jumped in beside me. He placed his hand on mine stilling me, his eyes telling me we would be okay. Buckling my belt for me he gave me a tender kiss as mom jumped into the passenger seat beside dad. His lips leaving mine my frightened eyes lingering on him as he picked up the two way radio switching gears again. "Brad. Come in." "Yeah...We're ready." Brad's voice came through. Dad glanced back at Tony answering Tony’s silent question with a nod of yes. Tony pressed the button speaking somberly into the radio "Okay...Now." "Ten four" Brad replied as Dad hit the garage door opener. We wasted no time. We stopped for no one. The goal was to get as far away from the chaos that already existed, and the chaos that was expected to explode now that lights were out. Inside the van there wasn't a scream, a cry or a whimper. Dad made it very clear in our drills that it was mandatory that we keep our emotions in check for the drive. He said if he had to deal with the distractions of anyone losing it, it could cost us our lives. The only communication inside the vehicle would be through the radios, and only if it was calm, collected and necessary. It was beyond surreal as we sped through the streets swerving around cars that had previously been flipped and a few new car accidents passing men, women and children begging for help. It felt wrong not to stop and let them in. Not that we had the space for all those that were pleading. We were a few blocks out when I saw my first infected crazed person. A man leaped out of nowhere charging a woman knocking her to the ground. All I saw was his face fall into her chest as she screamed fighting him off. My adrenalin raced through me keeping my emotions at bay as I turned to stare back them shocked. In one swift motion he leapt to his feet and began running toward our van. Although I couldn't see the color that dripped from his face with the distance that was rapidly growing between us, I knew it was blood. I felt Tony's hand on my shoulder nudging me gently "Don't look..." he said sorrowfully. Slowly I turned back in my seat, my head still twisted to see. "Don't look..." he whispered. CHAPTER EIGHT Mr. Clay, a heavily tattooed and very skilled middle aged bald man, but only because he shaved his head trucked his two daughters and wife clear across the country through all the mayhem. He almost seemed to enjoy the dangers that existed outside our town. I think having spent so much time out there with his wife and daughters he became accustomed to it. Though, maybe in his previous life, before the virus he did work that was very dramatic; some faction of the military maybe? Anyway, he won't talk about whom or what he was before it all fell apart, but he was one of the first here helping to establish this place. Regardless of whether he gained the skills before it all, or after while he was running with his family, he is incredibly practiced in survival and making his way around what where I came from were called the living dead, but are known here as the deranged. He often went out scavenging. He was one of our main sources to trade with. If you required things that you couldn't find in the market, you gave him the list of items. He was almost guaranteed to find it if the trade was right. As for me, it turned out if I wanted more candles, as I mentioned before that I did, I needed to go get them myself. We decided to go out against the better advice of Mr. Clay, the gentleman I traded the shoes for the six candles. He warned that when he went out last there was a lot more of the deranged around. He was right, and I knew that as the flashing flood lights had been turning on a lot more recently. I had no choice though. I had already burned through one candle in only three days, and as I told you, I don't like the dark. But most importantly we were out of food and had nothing we could spare to trade for more. Staying home was no longer a choice we had. We were out of options. I asked Mr. Clay to join us, as I had scavenged with him many times in the past finding him to be an asset when out there, but he declined saying there were too many deranged around right now. It was too big a risk. We debated on riding it out until he would join us, but agreed our supplies were just too low. Since there were more deranged around than usual we would only go as far as the next town, about half a day's walk away. We would go on foot. On foot allowed us to move much quieter than the engine of a car would take us or the clopping sounds of our horse's hoofs on the ground. We packed up some previsions, collard up Maxine my Shepard, and hit the trees. I found Maxine in our travels about two years ago. She was a scrawny Shepard. She snarled once at me as I approached her, but when I slowly stretched my hand out she sniffed the air a couple times, then approached me giving my hand a lick. We were fast friends. She's been at my side since. Together with Maxine we moved as quietly as possible making our way from abandon home to abandon home in search of supplies and candles. I scored big time. I found twenty three candles in total. Everything we need is out there. Canned goods, clothing, blankets, you name it, it can be gotten. It is just a matter of if you are brave enough to go out, or how far you are willing to go to get what you need. Few like to venture beyond the town we have established. It's scary out there. I don't blame anyone for avoiding it for as long as possible. I do. We found and brought home some canned goods, along with the twenty three candles I am so happy to have, and a new addition; a Border collie puppy. This poor thing was under a porch. The way it was crying we were surprised it was still alive; the deranged hate noise of any kind. Maxine took to the little guy immediately. She gave birth about five weeks ago and was almost done weaning her pups. He must have smelled the milk on her because he sniffed her once than almost urgently searched out a nipple and began nursing he was so hungry. Maxine surprised us by lying down and allowing him to take what he needed. He was a little too old for nursing making Maxine yelp a couple of times from his sharp puppy teeth, but that was the only complaint she made. The trip wasn't entirely uneventful though. As the little guy drank from Maxine I heard a growl behind me. It was in the distance but still close enough. You'll have to be quick if you're going to run I thought as I shifted getting ready to take off. Kicking my senses into full gear trying to hear all around me so I knew what direction to move in, I heard another growl to my left, and another on my right. That left me with the only option of forward to the house about 50 meters away. Maxine being a dog was immune to the virus. I knew she could take on one buying me time to hide, but three would kill her. The house in front of me I had no way of knowing if it was unlocked, or if it was even safe to enter. If the house was locked or proved to be unsafe Maxine would sacrifice her life for nothing. I couldn't surrender her like that, for nothing. I had no choice. I locked eyes with Maxine slowly moving my finger to my lips telling her to stay quiet. Her ears peeked, but she knew the sign and obeyed. Now all I had to do was pray the little guy was too hungry to allow the deranged to distract him from his feast while I tried to mentally conjure up a plan. I stood with my finger to my lips unmoving as my eyes scanned for him. He had left me to search a while as I stayed waiting with Maxine for the puppy to finish eating. I spotted him inside a house to my right through a large bay window waving frantically at me to come, but there was no time. I would have drawn them to both of us. My heart pounding, my breaths quick I could hear them approaching, and reasonably fast. Realizing it was futile to run I gave in. I accepted that that was it. Closing my eyes I allowed memories of before the virus, memories of the ones I loved and lost along the way to flood me. Enjoying those memories allowed me to drown out their approaching sounds, slowing my racing heart. I don't know how long I stood there, but next thing I heard was my name being spoken. My eyes fluttered open. "Jesus Holly!" he breathed his open palms rubbing his eyes clearly overwhelmed. "What the hell were you thinking?" "I was thinking that was it. You know I wouldn't have made it in there with enough time for us to hide. It was you and I, or just me." I shrugged "I figured it should just be me." "You are as crazy as them!" he barked still reeling with emotion. "I don't know what you are working yourself into a tizzy for." I snapped, but I did. I would have been in the same state if the shoes were reversed. "It was kind of interesting." I smiled. "You're insane..." he exhaled irritably. Rolling my eyes I started toward the house in front of me hearing him continue to ramble sarcastically as he followed behind me. "Interesting...that's exactly what I was trying to say Holly. Like wow...that was really cool. You, just giving up like that. Yeah...real freak 'n interesting..." *** I spent the last couple days thinking about that. It isn't anything I want to experiment with, but I can't help but wonder. That is the second time I managed to stand still and they didn't touch me... The first time was when the news stopped, the lights went out, and the phones ceased to work. Dad flicked on the two 12v emergency backup systems him and Brad had rigged up for that very moment. It wasn't dark out yet, but a few months prior to lights out Dad, Tony and Brad had screwed most of the boards up over the windows as the violence had been revving up in the area. The emergency lighting was a blessing as we moved around the house looking for anything that we might have unpacked from our supplies. It was awful the amount of perishable food we had to leave behind, the personal belongings like photo albums, and family heirlooms that would remain there for someone else to rummage through. What I would give to have them now. Maybe one day I will go back and see if the albums are still there... In the months building to that moment we were fortunate that nothing they set in place to protect us like the sand bags, the boards they screwed over the windows, or the guns bought were needed. The a-joining door was about the only thing that came in handy. Not having to go outside very often kept attention away from us. Because we hadn't been touched it felt safe there, but I knew in my mind the reality. With lights out, there was just no way six of us with the limited ammo we had would be able to hold down that house from all the desperate people in need of food, or those that would think for a while to come that jewelry and flat screens were still of value. The goal when dad and Brad pressed the button opening the garage doors connected to the emergency backup system was to stay together, stay calm and make it to the marina about one and a half hours out of town on a good day. The plan was to get out onto the open water. There was an island Brad's uncle owned. He passed not too long ago, and with everything going on in the world it hadn't been sold. It wasn't large, but it had a small cottage and would buy us a little time to plan where to go from there. Brad had made his way to the marina pulling the battery and the gas tank from the large boat sometime in the weeks prior to lights out, making that particular boat that much more useless to anyone who might have thought of stealing it. Plan B: If the boat he prepped was gone and nothing else was available to steal we were going drive out to Brad and dad's hunt camp. The issue with that was camp was on land. It was in the trees but still it would leave us far more vulnerable. With only six of us we ran into being unable to secure the property from those that stumbled upon us scared. Scare and desperate people were dangerous. They could steal everything we had or worse, kill us. We wanted the island. It would hopefully allow us to ride out the inevitable complete breakdown of society for a while, giving us time to plan our next course of action. The trip took us a little over three hours. We kept in contact with each other through the radios. What we had encountered during the drive other than that one infected man I saw a few blocks from our home was dramatic to say the least. There was little violence to speak of as people were too busy just trying to flee. I didn't see any more infected. It was simply the sheer volume of cars, vans, RVs. It was the absorption that our city was in a panic to escape; that the end no matter what the cause was here. I was confused when Brad radioed to dad telling him to turn down a dirt road since I hadn't seen the marina yet. We had turned off our lights a while before making the turn in a successful effort to not draw attention to us. It turned out that Brad had removed the boat from the marina taking it a bit down the large river. Using a manual winch he attached to a tree, he had cranked it pulling the boat in as close to shore behind a tree line hiding it from view. You would have had to travel down this dirt road with a plan to drive into the river in order to find it. The only other way to see it would have been from the middle of the large river. Why would you want to leave the safety of one boat to steal this one with no battery, or gas? Luckily when we did arrive the boat was still there. I was surprised. Brad had selected a much larger boat than I had imagined. I had anticipated a fishing boat. What he had was a house boat. But I guess since we had so much, it was smart thinking on his part. His plan was to get us and all our supplies to the island in one trip. That boat would work perfect. Brad went straight to work at putting the battery and gas into the boat while Tony came around the van to me. Straddling his legs he took my hands into his "You doing okay?" "Yeah..."I nodded leaning into him "It's just my legs. It feels good to stretch them out." Tony's strong hand tenderly cupped my head holding me to him. I felt his warm breath in my hair while he and dad talked about where to hide the vehicles once unloaded. Dad wanted to make sure we had a van to come back to when we were ready to move on. "We could clear out the thick bush there" Tony pointed, his one hand still holding me to him. "We could back the one in and bury it with the bush we spread open or chop up." "We don't have time to cut enough for both." Dad replied with a sigh as he scanned for another option. "No..." Tony said "but we can take the batteries out of both and leave one van in the open. Anyone stumbles down here will find it and assume that is the only one. I mean why hide one and not the other right? And just in case they do find the other, we have both batteries." "Yeah" Dad nodded pleased. "That could work. We would really only need one if we come back. Let's do it." Tony kissed my head. "We got to move Holly. You work with Joyce and your mom unloading the trailers okay?" Nodding up to him he gently kissed me before leaving me to help dad. I turned toward the darkness trying to see across the river. With the moon almost full and the thousands of stars shining bright I could see clearly. I couldn't see the shadow of trees or mountains anywhere in the distance telling me it was a massively wide river. There was no sign of shore across at all. It resembled an ocean from where I stood on the shore looking out. It took us the better part of two hours to unload the trailers while the boys went to work on hiding the vehicles. We didn't organize or unpack any of the supplies once on the boat making it pretty crowded. But the goal was just to load up and get to the island. All on board Brad fired up the engine while dad turned the crank on the winch attached to a tree allowing the boat to slide back into deeper water. Unhooking it from the thick wire he waded into the water lifting a hand to Tony who leaned out pulling him safely aboard. I'm not sure what was more eerie; the drive with everyone scrambling to get as far away as possible. Hearing people crying out for anyone to take them as we drove past them, or on that boat in what seemed like an endless body of water with nothing but blackness rippling under us as the motor cut through it pushing us ahead. The boat ride was slow but we eventually hit shore. Brad pulled up to the boat house asking Tony to jump out and open the doors. I looked on excitedly, eager to see our new home as Tony strode along the dock disappearing inside. Moments later the door opened and Brad skillfully trolled forward taking us inside; Tony closing the doors quickly so we would be out of sight of any other boaters that could be lurking from the river for a safe haven. "Let's look around before we unpack." Brad suggested "Make sure no one beat us here." "I was thinking the same thing." dad nodded. "Ladies" he gestured to us. Stay here." "Joyce" Brad said getting her attention "Be ready at the ignition. "I hear you." she replied jumping into the captains seat. Brad smiled warmly at her "Thanks baby." He turned his attention to mom "Georgie, you be ready at the doors." he politely ordered. Mom gave a small smile in reply. I knew I should have stayed in there, but the idea of an island left me with...I guess a false sense of security. Walking out of the boathouse I wandered the dock eventually disappearing down a short path to a high cliff where I stood looking out at the moonlight dancing on the water. I was stunning and I was captivated. I breathed in the fresh air and the feel of freedom and peace, so content to be away from the chaos that was building on land. Only allowing myself a few moments to appreciate the view I headed back to the boathouse. I didn’t want dad to notice I was missing. Last thing I needed with everything going on was a lecture for not staying put. I turned, but my eyes had to readjust from the light I had, to now total darkness as I looked through the trees. I took one slow step forward feeling my way, and then another. Two steps into the dark woods still adjusting my eyes I heard faint screams being carried out over the water. Without warning sticks began snapping from every direction. I wasn't afraid, I hadn't had time to register there was anything to be afraid of as four shadows raced toward me missing me as they leapt over the cliff. Was it because I was still or was it just the screams that had their attention that time? It wasn't anything I was willing to experiment with anytime soon, and I'm still not. But I have to say now that it has happened twice I do find it interesting. But interesting was the last thing on my mind at the time. There are lots of things that cross your mind when faced with death. Even though that time I hadn't even realized I was in any danger until they had leapt over the cliff, what ran through my mind was getting back to the boathouse and into the safety of Tony's arms in one piece. Turned out there was a speed boat on the other side of the island. One of them was clearly sick when they landed here and either infected the others or they were all sick. The men did a second thorough search of the small island assuring me that there were no others. Of course since I had to tell them what happened I received that lecture from both dad and Tony that I so didn't need after what I had experienced. My lesson had been learned. Stay put when told. CHAPTER NINE We slept on the boat that night. None of us were in any shape to unload. We had no idea what the cottage held for us now that we knew the island had been inhibited by people, let alone infected people. We decided that if it had been trashed or somehow contaminated we didn't have the energy to be disappointed. "Wake up folks it's a beautiful day!" Brad's deep voice echoed through the boathouse pulling me from my sleep. On my side, using my arms I lifted my head and chest off the floor of the boat, my sleeping bag falling to my waist. "I've been exploring, and surprisingly enough the cottage looks untouched." Brad continued as Tony leaned up twisting to loosen his sore back. A couple of groans and grunts later Tony straightened dropping the weight of his upper body onto one arm relaxing. His heavy eyes landing on me he offered me a sleepy smile as Brad moved about shaking Joyce and my folks, coaxing everyone awake. "You sleep okay?" Tony asked. I dropped my tired gaze with a yawn and shrugged "Yeah...I guess." Tony moved to brush my arm. The warmth of his hand was a welcomed contrast to the damp cool air of the boathouse sending goose bumps up and down my arm. Through my heavy lids I looked at him "It could have been worse I suppose." Tony inhaled deeply his hand leaving me to scrub at his head while he stretched. Nodding in agreement he leaned in landing a supple kiss on my cheek. "Guess we have work to do." he grumbled, then paused to rub his nose with mine "It's time to get up." "Let's go! I want coffee sometime today!" Brad ordered "Chop, chop." "I wanted to throw my pillow at him, but I was concerned it would land in the water. Since it was only a case that contained the few articles of clothing I owned I thought better of it, instead groaning as I moved to climb out of my warm sleeping bag. Together we decided to unload only half the supplies we brought. We formed an assembly line passing the lighter items off the boat first. Once we hit the heavier items we had selected to unpack Mom, Joyce and I started to carry the lighter stuff up to the cottage, while the men took over lugging the heavier stuff off the boat. My first trip up the hill I was greeted by what was a small but impressive two bedroom brown wood sided cottage. Even in light of the situation I couldn't help but smile. Balancing my awkward load I opened the exterior white door; the exchange of air sending the dust spiraling from its resting places around the kitchen as I stood looking in at it from the threshold. With the sun at my back, it's rays filtering around me I looked through the dust floating in the air at the kitchen before me. To my left was a 1950's white pull handle fridge, followed by a long red melamine counter with white flex throughout. In the corner there was a large white basin sink with a corner window above. Red curtains accenting the window, an empty plant pot sat on its white sill. The counter continued down the adjoining wall to a white stove matching the same era as the fridge. In the middle of the room was a rickety wood table sitting proudly on the white vinyl flooring. "This will work just fine." Mom sighed happily as she squeezed past me looking around. "Mom!" I barked being sent off balance dropping some of my bags. "Jeez..." "Sorry rodent." she smirked as she dropped her load of supplies on the kitchen table. Struggling to pick the bags back up and onto my shoulder I couldn't help grouchily rolling my eyes "Whatever." I mumbled as mom came over to help, or so I thought; but no...Instead she wanted to further make things difficult as she halted me planting kisses on my face while she pleaded playfully "Don't be mad rodent. Mommy didn't mean to make you drop the supplies." Pulling my head back I rocked it side to side to get away from her with my heavy load in my arms "Mom...Plea...se" I whined. "You're killing me here." But I couldn't help the small giggle that escaped me. She was crazy, and had a way of making me laugh. "That's better beautiful." she smiled stepping back so I could get through. "You know..." I said with a sideways glare as I relieved my arms of the bags in the middle of the room "While you were being a pain in the ass there, you could have at least taken a bag or two from me." "Yes..." she breathed as she looked around "I suppose I could have." With a shake of my head I exhaled knowing there was no point in saying another word about it and moved on "I'm surprised the table didn't crumple under the weight." I said pointing at it, half expecting the legs to give out as I spoke "I guess it's in better shape than it looks." *** It was an older gentleman's space whose wife had long since passed so it lost its feminine flare, but once we got the linens off the furniture it was a cozy place. The cottage was a simple square, kitchen, and living area. There were no halls or stairs. Off one main wall in the living room stood three doors; two bedrooms with the middle door being the bathroom that unfortunately was useless to us with no running water. The opposite wall was lined with a tired brown couch, and in the corner of the room stood a black wood stove with its chimney piping climbing the wall. The only window in the room was a large bay window that offered a dazzling view of the massive river. I could only imagine sitting in the tired brown reading chair angled for the view staring out at the sun setting over the river enjoying a nice cup of hot chocolate. It would be a breathtaking sight. Mom and dad claimed one of the small rooms. Brad and Joyce insisted that Tony and I take the other bedroom claiming the living area as theirs. We tried to refuse it but Brad said he felt better being closer to the door. We didn't go to crazy with the unpacking as we really had no idea how long we would be staying, or if it would even be possible to keep it. For all we knew we would be inundated with people trying to claim the island as their own. Dad and Tony went around taping three layers of black garbage bags around all windows throughout the cottage. This would allow us to light some candles or use flashlights and not have the light seen from the outside. Mom and I busied ourselves organizing the mess of supplies while Brad and Joyce moved all the lawn furniture around the cottage to the treed side. There would be no sitting out in the open. Once everything was done we setup the Coleman stove finding the coffee and tea, powdered milk and sugar. Mom pulled out some crackers and canned tuna for lunch. While we ate Brad started laying out the rules. Rule number one was no fires for any reason. "The smoke in day time could be noticed" he stated "and the flames at night will only draw attention from anyone close by." "Another rule is no yelling and to watch the volume when laughing" dad said "especially at night when sound travels." "Keep your eyes open." Brad ordered. "Watch the perimeter. Let us know if you see or hear anything." "I would like to add a rule." mom said putting up her hand drawing all eyes to her. "Go ahead Georgie." Brad gestured to her. "The food...This isn't like at home anymore. No helping ourselves. We setup a schedule and ration the portions." "Excellent idea darling" dad said making her smile proudly. There was no doubt they had already thought of rationing, but dad didn't bother to tell her that, allowing her to believe it was her idea. "Water..." Tony spoke "We have a decent amount of it, but it won't last. All washing of any kind should be done with lake water. No exceptions. We need to conserve the fresh water; drinking only." "Agreed." we answered in unison. "Last thing I have for now" Brad added "Is the batteries. Save the use of flashlights to when they are a must. Batteries will be rationed like everything else. If you are with someone, only one of you needs to use the light. Same thing with the radios, figure out who will keep their radio on. The other one can turn theirs off preserving the life of the batteries. Treat the use of batteries like the high priced hydro you use to use conservatively. This is a power you can't afford to get turned back on when the supply runs out. Get my point?" he asked looking at each of us. *** After all the rules had been laid out and lunch was done dad fell into an Adirondack chair playing with a radio. Winding it a few times he fidgeted with the dials seeing if any station would start talking to him. Tony and Brad moved in closer to him each listening intently. While Tony and Brad ordered dad to turn the dial this way or that way I took that opportunity to slink away and explore a little. To walk one end to the other took a total of fifteen minutes, and that was walking very slowly. It was tiny, but perfect. Thick trees covered three sides of it making us invisible to the rest of the world. It was serene. I almost forgot what was going in the world. I sat down taking in the view of river hidden away behind tress. My radio on I set it down beside me. A few moments later I heard the snapping of twigs behind me. Twisting I saw Tony. "Hey." I smiled up at him. Tony's eyes dancing he nodded down to me. Moving in beside me bending his knees he gracefully dropped his bottom to the ground as he wrapped his strong arms around his knees lacing his fingers together. "It's beautiful here isn't it?" I asked "I feel at peace." Tony reached out giving my back a rub before nudging me into the crook of his arm where we sat in silence enjoying the beauty around us. "You think we can stay here forever?" I asked looking out. "It would be great if we could, wouldn't it?" he replied with a sigh "A small Island, my beautiful young bride. If we could only get your parents to move out it would be perfect." he teased. In one fluent motion I twisted pushing Tony to the ground as I moved to straddle him, loving the sound of his deep laugh. Tony lay in the dirt smiling up at me. "That wasn't fair, you caught me off guard. I tilted me head with a frisky scowl "Oh...you want me to move?" I asked. Sitting up he wrapped an arm around me putting us nose to nose. "Yes...I want you to move." he said, a playful glimmer in his eyes. I pushed to lift myself off of his lap with a teasing smile, but Tony held tighter. "That's not the moving I was referring to." he chuckled giving me a quick tickle causing me to laugh loudly. "Shush..." he warned through his chuckle. My laughter subsiding I settled myself back onto his lap still straddling him, the two of us quickly becoming lost in each other's eyes. Slowly I moved grazing my lips with his "You are my greatest love Tony." The dancing in his eyes faded as desire flooded them. A delicate smile etched on his perfect lips "And you are mine Mrs. Holly Gardner." I could feel his temperature rising through his shirt, his breaths growing heavy and loud as a strong hand cupped my head, the other arm wrapping tighter around me pulling me closer to him. Passionately he kissed me. They're... - the radio crackles - ...vrywhere... "Huh?" Tony grunted, our attention zoning in on my radio that was now hissing in and crackling out. I can't stay... - the radio hisses- ...don't come... - hissing - ...biting... - crackling - ...ten four... –– hissing -....all sick... – hissing - ....fires every... - dead air - ...man laughs "That isn't dad or Brad." I said as Tony picked up the radio being careful not to lose the signal. Knitting his brows he tilted his head to hear more clearly"No..." his head shook, as he slowly moved it trying to get a better signal "It's someone else..." ...- hissing -....it's hot here. I don't mean temperature neither … the man laughs as the signal comes in clearer ... – hissing - ....I know. Over.. –hissing - The signal comes back the man is still laughing or laughing again ....they seem drunk as a three eyed spider on a blue tick dog. Over.... The southern accented man's good humored voice was now being overlapped by a woman's much more frantic voice. We.....help! Joseph! .....HURRY! ... - she fades out - ....growling everywhere......they're coming in... - the woman's voice is gone - ...NO! - She bellows as a child screeches in the background. I threw my hands over my mouth as the tears stung my eyes. The woman whimpers pleadingly.....Please Joseph....... The man's voice came through clearer again as the woman's faded to the back: over.....as soon you can. The prison is over... – hissing - ....they broke ... –– hissing - ....Over. It flipped again. I was still able to hear the man talking, but the child shrieking in the background came through loud and clear as the woman cried. ....Joseph I can't do........Her whimpering voice grew frantic again. We could hear what sounded like growls in the background ....PLEASE HELP! … - she fades out - ....SAVE HER.....JOSEPH! The child stops screaming...no...no...no...it's too late Joseph - The woman cries - ....she's gone......... - Seconds pass and her cry turns to a scream of terror but silences almost as fast as it came over the radio. Only the man speaks now.....fix ‘n to have beer soon I hope he laughs again........fuck yeah bud......over....out. - The signal dies. I slid off of Tony's lap, my body trembling fighting the flipping of my stomach. I was so nauseous after hearing the poor child shrieking that way. I couldn't help the images that raced through my head. Sitting on the ground, my back to him I breathed deeply trying to settle my stomach and absorb what we heard. "It's real isn't it Tony?" I heard him exhale as he placed his chin on my shoulder "Yeah baby" he said barely above a whisper as he wrapped his arm around me "It's real." I was so angry. We had found only a few moments where things seemed perfect. Nothing was wrong. We were selfishly pretending it away, and the radio reminded us of that. It was practically gloating as it showed us the reality we desperately wanted to forget. We walked back, my hand knitted with Tony's, the child's shriek echoing in my head. We had full intentions of telling everyone what we heard. With my hand on the door we heard laughter from inside. Tony placed his hand on mine. My dejected eyes met his. "Don't say anything to them." he said as I bit back my tears "Their happy. Let them have that for as long as they can." He was right. Telling them wasn't going to change anything other than erase the good humor everyone was in. Clearly that would happen soon enough. Offering him a weak smile I nodded in agreement. It turned out they were allowed to ignore the world outside our door for a total of six days, and almost five hours. Than the wakeup call came in slapping us all hard in the face. Things were never to be the same again. CHAPTER TEN I woke suddenly. I wasn't at all sure what pulled me from my sleep, but I knew from the buzzing that waved through my entire core that something startled me. My sense of hearing picked up where my other senses failed me. My eyes open I tried to focus in the darkness as I laid ever so still. Thumping? Tapping? An animal I wondered. I tapped Tony's hand that rested on my hip as I rolled back slightly whispering to him. "Tony....Wake up..." Groggily he replied "What is....?" "Shush..." I said cutting him off. "Just listen." I quietly spoke just as our door creaked open triggering me to jump. "It's okay." Brad breathed into the darkness "It's just me. Do you hear that?" "What is it?" I asked nervously. I knew if it brought Brad in it couldn't be good. He was an incredibly relaxed individual. He was a prepared man, but not nervous. Something clearly wasn't sitting with him. "I don't know sweetheart, but whatever or whoever is moving around out there it is all around the cottage." he replied in a hushed tone. "I want everyone to the living room now." he ordered. "Tony, get your weapon." I pushed the blankets back slowly, afraid that the rubbing of material might make whoever or whatever was out there want to come in. I dropped my feet onto the cold floor ever so gently as I moved to stand. I bent feeling around for my track pants finding them right beside the bed. As I slid them on Tony hit the button to his radio sending a faint glow into the room. I couldn't help but peek nervously at him. Even in the slight glow he didn't miss what my eyes weren't trying to hide. Shotgun in hand, its barrel pointed toward the ceiling he walked to me putting his chest to mine, holding me close as he breathed into my ear. "Don't be frightened Holly." I shifted looking at him. I wanted to show him I was strong. Wiping the hair from my face I inhaled deeply nodding to him, silently telling him I have this. His warm hand rose grazing my cheek as I offered him a nervous smile. "That's my girl." he winked. But I didn't miss the concern that lingered in his eyes. Stepping into the living room there was a small battery operated tea light lit on the coffee table illuminating the room just enough to see the feared expressions on my mom and Joyce's faces. They were on the couch. Joyce was clutching mom's hand as mom sat tall, her leg bouncing nervously. "Georgie?" dad quietly spoke getting her attention "Turn off the light." Mom moved unsteadily picking the false candle up off the table sending us back into darkness as dad peeled the bottom corner of the bags taped to the window. Bending he stared out into the dark morning. I think it was a few moments that we stood there. Our breaths sitting hinged in our lungs waiting for him to let us know something. Finally he stood pressing the bags back down. "Georgie." he said "you can turn the light back on now darling." As the glow returned he looked to Brad shrugging. "I don't see any..." A loud clank rang out silencing him mid-sentence. "Turn it off Georgie" Tony ordered moving quickly to the kitchen to steal a look out the window, while Brad moved to gawk out the bay window my dad had just peaked through. Tony's dark shadow returning mom turned the like back on. His eyes wide he bit out "There are two men out there." Brad stood with a sigh as he turned his attention back to us "There's one out here too." he groaned. Dad slouched placing his empty hand along with his gunned hand on his hips. Dropping his head he exhaled before his eyes rose to meet Brad's. I thought he was going to say something, but instead he dropped his hands and turned heading straight for the door. "Jim." Tony barked reaching out as he strode by him, but dad refused to hear him. Tony glanced irately at Brad before turning to follow him. Dad's hand on the handle he turned it whipping open the door. "Hey." he sternly spoke into the early dawn as he strode outside; Tony and Brad on his heels, guns ready. Mom and Joyce rose moving in huddling close to me in the middle of the room, the three of us staring anxiously after them. "What do you want here?" dad yelled out to whomever or whatever it was, goading them to step out of the shadows. A moment later I heard Tony speak in a negotiating tone "We don't want any trouble." "He said...." Brad commanded "we don't want any trouble." Then all at once they're voices began to overlap. We could hear grunting, pounding, and the very distinct sounds of fists hitting bone. A gun fired, its sound booming out over the water and around the cottage. The three came scrambling back inside breathlessly. As if instinctual, they threw themselves against the door just as someone came snarling up on the other side pounding on it to get in. "Why didn't that kill him?" Tony panted. "That bullet went clean through him, and it didn't even slow him down." Brad leaning his weight against the door lifted a hand rubbing at his face before meeting Tony's; confusion and shock in his eyes "I don't know why the fuck that didn't take him down!" The banging and kicking increased as more of them joined the first one. "Where did they come from?" dad asked still helping to hold the now bouncing door closed. "Girls" Tony barked startling us from our stunned state "My bedroom now!" he commanded. As we shifted readying to move I heard Tony state to dad and Brad "We can't stay here. They are coming in whether we like it or not. We need to get to the bedroom. Maybe we can make it out the window there and down to the boat." On that note Joyce and mom ran for the room as I stayed ready to run but unable to. I needed to know what was happening. "If we leave we are heading back to the city. I have no doubt its way worse there." Brad breathed making sure they understood the options. "Holly!" mom whispered sternly from the door of the bedroom. "Come on." I shifted wanting to obey but instead I found myself slowly raising my hand silently telling her to wait as I stared ahead listening. "We can't stay here." dad said with a shake of his head as the bounce of the door just about threw them. The three pushed back against it with everything they had as my dad made the decision on the next course of action for them. "We can't stay here. That's clear. We do as Tony suggested. We make it to the boathouse. We can regroup there." "Ah...jeez" Brad exhaled as the door continued to bounce. "Alright....on the count of three..." "One..." Tony nervously counted "two......three." I saw the door fly open and the men charging as if in slow motion toward me. I tuned running landing on the bed as they came storming in behind me. Tony scrambled to close the door. "Move the bed quick" he ordered, Joyce and mom fumbling to obey. "Jim, open the window." "What?" Joyce spun around, her eyes wide with fear "We're...not..." "Joyce baby..." Brad soothingly spoke as he moved in dancing with her "I know you're..." "No Brad. We can't go out there." she argued. Brad took her trembling hands into his "We have to honey. You hear them at the door?" She nodded yes but replied pleadingly with Brad to hear her rationale "We can't. The gun didn't stop him. Tony said so." "Joyce." Brad said bending to meet her terrified eyes "do you hear them at the door?" he asked again. Swallowing hard she nodded. "Okay, so then you understand that they are coming in." he reasoned with her "We need to leave here. We only have to get to the boat okay?" he nodded offering her a forced smile hoping that would calm her. "O...okay." she nodded, her trembling hands wiping at her blurred eyes. Holding her he turned to the rest of us. "If there are any supplies in here that are light, grab them now." I quickly scanned the room for the bags dad made me promise to grab no matter what as the banging and growling continued on the other side of the door. Recalling the bags for running were still on the boat I picked up the only things in the room to grab; my radio and flashlight. Everything else that we brought off the boat was in the kitchen. Dad opened the window. "I'll go first." he said looking back at us. "After me, Tony will help Georgie out" he said swinging his legs out over the sill "then Holly and Joyce." Turning he dropped holding the sill for a fraction of a second, and then released hitting the ground with a thud. Tony looked out the window then turned gesturing to mom. "No" she said shaking her head. "Holly first" Tony sighed in frustration, but with pounding on the door told him there was no time to argue, and instead turned his attention to me. I hesitated glancing at mom "Come on Holly!" Tony ordered in a hushed tone getting my attention. The growling and pounding on the door suddenly grew more violent. Nodding I reached my hand out to him. He grabbed it hoisting me onto the desk he stood on. I wasted no time getting into position on the sill. Twisting I placed my hands on the window's frame using the strength in my arms to slowly lower myself down. Dad's hands reached up grabbing my calves. I kept my legs tense so his hands could walk my legs helping me down. After I was on the ground Tony lowered mom, then Joyce. Next, Tony jumped out. Once Brad was on the ground we turned running into the trees intent on getting to the boat. Still early the sun sat below the horizon, but offered a glow into the darkness, lighting the path in the threes just enough to not trip. Joyce was running full tilt ahead of me pushing branches out of her way as she went. I had to keep my hands out so they didn't whip me as I ran behind her. Swerving around rocks and jumping over tree roots I ran down the hill, the boathouse coming into view. It was only a few paces away now. Making it to the bottom I landed on the wood slatted dock that ran along the shore. Just about there I told myself when out of nowhere a man leapt out of the brush. Swiftly I scoot wide just missing his grasp. Hearing a scream behind me I froze glancing over my shoulder. Joyce somehow had wound up behind me becoming the new target. As he latched on to her she fought hard to get away, but his grip was strong. I had no idea what to do. His teeth bit into her altering her terrified scream to one of excruciating pain. Ripping flesh from her shoulder, blood dripping from his chin he moved thrashing his head trying to bite her again. Joyce continued to scream, both from fear and pain fighting to get free. Dad raced in pulling him off of her sending him spinning to the ground like a rag doll. Tony moved in grabbing Joyce yelling for me to get into the boathouse. I wanted to move but hesitated. "Holly, go!" he yelled again springing me into action. I ran toward him "Take Joyce" he ordered thrusting her at me as I moved passed him. I quickly guided her into the boathouse looking over my shoulder as the three of them moved in beating on the man. I eased Joyce onto a seat spinning breathlessly looking for something, anything to nurse the wound. "What do I do Joyce?" I asked truly afraid. Joyce sat staring at the floor of the boat, an eerie calmness replaced her frantic state, tears trailing her cheeks "There's nothing you can do." I spun kneeling before her taking her shoulders firmly into my grasp giving her a solid shake. "Don't say that!" She met my wild eyes. "Holly..."she barked. Startled I blinked as she evenly spoke "There is nothing you can do. We have watched the news. We know what a bite does." She sounded resigned like she had already given up. Giving her a small shove in frustration and denial I stood. "I'll figure it out myself if you won't help me." I turned, my eyes searching for the first aid kit. I just need something to stop the bleeding, I thought. The bags! Crouching down I started digging earnestly through the bags for running. "No...no...no" I heard Brad mournfully plead as he moved to kneel at Joyce's feet. I twisted stealing a glance over my shoulder at them. Brad had her hands in his as he gazed up at her. Freeing one hand he brushed her hair "You'll be okay baby." With a pained smile holding his eyes with hers she whimpered "No baby. We both know I won't be." The growling kicked up outside and I shifted my eyes nervously to Tony. I hated worrying about getting away from there since Joyce's situation seemed so much bigger now, but I couldn't help it. Tony moved to the captain's seat starting the boat as dad moved to the doors waiting for Tony to give him the signal to open them. Turning my eyes back to Brad and Joyce I met mom's tear filled eyes. It was all starting to sink in for us now; the seriousness of the situation. It was an ugly truth. Backing away was slower than what was comfortable as the sick stood on the dock reaching for us. Watching them it appeared they were weighing the consequences as they repeatedly put a foot forward over the water only to pull them back. In our slow reverse I heard Joyce gulping back water like she hadn't had a drink in days. I couldn't help but wonder if that was a symptom or not. No, I thought. It can't be that fast. *** While Brad wept and laughed with Joyce reminiscing everything from their first meet to this final day I heavily walked to Tony at the wheel talking in hushed tones with dad. They were discussing what to do when we got to shore. "Why do we need to head to shore?" I asked turning their attention my way. "I mean...we don't know how long it will take for the fever to set in." I shrugged "Can't we give them some time to say their goodbyes before we start running." "Darling" dad spoke optimistically "you don't know that we will need to run at all when we hit shore." Tony wiped at his face, his usually proud shoulders dropping "Actually we do Jim." he said sighing heavily "Holly and I received some interference over the radio back on the island our first day there." "Oh?" Dad said concern building in his eyes. Suddenly I felt guilty for keeping it from them. "Dad...I'm sorry...we just thought..." Dad reached out holding my arm giving it a tender squeeze interrupting me "It's okay Holly." "One man we heard sounded southern. He was at least in good humor" Tony said filling dad in "He was saying something about biting, shelter and an over run prison. Stuff about shooting them all." "There was a woman to." I said feeling nauseous again as I thought of it "She was screaming, begging for help. The shrieking we heard from her... and her child..." my eyes filled with tears and my voice cracked "we think they were killed dad." "The signal was weak Jim." Tony said leaning in closer to dad locking eyes with him. "But not weak enough. They were close." I followed dad's eyes as he turned glancing at Brad and Joyce curled up together in their sleeping bag. Joyce already appeared to be sweating. The fever I wondered. Turning his attention back to us he exhaled shifting his weight. "Okay. This is what we are going to do." He looked at Tony "We don't have any speed on this thing. We can't stay in the middle like this. If it's like you say it is, someone will see us and potentially overtake us for our supplies. We need to get closer to shore. Keep your eyes peeled for a tree line that we can pull behind. Hopefully that will buy Brad and Joyce the time they need." "If we are too close to shore Jim..." Tony stared to say. "We're better behind a tree line than wide in the open." dad said cutting Tony off "We have weapons if we run into trouble." With that dad turned making his way to mom who lay curled up on a cushioned bench. She was wrapped in her sleeping bag, her back to him sniffling. Moving to sit on the floor beside her he grunted, his middle aged frame not as limber as it once was. Placing his hand on mom he stared out toward shore lost in his own thoughts. CHAPTER ELEVEN We moved slightly faster than trolling speed scanning for a tree line that would offer us the security we were seeking. By the time we dropped anchor Joyce had already started the bleeding phase of the virus. Her tears had become tinged with red as they rolled down trailing her cheeks, and her lips were crusted in old and fresh blood. She had spots on her arms and legs that one might have thought at quick glance were just bruises, but if you were paying attention you could see them grow right before your eyes. I was shocked, as I think we all were at how fast the virus was moving. The news had told us as much, but we still hadn't expected it. As dad and Tony stood squinting into the bright sun I could hear them analyzing where the infected ones on the island might have come from. The conclusions that were drawn were either when they jumped off the cliff they landed in the water. Meaning they spent six days in the river until they figured out how to get back on shore. Or they were trapped somewhere on shore, eventually finding the side of the island that was accessible. On a vinyl blue and white striped cushioned bench seat, one leg curled into me the other bent and close to my chest I gnawed on my fingernail "Does it matter?" I dismally asked. His arms still crossed Dad twisted to look at me confused by my question "What do you mean?" With a sigh I slapped my hands down on the seat in frustration pushing myself up. Moving to close the gap between us I bit out "I mean...Joyce is dying. What difference does it make where they came from? They killed her, and that's all that matters." Dad dropped his crossed arms, the confused expression he held fell away only to be replaced with soft understanding eyes. "Darling I know..." Waving his words away I rolled my eyes "Don't do that." His face twisted as the confusion returned "Don't do what?" "Don't talk to me like a child." I snapped. Dad puffed his chest "Okay. I won't. But you need to stop acting like one." he barked receiving a gasp in reply. "Jim!" Tony stepped up to my defense. "No Tony!" dad snapped bumping him aside "She doesn't want to be treated like a child then I guess she is ready to hear the plain truth." he stated angrily, his eyes never leaving mine "and the truth is Holly, the world is done!" I was stunned and hurt by the reality he so bleakly laid out, and judging from the way his eyes suddenly grew regretful he realized the pain and fear he inflicted. He didn't apologize as he took a breath in before exhaling. "Holly" his tone needling me to understand "the way to survive it is to learn how it is changing. Brainstorming the possibilities we potentially learn something valuable." "He's right you know?" We turned facing Brad who for the first time since he stepped on the boat wasn't at Joyce's side. Guiltily I averted his eyes dropping my gaze. I wanted to apologize for blurting out that Joyce was dying the way I did, but before I could Brad placed his hand on my shoulder. I looked up as his exhausted eyes met mine. "Let it go Holly. I get it." I opened my mouth to speak but was silenced as dad and Tony swiftly moved aiming their weapons toward the shoreline at the sound of snapping branches and rustling leaves. "Whoa..." a young dark haired man exclaimed stepping out of the trees. As he stepped onto the muddy shore only a few feet from where we floated with his hands in the air, I could see he was about mine and Tony's age. "What do you want?" Tony asked cocking his gun. A backpack on his back and a small smile on his face, his hands still up he replied "You guys are brave or stupid being this close to shore." There was something in his eyes, in his demeanor that said he was harmless. I think Dad and Tony saw it, as they had relaxed their grips on their still elevated guns. "You will never get that anchor up fast enough to get out of here if they come." he said slowly lowering his arms as he stepped to the edge of the shore. "Not to mention all that gear." he casually pointed "Your boat isn't fast enough to get away if someone wanted to rob you." His head turned slightly as his brows knitted together now regarding us with a sideways stare "You guys been under a rock for the last while?" he asked with a drip of mockery. Then just like that his face relaxed as he pushed up onto his toes trying to see into the boat. "No we..." Tony started to reply but was interrupted. "She's sick..." he gently spoke, his chin gesturing to Joyce who he spotted through the window "She was bit?" he asked back on flat feet. "Yeah" Tony heavily nodded lowering his weapon "this morning." "Not much time left." he said empathetically. Awkwardly he rubbed the back of his neck. "You ready to end it for her when the time comes? I mean...I know you won't want to but...you kind of have to." "What's your name?" mom asked startling me since she had been so quiet after Joyce was bit. Lifting his shoulders he slid his hands into his jean pockets with a warm smile "Landon ma'am." "Well Landon" mom smiled back "you hungry?" Dad jerked in alarm, his eyes darting to mom "Georgie" he bit out in a whispered tone "what are you doing?" "Listen" mom said pushing back "we need to learn as much as we can. You said so yourself." she said adamantly poking dad in the chest. "I know Georgie, but..." "Don't but me Jim." mom warned "This boy seems to know at least a little something. I mean he is out there. Not to mention still alive." "It's true. I am still alive" he chirped from the shore drawing all eyes to him. "Yes...I can hear you." I couldn't help the giggle that escaped me, but dad's glare silenced that. "I am hungry." he said "I can throw my bag to you on good faith. You can search it if you want." he offered. Dad glanced briefly at Tony and Brad before nodding uncomfortably "Okay, but first the bag." "Yes sir!" Landon almost cheered pulling the bag off his back. With a quick swing it flew out over the railing just missing me. Tony moved in scooping it off the floor. Next thing I knew its contents were being dumped out at my feet. As Tony looked through it I could see Landon growing a little concerned. "Um…I guess I didn't think this through to well" he said as he moved uncomfortably on shore "Can I ask a favor? It's probably a little late" he said with a sheepish smile "but... can I have my gun back when I go?" Tony tossed everything back into Landon's pack "Sure, but I am going to hold on to it for a bit." he said tucking it into the waist of his jeans. "Now... if you want on board you are going to have to get wet." *** Tony allowed Landon to change into some of his dry clothes before we all piled into the booth style table. Landon, Tony and I took one bench, while dad, mom and Brad took the other. We moved gracefully through the introductions while Joyce slept on a pile of blankets on the floor behind me learning that Landon had been backpacking it for about two weeks. It turned out that about one week before lights out his mother had gotten sick after returning from a shift at the hospital. His arms crossed on the table Landon began telling us his story in a bleak and sorrow filled tone. "She came home saying she wasn't feeling well and turned in. I went up to check on her an hour or so later and noticed the whites of her eyes were red. Not bloodshot, but like the tears in her eyes were blood. I frantically searched her only to have my fear confirmed finding a bite on her arm. She said she had three patients admitted into quarantine that she was assigned to care for. She said one of the patients, a woman stopped bleeding. Her fever had broken and they were talking. Mom was trying to comfort her since the woman had heard the rumors that that was only another phase. You know, the calm from the storm" Landon said with a forced chuckle "I think it should be the calm before the final storm." Landon's damp eyes met mine as he mournfully lifted his shoulders. "The woman was scared." Dropping his shoulders he shifted his eyes to Brad. I got the impression he wanted to make sure Brad was hearing him. "Mom said it happened so fast. She was fine, and then literally just a blink of the eye the woman's eyes shifted from broken and afraid to blank. All too fast mom told me, the woman lunged at her. Mom lost balance in her hurried effort to move. She said she must have thrown her arms out to in an effort to regain it. Anyway..." Landon’s voice cracked as he bowed his head "the woman grabbed onto one biting it." Landon looked up and followed Brad's eyes. Twisting he looked over his shoulder at Joyce. With a knowing, but heartfelt nod he returned his attention to Brad "When did she start showing symptoms?" Brad had been paying attention; we all had. I could see Landon asked the question because he truly empathized with Brad, but I also guessed there was more to the question. Like maybe he was trying to estimate the time Joyce had left. I glanced at Brad seeing him drop his eyes to his lap, one hand fidgeting with the other. He understood now, if he didn't before that Joyce wasn't coming out of this. There was a silence that fell over us as we waited for Brad to respond. When he didn't mom broke through the quiet. "A few hours now." she replied. Landon nodded. "How long ago was she bit?" Brad's eyes glistened from the tears that welled in them as he looked up "Less than 30 minutes before she started her fever." Landon's eyes grew wide with surprise "That is the fastest I've heard about." Mom still battling with how to deal with Joyce’s pending demise turned the conversation back to Landon "What about your father?" Landon leaned back in the bench smiling proudly as he recalled him "He was a physician who specialized in Infectious Disease. He was involved in various researches, often working in the laboratory at the Center for Disease Control. But mostly he worked the patient end of it though, dealing with resistant strains of staphylococcus, or mycobacterium, MRSA or HIV. The patients were where his passion was. He always said people was what it was all about. Tissue samples and swabs were a bore." Landon softly chuckled. “Anyway” he waved "When it was first reported on the other side of the world, good ole dad” Landon sang "he started looking into what it was. He wanted to learn what he could in case it made its way here." "They must have been getting close to finding a cure?" dad asked, but I wasn't surprised when Landon told him that they never even came close. "I know you were hoping he must have held the keys to this whole..." Landon paused resting his crossed arms back on the table. His face twisting he silently searched for the right word to describe what the situation was. "This whole... quandary, but I'm sorry to disappoint you Jim. He and his colleagues actually learned very little. He kept in constant contact with a colleague in China who was in constant contact with another colleague, who was in contact with... " he raised a brow "You get my point........" he said flashing Tony a small grin "Anyway they learned very little. They only learned what it wasn't." The boat rocking as if trying to comfort us, all talking ceased for a few moments. "As for what it is....” Landon said breaking the brief silence “they did learn that the body's temperature has a major role in the speed at which your symptoms develop. I understood it this way. The virus enters. Your immune system revs up to fight it as it does for any virus. But because for whatever reason maybe the fever, I don't know, but our body temperature creates a kind of fun house for the virus allowing it to grow at such a rapid rate that our immune system can't keep up. It just over runs us." "Did he get sick to?" mom asked in almost a whisper. "He did." Landon replied, his face crestfallen. "When mom...changed I couldn't stop her from attacking. She was wild and strong. I managed to push her off me or pull her off of dad a few times as she frothed at the mouth growling like a wild animal. I can still hear the sound of her teeth slamming together as she repeatedly tried to bite us. Eventually dad and I made our way to the bathroom. I thought we could regroup there, but she was pounding to get at us. I said dad we have to leave. We'll go through the window. I remember the look in his eyes. They were swimming with his silent apologies. He said he couldn't leave mom. I tried to warn him that he wasn't safe; that she would kill him but he insisted he was staying with her. He hugged me as the pounding grew more violent, and told me I was stronger without an old man on my heels. I had no choice. My options were give up and die in that bathroom, exit and fight mom, or leave. Dad told me he loved me, and sadly I was on my way." I got the impression Landon needed to lighten the mood the way he quickly changed the topic of conversation. "What about you Jim? What did you do before" he opened his arms smiling up at the roof "all this." "I was a military and police dog trainer." "Really?" Landon responded raising both brows appearing impressed. "Yep, true story." dad smiled. "You know you can teach a dog to do anything you want. Sniff out a chemical, a person, let you know you are about to have a seizure, drag a person out of...well just about anything. They are incredibly intelligent and loyal creatures." "What about you Brad?" Landon asked nodding to him. "Retired military." Brad replied dryly. "I did two tours in Iraq, not to mention my 15 years of general service before that. I retired when I came back after my second tour. Joyce and I wanted to spend time traveling." "Did you get much traveling in?" Landon asked. "No." Brad with a heavy sigh. "Joyce bugged me to retire after my first tour, but I insisted on doing one more. I had only retired about three months before this all started. We had a trip we were planning in the late fall. We were going to go to Bermuda or someplace. But then the world started to turn to shit, so we never got to go." Landon just nodded. There was nothing he could say. There was nothing anyone could say to that. It was heart wrenching. There were no words to make it better and telling someone you feel their pain doesn't add an ounce of comfort. "I hate to get any more real with you folks” Landon asked glancing at each of us “but have you thought about how you're going to do it?" Mom tilted her head "Do what?" she asked. Landon landed his dark sympathetic eyes on mom "How you are going to end it for her ma’am." Mom's chin quivered at the thought, but none of us spoke. Suddenly Landon sat taller, it only just occurring to him "You haven't done it yet." "Oh...we tried." Brad seethed. "I shot one. The bullet went clean through him, and he just kept coming." "Yeah..."Landon said with a knowing nod "Shooting is practically useless. Save your bullets for looters and killers." Tony must have felt me shudder at the mention of looters and killers as his hand fell open on my lap inviting mine to join it. Lacing our fingers together we continued to listen to the bleak and frightening description Landon gave us. "The sick move too fast to shoot. From what I have experienced there appears to be only two ways to kill… A heart shot" he said firmly landing his index finger on his chest, or sever the brain stem. And since it is near impossible to hit a target accurately when it is moving quickly, you will just waist your ammo. It is all about hiding, and hiding fast. Don't let them see were you went either or they will never go away." "A heart shot?" dad asked confused. "Yeah" Landon replied like this was common knowledge. "They aren't dead...Their hearts still pump. With the heart still pumping blood is still circulated to the brain allowing for their minimal brain function. The normal thought patterns are gone as we know, but coordination and anger still exist. At least I think it is anger." he said more to himself then to us "Their entire goal is to ride the world of noise it seems." "So why not a head shot?" Brad asked "Wouldn't that have the same effect?" "You would think" Landon smirked "but from my experience...no. I shot two in the head, but all it did was knock their coordination off. Instead of coming straight for me one swerved this way and that way" he said circling his hands in the air as a visual "but they were still coming just the same. After a long while one died, but it took a long time” he stressed to us. “The other...well it just kept coming.” “If you blew the head right off, or I suppose if you managed to shoot it in the temple, but...clearly there is room for error. The human brain can sustain a surprising amount of damage. That is no secret. But a heart shot they seem to bleed out much faster, or severing the brain stem is a sure way to drop them." "Can you get close enough to use a knife?" Tony asked. "Sure!" he said "if one is attacking you and you can get it into their heart or sever the brain stem. I wouldn't recommend getting close if you don't have to though. I can't stress it enough, they are fast and strong. It's not like they have developed super hero strength or anything, but they don't get tired. If there is more than one consider yourself better off to hide. You might have a chance with one, but not two." he warned. "Joyce!" Brad said stunned. "You're up!" All eyes on her she smiled "Yeah. I feel much better." CHAPTER TWELVE As I sit at my beaten up mahogany desk a beam of sunlight pours in through the window landing on my typewriter like it is something to be worshiped. I punch at the keys in an effort to put on paper the emotions I had the day Joyce died. In light of what Landon had told us Brad thought it would be best if we left the boat and hid. I remember climbing a tree. As I lay straddling the thick limb I could see down into the boat. I didn't want to spy on them. I actually felt like I was invading their last private moments, but I was frightened, heartbroken, and curious all at the same time. I just couldn't keep myself from peering in on them. I watched as Brad held her in his arms, the two laughing and crying as they did when she first got bit. It was only a short number of blessed moments that they were granted for that final goodbye, and they wasted not a second of it. I couldn't hear the words they spoke from up on my branch, but there wasn't a person alive that needed to. The way they stared into each other's eyes, the loving yet heartbroken smiles etched on their faces would have told anyone paying attention the words shared between them. Slowly Brad moved his hand, tears trailing his cheeks, an adoring yet sorrow filled smile played on his lips. He pulled the gun from the waistband of his jeans laying it on the floor behind him as he continued whispering lovingly with Joyce. It was only a blink; the hushed voices... the quiet sounds of laughter...All too suddenly everything fell silent. It seemed even the birds felt it, as I could no longer hear their songs. I heard a low growl, like it was building in her chest. I watched intently, fearfully anticipating what was going to happen next; praying Brad would be okay. She shifted fast, but thankfully Brad was prepared pinning her down. I could hear him sniffle as he kept his arm on her chest moving to straddle her. Now on top of her, his strong hand on her chest he leaned all his weight on that one arm as she began thrashing around trying to get at him. His voice loud and cracking he wept "I love you Joyce." as he stretched a shaky hand out picking up the gun. The gun almost vibrating in his hand he moved it placing the barrel to her chest. I could almost hear the clicking as he pulled back the hammer. "I love you baby." he wept again. As the sound of its blast rang out echoing through the trees and over the water I watched the life left in her dwindle before Brad collapsed at her side crying hard and loud. None of us moved. I once thought that day, watching Brad shoot the love of his life as she snapped and clawed at him completely devoid of all the emotion she held only seconds before was the hardest thing I ever had to witness; but I was wrong... Moments later I could hear rustling in the trees. Nervously I scanned trying to figure out where it was coming from. I counted six of them coming toward the boat and fast, terror engulfing me. I was afraid that the others didn't hear them, and quickly weighed my options. Yell out and warn them, or pray they heard them too. Hoping I was high enough that they wouldn't figure out where my voice came from I yelled out "Nobody move! I see six!" From my perch I scanned nervously around for Tony, my mom, dad, but from where I sat I could see no one except Brad as he muzzled his grief stricken emotions with his hands having heard my warning. On all fours he crawled quietly and swiftly to the bathroom. Opening the bathroom door he crawled inside, the door closing after him without a creek or a click. They circled us that day for what felt like hours. It was like they knew we had to be there. It reminded me of a sad game of hide 'n seek. We hid, and they glanced repeatedly around without actually moving anything to search us out until they grew bored and moved on. *** The river was long and wide. When Joyce got sick we were more interested in finding a safe out of sight spot to ride it out. Tony had pulled us up to the first descent tree line he could find. Unfortunately it wasn't anywhere near the van, and Brad was all turned around since he didn't see what direction Tony had taken us when we left the island. As for the rest of us, it was dark when we had first pushed off six days before that, so none of us knew where on the river we were either. This left us with two options. Troll checking every tree line until we found the right one, or take off on foot. We decided to take off on foot. We followed Landon, Tony at my side moving quickly through the trees, freezing at every sound of rustling leaves or cracking branches. I guess quickly would be the wrong word. We crouched and scanned for where the sounds were coming from. When we found nothing we moved quickly making up for lost time until we had to freeze again. Eventually we came to a road. Landon tried to take us left, but Tony insisted that we go across. "Why?" Landon asked "I've been staying down the road a ways. I have food and water there." he said coaxing us to follow. Tony released my hand stepping closer to Landon "No. We're not going left." he said challenging him. Landon took a step back appearing confused by Tony's aggression, but Tony refused to give Landon the space he craved taking another step forward putting himself in Landon's space again. Landon knitted his brows "I don't understand....It’s safe there." "Tony!" mom snapped. Tony twisted glancing at mom "Georgie..." he growled before landing his glare back on Landon "I don't trust him. Mom's mouth opened to say something but dad, his eyes on Landon held a hand out to mom silently telling her to stay out of it as Brad stood at attention ready to take action if need be. Landon cocked his head back as if Tony's words stung him "You don't trust me?" "No I don't." Tony scowled at him "You show up out of nowhere like you have all the answers, and now you are leading us who the hell knows where." Landon leaned back "Whoa...Tony...” he said holding his hands up looking a little offended. “You have the guns...including mine. Remember?" "That doesn't mean you don't have friends that have plenty more." Tony stated. I was starting to understand where Tony was going with this. It was no longer a world to trust first and see if they disappoint you later. In Tony's final comment Landon’s demeanor went from slighted to gloom. Lowering his hands and his gaze he nodded "I get it, but I swear I'm not up to no good. It's just I've been alone ever since I left my father in that bathroom. The only people I've come across are the sick and a small group. A family I think they were. But they just wanted to rob me." Landon paused with a sigh before meeting Tony's eyes almost as if pleading with him "It's scary out here... and lonely." I noted a shift in Tony's stance. It wasn't quite so tense and challenging anymore. It was softer, more relaxed. "We're going across" he ordered, but it had lost the harsh tone it carried the first time. "You want to follow, no problem. In fact whatever you've learned will come in handy for us I'm sure. But there is no way we're going to your place." In the end we crossed the road into a field with Landon on our heels coming across a lone decrepit barn. The sun was going down and we were hungry. Tony along with dad and Brad figured it was a good spot to take shelter, have something to eat and get a good night's sleep. Brad was about to open the door and just saunter on in when Landon jumped in front of him "Trust me Brad you want your weapon ready when you go in. I've been caught off guard twice now. The sick could be anywhere. Never just open yourself like that. Think of this as war." A deep breath in Brad exhaled with a nod signaling to dad and Tony to have his back. Tony pulled out his weapon checking the barrel. Flipping the barrel back into its chamber he played with the safety. In his peripheral he must have seen me nervously fidgeting, for he paused what he was doing and leaned in giving me a kiss. Nose to nose he met my eyes flashing me a slanted grin "I'll be right back Holly." Then almost as if teasing me for wandering the path when we arrived at the island he playfully ordered "Stay here." I couldn't help rolling my eyes "Yes. I know." I droned. "I'll be right here." I said stomping my feet in place for emphasis. Landon was ordered by Tony to wait with mom and I as he still refused to hand Landon back his gun. The three disappearing inside I anxiously leaned, as did mom and Landon to peek inside after them, but it was too dark to see. A moment later I heard the roar and my worry turned to a state of horror as we heard them scrambling around inside. In my panic I wanted to sprint inside and help, but I had no weapon. Helpless and terrified my eyes flew to mom noting Landon pulling a large knife from under his coat. Before I could say anything he ran in after them. It could have been only moments, seconds even, but it felt like an eternity before Brad looking a little worn exited the barn. I was glad to see him, but couldn't help holding my breath as I peered past him searching for Tony and dad who thankfully didn't make me wait to find out if they were okay. Breathlessly the three of them came out. Tony didn't rush to me; instead turning to Landon with an appreciative smile he extended his hand. "Thank you Landon. I'm not sure we would have gotten out of there without you." His back to me Landon slapped his hand into Tony's "It was me or your wife." he said teasing me from over his shoulder. "I could see her mentally preparing to run in." Tony released Landon's hand and leaned glancing over Landon’s shoulder at me. All I could do was shrug "But I didn't..." Nodding, he landed his hand firmly on Landon's shoulder silently telling him thank you again as he made his way over to me. Straddling the dirt Tony stood at ease before me "You would have run in there after me?" he asked with a dreamy smile. I pulled my shoulders up sheepishly as tears collected in my eyes "I wanted to but..." Tony cut me off saving me the shame of verbalizing that I was too afraid to run in after him; that I hesitated trying to save him. "I'm glad you didn't Holly. It would be a shame having you sacrifice yourself like that only to have me die right after." "Are you teasing me?" I asked with a weak smile. "Yep." he laughed. "You would have gotten me killed!" Throwing myself into his arms I giggled as I cried "Sometimes I hate you Tony Gardner." Tony wrapped his arms around me "Do you?" he asked landing a kiss into my hair. "No." I sniffled through my tears relieved to still be able to hold him. *** We spent that first night on the run in that barn. I was shocked to see there were so many bales of hay inside. I guess as dilapidated as it was a farmer somewhere still used it not all that long ago. Putting away our flashlights we set up camp on the upper level by the dull light of the only two false candles I had left. I kept glancing at Brad as we unpacked. He hadn’t really had more than a few moments to process what he had to do to Joyce, and I was worried about his emotional and mental state. But somehow in all the events of the day he had managed to just be okay with it. When we were done making our beds we sat comfortable on those haystacks eating some of the dried foods. It was actually a very enjoyable meal. I was surprised at how good the food was, but what truly made it enjoyable was the laughter. Brad, dad, Tony and Landon teased each other while we ate. Dad and Tony teased Brad about his war stances as he entered the barn, but Brad turned it making light of Tony tripping. That got turned around on dad as Tony mocked his fearful cry when the sick man tried attacking him. Then they laughed about how Landon came in on a white horse and saved them all. I knew in my heart, just as they did that we shouldn't have found any of it amusing. There was actually nothing funny about any of it. I mean the man lying on the floor below was at one time someone's son, brother, husband... father; not to mention how one of them could have been the next to get bit; but somehow the way they reminisced it they managed to find the hilarity in it all, and their laughter was contagious. I think it was the only way we had to deal with our anguish and then the fear we felt in our individual experiences of that day. It was the only way to keep strong for what we now knew we would have to face repeatedly if we were to survive. Later, too tired to devise a plan for where to go or what to do next, we turned in with a promise to figure it out it out in the morning over a cup coffee, that I was pleased to announce to everyone earlier I had in my bag. Mom and dad unrolled their sleeping bags zipping them together as Tony and I had done, turning them into one large enough for the two of them a few bales over. Brad was a few bales away from them. Landon I guess didn't feel he quite fit in enough to stay near the group finding a spot away from all of us in the corner. Curled into Tony so grateful to be in his strong arms I felt safe nuzzled into him. With a soft whisper of I love you from Tony, my nose in his chest I closed my eyes. "I'm sorry Jim." I heard mom whisper in the quiet of the barn. I heard dad shift his position "For what darling? "For not having faith in you." mom quietly spoke "For thinking you were crazy buying all that stuff." "Oh Georgie darling" dad sighed as the haystack scrunched under his movements "I thought I was crazy too." he chuckled quietly. "Say..." dad punched out with a quiet gasp like he just thought of it "did you pack the drill darling?" Both mine and Tony's bodies twitched trying to hold in a laugh as mom quietly giggled "I'm sorry to disappoint you Jim, but I left it on the boat." "That's a shame darling." dad snorted with a playful hint of disappointment "You know how much I loved that drill." "You..."mom whispered pointedly, with humor still lingering in her tone "are a ridiculous man." "I'll just have to find you another one Georgie." "I love you Jim." "I love you to Georgie." CHAPTER THIRTEEN I woke early, Tony asleep beside me. The sun shone creeping through the slats in the barn’s boards energizing me. Not wanting to wake Tony I gently eased his arm off of me as I moved to sit brushing the bits of hey off my clothes, and out of my hair. With a long stretch I stood picking up my pack made for running. I fed my arms into the straps shifting it until it sat comfortably on my back while making my way to the wood rung ladder. Not feeling hurried and still too groggy to just spin and go I sat dangling my legs in the large hole in the planked floor preparing to climb down. With my feet hitting the floor I was slammed back into reality as my eyes lingered on the man dead on the barn floor. Would I ever grow accustomed and numb to this I thought? I couldn't help but wonder selfishly if the time would come that we could just enjoy a day for simply being a day again. Wishing that for once something wouldn't remind us of the hell that we were destined to live. The news had reminded us for over a year. The neighbors reminded us whenever we stepped outside. The interference we had on the island reminded us, and now on this perfect warm summer morning the man on floor reminded me. I tried to push the sudden overwhelming emotions of anger and sadness away, and fill myself with appreciation for the beautiful day as I stepped outside. Squinting into the sun that was making its slow ascent into the sky I stood almost breathless. It almost seemed we were at the edge of the horizon. The sun was colossal as it peaked above the edge of the earth spilling its rays over the green dew filled field and into the distant trees fencing us. Beside the large decrepit, and what I assumed at one time was a red barn I knelt clearing a spot in the dirt. Pushing twigs and small rocks out of the way making it level I set up the portable folding gas burner. I had just set the pot on top when Brad exited the barn. With a quick glance up I turned my attention back to the pot I now had balancing on the burner. "Sleep okay? I asked unable to figure out if the disheveled look and the growl he wore was the cause of a poor sleep, or if the demons of the previous day were haunting him. Brad exhaled as he lowered himself to the ground scanning the field "No" he said with a sigh shaking his head gently "too much swirling through my head." "Listen Brad" I offered without making eye contact "If you want to talk about..." "Holly" he said with a hint of warning as he held up a hand to me "I appreciate the offer, but I'm okay. I will fight through this my own way thank you." "I'm sorry I...I" I started to stutter as I nervously checked the water on the burner. With a huff as if disappointed in himself he dropped his head pulling his knees up. Wrapping his arms around them he signed "No...I'm sorry. I know you only mean well. I just can't go there. I have seen and done some horrible things and survived it. I can survive it again is all I am trying to say. Talking gets you nowhere." I dropped my head nodding at the dirt "Okay." I said resigned "If that is the way you want ..." "Morning Holly." Tony interrupted coming out of the barn wearing a groggy smile. Knowing what Brad was going through I felt guilty suddenly smiling so brightly, but Tony had that effect on me. "Good morning?" I replied pushing myself up from my crouched position. He sauntered toward me his eyes flashing to Brad silently asking me if he was okay. With a discreet nod I affirmed that everything was fine just as he landed a firm hand on Brad's shoulder. "Hey Brad." he casually greeted him. "Hey." Brad grunted, his eyes and body rocking back just slightly from his spot in the dirt glancing up at him. "We got a plan yet?" Tony asked moving to stand beside me getting right to the point. "Not yet. We just got out here." Brad replied dryly. Tony wrapped a warm arm around me, and was just landing a good morning kiss on my cheek when Dad exited the barn singing "Coffee, coffee, coffee..." "Yes dad” I droned with a chuckle "The water is just about boiled. Is mom still sleeping?" I asked not seeing her on his heels. "No" he said shaking his head making his way over to us "She's packing up the sleeping bags with Landon. She'll be out in a second." "We could have packed up our own." I said feeling badly for the work mom was doing. "They don't have to do it." "Ah, she doesn't mind." dad waved. "It makes her feel useful. So!" he clapped changing the subject "What's the plan? Do we have one yet?" he asked now standing beside Brad sitting in the dirt. "Don't have one yet." Brad replied. His snappy tone had dad shooting Tony and I a look of concern. I replied with a gentle shake of my head silently telling him to let it go. "Okay." dad breathed awkwardly while rocking on his feet "Our options are?" "I was thinking…” Tony hesitantly spoke “ maybe… we could return to the island." I glanced at Brad and dad seeing their unease at Tony’s suggestion. Tony must have seen it too. Appearing more confident he stepped forward now standing in between all of us "We had six days" he stressed "Six glorious untouched days. No one bothered us. We were away from all the madness that apparently is here." No one spoke. Tony bobbed his head having noticed our somber expressions. "Listen...I know there are some bad memories there. It won’t be the same this time I realize that. And if they are still there, which I am certain they are, we know how to kill them now." he said arguing his rationale. No one responded, nor did anyone appear more convinced. “Listen” Tony said “We were barely off the boat and we came close to… How many was it that hunted us Holly?” he said glancing at each of us “Six? Then, off the boat only one night and the first place we opened we were attacked. You think that will be all we come across?" he bit out trying to make his point. “But on the island, once we kill the three that attacked us, that’s it.” “Until more show up.” Brad stated dismally. "Brad’s right" Landon said from the barn door drawing all eyes to him and mom. Landon walked closing the gap between us, his expression haunted “There is a prison a few miles that way" he pointed. "When the sick first started popping up the government had a plan to lock them up. "Yeah..." I chirped recalling the rumors "we heard about that." Dropping my gaze to the dirt suddenly feeling dejected my shoed foot played with a pebble remembering the southern man's words coming through our radio. "We heard it was over run." "It was." Landon nodded "The day after lights out." Landon leaned in halting mid reach looking at me "Mind if I... have some of that coffee?" "Sure" I replied bending to pick up a mug. Handing it to him he thanked me before crouching. Landon remained silent as did the rest of us as he prepped his cup of coffee grinds and sugar. Dad and Brad followed suit. Standing he took a sip. I thought for a second he was just savoring the flavor as he held it in his mouth, but looking closer I could see he was fighting with either the words to tell us, or a memory that was flooding him. "There were so many in there" he said staring off. If you hadn't seen Landon’s eyes one might have thought he was appreciating the view, but from where I stood it was like he was watching it all unfold again. "I was walking along with a massive group of people. Traffic on the road was bumper to bumper. I mean the hours I spent walking in that ocean of people the vehicles never moved an inch. People were standing next to their cars, trucks, or vans peering forward to see if they would ever get through, or if there was any sign that they would be moving soon. Others were abandoning their vehicles deciding to haul their families out on foot." Landon pulled his shoulders up before dropping them heavily, his eyes on the field "Everyone was so quiet. It was eerie the silence." he said pulling his sweater closed as if feeling a chill "It is so bizarre to actually feel the depression and fear around you, where the only sounds were the feet dragging on the road, and the only voices heard was the odd infant crying or a child asking for food or water." "Somewhere in the middle of our trek to who the hell knew where. I mean everyone was just walking to get out. I don't think anyone really knew where they were going at this point, but we came across the prison. Some of the herd I was in kept walking, but so many of us stopped and stared." "The growls and howls that came out echoing across the large property surrounded by a chain linked fence and barbed wire was loud and terrifying. I don't know why we all stood staring at it. Maybe it was the shock to see the rumors about the prison were true." "The fence was wide open." he said spreading his arms out as if trying to provide us a visual description. "I guess" he said dropping them "the last people to leave didn't bother to lock it." Landon released a low depressed chuckle "I guess it would have been futile to lock anyway. I mean the way the heavy steel doors bounced with the pressure the sick applied to them the fence would have been no match for them. They would have knocked that fence down easily.” “Sadly it became clear the steel doors weren't locked either." he grumbled almost as if to himself. "A couple of flexes and they popped right open and the sick came wandering out. And for a fraction of a second the world froze. Everyone man woman and child stilled as the sick filtered into the yard as if they were caged zoo animals." Though Landon wasn't looking at anyone, from where I stood I was able to see the ghosts of that day swimming in his hazel eyes making them black pools of sorrow. "But then the panic set in. People registered what was before them and they began screaming and running in every direction." Landon said meeting our eyes for the first time since he started talking "That lit the sick up. They came scrambling out of their cage at such speed and with such purpose; and that purpose was to silence us again.” “A man grabbed me. This way he ordered me to follow." Landon bent pulling his arms up and in as if bouncing a basketball; his eyes on the dirt before him "I looked right, and then left debating if I had a better option," Landon's shoulders shifted right and left as if he was debating it again "but they were coming from every direction and fast. People were being plowed down by them all around me. I had no choice but to duck back with him.” “We took off to the trees finding a place to hide. Safe from the chaos we sat in silence." Landon met our intrigued and frightened stares. The expression on his face, the way his eyes met ours he seemed to be pleading with us to understand... to forgive him. "We had no choice.” he breathed “We couldn't help them. There were just to many, and they were too fast. We didn't want to watch, but we needed to make sure they weren't getting close to us. We saw adults and children get bit, others get torn apart." "Torn apart?" mom quivered in her approach from the barn. “Yes ma’am” Landon said turning meeting my mother's eyes, his tears trailing his cheeks "I'm so sorry...” he said noting her skin paling. “I'm not trying to frighten you." "It's okay son." she nodded, her trembling hand tapping his arm. "We need to know. Please..." she said encouraging him to continue. Dad moved in holding mom as she shuddered into his arms. Nodding Landon continued "There were so many of the sick that they ganged up biting people. Their repeated attacks of tearing flesh from bone tore some apart. I guess they were the fortunate ones." he choked landing his bottom in the dirt "I mean not having to be the sick...You know what I mean?" he asked squinting up at us, his tears free falling. "In all the chaos what haunts me the most was seeing the children terrified and in pain as they got bit, and knowing that some of them became the sick." Landon leaned his weight onto one arm resting the other arm out over his bent knee. His cup clenched in his dangling hand he rubbed his face into his shoulder wiping the dampness from his eyes. "I still hear the cries of this one baby. The mother was holding tightly to it trying to protect it, but she was pushed with all the chaos and madness falling to the ground... Mom died... She was trampled protecting her baby. I could hear the baby's new wail... but so did the sick... I stood straight pulling my shoulders as an eerie feeling swept over me. I couldn't help the order that flew out of my mouth. "Stop" I demanded "I can't hear anymore." Everyone dropped their eyes to their cups silently drinking their coffee "I'm sorry." I slouched feeling ashamed for being weak "I just couldn't hear the details of the baby." "You’re right Holly." Landon said apologetically. He wiped his face with his shoulder again, his foot pushing at an invisible stone "There was no need to go into detail. I was just lost in my memory of it all. I wasn't thinking." I was grateful when Tony took the attention from me. "I heard every word you spoke Landon, and I am so sorry you or any of those poor people had to experience any of that. It is heart wrenching and terrifying, but what does this have to do with my plan of returning to the island?" Landon stood brushing the dirt from his pants "I agree that we need to move farther from here. The prison was only a few miles from here" he casually pointed again "Not to mention it was only what? Six days ago." he twisted regarding dad and then Brad before returning his attention to Tony "There were hundreds of them." he stated "They infected hundreds more." Twisting again he looked to dad and then down to Brad "You getting my point here?" "I get it” I said heavily exhaling “You’re saying this is like a pyramid scam. Hundreds hooked hundreds more in turning it to thousands overnight and thousands more the next." "Good analogy Holly." Landon nodded "That is precisely what I am saying. The ones doing the hooking are growing fast; and I know I mentioned it, but did you hear me when I said how close they were from where we are standing right now?" "Got you" Brad stated as he moved to stand. "He’s right. We need to get further away from here. What do you all want to do?" he asked looking at each one of us. "Anyone have any other options?" "Well..." Landon hesitantly spoke. "You have another option?" mom asked sounding hopeful. "Well I am not trying to discourage you from going. The island sounds great, but inevitably you need to come back here to gather supplies. I'm just thinking that if we...Well” he shrugged “that is if the invite is even extended to me. If we shelter ourselves and then return here only when we need to, we will not be able to deal with the world as it is. I know it's risky, but practice and learning is the only way to get strong now.” Landon knitted his brows in question “I don't know if I am making sense here or not." "Yeah..." dad sighed "Unfortunately you are." "Not to mention we don't have enough ammo for an island. It might seem safe but it can also leave us pretty vulnerable." Brad stated. "So?" I shrugged "What does this mean?" "We keep moving." Brad stated. "Hopefully we will find something that is strong and safe. Take shelter when we can." "So we spend the rest of our days just running?" Tony asked irately. "Yeah" dad breathed. "Until we find something that maybe no one will want." "Do you have any ideas what that might look like Jim?" Tony asked with a drip of cynicism. "Nope." dad stated "Hopefully we will know when we see it." *** We saddled our packs on our backs leaving the barn later that day. The plan was simply to run hoping Landon's knowledge was enough to keep us safe until we gained some skills, adding strength to our team. Standing at the barn door I adjusted my pack, my eyes meeting Tony's. In my peripheral I saw his strong arm dangling at his side move toward me. His eyes darting to his open palm he silently invited me to hold his hand. Always enjoying the feel of my hand in his I tenderly laced my fingers with his as Tony's warm eyes returned to mine. I knew they were trying to tell me everything would be fine, but the weak smile that crossed his lips betrayed him. I didn't want to expose to him that I had seen his smile falter, so instead I leaned in landing a gentle kiss on his perfect lips. "What was that for?" he asked, his uneasy smile actually warming the way I assumed he had originally intended it to be. With a small smile I softly replied "I just love you Tony Gardner." Tony opened his mouth to speak, but I promptly turned landing a finger gently on his lips silencing him. "Don't say anything. Let me be the one to have said it last this one time." I don't know why I didn't want to hear him say it. Maybe I was worried it would have felt more like we were prepping for an inevitable goodbye, and having him verbalize what I already knew made me not want to hear it. Dad opened the second barn door widening our exit. Squinting at the glow filling the opening we all moved together stepping back out into the bright sun. My eyes scanning the large field and to the trees in the distance I felt kind of...I don't know...vulnerable would be an understatement. Terrified I guess would be closer to the appropriate word to describe the emotion swirling through me; what I am certain we all must have felt. About to take our first steps beginning our intense journey I inhaled deeply uttering a silent prayer, asking that we would learn fast what we needed to in order to survive out there. CHAPTER FOURTEEN It occurs to me now as I tap the letter keys that I had repeatedly thought the world had already revealed to us the cruelty we were destined to live; but each time I thought it something always proved that it hadn't yet. Every time we experienced something or did something new like leave the house, landing on the island, Joyce getting bit or winding up there at that barn, the world was only offering us a glimpse of what it was capable of tendering up as evil or cruel. It was constantly reminding us there was always something more intense and terrifying to experience; always something else to learn about how to survive in it. What we did learn, and it became clear as mud, was that there were really only two skills required for survival. Learn how to be stealthy, and how to fight without getting bit. The unfortunate thing about those skills is that we weren't allowed to learn them one at a time, or slowly. If you weren't stealthy they heard you. They heard you, they attacked. They attacked, you fought. If you didn't want to fight, you tried to hide. You tried to hide you had to be fast and stealthy. You weren't fast and stealthy they found you. They found you, you had to fight. In the end as you can see, they went hand in hand. They still go hand in hand. *** It turned out that everything Landon had told us up to that point was really about all he knew. I guess it made sense. He hadn't been out there all that long. Our city hadn't seen much of the sick prior to lights out, and the lights had only been out a little over a week before we left that barn. That gave Landon a total of six days over us; and in those six days we discovered he spent as much time locked up in his maintenance closet as possible. We had been on the road taking shelter where we could. When we weren't on the road we were in the trees where we would set up camps when we needed to. It went on like that for a number of weeks, and it didn't appear that it was going to be changing anytime soon. The previous night was one of the nights we camped. We pitched tarps in the trees and rolled out our sleeping bags around a warm fire. We woke the next morning to gray and drizzle. Mom and I put on our thin jackets that promised to be warm and waterproof. We had been walking through the forest for about an hour on our never ending non-destination journey. I had just realized as I snagged myself for the umpteenth time that my jacket hadn't ripped. That realization had me thinking to my surprise that I was in fact warm and dry when we stumbled across a section that was filled with carcasses. Deer, squirrels, birds, even a bear lay in this tiny clearing all with bellies missing, and ribs picked clean. "Ewe..." mom groaned throwing her hand over her mouth repulsed "Who the hell did this?" The way her shoulders and head twitched forward I knew she was gagging. I couldn't blame her though. The stench was beyond disgusting. That rot was unlike any rotten meat I'd ever sniffed cleaning out our fridge. The odor was god awful and nauseating. I would love to be able to describe it better to you, but to put it simply, it was indescribable. I can tell you that it seemed to stick to me. It got in my mouth, up my nose. I was sure I would smell it for months, maybe even years to come. Pinching my nose I breathed through my mouth. I'm not sure what of the two was better or worse depending on what angle you looked at from...smelling that odor or tasting it. I'd wished I had the ability to hold my breath for as long as I wanted, than I could have pinched my nose and shut my mouth saving me the dilemma of figuring it out.. "They did ma'am." Landon said matter of fact like as dad bent over, his hands gripping his knees for support as he emptied the few contents in his stomach. The sight of dad vomiting and the smell falling all around me I shrunk into Tony's chest in a serious effort not to unload mine while shielding my mouth and nose. "They did?" Tony asked wrapping his arms around me. I could feel his voice vibrate behind his ribs. "As in... the sick?" I rolled my head peeking out seeing Landon lift his shoulders heavily pushing his hands into his pockets. "Yeah." he exhaled. "This would be the second, I guess... feeding den I have come across. The first one there was four of them tearing some animal apart. I saw two of them fighting over their meal. If I didn't know better I would have thought they were fighting for alpha." "Well there is one here" Brad droned from behind us. "Judging from the looks of him there was a squabble of sorts and he lost." "Okay." I said leaving Tony's arms, a small but confused chuckle escaping me. All eyes now on me "They are dead. Dead don't eat. They don't fight over food, and they certainly don't fight for alpha." Landon’s eyes met mine "Oh no Holly. They aren't dead, they are very much alive." I couldn't help the twisted mess my expression was "I...I tho..." Suddenly I felt stupid. "I mean people referred to them as the living dead." I said exhaling, my eyes shifting from Landon to dad "and what about that stages? The Dying Phase and the Dead Phase?" I asked looking now to Brad. I lowered my gaze feeling so foolish "I just thought..." "It's okay Holly." Landon said touching my shoulder. "To be honest I heard those rumors too, and for a while I thought somehow they were dead." "So" Brad interrupted us. "They eat, they fight and they attack..." he said analyzing the new information with the old information. Normally being interrupted would annoy me, but I have to admit his casual way of brushing over the embarrassment I felt it was welcomed, and bringing the subject back on track was appreciated. Other than our breathing we were all silent as Brad paused wiping at his face. His stance and quizzical eyes told me he was pondering. "Okay" he clapped as if he had put it all together. "So we know they are alive. That makes sense" he shrugged like it was obvious "Can't have brain function without blood flow. No blood flow, no brain function. No brain function that means dead. These guys, their hearts pump feeding the brain. The brain function and heart pumping...well that means living right?" It wasn't really a question so much as it was him mentally working out the problem. "Shoot the heart... kill the blood flow to the brain... they die." Brad shrugged again. "On the island there were originally four when we shot one." dad said starting to work it out with Brad. "When we made it to the boat there was only three." Dad looked to Tony "Your bullet went clean through one and he kept coming." "Yeah" Tony said as if he saw the direction dad was going with it "and that is the one I didn't see on the dock as we backed out!" Tony's excitement turned pensive "Does that mean maybe he bled out?" "If he bled out that would make things a little simpler to handle right?" Landon asked. "Yeah" Brad nodded a hopeful glimmer in his eyes "for sure." "Jim." mom said getting dad's attention. "Even if he bled out, how is that helpful? I was there, that thing kept coming and pounding on the door." "You're right Georgie it did, but it helps a lot. It tells us that maybe they are driven by an overload of adrenaline." dad explained, but from his expression and the number of pauses I think he was still working out the specifics as he explained it to her. "The adrenaline would certainly explain why he kept coming, but it also tells us that the limited targets of heart or brain stem have dramatically increased; that if some other vital part was hit they will eventually die." Seeing mom's tangled expression unchanged dad clarified simply "It means that we have a much better shot at surviving Georgie. See, all those times we hid for hours doing nothing while they circled in search for us we could have shot the liver, or severed an artery ending it in a few moments." Brad had crouched down next to the human corpse in the dead foliage inspecting him as dad was busy explaining to mom what their findings meant. "It's true" Brad said twisting to looking up at dad with a pleased smirk "There is a really nice slice to the artery in his arm. The amount of blood pooled around him and the trail from there to here... this guy bled out. Looks like maybe the bear got him. I imagine the adrenaline kept him going long enough to kill the bear, but in the end they both lost." "I am not seeing your point here." mom said with a hint of annoyance "If after the bear got him he still had enough life, not to mention strength left in him to kill the bear it doesn't sound like..." Tony interrupted her "When you put it that way Georgie I can see how it doesn't seem like a positive, but the fact that they bleed out is a good thing." "He had the strength to kill a bear." mom stated bluntly. "Well it appears he did." Landon intervened. "There could have been a few of them here attacking the bear and he was the one that was killed. I mean the ribs are picked clean. I don't imagine he had the strength to kill and eat him before he died." "And if he did?" mom asked. "Well that would mean he had super hero strength or a weak version of immortality, and we know that not to be true." dad stated. "Now it is possible that the adrenaline aided in his ability to kill the bear. While the bear fought him he was unable to feel the pain from his wounds. We know that is a large possibility. Look at the one we shot on the island or the ones we fought since we have been out here. They don't stop and cringe or cry out in agony. They just keep coming." "So it makes sense that either multiple sick attacked the bear or he did it and others came in later feasting on him." Brad concluded. "Okay" mom said sounding a little more resigned "but how is it that they live as long as this guy" she said pointing "I mean he managed to live long enough to kill the bear. And..." Dad opened his mouth to interrupt. "And" mom repeated silencing him "the one Tony shot on the island. How did he manage to live as long as he did? I mean it took a while for us to climb out that window and run down to the boat house." "Good questions Georgie." Tony said rubbing his chin in thought. "But maybe that guy didn't live long. I mean we couldn't see through the door. Could have only been three pounding on it. As for this guy he gestured "who knows how long he lived. I mean we already said there could have been more than just him attacking the bear." "Wait" Landon spoke. You could almost see the light bulb over his head. "What was it they said about the virus?" "Rabid Virus?" mom said in question. "No" Landon waved "Not what they called it. The thing about their blood." "Hy...per..." I dragged out trying to recall. "Right!" Landon said snapping his fingers "The news had mentioned something about...." He looked at us all to help him out as he dragged out “Hyper coagulation...something…. Whatever." he waved when none of us jumped in and it hadn't come to him. "My point is in those two parts anyway." "Well...?" dad asked. "You or us can't remember or pronounce it so I am not sure how you have a point in there..." "He does Jim.” Tony said. He still appeared to be trying to put it all together but it seemed like it was all making at least a bit of sense to him. “See hyper as we know means fast. Coagulation refers to thickening, clotting. In this case we are referring to blood. In those two, hyper and coagulation we were told that they do clot fast. Not enough to not bleed out...obviously" he said gesturing to the man in the dirt, but enough to slow down how fast they bleed. That would explain the time it might have taken for this guy or the guy I shot to die." "Well what about them jumping off the cliff on the island?" I asked "I mean anyone would have been hurt, crippled or killed in that fall. They dove right off." "Well the adrenaline." Brad stated. "If they are constantly on an adrenaline high they wouldn't feel the pain of any injury." "Great" mom said throwing her hands out in frustration. "We're dealing with fast, strong individuals on an adrenaline high that allows them to feel little to no pain. They have some sort of weak immortality, to use your words Jim, quality to them. They don't tire. Does that about sum it all up?" "A little mellow dramatic don't you think?" dad asked dryly. "Besides I never said they suffered from a weak form of immortality. You twisted my words." Feeling the tension building between them I thought it would be a good time to bring up something I had noticed a while back. I thought maybe it would bring them back to the conversation we were all having rather than the one the two of them were having at that moment. "I noticed as we were leaving the island that they almost appeared to be contemplating the consequences of stepping off the dock." All eyes landed on me "What do you mean Holly?" Landon asked. I could be wrong, but they just seemed to be contemplating stepping forward. The three were in a line reaching out for us. I saw one put his foot forward over the water, but then pull it back. One of the others did it too. It was like they were trying figure out how to get to us without landing in the water." "Perfect!" mom chomped with a huff "they are borderline intelligent to boot." "Georgie..." dad said trying to hold her knowing what was behind her attitude. She fought him briefly, but he held on until mom gave in falling into his arms weeping from exhaustion and fear. *** After we put what we'd hoped were most of the pieces together we started on our way again. I say on our way. On our way to where? We never had a clue where we were going, or why we chose the direction we had decided to go in. For smart people I couldn't help but wonder what logic there was to walking until we wound up at a place we would just somehow know would be safe. What does safe look like anyway? CHAPTER FIFTEEN They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. That saying is usually referring to our ability to make negative snap judgments on other individuals simply by taking in their appearance, or where our only knowledge is what side of the track they came from; but sometimes we just know. This was one of those times. I had been separated from my family the day before. I knew Toni would be frantic having been separated from me, and I was desperate to find him. I thought I was circling back to where I last saw them when I stumbled upon a small group of unkindly men in the trees. Counting four of them I moved as quickly as I could in my effort to remain silent, crouching behind a bush. Wiping away the tears that had been falling for some time now my blurred vision cleared. At quick glance there was nothing that made them stand out as dangerous. They were well kept considering the circumstances, but with the way the world is that was nothing to go by. They appeared to be enjoying something to eat. I could hear their deep tones and laughter as they chatted amongst themselves. Though I couldn't clearly see any of them through the branches that hung between us, there was something in their demeanors and lively banter that made me feel ill. I tried to slither away unnoticed when I heard a man chirp from behind me. "Well, what do we have here?" Spinning, I nervously diverted my eyes as I did a small dance trying to figure out what direction to run. Moving left he jumped in my path sending my heart pounding in my chest. "Don't be frightened angel." he spoke, but there was something in his tone that made me think of a cat playing with the scared mouse. I glanced up meeting his icy blue eyes. "You look like you could use some water or maybe some food." he chimed brushing his dark wavy hair from his face. I would say he smiled, but it was more of an eerie smirk he offered as he stepped toward me. I took a few steps back only to be met by a tree. With nowhere to go all I could do was patiently wait for my opportunity. "No thank you. I'm not hungry." I replied coldly, hoping my refusal would send him on his way. "You're not a very appreciative girl are you?" he said with an unnerving chuckle. "I'm sorry." I whispered timidly "I'm just not hungry." Throwing his hands out as if frustrated I heard the eerie bounce vanish from his tone "There's no need to be rude. I was just thinking we have enough to go around. I was trying to be considerate to the fact that you might not have eaten in a while." He moved closer as I cringed back. His eyes narrowing in hungrily on me "You know...just trying to be a good host." He took a final step forward putting my nose almost in his chest forcing me to look up with a shudder. "I was just passing through. I...I..." "No need to run off" he said gently brushing my cheek with his large hand. "See we have been feeling a bit..." he paused as if searching for a word "...off. I think we can help bring each other's spirits up." he said landing a hand on the tree I leaned against while peering down at me with a frisky grin. "What do you say?" Tears sprang up blurring my vision "I need to go." I said as adamantly as I could, trying to make it clear I wasn't interested, but he wasn't hearing me. Widening his stance he moved to touch me. I took the opportunity I was waiting for. Lifting my knee with speed and force I nailed him in the crotch causing him to cry out as he doubled over.Shoving him out of my way I took off running hearing him roar out behind me. "You fucking bitch!" Frantic and scared I peeked over my shoulder as I ran seeing him stagger toward me, but the speed he was going I knew he would never catch me. Feeling confident that I could lose him in the trees I turned still running only to be blindsided by something hitting me hard. Sprawled out on the ground I gasped for the air that was knocked out of me seeing another man of equal stature glaring down at me. Without granting me the opportunity to catch my breath he ripped me from the ground to my feet by my hair. I would have screamed out from the pain of it if my diaphragm wasn't in such a spasm. Dragged by my hair I stumbled in the direction I was being pulled before being tossed to the side of their camp like a rag doll. Finally able to take a small breath in, but unable to exhale it I tried not to panic. On my back I rolled trying not only to catch my breath, but to see where they were spotting a young girl about my age sitting on a log. Her eyes were bloodshot from many hours of crying. Her clothes were tattered and torn. The stare she landed on me was devoid of spirit. All that I had observed from her as my ability to breath slowly returned told me these men had used the poor girl up. I moved getting up on all fours as my breaths grew more even hearing overlapping laughs a short distance behind me. This is it. Become her or run, I told myself. Finally one deep breath in, one easy exhale out I scrambled to my shaky feet and took off into the trees, but they were quicker than me. *** Dalia and I had been walking the forest for about five straight days in hot humid weather only stopping long enough to catch a catnap here and there. To make things that much more exciting Dalia wasn't much for conversation. I think for however long those awful men had her they managed to steal more than just her body from her. I have to say it was the worst stretch I had gone. All I could think about was Toni, wondering if he was alive, hoping and praying we would find each other soon. I needed him. I wasn't sure I would survive this without him. He was my strength. I missed his comforting words, his arms and his kiss. I missed his smile in the most difficult times giving me strength and making me feel safe. Making things feel so much more grim Dalia and I had run out of food about three days earlier with no time to try and trap anything, and we had just finished our last bottle of water. I was starting to grow very concerned since we had not come across a stream. A pond would have made me happy at that point. I had the tablets to purify any water if it came down to it, but there just wasn't any to be had. Everything combined it took all my strength not to collapse onto my knees and cry. We had been working on putting as much space between that group of men we had the ugly displeasure of meeting, and a herd of sick we never thought we would feel so lucky to have come along. If it wasn't for them we wouldn't have had the opportunity to escape. I was quickly reaching the point of done. I began debating with myself whether or not I had another step left in me. The negative side was winning. I was just about to yell at the top of my lungs if I could muster any volume. Come get me! I give up, when out of nowhere stood this wall. It had popped up in the middle of the forest. I couldn't help but gape at it like it was the mother ship it was so out of place. I stood before it glancing first to my left, than to my right letting out a defeated sigh as it seemed to go on for days in either direction. We pondered climbing it. We might have found the energy if it was a chain link fence that we could pull with our hands and climb with our feet, but this was a flat wall. Climbing it would have taken planning, and far more energy than we had in us. Almost sulking Dalia and I bowed our heads turning to the right beginning our slow walk along the long wall. It felt like hours, but I know now it was only minutes before we wound up at a double wide rusting metal door. It was wide enough to drive a car through it. I moved ahead of Dalia scrutinizing it. It appeared to be patch work, like it was handmade and pieced together. I searched it for gaps that might allow me to see any activity beyond it, but I couldn't find any. I had witnessed the one man use Dalia. On the table I struggled fighting him not wanting to be next when I heard the deranged. Screaming out I called them to us not caring if I lived or died. I just knew I didn’t want to live the way Dalia had been. In the chaos that had broken out around us I was free. I had managed to grab my bag for running as we scrambled to get away from the men and the stampede. In the dirt next to my bag I spied an aluminum bat claiming it as mine. I used it now as a knocker as I tapped on the door. At first it was just a gentle tap, but as I heard the sound echo and nobody opened, my tapping became wild startling myself as I unleashed all my pent up anger and wretchedness on that door. I missed and desperately needed Tony. I missed my dad, Brad, Joyce... my mom...I hated what those men stood for and the way they treated us. I hated the way the planet seemed to have turned on the human race. In the midst of my insanity I heard a loud click halting me mid swing. "I'm going to have to ask you to stop making all that racket little lady." I breathlessly tilted my head up toward the deep voice. With one quick swipe of my face I erased the tears I hadn't realized until that moment had fallen spying a bald heavily tattooed man with a riffle aimed at down at me. It wasn't the gun that stunned me into obedience, but his kind tone. As if spellbound and with all my energy spent I lowered my bat nodding up to him. He lowered his weapon as the door clicked in its retreat making way for us to enter. The tip of my bat on the ground, its handle gripped in my hand Dalia and I shifted trying to see beyond the entrance. A beautiful woman stood looking out at us. Her long dark hair lifting slightly with the breeze she tilted her head just so; her green eyes warm and inviting. She didn't say a word as she smiled compassionately. It seemed in the one second it took her eyes to meet mine she knew what we had been through. Gently she reached her hand out gesturing to me to come to her. Nodding I took one step forward, Dalia moving to join me at my side. Together we continued hesitantly through the large doors, my bat in my hand dragging behind me. It's funny to me now how I allowed myself to trust that woman almost immediately when I swore I never would trust anyone again. Maybe I was just so weak I didn't have fight left in me. I followed the woman at a very slow pace feeling many sets of eyes on me as I scanned numbly around. If I was willing or capable to feel anything in that moment what I saw would have been awe inspiring. All along the top of the wall and stretched over my head were wood planked rope bridges. They ran not only around the wall, but across the small clearing running in multiple directions. I noted some of the bridges disappeared into the thick forest drawing my eyes to the huts built in the trees. In fact the only structure on the ground was a massive, what I at first thought was a doomed shed, but then I noticed that it was too strong, and to old a structure to be a simple shed. Through my peripheral I saw the woman stop at a thick tree. I turned my attention to her as she started to climb a ladder. "Be careful when you grab on" she warned. "The ladders aren't fastened to anything." When I didn't respond she continued "It's so we can pull them up at night." I acknowledged her nodding only with my eyes. It was the only way I could at that moment. "Come" she ordered, her soft smile unwavering. My bewildered eyes following her she climbed higher. A few more rungs up she paused glancing down at me again. "Come" I heard her encourage again. My arms like jelly I grabbed the rung of the ladder and began climbing. Halfway up feeling it move I tightened my grip waiting to see if the ladder was done it's shifting. "It's okay" she called down to me. I could hear the smile in her kind tone "It won't go anywhere." With a nervous nod I climbed higher. Reaching the top she grabbed my hands assisting me up onto the planked platform in my weakened state. With a sigh I sat dangling my feet over the edge catching my breath. It wasn't a difficult climb by any means, but my being malnourished at the moment it was great effort for me. Standing beside me the woman bent slightly "Let's get some food into you and then we can talk." "Dalia?" I asked looking up at her. "She's fine." she smiled. "We split up our guests here." Still staring up at her my face twisted. "It is a rule." she said in answer to my silent question. "We separate our guests so the burden of feeding and clothing doesn't diminish one person's supplies. Plus" she said with a loud exhale "some guests are not so...shall I say…" She placed a hand on her hip, the other holding her chin, her fingers tapping her cheek in a wave "...honorable.” Dropping her hand from her face her smile returned “We had to learn the hard way to separate all guests; at least until we know their intentions. There is strength in numbers, but one on one not as easy." The look in her eyes said there was a long sad story in that lesson she mentioned, but my heart hurt far too much to sympathize for her over something they clearly had recovered from, so I didn't bother prying. Either way I could see from the carefree attitude she had with me she didn't find me to be a threat. I wasn't sure if that was a compliment or an insult. I liked to think that I looked like someone who would do what she had to in order to survive. Stepping past me she tapped my shoulder "come on." she gestured. With great effort I pushed myself up from the platform following her down a long wobbly bridge. I was grateful the rope railing was high and the bridge was taut. Anymore wobble to it I'm sure I would have flipped off. I was already to dizzy and weak for the little wobble it had. Taking a short off shoot from the main bridge she led me into a small dark one room hut. A tree rose through the center of the floor only to disappear out the roof. A tired plaid blanket hung from ceiling to floor on one side of the tree, and another tired floral print blanket hung on the other side of the tree. The two blankets almost cutting the single room into two. Lighting a candle she placed it on the tiny table next to the door before disappearing around one of the blankets leaving me to silently take in the finer details. Really the only things left to notice in the tiny space was a small counter maybe six feet in length on the wall across. A bucket of dishes sat on one side of it. A mirror was hung above and a blue cooler sat in the corner underneath. A moment later she returned holding out a clean set of clothing, the empathy her eyes held at the gate returning "Why don't you go and change while I fix you something to eat. Here's a cloth" she offered. "There is a fresh bucket of water behind the blanket. It's cold, but it will do for you to wash up." Knowing my clothes were a mess and barely hanging on by threads in some of the seams I didn't argue. The folded clothes in my arms I took three paces reaching the hanging plaid blanket. Lifting it I peered behind finding a basket of folded clothes and a basket of tossed clothes. My best guess clean and dirty. A small double mattress lay in the corner. For the first time in days I smiled. It was a small smile but still a smile. I hadn’t seen anything that resembled a lived in home in many months. Clearly this was hers and she worked at making it as cozy as possible. Grateful to get out of my tattered clothes I stripped down forcing myself to hold in the tears that were begging me to fall. I dipped the cloth in the bucket and rung it out scrubbing it over my body. The water as warned was cold, but the filth I needed to rid my skin of was more important allowing me to ignore the chilled chatter my muscles made. I put on the blue long sleeve shirt and black yoga pants. We must have been the same size for they fit me perfectly. Lifting the blanket I shyly returned finding her sitting at the tiny table made for two. In front of the empty seat sat a bowl and a glass of water. "Please." she sweetly gestured "Sit. I hope you like potato salad and hard boiled eggs." She's joking right I thought to myself, potato salad....hard boiled eggs? Given that we were in a tree I was half expecting Tinker Bell to come out babbling away to us. Please tell me the bowl doesn't require imagination in order to see and taste the food? I silently pleaded. "Where are the lost boys?" I mumbled barely above a whisper, but clearly louder than I had intended by the way her face twisted in question. Standing I peeked into the bowl seeing as she promised potato salad and two hardboiled eggs. Either I am so hungry that my imagination is working all on its own, or that food is really in my bowl I thought forcing myself not to race to it. I had a monster urge to scoop the biggest pile my hands could hold and shovel it into my mouth, but instead I sat down like the civilized person I wanted to show her I was. I picked up the fork resting beside the bowl "Thanks... for the clothes and...the...food" I shyly spoke. Her response was a simple gesture for me to eat. I couldn't hold back anymore. With my fork I shoveled the biggest scoop into my mouth followed by another, and another. I have to say it was far from mom’s potato salad. The potatoes were canned, it was powdery, and had a bit of sourness to it, but it was food and the closest to potato salad I had had since the grocery stores stopped stocking their shelves. Hearing her giggle I realized I must have looked a little savage to her the way I was racing through my food, and focused on slowing my bites. It was probably for the best. If I kept eating at that pace I most likely would have vomited. "What is this place?" I asked mumbling through my mouthful of food. Slouching forward she moved resting an arm on the table "It's our home." she said with such pride in her voice and her expression. "Oh..." I nodded not really sure what to say next. Instead I shoved another mouthful of food in giving me something to focus on. "Let's start at the beginning." she suggested "My name is Lucy. What's yours?" I held up a finger while the other hand hid the crap load of food I was working on chewing down hearing her giggle again. "My name is Holly." I replied, finally able to speak, my hand still hiding the remaining food I was chewing. "Holly?" "Yes." I said offering her a weak smile as I swallowed the last of that bite down. "When you are done I will show you around." With that I picked up one of the hardboiled eggs pushing my food aside moving to stand. I couldn't help it. I was curious. "Okay then..." she giggled "you can come back and finish that later. She got up grabbing a towel placing it over the food and returned it to a cooler she had on the floor before returning her attention to me "Flies are bad, but don't worry though" she said seeing the concern sweep across my face "that bowl is yours. It will be right there when we return. It has to get eaten today though. It will turn bad by tomorrow." I wanted to say, but stopped myself “It can’t get any worse” But instead of insulting her I offered her a nod in acknowledgment. Besides regardless of how awful it was I found myself relieved it would be there when we got back. Exiting her hut I literally bumped into a solid man. Looking up nervously I was met by the kind eyes of the man that earlier had a gun on me. "Holly" Lucy said jumping right to introductions "this is Mr. Clay. He was one of the founders of this place." Mr. Clay held a hand out to me "Welcome." he said with a soft smile. Timidly I placed my hand in his "Thank you" I said in just barely even a whisper. I wasn't sure he even heard me at all I had spoken so quietly. I don’t know why I felt so shy. Even though he had a rough exterior there was something very warm about him. "I was just about to take Holly on a tour. Would you like to join us?" Lucy asked Mr. Clay. "Not sure I can right now" he said almost sounding disappointed "Holly is it?" "Yes sir." I politely answered the nervousness slightly dissipating. Mr. Clay turned the direction of his words to Lucy "We just finished the hut two trees over from you." Then he directed his words back to me, his soft smile widening "You and Lucy will be neighbors if you choose the stay." I blinked at him stunned having not even considered staying as an option "Umm...thank you sir but..." Broadening his chest he held a hand out to me "Please...don't call me sir. Call me Donald or call me Mr. Clay, but never sir." he playfully warned. I decided immediately that since Lucy referred to him as Mr. Clay I should also. "Well ladies...Holly" he nodded with a polite smile "enjoy the tour." *** I followed Lucy listening to her going over the history. "This was a hunt camp before the world turned to garbage. That is actually how Mr. Clay got the idea to build us up in the trees." she said with admiration "The idea came to him when he got surrounded by the deranged..." "The deranged?" I asked. "Yeah." she nodded. "That's what we call them." "Oh..." "Anyway he had no choice but to go up. Him and his family were being surrounded. Noticing the wood hammered into a tree. You know" she said glancing at me “a ladder. No other options he told his family to climb and he followed. They camped up on a hunter’s platform for hours. That's when it came to him." she said excitedly "They can't climb! So..." she shrugged "he decided the safest thing to do would be to build up in the trees. It's brilliant! We sleep safely and" she stressed "it allows us to see anyone else coming in.” “Anyway" she said moving on "Before it was a hunt camp it was where the military held some of their training back in the fifties. Soldiers of various factions within the military use to run courses through these trees. That building down there" she said pointing "was a barracks for the higher ups to sleep, eat, or shower while the lower ranking completed mock missions through the trees. It's now the market." Flabbergasted I gawked at her "You have a market?" "Yep" she nodded clearly pleased that she was able to shock me. I have to say, the bridges, the tree huts, the decks for standing guard. It was all very Swiss Family Robinson. Only we weren't stranded... Or were we? Either way thinking about it now I actually think the Swiss family had nothing on this place. "You want to see where you will be living?" Lucy asked. I could see the excitement in her eyes. I wanted to allow her the opportunity to unleash the hyper frenzy she was holding back and say yes. I knew she would overflow with giddiness, but if there were supplies up for grabs down in that ginormous steel shed below I wanted to take a peek. I was in desperate need of a restock. "I want to..." I dragged out sorry to disappoint her "but I really want to check out the market." Lucy deflated slightly. "Okay, but right after that we are moving you in." she said her excitement not completely lost. "Deal" I replied unable to hide my smile. She was so energetic it was difficult not to feel some of her emotion. Lucy and I climbed down a ladder making our way across the small clearing. "Hey! You two have a pass to go in there?" I heard someone harshly call out from behind us just as Lucy landed a hand on the heavy steel door. I turned nervously toward the direction of the stern voice seeing Mr. Clay jogging in our direction with a chuckle. No doubt at my nervous expression. "Just kidding Holly" he said in his approach allowing me to release the worried breath momentarily hinged in my chest. Slowing his pace he came to a halt beside me. "Mind if I join you ladies?" "Not at all Mr. Clay" Lucy replied batting her beautiful green eyes. I got the impression she had a thing for him the way she bounced when he was close. "Enjoying the sights so far Holly?" he asked me. "I am." I replied. "It's a very interesting place." and for the third time in days I smiled "I always dreamed of living in a tree house." Lucy put all her weight, which wasn't much into sliding open the heavy doors. Hearing them grind and squeal in their tracks Mr. Clay leaned in to me "It's kind of why I built it" he said in a hushed tone; the playful smile in his eyes causing a slight giggle to escape me. My eyes turned toward the open doors. "After you Holly” he said gesturing for me to go. With a nod I stepped inside. It wasn't anything to exciting to old day standards, but what the world is now it was very impressive. The old steel barracks was gutted and empty tables were set up in a line down both sides. In between each table were short dividing walls separating one booth from the next. Down the middle a wide walking hall, wide enough for a small crowd. It was like the days when you went to the flea market. "People go out scavenging bringing back whatever they can carry." Mr. Clay said making a small circle "They bring here what they are willing to trade." "What do they trade for?" I asked running my hand across an empty table, my eyes canvassing up and around the dark and dusty building. "Whatever you might have that they feel is worth giving up their possession for." "What if I don't have anything to trade?" I asked feeling a little disappointed since I really had nothing to offer. All I came with was the pack on my back which only ever contained clothing. The ones in there that day were pretty much due to be replaced. Other than warn clothes it carried the tablets for purifying water, and food which sadly I was out of. "That's okay." Mr. Clay smiled "Don't let that keep you from coming to see what's around. Sometimes people trading have signs offering certain items up for help on a project. If you can't help with any of the jobs offered you might still find something you are willing to hunt for in order to get what you saw at market. When you find what they want in trade you can come back and get it." "Help on Projects?" I asked. "Yeah." he nodded "This place is all about helping each other. Nothing is free." he said pointedly. "Oh" I sighed taking it all in. Realizing I sounded like maybe I disliked that idea of work I turned meeting his gentle stare. "I...I didn't mean it like..." "That's okay." he chuckled "relax. This place is just very new. All I meant was that in order for it to function and keep growing we all need to pitch in. Not a lot of time for rest and taking in the rays." Relieved I hadn’t given the wrong impression I relaxed. "Well I can't think of the last time I sat just taking in the sun." I said trying to smile. "I am very familiar with work." "I expected no less." he replied, a hint of ...pity in his eyes? "Why is nobody here trading now?" I asked turning my attention back to the empty tables. Market is open three days a week for four hours." Lucy replied. "Oh...” I said a little disappointed “Well what if someone needs something beforehand?" "There is nothing stopping you from asking around for what you are after." Lucy replied sweetly. "As I said” Mr. Clay said casually crossing his arms over his chest “we aren't very established here yet. There is far too much work to do. We tried running it all day but people just spent all day trading rather than working." "Plus market requires security." Lucy said. "Security" I snapped in surprise. Mr. Clay sighed "Yep, sadly. People get desperate at times. Fights have broken out, and people have stolen from others." My pack I thought. I couldn't afford to lose the last of my supplies. It wasn't much but they were mine. The tablets alone were lifesaving. About to take off in search of it I worriedly looked from one to the other "Lucy told me earlier that there is no theft here." “All possessions are safe Holly." Lucy said. "Lucy is right.” Mr. Clay asserted. “There is no theft here because those caught stealing are banished." he firmly stated. "Fights we deal with. The fights are just people angry over the cost." he said using air quotes "but stealing will get you tossed. It is unnecessary. No one here will ever starve or be cold if their weight is being pulled. So" he shrugged "there is no reason to steal." "That is how we are building the new society." Lucy smiled. "On that note Holly." Mr. Clay said with a slight bow. "Market is open tomorrow. Feel free to come by and take a look around. It is quite interesting all the hustle and bustle.” “Did Lucy show you your hut?” he asked changing the subject “It's a nice size one. We have found tons more building supplies enabling us to make bigger ones now that we have the materials to make the added supports." I was going to get her settled in right after we checked out the market." Lucy said in reply "She was pretty excited to see the market first." Be sure to find her some blankets and a pillow Lucy." Than Mr. Clay turned his attention to me "Unfortunately the hut and bedding will cost you. Nothing here is free. I gather you have been out there a long while?" "Yes." I nodded, my gaze landing on the concrete floor as a weight landed on my heart, my thoughts drifting back to those I was separated from only days ago. "We were out there for ten months three weeks and four days.” I replied dejectedly. "We got separated recently. I spent the last five days wandering until I found this place." Mr. Clay was momentarily silent. I could see he regretted asking, but the speed in which he recovered I gathered my story wasn't much different from most here. "I need to make a run tomorrow and I can use a scavenger partner. You up for it?” he asked. “I assume all that time out there you must be pretty skilled." "Yes sir...I am but…” His eyes playfully narrowed on me. “I mean… Mr. Clay…but as I was…" “That’s better” he smiled stopping me from weaseling my way out of it. Placing a hand gently on my shoulder he met my worried eyes "I know what you're thinking but it's best to keep you fresh out there. Get some sleep. We will go out in the morning." With that he turned to leave “Don’t forget to lock it up Lucy” he said over his shoulder. I can’t deny it, I was scared to go back out, and so soon. I had only been there a few hours, but for the first time in a long while I felt safe, untouchable. I was a little taken aback when he was asked me to go back out there. "Come Holly" Lucy gestured "we'll get you setup." We walked the small clearing to the tree closest to the hut I was being offered. Grabbing hold of the ladder we climbed. As we walked the bridges she pointed naming the people that lived inside various huts, but all I could hear were my dad's words ringing in my ears. We'll know it when we see it. We'll know it when we see it. And I was seeing it. This was the safe place we had been searching for... And just like that my heartache grew as my thoughts drifted back to Tony and my family. Though they were always on my mind it was like I was slapped as they became my main thought. "You okay?" Lucy asked bringing me back to the present. I blinked back my tears "Yeah" I lied. I just didn't want to go into how we got separated, and how terribly worried I was, or all the events that followed since then with a total stranger. I must say as we went stepped inside the hut I was pleasantly surprised. It was twice the size of Lucy's. In fact I had an upper level! *** So I was a little off in my description. It was more like Swiss Family Robinson meets Robin Hood King of Thieves. We slept in the trees by night, and stole property that belonged to others, even if they did leave it behind by day. Maybe it was Just Robin Hood King of Thieves… I'll tell you thing though, after spending the better part of a year out there, living in the trees was a breath of fresh air. CHAPTER SIXTEEN "Thank you Lucy for your hospitality" I said with a forced smile "I appreciate all your help getting me organized in my new space. The dishes the bedding..." "Oh you are so very welcome!” she chirped cheerily “I believe we will be great friends Holly. I feel in it my bones." "I think so too." I said still trying to smile "but do you think we can work on that friendship in the morning?" Forcing a yawn I took my first step up the ladder "I am so tired." I didn't want to be rude to Lucy, she had been so kind, but I was really looking forward to some time to be alone with my thoughts. Lucy looked mildly disappointed "I get it. You go up and crawl in. I will just dry these dishes and stack them back in the bin. As soon as I am done I will be on my way." Wrapped in the ladder I slouched "No Lucy, you don't need to do that. Just leave them to dry. I can put them away in the morning." "Don't be silly." she waved with a crooked grin "I like this sort of thing." The idea of leaving her to finish even the few dishes I had after all she had done for me already had me feeling guilty. "GO..." she ordered me with a giggle when I didn't continue my climb. Seeing I wasn’t going to win I bowed my head with a nod as I twisted grabbing the next rung of the ladder.. "I will see you in the morning then." I said and slowly climbed up to bed. I crawled onto the mattress pulling the blankets up over me. Sliding my arms under my pillow I rested my chin on the fluffy mass hearing the clank of the dishes as she finished drying them. My first night in my new home you would think I would have fallen into bed and had the best night sleep I have ever had, but I didn't. It wasn't that I didn't need the sleep. I did! In fact I was exhausted, but I couldn't turn my mind off even if I had wanted to. I was missing Tony something awful. I was worried sick about him, my folks, Brad and Landon. My mind racing and my emotions in turmoil I needed some air. I waited until I was sure Lucy was gone before pushing the blankets off of me. I climbed down the ladder making my way out of my hut and to the rail of the bridge. The sun had long since sunk below the horizon. The moon full and bright I stared out into the trees...my mind drifting back to that night. We were all asleep in our bags around the smoldering fire. Dad was on watch. "There's something out there." he whispered as he shook me awake. Instantly alert I rolled ever so quietly nudging Tony. Hearing the sporadic sounds of snapping twigs and flicking branches in the distance we pulled ourselves from our bags while dad woke Landon, Brad and finally mom. The unfortunate thing was mom let out a gasp as she bolted awake. That gasp got the attention of the sick. Suddenly the irregular sounds of snapping twigs and flicking branches grew louder, more intense. I could hear their distant sounds closing in on us fast. Beside me was a hollowed tree. It was a squeeze but two would fit. I saw it in the daylight and pegged it as a hiding spot should one be needed. Tony must have made a mental note of it too for he pushed me commanding me to climb it. Knowing we were almost out of time I didn't argue, quickly scrambling to squeeze in through the small opening. I assumed Tony was coming too, but when I turned to tell him it was his turn he was gone, and the sick were all over our camp. Thinking back to that night I still feel guilty for cowering in that tree. I should have run with them, but instead I sat silent. Even my breathing was quiet, almost non-existent. I just stayed as mute of sound as I could while my family was out there terrified and running. My mind wandering back to my new home and the bed that I wouldn't be sharing with Tony I stared up at the starry night sky. I wished on the first one my eyes saw for Tony to make his way to me somehow. I wished that my mother, my father, Brad and Landon were safe and that all of them were together. Then I stared into the darkness at the large door. My mind lifted the night from the patched steel door and painted a sunny afternoon where I imagined all of them walking through the wide entrance. They wore their packs on their backs, their eyes wandering, taking it all in. I could see their frowned expressions brighten excitedly as their eyes finally met mine up on the bridge. The image faded and night fell back on the door as a bright flood light lit up in the distance, illuminating out over the wall into the trees only to fade back out. A few seconds later it lit up again. This repeated three more times before I was interrupted. "I remember the first time I slept on a mattress after being out there for so long" I twisted slightly seeing Mr. Clay stepping out from the shadow smiling warmly at me. "It was the worst night's sleep I had." he chuckled coming to rest his crossed arms on the rail beside me. "Don't imagine that is the issue you are having though is it?" "No..." I whispered swallowing down the lump building in my throat. Mr. Clay mournfully lowered his gaze with a sigh "I would love to tell you everything is fine and that whoever you lost out there..." The bright lights shone again. "What are those lights for?" I pointed interrupting him, grateful for the distraction. I was frightened he was about to tell me that I might never see them again. I just wasn't ready to hear that. Mr. Clay straightened out "Those, believe it or not it's to distract them." "Really" I asked, my face twisting. "Lights distract them?" "Well..." Mr. Clay shrugged "a flashlight won't do it, but yeah those ones do. Not sure why, but they do. We discovered it one night when we were working past dark. We had only been here a couple of days. We were determined to complete a hut before turning in. We hooked the floodlights up to a generator so we could see. Finally done the job and relieved we got through it without having to contend with any deranged I turned looking out into the trees. There had to be about a hundred of them out there." "A hundred of them" I whistled "I've never seen that many at one time." "Yeah, it was quite the intimidating sight. What was really interesting was they were still. When the lights went out some stayed still for a long while. Others stumbled off into the trees. Weirdest thing I ever saw. We turned them on again waiting a little while before turning them back off. Each time we did that a few more wandered off into the trees. So now we take turns on night duty turning them on every thirty minutes or so. We run a cycle of six." "Why do you think they just staggered off?" "Don't know." Mr. Clay said twisting to look at me. "Don't know if it stuns them, distracts them, or puts them into some sort of trance. To be honest..." he snorted "I don't really care. All that matters is it stops them." "Why can't you just leave the flood lights on?" "Don't have enough gas to run the generators all night. Need the gas and generators for other things around here. Gas can be found, but to lug the amount we need to run them all night, that isn't easy." "Well what about the wall. Do we really need the lights at all?" I asked. Mr. Clay moved resting his arms back on the rail staring out "Na... I hate to break it to you, but they are a false security. Those aren't strong at all." "How is that possible?" I asked. I was shocked. I mean the walls were so tall and appeared so solid. "Parts are strong. Other parts have been moved out to expand the growing community. Those parts aren't secured properly. We just don't have the resources to dig them deep enough; and either way none of this wall is strong enough to withstand the number that could push on them. We don't have the means to bring the materials we would require to give them the strength we would love for them to have... We get enough of the deranged pushing up against them they are coming down. No question..." Knowing that the deranged couldn't climb was the only thing that kept me from feeling like a sitting duck after he said that. My sense of security knocked down a few notches I stood with Mr. Clay, the two of us leaning on the railing staring out to the walls that circled us as the flood lights faded out for the last time of its cycle. "What about winter?" "What about it?" Mr. Clay asked with a distant tone, his eyes never leaving the darkness before us. "Well..." I said hesitantly, worried I would offend him "have... you thought about where everyone will stay. I...I mean the huts are great" I said trying to make it clear that I appreciated the luxuries he was providing "but they won't do in the winter months." Mr. Clay pulled his attention back from wherever it was to me "The barracks has a lower level. It was equipped with a kitchen, living area, gym; the whole shebang. We have been tearing out the appliances in the kitchen and installed a few wood stoves for cooking that we managed to scavenge from a town close by. The rest of the lower level has also been gutted. We are now building bunk rooms." "That's cool." I said relieved that there was something in the works for the colder months. I had already done a winter out there. I really didn't want to do another one. "Yeah it's not much" he shrugged "I mean they are literally bunk beds with walls, not actual rooms. The plan is to build some for families, some for only couples, and some well...if you are single you will have a bunk mate. We have four built now. Of course we need many more." he admitted "but they are coming along. We should have enough built by the time winter comes. Other than that we are looking at maybe getting a greenhouse of sorts going if we can. I mean we can hunt, but vegetables would help us keep a balanced diet." "My mother was a gardener. I can help rig up a greenhouse. In fact I have a pile of seeds in my pack." "Yeah?" Mr. Clay asked impressed by the offer. "You know how to do that?" "Yeah...I think I do." I said hoping I hadn't bitten off more than I could chew. "I mean I have never actually done it, but I believe we could. I noticed the barracks has a large skylight. If you installed a wood stove in the market we could build an indoor greenhouse for the winter. Could you find me good thick clear plastic tarps? We’ll need pails also if we are going to grow indoors. If we had all that I believe we can get it done." "That would be great! Thanks Holly." he smiled looking truly appreciative by my offer to take on the project. My thoughts and emotions switching gears I asked heavily "How's Dalia doing?" "Ah...not sure how to tell you this, but she cracked today." My body tensed with worry. She's okay now." he said pushing off the railing. "I have to be honest with you though. She was talking about wanting to leave. Are you two close?" "No" I said shaking my head, my shooed foot playing with a fallen leaf. "We met only days ago. I don't really know anything about her. She has barely spoken a word to me at all." "Well I hate to say it, but whatever went on out there it ripped her soul from her. She is an empty shell. I have seen this sort of thing before." He dropped his broad shoulders letting out a loud exhale "I have to warn you that I have never seen anyone as lost as her come around. I hope she does, but..." I lowered my gaze a wave of depression running through me "I know..." I said "Please tell me she isn't alone right now. If she is I would like her to stay with me." "No she is with a nice family right now. I had actually just come from there when I found you. She was sleeping. Maybe that's all she needs to help her start healing. Tomorrow if you want we can move her in with you." I gripped the railing leaning my body back "Yeah...” I nodded staring out into the darkness “I think that would be good. I am really all she knows. I am ashamed I forgot about her all day like that." "Don't beat yourself up." Mr. Clay said tapping my arm. "This new world has a way of distracting us. You yourself have been through a great ordeal. Your mind is all over the place." *** After Mr. Clay and I said good night I turned in. It was great to be on a mattress with blankets and a proper pillow. I was warm. I was comfortable, but nightmares kept me tossing and turning until sun up. I was just pushing the blankets off giving up on sleep when I heard a knock at the door. I climbed groggily down the ladder making my way to the door. Pulling it open I met Mr. Clay's sorrowful eyes. I knew instantly that it had to be Dalia. I was too new here for there to be any other reason for Mr. Clay to look at me like that. "Dalia?" I nervously asked. "Yeah" he replied heavily "I'm sorry to inform you but..." his eyes shifted uneasily around "I... hate to be the one to tell you... but...she hung herself last night." Tears sprang to my eyes as many emotions waved through me. We didn't have a chance to get to know each other at all, but we survived something together and that bonded us somehow. I felt sad that she felt this world had nothing left to offer her. I was angry that she left me like that, and I felt guilty that I abandoned her when she so clearly needed me. Mr. Clay stood staring at me, concerned yet awkward. "Are you going to be okay?" "Can I see her?" I asked allowing my tears to roll. "Yeah...of course." he nodded "I'll take you to her." I walked with Mr. Clay to the hut Dalia had stayed in the previous night. At the door Mr. Clay glanced at me. My guess was he was trying to gage my emotional state before he knocked. A woman opened the door offering only a mournful nod as she stepped aside gesturing for me to come in. Offering her a silent thank you I moved passed her seeing Dalia laid out peacefully on the table, a white sheet wrapped warmly around her. Slowly with trembling hands I walked to stand beside her. For a few moments all I could do was stare down at her rubbing her hair back. "This is the place I was telling you about when we were walking Dalia...” I bent whispering to her. “The place I said we would know when we found it... I am sorry you didn't see it the way I did." I paused swallowing down the building lump in my throat. "I had a vision last night of the reunion that I had rambled on and on to you about..." I said with a forced smile that quivered as I tried to keep my emotions in "It was wonderful....I was so looking forward to introducing you to all of them one day." Not knowing what else to say I kissed her forehead "I am so sorry I wasn't there for you." My world seemed to be growing darker by the day. Losing my family, now Dalia, and for all of it I felt personally responsible. If I wasn't a coward I would have never been separated from my family. If I hadn't left Dalia alone she wouldn't be dead. "It isn't your fault" Mr. Clay said as if hearing my thoughts. I inhaled deeply and let it out fast and loud. "Ready to go on that scavenge run?" I asked really needing to keep moving. If I was left to sit with my thoughts I wasn't sure they wouldn't find me the following morning like they did Dalia. I thing from Mr. Clay’s expression knew it too. Quickly he pushed himself from the frame of the door he was leaned on “Let’s go!” he stated. *** Mr. Clay led me to a building just outside the wall. Opening the double wide wood doors I could smell the hay that covered the floor. "You have horses here?" I said wide eyed staring at two beautiful black Clydesdales. "Yep!" he chirped smiling brightly. "We found them at a farm quite a ways away from here when a few of us were out digging up supplies. I refused to leave them. My team felt strongly that I shouldn't risk it, but I knew they would be incredibly helpful around here. I hooked up a wagon and made the very intense wagon ride back here. They have been a lifesaver getting supplies in. They are how we got all the lumber here for the huts. When we can't take cars they are the next best thing. In fact I sometimes think they are better than cars or trucks." "They are gorgeous! We going to ride them out today?" I asked excitedly. "Yeah...” he nodded, his eyes on the horse he ran a hand down its nose before turning toward the entrance "thought we could saddle them up and take them to the next town. There is still a lot to find out there in the way of supplies." he said pulling a saddle from the freshly built barn wall. Mr. Clay saddled mine first showing me how to climb on. "You have to be able to do it on your own. If we are in a hurry you can't be fumbling. Time is of the essence." he stated. "but I don't have to tell you that do I?" A number of repeated attempts I finally got the hang of it. Let me tell you, straddling the back of that massive beautiful creature was exhilarating. "They certainly weren't built for speed, but they can do distance." Mr. Clay said while he worked at saddling his horse "If they need to run they can. They are good jumpers too. Ideally I would like to find a couple of thoroughbreds for scavenge runs, but these will do for now." With a grunt he pulled himself up onto his horse. Adjusting his bottom into the saddle he grinned at me “You ready?” I offered Mr.Clay a wide smile tapping my heels into the horse's side signaling him to move. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Our horses' hooves clopping down for a moment of pause at the threshold of the town Mr. Clay and I scanned ahead. In the narrow empty streets papers spiraled in the light breeze. Clothes laid scattered on lawns that were left behind from the families that had long since scrambled from this town, or the looters that came later. Garbage cans were overturned and garage doors left wide open. It always saddened me when I came across a town, because like this one they were always devoid of people, of the life that once was. Whenever I had to enter one while on the run I could almost hear the ghostly voices of the children that once played in the streets, or a mother’s call that it was dinner time. Each time I entered a house I could hear the laughter that once lived there as I stared at the family photos on the wall, or see a father reading a bed time story when I looked upon a child's bed. At the threshold of this town I could hear those ghostly voices. Images of children playing up and down the street filled my mind. I could hear their laughter echoing as I watched a mother carrying groceries stop to say hello to a father on the sidewalk teaching his daughter how to ride her bike. "We'll ride the horses to that garage over there." Mr. Clay pointed pulling my attention from the desolate streets. Regarding him with a nod I forced the ghostly voices and images from my mind. I scanned tuning my sense of hearing as well as my eyes for any signs of the deranged tapping my heels, silently commanding my horse to move. At the garage we climbed off our horses leading them inside; Mr. Clay pulling the door down behind us. Grabbing our totes out of the saddlebags we moved stealthily inside the house. The moment I had laid my eyes on the town it was clear the houses were built for middle to high class families, and this house was definitely not the ugly duckling on the street. From the garage we entered the kitchen. A skylight in the center of the room allowed the sun to pour into the large space reflecting off the top of the line stainless steel appliances and white tiled floor. We rifled the cupboards finding a few can goods eventually making our way to the living room where I peered out the back door spying an in ground pool, and a hot tub off the deck. If the world ever makes a comeback I thought to myself, I want to live here. Having much ground to cover we wasted little time making our way up the wide staircase to the second floor. As we rummaged through the bedrooms I claimed a few articles of clothing for myself, and fresh pair of yoga pants and shirt for Lucy to replace the ones she gave me. "Don't grab too much Holly" Mr. Clay warned. "We have a number of houses to go through and limited means to transport it all." Sheepishly I nodded putting down the pillows I had under my arms. Mr. Clay waved his head side to side with a quiet chuckle. "What?" I defensively barked. His shoulders bounced and his smile widened turning his cheeks a rosy red as he continued to quietly laugh. "Shut up." I crookedly smirked "I haven't had a bed in almost a year. I have missed pillows." On our third house we repeated the typical tip toeing inside peeking quietly around corners. We rounded the corner to the kitchen stumbling upon at quick count ten deranged. My best guess is since the front door was open they meandered in, and since nothing scattered them they just stayed. Mr. Clay placed a firm hand on my shoulder gently pulling me back, but off balance. My heel kicking over a garbage can I stumbled. In one quick swoop the deranged spun landing all eyes on us as Mr. Clay fumbled to keep me from falling. It only took a second for their growls to echo through the room. Wide eyed and on an instant adrenaline high we scrambled to gain traction under our feet. One thing I knew for sure, we had to be quick, and we needed to lose them. If they saw where we went they would follow. It wasn't like we could hide until they got bored and left. They would stay until something else stole their attention. That could be days, that is if they didn't manage to break down whatever was barricading them from us. "This way" Mr. Clay shouted as we scrambled out the front door. We would have closed the door locking them in, but they were right on our heels. There was no time. "Across the street!" he breathlessly shouted grabbing hold of me keeping me close to him. "We'll go through the house, out the back door and into the neighbor’s house. We'll hold up in there!" "What if it's locked?" I shouted back as we booked it across the street.. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there!" Luckily the house across the street was open, and even luckier there was no deranged inside since we didn't have time to look quietly around as we charged for the back door. Mr. Clay slid the patio door closed just as three of them slammed into it cracking the class. Knowing we only had seconds before the door shattered with more slamming into it we charged the fence. It was as if we had practiced this a thousand times. Without pause and in one swift motion my foot landed on Mr. Clay's knee, the other onto his shoulders where I propelled myself over the tall fence. Once I was over Mr. Clay leaped pulling himself over in one fluent movement. Hearing them ram the fence as we tore off for the next neighbor’s house where we repeated the same steps getting over the fence and into the yard, I wrapped my hand firmly around the handle of the sliding door. “It’’s locked!” I said releasing the handle . Leaning back I lifted my booted foot. "Wait!" Mr. Clay said landing a hand on my shoulder just as I was about to slam my boot into the glass. "They're not coming." Standing now on two feet I listened. "What do you want to do?" I breathlessly asked. "You want to just hang out here?" "Well we could, but I think I have a better idea." Knitting my brows curiously I waited for him to offer up his thoughts. "They obviously can't get over or through that fence, but with the front door we left open they can get out of the house. If we just wait here and that happens then who knows where they will be." "You want to go back over and around locking them in don't you?" I droned. It was a good idea and I knew it, but the idea of exposing ourselves like that was nerve racking. "I mean we don't even know if all of them went into the house." I stated. "True..." he nodded “But if we don't lock in at least who we can we may not make it back to the horses, and if we do make it back to the horses and they hear us we aren't making it out with both horses alive. There is to many. The horses or us are dying today." I knew he was right. They were agitated now. Since they were all distracted thinking we were on the other side of the fence we had a chance to lock them in, but if we didn't and they heard us or some wandered out we couldn't outrun them all. Dropping my crossed arms I tossed my head back "Fine" I groaned. Hearing the groans, growls and pounding on the fence next door as we climbed back over was intense to say the least. All I could do was pray it was well built as I followed Mr. Clay eagerly putting distance between us and the yard. Making our way between the two homes we stealthily crept up to the front of the house. The plan was he would sneak close to the door without being seen while I stood back staring into the house watching for activity signaling to him when was safe to grab the handle. When I peeped one was in the hall. I saw it turn just slightly and I knew instantly we were out of time. Risk it and tell him to close the door or run and have them all chase us again. We might not get a so lucky this time I quickly thought. Hoping Mr. Clay would understand, and that he would move with speed and not caution I chose to yell "Now!" The air burning in my lungs as I held it in I watched with wide anxious eyes as Mr. Clay leapt gripping the door pulling it with speed. He held on as they one by one slammed into it. Exhaling I bent landing my hands on my knees breathing in. Breathing out. Mr. Clay's plan having worked, and even better than I had expected he disappeared into the garage. Leaning I peeked inside after him hearing all kinds of banging and clanging filtering out after him. "What are you looking for?" I asked. Mr. Clay came out holding up a paint can and beaten brush "I'm going to leave a message for anyone else coming in here." Brilliant I thought. "Can I steal that when you're done?" "Sure." he shrugged. *** We spent a little more time searching through a few more houses finding more canned goods and other supplies we found to be of value. In another kitchen I rummaged through a pantry while Mr. Clay checked the cupboards. "OH. MY. GOD." I cheerily bit out. "What's..." "Check this out!" I squealed holding a box in my hands. "Cakes!" "Jeez Holly" Mr. Clay droned rolling his eyes while gripping his chest "You scared the shit out of me." "Sorry." I smiled brightly "but.." "Holy shit! Flakies!" he said sounding a bit like a giddy school girl. "Are they even any good?" he asked coming over to check out the box. "Ah huh" I nodded "and are you kidding me? These things are pure preservatives. Fifty years from now they would still be good." Mr. Clay locked eyes with me "You're going to share those with me right?" He posed it like it was a question, but what his eyes said was share them or else. Hiding my smile I pulled my shoulders up casually "Depends..." He waved a finger at me "Oh no... no... no..." he grinned shaking his head. "We are in this together. We share our loot." "You never gave me those rules before we started, but NOW you want to lay them out..." I teased pulling the box from his grabby hands. "What do you have to trade?" "Aw...Holly..." Hearing him whine like I exploded in laughter. He furrowed his brows barking at me “It’s not funny Holly.” Tears in my eyes and my sides hurting I sucked in some air gaining back some self-control "Okay" I playfully sighed as took a seat on the cold tile floor. I wiggled my way back to lean on the wall "Pull up a spot.” His eyes bright he wore a boyish grin as he eagerly spun landing his bottom beside me with a grunt. “We can't take these back there anyway.” I said tearing open the box. “That would just be cruel to all those we don't have enough for, and I can't eat them all myself." Mr. Clay knitted his brows at me "You would have shared them with others?" "Of course" I stated "but I would have felt bad for those I wouldn't have any to give to." "You're a better person then I am" he chuckled as I handed him his cake. "I wouldn’t go that far. I only said that if I brought them back I would have shared them. Clearly I am not bringing them back." I giggled. *** After all the cakes were eaten, and both of us on a bit of a sugar high we lifted ourselves off the floor grabbing our loot. Loading up my saddlebags happy with the amount of canned goods we found I caught Mr. Clay loading up a couple dolls. I wanted to ask if they were for his kids, but since we hadn't talked about our families I wasn't sure if he had any, and if he did what if they didn't make it and the dolls were for other children? I didn't want to be the one to end a reasonably good day on a sad note. "Oh I forgot something." "Dark is coming make it quick." he ordered as I disappeared inside. Grabbing what I went back in for I turned to leave spotting a small bag on the dryer. Picking it up I counted seven candles and scooped them heading for the door. "Seriously?" Mr. Clay grinned "How are you going to cart three fluffy ass pillows and a duvet home? The saddlebags are full." Adamant they were coming home I met his entertained stare. "I will figure it out." Mr. Clay sighed climbing off of his horse "Give me the duvet." "You can't have it." I said pulling it back. "I'm not keeping it" he bit sounding a bit offended. He leaned in closing his hand around it but didn't pull waiting for me to let it go. Locking my eyes with his silently pleaded to him not to ruin the trust we had built by stealing it on me before hesitantly releasing it, allowing him to take it from me. A sloppy grin on his face he folded it draping it over my saddle. "Sitting on it will ensure you still own it when we get back” he said climbing back onto his horse. “If you push hard enough” he pointed at the saddlebags “ you might get a pillow or two into them." "Oh don't worry" I smirked "I'll get them home.” When I couldn’t get the second pillow in I stuffed it into one of the totes and tied it to the reins. "We ready now?" he glared in good humor at me. "Yes sir." I smiled pulling myself up onto my horse pleased that I got everything I wanted on this run. Ducking we left the garage. The horses slowly clopping over the threshold of the town I turned looking over my shoulder reading the white painted sign on the red garage door. Tony, don't go far. I am close. Paint is in the garage. Leave me a sign so I can find you. Your everything... *** "I noticed in one of the houses some paper..." "Oh?" Mr. Clay distractedly responded. "I was hoping we could get it next time." "Sure." he shrugged "We will need more than saddle bags." I smiled sheepishly as I rocked on the horses back. "How much damn paper is there?" he barked. "Enough..." A comfortable silence falling between us I tuned my ears to the noises around me as I stared up at the evening sky wondering what Tony was doing in that moment. I wondered if mom and dad, Brad and Landon were with him. I marveled at the idea of them all huddled around a nice warm fire enjoying the rewards of a successful hunt. "Is Tony your boyfriend?" "My husband actually..." I said swallowing back my building tears. "We married a few weeks before lights out. We planned on doing it after we both graduated university, but since that wasn't going to happen he surprised me with a wedding." "I take it since you left the sign you two were separated along the way?" "Yeah almost a week ago...but if you wouldn't mind I would rather not talk about it." "I get it, but you know Holly...there is no pain and suffering you have experienced that is out of the ordinary from anyone that has been out there. We have all suffered loss. We have all gone to sleep hungry and afraid, and we have all got something we feel guilty about." "So what's your story?" I asked testing him. I wanted to know if it was so easy for him to communicate his hardships since the lights flicked off. "Me? Nothing to tell." "So the dolls in your saddle are nothing?" I said snappier than I had intended to. He dropped his gaze guiltily "You're right." he nodded "I have two daughters." "And your wife?" "Like you I suffered a loss. Only mine is most definitely permanent." "You want to talk about it?" "Not really..." he said staring out. "So it's not so easy when it is your story is it?" "Point made..." There was a brief silence that fell between us again. "She died just after we started building here." I shifted my damp eyes to him as he stared into nothing, his body rocking form the clopping horse. "I went out for supplies. I left the kids in the first hut we built with a friend" he said briefly meeting my stare "I could hear her over the radio calling him to come help her. I guess somehow their radios were mixed up. She must have had his since her calls were coming through on my channel, and lord only knows where hers was. She was screaming for him to help her. I kept hearing Joseph...Joseph. There coming in. Help! Of course I turned running like a mad man to get back to her. I ran through the trees shouting, I'm coming baby! I'm coming! As I ran I could hear my little girl screaming...Then I heard nothing." Mr. Clay took a moment of pause as a shiver waved through me. My stomach doing flips the bile burned my throat. I swallowed a few times trying to keep it down. "I made it back, but I was too late. They were over run while I was gone." he chocked. In his seated waddle he stared distantly down the trail "Joe and I, we had been friends since we were kids. He took my wife out to the forest with our baby. She was all torn up from bites and scratches and insisted I stay with the kids. I fought her on it, but truth was I was weak. I couldn't watch her turn. I just couldn't. She told me Joe would stay with her. She said she didn't want the girls to see her turn or risk hurting them. We said our sorrowful goodbyes and Joe carefully pulled her on the stretcher we made out to the trees.” “And Joe?” I asked. “He never came back. I looked for him, but never found him. I can only assume he was over run out there. That was another painful loss. My two oldest daughters I thought were permanently emotionally lost, but I guess the time we were on the road prepared them somehow for something like that." I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was on an island enjoying life and heard that call. I still to this day have never told him that. Of course it is possible that it was a totally different Joseph, but it sure sounded like the same one I heard. "I'm sorry...Mr." "Don't Holly. My point was only to prove to you that we all have demons and sad stories. Maybe one day you will want to talk about what happened..." Mr. Clay turned his warm eyes to mine "I know you and Dalia went through a great ordeal out there together" I dropped my tear-filled gaze to my horses main and began rolling it in my fingers. "I also know you carry some sort of guilt for being here when your family is still out there. It will all tear you apart if you let it." "How long were you out there?" I asked "We started running about two months before lights out. I trucked them clear across the country. We went through a lot making our way here. Now it’s just me and my daughters." We made the rest of the ride back in periodic silence only making small talk. It wasn't because we didn't know what to say, it was because we didn't need to say anything more. CHAPTER EIGHTEEN When Mr. Clay and I arrived back at the village, together we removed the saddles putting the horses back into their stalls. With my back to Mr. Clay I looked into my horse's eyes running my hand down his long nose "Is this building strong enough to defend them should we be over run?" I asked. "Well..." I heard him grunt as he stretched behind me "we did what we could. We made it small to save materials, and focused more on making it sound proof. Come on.” he gestured to me “Let's get our stuff put away." Giving the horse one last pet I bent picking up my duvet tossing it to hang over my shoulder. Then I bent picking up my pillows. "We made it that way" Mr. Clay continued while I struggled to pick up my bag of canned goods and candles "so if horses decide to neigh they won't be heard attracting any of the deranged to them, or us for that matter. If they can't hear them then there really should be no reason for them to attack the building." I stood at the wide entrance struggling to hold on to all my new supplies. Pausing I looked back in on the horses admiringly before stepping back allowing Mr. Clay to close the doors. Turning to Mr. Clay I gave up trying to hold it all. Dropping my stuff I allowed it all to spill out around my feet extending my hand with an appreciative smile. "Thank you." He glanced down at my hand before meeting my eyes with a twisted look "For what?" he asked still not offering me his hand. "For today" I stated confused by his confusion. "For taking me out with you, and helping me get some supplies." Mr. Clay finally reached his hand out griping mine firmly. "I would say you're welcome, but you were equally as helpful to me." "Well..." I said releasing his hand "thank you just the same." Mr. Clay crossed his hands behind his back now standing at ease before me. "You going to be okay to get that all up to your hut?" I crouched looking up at him blindly gathering my supplies "Lucy showed me the supply elevator. I'll get this all up there.” I bounced my brows with a grin “Don't you worry Mr. Clay." Tossing his supplies over his shoulders he turned walking away "Good” he shouted back to me “cause if any of it is still there when I come back in a few minutes I will be happy to claim it as mine. Especially that duvet." he teased. Still crouched, now chuckling to myself a few men walked by saying hello followed by a couple of women who also greeted me. Just about done gathering my stuff a boy came out of nowhere and leapt over the bundle I was trying to create with the duvet. A second behind him a few of his friends ran wide around me. Suddenly aware there were others around, I twisted looking at all the activity. I have to say I was surprised at how quiet yet active it was. I could see women wringing out wet clothing, while up on the bridge others were using the wicker baskets hooked up to ropes and pulleys. They were lifting the loads up to hang with the rest on the lines that stretch from one tree to another in various directions. Others, men and women were lugging water. Behind them I saw a man with a riffle slung over his shoulder. It bounced on his back as he walked with two children on his heels carting a couple of small carcasses behind him. I could only assume they had just returned from a successful hunt. Hearing the muffled sound of hammering behind me I twisted following the direction of the sound seeing some men working on a new hut, while a few others were working on one of the older ones. I wasn't sure if the ones working on the older hut were expanding on it, or repairing it. Below them a couple of men were tearing down a chicken coop and moving parts of it into the market. I worried that something had happened to the few chickens there were while we were out scavenging, but I later found out they were just reassembling it inside the barracks. I guess they were worried that one day we might wake to them all dead or gone. I suppose they could have just been preparing for the winter. All my supplies wrapped in my duvet I hoisted the heavy bag I had created over my shoulder making my way to one of the baskets. "Hey down there!" I looked up squinting seeing Lucy smiling down at me. "Good run?" With my hand I shielded the sun from eyes smiling up to her "Yeah it was." "Put it in. "I'll pull it up for you." Nodding I leaned allowing it to fall sloppily into the basket. Folding the parts of the blanket that lay spilling out on the ground I yelled up "Good to go! I'll be right there!" Moving to stand on the bridge I dusted the dirt that had collected on my clothes from the duvet when I had picked it out of the dirt tossing it over my shoulder. "A duvet! Oh my god you're so lucky!” Lucy squealed. “If you score me one next time you are out I would be happy to trade with you." It's that easy I thought. Just bring home some luxury item or necessity; and made a mental note of Lucy's request. Lucy assisted me in bringing my supplies to my hut, but she didn't stay. I was sorry she couldn't, but partly relieved too. It had been a long morning and I really wanted to just sit and breathe. Not to mention those cakes made me a bit nauseous. I hadn't had sugar in a long while, and in about six minutes I had gobbled up three of them. I scooped a glass of water out of the water bin Lucy had set up for me the night before with my -new to me - mug. Taking a good gulp enjoying the refreshing coolness as I swallowed it down I placed it on the tiny table, and dug my special rock and spike out of my bag made for running. I know it sounds odd that I had a special rock, but mom had long since lost the can opener we had. One of the first places we had bunkered down in when we discovered we no longer had the opener was a new up and coming home. Since no one could possibly have lived there, there was no opener to bother searching for. The boys had no problem using their knives to break into a can, but I seemed to struggle with it. My independence was even more important to me given the new life style we were destined to live, so I wanted to learn to do it on my own. Fortunately since the house was still in major construction there were all kinds of tools around. I found a spike. I then only needed something to hammer it with. Believe it or not there wasn't a hammer to be had. I went outside finding a rock. Impressed with myself I sat down placing the spike to the rim of the can. I slammed the rock down on the top of the spike only to have the rock brake into three pieces quickly deflating me. I went through a number of rocks before I found one that didn't break under the pressure. I made sure to keep it along with the spike. My mug on the table I grabbed a can of corn from my new supplies. I sat on the floor of my hut, the can between my legs, and placed the spike at the edge. With my special rock I slammed it down on the spike making my first hole. I repeated this process making the small hole bigger and bigger until I could peal the top back. Grabbing a fork I moved to sit at the tiny table taking my first bite alone in my hut. The thing about being alone is you have time to get lost in your thoughts. As usual my thoughts were first of Toni and my family. Taking another bite of my corn my eyes wandered the hut, a vivid image of Toni leaning on the tree that sprouted up the middle clouding my mind. I couldn't help but wonder if that image would ever become a reality. My eyes following the ladder up to the loft I thought about Toni's touch, about his warm strong body and how much I missed it. I missed his arms around me and the soft sweet words he would whisper to me, while my memory being cruel drifted back replaying for me some of our most passionate kisses. It wasn't until I felt the sting of my tears that I even realized my fingers were gently playing with my lips. My body started to shake, and the tears began to freely flow. I dropped my face into my cupped hands hiccuping out the tears that so desperately needed out. I cried loud muffling my sobs as best I could. I cried for all that we had been through when we were out there, for all that I had been through since I lost them. I cried for the heartache that lived inside me since the day I watched my family scatter from our camp. I cried because I had been fortunate to find a place of solace to lay my head while they were still out there no doubt searching for me. Through my misery my mind drifted back to the days before the broadcast; the days when Toni and I dreamed of a future that was sprinkled with sunshine and rainbows. Now...today... as I rethink the past it occurs to me how childish those fantasies were. I know now the day of the first broadcast, the day I knelt in the yard and told my mother that I would be staying home, the same day I held that butterfly, I hadn't realized how fragile the world really was. At that point, in my naivety I hadn't taken into consideration how fast one's life could drastically change. I remember that day so clearly... I remember as I stared at that butterfly I thought it was the one that was delicate, but I was wrong... It is a delicate creature, but no more delicate then we are. Sure Monarch butterflies can be wiped out by microscopic spores on the milkweed they ingest, or a Nuclear Polyhedrosis virus better known as Black Death; but how is that any different than acute coryza, better known to us as the common cold or influenza that has the ability to mutate as it travels from one person to the next killing the old and the very young; or the plagues that ripped through villages centuries ago taking out millions; and how is any different than the one that just about wiped out the human race, and still might? We are no stronger then the butterfly that relies on its wings in order to get to its food, or flea a predator, or to seek shelter from the elements. We once relied on money to get food and electricity to prepare it. We relied on four walls and a roof to protect us from predators and the brutal elements outside. At least a butterfly is self-efficient, where we only thought we were. Sure we learned to be self-reliant, and sure we grew stronger through all the turmoil that would follow after that day in my backyard, but we are only as strong as the earth allows us to be. For a monarch it can be killed by a simple maggot. A spider or another insect can take them out, or sadly it can be destroyed before it even begins just from the egg of a wasp being laid in the egg of the unhatched. We think we are stronger than that, but we aren't. A strong wind can kick up, a volcano can erupt, a meteor can rip through our atmosphere, or... an illness can spread. All of it taking us out at our knees ending it all... Yes in my hands I hand the ability to show that butterfly how delicate it was by tearing its wings off, just like the earth can unleash its wrath showing us how delicate we are anytime by spewing its hot lava, or blowing violent winds destroying homes and taking lives. In my hands the Monarch appeared delicate, but truth is we are no stronger then the delicate wings that flies it to up the highest branch. The earth and all its beauty is a web that we are tangled into unable to escape. A web where every breath we take is one step closer to the end, just like the butterfly that lays trapped in a spider's web slowly dying. Only while we were on the run did I realize any of this, and only now as we work daily to rebuild the world do I know that all the strides we have taken to get to where we are, which looks nothing like where we were before the illness struck, that everything could be taken away just as fast as we build it. *** Splashing my face with water I pulled myself together. I finished my corn and made my way to the market. I didn't have anything to trade, but I did want to see what it was all about. I was in awe of the activity. Mr. Clay and Lucy had painted an accurate picture of it. The hustle and bustle was intense. "Pretty cool huh?" I turned to the voice that spoke behind me meeting the enthralled eyes of young man. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest wearing a smile as he watched the activity around us. At quick glance I estimated him to be in his early to mid-twenties. "I never get tired of the voices and watching people trade." he said, his smile never wavering. "Yeah it's pretty cool." I admitted turning back to watch the activity. "I'm Jordan." he said getting my attention again. "I'm Holly." I said surprised that I felt a little shy. "You're new here?" he asked only to slam his palm into his forehead. I couldn't help but giggle. "That was a stupid question." he stated looking embarrassed "Of course you're new here." "Yeah" I nodded. "I...I meant not yeah the question was..." "I get it." he smiled holding up a hand. "It's okay. So are you trading today?" Relieved he hadn't taken offense I sighed telling him that I didn't have anything to trade "I'm just here to see what it is all about." "Want to walk?" "Sure." I nodded. We moved through the market stopping to look at items up for trade. "Why are some people giving notes?" "That is our money." Jordan said proudly. Seems everyone I've met so far is proud of what they have started to build here. Though from what I have seen so far, they should be. "It is only good with the person that gave it to you though." he added. "I don't understand" I said over my shoulder to him as we moved through the crowd to another booth. "Well if you do someone a favor like a job, or gave them something they needed yet they didn't have anything at the time to trade, they make you a note. The note is the written agreement. For instance maybe you gave me a can of food with the promise that I will repay you with two cans. Or maybe that can of food was worth a battery or a candle, or one hour of work on a project. I write you a note that says what I owe you. Eventually you return with the note for the payment. I take the note back and pay you what I owe you. Cool huh?" "Actually it's genius. Does it work?" I asked inspecting a thick sweater at a booth. "Yeah flawlessly!" he chirped. "The only thing is why would anyone need to trade at all when you can just go out and get it yourself?" I asked, the woman opposite me offering me a slight smile as I folded the sweater placing it back on the table. "Not everyone wants to go out there. Some are happy pulling their weight here doing laundry or building up the village. Others just don't get out there as often as they need to because of a project that needs to get done, or a debt they have to pay...or..." "Or?" I asked when he didn't continue. Jordan picked up a pair of shoes scrutinizing them "Or we have been on lock down." Not liking the sound of that I asked him what a lock down was. Jordan put the shoes down and began walking again. "That is when there are too many deranged around, and we have to hunker down all the women with young children in here so they won't be heard when they cry or play. Everyone else is stuck in their huts. No one is allowed to talk or do anything that makes noise." I exhaled having only realized I'd been holding my breath "Sounds intense." "Yeah it can be" he nodded meeting my eyes. "when that happens some people run out of rations, and need to ask others for some of theirs if it lasts that long." We stopped leaning up on the chicken coop at the back of the barracks staring back at the crowd. "What happens if I come for payment and you don't have what we agreed on, or are incapable of working on my project?" "Ah..." he chirped holding up a finger "I owe you. That note is a debt. Sure you may not have the item right away. No big deal. You hang on to the note a little longer. If it is work, unless there is job that is priority, meaning it not being done will jeopardize our safety it must be paid on the date specified in the note. All debts must be paid." "And if they are not?" I asked intrigued. "Well the person that is owed can take the complaint to Mr. Clay. He will investigate. If he finds that there is no reason the debt wasn't paid, or he has received multiple complaints about this person not paying his or her debts it is taken to the counsel and a punishment will be decided. "Punishment?" "Yeah" he nodded like it made perfect sense. "They will decide how you are to repay the debt. People have lost all their bedding, clothing, shoes even. If they have any food they may lose half of what they have. They may also be ordered to work for free for a certain amount of hours. It all depends on the amount of debt outstanding, or how many times you have been brought before the counsel for the same complaint." "Wow" I exhaled truly thinking it was amazing how they had managed to set up a legal system of sorts. "But does it work? I mean what keeps people from telling the counsel to...well...you know..." "Shove it?" he snorted. "Exactly!" I laughed. His face grew serious; somber almost "They are banished. The only way for this place to work is to make sure it is full of not only strong, dedicated participating bodies, but upstanding individuals. There is no room in this village for those that are anything but." Holding up a finger he stressed "It is okay to make a mistake, but we must pay the consequences. He was right. In order for this village to work and flourish you had to trust everyone. Parting with the very little we had on faith wasn't an option for us anymore. We had little in reserve in the way of food, or anything else for that matter. In order to help another you needed to be sure they would be there to help you. It was every man for himself even if it appeared on the outside differently. The whole trading and notes was all about I'll help you to survive if you help me to survive. You have my back, I'll have yours. It was a very cool way to make sure we looked after each other while looking out for yourselves. In turn we developed faith in one another, and unity, friendships were formed and a family was built. CHAPTER NINETEEN I woke early the next day eager to go back out and see if by chance Tony had responded to my painted note. I knew it was unlikely, but what if... Still in my clothes from the previous day I jumped up, climbed down and sunk my water bottle into the water bin hearing it gurgle as it filled. Spinning the cap on I exited my hut. "Where you off to?" I spun startled "Mr. Clay" I exhaled "You scared me." "Sorry" he smiled "I seem to have that effect on people." "Couldn't be the lurking could..." "Lurking?" he spat with a chuckle "I wasn't lurking. I was standing here waiting for you to wake up." I arched my brow in question "Waiting for me to... wake...up. That's a bit creepy." I teased. "Yeah...yeah" he droned "That didn't sound right." I couldn't help but chuckle. "Nope it didn't. Want to try again?" "Sure" he sighed "I only just got here. I was going to knock, but Lucy interrupted me." "I don't see her." I said lifting onto my toes scanning for her. "You sure you weren't just lurking?" "Okay...okay smart ass. She isn't here now." His eyes locked with mine as he leaned his head forward "But she was." "Sure..." "Do you want to know why I am here, or not!" he barked tired of our little game. "Sure Mr. Clay" I said smiling at him "Why are you here?" "I was about to go to that town, wanted to know if you wanted to join me. You said yesterday you wanted that paper." "I sure do" I chirped. "I was actually about to head there myself." "Really?" he asked stunned. "You wanted to go back out there?" "Why so surprised?" I asked "Well" he shrugged the two of us starting to walk. "Most would rather not go out. Just surprised after yesterday that you would be interested let alone about to go on your own." "I spent a lot of time out there. The fear is a familiar feeling to me. I think it is a wise idea to keep it familiar. Don't you think?" Mr. Clay paused at the ladder looking at me "I agree. In fact I often wonder what would happen to some of these people should this village parish." he said scanning the activity that had already started to kick up. "I see so many have just gotten comfortable with this shelter. They seldom, if ever leave here. If they were to ever go out I truly am not sure they would know what to do anymore." Mr. Clay began to climb down. When he was half way to the bottom I moved into position making my decent. "You said you have a wagon right?" "Yeah we do." he replied as my feet landed on the ground. I brushed the bark on my hands off onto my jeans "Can we take it?" I asked. He arched his brows at me “You plan on getting a lot of stuff or something?" "No" I said avoiding eye contact "Just the paper, but you never know what else we will find." "Well I suppose we could." he hummed. "Or a car if you have one of those lying around." He shook his head "A car draws a lot of attention from the deranged." "Can't be much louder than a wagon" I said a little surprised. "The engine noise travels. I would rather take the wagon. *** We set the wagon attaching it to the horses. I was surprised when Mr. Clay threw the saddles on the horses also. "Bare back sucks" he replied to my silent question. I have the wagon set for quick detach should we need to get away quickly. We dump the wagon and haul ass leaving it behind." "Have you had to do that before?" Mr. Clay shook his head "Not yet, but a couple of times I had to ditch the horses and hide; the entire time praying the horses wouldn’t attract them. So far so good." he said crossing his fingers "Would really suck to watch one of them get attacked." We moved at stroll pace waddling side to side on the horses. Turned out he meant we ride the horses with the wagon trailing behind. I had envisioned sitting in the wagon like the old days. We would jump from wagon to the horses backs like I saw in a western movie. You know. I pictured moving at high speeds jumping from the wagon to the horses. Landing between the two I would do some cool stunt move to get onto their backs, but nope. Mr. Clay had prepared us saving us time should we need to haul ass as he put it. He would pull a strap releasing the wagon, and off we would soar. Hopefully putting a great distance between us and the deranged. Made sense I guess. We made small talk most of the way there. We spent other moments in silence. Regardless we were always watching all around us with our ears tuned to any sounds that would indicate we needed to hide or book it. The horses were a good indication if our instincts or senses failed us too I discovered. At one point both the horses got a little skittish. My horse suddenly stopped clopping halting the other. He bounced a few times, and Mr. Clay's followed seconds behind. My heart started thumping sending the adrenaline firing in my veins as I worked at calming him. Not seeing anything I climbed down off of him moving to his nose; my eyes peeled for any signs. Mr. Clay in my peripheral leaned forward resting his forearms on the nub of the saddle scanning with me. I didn't look at the horse as I rubbed his nose talking quietly, but soothingly to him "Calm down...It's okay..." I said feeling his tension releasing a little. "That's... a good boy." I whispered squinting into the brush a few feet before me as he gave his last uneasy bounce. "That's it boy. You're okay." I said leaning closer to the brush having seen something move. "Holly" Mr. Clay commanded in a hushed tone "What are..." "Shush..." I waved at him still peering to see what had caught my eye. The brush shook and I jumped back. For a fraction of a second I thought that was it. I was a goner. "It's a dog" I exhaled with a nervous chuckle. "A Shepard." I moved back to where I was before it scared the crap out of me. "Careful" Mr. Clay ordered startling me again. I was a little jumpy at this point. Nodding I took another step forward closing the gap between us hearing her growl at me. I stood still just long enough to let her know I wasn't there to hurt her. She stared nervously at me shifting side to side as if pondering if she should bolt from me. When she didn't take off I hesitantly moved in closer extending my hand slowly, wishing I had a cookie to offer her. She moved equally as hesitant as I did. Locking my feet, my hand extended I watched her as she moved two inches forward sniffing the air only to move back an inch. She repeated this a few times until her nose grazed my hand. A couple of good sniffs in she caved giving my hand a lick moving in excitedly for a pet. Bent over my hand massaged her head and back as I met Mr. Clay's amused eyes silently asking. I hadn't seen any dogs at the village so... "If you're thinking what I think you are just know she sleeps with you." "Yay" I quietly cheered. I pulled my water bottle out spinning off the top tilting it. Eagerly she licked the water that slowly flowed out. "I assume you expect me to share my water with you now." Mr. Clay droned; but I could hear the humor in his tone. "Yep." I chirped happy to have a pet of my own. All the years my dad trained dogs he never had an interest in his own at home. I bugged, but he always said I do dogs all day. Like everyone else I don't want to bring my work home with me. Just before the world turned to crap in a hand basket we were sitting out on the patio when he looked at mom. Now that the nest is near empty it would be nice to have something to take care of again Georgie. What do you say we get a dog? You would think I would have died with excitement after all the years of pestering, but instead I was ticked that that was the deciding factor. My being one step closer to moved out was enough for him to bring his office home with him!? "Dad" I barked. "What?" he shrugged like he had no clue what he just did. "I can't believe you just sad that!" I was truly angry. "What? You wanted a dog for years. Now it's an issue when I say we can get one?" he smirked. "Truly dad...you are infuriating!" I buzzed "I wanted a dog my whole life and you wait until, as you said the nest is near empty! You wait until I am one foot closer to out of the house! The point of a dog was so I could grow with it, bond with it. Not love it a short while and move out" "Holly... I was just thinking..." I didn't give him time to finish his thought. "Well jokes on you jerk" I huffed as I stood angrily moving past him. I stopped and leaned on the back rest of his seat threateningly barking into his ear "Get a damn dog and I will be here forever just to piss you off." And I stormed into the house. "Err...." I irately growled shaking the frustration from my core. "Well load her into the wagon if you can." Mr. Clay said pulling me back from my trip down memory lane. I eyed the wagon to see if I could just tap showing her I wanted her in, but it was to high I was sure. She would be able to jump out if she needed to, but getting in would be a challenge. I moved to scoop her legs expecting that she would struggle or bolt, but to my surprise she allowed me to lift her in. In fact she looked quite pleased to be coming along. *** At the threshold of the town we scanned as we did when we arrived the day before. The ghostly voices of the life that once lived there returning I saw the same film as the last time playing in my head. I wondered again if I would ever get use to the desolate sight. My eyes wandered to the red garage door. "See anything that indicates he saw your note?" Mr. Clay asked. I shook my head with disappointment "No, but we have to pass it to get to the paper. I'll take a closer look when we get there." I could see he felt badly for me as he bobbed his head. Changing the subject he asked "Any idea what you're going to name her?" I blinked a few times to lose the sadness. "If she hasn't bolted by the time we go to leave I think I will call her Maxine. I like that." I smiled. We made our way to the house I found the paper in. We searched the house like we did the day before, sneaking around corners to make sure we wouldn't startle any deranged if inside, or have them startle us. Last thing we wanted was a repeat of last time. "I thought you said there was a little paper you wanted!" he barked making me laugh. "There's like..." Mr. Clay began to count. "One hundred packs" I said excitedly saving him the time. "Wow." he breathed scratching his neck. "We can still take them right?" "I guess..." he sighed "but what are you going to do with all this paper?" I shrugged "I will search for a typewriter maybe; or some pens. I wouldn't mind writing." "That's a lot of writing Holly." Mr. Clay chuckled. I pulled my shoulders up with a tilt of my head "Yeah, but...when things are quiet I need something to do. If I don't write it isn't like we can't use it to start fires or something." Mr. Clay's eyes lifted from the paper on the floor to look at me "Did you scope out a few hundred pounds of pens we need to pick up on this run you haven't told me about?" "No, but now that we are here..." "What..." he inhaled. "Since we have the wagon" I said arching my brows with a sheepish smile etched on my face "This mahogany desk is really nice." "Seriously! That thing has to weight a ton!" "Oh come on! It's not that big. It's just a top and two drawers. We can lift that." "And then who is going to help you get it to your hut?" he barked; but it only took him a second to figure it out, briskly shaking his head “No...no..." "We can get that nice guy Jordan to help. He looks strong and competent." When he didn’t cave I looked at him trying to offer puppy eyes "Please..." After a moment of pause; that or just realizing I wasn’t about to stop pleading he gave in with a sigh. "Fine, let’s get her up, but if you struggle getting it into the wagon it stays. I am doing this in one lift and hoist. I am not taking a bunch of breaks on the way.." "Yay" I said leaping in to hug him. "Thank you Mr. Clay." "Yeah...yeah, empty her out. Let's go." The paper loaded, and the desk, we moved about checking for more food. We went into a few houses finding unopened boxes of crackers, canned goods, and unopened pastas. "Oh my god!" "What" Mr. Clay asked excitedly "more cakes?" "No better" "What could be better than cakes?" Displaying it like I was in a commercial I smiled "Coffee." "That my dear” he pointed at the container “ is mine." What?" I snapped darting my eyes from the jar to him "No way!" "Ah..."he said arching his brows in warning "you owe me." "For what?" I argued. "Ah..." his eyes shifted toward the door silently indicating the work in loading and hauling all my stuff. "Alright" I sighed "but if the wagon has to be abandoned at any point losing my stuff the coffee is mine." "Deal" he grinned catching the jar I tossed to him. When we were done we made our way back to the house I left the message for Tony on. Worried it wasn't big enough I pulled the paint and brush back out and left a few more. When I was done I turned making my way back to put the paint away. Mr. Clay on the stoop, his elbow on his knee, his head in his palm. He looked bored. "You leave enough messages?" he pointedly asked. I turned looking up and down the street. "You think it's too much?" I asked seeing the mess I made of the upper class neighborhood. It now looked like something you would see in... well...a ransacked ghost town. It lacked the boards or bars on the windows, but... "You think if he comes here he'll see them?" "Is he blind?" Mr. Clay dryly teased. "Nope" I said smiling at him. "Then it shouldn't be an issue." he grunted moving to stand. "You ready to head back, or do you want to set up balloons and banners while you're at it?" "I think I'm good." I giggled. *** When we arrived back I found Jordan. I was surprised at how willing he was to help us rig something up to lift my heavy load into my hut. It didn't take too long considering. The little floor space I had was swallowed up pretty good. I had to move a number of stacks up to the second level in order to make room for cooking and Maxine. While we unloaded Maxine was lapping up the attention from a number of villagers. It was as if they hadn't seen a dog in a long long while. Thinking about it, it probably had been a long time. I know I hadn't seen one in my journey. That night in my hut I lit the candles, found the one pen I was able to grab from house and sat at my desk. I turned on my radio listening for any indication that someone was looking for help, or me and then stared at the paper with my hand resting on Maxine who sat staring at me. It was nice to have her companionship. When it came time to turn in I was surprised at how sad it made me feel to leave her on the lower level. I laid in bed comfortable, but wishing for a way to bring her up to bed with me. I really wanted to curl in with her. In the end I pulled all my blankets together throwing them down to the lower level. I made a bed on the floor calling her to curl in with me. She didn't fight it. I think she had been lonely to as she rested her head on a pillow staring at me. Together we faded off into a the most rested sleep I had had in a very long time. *** I woke to Maxine still laid out beside me licking my face. Smiling I pulled my arms out from under my warm blankets rolling into her. With a groggy groan I scratched at my arm only to have to scratch at my leg. I repeated that cycle adding another limb each time until I was scratching my entire body. What the…? …Awe you dirty girl!" I barked giving her a pet. Turned out Maxine sleeping with me wasn't a great idea after all. " She sat up happy to hear my voice panting as she stared. "Well I guess you're getting a flea bath today if you are going to hang around in here, and I now have a day of laundry ahead of me." She tilted her head as she attentively listened to me. "You better hope no one steals my duvet while it hangs drying, or that will be on you." I smiled. "You hungry?" I asked hearing a knock on my door. Knelt in the middle of my hut with the blanket piled messily around us I shouted to whoever it was to come in. Mr. Clay opened the door. The corners of his mouth twitched upwardly, but he tried to fight it. "Sleep well?" "Yes we did, didn't we Maxine?" I baby talked her while scratching her neck. Mr. Clay's face twisted "What are the blotches on your arms?" he asked looking almost repulsed. Embarrassed I lowered my gaze "She has fleas." "Well…lay with dogs you get fleas." He roared in laughter. "Yeah...Clearly she needs a bath” I said giving her a pet “And I have to do laundry." "That's a shame. I was going to ask you to join Jordan and I for a run. We were going to hit another town." "Oh..."I said disappointed. Mr. Clay shrugged leaning on the frame of my door. "Your typewriter might even be there, but...if you have...to stay…" I knew he was goading me into going, and it was working. Still knelt on the floor in my heap of blankets I asked "You think Lucy might do my laundry if I trade her something?" "She might." he smirked knowing he had my attention "Maybe if you promised her pillows like yours she'll do it. I am sure you can coax a few kids into bathing Maxine." "Let's do it!" I hailed. "I'll go ask Lucy. You mind seeing if you can round up some kids to bath her?" I asked throwing my thumb out to Maxine. "On it." he said pushing off the door of my hut. "Let's go Maxine. Time to do your business." I took Maxine for a short walk around the field. On my way back I hit Lucy up for laundry duty with the promise to grab her pillows. "Pillows like yours?" she asked trying to make a clear deal. "I will find you the best pillows I can find. You want down filled or just fill? Firm or soft?" "Down" she smiled. "You got it." I winked. "You and I are going to be great friends." she said as I walked away. "I can feel it in my bones." I smile at her from over my shoulder. "You know it." she giggled. CHAPTER TWENTY Doing runs with Mr. Clay, Jordan or both became a regular thing. People started coming to me at the market with lists of things they needed, or wanted. In order to keep up on the demand for supplies we went out every three days, sometimes more. The runs became my form of rent and a way for me to escape the worry that tormented me when I wasn’t busy. Mr. Clay would say that I had a death wish, but the reality was every moment I spent behind that wall was an opportunity lost for finding Tony and my family. Aside from runs it was also agreed that my efforts on the greenhouse, not to mention the seeds I supplied that my bedding along with the food, clothing and dishes originally provided to me when I first arrived here were paid in full. I say my efforts on the greenhouse project. In all fairness I didn't have time to do too much with that. Jordan and I did find the pails and built the odd raised garden bed. We also went out the two of us and dug up soil to fill them; but really most of it was me trading at the market for employees to do the rest of the work on it. To the market I took the items I could spare, which was a lot since I was out scavenging so often, and started hiring. The first job I managed to hire for was the installation of the wood stove Jordan found for me during one of our runs. I was impressed with how easy it was to hire someone for that. Cost me only one sack of canned goods. I used Mr. Clay at the booth beside me doing his own hiring for safe huts he wanted built as a reference for the man that applied. I mean let's face it. You need to have a clue when installing a wood stove. Last thing we need is to fill the place with smoke. I was also hiring someone to build collapsible frames that would be wrapped in the clear thick plastic I found. I needed enough frames to build a greenhouse inside the barracks large enough to go around the wood stove and garden. The point was to keep the heat on the plants in the winter, but be disassembled easily when the garden could be moved outside. The last job I was hiring for was planting and watering. Since it was still spring, and the garden could be out doors we didn't need to wait for the other jobs to be completed. I wanted to get a head start on growing. If we waited we wouldn't be eating many vegetables. “For those four pillows there I will do it." Lucy offered. "Don't you have like four pillows already?" I said. "Holly" she said narrowing her eyes at me "One can never have enough pillows." "Alright" I nodded. “You’re hired. Lucy clapped excitedly and reached for the pillows. "Ah" I said landing a hand on them. Lifting a finger I held it up eying her "but that means you are responsible for planting and watering for two months." "How about..." Lucy pondered "since I already have laundry duty, I do your laundry for one month and water them for two weeks." she negotiated. Lucy did laundry for Mr. Clay and the counsel as a form of rent. With what she did for them, and the added for trades she took on she had a lot of laundry to be done. Since gone are the days of washing machines and driers it was pretty labor intensive. I watched those women scrub until their hands hurt. Not to mention it was incredibly time consuming. They always had a lot of laundry to do. "One month and my laundry for one month" I countered seeing another woman approach. With her finger to her lips, her eyes looking up Lucy weighed my offer. The woman behind her piped up "Those four pillows and I will do the watering and your laundry for..." Lucy threw her hands down claiming the pillows "Deal!" she shouted glaring at the woman.. With a huff the woman walked away. "How is your laundry pile doing right now?" I asked ignoring what just happened. I was eager to get the planting started. Time was precious. "I can't believe she did that" Lucy said watching the woman disappear into the crowed. "What a bitch" "Why are you complaining? I chuckled “You got what you wanted?” "I know” she said turning her attention back to me “but there are rules you know." "No there isn't" I stated amused at the anger Lucy was displaying. She was always so bubbly. I was surprised she had it in her. "Yes there is!" she snapped "There's ...there's..." "That's the world of trading." I sang not allowing her more time to find whatever word she was striving for. "There's common courtesy" she shouted out. "Common courtesy?" I asked regarding her with a tilted stare. "Yeah, you know...like there." she said pointing toward the woman who was long gone "Wait until we are done before jumping in countering. She could have really screwed me. In fact she did. I am sure I could have gotten you down to two weeks." I shook my head picking up a sweater to fold it "No you couldn't." "Well not now" she said droned "but you might have caved." "Okay" I conceded. There was no point in arguing, she wasn't truly angry anyway. "So...about that laundry" I said putting down the sweater and picking up another one. "What about it" she smiled squeezing her pillows. "Do you have any" I asked practically signing it for her. Lucy offered me a roll of her eyes and an incredibly sarcastic smile. "If... you do..." I dragged out matching her false smile "no worries. You can start planting tomorrow, or vice versa. Whatever works. Just needs to be planted STAT. Tomorrow at the latest." *** Proud of the trading I had done, the market closed Maxine and I returned to our hut. I unloaded what I didn't trade taking a seat at my beaten desk flicking on the radio with a sigh. It had been a busy day. I can truly say I was exhausted. Judging by the sun’s position it was around 6:00 p.m. Maxine sat beside me dropping her head in my lap reminding me it was feeding time. "I hear you girl." I smiled giving her collar a pet before standing. "I guess it is time I should eat to." I stood making my way to the cooler under my counter. Pulling out a few hard boiled eggs I stood stretching up to the shelf pulling down a couple cans of potatoes. I now had a can opener, but there was a part of me that was used to being somewhat savage, so instead I grabbed my spike and rock. Both cans opened I grabbed a bowl pouring the water from the cans into it. Placing it on the floor I allowed Maxine to drink it. Any nutrient I could get into her was important. While she drank I peeled the eggs mashing them. Bending I reached back into the cooler pulling out the milk I made from the powdered milk I found. Powdered milk is gross by the way. It’s disgusting taste is probably why it is always able to be found at grocery stores. There isn't much left in the them, but You are almost guaranteed to find condensed milk, powdered milk, and flour. I guess people would rather die than drink either, but flour surprises me. With water, salt, yeast, and margarine you can make so much. Every house we go into has one or all of those ingredients. Sure, eventually the yeast won't be any good, but there is still a lot you can make with flour. Not to mention how many times it has saved the day for us when the young children were bored out of their skulls. Paper Mache, or a sad form of playdoh has definitely allowed us to get our chores done. I was just cutting up my second potato for the potato salad when my radio crackled and hissed. Hiss - ..sign – hiss - come... – crackle - Holly... - hiss. “Did he just say my name?” I asked dropping my paring knife. Turning I scrambled twirling myself into the chair at my desk. Can... – crackle - me? - My fingers were shaking so severely from the sheer excitement and nervousness I just about dropped the radio. Terrified it would hit the floor knocking the battery out I scrambled to catch it as it bounced in my hands. I exhaled relieved I when I finally managed to get a grip on it. Pausing I took a deep breath to regain control before pressing the button. “Can you repeat? This is Holly. Please repeat!” For a few torturous moments the radio sat silent. “Come on...” I said, my knee bouncing nervously. 1 minute.... 3 minutes... “Talk to me...” I groaned impatiently 5 minutes... Anxiously I jumped from my seat. Spinning I leaned on the counter crossing my arms. The radio in one hand, the fingernail of the other between my teeth I gnawed at it while tapping my foot. Maxine feeling my stress circled at my feet before laying down on them. I spent countless minutes staring at the floor wondering if it was dad, or Landon, or...Tony. It was too distorted to know for sure. Everything in my gut was saying it was Tony, but it could have been wishful thinking. You would think I didn't care about my father, or my mother, but I did. I just figured wherever Tony was they were with him making it Tony's voice I wanted to hear first. I don't know how long it was that I stared at the floor before I remembered Tony's words. The signal was weak Jim, but not weak enough. They were close. I had two bars I thought excitedly. They can't be far; but then I realized I didn't know what was considered too weak. No more crackling in or hissing out I turned placing the radio on the counter beside me. My hands on the counter supporting my weight my shoulders lifting I looking down at Maxine. "That's a good sign right?" I asked. Maxine cocked her head to the side. Her eyes bright, her ears tall she offered me a happy whine. "Yeah..." I breathed "I agree. That's a good sign." Maxine's head tilted to the other side before her eyes darted to the counter. "Yeah...it’s coming" I said dropping my shoulders. Giving her a quick rub to the head I went back to cutting the potatoes. No matter how much I tried, with every sound that rang through I kept looking at my radio. I knew I had to turn it off soon, or I wouldn't have any battery left. I had only managed to find about ten in my travels. I was down to my last two. I managed to find a solar charger, but I hadn't had a chance to charge it up yet, and see if it worked. Picking up the bowls I turned to Maxine "You ready?" Maxine lifted off the floor sitting proud, her ears tweaking in silent question. "That's right" I smiled at her "dinner’s ready." Placing my bowl on the table and hers on the floor beside my seat I sat down. Maxine and I both diving in we ate in silence. Well, if you call listening to her gobble and snort while she devoured hers, than yes we ate in silence. When we were done I grabbed the basin and Maxine. Leaving my hut we walked the bridge to the wicker basket. Eager to do her business Maxine like a good girl jumped in so I could lower her down. The first few times she went in basket I was sure with the way she rocked it in her panic she would fall out. I was almost as stressed as she was. It was quite a drop; one that for sure would have caused her major injury, but she came to trust it pretty quick. Now she jumps in, sits, and just quietly looks forward to her paws hitting solid ground again. We walked the edge of the field where she did her business, and then over to the water barrel where I was about to fill up for a new day's worth of dishes. Yes, water even if it wasn't fresh water is rationed. You can trade for extra if you need it, but it will cost you dearly. The trade has to be something that benefits the village, not one person, otherwise you need to go get more yourself. Water you would think would be easy to come by, and it is if you are willing to go out a get it. Since few are it is Jordon, Mr. Clay and myself that go out to get it. There is quit the growing number here in this village so we need a lot of water. Not an easy task. Let me tell you. It takes time to fill one of those barrels. Out there you don't want to be in the same spot for too long, especially if you are making noise. Pouring water is surprisingly loud. The way the water is rationed is we are allowed five cups for dishes per day. Luckily we have an endless supply of antibacterial dish soap. For bathing we are allowed one liter per person. Laundry is a separate barrel all together. About every other time we go out we dedicate to just filling one of the water barrels. We go out about every three days and get water about every second trip. Sometimes each time we go out we dedicate to water. It depends on the amount of trades made for it. The fresh drinking water is always a trading item or get it yourself, unless in our travels we pass the fresh water stream. In that case we fill up allowing everyone a free opportunity to restock their supply. After that if you ran out you were working for more, or trading for more. At least one of the times we did a water run it was for fresh water, but it didn't go as far as one would think. With the heat, and everyone working some sort of labor intensive job, or the kids that were running around working up a good thirst, it goes fast. We don't cook with dirty water since the ability to boil it is tough. Not all of us have burners, and even if they were to have their own the propane is difficult to find. We do have two boiling stations, but with all the kids it is to unsafe to have more, not to mention it would be too time consuming to have everyone stopping their work to boil water. making the drinking water go that much faster. "Bathing or dishes?". Jumping I dropped my bin into the barrel "You have to stop lurking around" I breathed irately. My bin sinking I reached in "You just about owed me a new bin." I said grabbing it just before it was out of my reach. Any deeper I would not be able to get it until the barrel was empty. "Not my fault you startle easy." Mr. Clay silently chuckled. "So you just out scaring people or..." "Ha...ha" he droned "I was walking by after lifting the ladders with Jordan. Saw you; thought I would say hi." Normally I would love to chat with him, but all I could think about was my radio. "Well hi." I said with a forced smile in my backwards walk. "You want me to pull my ladder up when I am done?" "Something wrong?" he asked his expression twisting with concern. "You are in an awful hurry." I thought I was hiding it well, but I guess I wasn't. "Yeah...everything is fine; just tired." Mr. Clay nodded, but I could see he didn't believe me, but truth was I was fine. I was just really preoccupied. I knew now in my heart that Tony and my family were fine and all together. At least I hope I thought to myself. I just really wanted to get back and see if I could hear him again. "If you need to talk you know where I am" he offered still looking concerned. "I know" I nodded my forced smile still on my lips. Allowing me my space and privacy he said goodnight and left me to return to my hut. I flicked my radio back on placing it on the desk where I knew I would be when I was done washing the dishes. I grabbed the only towel I had picking up the first bowl. As I started drying it I heard the crackle again. Hol... – hiss - ....in - crackle Hurriedly I placed the bowl on the counter spinning to sit in my seat. This time I didn't lift the radio. Careful to not even shift it I pressed the button "Please say again." - Can – hiss - you hear – hiss - come... – crackle - "I hear you" I yelled. I'm not sure why I yelled. It was just one of those things like when you speak to someone with laryngitis and they can't speak. We just naturally start using improvised sign language and actions like somehow they lost their hearing too. The signal weak I felt the need to yell like somehow that would make him or them hear me better. Realizing what I had done I giggled looking at Maxine who was now sitting startled by my volume. "Sorry girl, but that's them" I beamed pointing at the radio. Maxine let out a quick deep bark as if sharing in my excitement. Closing the space between us she licked my hand repeatedly while my other hit the button again. "This is Holly, if you can hear me meet me..." I paused trying to think of where. I couldn't tell Tony where I was. What if someone else was listening? You never knew who would come, and with what intentions. - where... - crackle hiss - come back - The signal dying I hit the button again. "Two days. Meet me in... I let go of the button. Damn it! I cursed. What is the name of that darn town? Here I was so close and my mind drew a blank. I pressed the button again "If you can hear me, I'll be right back." I got up running out the door and down the bridge to the junction. Turning left I ran the bridge down to Mr. Clay's and pounded on his door. "Whoa!" he snapped whipping it open. "Holly?" he said, the anger in his eyes dissipating, only to fill with concern. "Hi" I panted "What is the name of that town? The one closest to here?" "Everything okay?" he asked. "I would love to chat, but I have to get back to the radio. It's Tony...or...or my dad...or..." His eyes wide he stepped out of his hut “You sure?" "Yeah it's one of them for sure. They know my name. Who else would know..." "You left a thousand signs around Holly" he said cutting me off "anyone could know your name." "But who would think to use a radio to call out to me?" I asked before he could kill my excitement, not to mention I was in a hurry. I didn't have time to talk about this. I could lose the signal at any moment. "I mean who even knows I have one?" "Almost everyone out there has a radio Holly." He must have seen my face fall for I saw his soften. "I mean this is great news Holly. I just don't want you getting too excited. How about this; tell them to meet you at the farthest town we go to. It's called..." "I know that one.” I said as I turned to run back to my hut “Thanks Mr. Clay." Entering my hut I slammed the door taking the few hurried steps to my seat dropping myself in. Careful not to shift the radio I hit the button "If you can hear me. In two days meet me at the next town south of where we were separated. From where we separated that town would be about a five day walk. Over." Mr. Clay was right. It could have been anyone. I doubted it was just anyone, but I had to look out for my safety as well as the village. If it was one of them they would know where it was that we were separated. I only hoped that the signal I was receiving put them much closer than a five day walk. The radio crackled and hissed, but no voice came through. All I could do was pray that that was Tony trying to respond. Flicking the radio off with shaky hands I turned in my seat to Maxine catching Mr. Clay out the corner of my eyes. Glad you didn't give our whereabouts away." "Yeah" I replied as I pet Maxine "You were right, it might not be him. If it was them they know where we were separated. I just really hope they are close enough to make it to the town in two days." "Jordan and I will go with you." "Okay" I nodded to him. Truth was now that he put it in my mind that it could be anyone I was a bit relieved he offered to join me. Not that I thought for a second it would have been any other way. "Night Holly." "Night Mr. Clay." I said smiling after him. Turning my attention to Maxine she let out another deep bark. "I know" I quietly squealed "This is exciting news!" CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE Since the town I chose was the furthest of the three we frequented, the plan was to leave shortly after dinner the next day. That would ensure we arrived around lunch on the day we were to meet Tony. From the moment I set the plan in motion time ticked by at a snail's crawl. It was so slow moving it almost hurt. I had planned to sleep in so I wouldn't feel at least a few of the hours pass, but Maxine wouldn't let me. Her whining and pawing at me told me she was near desperate to go out. That or she simply was becoming too spoiled with our routine. I'm going to have to switch things up a bit, I thought to myself. With a huff I threw off my covers "You aren't going to let me sleep at all are you?" I groaned. Maxine moved in giving my face a lick. Yes I was still sleeping on the floor with her. As soon as things settled I planned on figuring out how to get her up to the loft with me. Even if it meant installing a basket elevator. Once Maxine and I were outside I noticed that the safe house project was under way. Before the safe houses if you were outside the walls and the deranged ventured near there was little time to scramble to safety. If there were to be a herd of sorts our odds of surviving was even bleaker. We had lost a few to the virus after being attacked. Without a safe house you had to scramble up a tree, or behind a rock where you crouched down and prayed they didn't find you. Nobody ever played a game of hide 'n seek like the ones we play now. The risks were a great incentive to be quick and stealthy, hide well, and be silent. Sometimes the seeker -the deranged- just wasn't fair. They didn't give you warning that the game was on. Hence the scramble. With no warning that usually guaranteed they saw you dive behind that rock, or climb up that weak tree. Them seeing where you hid was almost surely a checkmate situation right there. Mr. Clay wanted the safe houses for the purpose of just that...safety. They were meant to provide anyone outside the wall a strong safe structure to run into. To give them strength they were going to be built with steel, wood, and screws. Mr. Clay envisioned safe houses everywhere. Eventually there would be so many that there would be no reason for everyone to hide inside the walls. They would not only provide many people, up to thirty a place to run into saving you from struggling to climb a tree, but save you from the panic of finding a hiding spot all together. You would just need to run to the closest house. In an effort to busy myself so that time would pass quickly for me I walked up to the group starting the construction. I was about to offer my assistance when I heard a few men brainstorming various ways of connecting a floor plate to the light that would be installed on the roof once the structure was built. The floor plate I found out as I listened was meant to turn on the spotlight on the roof once enough weight was applied to it. The spotlight would serve two purposes. One, it would signal to anyone scrambling to run to the next house because this one is full. Two, the spotlight would work the same as the spotlights that currently ran a sequence at night. They were about as bright too. With them being virtually the same they would have the same impact on the deranged, sending them on their way. The only issue was without the light you could be stuck in there for hours waiting on nightfall when the other spotlights would start the normal rotation. Amidst the conversation of power to make it all work they tried to talk through how to avoid keeping one person trapped until nightfall since there wouldn’t be enough weight to turn on the spotlights; but all that did was cause more dilemmas, more problems to work through. One of the worries was if they rigged the light to go on without all the weight, meaning the house was not full, then someone seeking safety outside the house could be jeopardized. They would be tricked unintentionally into believing the house was full and keep running. In the end the safety of those scrambling for refuge was more important then a single person being stuck inside for a night, bringing them back to the original idea of weight to tun on the lights. They figured that even if it was full, everyone inside would be trapped until the light detoured the deranged. Depending on the number of deranged that could be minutes to hours. So...one person being trapped for a few hours because no lights came on it wouldn't be the end of the world. To power it all they debated solar power, batteries, wind and water to get the whole setup to work. I think in the end the plan was solar with more generators. Solar panels would be installed on the roofs, but if they failed the generator was there as backup. The generators would be setup at the edge of the house almost under it. Being at the edge would allow it the ventilation and air it needs to run; but being half under the house would allow the person inside to start it. There would be a sort of trapdoor in the floor, like in a fishing hut. Someone inside would lift the trapdoor to access the generator, and depending on the unit pull start it or flip the switch. With the system now on when it was full a small light installed inside the hut would indicate to those inside that the spotlight was lit. I thought the whole idea was pretty genius. I knew Mr. Clay hoped the houses would offer those inside our walls the security to venture out. I believed that they would. They would also allow us room to expand. I mean let's face it, if we wanted to grow eventually we would need to move the walls out more giving us more space. The problem with that is was there wouldn’t be enough wall to encase us if we did that, meaning whether we liked it or not parts of us would be exposed. Walls take time and material we just didn't have. Growth or expanding wasn't happening soon, but we needed to start doing what we could in preparation. This was a good start. I eventually left the small group to finish working out the details. I knew regardless of what ideas they came up with, until it was tested there were no certainties on the method they would use. I made my way over to the group starting the framework. I wanted to help, but sadly there weren't enough tools to go around, and politely I was dismissed. With was no laundry being done, the market closed, and no new huts in the making I was left to watch the position of the sun and my watch to pass the time. It was actually completely odd that so few chores and projects were going on. Of course it would happen on a day that I really wanted to be busy. Any other day I thought; but no...it has to be today. So I wandered killing time. One hour passed... I walked with Maxine along the wall... A total of one hour fifteen minutes ticked by... I sat with Maxine in the field... A total of two hours passed... Maxine and I wrestled... Two hours twenty minutes... Time just not moving fast enough I thought I would bug Lucy. I fed Maxine, grabbed some bread and went to her hut for lunch. "So..." Lucy said with a sigh "today is the big day huh?" "You don't seem happy for me" I said putting the bread on the table. Lucy turned taking her seat meeting my eyes across from her. "It isn't that I am not happy. It just what if..." "If what?" I snapped. Lucy tilted her head concernedly as she reached out taking my hand. "What if it's not Tony." I wanted to pull away and unleash on her for trying to dash my excitement, but I knew she wasn't trying to. She was being cautious; nothing wrong with that. "I just want you prepared that it might not be him. That's all" she shrugged letting go of my hand. "You're right." I conceded "It might not be. But I heard his voice. It was him." "I’m sure you are right. Just be prepared. That's all I ask." she smiled, but I could see the doubt behind it, and the concern in her eyes Nodding I slouched back in my seat with an exhale tearing off a chunk of bread. "Holly!" Giggling I met Lucy's eyes glaring back at me. "Why are you such a savage?" she barked. "We have knives you know!" The smile etched on my lips I shrugged "I know." "If you know then why not cut the bread?" she snipped folding her arms as she fell back into her seat. "I don't know why you are all worked up Lucy." I said amused that I somehow disgusted her with my animal like behavior. "It's my bread." “So you won’t mind if I do this then.” she snottily spoke as she reached for the loaf tearing off a chunk. Suddenly a piece of bread smacked me in the face causing me to flinch. Casually picking the bread from my shirt I sat staring back at her. "Did that make you feel better about my being a savage?" I smirked tossing the chunk back at her. "Yes it did" she grinned throwing another ball of bread at me. Before I knew it we were in a full on bread throwing war ducking behind the few things she had in her hut, laughing until our sides hurt. Three hours, forty minutes in total had passed. Three more to go... The bread cleaned up I left and took Maxine for another walk, and filled my bin with my water rations. Four hours... Working on another round of fleas I bathed Maxine... Six hours... It's just about time! I squealed excitedly. Maxine shook the last of the water out of her coat pouncing in front of me. The water and my delighted tone seemed to give her some renewed energy. "Let's go Holly!" I heard Jordan pounding at my door. "Down here!" I yelled up to him. Jordan moved peering down over the bridge "Should have known you would be ready to go" "Been ready since I woke this morning. Been killing time all day!" I giggled excitedly. "If I come down will you still be there, or will you be halfway to the town already?" "Well depends on how long it takes you.” I shouted up to him “Hey, can I get you to put Maxine in my hut?" "Sure." he nodded "Put her in the basket, I'll pull her up." "Thanks Jordan." "No problem" he winked. "You ready Holly?" Mr. Clay asked coming up behind me "Horses are saddled up." "I was just sending Maxine up to Jordan to put her in my hut, than I was going to head to the barn and help you hook up the wagon." I said feeling badly that he did it himself. "No. Not taking the wagon." he stated. "Why not?" I asked a little surprised. "We're going so far. We should make the most of it and gather supplies." "No" he said adamantly "If this is a setup somehow I don't want to be pulling a wagon. I want to be able to move quickly. The wagon will only slow us down." Annoyed that everyone seemed to be pooping on my happy parade I groaned "It's… not… a setup Mr. Clay. No one even knows I exist." Mr. Clay arched his brows locking his eyes on me. "Okay" I growled "so I wrote my name out a few times. It isn't like whoever reads it doesn't have better things to do than seek out the crazy paint lady." “Um hm” he nodded "Don't forget how easy you made it for them to call out to you. I mean you did paint on every door I still have my radio." I bit my bottom lip guiltily "Okay! So it's possible! So what?" I barked. "We saddled up?" Jordan asked making his way to us. "Yep" Mr. Clay smirked as we started walking "Holly will be riding with you." "Well I'm not riding with you." I barked pretending to be angry. "Did I miss something?" Jordan asked totally in the dark about the conversation he stumbled in on. "Nope." I stated heading for the barn "Nothing at all." I guess Jordan must have asked Mr. Clay if everything was okay because I heard Mr. Clay snap "You heard her!" followed by grumbling I couldn't quite understand. I did catch something about girls and not thinking, but I was too excited to call him on it. CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO We'd been riding for hours. I was growing more and more anxious to see Tony. I could feel his arms around me already. My mom's excited squeal rang in my ears, and my dad's smile sat behind my eyes. As the sun dipped below the horizon the trail we were on grew dark. The moon was full offering enough light to see the path below us, but nothing else. The trees on both sides of us were thick, their branches hanging over the path dragging across us as we slowly rocked on the horses' back moving toward town. At first it was quiet, not a sound but the chirp of the odd cricket, and the crunching under the horses hooves; but it wasn't long before long we could hear the crunching and snapping of something large behind us. At first it didn't disturb us to much, but eventually the sound spread out telling us there was more than one. Nervously I tightened my grip around Jordan's waist hearing the approaching growls. "Why aren't they attacking?" Jordan asked in a hushed tone. "Let's step up the pace" Mr. Clay whispered in reply "Put some distance between us and them." Jordan nodded clicking his heals into the horse's sides silently commanding it to move faster as he leaned forward, my body following his so we were lying on its strong broad back. Our Clydesdale's graceful legs began a faster trot through the trees in the blackness of the night. Mr. Clay's following beside us. Jordan slammed his heals in again and again till we were flying, the wind whipping passed my ears, branches cutting me as they scratched my skin. Mr. Clay gave a whistle slowing us. "Will tie the horses there" he pointed. I followed his point seeing a massive tree with thick and heavy branches that hung touching the ground; its leaves a tarp that would shield the horses from view. "We'll lift the branches and walk the horses under. It will keep them from view. If they can't see out it may keep them from getting spooked if the deranged come around." Mr. Clay said "Then we can rig the hammocks up in that tree over there." he pointed. The tree we would sleep in had a trunk about four feet thick with gnarled branches strong enough to hold the weight of an elephant if one were to land in it. The branches, the way they twisted and bent made the climb with my pack on my shoulder an easy one. Mr. Clay and Jordan climbing below me moved in separate directions selecting their own limb to tie off their hammocks. The first time I had ever gone out scavenging with Mr. Clay to the town we were heading to now we had to stop and rest. Mr. Clay handed me a hammock and assisted me in tying it off. I have to say it was an uneasy rest, but only because I was worried about rolling out. Other than that it was genius. I was of the ground cocooned in a comfortable material that cupped me like a banana in its peel. My blanket over me I was warm and safe from the deranged that wandered in circling us most of the night, their growls moving all around us while I dosed in and out. Since that first night in the hammock I have never left home without one in my pack. My hammock secured I climbed in carefully pulling the material till it enveloped me. Leaning forward I unzipped my pack pulling out my blanket and some bread tearing a chunk off. "Jordan" I hollered in a hushed tone getting his attention. "Here" I said holding up the bread. When he cupped his hands signaling me he was ready I analyzed the best path to toss the bread to him to avoid branches. "Thanks" he smiled tearing off a chunk before dropping it a branch down to Mr. Clay. Given that we were far enough apart talking was out of the question. We would have only brought any deranged in the area to us. We were safe up in the tree, but if they knew we were there it could be well after sun up before they would leave. Days even. Not to mention the risk to the horses. Since we knew there were at least a couple on our trail it wasn't worth attempting it. I lied back nibbling on the bread trying to see the stars through the leaves above me while I listened to the crickets below. My hammock swinging just slightly with each breath I took, I thought about the last night I spent with Tony and my family. Dad sparked a fire as Brad unloaded some cans of food from mom's pack. Tony had just rolled a couple fallen logs over to the fire for us to sit. Landon lit the burner pouring water into the pot placing it to balance on top, while mom and I setup the tarp to shield us from the looming rain. I wish we had these hammocks that night I thought to myself as I pulled the blanket up higher. We were eating our beans and corn talking about another feeding den we had come across about an hour earlier. We had been stumbling over more and more of them telling us we were in active territory. "Do you think it's wise we stay here?" mom asked worried that there wasn't enough distance between that last den and us. "We will be plenty safe here" dad said giving her a reassuring kiss. It was then that I eyed the hollow tree making a mental note of the space inside. Tony sat down beside me rubbing my knee, a soft smile played on his lips. "You look tired." "I am." I said leaning into the crook of his arm. We had been walking all day, and truth was I hadn't had a good night's sleep in all the nights we spent out there. Who could though? We were always on edge. I don't know how often we woke having to scramble to hide only to return the next day to collect our things. We seemed to always be taking three strides forward only to take four back. Only good thing with us having to back track for our stuff was we weren't in a hurry to go anywhere. Time was not an issue. We had no commitments or schedule to keep. In fact we had no direction in mind. We were on a blind hunt for safety, even though we had no idea what that would look like. Tony wrapped his strong arm around me landing a soft kiss in my hair "You ever hear the one about the old lady?" he tenderly spoke, his warm breath in my hair. I tilted my head looking up at him lovingly "No. What about the old lady?" "Well" he sighed, a playful glimmer in his eyes "She had this husband..." "Had?" I asked looking at him. Tony cocked a brow at me "You going to keep interrupting me?" he asked kissing my nose before continuing. "She had this husband. They had been married forty seven years. In their younger days he would chase after her making love to her every day, sometimes twice a day." "Just like your mother and I." dad smiled from his seat on the log in front of us. "We use to make love all the time. Well...before you came along ruining it that is." "Me!" I giggled pointing at myself. "Jim" mom barked playfully. "Holly doesn't want to hear about the couple of rabbits we once were." "Well one day" Tony chuckled bobbing his brows at dad impressed that he had it in him. "She noticed that the garage was filling up with junk from their past and the lawn was always over grown. The flower beds were filled with weeds. She bugged him to tidy it all up..." "Let me guess" mom smirked rolling her eyes "he never did such thing." Tony laughed "this sounding a lot like your story Georgie?" "A little bit" she chuckled elbowing my dad. "Hey I did the lawn!" he said playfully glaring at her. "Sure you did" she nodded "after I gassed the mower for you and left it running on the lawn." "Is there a point to this story Tony? Or are you just trying to make my wife hate me all over again" "Hate you all over again" Brad snorted "She has hated you for years. Wives only like us in the beginning. There is something we do..." "Or don't do" mom scoffed" "Or don't do" Brad chuckled "that makes them hate us." "It true" Landon smiled passing out cups of water. "My mom hated my father." "Well I could never hate Tony." I said smiling up at him dreamily. "Of course not honey" mom said in a condescending tone "You haven't been married long enough; and I don't hate your father either. I love him very much. I just want to kill him." "Mom!" I barked out laughing. "It's true Holly" dad said "she has tried to kill me on many occasions." "I have never tried to kill you Jim. I just fantasize about it." "Oh..." he said wrinkling a brow at her "You have never tried to kill me? Not the time you had me drive the car you killed the brakes on? Oh Jim darling" he said mocking my mom's voice "the brakes aren't working very well. Can you please take it to the garage and have them fixed?" "They weren't working very well" she giggled. "They weren't working very well!” he playfully snapped "They weren't working at all! I would have driven with a lot more caution off the get go if I knew they weren't. I almost wrapped myself around a post when I had to use them. Near pooped my pants when I tromped on them and they didn't slow the car at all." "Well you made it home safe and sound." she smiled bashfully at him. Dad wrapped an arm around her pulling her in close "Yes darling I did. Thank god for the truck in front of me. If he wasn't there who knows what would have stopped me." "Okay so I could have been a little more clear, but I wasn't trying to kill you. I did say they weren't working very well. That should have told you to take it slow." Mom laughed sinking her face into the crook of his arm embarrassed. "Oh... and what about the time you said the floor was soft?" Mom muffled her laugh by pushing her face harder into his pit. "Yeah you knew exactly what you were doing." dad chuckled pushing her from his arm. "No!" she said shaking her head adamantly "I never asked you to walk on it." "What happened?" Tony asked, all of us unable to stop laughing. "Oh no darling" dad chocked trying to conceal his laughter "No you just put me on the spot." Mom was trying to say something, but she was in a full on belly laughed while dad proceeded to tell us the story. "See...there was this soft spot in the kitchen of our first home. Your mother claims to have never noticed it until this particular day. What your mother neglected to mention was a chunk of the floor beam had fallen down on the basement floor when she was doing laundry. A whole chuck" dad emphasized holding his hands about three feet apart showing us how big it was. "Later when she came up she walked noticing the floor was bouncing. She calls me in from the living room. Jim...oh Jim I heard her calling. I walk into the kitchen and she points to the spot on the floor. Its soft there Jim. I walk over not feeling anything. It's fine Georgie I said. But she walks over to me, No no Jim she says. Not there; and she gently pushes me shifting me to stand right on the spot. I give a little bounce and of course the rotten floor gives out swallowing me up." "You were fine." mom says still laughing, but now more in control. "Yes Georgie I was fine. Thank god for the floor below or who knows how far I would have fallen. I needed twenty stitches in my leg. See this scar here?" he said lifting the leg of his pants. "Dad you said you got that fixing a floor." I said laughing so hard I was holding my sore belly. "I did!" he said with wide eyes and a smile "I just left the part that I fell through it first. I didn't want to tell you your mother tried to kill me. I didn't want you to be afraid of her." Dad and Brad carried on making us laugh like we hadn't laughed in a long while, telling us stories about how their wives kept trying to kill them on multiple occasions. "Be careful Tony." They warned "your day will come." "They are beautiful creatures" dad said pulling mom close again. "But sleep with one eye open." Brad warned. "And always proceed with caution when they ask you to do something." Dad said pointedly while glaring humorously at mom. "You never know. It could be an attempt on your life." "Jim" mom said landing a firm kiss on his cheek "Have no fear, if I wanted to kill you, you would be dead already." Silently giggling at my private memories I rolled over in my hammock pulling my blanket up over my shoulders. Closing my eyes I imagined the weight and warmth was Tony's strong arm warming me. Taking a slow breath in I fought the tears that stung my eyes as sounds of their laughter rang in my ears. As I exhaled I told myself reassuringly it is only hours before you are really here with me... *** Cocooned in my hammock my eyes fluttered open. It only took me a fraction of a second to register we were only hours from the town. Today is the day I silently exclaimed jumping up causing my hammock to almost throw me. The extreme tilt of my swinging bed was enough to have me holding my breath and stilling my movements. "Sleeping beauty awakes" I heard Mr. Clay's deep voice below me. I leaned much slower than I moved a second before peaking down at him. He was stretched out, his blanket pulled up to his chest. His arms were crossed behind his head. A grin rested on his lips. "You almost came down to visit me there. Best be careful." "Why didn't you wake me?" I asked smiling down at him. Without shifting he shrugged "You seemed comfortable. By the way, for a small person you sure have volume to that snore of yours. I am surprised we don't have a swarm of deranged on the ground below us." "Ha...ha" I droned. "How long will it take you to be packed and ready?" "Just have to climb out and untie." Shifting I turned my attention to the hammock across from mine. "Jordan? You up?" I said loud enough for him to hear me. "How can I sleep with you in the tree with me?" he said sweetly, but I knew he was poking at my snoring. "Okay I get it" I grumbled. "I will try to find you two some ear plugs while we are out." *** On the path we made the slow crawl toward town. I tried not to be annoying only asking the repeated questions in my head. Are we almost there? How much longer? I had made this journey a number of times with Mr. Clay, but my mind today kept wandering too much, making it impossible for me to pay attention to landmarks. The threshold finally in our line of vision Mr. Clay pulled out his weapon nodding to us to do them same. Reaching behind I pulled my gun from my pack practically busting at the seams. "Are you going to be okay?" Mr. Clay asked eying me, a small smirk threatening to reveal itself. Only just realizing I was holding my breath I exhaled nodding with a beaming smile. Our horses side by side at the threshold we paused staring in at the narrow street before us. My eyes scanning for any sign that he had arrived yet, I couldn't help noticing the once pretty street was a mess. Smiling yet mildly ashamed of the graffiti done by yours truly I read my painted signs left on just about every garage door there was lining both sides of the street. Tony, I am close. Reach me on my radio Holly... I started to understand the rationale Mr. Clay was trying to use on me. Of course I made myself an easy target for someone to call out trying to lure me in. "Holly..." "Huh" I replied still staring at my handy work. "You okay?" I pulled my eyes from the ugliness I created in what was once a pretty town and met Mr. Clay's eyes. "Yeah...I'm fine." I smiled weakly at him. Suddenly I was worried that we were walking into an ambush of sorts. "Of course she's fine" Jordan twisted offering me a warm smile. "This will work out fine Holly. You'll see." "Thanks Jordan, but suddenly I am feeling a little queasy." "I know what you mean" Mr. Clay grumbled "Every time I see this street since Holly got her hands on paint and a brush I get queasy too." I stuck my tongue out glaring at him as Jordan tapped the horse with his heals silently commanding him to march forward. My eyes scanning left and right, and straight ahead I saw what I thought was a leg disappearing between a couple of houses. "There" I pointed. "Someone went between those two houses up there." "Where?" Jordan asked readying his gun. "There" I pointed again "just up past my second sign on the left." In my peripheral I saw Mr. Clay taking the safety off his gun as we moved cautiously forward. Approaching the houses I had pointed out Jordan and Mr. Clay lifted their weapons ready to fire if it came to that. Jordan halted our horse just before the space I saw the person disappear into. "We saw you go between these two houses" he shouted. "We don't want to shoot, but if you don't come out we are going to assume you are here to start something." For a moment there was nothing but the breeze. "Last time I am going to tell you." Jordan warned. "I am here looking for someone." the voice flowed out to us. "Who are you looking for?" Mr. Clay's deep voice demanded. "I am looking for Holly." the voice replied. Mr. Clay glanced at me. The voice was coming to us from around a corner and it wasn't loud enough for me to be sure. It could have been my mind tricking me, but it sounded right. I swallowed my building excitement praying to not be disappointed. "Is that you?" I asked. "Holly?" the voice flowed out to us again. I shot a glance to Mr. Clay shrugging unsure at him. The voice was quiet making it difficult for me recognize it. I turned my attention back to the gap between the houses "Yes it's me...Holly. Why don't you..." Before I could finish he rounded the corner with his hands in the air just like he did the day he stepped up on the shoreline. "Whoa" he said stepping back quickly. "Don't shoot." "Landon?" I said jumping off the horse. Hesitantly he stepped back out. "Oh my God!" I chirped. "Landon! You're okay!" "Holly!" he beamed running to me scooping me off the ground into a bear hug. The pressure he applied to my ribs in his tight grip made me grunt through my joyous laughter. Putting me down he held me at arm's length "You look good." he smiled. I was happy to see him, but I was disappointed he wasn't Tony. Nervously my eyes darted from him to the ground as my left hand fidgeted with my right. "Tony? Is...he... with you?" but I saw his face fall before I even finished the question. "No Holly. I'm sorry. It's just me." There was something in his eyes that told me he had some sad news for me; but I wasn't ready to hear whatever lingered in his eyes, so I jumped changing the subject. "How rude of me" I said my eyes darting from one to another. "Mr. Clay, Jordan this is Landon. He was on the run with me and my family." I said smiling weakly. "Landon this is Mr. Clay and Jordan." Politely they all lifted a hand in greeting grunting out hellos. Judging from their lack of enthusiasm I think Mr. Clay and Jordan saw the same thing in Landon's expression I did. A silence and a warm breeze was all there was for a few seconds until Mr. Clay spoke "Jordan, why don't we go look for some provisions and leave these two to get reacquainted?" "Sounds good." Jordan replied, but his eyes were on me. I knew with the sympathy that sat in them that he saw the hurt Landon's fallen expression was there to bring me. "Holly? Are you going to be okay here to catch up?" Mr. Clay asked still up on his horse. I nodded feeling combination of gloom and nervousness firing through me. I was glad to see Landon. I was, but I was terrified of the news I knew he had for me. Mr. Clay gave me a forced smile, concern resting in his eyes before nudging his horse forward. Landon and I stared after them as they waddled off in silence for a few unmoving seconds before turning to walk to the stoop of the house we stood beside. Taking a seat on the white concrete step I pulled my knees up nervously wrapping my arms around them. I wanted to ask, to push the subject back to Tony, but I was terrified he would tell me he was dead. "Tony was separated from us the night you were. We assumed..." "Wait, we?" I asked twisting to see him "You were with my parents?" "Yeah" he nodded. "Well... no." he sighed "When the swarm came running through our camp we ran like you did." "I never ran." I said pointing dejectedly to myself. "Tony pushed me into that hollow tree. I never left camp." Dropping my hand from my chest and my gaze from him my eyes filled with tears "I watched as you all scattered, but I stayed there." "Well we ran." Jordan breathed dismally. "When everything went quiet again I climbed out from under all the branches I had been hiding under and searched for everyone. The first one I found was your mom. I foun..." I jumped up from the stoop, my eyes trying to search her out "My mom? Where is she?" My eyes landed back on him when I didn’t see her.. Landon lowered his eyes, instantly telling me this was the bad news I sensed was coming earlier. "She didn't make it Holly." I dropped my head into my palms as my body started to quiver. My teeth chattered and the bile in my empty stomach started to climb. Mom was dead? I ordered myself to wake up. I wanted to erase those words, or at the very least wake up in my hammock relieved to find this was a bad dream. Landon stood closing the little space between us. "Holly..." he said reaching out to comfort me. The touch of his hand was like fire burning my skin. I swatted his hand away as I turned emptying my stomach on the lawn. My tears flowing freely, my silent cry becoming a sob I fell to my knees. I didn't want to see his eyes keeping my back to him "Did she suffer?" I heard him swallow before answering. "N...no Holly." he said sorrowfully as he knelt beside me. "She didn't suffer." I will never know if Landon was being honest with me, and I hope in my heart still to this day that he was, but I am grateful to Landon for lying to me if it was any other way. I wiped at my mouth with tears streaming my face. "Tony, my dad, Brad, do you know anything about them?" I asked staring at the green grass under my knees. "No..." he breathed gently placing his hand on my back, but he immediately lifted it again. "I found evidence a few days later that they had returned and picked up the supplies. At least I am hoping it was them. I like to believe it was them." he said with a deep sadness in his tone. I twisted to see him "You returned to the camp" I asked barely above a whisper. "Yeah" he nodded "After she passed." I turned locking my heartbroken eyes with his "You stayed with her till the end?" I asked. My mind played a re-run of the day Joyce was bit. Visions of Brad having to put her down played, rewound then played again "You...you..." I swallowed hard "Did you...." I couldn't bring myself to ask the question. "Yes Holly. I stayed with her until the end. I left briefly here and there to see if I could find your father, but..." Collapsing I fell into Landon's lap and grieved my mother. Wrapped in Landon's arms he whispered through his grieving tears "She was a good lady Holly. I did what I could to make sure she was comfortable right until her last breath." I don' know how long we stayed like that, but eventually Landon nudged me "Holly..." I lifted my head, my puffy bloodshot eyes meeting his. "She made me promise I would find you, or die trying" Landon exhaled "I was sure glad when I started seeing these signs. It meant I was getting closer. I love your mother" he said with a weak smile "but I wasn't really liking the idea of laying my life down to find the likes of you." With a small chuckle and a wet sniffle I wiped at my cheeks. I mean when I saw your messages." he said fanning his arm around him gesturing to my handy work. "If you could have only left a few more" he said sarcastically. "I might have found you sooner." For a brief moment we shared in the humor of Landon's sarcasm at the expense of my graffiti, but Landon's eyes clouded over again, and his tone reclaimed the sadness it carried a moment ago. "You were all she worried about, and all she could talk about; so I promised I her I would find you and pass along her message." Landon smiled warmly. With his hands he reached out rubbing my arms firmly "Breathe Holly. If you miss a word I will repeat it for you." I hadn't been aware I was holding my breath until he pointed it out to me. With a loud exhale I closed my eyes seeing my mother's face waiting for her words to follow. I heard him take a breath in. His hands stilled, but continued to hold on to my arms. "Before the dying phase she talked incessantly about you from birth to right before we separated. She told me about the great baby you were, the stubborn child you became. She told me all about the tomboy you often tried to be, and the young beautiful lady developing inside you. She talked about the football games she saw you win." My eyes flew open "She never came to my games." "Oh...but she did Holly." Landon smiled. "She said she never went with you and your dad because she wanted you two to have your personal relationship. "I loved the bond the two of them shared. In fact that was part of the reason I liked to go and watch the games." "Do you need some water?" Landon asked seeing her mouth crusted and white as she wiped the sweat and blood from her tear filled eyes. Georgie lifted the cup with Landon's help sipping the water slowly trying not to choke on it. Pausing she struggled to catch her breath. Landon held the cup to her lips again and tilted it, but she refused it waving her head. "Georgie you have..." "No Landon." she said waving the cup away. Landon sighed putting the cup down, and pulled the blanket up high on her chest as she shivered from the fever. "It warmed my heart seeing the expression on Jim's face when he watched her from the bleachers. You should have seen the way she would search him out in the crowed. Oh she was so happy." Georgie smiled. "And he was so proud" she said tilting her eyes to meet Landon's "even when she fumbled the ball." Georgie paused coughing long and hard. Landon tapped her back trying to help her get rid of whatever it was that was stealing the air from her lungs. Eventually the spell passed and she fell back into his arms smiling up at him. "I knew from the smile on your face from that shoreline you were a good boy Landon." Georgie tapped his hands weakly. "I am glad you came along with us." Landon forced a weak smile trying to fight the building tears as she continued. "She always wanted to share with him the excitement of a touchdown. Even when he sat in the bleachers, and she was on the field they were having a blast together. At the end of the games I would slip away leaving them to go for pizza, or whatever they wanted to do in celebration of a good game or a winning one. Georgie paused to take a deep breath that caused her to choke again coughing up a substantial amount of blood. "Landon" Georgie cried. "I'm here Georgie. I'm holding you. You're not alone." "Landon, I'm so scared." "I know Georgie." his shaky voice whispered "I'm holding you." "No" she cried "I am scared she won't ever know how much I loved her." "She will know Georgie." he said unable to hold back his emotions any longer "I will find her and tell her." Georgie twisted trying to see him as she lay wrapped in his arms and a warm blanket. "Promise me Landon that you will find her and tell her. Please promise me." Landon's tear filled eyes held hers "I promise Georgie, no matter what. I will die trying. I will find her and tell her." Landon's details of those final hours touched my heart immensely. He went on and on about things she spoke about; us gardening, her fear of my leaving for university, the unique friendship we shared, my wedding day... and I hung on every word. "She started talking gibberish as the deliriousness from the fever took over. Eventually she fell into a deep sleep. I nodded off with her in my arms. When I woke I noticed she wasn't hot anymore. I knew it wouldn't be long. The last moments of clarity were coming." Landon locked eyes with mine and I could see a sparkle, a light in them telling me those last moments were good ones. "When she woke her thoughts were clear; clearer than they had been since the fever started to creep in. She sat up brushing her hair back.” Landon’s lips holding only a hint of a smile his eyes stared off as if he was seeing her right in that moment. "Oh she was a mess, but she was beautiful all in that moment. For a little while she worked at fixing my hair. She had the nerve to say I looked like a bum." he chuckled. "She said I should take lessons from her." "Really?" I said cocking a brow at her. I was half tempted to get her a mirror. I mean if it wasn't for the dried blood you would have thought there was nothing wrong; but then the reality hit me again, and I realized that this was all temporary, and pointing out how terrible she looked would only make her sad." "I look like shit don't I?" she sighed. "You look beautiful." he smirked fixing the tuff of hair that was standing up. She waved a finger at him with a lopsided smile "You are such a liar" she giggled. "See this is why I like you." Then her smile fell, and tears filled her eyes "Landon, is it okay if I ask you to hold me for while?" "Of course Georgie, I told her holding my arms open. I will hold you as long as you want me to. She crawled into my arms and I wrapped them tight around her. I could hear her sniffling into my shirt. I didn't know what to do to make her feel better. I guess there is nothing anyone can do for someone who knows the end is only moments away." "Tell my rodent that she was the spring in my step, the reason for every smile that met my lips, the joy that sang in my heart, and the reason I laughed. Tell my rodent that I love her with all my heart, and that there wasn't a day that I wasn't proud of her." Georgie tilted her head to meet his eyes. Her tears staining her cheeks "Will you tell her that for me Landon?" "I lowered my head kissing her forehead and promised her I would. With a small broken smile she nodded. We sat like that for a long while; silent...Just breathing." I fell back into his arms heartbroken, but relieved that my mother wasn't alone, that she had Landon to hold her and listen to her. I pulled myself out of his arms meeting his eyes "Thank you Landon. Thank you for finding me and giving me my mother's message; but most importantly for being there for her; for not letting her die alone, or to become one of them." Jordan and Mr. Clay returned just as I was pulling myself back together. I didn't speak about what Landon had told me. I couldn't, and they didn't ask. I invited Landon to join us back to the village which he accepted. We made the long ride back in silence. We stopped only long enough to give the horses water since we didn't have a hammock for Landon. I sat behind Mr. Clay on the horse, my hands wrapped around his waist, my head resting on his back lost in the memories of my mother. I could hear them whisper out conversation here and there, but I just couldn't pull myself from the grief my heart was filled with. When we arrived back home I was beyond exhausted. I slid down off the horse, my feet barely having the strength to hold me up. "Whoa...You going to be okay?" Mr. Clay asked catching me as I stumbled. Regaining my footing Mr. Clay pulled me into him. "I just need some time alone and sleep." I said into his chest. "I don't think I like the idea of you being alone." he sighed letting me go. "I have Landon." I replied almost emotionless. Mr. Clay turned to Jordan "You mind putting Sally away for me? I'm going walk Holly and Landon home." "No problem." he nodded looking at me with the same concern his eyes held back at the town. "I'll be fine." I said to his silent question. We left the barn walking the field to the ladder. In my peripheral I could see Landon taking everything in. Under normal circumstances I would have boasted to him everything about the place. Instead I said not a word. With exhausted arms I climbed the ladder up to the bridge that would lead me to my hut. Mr. Clay opened the door making room for me to pass through. "You have a dog" Landon exclaimed crouching down to pet her. Nodding I tapped my leg calling her to me to take her out. "I got her." Mr. Clay said stopping me. “Thanks Mr. Clay.” "No problem. We'll be right back." His eyes lingering on me for a moment he heavily he dropped his gaze calling her "Let's go Maxine." While he was gone with Maxine I showed Landon around the small space and made up the bed for him. "Where are you going to sleep?" I pointed to the pile of blankets on the floor down below. "Really?" he asked kinking a brow at me. "Yeah..." I shrugged I've been sleeping there for the last couple weeks. Eventually I'll have time to rig something up to get Maxine up here with me, but until than I sleep where she does." "That's not healthy Holly." "Well... I shrugged again. "It's what I need." Mr. Clay returned with Maxine who came bouncing excitedly at me. "You take care of her tonight, you hear me?" he said turning to Landon. "I will Sir." Mr. Clay paused staring at me for a few unmoving moments. I could see he was feeling out whether or not to leave me with Landon. When Mr. Clay finally turned closing the door I curled up on my heap of blankets calling Maxine to me. Landon stood rubbing at the back of his neck looking like he was debating on talking. I reached resting my hand on the flashlight that lit the hut silently telling him I had no more words left in me, or any energy left to expel. "Okay" he said bobbing his head, his hand still holding the back of his neck "Night Holly." "Night Landon." I said pressing the power on the light sending us into darkness. I curled into Maxine my dry eyes filling with the tears I had been holding back the whole ride home. "I wasn't ready to say goodbye to her yet." I whispered into Maxine's ear. In the darkness Maxine moved in closer to me giving my hand a lick telling me she was there to lean on for comfort while I quietly cried myself to sleep. CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE I spent that night in the throes of a reoccurring nightmare. Each time my eyes flew open I was a panting mess. I tried putting my head down thinking of flowers, Maxine, passionate moments with Tony, but I just fell back into the same nightmare. It always started out the same, dreaming of my mother in those last moments. Our tears were falling as we said goodbye. Somehow our sadness turned to laughter over something ridiculous I was never able to recall when I woke, as she began lavishing me with kisses; but then in a blink the dream changed to a nightmare. Instead of trying to kiss me her face was a twisted mess, and she was trying to rip chunks from my face. The last time my eyes flew open the smell of fresh coffee wafted past me. I pulled the covers off making my way to the door of my hut. Stepping out I noticed the sound of the crickets had quieted telling me it was early dawn and not the middle of the night as it appeared at quick glance. I saw Landon leaning on the rail of the bridge looking out. "You okay?" I asked moving to lean on the rail beside him. Landon met my eyes "I should be asking you that question. You have been crying and yelling in your sleep." "Sorry" I said a little embarrassed. "I was dreaming about my mom." He gave my arm a gentle rub "It's all good. I get it." My eyes followed him as he turned moving to the little table beside my hut. “You want a cup of coffee?” Doing a little bounce, a delighted smile on my lips I replied eagerly "Yeah! I haven't had coffee in a long while." Landon poured the cup as my mouth salivated remembering its flavor and the feel of caffeine coursing through my veins. "I found some last time we were out, but I owed Mr. Clay a favor." I said taking the mug he held out to me. "I haven't had the heart to beg him for any." "Beg?" he asked. "Yeah" I giggled. "That's about what it would take. You didn't see his face when I found it. I don't think anything but begging would get me any. In fact I am not even certain begging would work." "Well good thing I am here to share mine with you." he smirked picking up his mug "So how did you find this place anyway?" he asked returning to my side. Leaning he rested his forearms back on the railing. I looked out at the dark sky. The stars were dimmer now, less of them as the sun sat breaching the horizon. Still too low to offer us its rays of light or any warmth, but I could tell it wasn't going to be too long now. I took a deep breath thinking of that horrible day; the day I quit. At least I would have if I hadn't stumbled on the wall when I did. I remembered the feeling of rock bottom I had. It was the lowest I had ever felt in my life. I would have laid down and let the deranged rip me apart if they came along before the wall popped up. "Holly?" "Huh?" I said pulling my eyes from the sky to look at him. "This place? How did you find it?" "Oh...right..." I said dropping my gaze. I pushed off the railing turning to walk to the little table. My hands shaking I placed my mug on its surface and took a seat in the chair with a few deep breaths before beginning the story of the events that led me here. I could have just told him I was walking and just stumbled upon it, but there was something in me that was just ready to tell what had happened; something in me that felt Dalia deserved to be mentioned, to let someone know that she existed, even if it wasn't a story of a hero. I could feel Landon's eyes on me as he turned leaning his back on the railing so he was now facing me. I didn't lift my eyes to meet his. I didn't sit drinking my coffee, and I didn't fidget. "After the camp had emptied I crawled out from the tree trunk. I remember looking around at everything scattered in the dirt still in shock, and terrified to find myself alone; or worse to find everyone dead. I wandered a little, but not far. I was searching for anyone of you hoping that if I found one of you the rest would be right behind. I must have circled the area for about an hour, maybe two. When I didn't find anyone and no one returned I wandered a little further. "Before I knew it I was lost. I don't know how I managed to get so lost" I sighed "but I did. Brad and dad taught me better than to wander without leaving a trail or marking things." I stated angry again at my stupidity. “Anyway, I tried to find my way back to the camp. I was sure that if I made it there you would all be waiting for me, but instead I became more and more lost, and grew more and more afraid that I would never see any of you again. I wanted so desperately to stumble upon you all." "The next day I was still wandering looking for all of you getting further and further off my trail. I stumbled upon a group of men. I hadn't seen Dalia yet, but I didn't need to too know that they were unkindly. I told myself to run, get away quick...and believe me I tried." I said briefly meeting Landon's stare. "I move to put distance between me and them. I didn't think they were even aware I was there. I hadn't noticed the one in the trees until he came up behind me stopping me.” “I could hear it in his tone, and when I turned to see him. I could see it in his eyes. What I saw in him was pure evil." I whispered feeling the nervousness I felt that day returning. I dropped my gaze moving to sit on my hands that had begun to fidget with each other. "I waited for my opportunity to run, and when that time arose I took it. Running I checked behind me to see how close he was when out of nowhere the wind was knocked out of me and I was lying flat. One of the other men I had spotted was now towering over me. He picked me up by my hair and dragged me to the camp tossing me like a doll.” I lifted my head to look at Landon "That's when I saw her. My heart broke and I filled with an even greater fear. I had no doubts about my fate when I laid eyes on her. Before that moment the best I could hope for was that they were just going to kill me, or that I would be lucky enough to escape, but the look of her tattered and torn clothes accompanied by the beaten and bruised look of her, I knew I wouldn’t be so lucky. I think her dead eyes, eyes devoid of all hope and even the slightest glimmer is what made my fate clear. I had never seen eyes as dead as hers." I said pausing to breathe away the ill feeling rolling in my belly. "I knew than I had to run. I tried. I scrambled for the trees determined to get away. I pushed my legs harder, ordering them to be faster than they had ever been, but my determination and will was not enough.” "Dragged back to the camp they set Dalia and I up on a log like it was a social event. They forced us to eat and drink while they laughed and spoke of the horrible plans they had for us. Dalia never even shed a tear. She sat silent eating only what was placed in her mouth. She was devoid of expression. It still amazes me how turned off she was. If it wasn't the rise and fall of her chest I would have thought she was dead." I lifted my mug taking a sip as Landon came and sat down across from me. "Maybe she was" I shrugged putting my mug back down. "She seemed as close to dead as any living person could ever be." "When the food was done one of the men picked up Dalia laying her out. He lifted her tattered dress and unbuckled his jeans. She didn't scream or fight him. She just laid there while he had his way with her. The one beside me swept my hair from my shoulders. When I shivered away from him he laughed an evil laugh. "I can see you're not going to be the dead lay she is." Than he sighed with disappointment "She didn't use to be. I think my brother here broke our toy.” he said gesturing to the one currently using her. “I sure hope he doesn't break you." he snorted. "I fought the tears stinging my eyes. I tried to stay calm and look for possible opportunities to escape; a weapon...anything. And then I heard it. Being out there for so long I was able to pick up their sounds. I was sure I could hear them in the distance." "As if reading my thoughts he smirked "Sounds like a group of them. If you scream sugar that's suicide and you know it." "I weighed that option. I mean what was worse? Being torn apart, or being taken by force by five evil men? After weighing my options carefully I thought, I could survive whatever they might do. I could be quiet and let them take my body. Don't fight them I told myself and you can slip away in the dark when they are sleeping. "The man beside me stood now, leering down at me with a hungry smile while holding his hand down to me." “Come on sugar." "When I didn't take it his smile twisted to one of anger. He reached down lifting me by my hair. It hurt, but I refused to scream. He pulled me to the table his brother had just used Dalia on. He lifted me dropping me hard on top of it." "Suddenly I couldn't do it. I couldn't let them claim me. It was just my body, but it was mine!" I stated angrily. "I started to plead quietly because I wasn't ready to die. I didn't want to bring the deranged in on me. "Please don't do this. Please don't do this, but my pleading only made him laugh at the fear I was showing him. Fear was what he wanted to see." "He ripped at my shirt tearing it open and that was it. I couldn't control my panic any longer. I started clawing at him, trying to kick him off of me." "That's what I want" he roared. "Some fight!" "As he tore at my clothes his brothers or friends whatever they were snorted in hushed laughter stating their eagerness to have their turn." "You can all have your fun after I have mine” he told to them." "That was when I decided that any death was better than what they were going to do to me. My clothes shredded I kicked and scratched harder while I screamed as loud as I could. He tried to muffle them with his hand." "Yeah!" he roared excitedly "this is what that tart over there took away from us!" "I bit his hand as we struggled; him trying to muffle me, and me trying to scream louder and louder." "It didn't take too long before I heard the others nervously yelling". "Pick her up! We got to move!" "The one attacking me looked over his shoulder allowing me another scream." "Oh shit" he said nervously pulling me from the table. I let my body go limp falling to the ground making it more difficult to take me with him. It worked. He left me there while he scattered." "I looked up from my fallen position. There were far more deranged than I thought. There had to be fifty of them coming at us. The men scrambled back and forth trying to figure out a safe path to run. This way one would yell, as another moved yelling for them to go the other way." "With them busy trying to save themselves I got up on my shaky feet telling myself I wasn't ready to die. I shifted ready to run. I just wasn’t sure what direction to take off in. I took a deep breath calming myself. That's when I noticed they were coming at me, not from behind, but from in front. I knew I had only on direction to run; behind me..." "I turned willing my legs to work. As I took my first quick step behind me, than my second I saw Dalia just sitting there, the same dead expression in her eyes. There was no panic. "With a quick debate of do I leave her and save myself, or risk precious time and take her with me I stopped and grabbed her. Come on I yelled. It's now or never. To my surprise her eyes sparked. “As she scrambled to stand I saw my pack and an aluminum bat in the dirt scooping them as we ran passed.” Landon brought his hands to his face scrubbing at it as he exhaled the air that he had trapped inside. Dropping his hands he leaned his arms on the table speaking for the first time since I began to tell him what happened after we were all separated. "I can't tell you how happy I am that you two got out alive." There was a weight in the words he spoke. Almost like he was harboring guilt for what had almost become of me, for what those men almost took from me. I nodded with a slow blink "I did." Landon's dejected expression twisted "You did?" What happened to Dalia?" "We heard the screams, of what we hoped was all of them being torn apart. We ran for a long while trying to put distance between any of them that may have survived and the deranged. Eventually our run turned to brisk walk. We slept only when needed, and only one of us at a time. We took no more than a quick catnap that would give us a quick recharge to keep moving." "It was on this run that I finally learned her name. It took hours before she even made a sound. I think she finally spoke just to shut me up." I said with a small chuckle. "I know that if there was ever a time I should have been quiet it was then, but I was shaken from the events, and terrified that any moment either the men or the deranged would catch up to us. I just couldn't stop nattering on. I talked nonstop about the start of the virus, about all of you, and how we got separated." "It doesn't sound like you at all." Landon smirked trying to make light. I tilted my head sticking my tongue out at him. "Well we needed a little conversation." I chuckled "and it worked. Out of nowhere she stopped moving long enough to say my name is Dalia." "I stood gawking at her before shaking my shock away offering her my hand. I couldn’t help the way I stuttered out, my...my name is Holly." “After a second or two of her looking from my hand to my face she reluctantly took it. I was thrilled when she actually cracked a hint of a smile." "Come sit I said. Let's eat something and get acquainted. We spent that one night talking and getting to know each other. It was like for one night she was herself again. We talked about our interests. Turned out she loved gardening and painting. Oil painting was her passion. We talked school. She was planning on going to university in the fall like me, but she was actually going to live in residence." "Everything was going great until we got into talk about our parents. Somehow the conversation went full circle to the day she was taken. That was when she disappeared again. Turned out they had had her since lights out. She ran with her family in all the chaos. She hadn't been on the run for more than a couple of days when these men found her scooping her from them. She watched her parents fading in the distance as they sped off with her. Saddest thing I ever heard. My heart broke for her." I said wiping a tear from my eye. All that time they abused her. I mean ten months Landon. Ten months…" "I am sorry for what happened to her" Landon said reaching across the small table gently placing his hand on mine. "but I am glad they didn't have the chance to break you Holly, and I am certain when we find Tony he will be more than thrilled to know you are safe." My eyes locked with Landon's searching them "Do you think I will ever find him?" "Yeah Holly. I do believe you will find him." he said smiling softly at me, but his eyes still a little clouded made it difficult for me to know if he meant it. Landon picked his hand up from mine and sat back in his seat. So you said you made it. What happened with Dalia?" "Yeah" I sighed "Three days later we were out of food and I was still trying to get her to come back from wherever she was, but she refused. It was like she was in purgatory and that was where she wanted to stay. By the fifth day we were out of water. I felt alone. I hated how she was allowing herself to be swallowed up. She wasn't the only one that was hurting. I didn't live her existence. I couldn't compare what she had gone through to what I had, but I felt the fear she had lived when I was back there on that table. I was hungry and thirsty just like her, and I had been separated from my family just like her. She wasn't alone!" I shouted angrily. Thinking about it now, that night as I told Landon about those men and Dalia I knew I didn't have a right to be angry, but I was. I was angry that somehow she kept me from dying, but she wouldn't allow me bring her back from the dead. "Anyway" I waved dejectedly "I was done. I was done seeing her self-pity, I was done being hungry, I was done missing Tony. I was exhausted, hot, thirsty, and I was pissed off at everything the virus had brought on me, on her, on everyone I loved. I was just about to give in, lay down and pray for something to come along and end it when out of nowhere this tall wall stood before us. Suddenly I was to curious to know why it stood there that my thoughts of death temporarily ceased.” “Together in silence we walked the length of the wall to the door. And Mr. Clay took us in." "So you…both made it here." "Yeah...we did." I exhaled through my building tears. "And I thought that this would be a new beginning for me, for her, but in the morning Mr. Clay came to get me. “What happened?” “Dalia hung herself from the tree of that hut over there" I pointed. "Holly...I am so sorry" Landon breathed. The sun was now higher, sending rays through the leaves when the silence fell between us. Landon shifted straightening in his seat "There is another town near by Holly." he said breaking the silence. Stunned I stared at him "What? We've been miles out in every direction. We hadn't seen anything." "You wouldn't have seen it no matter how hard you looked" he smiled "There was an underground transit way that was being constructed, but never advertised to the public. Our government at work wasting money" he smirked while bopping his brow. "I stumbled upon it in my travels. I just about got myself killed walking in on them. They keep it pretty private." I sat staring at him still dumbfounded. "Come with me Holly. It's safe there. No deranged." "Landon" I sighed fidgeting with my mug "I can't leave here. I love it here. We're building a life here; a new world. I like being a part of that" I looked up into the tree we sat under "up in these trees" I said "I am are safe. And these people are becoming family." Landon hung his head disappointed with my response. I know he wanted me to go with him, but I couldn't. "Why don't you stay here and help me find Tony? Help turn this place into something even more amazing then it already is." "Hey" he chirped. I could almost see the light bulb over his head. "Wouldn't it be great if we could somehow amalgamate both groups together? They are good people. Like you here they are just trying to build something. We could share resources." The idea made me smile. I could see this place growing, becoming something bigger, more people, more buzzing, more protection. "I think it is something I need to bring to Mr. Clay for our safety as much as the possibility of that happening. You never know" I shrugged "Maybe we can figure something out and build something together. I mean the whole point of this is to rebuild the world right? Put it back to some semblance of what it once was?" Than the thought occurred to me "Is it something they would even want?" I asked. "Do they even know we are here?" "Well..." Landon said slouching in his seat pondering "I don't know if it is something they would want, but I heard a few times the mention of a village close by that was up in the trees. I assume it must be this place.” My finger shot to my mouth and I began to nibble on my nail worriedly "They do?" I asked. "They have known about this place for a number months" he smiled "before I came along Holly.” Then as if reading my thoughts he added “They haven't attacked or even mentioned the idea of it.. I told you..." he said locking his eyes with mine "they are good people. They aren't looking for anything but survival." I decided to drop it for now while I processed the information. The only thing I knew for certain was I needed to bring this to Mr. Clay. The thought of our community growing was certainly exciting though. "You have any more of that coffee?" I asked waving my cup at him. CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR I stared at him while he got himself undressed. His lips moved, but I could only hear a quiet echo of his voice as I eagerly waited for him to settle into bed. I had missed the gentle touch of his strong hands, his tender whispers in the night, and the warmth of his body. Finally the duvet lifted and I briefly felt the chill of the night air as Tony crawled in beside me. His body tight with mine he lifted himself to rest on his arm. Even in the darkness I could see the glimmer from his eyes as he stared lovingly into mine. "I've missed you Holly." he whispered brushing the hair from my face. "I was so afraid you were..." Softly I placed my finger to his lips silencing him. I didn't want to talk. I needed his touch. I needed him. I had been afraid too, but now, in that moment we didn't need to be. Removing my finger from his lips I took his hand and guided him to explore me, while my desire filled eyes pleaded with him for more. Giving in to my silent command his callused fingers began tracing my breasts before wandering down to my belly. He lowered his lips to mine kissing me softly at first, my body moistening in reaction to his touch and his lips. Tony pulled back meeting my eyes briefly. A small smile dancing on his perfect mouth he let out a playful purr as he positioned himself on top of me. Giggling I wrapped my arms around him tightly pulling him back to me. His lips so close to mine he purred again as our quiet laughter fell away and our eyes locked with a building desire, an even deeper passion than only seconds before. Than his mouth met mine again, stronger, hungrier, and deeper than a moment ago, sending my mind and emotions into a whirlwind of desire. Together we grabbed and pulled at each other, moving in an effort to get closer than any two people could ever be. I could hear his rapid breaths as he began nibbling at my neck. "Your nose is cold and wet." I giggled, his features no longer crisp and clear before my eyes. My eyes fluttering open I was filled with a great sadness as my dream faded and reality set in. Weakly I smiled at Maxine with damp eyes "Furry too." I huffed letting her go as I rolled onto my back staring up at the ceiling. I know you are out there somewhere Tony... I will find you... I thought as my tears slid from my eyes getting absorbed into my hair. With a sniffle I rolled back to Maxine "Ready to go out?" Maxine pulled herself into sitting position excitedly staring at me. I couldn't help but smile seeing her mouth open and close as she worked hard at holding back a bark. I took a deep breath exhaling while I lifted myself out of our warm bed, and stood. "Well let's go if we're going." I grumbled at her. *** Outside the warmth of the sun, the sight of the gardens, all the movement of people my spirits began to lift as Tony moved to a private corner in my mind. Feeling Maxine nudge me I dropped my head staring down at her "Impatient are we?" "Err...errr" she whined bobbing her head with a small pounce. "Okay" I giggled leading her to the wall. Together we strolled along the long wall, Maxine sniffing around as I drifted off in a daydream picking up where Maxine's wet nose had woken me. Through my erotic fantasy of time with my husband my thoughts split in another direction of where he could possibly be. He wouldn't go back to the barn to wait for me I thought. There's nothing there and it is too open. He would be too vulnerable... Lost in my thoughts I barely noticed the woman offering me a nod as she passed. Forcing the corners of my mouth to tilt I lifted my hand nodding in reply to her silent greeting. He would go to a town in search of supplies. We always did. People's homes were the only places left to shop. If he was still within miles of here he would have seen my signs by now I thought wondering why he hasn't tried to reach me on my radio. I heard him calling me, but was too lost in my thoughts to truly register it at first. "Holly!" This time really hearing it I turned squinting as the sun landed in my eyes. Lifting my hand to shield them from the blinding glow I saw Mr. Clay coming toward with a man I didn't recognize marching at his side. "Hey Mr. Clay" I waved seeing something large in his arms. "I got something for you." he beamed. I could see it had weight to it from the flex in his solid arms, but it was draped in cloth shielding its identity from me. I arched my brows in curiosity, as I looked on at him sideways "I don't have any cakes or coffee left to give you." I droned in warning. "Ha...ha" he smiled dryly. "It's a gift." Gripping the cloth he paused as if to build the suspense. It was working to. Practically busting with anticipation I prayed it was what I thought as I held my breath. My eyes darted briefly to the disheveled dark haired man beside him. "I was coming back this morning with this gift and found Trevor here" he said looking to the man beside him who stood smiling at me "He was at our gate banging away just like when you arrived. Only he was in better humor then you were." Mr. Clay chuckled. "Hi." I said distractedly. I wanted to know what was under the material. "You ready?" Mr. Clay asked gripping the cloth, a proud grin stretching from one side of his face, clear to the other. My eyes locked on the mass he carried "If this is what..." Mr. Clay lifted the cloth. My eyes shot wide. "I thought it would be impossible to find" I squealed. "Does it work?" I asked hearing Maxine growl behind me. Twisting I snapped my fingers at her with a look of warning. Maxine lowered her head shamefully, her growl becoming a whimper. "Well since you have every sheet of paper left on this gosh forsaken earth..." he teased receiving a playful scowl from me "you'll have to tell me." I ran my hands across the keys. In my mind I could already hear the ticking sounds. "Want to know the best part?" he asked proudly. My happy eyes met his in silent response. "There were two spare ribbons in the drawer. You should have enough to write hundreds of books. In fact you will probably run out of paper before you run out of ribbon. Am I the best or what?" So happy, I tried to wrap my arms around him, the typewriter making it not only difficult, but painful as Maxine growled again. I spun on her snapping "What is your problem?" The only time I had heard her growl was when I found her in the trees, and even than it didn't sound like it did now. Now I could hear no fear. It was deeper, angrier. It sounded more like a warning she was giving, and she was pointing it at Trevor. I turned my attention to the man with Mr. Clay, scrutinizing him. I had never seen him before, and with the way Maxine was staring him down I wasn't so sure I trusted him. "Trevor is it?" I said forcing a warm tone as I extended my hand to him "I'm Holly." "It's nice to meet you." he smiled reaching his hand to mine. Before we could connect Maxine was between us showing him her best smile. I snapped my fingers at her where she obediently sat, but refused to remove her eyes from him. "Sorry about her" I said confused by her behavior. "It's okay" he waved. "She's just looking out for you." "Are you hurt?" I asked having noticed his face twist as if in pain when he extended his arm. "Just a little" he said. "I barely escaped the sick about ten minutes from here. About five of them came out of nowhere." Something wasn't sitting right, the sweat beading on his forehead, the paleness of his skin. "You have a beautiful Shepard" he said gesturing to Maxine. "She is" I nodded with furrowed brows seeing her bare her teeth again. "I found her in a bush on our way into town. She doesn't normally react like this though." I said looking him over. He leaned in slowly to her. Maxine moved, her cowls up, her head low, her eyes locked she paced slowly side to side as if ready to attack. I put my hand forward stopping him from getting to close "Let's not test her right now." I said trying to smile. "There you are Holly." I turned seeing Landon approaching. "I've been looking all over for you." "It isn't that big a field, and it's pretty open." I said far more harshly then I had intended. I just couldn't help it. The way Maxine was growling at Trevor told me she could sense something. "You said you were attacked?" Mr. Clay asked clearly picking up on Maxine's unease also. "Hi, I'm Landon." Landon smiled offering his hand to Trevor. "Yeah I was. I just barely made it out." Trevor replied shaking Landon's hand "Trevor." he smiled giving Landon's hand a firm squeeze "Nice to meet you. All of you" he said looking at each of us "Great place you have here." The shirt was dark, barely showing the dirt on it, but I was almost certain that the circle I was seeing was blood. "Can...can I see...your arm?" I asked hesitantly reaching out for it. "Sure" Trevor grinned. "It isn't that bad, but I will say it sure does hurt." Mr. Clay moved closer as I lifted the sleeve of the same arm that seemed to be causing him pain. "You've been bit?" Mr. Clay snapped. "Yeah" Trevor nodded. "this morning." It was then that I realized why she was upset. She could smell the virus flowing through him; her full potential now dawning on me. Before Trevor Maxine was just a smart pet, but that day my dad's words echoed in my mind. You know you can teach a dog to do anything you want. Sniff out a chemical, a person, let you know you are about to have a seizure; they can drag a person out of just about anything. They are incredibly intelligent and loyal creatures. "I am such an idiot..." Mr. Clay breathed wiping at his face "I was so preoccupied with giving you this gift I didn't bother with procedure." "Well it isn't like we would have left him out there even if you knew." I said gently touching his shoulder. "It's just a bite" Trevor spoke. "I'm fine." "No you're not" I stated. "You have a fever." Trevor looked at me even more confused than I was. My brows crinkled in curiosity as my head kicked back in surprise "Do you not know what it means to be bit? Did you not watch the news? Hear the rumors? Have you not seen someone after they have been bit?" I fired out at him. "I lived on the street for many years before this whole thing started, so I didn't have a T.V., and rumors... well people don't speak to bums." he snorted "I mean did you ever stop to speak to a homeless man?" "No" I said dropping my gaze suddenly a little ashamed. I never did give more than a weak smile as I passed them, and that was usually because I was staring, and they caught me. "Well when this whole thing started I was alone, and after it turned to shit I was still alone. I've been held up in a cave in the forest not far from here. I come out only when I need to find supplies. I have to say" he smiled brightly "I've never had it so good. All those abandoned homes, with all their nice belongings free for the taking. For once the entire world is my equal. No more judgment." I smiled weakly at him. I knew we had to tell him, but how do you tell someone they only have hours, maybe a day left to live? Maxine growling again pulled me from my thoughts. "Maxine!" I snapped. "Landon, can you please take her back to my hut?" "Sure." he said, but I could see he was hesitant to leave. "Mr. Clay and I will take Trevor and get him some water and a meal. We'll be by the boiling station." Nodding he tapped his leg silently calling Maxine to him. We spent the day with Trevor. We gave him clean clothes, fed him, and gave him all the water he wanted. It turned out years before he had lost his job in a massive layoff. His wife and him struggled to make ends meet for a while, but eventually she ran off divorcing him. He was already feeling like a failure, but her leaving drove the only shred of self-worth he had into the toilet. After losing his job, and then his wife he moved to the streets waiting for the world to swallow him up. "After a number of years... I think about four, I finally came out of my funk of self-pity. Ridiculous it took so long huh?" Trevor huffed out a laugh as the three of us lowered our gaze. “I finally started to go to the unemployment office to help find me a job, and get me off the streets. I had my first interview. I returned to the unemployment office a few days later to see if anything came from it, but the office was closed. It was very bizarre. In all the years I walked by it, it was always open." Silently our eyes rested on him. I didn't look at the others, but I know I was lost for words. I felt horrible for his unfortunate luck, for what his wife did to him, for what the virus took from him. Just as he decided to rejoin the world again the virus made it impossible. Than just when he was comfortable with where he was destined to stay, the virus came and took him out at the knees. "I nailed that interview too." he laughed "I know I did. If I hadn't have been blessed with all this" he grinned opening his hands to the sky "I would be sitting at a desk as an accountant again. I’d be sleeping in a warm apartment, showering regularly with a full belly." Feeling the heaviness in the air around him he dropped his hands with a loud snort "Sounds horrible if you ask me. Freedom is underrated!" Trevor lived for seven more hours, twenty-seven minutes...He brought to us a reminder of what we were trying to survive. He showed us that regardless of how bleak our lives sometimes can seem, it can always be worse. He also brought to me an idea. CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE Hot from the beating sun, Mr. Clay breathlessly speared the covered grave with his shovel landing his forearm on its handle before saying a few words. It wasn't your typical we will miss you spiel since we didn't know Trevor on a personal level. It was simple, a request for Trevor to find eternal peace and a warm bed. Our heads bowed we stood silently for a few unmoving moments before Jordan broke the spell. "I need to make a run into town. Holly? You want to join me?" "You know what?" I said brightening "I think I will." I didn't need anything in town but I wanted to test something. "Let me get Maxine first." Mr. Clay cocked a brow at me "Holly? What are you up to?" He knew I didn't need anything. We had been doing a lot of runs lately. He was in the know when it came to my supplies. "I want to test something with Maxine." "Oh no you don't" Mr. Clay stated adamantly. The expression that accompanied his commanding tone was one filled with disbelief and the lingering silent question of are you completely stupid? "Listen, since I found her I haven't taken her off the property." "And it should stay that way." he said matter of fact like. "Did you not see the way she reacted to Trevor? This could be valuable Mr. Clay. I want to see if my observation was correct." "Holly" Jordan piped in "I agree with Mr. Clay. Maxine is not a good idea. If you are going to bring her I would rather just go alone." "I am sorry you feel that way Jordan." I said a little disappointed. "But I understand." "So?" Mr. Clay asked eye balling me. "What?" I snapped "Stop glaring at me." "So Maxine stays here then?" "No." Now I was shooting him the, are you completely stupid look. "I will just have to go out alone with her." As I spun to go collect her Landon grabbed hold of my arm spinning me back to see him. "Holly this is suicide. She isn't trained." Practically on my tip toes since he had me pulled in so tightly I argued hotly "She's partly trained." "Just because she can walk off leash and not have her bolt, does not mean she is trained!" he snapped at me. "Let me go!" I demanded as I pulled my arm hard freeing it from his grip. "I have to know!" I knew the potential even if they didn't see it. If I was right I could make them see it. If she could do what I thought she could, what I saw Mr. Clay noticed too, she will be incredibly valuable. By the way" I shouted irately over my shoulder as I stomped away hearing someone moving to march after me "Landon told me of a village of people in a cave close to here." "Wh...what?" I heard Mr. Clay stammer as the moving feet behind my stilled followed by a sigh from Landon I assumed. As the distance increased between them and myself I couldn't hear anything more. At the gate, my walking stick in hand, bag over my shoulder filled with water, food and my hammock I nodded to Lucy who’s eyes silently pleaded with me to change my mind as she moved to pull the rope. The gates creaking as they slowly opened out making room for us to pass through I looked down to my left at Maxine. Her tongue dangling out the side of her mouth she stood looking up at me. She appeared happy to be heading out on the adventure. Taking a deep breath while making a silent prayer for our safe return I tapped my leg signally to her to follow. Passing the only safe house built followed by the supplies for the next, we walked the path into the trees being sure to stay the direction I was familiar with so I wouldn't get lost. It was hot out and we had been walking for about an hour. I knew I needed water, so I was sure Maxine did too. Stopping I dropped my pack and crouched down unzipping it. Pouring Maxine a small bowl I gave her a pet. She moved in lapping it up fast as I stood gulping mind down. Maxine, her nose still in her bowl let out a growl. Looking down at her I could see her frozen in her drinking position; her eyes shifting in direction. Suddenly afraid, my heart thumped sending my blood racing through me as I scanned my surroundings. I have to admit, it was far more intense with her growling then it was any other time I had been out there. Before that I would have been oblivious to anything around me until it got close enough for me to hear its sounds. You would think that would be scarier, but in fact it was just the opposite. Somehow until you heard their sounds you almost forgot about them. Now, unable to see it, or hear it, I was terrified. I had no idea if I should stay put or run. But if I ran I had no idea what was the best direction. For all I knew I would run right into its path. If I could see it I would know to run the other way. If I could hear it, the sound would tell me what direction not to go in. Instead I was...I was no worse off than without Maxine I smiled settling myself down. Now I knew at least one was close. Close enough that the wind carried its smell to her. Now I just needed to be quiet as we moved and listen for any indication we were walking into it. Quietly we took another step, and another, and just like that my fear returned, only this time the sense of panic almost overwhelmed me as she started to bark. No matter how many times I shushed her she just kept barking. She's drawing them in I thought trying to slow my breathing as well as my racing heart suddenly aware that I had no idea if she smelt one... or many, or how many she was drawing to us. Think Holly! But I was incapable of a single rational thought. So many were flying through my head, but the fear left me unable to process them, to make sense of them. What do I do? I mentally whimpered as Maxine paced, barking incessantly. Her barks anger filled, protective, deep. Her cowls high and straight. Her teeth bared. "Please... Maxine, be quiet." I quietly pleaded with her while listening for sounds of our pending doom. *** "What the hell happened?" Mr. Clay shouted jumping from his watch post to open the gate that would grant me the desperately needed refuge. Limping I sobbed as I carried Maxine through the gate. "Holly" Mr. Clay breathed meeting my pained eyes "What happened?" Carefully he lifted Maxine out of my arms causing her to cry out as she bared her teeth from the pain. Mr. Clay moved to the side of the wall. Knelling, he put her down in the shade. "We were attacked." I said through my tears as I knelt to pet her. "It was like they were stalking us. They came at us in all directions. There was just nowhere to go. They were coming in fast, so fast Mr. Clay." He twisted putting a hand on each of my shoulders. "Slow down Holly." I swallowed hard, blinking a few times. "Please tell me she will be okay Mr. Clay. Please." I cried scooting my knees so I was closer to her. "It can't end like this Maxine. Please stay with me. I can't lose you too." My hand on her I turned my flooded blurry eyes to Mr. Clay "Maxine, she saved me. We had nowhere to go. All four options were blocked. Just when I thought that was it, it was over she lunged for one clearing a path for me to go. It was survival. I ran for the nearest strongest tree I could see and climbed." Mr. Clay said nothing to comfort me as his hand rested on my back. How could he say anything? He chose to stay quiet because the only thing to say was I was stupid. What I did was pointless. I didn't need survival gear, I didn't need water. I took her out there for no purpose at all; just my selfish curiosity. Mr. Clay dropped his head heavily "Was she bit?" Through my sobs I nodded. "Yes. Three of them chased me, but one, the one she attacked stayed to fight her. It threw her, and then went at her. She fought hard though Mr. Clay." I said with a sniffle "She bit back. In fact she attacked it so good she killed it." Mr. Clay exhaled wiping the sweat from his forehead. His empathy filled eyes meeting my tear-filled eyes "You know she can't stay inside these walls Holly." "I can't just set her outside the gate Mr. Clay." I said almost pleading with him. "I'll stay right here with her. When the time comes I will end it for her." The weight in which he shook his head I knew what he was going to say before the words came out. "Please Mr. Clay!" I sobbed again. "No Holly. There are children here. What if she is too fast for you? It is just too dangerous." I nodded. He was right. I couldn't risk the lives of anyone there. Nodding I moved pulling my bag onto my shoulder before gently scooping Maxine up into my arms. With a grunt from me and a cry from her I willed my legs to find the strength to stand. Mr. Clay's eyes went wide with worry "Where are you going Holly?" "To the safe house" I sniffled. Mr. Clay moved putting himself in my path "What if she is faster than you Holly?" "Then so be it. I won't leave her alone to suffer." His eyes softened and his voice quieted "Then don't let her suffer Holly." Instantly my tears dried and fire rose within me. I was beyond angry that he could suggest such a thing. She was my loyal friend. It was me that was a terrible friend to her. "Move Mr. Clay!" "Please Holly." He was pleading with me now. I stepped around him expecting him to try to stop me again, but he didn't. *** I refused to leave her alone. With the water and food in my pack we would hunkered down for the night. My arms full with Maxine I used my foot to open the door to the safe house. I glanced back at the wall spying Mr. Clay now with Jordan, Landon and Lucy on the wall staring out at me before disappearing inside. First I put Maxine down as carefully as I could on the wood floor. Pulling my gun out, I laid it on the ground being sure to keep it real close. Next, worried someone might try to come in for protection only to find two deranged inside ready to rip them apart I wedged a board from the wall to the plate in the floor that set the lock on the door, and switched on the light on the roof. After we were secured inside I knelt petting back her fur finding the gaping hole. Quickly I grabbed the first aid kit off the wall and busied myself nursing her wound. I knew it was pointless to treat it, but it seemed cruel to just leave it be. I was hoping cleaning it and wrapping it would grant her some comfort; at least for a while. All I could do was be thankful that she wouldn't have the pain of it for too much longer. Nothing else to do to her wound I wiped away my tears as I sniffled back the sobs that fought against me to escape, and moved so I could see into her eyes. Her ears down, her once bright eyes were clouded as she met my sorry eyes. Our eyes locked; hers full of pain, mine full of guilt. My heart shattering I pleaded for her forgiveness. "I was so stupid to have brought you out there." I sniffled while rubbing her nose. "What was I thinking? Please forgive me for what I have done." Maxine licked my hand nudging with a cry closer to me. "I was selfish" I whimpered pulling Maxine into my arms. I felt for my gun, being sure it was close enough, and debated if I should end her misery right then. She was clearly in pain, and it was only a matter of time before the next phase of the virus slipped in. My hand on the gun I cupped it, willing myself to pick it up and end it, but again I was too selfish. I couldn't bear losing her any faster then what was necessary. Crying out angry at my greediness, my weakness I released my hold on the gun and wrapped my loving arms around her. I tried throughout the night to give her water or food, but she would just turn her nose up. Every time I tried and she refused I was sure we were nearing the end, but hour after hour there was still no sign of the second phase. Of course I had no way of knowing if she had entered the first phase. I mean how can you tell if a dog has a fever? It isn't like I was able to see beads of sweat on her, or feel her forehead for heat. All I could do was wait for the bleeding. Long ago my watch died, so the only way to get an idea for time was to track the suns position. In the hut there was no sun. A rattle on the door made Maxine and I jolt. I held my breath willing whatever was out there to go away. We didn't need any deranged stressing us out. The rattling stopping there was a knock followed by a muffled voice "Holly. Let me in. Are you okay?" I carefully shifted Maxine who grunted as she lifted her eyes to me. "It's okay girl. Someone just wants to check on us." I said moving to stand. Slowly I opened the door. Squinting I smiled "It's morning?" "Yeah" Mr. Clay sighed sounding relieved "You two are okay." Nodding I beamed looking from him to Maxine then back to him. "What do you think this means?" I asked as Maxine's tail slapped the floor happy to see him. "Well...she seems healthy apart from the wound in her side." he said grinning as he moved to check her out. Maxine's tail slapped the floor at greater speed as Mr. Clay knelt beside her to say hello. "You know" he chuckled as her snout sniffed his face "I think she may have been on to something as stupidly as she went about it." He turned his attention from her to me "You were stupid about it" he said grinning at me "but...you weren't wrong in your idea." "You think she is going to be okay" I smiled weakly at him. "Yeah I do" he beamed giving her a pet. "You're going to be just fine aren't you girl?" "Will you help me get her back up to my hut? I would love to get out of this." I said circling my eyes. "Sure." Mr. Clay and I got Maxine comfortable on her bed before giving her fresh bandages and water. I was so relieved when she finely drank some. "So not trying to be sarcastic and make you angry, but did you accomplish anything with all this?" Mr. Clay asked squinting into the morning sun as we leaned on the railing outside my hut. I kinked a brow at him. "I just mean what was the point?" he shrugged "You know now that she can sniff out the virus. I mean sure it is a helpful tool, but how helpful is it really?" Not seeing any accusation in his eyes I relaxed "Well I really didn't have a plan per say. I just thought it was great that she could tell us if someone was sick, or if the sick were around. Being out there with her was something else though. It was intense. Not sure it is helpful that she can smell them; at least out there." I said, as a shiver danced up my spine. "It really only made it much more intense. Terrifying actually." "Impressive how she took care of you out there. She put her life on the line for you." "She did." I smiled, but the flattery was short lived as the wave of guilt returned." "Don't feel bad Holly. That is a dog's loyalty. She was doing her job." "She wouldn't have had to if I hadn't of brought her out there. She wasn't ready for it. Not even close." I pouted. But as I pouted through my guilt a plan started to form in my head. "Imagine a whole pack of them trained and ready. Heck we'd have an army of soldiers ready to lay down their lives." "You lose your mind again." Mr. Clay said standing tall. "Think about it." I said excitedly "At one time you had one gun. Eventually you had many giving you that much more protection and power. Think of the dogs the same way." I could see the confusion in his expression. "Listen. We can shoot them, but it takes a long time to for them to die. That can prove to be very dangerous when we are swarmed. There just isn't time to hang out while it slowly bleeds out. BUT the dogs when given the command can attack, buying us what we need. Imagine taking a pack of dogs out on a supply run. It only doubles our chances of a safe trip. We can go further. They would protect us from strangers wanting to rob us, or the deranged trying to tear us apart." Mr. Clay quietly pondered the idea. I could practically hear his thoughts. How would we feed all these dogs, and where would we house them? Maybe he was even thinking that it would take so long to train them, that it might not even be worth the time. None the less I saw his eyes light up slightly. He was seeing it. "If they were trained to be quiet and lead you away from the smell that would be a great tool. Is that possible?" "Yeah" I shrugged "anything is possible." "They would have to know how to be quiet. They would need to learn to signal us without making a sound; to attack only when commanded." "It's possible." I smiled bouncing my brows. "See it Mr. Clay. We could go towns further, maybe even to the city." The look in his eye said he saw the vision, and the twitch at the corner of his mouth said he liked it. With a sigh and sounding a little less convinced he replied "I know someone who has a male we could breed her with." Now it was my turn to be confused... CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX "Mr. Clay?" I called in my hurried steps to keep up to him on the bridge. "Who do you know?" "No one. Never mind. Forget I said anything." Skipping forward I bounced putting myself in his path. My palm in his chest I locked my quizzical eyes on him. "I don't get it, why the secrecy?" With a loud exhale he dropped his shoulders. "I know this guy..." "Yeah..." My brows knitted in curiosity "you already said that. So how do you know someone, but they don't live here, and why the regret in mentioning this him?" "Because he's...different." "Like handicapped, mentally challenged? So?" "Yeah..." he nodded as he moved passed me. There was something unsettling in his eyes "You can say that." My brows knitted deeper. "What does that mean?" I asked throwing my hands in out confusion before moving to follow him. "Mr. Clay. You're not making any sense." "Listen Holly." he said turning toward me with eyes that told me he wasn't going to talk about it any further. "Just work on training Maxine. Prove to me she can be taught some of the things we want to teach her. When you can do that, we will go meet my friend. The subject clearly closed for now I changed the subject. "So did Landon tell you anything about the village?" "Oh, you mean the one you so gracefully informed me about?" Mr. Clay said with a hint of humor in his expression. I rolled my eyes "Yes." I huffed playfully "that one." His amusement diminished "Didn't have to" he said turning to walk again "I already knew about it." "Huh? What?" I said stunned. I moved to follow him "You knew about it?" Why did you never say anything?" He stopped and spun on me. I almost plowed into him. "Did Landon tell you anything about the village?" he asked looking concerned. I furrowed my brows completely confused "Not really." "What did he tell you about the village?" his unease still lingering. I searched my memory of all the files for that conversation, fast-forwarding to when he told me about it. He just said there is another village nearby. He said that is was in an underground transit way that was being constructed, but never advertised to the public. He said he stumbled upon it in his travels; that they kept pretty private." Mr. Clay just kept nodding, listening intently to what information I had. "He asked me to go with him. He said it was safe there. No deranged." "M...hmm..." he nodded. I wrinkled my brows even more at his… was it worry in his expression, or was it concerned curiosity? For a moment even, he almost looked as if what Landon had told me had to be all make-believe, like nothing I said proved Landon knew anything at all about it. I couldn't figure it out, but it just made me that much more baffled. "He said that they were building a life there, a new world. I remember him being excited at the idea of our group and theirs joining forces; that they were good people just trying to build something." Suddenly it occurred to me that might not be the case "Is that not true?" I asked worriedly "Are they bad people Mr. Clay?" Mr. Clay shook his head no, allowing me to relax before nervously adding "He said they knew... about this place too." "Is that all? " he asked locking his eyes with mine. I nodded. Mr. Clay relaxed his shoulders as he exhaled "Well clearly he hadn't been there long." "I don't understand" I said "What makes you draw that conclusion?" "Soon enough Holly. When you meet my friend it will all make sense." And just like that he ditched me on the bridge. Staring after him as he walked away I found added incentive to get to the training on Maxine. The whole thing was more than intriguing. I wanted so much to find out whatever it was Mr. Clay suddenly realized he didn't want me to know. Unfortunately I couldn't do much in the world of training until she was up on all fours, and I had no idea how long that would be. I debated on talking to Landon, but if there was something he knew he would have told me; and Mr. Clay did say they weren't bad people, so there was no question about whether or not Landon was hiding something horrible and threatening. Not that I would have assumed that with Landon. In all the time we'd spent on the run he was always watching our backs. Never once did he steer us wrong. Besides the way Mr. Clay said it, Landon wouldn't know anything more than I did. While I patiently waited for Maxine to heal enough to start moving around I played with my new typewriter. Surprisingly it worked pretty well. Between people coming to see how Maxine was doing and my new form of entertainment, I had a constant flow of visitors. In a world with few things to do outside of work I opened my door to anyone who wanted to use it. Let's face it, I had more paper than I would ever be able to go through alone. Quickly the ticking sounds of the keys became a constant in my world. My curiosity of Mr. Clay's friend and the constant noise I was grateful it didn't take Maxine too long to start getting up and moving. Her being up and about I was able to get out more. I think that endless sound is what had Maxine up so fast. I am pretty sure she was losing her mind. Either way, her being back on all fours was all I needed to begin her training. Only having the little knowledge I had learned from my father and what I could remember from the T.V show Alpha Dogs it took me a bit to find what would work for her for certain portions of our training. I think it actually came down to my technique more then anything, but eventually I got the hang of it and was able to see some serious progression. The first bit of training was quietly sniffing out the virus. I didn't need to train her to sniff out the virus, that she could do just fine, but I did need her to learn how to do it silently. I found a few pieces of clothing with blood stain on them. The one that sent her cowls on the rise and got her barking was the one I worked with. I worked on quieting her by placing my finger to my lips, the universal signal for silence. I started doing that with a loud shush sound that would quiet her long enough to praise her up and give her a treat. It was a slow process, but eventually we got to the point and the verbal shush from me was only a reminder here and there, until it wasn't needed at all. I tested that signal on her whenever she barked, have it be while out playing, or trying to get my attention. Didn't matter, but it was clear she knew it. Surprised at how easy it was for her to understand the signal I worked on a way for her to signal me. I decided that since we sometimes were in high stress situations there was a high possibility that no one would know when she smelled anything now that she knew to be quiet about it. Her signal had to be obvious. I decided her pawing me was a pretty good one. It was something she never did, and it would definitely get my attention. I would have her smell the shirt. When her lips curved exposing her teeth I lifted her paw while holding the finger of my free hand to my lips silently, then I would instantly praise her up with a treat. One week of constant work on that and I knew she had mastered it. We eventually had to work on her smelling it without me giving it to her to smell, and my back turned away from her. There was no point to all of this if I needed to be looking at her like this was a game. I found a new shirt. I wanted the smell strong for her. I placed the shirt on the ground and walked her passed it. I had to encourage her a few times. My back to her, my hand out behind me I gave her the command. "Maxine, give me your paw." She blew me away with how fast she caught on. Within a few days of that I only had to gesture to her with my back to her and my hand out behind me; no words of encouragement necessary, and a few days after that I didn't even need to do that anymore. I used hand signals, snapping of my fingers, and treats. It was incredible how quickly she caught on to whatever I wanted her to learn. I taught her how to fetch water bottles from my bag, or bring the bag. I taught her to sit and stay since I knew it would be impossible to get her up a tree and into a hammock. I needed to be able to have her crawl into a small space and stay put for the night. It's no wonder police and military used Shepard's. They truly are brilliant dogs. All the training done, now just constant reinforcement I took her eagerly to the market in search of Mr. Clay. Bouncing up behind him I was so excited to show off what she could do. "Mr. Clay" I practically squealed "She's ready. Want to come see?" Mr. Clay turned with a warm smile. *** In the field I showed Mr. Clay what she could do. Mr. Clay chuckled "That's impressive stuff Holly." "So..." I asked. "What?" "She ready to go and meet your friend?" I asked like the question was obvious. Mr. Clay held up his finger "Not just yet Holly." "What?" I said a little irritated. "Why...why not? She can do everything we talked about. You said" I pointed to him "to show you she can do some of what we wanted. She can do it all." "You have gone this far, she needs to learn two more. One more actually and I will be comfortable." I pulled my brows down and narrowed my eyes on him in frustration. I had been working so hard. Maxine has worked so hard. We put endless hours into this. I wanted to make sure when I brought her to him she wasn't just doing well, but that she would be ready. I wanted to avoid just this. Inhaling deeply I slowly bit out "What. Does. She. Need. To. Learn?" Mr. Clay looked at me like I had been possessed. Adding to my anger I could see he was amused by it as the corners of his mouth twitched trying to conceal the teasing smile. The only thing that kept me grounded was the fear of his pending doom that lingered in his eyes. My anger not only amused him, but I could see he was well aware of the ledge I was currently wobbling on. "She needs to learn to attack." When I said nothing he continued "It isn't a question that she would attack in a moment of crisis, but there could be a time when we will need to command her to use force." I opened my mouth taking a breath ready to rebut, but Mr. Clay silenced me by giving me he universal signal to say nothing "The most important for her to learn Holly is to know the command that would have her pull back." I couldn't figure out why he was so adamant about it. I thought that was a weird demand, and one that elevated my anger. As far as I was concerned, if she felt the need to attack then it must be a do or die situation. I mean she never attacked, or even gave the inkling she had it in her until that day I took her out to test her, and that was as close to a do or die situation one could get. "Well...." I breathed through flared nostrils "isn't that just perfect?" "I don't know what you are upset about." he chuckled and I envisioned myself plowing him to the ground "she only needs to learn how to pull back and we are good to go. You can teach her to attack later. I will even help you." He said so cockily before getting up to leave. I have no idea what it was that amused him so, but what was amusing me was the vision of my beating the hell out him. He knew without teaching her to attack that she won't learn to pull back. "I hate you Mr. Clay." was all I allowed myself to say to his laughing back. Your friend better be as interesting as I think he must be I thought to myself, or I will sick Maxine on you. CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN I'd been on the boat for hours; the dark waters rippling around the boat as it cut through it. I could see the outline of the island as I squinted into the blackness ahead of me. I was growing more and more anxious to see Tony. I could already feel his arms around me. My mom's excited squeal rang in my ears, and my dad's smile sat behind my eyes. If my eyes weren't playing tricks on me, the flicker of the fire on the shoreline told me it was only moments before I would be there. Biting my nails anxiously I stared into the blackness as I impatiently watched the distance shrinking between the island and me. Only a dozen meters left I slowed the boat down unable to recall if the waters were shallow as the doors to the boathouse opened; the light within it glowing around Tony who stood smiling at me. "Holly" I heard him whisper into the breeze. Barely able to contain myself I fought to guide the boat inside. The doors closing behind my small vessel, the large room faded to dark. "Tony?" my voice echoed around me. I climbed off the boat onto the concrete shelf feeling my way, as an eerie silence fell all around. Not even the small waves of the water hitting the concrete sides of the house could be heard. "Holly?" Spinning to the soft sound of his voice I tried to follow his whisper. I inched, but only because it was too dark to run, my way out of the boathouse and onto the wood slatted walk. In the moonlight I could see Tony's shadow moving up the hill toward the cottage. "Tony?" I whispered back as I moved to follow. The path lit brightly it was easy to find my way. Strange they would have torches lighting the path I thought. Approaching the top of the hill I could see the cottage. All the windows were uncovered, the lights from within pouring out onto the property surrounding it. "Holly." I heard him whisper again. I inched closer to the sound of his voice. Before the window I could see inside spying mom and dad sitting in the kitchen at the rickety table. It was like a silent movie reel. They were laughing, but I was unable to hear even a muffled sound. I couldn't help the wide smile that grew on my lips as I moved in even closer. I hadn't seen them laugh like that since before the virus. Right up to the window now I scanned for Tony who was nowhere to be seen. I could see Brand and Joyce who sat opposite mom and dad. Brad was roaring in amusement while rubbing Joyce's back as she was practically rolling out of her seat in complete hilarity. Tears welled in my eyes. Was I happy? Was I sad? I couldn't place my emotions as I continued to stare in. With a blink of my eyes Brad and Joyce looked up at the window I was staring in through as mom and dad turned toward me. Their laughter ceased. Their happy expressions replaced with emotionless eyes, empty eyes. The cottage began to fade, first from my left continuing to the right until it was gone. For a fraction of a second a wall of blackness, nothingness walled at my feet. From right to left color rippled before me taking over where only a second ago stood nothing, and a second before that stood the cottage. On the pale carpet of my living room I looked to my left out the patio door. Mom leaned up kissing my father, the corners of my mouth twitching upward as I watched their warm embrace. Worried they would vanish from my view again I moved tapping the pane of glass. "Mom! Dad!" my muffled shouts came bouncing back to me. They never looked up. They never turned toward my shouts. In complete confusion I tried to pull from my mind the facts I thought to be true. Pulling the files I sorted them trying to make it all make sense. Joyce, Mom, Tony's whispers. The fire I could see from the boat and the torches on the path. The uncovered windows and... My eyes moved beyond my parents caught in a brief embrace on our patio. There I sat in my plaid shirt and tank, my boot slippers, and my hair tied back in a lose ponytail. I was sitting in the red cushioned patio chair, the monarch butterfly fluttering its wings while perched on my hand. I shook my head in confusion, but before I could make it make sense I was sent spinning in rapid motion through every event that followed that day... the day of the first broadcast. I was casted from one scene to another. I relived in seconds what I had lived in the last two years; all the good, all the bad, every second given space to breathe again. My eyes fluttering open I searched for light, an indication of time. Through none of the small cracks in my walls did light seep in, telling me it was still night. I closed my eyes wanting to return to my dream. At least in my dreams Tony existed. Mom and Dad, Joyce, Brad they were there and well, enjoying themselves. I was content to watch if that was all I was able to have in order to see them at all. But no matter how hard I tried my feet would tap, or my mind would order me to move. With a disappointed huff I rose from my pile of blankets on the floor calling Maxine. Opening the door to the outside I inhaled deeply. The smell of the damp forest filling my nose I stepped out crossing the bridge. I leaned, resting my arms on the railing staring out into the dark the same vision as always filling my imagination as I stared at the large patched doors below. My mind pushed away the darkness, imagining the sun high in the sky. The gate opened as Tony, dad and Brad came walking through it. With a heavy sigh I aloud the sun to fall washing away the vision of them as night moved back in. I looked down at Maxine who sat staring up at me. Pushing off the railing I turned walking back toward my hut to the small table and chairs. "It's a nice fantasy, but that's all it is." I said dejectedly dropping into one of the seats. Maxine moved in sitting at my feet. As if feeling my sadness she dropped her chin into my lab, her sweet eyes looking up at me "That's all it will ever be won't it." I asked. With no reply we sat unmoving and in silence until I was ready to break it. On that bridge, under the stars, Maxine's ears perked listening to me reminiscing the days of love, laughter and family. That night with Maxine, I wished I could go back to the days before the virus. I'd carried that wish every day since the virus began. I threw it out at the first star I saw each night, at every well I didn't have a penny to drop in. I threw it out on the couple birthdays I didn't have any candles to blow out. I didn't care how boring the world once was. I wanted to turn back the clock to when I was with the love of my life. My heart ached for the days when mom's smile and weird sense of humor made me laugh. I missed my dad and his crazy versions of the truth. I missed Brad's serious ways, and the way Joyce would roll her eyes and drone about how ridiculous he was. There is something to be said about the world today. It has a sense of new to it; new opportunities, a chance to build again and not make the mistakes of the past. A chance to erase old sins and be reborn; where we can live together truly helping one another. But in all that I didn't have them. I tried to make it all work and smile every day. I tried to be a part of it; a full fledge citizen of our community. I think I did a great job, but deep down I was sad and hurting. There wasn't a day I didn't think of all of them. There wasn't a day I didn't grieve the loss of my mother, and that it wasn't me at her side when she took her last breath. There wasn't a day I didn't crave Tony's touch or wish for his soft whispers in the night. There wasn't a day when I didn't see my father's smile, and there wasn't a day that I didn't wonder if anyone I loved was still alive. "Did I ever tell you about my first date with Tony?" I asked Maxine. Maxine perched between my knees her ears twitched as she sat straight and proud. "No not the first date." I giggled recalling the dinner dad forced upon us. "I mean the first date we actually went out." Maxine shifted with a grunt. Giving her a pet I smirked. It started amusedly enough. The bell rang. I lifted myself from my seat at the table excited to get the door knowing it was him, but dad reached it first. He opened the door and there he stood, smiling so brightly. All I heard as Tony took a step forward was his deep voice... "Mr...." but Dad swung the door shut again turning back toward the table where he had been studying for a course work had him enrolled in. "Tony was so close to the door when it slammed in his face." I told Maxine. I couldn't help but giggle at the memory. "I was surprised it didn't hit him in the nose." Since I had been sitting at the table when Tony knocked, I saw the meet and greet dad and him just had. It was hard to miss the amusement dad was trying to hide in his expression. "Dad!" I barked as I rushed to see if Tony was okay. "Holly" he replied casually as I passed him. I rolled my eyes almost at the door. A step or two left until I reached it, and the door swung open. "Mr. Wood!" Tony cheerily greeted him. "Don't think you saw me there when you opened the door." "Nope" dad said popping the P as he dropped himself down at the table; his eyes on the textbook he was flipping back open "Can't say I did." Sighing I rolled my eyes again so this is how it's going to be I thought to myself. "We ready to go?" I asked Tony. I just wanted to leave while it was still somewhat amusing. One wrong word, one shred more of insult and it could easily flip the other way I thought. Suddenly interested dad sat at attention "Where you going?" he asked. "Out" I said giving him the death stare. "Well obviously." Dad sarcastically smirked putting down his heavy book. "I'm just curious. I mean, all I know about him is he isn't the most reliable. What if he leaves you at the restaurant?" Tony cleared his throat trying to conceal a chuckle, no doubt thinking about how he ditched dad at the store that first night. Pressing my lips I lopsided myself "I'm feeling pretty confident that won't happen dad" I said taking Tony's elbow, silently signaling him it was time to go. Almost out the door dad sang out "Oh Tony...Did I tell you I work for the police, and military?" Here we go I grumbled to myself, the dad threat; his warning to Tony that he has more than one gun should Tony hurt his little girl. If I didn't know my father so well I would have thought he was serious, making his comment very uncomfortable; but if he didn't like Tony my going out with him that night wouldn't have been a plan I would have been allowed to make. "Jim" mom scolded dad as she came into the dining/living area. "Hi Tony" she smiled "Nice to see you again." Tony nodded sweetly "Pleasure to see you again Mrs. Wood." "Call me Georgie." she said still smiling at him "Mrs. Wood makes me feel old." Mom lifted her hand, her four fingers waving us on "You two have a good night now." Dad jumped moving to stand "Wait! What? Why Georgie what if..." Mom twisted to see him "Jim I saw you fall in love with Tony here, the moment you walked back into the house with the bag of milk. He's Holly's boyfriend honey, not yours. You can give him as difficult a time as you want later." "But Georgie" dad whined. "You two have a good night now" mom smiled waving us off again. "Night Mr. Wood." Tony chuckled blowing dad a kiss. Giggling I pushed Tony onward shouting over my shoulder "Love you guys" and let the door close behind us. "Oh Maxine" I giggled petting her harder than a moment ago "Once inside the car the two of us laughed hard, but somewhere in those seconds our eyes met and the laughter fell away. We just stared into each other's eyes, lost in a moment." I fell back into my seat staring off as I envisioned it "at least until it became awkward." I said with a wave. "Anyway we drove for a while talking about school." "You know that girl Laura" Tony asked. "The hippie?" "Yeah, her" he snorted. "She's good friends with your buddy Lance's girlfriend Megan" "She is?" Tony asked looking mildly stumped. "Yeah." I giggled "She is. How can you not know this? He's your friend. Surely you hang out in his circle once in a while." "I do hang out in his circle, all the time in fact. That is how I know Laura is really a guy." "Wait. What? A guy!" "Kidding. She's not a guy. She is actually a crazy chick who is so pissed at you right now." "Why?" I asked shocked and mildly concerned. "Cause she thinks you stole her shoes." he laughed. "What shoes?" I asked now confused. "The ones you're wearing." "These shoes?" I barked pointing at the pink glossy flats on my feet. "Megan gave me these the other day when I was helping her clean out her closet!" "Well..." Tony said "that isn't what Megan told her." "That bitch!" she really wasn't though. Megan was great. She had a sick sense of humor, but she was far from a bitch. She loved to start drama, watch it unfold for a bit, and right before it got carried away she would swoop in, come clean and laugh like it was the most hilarious thing ever. "One of these days I am going have to find something that will get Megan good." I said relaxing into my seat. Hopefully before Laura kicks the crap out of me and sends me home with no shoes." "It's all good." Tony winked at me. "I told her you didn't steal the shoes from her." "You did?" I asked impressed that he had my back. I mean considering we really were only just getting to know each other. "Yeah. When she was flapping her gums about how pissed she was with you, I said Laura. Stop. She would never steal from you. She thought she was stealing from Megan." "Hmm..." I said with an eye roll. "That I am sure was incredibly helpful." "It was. Laura is no longer just pissed at you. She has spread that same level of anger out. Now only half of it is on you and the other half is on Megan for not being more careful with her shoes." "Well thank you" I said forcing a grin "You are a hero. Where are we going anyway?" I asked now that the city was just a little ways behind us. "Well I was going to take you to a fancy restaurant, but now that your dad threated an arsenal I had to quickly rethink that." "And what did you come up with?" I asked flashing him a lopsided smile. "I mean we are heading into the middle of nowhere now." "We are almost there." he smiled. Another bend or two later he pulled the car into a park. Leaning over he reached into his glove-box pulling out a flashlight. "You ready?" he winked. "You know it is pitch black out there?" I pointed nervously. "You scared of the dark?" he smirked. "Well no, but I am scared of the dark when surrounded by trees and no walls to make me feel secure." "Well good thing I have a flashlight then." Tony climbed out of the car leaving me no more time to voice my fears. Coming around to my side he opened the door. "Come on. You can hide behind me if you want." Curious what he had up his sleeve I climbed out taking the elbow he offered me. "This is like a Halloween movie." I smiled up at him pretending I was pretending to be nervous. "What if Michael Myers is waiting in the trees for us." I was trying to be funny, but as quickly as I said it I realized it was stupid. Instantly the low level of fear that existed prior to my big mouth speaking heightened racing through my veins. Now I was holding his arm, not for the romance, but ready to push him at Michael buying me time to run if need be. Maxine's ears perked up as she groaned. "Yes I would have sacrificed him for my safety at this point." I stated meeting her, what I pretended to be shocked eyes "He didn't become my world for another thirty minutes or so." We walked, his hands in his pockets, my arm linked through one of his down a trail. The trees one both sides I jumped at every sound I heard giving him plenty of opportunities to tease me, but he didn't. Instead he wrapped his arms around me telling me there would be plenty of light soon enough if I could hang on for another five minutes. Coming to a fork in the paths he removed his arm from around my waist taking my hand instead. Leading me down the fork on the right and into the trees we came across a table with a white linen cloth covering it and wild flowers in the center; two white plates sat one across from the other. "Tony..." I breathed "You did this?" He let go of my hand stepping to the left while I stared in awe. A second later a flicker of light from a torch he lit. He continued around the table lighting four more until the ambiance was set. Pulling out a chair for me I took a seat, all thoughts of Michael gone from my mind as he pulled out from under the table a blue cooler. Opening it he pulled a couple of containers out. "Pizza" I giggled as he placed a large thick pepperoni slice on my plate. "Only the best for you" he chuckled lightly while pulling out two clear plastic cups. "It's perfect!" I stated, and meant it as he poured us each a glass of pop. "Good, because it was all I could afford." he smiled bashfully "After I bought everything else in an effort to be romantic there was little left for food." "You have to remember he was only in high school saving for University." I said to Maxine who stared at me crookedly "It was a really big deal!" I stated, her head cocking to the side even more. "Well you don't have to think it was romantic. I thought it was the best date ever. We spend the evening getting to know each other, but not by asking a thousand questions, but by the jokes we told, the riddles we tried to solve, and the gossip we shared about the people we went to school with. It was the best first day of forever two people could ever share. And forever is what we wanted from that day on. It just took us a few more dates to communicate that." My eyes leaving hers I stared off as memories of him surfaced "You know that was how he was with me always. He always found some way to sweep me off my feet." I sighed as I stared off at the stars for a few moments "I loved him so much Maxine. I still do..." Pushing the happy memories that were making me sad I exhaled "Well" I said trying to keep the tears from welling in my eyes. "We should get some sleep. We have a big day tomorrow. You have a performance to show Mr. Clay. Hopefully after that we will be going to the underground village to get you your mate." Maxine groaned making me chuckle as I moved to stand. "Come on girl." I smiled down at her "Let's go back to bed. Shall we?" CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT The sun finally on the rise I excitedly ruffled Maxine's fur jolting her attention to me. Eager to show Mr. Clay that she had finally met his expectations I threw off the blankets jumping up. It had taken me a few days to figure out what I was going to use for an attack command. After Mr. Clay had left me in the field telling me she needed to learn how to attack, but most importantly how to pull back I wished that she already knew. I would have loved to show him her skills as she demonstrated them on him I was so angry. Instead I paced the field shaking off my frustrations pondering an appropriate attack command. Kill? Nope, that won't be good. I was worried that a basic command could be used by anyone, or any child possibly winding up with Maxine attacking someone unnecessarily. I was fairly certain that the command wouldn't have her hurting people she knew and loved, but I couldn't take that chance. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if she attacked an innocent child. Namaste! I thought only to roll my eyes. Yeah cause I will remember that in a moment of high stress. Picking up my pacing steps again I continued to going through the English dictionary in my head, and the few foreign words I knew. Chocolate I wondered, than shook my head. It isn't a word we often use anymore, and sadly it isn't an item we find regularly either, but still, all I needed was for someone to utter the word. In my mind I pictured Mr. Clay sitting in a chair, water in hand enjoying the warmth of the sun. He lays his head back thinking about the one thing that would make the moment perfect and sighs, "Chocolate." Out of nowhere Maxine comes snarling at him as she takes flight landing herself in his lap. Knocked to the ground his face a twisted mess of startle and anger. I know you can't sick a dog on yourself, but I snicker just the same while in my imagination Mr. Clay laid flailing away the vicious licks she was lavishing him with, cursing angrily about how he was having the perfect day until she ruined it. All desert words off the table I continued to pace. Ola? Nope; images of Lucy with an arm load of laundry sweetly smiling "Ola Mr. Clay." as she walks by him; and in comes Maxine I snickered to myself. I ran through some more words, T.V....? Na. Banana...? My thoughts drifting to the sweet flavor making me crave one. Hmm...How long has it been? I wondered. Well importing ceased back when all travel in or out of the country ceased. Wow I thought. I haven' had a banana in...I stood squinting upward calculating it. A little over one year from the first broadcast to lights out. Another ten months, give or take on the run for survival and almost a year here at Lost Boy Village. That's at least three years. I continued walking the field, my thoughts wandering away from the task at hand awe struck at the time that had passed since that day in my mother's garden. Now hungry, not to mention now in a mild funk I sighed upgrading the all deserts off the table to all food off the table as I tried to focus again. In my funk I muddled through the curse words. Fuck, shit, asshole...no, those won't work. Believe it or not there is a lot of cursing that goes on around here. As much as we had been doing things the far more complicated way for a while now, we really had yet to completely adjust. Frustrations, more often than I recall them ever being prior to the world turning on us are quit high here. Oh, but I do know a few curse words in German I thought. A boy back in grade school named Lukas Fischer was German. His parents spoke it fluently at home, but Lukas brought up in English schools never really picked it up. He was however fluent in cussing and had no problem teaching our eager to learn minds all the swear words we wanted to know. Walking the field I tried to recall those words. Slut - schlampe. Too easy I thought. I had nailed that one into my memory having found many opportunities to use it from grade school right on through high school. He also taught us Sie dumm fuhrt; it means you stupid head. I liked that one. It always seemed to make me giggle. Oh! Or bitch! What was the word for that one? I know I should know it. In high school there always seemed to be some bitch somewhere. Oh yes Miststuck! Oh this is fun I thought with a quick excited skip. My finger to my chin I glanced upward. What was the word for fuck? dich...no. That's the "you" in fuck you...Fisch...no... Fich? Fick! Thank you Lukas Fischer you ficking genius! As quickly as I became excited I deflated. They were all so similar to words we heard every day. Not similar in meaning but in sound. What if she misheard a word for the command when faced with unnerving people in our travels? She could attack exasperating our situation. Relaxing my mouth I exhaled letting the escaping air push my lips out; but my sense of humor not lost a small smile twitched at the corners of my mouth as my mind played sie dumm fuhrt on repeat. Hey I thought rolling sie dumm fuhrt off my tongue again and again. Not only is it funny, but appropriate too; AND when said in its entirety it won't resemble any word heard around this place I thought. And just like that Maxine's attack word was born I sang to myself. With the help of Landon and Jordon Maxine became an attack dog. We used the scented materials we found outside the walls. Jordon and Landon wore layers upon layer so there would be no chance of Maxine breaking their skin. They would work at riling her up waving the scented item around her pissing her off. I would hold her back using her leash, eventually letting it go commanding sie dumm fuhrt sending her charging them. When it appeared she understood the command, while she continued attacking I would repeat the command watching her grow more and more violent. "Holly!" Jordon shouted from the ground. "Get her off me!" Reaching down I picked up Maxine's leash pulling her back. Maxine fighting me with everything she had I dug my heels into the ground leaning my body back for added resistance while she snarled and lounged at him. Jordon groaning from the heat and from the bruising she no doubt had inflicted on him, he lifted himself to his feet. "You okay Jordon?" Landon asked with a chuckle. "She's getting pretty aggressive isn't she?" Jordon panting removed a few layers and his make shift padded cloth helmet and mask. "Yeah, and holy shit it hurts." he replied rubbing the arm he held down to Maxine. Slowly closing the gap between them he calmly spoke to her talking her down. Maxine crept her way nervously to him. Smelling his hand before waging her tail timidly she gave him one more sniff and excitedly licked his hand. "She is too rough now Holly. I think we need to use something other than myself or Landon. These clothes aren't meant for this. One of us is going to get hurt." I couldn't help the quiet giggle that escaped me receiving a playful glare from him "You want to give it a try? I can do the commanding." I shook my head with a grin. "No!" Landon chuckled again "Why do you think I let you go first this morning? In fact I'm still trying to come up with an excuse to not go later either." "Thanks Landon." Jordon droned with a crooked smile still rubbing his arm. "I appreciate your dickish consideration." Cocking an amused brow at both of them I pressed my lips nodding knowing Jordon was right. Police and military dogs were used for chase and to apprehend the suspect. Sure they hurt the criminal, but they didn't hospitalize or kill them. Maxine's job was to kill, and she was starting to catch onto that. But what we could use other than them? I was at a loss. "What do you suggest?" I asked. "Not sure it will work but I was thinking we could make a stuffed human." Jordon replied. "Anything has to be better than either of us playing bait." "Actually" Landon shrugged "It could work. Why don't we take a break? Jordon and I can mull over some ideas on how to make it work. We can pick this back up later." "Okay." I said happy at least there was a plan in the works. "How about we meet back here around dinner?" With a relieved smile Jordon nodded "See you in a few hours." On my way back to my hut I noticed Lucy's door open. "Mind if I visit?" I asked peaking in on her at her table mending a shirt. "Holly." she smiled up at me. "Come on in! I can use a break from this anyway." she said putting down her sewing. Walking in with Maxine on my heels I dropped into a chair. "You okay?" she asked smiling at my laziness before turning in her seat to pet Maxine who was happily panting at her feet. "How's the training going?" "Good actually. Maxine is getting pretty vicious out there; shouldn't be too long now." "Wow" she said arching an impressed brow at me before turning her attention to Maxine "You sure are a bright girl. She's catching on fast." she smiled back at me still cupping Maxine's head in her palms. "She is, and if Mr. Clay finds another thing to stall us when I show him, I will turn my imagination into reality." I said crookedly smiling. "I figure another couple of days and we should be good to demonstrate to him what she can do." "You want some water?" she offered. "Can you spare some?" Lucy nodded lifting herself from her seat. As she plucked a cup from her shelf my eyes landed on her pile of mending. "You know there are more than enough clothes out there? That is the one thing there is no shortage of." Cup in hand Lucy twisted leaning on her counter looking at me. "I know" she giggled shaking her head "but as much as I hate it, I am not going to remind them. You don't understand the trades I get just for fixing a seam or patching a hole." "But you hate it." I reminded her.. "I can find you just about anything you need without doing this tedious task." "I know" she shrugged pouring my water. "But what else am I going to do to fill my days?" "There's plenty you can do with the garden. Last year, all your hard work kept us most of the winter in vegetables. This year the crop we have should yield us enough for the entire winter. I can use all the hands I can get." I met Lucy's eyes as she leaned on the small table placing the cup down in front of me. "What do you say? You can put down your sewing needle and start sewing the garden." "No offense" she smiled sliding into her chair "but I hate gardening and you are a horrible boss." Shocked I pushed myself back into my seat. "What? What do you mean? I was easy to get along with." "Please!" Lucy scoffed at me "You were a bitch; Insisting I be up before sun up and work until sun down. I remember one morning before the sun even began to climb you came in to my hut throwing water at me. What is it you said to me? Oh yeah you said..." "I only asked if you were thirsty." I said cutting her off; my eyes playfully challenging her. "That's right. You said hope you aren't thirsty because the water you are wearing are you day's rations, so lick it up butter cup." "Oh okay miss prissy. I was only making a point. You need to water them before sun up otherwise the sun evaporates the water before it has a chance to reach the roots dehydrating the plants. I asked you to do it again before sun down only if we could spare the water. And they were wilting!" I stated widening my eyes in emphasis. "and why were they wilting?" I laughed putting the onus back on her. "Okay!" she barked through her giggle. I leaned back in my seat crossing my arms "That's right." I nodded content with my win "Because you insisted on doing it your way. Behind my back and against my instructions you watered them all afternoon with the sun beating down on them. You're lucky you didn't kill them. When I came back from my run with Mr. Clay they were tipping over all limp and wilted." I said narrowing my eyes "Clearly you had done it that way for a few days." “Okay! Okay!” Lucy laughed waving her lack of responsibility away. Her laugh falling away a smile stayed etched on her lips "Well I don't do the crack of crow shit very well. I think I will stick to taking unnecessarily from the village folk and continue sewing." "Yeah, probably for the best." I sighed realizing it was probably wise. Lucy and I sat chatting for the remainder of the afternoon. Turned out she had a thing for Landon and not Mr. Clay as I had once suspected. Maybe she did when I first arrived here, but either way Landon had since caught her attention. At her door bidding her a good evening she asked me if he had ever said anything to me about her. "No" I replied seeing her expression fall. "But that doesn't mean he doesn't" I said quickly trying to recover. "How about I ask him? I mean I have seen him checking you out." Lucy's eyes perked up "He's checked me out?" Truth was I hadn't noticed with all my own issues, working around the village, runs to town and now training Maxine, but Lucy was a beautiful girl. Heck, even in my lost and dehydrated state when I arrived she caught my attention. Surely she caught the eyes of a young heterosexual male in a world so limited of companionship. I mean Lucy wasn't the, if you were the last woman on earth scenario by any stretch of the imagination. She was a catch, in looks and personality. "Yeah" I smiled 'I've seen him checking you out. "I will talk to him. See what he says." Saying good night I left Lucy beaming after me and made my way back to the field with Maxine. Jordon and Landon already there were in the process of driving a thin post into the ground. "Found a solution did you boys?" Landon paused after his next swing of the mallet wiping away the sweat from his forehead. "It should work." "And who is this?" I pointed at the stuffed human in a red t-shirt and black slacks twisted on the ground. Jordon shrugged "Could be nobody, but we are hoping it is Maxine's new best enemy." "Well" I gestured toward the post "We’re about to find out." Landon gave the thin post a shake to see if it would stay put. When it did he winked "Just have to tie up her buddy" he said picking him off the ground. CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE Mr. Clay opened the door to his hut to find me bouncing excitedly before him. "Maxine is ready for you." I chirped. Dropping his head he shook it, but not before he smiled. "You going to be okay?" he asked amusedly as he met my stare "Looks like you might explode any second now." "Mr. Clay. You have no idea how many times you were attacked in my imagination" He cocked a stunned brow at me making me giggle. "But all frustrations aside now I am happy to announce that she is good to go. We can go to get her a mate so we can work towards venturing into the city." His expression slightly animated he smiled again "That's great news." "Let's go!" I enthusiastically I bounced again "What? Now?" he asked looking a little annoyed "I was about to eat dinner." I furrowed my brows with a crooked stare challenging him "No idea Mr. Clay how many times you were attacked." I stated. "No idea." "Fine" he grumbled. "Let me get my sandals." And just like that he closed the door in my face. A moment later it opened again. Stepping out, and without waiting for me he walked. I had to skip to too keep up to him. I could have jogged but I was too excited for that. Skipping just seemed more appropriate. Down the ladder and out to the field we made our way to Jordon and Landon. "Let's get this over with" he muttered falling into Jordon's lawn chair. "My dinner is waiting." "It smelled pretty good" I friskily grinned. "What ya having?" Mr. Clay slid his eyes to mine "None of your business." he said matching my smile. "You were hunting today weren't you?" I pressed, my mouth suddenly watering. In my mind I imagined a greasy duck, or a chunk of fresh medium rare venison on a white plate; a side of baked potatoes with garlic and asparagus dripping in hollandaise sauce. The look in his eyes and the curve of his lips I knew he could see that I was on the verge of drooling. "Pending her performance" he said nodding toward Maxine "I may be willing to turn my meal into a celebration, inviting you to join me." "Hey!" Landon and Jordon whined in unison "What about us?" "Don't worry" Mr. Clay chuckled shifting in his seat "There's plenty for everyone. Now let's see what she can do." Instantly my excitement returned "You won't be disappointed." I bounced. Walking over to Maxine I picked up her leash undoing it. "Maxine, sit." I commanded. Obediently Maxine sat looking up at me waiting for her next command. Jordon and Landon tied the stuffed human to the post. Nodding they backed up out of the way. "Sie dumm fohrt!" I shouted sending Maxine charging forward. In my peripheral I saw Mr. Clay's grin grow wider. Maxine about ten feet from the dummy leapt knocking it and the post over as she snarled and bit, shaking it with everything she had. "Maxine! Heel!" I commanded watching her attack mode wind down. With a firm tone I shouted again "Maxine...heel!" Maxine let the dummy go turning strutting her way back to me, her head turned keeping her eyes on the dummy behind her until she was at my side. "Again!" Mr. Clay ordered clearly impressed. I nodded to Jordon and Landon who moved in stuffing the clothes with the thick grass and thin branches Maxine had shaken lose. Turning it into a whole person Jordon stood with the post in hand putting in back in the hole, packing the dirt back down around it. Landon picked up the dummy and together they tied him up taking a step back. "No" Mr. Clay shouted to them from his lazy slouch in the lawn chair "stay put. I want to see what she does." Even from my distance I could see the nervous glances they shared. "Come on boys. I don't have all day." Mr. Clay laughed as they inched their way with slow tiny steps closer to the dummy again. Maxine sitting beside me lifted her bottom "Maxine." I firmly stated "Stay." Looking up at me she sat, her front paws dancing on the grass. I glanced at Mr. Clay who nodded at me. "Sie dumm fohrt!" Again Maxine charged forward. Mr. Clay sat up watching intently "Call her back Holly." "Maxine! Heel!" Leaping she knocked the dummy over, but this time when she clamped on she immediately let it go. "Maxine! Heel!" I firmly commanded again just as she had turned prancing back toward me, but not without a final angry bark over her shoulder at the stuffed bait. Mr. Clay laughed clapping his hands, my excited eyes landing on him "Well done Holly! Well done!" "So..."I asked moving to stand before him "Is that what you wanted?" Mr. Clay lifted himself from his chair "That, Holly" he beamed pointing at our bait "is exactly what I wanted." "Yay" I quietly squealed doing a slow joyful dance. "I have to hand it to you, to all of you" he said as Jordon and Landon moved in. "You all did a great job." Jordon high fiving me Mr. Clay chuckled "Come on. Dinner is on me." Twisting I smiled at Landon. Offering me a satisfied wink he fist bumped me leaving to follow Mr. Clay. Bending, I scooped Maxine's leash up off the ground calling her to me. Maxine prancing out of the field at my side I smiled down at her patting her head "You did good girl." At the ladder Maxine jumped into the basket, her tail slapping it as she sat. Jordon already up top pulled the rope lifting her up to the bridge. Dropping Maxine off at my hut we continued on to Mr. Clay's, my mouth watering as I thought about the something tasty just moments from my palette. Mr. Clay's hut was a replica to mine with the solid tree that climbed the middle, the counter across from the door, the table to the right. The only thing that set it apart from mine was the material belongings that filled it. Landon and Jordan pulled the table out from the wall making room for us all to sit as Mr. Clay lifted the pot from the counter. Placing the it in the center of the table he turned plucking some plates from the shelf. Taking the plate Mr. Clay offered I licked my lips in anticipation. I hadn't had more than a can of corn, some make believe it is potato salad, and a hardboiled egg in days; all of it boring and some of it gross. His hand on the lid, his eyes dancing as they landed on me told me disappointment was in my future. Letting out a dramatic whine I fell leaning back in my chair allowing my head to flop back "What are we having Mr. Clay?" "Well Holly" he chuckled. My head still flopped I opened one eye just enough to see his ridiculous smile. "I know how much you love potato salad so today I whipped together..." Trying to be melodramatic I threw myself forward landing my arms on the table burying my face in them "Please not potato salad...please..." "Awe....Holly..." I could hear the insincerity in Mr. Clay's tone "I have corn if you would prefer." I lifted my head just enough to peek at him and wasn’t surprised to see him still wearing a stupid smirk. "Tell me you have something good in that pot." "You like squirrel stew?" he asked uncovering the pot. Sitting up tall I looked up to the sky I couldn't see "Yes" I breathed. It wasn't venison with a side of asparagus drowning in hollandaise, but I knew that was only a fantasy. Scooping a large helping onto my plate I picked up my spoon taking a huge mouthful. "Is it good?" Jordon chuckled as my eyes rolled and a moan escaped me. Nodding I continued to savor the tender pieces of meat, the small chunks of potato and carrots smothered in beef flavored gravy. Swallowing down enough that I could speak, I fervidly glanced at Jordon "So good." I moaned again. We devoured our celebratory dinner, even though that was not what it was to be when Mr. Clay made it, laughing and chatting until it was all gone and we were beyond full. Lazily leaned back in our seats we rubbed our fully bellies as Mr. Clay stood "For a job well done I would like to share with you all one more treat." To full to show enthusiasm our curious eyes trailed him as he disappeared up his ladder to the bedroom. Hearing him banging a few things around he chuckled down to us "I am pretty sure you will find room for these." It was as if the heaven's opened and the angels sang in that moment. Mr. Clay at the top of his ladder we stared at him with large eyes nodding like mooching dogs. I am certain that if I was paying attention each of us were dripping drool, for in his hands he held not one, but a box of delicate pastries. Practically panting with excitement we waited patiently for Mr. Clay, but only because we were to full to attack him as he climbed down the ladder. Dropping the box on the table before us we rocked our full selves forward reaching for them. The crinkling of wrappers being torn open we dug our teeth in licking up the whipped cream and jelly that seeped out with every crumbly bite. The pot empty, the cakes gone Mr. Clay smiled "I have another..." "No more!" we yelled in unison to full to even imagine another treat. "I was kidding." he laughed "You gluttons already ate all my stash." In silence we sat digesting what felt like a last meal it was so large and tasty. I am not sure what they were thinking about, but I was lost in thought about this town I'd hoped to be on our way too after dinner, but now I was too full to even walk or ride a horse. "When do you think we can go?" I asked. "I was wondering how long it would take you to bring that up." Jordon snorted at me. "You're not curious?" I asked. "I am. Just I thought we would be half way there by now, the way you have been eagerly anticipating it." Shrugging I glanced at them around the table. "I'm just curious to see what the secret is" I said narrowing my eyes on Mr. Clay. "Besides the sooner we get Maxine bred we can start raising puppies adding to our weaponry. Imagine how much further we can go if we had a herd of trained dogs. It would be like we were the archeries and them the second wave in an attack." Mr. Clay looked at me "You really think it would work Holly?" I could see it in his eyes and hear it in his tone that he wasn't completely convinced. "I do Mr. Clay. I mean" I shrugged "It will obviously take time to breed, raise and train enough of them to get the numbers we need to make it work; but just think, in a couple of years if we find even a couple of those puppies mates, and they have puppies the number of dogs we could have to fight with us." "That's just it Holly." Landon said no longer believing in the idea. "It's going to take years." "Well we have to do something." I stated feeling a bit annoyed "We have picked one town almost completely clean. The other one only exists for material goods. The food is gone! What? Once in a while we are lucky enough to find a can good buried in a box, or under a lose floor board? We need to go further. At first, sure we will only make it to a town further away, but it will sustain us hopefully for a bit while we breed and train more. Eventually the city will be an option." All eyes on me, the lights in them only a flicker I pleaded "If for no other reason than to just appease me can we go?" "Mr. Clay comfortably slouched in his seat tapped the table, his pondering eyes staring at me "Well, there is another thing to consider here Holly." I narrowed my eyes on him "What?" "We have to feed these dogs for what could be a wasted struggle. We need to feed ourselves and that as you know is not always easy as it is." He had a valid point and I knew it. Quickly I raced through the ideas I had in order to keep them fed. I had been collecting canned goods for Maxine in my travels and all the dry dog food I could get my hands on. Once I had decided to breed and raise dogs I stepped up my collecting, sometimes leaving needed provisions behind for myself. In fact I had almost a filled one of the ten by ten pantries in the military bunker. "I know you have a stash for them, but not only will that not last forever, they expire." Jordon kindly pointed out. "You think I care about expiry dates?" I snapped. "We don't care about FDA required expiry dates anymore. We eat what we find!" "Okay" Landon nodded "But eventually that supply will run out. I know I don't want to starve any more than I already do; and I am certain the mothers here don't want to put their kids to bed hungry on the count of dogs." "Well..." I nervously mentioned "I was thinking about raising rabbits for them." "Jesus Holly!" Mr. Clay barked at me "So you want to bring in dogs… that we have to feed" he stated "and in order to feed them you want to raise rabbits? How the hell is that helpful?" "Well rabbits are easier to feed." I argued "They eat grass, hey, twigs and flowers. Other than setting up cages for them we can feed them without it hindering our food supply; and" I added "They can have up to fourteen babies in a kit. All those rabbits with the food I have, the food I find for them, it should feed the dogs just fine." Again Mr. Clay sat pondering. Only this time I was holding my breath awaiting his decision. I couldn't raise dogs and the rabbits to feed them without his permission. If he didn't see things the way I did, or at least be willing to give it shot, my vision of our future would have to die. With a sigh he twisted forward in his seat resting his arms on the table "We'll leave at sun up." My mouth opened excitedly only to shut when he looked me square in the eye "If it doesn't work out we eat the rabbits, but the dogs Holly, would have to be set free." I could see the guilt in his eyes at the thought of bringing animals into this world only to have to release them into the one that existed outside our walls. Crossing my fingers hoping for the best I nodded in agreement. "You boys saw that?" Mr. Clay pointed at them. "If she fights me should it come to that, I have you too to help back me that she agreed it was what we would do. I don't want people here hungrier than they already are." What we didn't realize at the time was that rabbits were a whole lot easier to raise, than even I had originally thought. In fact they became a staple in our community, always readily available. We still had to hunt for other sources of meat, but since they were low maintenance Mr. Clay and Landon dedicated an entire corner of the market inside the military shed to them. They took up a section of about twenty by twenty in the front corner. They built cages on rollers so they could be rolled out to get sun during the day and rolled back in at night. They built a few rabbit huts outside, but only a limited amount filled those. Mr. Clay wanted to keep the majority under lock and key. He didn't want to kick anyone out for taking more than their fair share. "So, you going to let us in on the secret of this place?" I grinned at him. "Landon" Mr. Clay asked without answering my question "How long did you spend there?" Landon's eyes drifted right to left as he thought "Maybe a week. Enough to know it is a good community." "Did you notice anything about the people there?" "Just that everyone I met was quit welcoming" he shrugged "They seemed a little nervous at first, but who wouldn't be when a strangers wonders in?" Mr. Clay turned his attention back to me "You know...." he inhaled "It is better described in person. You'll see tomorrow." Dropping my shoulders disappointed I stood. "Well, than I guess I should go and get a good night's rest." Jordon and Landon pushed themselves out of their seats. "She's right. We have a busy day tomorrow." Jordon yawned. "Meet you at the horses?" "Yep. "Mr. Clay nodded seeing us to the door. Jordon and Landon walking off Mr. Clay grabbed my arm "Wait up Holly." "What is it?" I asked. "I just...it's just that tomorrow...could you try to remember that..." he lowered his head, his shoulder dropping. "that I was sworn to secrecy okay?" I knitted my brows curiously "O...kay" I nodded. Clearing his throat he let go of my arm "Night Holly." My eyes lingering on him I turned to leave "Night Mr. Clay." CHAPTER THIRTY I don't know why I was surprised to find I was the first at the horse shed, but I was. "You won't need your hammock and all those provisions." Mr. Clay said coming in "Some water and a snack should do just find. In the process of saddling up the second horse I paused twisting to see him as he walked over removing the supplies I'd packed out of the saddle bags, and the hammock slung across my back. "It isn't far enough for all that. You're just adding unnecessary weight." "Really? How far is it?" I asked preferring to have all the supplies, especially my hammock. If we came across any deranged, straddling a tree limb for what at times can be hours is not fun. Not to mention sleep is nonexistent if we aren't rocking securely in a tree. "By horse" Mr. Clay said mulling it over in his head "about two maybe three hours." "I will at least take the hammock." I said removing it from his hand. Slinging it back over my shoulder to rest across my back I wondered how it could be so close yet I'd never noticed it before. Not to mention I'd never even bumped into a person so near to our home that wasn't one of us. "Morning Holly; Mr. Clay" Jordon nodded entering the shed. "I should have known Holly would have slept in here last night. Good thing you didn't give her a map Mr. Clay, or she would be having breakfast with them by now." I glanced at him with an exaggerated grin "Ha...ha..." Finished prepping the horses Mr. Clay left to get Landon. *** "Sleeping beauty here is a little grumpy this morning." Mr. Clay teased entering with Landon groggily on his heels. Giving him a few moments to collect himself and wake up we decided the seating arrangements. Mr. Clay would ride shotgun on one with me, and Jordon shotgun on the other with Landon. Maxine would walk, but just in case things got crazy or she seemed tired Mr. Clay strapped a large basket with a lid that clipped shut to the side of our horse big enough for her to lie down in. It would be snug but it would work. I placed a thin blanket in making it a little more comfortable for her. Everything ready, everyone organized we walked the horses to the patched doors at the edge of our village. Outside the walls and on the horses we moved into the forest that surrounded us. The ride was slow, and quiet. Through the trees down the long path I rocked side to side on the back of our Clydesdale wondering as I did every time I was out there if Tony was okay, and if we would ever find each other again; though truth be told, I had slowly been coming to terms with the fact that I would never know and we would never reunite. Habitually more than hopefully I scanned for him as I wondered what this village or town looked like. Were they as large a group as us? Were they as blessed as us in supplies I curiously thought as Mr. Clay's words repeated in my head, I was sworn to secrecy... I was sworn to secrecy... I was sworn to secrecy... Deciding to just ask I tapped his shoulder "Now that we are on our way, what is it that you promised to keep quiet about Mr. Clay?" Twisting his head his eyes slid as far to me as they could "You'll see soon enough." he sighed. Then he turned his attention to all of us "Listen" he spoke "When we get there you may noticed somethings are off. I promise you there will be a moment of alarm, but I need you to know we are safe. And Holly" he said twisting his head again, his chin on his shoulder "keep Maxine reeled in. Keep a good grip on her leash." I knitted my brows even more intrigued then I had been, as a nervous tingle ran down my spine "Okay..." I nodded. With those words we made the remainder of the ride in silence. Clopping quietly down the leaf covered dirt path I stared over Mr. Clay's shoulder at the rays of sun that had broken through the canopy of leaves above landing all around us. There was only one event, a true test for Maxine. A small group of about six deranged, deep in the trees to the right of our path. Maxine on the ground beside us I gently pulled the slack leash getting her attention landing my finger to my lips, signaling her to be silent as we practically tip toed the horses by them. I don't think we even breathed as we crept by. I know I didn't. "You'll notice that the deranged are pretty scarce around here." Mr. Clay pointed out once we had a good distance between them and us. Up until that moment I hadn't really thought about it, but he was right. I had noticed there were far less deranged around lately. At least with the distances we traveled. "Keep that in mind if any of you feel the need to verbally attack anyone today." he ordered. As promised we arrived within a few hours. We had uneventfully made our way deep into the forest coming upon a massive concrete cylinder. It was like a cauldron only monstrous in size, and not in a ditch. From the path it looked like a hill at the edge of the trail with moss and trees growing out of it. On the horses backs we sat before it; the large open mouth blocked by a checker board of rebar preventing us from entering. Climbing down we stepped up to it. "There not a door?" I asked looking it over noting it was taller than the horses and wider than they were long. "I mean this was after all going to be an underground transit was it not?" "Trust me, for us this is our only way in." Mr. Clay said stepping up to it, his eyes searching the ground "You have to remember the construction was nowhere near complete. The only true entrance made before the virus took over is in the city. If we chose to go that route, not only did the citizens here block it already, but we wouldn't survive long enough to get there. There are a few of these around, but they are all the same; blocked." "So..." Jordon said scanning the rebar "How do we get by that?" Mr. Clay bent picking up the odd branch or patch of loose moss until he found a good solid rock. Raising his hand with the rock clasped in his grip he stepped toward the rebar. My eyes wide I jumped in his path. "What the hell are you doing?" I snapped. "You hit that you are going to call every deranged in the area to us, and we have nowhere to run when they charge." His eyes soft he met my angry stare "Trust me Holly. I need to knock. A friend of mine is waiting for it. Won't take a minute." Reaching behind me I tangled my fingers around one of the strong rebar poles pulling and pushing trying to make a point. "They don't budge. How the hell will knocking change that?" I argued. Mr. Clay arched his brows with a knowing stare "Nope. They don't. We aren't going in this way." Trying to stare him down and get him to offer more information I locked my eyes with his. "You going to move?" he asked not caving. But he did at least point me in the direction of the true entrance, or so I thought. "See that patch of leaves over there?" he said pointing down the side of the cauldron. Now it was my turn to arch my brows at him, only mine were sarcastically asking if he was serious. "There are leaves everywhere Mr. Clay. What specific leaf are we talking about?" Mr. Clay inhaled mildly irritated "Landon?" Landon stepped up lightly taking my arm. Shifting me he pointed down the side of the long concrete tube "If you look closely Holly you will see the moss and leaves are blanketed. I narrowed my eyes down the long hill just as Mr. Clay slammed the rock not once, not twice but five times against the rebar, the sound echoing all around us, getting lost in the trees. My heart pounding in my chest I scanned for the easiest tree to climb up wondering how the horses would fare through the chaos I was sure was about to fall over us. Springing into a ready stance I was about to run when I heard the sound of thick heavy chains and the turning of large gears. Feeling a vibration under my feet I looked to the ground inching myself in a circle. My circle almost complete I wiped my head toward the loud clicking coming from the mouth of the concrete tube to see the checker board lifting inch by inch inward and up. "You two are snakes." I grumbled. Mr. Clay shrugged "I had to Holly; it was the only way to get you to move." Annoyed, but paying closer attention I could see the chains that hooked the rebar pulling it making way for us to enter. It was genius the way they had it rigged really. When we first stepped up to it, there were no chains to be seen. At least if you weren't looking closely. They were painted the same color as the concrete blending them. Between the color and the deep groves they laid in the walls inside the dark tunnel they were invisible. "Let's move Holly." Jordon ordered landing a firm hand on my arm. My back to the woods a chill ran down my spine forcing my shoulders to briskly shake as I glanced over one seeing a few deranged charging toward us. Meeting his worried eyes I nodded taking the reign of one of the horses. Just enough time to step inside the tube the rebar began to close; only much faster than it had opened. And thank god for that, because no sooner had it shut and three deranged slammed into it, with more on the way. "Donald Clay" a deep voice echoed behind us as the growls and rasps continued at the bars. "Help me put the chains back will you." Mr. Clay nodded moving to do what was asked of him. The chains now back in their deep grooves within the wall of the concrete tube making them almost invisible again Mr. Clay turned "Joe, nice to see you again." I noticed Joe was having a difficult time looking at Mr. Clay. The way his eyes landed on the floor and the drop in his shoulders, he came off like he had a load of guilt weighing on him. With a sigh Mr. Clay slapped his shoulder. "Let it go Joe. I want to introduce you to a few friends of mine." Moving in closer he dropped his arm across Joe's shoulders turning him to face us. It took Joe a second to look up, but when he did he wore a kind smile. "Holly. This is my friend Joe." "Nice to meet you Joe" I said leaning out to shake his hand. "Joe, these two here are Landon and Jordan. Not sure if you met Landon before. He spent about a week here not too long ago." "I thought you looked familiar" Joe said shaking his hand. "Not formally, but I did see him in passing. I remember you were helping us work on the gears below. Landon nodded "I did for a few days. It bought me some nice meals." "Why'd you leave?" he asked. "I remember you were a good worker. We need that around here." "I didn't leave." Landon shrugged. "Well not on purpose. "I left to meet me my friend Holly here and well...just stayed there." Joe nodded "Well hope this means you're back. We can use your help." Turning his attention to Jordon he asked "How about you? You a good worker?" Mr. Clay chuckled landed a firm hand on Joe's back "You're nod stealing my boys Joe." and just like that Joe dropped his friendly eyes to the concrete floor, but not before showing me the guilt that sprung back in them. The growling and rasping behind us increasing Mr. Cay cleared his throat. "Think maybe we can move away from here? I know we are blocked from them but still, makes me a bit uneasy just standing here." Joe shook away whatever it was weighing on him and nodded lighting a flashlight "Follow me" We walked the long tube in a straight line for a long while before it ended and a steel door stood. It reminded me of one you would see on a ship or a submarine. Only like a ghost ship, not a new well-kept ship. "The horses will be fine here." Joe grunted with the effort he applied to turning the wheel. "I'll get someone to bring them water." A few turns of the wheel and a couple clanks later he pushed the door open, and the once quiet tube with the exception of the clopping hooves that had traveled around us we entered what sounded like a beehive. Standing on some very large and very high scaffolding my eyes traveled taking in the torch lit dome. "It is quite massive isn't it?" Joe said as he stuffed his hands casually into the pockets of his jeans. "We were blessed when we found this place. This is the first dome. At each stop that was built up to the point the world spun out of control another dome exists. From here to the city there are three." Looking rather proud his brows bopped "We own all three." Staring down about sixty feet I was in awe at all the people moving about in the torch lit dome "How many people live here?" I asked estimating about two hundred people buzzing about on the ground, and another seventy-five to a hundred in the scaffolding that climbed the walls all the way around. "What you see is just about everyone. I think at last count we had a little over three hundred people and..." he pausing glancing questioningly at Mr. Clay. Mr. Clay nodded in what I could only assume was approval. "And” Joe said looking back at us “another two hundred and six Immunes." "Immunes?" Jordan asked before I could. "Immunes are people that are immune to the virus." Joe smiled. "You see the tunnels across in the scaffolding over there?" he pointed as each of us nodded entranced "that takes us to the next dome. We could take the tracks below, but the exciting stuff is in the tunnels across." he said grinning. Cocking his head to the side in gesture he ordered us to follow him. Walking the scaffolding I stared down at the buzzing below. Some were barking out orders, while others were working in groups or solo on some sort of construction. Those that weren't hammering, drilling or cutting moved in every direction in a very organized and speedy fashion carrying water or supplies to the workers. In the middle of it all ran a set of incomplete track where a large cauldron slightly swayed with the vibrations over a burning fire. "That is water" Joe said following my stare. "We store quite a bit. Since our supply isn't kept anywhere sterile we boil it. Plus the fire helps heat the place. Do you need some?" "No thank you." I smiled. "I am surprised it isn't smoky in here." "On a very still day it can be a little," he shrugged "but this room with the tunnels and movement of people it keeps the air moving around. I mean this is about the same size as Grand Central Station." Pausing he chuckled causing me to smile "I don't know if it is that big. Never been; but" he stated "this place is huge and that" he pointed "is a small camp fire; a lot of space, little smoke." With Maxine's leash in hand we continued to follow him. Holding the the railing to the scaffolding for balance my eyes taking it all in. "Hard to believe all this was below our feet up there isn't it?" I heard Joe speak. I could only offer an awestruck nod. Entering the tunnel across from where we started I had no choice but to pull my eyes from the buzzing below to the wide hall ahead. In the flicker of the torches I guessed it was gray. Longer than the one we took to enter the beehive by far, heavy office like doors lined it. "There was going to be a small hotel built into it, or at least that is what we assume based on how close the rooms are and the materials left here." Joe said "The other reason we assume that is there are three large commercial kitchens, one in each dome. I mean why else would a transit way need large kitchens and all these rooms?" he shrugged not truly posing a question. "The kitchens we use as convenient stores now. People go there to trade or bring their work slips to get paid." "Anyway...We have about seventy living units all together" he said as we passed the first few doors "between this dome and the next, and another eighty between that one and the final. We want to build more rooms eventually. We have so much wasted space here, but for now it works just fine. We are working on finishing the buildings where the original construction workers, when it all turned to shit left off first." "Almost all the living quarters were just concrete shells. Everyone here has done something to contribute in completing all of the apartments by building beds, putting up moldings, finishing flooring; whatever the space needed to be complete. I mean most of the materials for these jobs were here waiting. I guess it was the next phase." he casually shrugged "and people needed lodging and food, so why not take them in and have them earn their keep helping us finish the rest of them and stay on working on the rest of the domes? Plus" he added "the more people, the better protected this place is. Every man woman and child knows how to shoot should it come to that. Believe me we have had our share of trouble around here. Anyway" he said getting back on topic "We have in the basement which is our storage a large quantity of paint. As residence moved in they were allowed to pick out a color from there and personalize their living space." "Paint? I mean in all that is going on why does it matter what color the space is?" Jordan asked almost disgusted. "Why not?" Joe casually shot the question back at him. "I mean when you were done a hard day's work did you not look forward to going back to your nice home and putting your feet up?" Jordan bowed his head with a small smirk. "That's right son. We all need to do more than just survive. We want to live. We want to go home at the end of the day and feel like the day was worth something. Everyone here feels like they put in a solid day, and believe me they did; and when it is all said and done they know they are working for more than just the dinner on their plate. They are working for their community, for their families, for themselves." "See, since the beginning of time we have been about possessions. Doesn't matter what time frame we go back to. We always had a piece of clothing, a make shift fork, a stone tool, a lodge built from sticks and leaves, and so on. We had those possessions so we could survive. That never changed. We still need those things. Well...maybe not the fork" Joe chuckled. "We just eventually wanted more possessions than we needed to survive. We believed everything we bought were necessities, but they were the necessities with no purpose but to make our lives more comfortable. It was no longer about survival." "We don't work we can't have a roof over our heads. We work, we get a bigger roof. We don't need one coat to protect us from the elements, we need five coats. We have ten pairs of shoes rather than the one needed to protect our feet. We need salad, soup and meat, rather than the one meal with all the food groups. We need a nice powered toothbrush rather than the one stick to clean our teeth. We need...we need. Really what it came down to was what we wanted." "Your first place was the first and only time you were closest to just surviving. Minimum wage job to pay the rent and buy the small amount of groceries, and some, what you thought were necessities, but were actually luxury items. After that it became all about comfort and wanting more. So you worked harder, got a better job." "We are a greedy species, and this virus hasn't changed that. It just knocked us down a few pegs. We still want, we just appreciate more. So, to answer your question of why paint; because it makes us feel good." Joe smiled. "It feels like ours. It feels like home, and we need that." We had been walking for about thirty minutes. In those thirty minutes I saw a number of people on skateboards and roller blades. Judging from the distance we had traveled so far and still weren't at the second dome these were necessary items to get you where you needed to be much faster. "The golf carts are only for those carrying supplies." Joe said stopping a young boy who looked to be about fifteen. "You know that son." "Yes sir, but I was asked to stock the store with the provisions that just arrived." "Can I see your work sheet son?" The young boy reached into his pocket pulling out a piece of green paper. Unfolding it he handed it to Joe. Finished reading it over Joe handed it back. "Alright son, carry on, but be sure to lock the cart back up when you are done." "Yes sir." he waved crawling the cart forward. "That's Gerry" Joe gestured to him. "Good kid, but I have found him joy riding those a few times. Gas supply is limited and so is generator power. Golf carts are only for work use. You better be using it to transport supplies you can't easily carry or pull on a small flatbed or wagon. We lose those and things get a whole lot harder around here." Entering the second dome it appeared very much like the last, only quieter. There were workers, but only a few. When I say and few I mean literally a few. "Where are all the workers?" Landon asked. Joe turned walking backwards to see us "We rotate week to week what dome we work on. This ensures that they each get the attention needed, but also gives us time to move the Immune away from the noise." Turning to walk forward again he changed the subject "Believe it or not we are almost in the city now." "Seriously?" I barked in reply. I didn't mean it quite so rudely, but I was shocked. "The city takes days to get to." Joe twisted with a grin "Not when you travel through these tunnels." "When you say Immune I don't understand why they need to be separated or moved" Landon said curiously. "Are you going to explain it to us?" "Nope, I'm going to show you." Changing the subject again he twisted to me "Donald here says you are looking for a dog to breed yours with Holly. He says you want to build an army of them." "Yeah; then we can travel to the city and get more supplies. The towns aren't providing us what they once did. I am guessing it seems silly since you get to venture in there quite often." "Actually we don't. Not yet. But we are close. I think we might be there a little sooner then you with the dog idea. Which I might add is a good one." "Thank you." I smiled. "After all that I have seen so far I’m thinking it was a stupid idea." "No, it is brilliant actually." Joe stated. "Wish I had of thought about it. I was speaking to Donald here the last time we bumped into each other" Joe winked at him "and I have a proposition for you all." "What's that?" we asked in unison. "Not yet. First let me show you what we have been working on." he said very cloak and dagger like. We traveled the last tunnel passing a few more carts along the way, and some more people on skateboards and roller blades. Joe showed us the games room, the bar slash dance hall, the clothing store, another Convenience Store. He pointed out the many living quarters, where the human waste was dumped, and a small restaurant that was actually functioning. It was incredible the life that took place within these tunnels. It made our little society seem like a wilderness camp. It was crazy! Entering the last dome we walked the scaffolding to a platform noticing only a slight buzz of voices below, but there was no one to see. "Through those doors down there" Joe pointed "Is where we will get something to eat. We'll have a glass of water get refreshed. When we are done I will complete the tour of the transit way." "Isn't this it?" Jordan asked "The final dome?" "It is, but there is a lot to see and we have to pass the kitchen on the way through anyway. I don't know about all of you" he said bopping a brow "but I am hungry. Ladies first." he smiled waving me onto the platform. All of us on, Joe worked the pulley slowly lowering us to the lower level. "It is six stories down." Joe smiled looking up at where we just left while Jordan, Landon and myself stared all around. "This one seems to be just about complete." I noted out loud. "Yeah almost" Joe replied as my eyes landed on someone in the distance. "It was the first one built and the first one we took over. We worked on it day and..." "Tony..." I gasped. CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE The pulley elevator couldn't have dropped fast enough. My mind scattered, my emotions high I was in a frenzy to get to him. Still thirty feet up I was about to leap. If it wasn't for Mr. Clay grabbing on to me I would have. His arms roughly around me I struggled against him to jump to Tony knowing it was a losing battle. I tried to scream out to him but Mr. Clay in his firm clutch silenced me by cupping my mouth. "Shush Holly. We'll be on the ground soon enough." I heard him whisper as I fought for air. "If you yell you will cause him pain and as long as that door over there is open, you will put us all in danger. I promise you will see him and talk with him, but for now I need you to calm down." My fight waning he slowly relaxed his grip and the pressure to my mouth. "Trust me Holly..." Wide eyed and tear filled I nodded. He let me go but kept his arm very near to me until he was certain I wasn't playing him. "That's Tony" I whispered slowly turning to see him "My Tony." In his eyes I saw the same fading light I saw the night before when he asked me not to hate him; that he was sworn to secrecy. "This was it, wasn't it?" I asked. Mr. Clay bowed his head, his eyes dropping to the floor, but only briefly. The moment they met mine again my hand rose slapping him across the face. The sting welding instantly on his cheek I regretted it almost as fast as I'd done it, but couldn't help slapping him a second time. "How could you?" His eyes glistened and his voice cracked "He asked me not to tell you Holly. I wanted to, but he made me promise." "I don't understand" I sniffled as Tony disappeared behind the set of heavy doors, but I didn't wait for him to explain. The platform just about touching ground I jumped racing to the doors that closed behind Tony only to find they were locked and he was gone. Full on tears and angry I spun, my back pressed to the door "Would someone please explain this to me?" I demanded locking my hurt and heated eyes on Mr. Clay. "I know how angry you are right now." he said clearing his throat "I've been there. I've been right where you are now." "I doubt that!" I spat at him. I could see in his eyes, his expression and his slouched stance that he felt for the turmoil I was in, but I was angry. "You don't have a fucking clue what I am feeling right now!" He expelled a heavy breath. "I do Holly. A few months after you arrived I was out doing a run when I bumped into my old friend. Let me tell you, I was cross that he let me think all this time that he was dead, but when I found out my wife wasn't dead I was fit to be tied." His eyes brightened slightly "Remember when I told you my friend Joe took her to the forest and never returned?" My eyes shifted questioningly to Joe. "That's right Mr. Clay spoke. "This is the Joe and he didn't get over run after all; and my wife..." he said with a small grin "she didn't die." "Are you saying Tony..." "He fared much better than my lady did" he smiled "but yes he is one of the immune now Holly." "I don't understand" I said as tears streamed my cheeks "If he is immune then why can't I see him?" Spinning I faced the door. Pulling it with everything I had it didn't even rattle. "Please Mr. Clay" I sobbed twisting meeting his eyes. "I need to see him." "And you will Holly. Just come have something to eat." "NO NOW!" I screamed, but I could see in Joe's eyes and his that they weren't going to let me in. Not yet. My knees weakening I dropped myself to the floor in full on tears "I have been looking for him for so long..." I sobbed. Tilting my head in an upward stare I met Joe heartfelt eyes "Is he okay?" He smiled warmly at me "He is Holly and he's getting stronger every day. Come. Eat. You'll feel better. I will explain it all to you, or at least what we have learned." I looked to Jordon and then to Landon who hadn't spoken a word since I spotted Tony. The moment my eyes met Landon's I could see he was just as tossed back as I was. His eyes and fallen expression said it all, but I had to ask just to be certain. "Did you know?" His eyes widening he raised his hands "I give you my word Holly, I had no idea. If I did I swear I would have told you." His words were sincere, but were also meant to sting Mr. Clay, and judging the way he looked away, it was clear that Landon had succeeded. "I'm sorry Jordon." "No need Holly." he sympathetically spoke. Stepping toward me he smiled offering me his hand. "Come on, get up." We followed Joe who led us to the convenient store which was just a large room of cream colored brick with a glossy gray concrete floor. They had built a long counter to indicate to all that were customers this is where you stop. Behind it were large industrial stainless steel racks lined front to back in rows. One was filled with canned goods, more canned goods than I had seen since we had actual stores; another with toiletries from soaps, deodorants, shampoos, real toilet paper, toothbrushes and toothpaste; another with cereals, and spices. There had to be twenty different rows, each with their own type of supplies. Under normal circumstances I would have been over the moon with everything they had; and in quantities that I hadn't seen in so long, but I just couldn't muster the excitement. Through the store to the back he led us to a comfortable office. It reminded me of a small boardroom. A large oval table with blush office chairs sat in the middle. Bookshelves lined the walls. All were empty but one. The one that was full was full from floor to ceiling with novels, kids' story books and coloring books. "Please everyone" Joe said gesturing to the table "Take a seat." When we were all comfortable he clicked on his radio "Come in kitchen 3" Releasing the button the radio crackled and scratched before a woman's voice came through "What can I get you Joe?" "Hell...o Louise!" he smiled brightly "I need five plates of your famous pasta." "So five plates of oatmeal coming right up." she chortled in reply. "Fine, we'll do it your way!" he chuckled. The way his eyes danced along with his jovial banter I got the impression he was flirting with her. "We're in back of convenient store one. Over and out." "Over and out Joe" With that he flicked off the radio. "I liked the idea of pasta much more" Landon grumbled. "Me too" Joe sighed leaning back in his chair adjusting his belt. "Me too. Maybe for dinner." he shrugged, but the way he said it told us there was no pasta in our future. With the supplies here I had no doubt they had pasta, but I was guessing it was a real treat. The kind you only had when you were celebrating something huge like a wedding, or a fiftieth anniversary, or a milestone birthday like turning twenty one. "Joe" I softly spoke "Can we please talk about Tony?" His smile lingering his eyes stopped dancing. "You're right Holly. You have been patiently waiting for answers and I promised to give them to you." He inhaled deeply falling back into his seat. "Where to begin, I guess is the question" he said, his fingers tapping the table. My chin quivering I asked the only question that mattered to me "Is he still Tony?" Joe's smiled widened "He is. Well I didn't know him before, but aside from a few..." he glanced up pondering "shall I say health glitches he is very much normal." "Then why can't I see him?" "You can. There are just a few things you need to be aware of first." Mr. Clay piped in. "You call them the immune." Jordon spoke "Why are the immune" he said using air quotes "segregated from the rest? What sets them apart?" Joe pointed "Thank you Jordon. That is a good place for me to start. See the immune are those that have been bit, some darn near torn apart, but survived. They went through the phases. Even the dying phase as I heard people referring to it, but they didn't get lost." "So they are okay then?" Landon asked. Joe tilted his head his face twisting "Not... exactly. No." Now it was our turn to twist our faces. "So they are not okay then?" Landon asked. Joe inhaled trying to think through his response while I gnawed on my lip. It was only seconds before he spoke, but it felt like an eternity. "They are okay, but they are not perfect. They have a number of the same abilities as the deranged." "Abilities?" Jordan asked pushing Joe along. "Yes abilities" Joe smiled again. "For example, as you know the deranged are fast and don't get tired. Neither do the Immune. The deranged take a long while to bleed out; same with the Immune. One difference we did notice is the deranged don't heal." Joe shook his head "They take a while to die, but they don't heal. The Immune" he said waving a finger "heal and heal faster than the average non-infected. Not like freakishly fast, just what might take you a week will take them a few days. Noise sends the deranged into frenzies. Well it does the same with the Immune. That is why things need to be quiet. See a number of them are still..." he pondered his wording again "adapting?" I looked at Mr. Clay so confused. "You're wife why haven't you brought her back to the village with us?" He bowed his head briefly "As I said, Tony fared much better than her." "See what we have learned is there are a few combinations that play a factor with the Immune." Joe spoke getting my attention. "The seriousness of the injuries; what they were sick with prior to the attack, and the time they need to adapt." Jordon cleared his throat "What they were sick with?" "We gathered as much information from the Immune as we could and logged it. The common denominator for their survival is the majority were sick prior to the attack. Some of course didn't know of any illness." "You keep saying sick" Jordon spoke again. "As in the flue?" "As in cancer" Mr. Clay choked. "Almost all of them when asked knew they were sick with some form of cancer." "Yes" Joe nodded. "Of course there are some, like your Tony" he said gesturing to me "that don't know what they had that kept them from crossing over, but judging from the volume of those that did, our guess is he did and just didn't know it. Call it a blessing Holly. Tony is alive and well, and in some ways stronger than ever." I inhaled sitting up straight trying to piece the information together. "Okay, so out of two hundred and fifty give or take" I said "the majority..." "More than seventy percent" Joe spoke guessing where I was heading. "Okay more than seventy percent of them had cancer of some form or another. Did anyone have anything else?" "A couple of them had Hemochromatosis." Joe replied "It's a condition where you have far too much iron in your blood. A doctor here as we were compiling the data informed me that that can be a cause for some cancers. So we added anyone with the condition to the cancer list." I fell back into my seat exhaling "Tony had hereditary Hemochromatosis." "Yes he was able to tell us that much. Another reason we assume he had cancer and just wasn't aware. But the good news" Joe smiled brightly "It isn't an issue for him any longer. See the virus according to our doctor and the couple of scientists we have here have noted that the cancer cells are changing. See a normal cell lives and then dies. If a normal cell detaches from its neighbor in commits suicide, but a cancer cell can live forever, multiplying and growing. See all cells in our bodies work together, but if the cell acquires a gene mutation that allows it to multiply when it should not, or that helps it to survive when it should otherwise die it has an advantage over the others. As the abnormal cells multiply they acquire mutations in more genes. These abnormal cells then have a competitive advantage over normal cells. This is like natural selection in evolution. For example a species that has more off spring. More off spring, more numbers to fight their opponent, equals better chance of survival. The interesting thing our scientists have found is that abnormal cells are now working with the healthy cells. When they looked at them under the microscope they noticed the abnormal cells have filled up on the virus and continuing to fill up on it by eating it off the healthy cells. The virus keeps invading, but the abnormal cells gobble it up." "What happens when the abnormal cells grow too large?" Landon asked. Joe grinned "The abnormal cell dies and their bodies absorb it. The already too large cancer cells have died, and as they continue to multiply they work at keeping the healthy cells healthy. Another interesting fact we found is that epithelial cells have increased adding an incredible layer of protection to their tissue and organs. Platelet cells have also increased to a level that would normally cause alarm, but for the Immune it seems to work normally for them." "Why do they require quiet?" Jordan asked. While they went back and forth asking questions I listened intently to the responses trying to take it all in. "The simple way to explain it is the part of the virus that mimics rabies makes them hypertensive to sound or touch. I don't know exactly why but they are. The Immune are no different which is why Donald hasn't felt comfortable bring his wife home to all of you. She like the others are working on controlling their reactions to both; which as you know is aggression." "Has Tony learned to control it?" I asked terrified that I would be unable to hold him ever again. "He has." Joe smiled warmly at me. "He struggles with it on occasion, but he is doing very well; but that is why we need to keep them segregated from the main group, and why we need to rotate the domes we work on. We like to keep them two domes apart. That keeps the noise to a minimum for them. No point making them struggle with it for no good reason." The young man Joe stopped on the golf cart earlier interrupted us delivering our oatmeal. I could see in Joe's eyes as he asked why Louise hadn't delivered it he was disappointed. "She's preparing lunch for the Immune sir." "Well thank you for taking the time to bring us ours." he said with a small smile. The young man leaving us again everyone but me dug into their lunch. I just didn't have the stomach for it. It wasn't because it was oatmeal. I was just too overwhelmed with my need to see Tony and all the information that was dumped on us. "We're building an army" Joe smiled breaking the silence. "We have as I mention two hundred and fifty of them. That is quite the crew." "So you take care of them just to send them out to be killed?" I barked appalled. Joe's smile fell away "I don't send them out to do anything they don't want to do Holly. They all have their faculties and they chose to use their strengths and help fight this battle. They train all on their own to build their fighting skills. Just like you and me they have loved ones they want to see survive all of this. I am no monster." he said looking at each one of us. I swallowed feeling guilty now "Mr. Clay?" I asked getting his attention. "You're wife..." "Lindy" he nodded. "Lindy. Is she..." "Okay?" he smiled, but there was sadness in his eyes. I nodded. "She's great. As I mentioned, she didn't fare as well as Tony. Her attack was brutal and left her quite scarred. The amount of virus her cells are trying to eat up is extreme." "As I mentioned earlier" Joe said breaking into our conversation "the seriousness of the injury plays a factor, but I should explain that. See some like Lindy were so brutally attacked that the healing time took longer allowing the virus to get out of control. The cells had to work much harder and unfortunately still do in order to keep the virus to a minimum. For Lindy that combined with just learning to control her hypersensitivities she isn't faring quite as good as others, but she is doing very well." he winked at Mr. Clay. "She is" Mr. Clay nodded proudly. "I come here and spend as much time with her as I can. She misses the children, but we both know she isn't quite ready for that. She still battles with control. Not so much to touch anymore, but to sound. Sometimes when I speak I can see the switch in her eyes; too risky just yet. The girls would only squeal and throw themselves at her." "It has been a couple years now since she was attacked.” I said “Do you think..." "Every time I see her she is getting stronger." he smiled, his eyes glistening. "Right now I am grateful that I can see her. When we feel confident I will tell the girls and bring them in." Joe pushed his empty bowl aside. "You ready to see Tony?" he smiled. Springing from my seat I smiled the biggest smile I had flashed in a long long while. "I am!" "Well let's take you to him." he bowed standing now. Wiping the nervous sweat from my palms onto my jeans I moved to the door pausing for Joe to lead the way. "He will be happy to see you Holly." he said stepping passed me. CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO I was filled with a combination of excitement and worry as we followed Joe down the hall back to the open dome. I knew why I was excited but I am not sure why I was worried. Maybe it was because of all the information Joe and Mr. Clay had dumped on us making me afraid Tony wouldn't know me, or that he wasn't how I remembered him. It could have been because I thought I would never feel his touch again. Or maybe I was worried that he wouldn't be as elated to see me as I was to finally have the opportunity to rest my eyes on him. Climbing down the gully in the center of the dome and over the tracks we climbed up the other side headed for the door I had witnessed Tony disappear behind. Another wide hall cream in color and lit by torches we walked its wide center in silence. After what felt like an eternity, but was in fact the shortest walk we had taken since we entered the underground transit, we stood before a solid door at the end of the hall. Joe's hand grasping the handle he twisted smiling at me "You ready?" Tears welling in my eyes, my hands trembling I nodded. Joe's wide smile not faltering he pulled the door open. A gust of air greeted me lifting strands of my hair off my shoulders sending goose pumps down my spine. The room before us was dark. Joe disappeared inside. I could hear a few quiet shuffles to my left, but I couldn't see since I still stood outside the room. The torches flickering, a large shadow danced on the wall ahead of me. Closing my eyes I inhaled as if I could smell him. “Holly?” Suddenly it was as if someone slid the needle across the vinyl, or breaks screeching in the distance the way Tony killed my glorious moment as he sounded so unimpressed when he spoke my name. My eyes flew open and there he was. The tone I heard clearly misunderstood, for as he stood before me the fear of him not wanting to see me washed away the moment I saw his loving eyes meet mine. He didn't look any different from when I saw him almost two years ago. He was groomed, his skin looked good. He wasn't thin. In fact he was even more defined. I lifted my hands out to him wanting to touch him, needing to feel him, to know that he was real but he moved back quickly. "Please Tony? I just need to touch you." His eyes glistened. I could see he was hesitant. "I don't want to hurt you Holly." "You won't" I whispered to him as I inched my way closer. My nose almost to his chest I tilted my head up to him, my hands millimeters from his face. "Please Tony..." I could see in his eyes he was terrified, but he didn't stop me. My hands shakily meeting his skin an elated giggle escaped me echoing in the large concrete room around us. My eyes still lost in his I saw it. It was like someone flipped a switch. The loving but terrified eyes staring down at me died only to be replaced with eyes that were vacant…lifeless. From the close proximity I could hear a growl growing in his chest, but it was all very brief. So brief I didn't even have time to react before his loving eyes returned. He exhaled smiling crookedly at me "I did it." he breathed a relieved breath "I wasn't sure I could do it, but I did." I knew I should have known what it was he was referring to, but my head was swirling "Do what?" I asked, but he didn't answer. Instead he swept me off my feet spinning me around. His nose in the crook of my neck his muffled voice sang out to me "I've been watching you Holly. I've wanted to come to you so many times. I've wanted to hold you and let you know that I was thinking of you, that I was still around." All too quickly he put me down holding me at arms-length. "Let me look at you." I know it was just what I had been waiting for, but I was suddenly overwhelmed. I was instantly smacked with the fact that I had been missing him, terrified that he was dead or lost and cold. That he was alone and hungry; but it sinking in that he was in this palace cushioned behind all this concrete in a thriving society well I couldn't help it. I slapped him. Mr. Clay ripped me back at lightning speed, my arm feeling like it slipped out and back into its socket as Tony's smile vanished and the vacant eyes returned. Sorry eyes Vacant eyes, a growl Understanding eyes Vacant eyes, another growl His eyes flipped again and the growling in his chest died. Appearing in control he locked his eyes with mine. His arms and legs braced in a ready stance noting everyone around us was ready to pounce if he didn't get it together. He looked at no one but me. "I’m okay" he said to Mr. Clay who held me from him. With a slight twist of his body, his eyes still locked with mine he spoke to Jordon and Landon who were standing in an attack stance. I glanced at Joe who didn’t appear rattled or worried telling me I didn’t need to be frightened. A moment later everyone slowly relaxing the corners of Tony’s mouth twitched upward "The right hook just startled me is all." Exhaling I shifting to go to him as Mr. Clay released the grip on my arm "Tony I am so sorry. I...I don't know why...I" "It's okay" he smiled down at me. "I get it. It is all just a little much isn't it?" "Yeah" I nodded relieved that he understood what I didn't. I truly don't know what sparked me to slap him. I wasn't even truly angry. In my head I knew none of it was his fault. I knew that if he could have been out there with me he would have. "How about we just sit and talk? I can explain it all to you." His eyes leaving mine he looked to Jordan and Landon "To you two as well. I am sure you both have questions." "You're a son of a bitch" I flipped my worried eyes to Landon who sounded ticked, but before I could chastise him or warn him to keep his voice down he was slapping hands with Tony. "I can't believe you are okay, and that you live here." Landon cheerfully spoke. "Yeah" Tony chuckled, his hand still holding mine. "I am pretty sure I got here just after you left." "What the hell happened?" Landon asked. Tony leading us to the table in the middle of the giant room pulled out a chair for me "After you my sweet" Moving to sit my eyes followed him as he took the seat beside me. Landon, Mr. Clay and Joe took the few seats across while Jordon took the one on the other side of me. I got the impression he didn't want to be too close to Tony. "After we got separated" Tony said resting his arms on the table "Brad, your dad and I" he said looking to me "wandered for weeks hoping that if we just kept circling we would find you and your mother." I wanted desperately to ask if my father was okay, if he was there in the transit way, but I was terrified of the answer I was certain I would hear, so I didn't ask. I figured he was leading there anyway. "After a while" Tony said, his eyes clouded "we had no choice but to accept that you two were gone. We decided that the best place for us to go was back to the island." "I thought Brad didn't want to go back there?" I said surprised "I mean I thought it was decided it wasn't wise to hide away." Tony shrugged "Every turn we made we were stuck running. There were so many sick around. There was just no reprieve from them. We had no other option. We needed to eat. We needed to rest. We needed to sleep" he droned. "We hadn't slept in days and it was really starting to ware on us. I’m not sure we would have gone back there, but" he shrugged "we stumbled back at the boat. It was like the gods had sent us a sign. I mean we were so off that trail there was no way we could have found it if we were looking for it, but there it was. We needed to go somewhere so we climbed on the boat. Your dad was sure the gas would have been siphoned, or the battery stolen, but it was all there. Brad turned the key and to our surprise it fired right up." "How long were you there for?" I asked. Tony reached out taking one of my fidgeting hands from my lap. "About six months. That final stretch for me, the spring thaw couldn't have come soon enough. We got to the point where food was scarce. A small island there isn't much to hunt. When the ice was solid it was great. We would walk back to land, hunt and go back. But for a while the ice was too thin, we couldn't leave." "The last time I left alone. It was my turn. I wound up in a small town." he smiled tenderly at me "I saw up both sides of the street some crazy person had painted signs on every garage." With a giggle I slapped my free hand to his that held my other seeing the flip of his eyes again. I took a deep breath as I leaned nervously away, but they flipped back almost as fast. It was frightening the way they flipped like that. I wasn't sure it was something I would ever get used to. The idea that at any moment he could turn and maybe not have the control to come back was terrifying. Not so much that he could kill me or give me the virus, but that I would lose him forever when I only just found him. "You're crazy Holly. Do you not know the world is full of crazies now? What if the wrong person reached out to you?" He said it with a laugh, but those words made me nauseous. Not missing the hurt that flashed through me Tony cocked his head back, his face twisting with anguish "Holly? Did someone hurt you?" “No” I said shaking my head, my thoughts drifting back to Dalia and what those men did to her, and what they almost did to me. His hand grabbing the back of my seat the other on the flat surface of the metal table he was half out of his seat. “Don't lie to me Holly." "I'm not." I said adamantly as I landed my hands on his chest. Tony fell back into his seat, but his eyes stayed on me as if debating if he should trust me. Forcing myself to be overly casual I waved at him "A group of men tried to hurt me but a herd of deranged came by. I screamed, they charged, me and Dalia got away. It was just a short while after that I wound up finding Mr. Clay and that village." I said smiling at Mr. Clay. Tony exhaled relieved. “I’ll get you to fill me in on that when we are alone” he said giving my back a comforting rub. Letting it go for the moment he turned his attention to Mr. Clay. "Thank you for taking her in and watching out for her." he said, his eyes filled with gratitude. "It has been my pleasure." Mr. Clay tenderly spoke. "She has been a good friend and a valuable citizen back home.” Mr. Clay winked at me "I remember the day she plastered that town with the paint" he chuckled "I remember thinking that she was going a bit overboard, but it seemed to make her happy to know that if you went there, there would be no possibility that you would miss her notes. In fact she started dropping little pieces for paper with the same thing written on them everywhere we went. I am surprised you never came across those. "You saw me doing that?" I asked mildly embarrassed. "I was sure I was discrete about it." "Are you kidding me?" he quietly barked through his laugh "The forest is practically blanketed in them." "You mean these?" Tony said digging into the pocket of his track pants pulling out a handful. "You found them?" I smiled. "I did" he nodded. Leaning in he kissed my nose gently before meeting my dancing eyes "I read them every day." "They all say the same thing" I giggled. "But" he stated "each one is written on a different day. Like this one for example" he said unfolding one "your handwriting is sloppy. Tells me you were in a hurry. Maybe about to go for a run, or like someone was rushing you" he said with a teasing glance at Landon. I couldn’t help but giggle again. Landon when we were on the run was always rushing one of us along. He always seemed to be in a hurry to go nowhere. "Or this one" Tony said unfolding another "is dotted with little hearts; tells me you were thinking sweet thoughts of me." "Okay, Okay" I bashfully smiled stopping him from opening another. Tenderly staring at me Tony put the folded pieces of paper back into his pocket. “When were you bit?” Jordan’s question washed Tony’s sweet expression away ending our moment "It was in that town.” he said turning back to the group around the table “There was a house I went into. I guess someone had barricaded the sick inside. I was halfway through the house when I realized that they were there. It was too late. I tried to run. I did get away, but not before I was bit." I asked Tony to describe the house, and when he did I never felt guiltier in all my life. It was the same house Mr. Clay and I had locked a herd in after running out the back door. "It's the butterfly effect" I said dropping my shoulders. "Huh?" Tony said cocking a brow. "The town... My signs... The house... Me. I am responsible for all of this." His face twisted "And you figure that how?" "If you hadn't of seen my signs or Mr. Clay and I hadn't of locked the deranged inside..." "Whoa, whoa, whoa" Tony said gathering my hands into his. "There was paint on the door that said not to go inside; that there were sick or deranged the there. I saw that sign Holly. After I left" he shrugged "but point is it was there. I just didn't read it." "Probably because it blended in with all my other signs" I pouted. "Listen to me” he said lifting my chin forcing me to look at him “it is my fault not yours. I opened the door. Anyway” he said holding his arms out displaying himself to me while wearing a ridiculous smile "I am fine. See?" With a shake of my head and an eye roll I fell into him "I love you Tony Gardner." Tony wrapped his arms around me, his breath in my hair he kissed my head "I love you too Holly Gardner." Wrapped in his arms, my face buried in his chest Tony’s kiss lingered in my hair "Tony?" I nervously asked. Having read my thoughts he dismally spoke "I honestly don't know Holly." Crying now he wrapped me tighter in his strong arms. No one spoke granting me a few moments of silence to cry for the father I didn't know was dead or alive. Managing to pull myself together I lifted myself from Tony’s arms. “You okay Holly?” Mr. Clay asked. Nodding I wiped the tears from my eyes “Yeah, sorry about that.” I said meeting each set of eyes that lingered concernedly on me. “No worries” Jordan kindly spoke. Leaning my back into Tony’s chest I got comfortable. Gently he rubbed his thumb up and down my arm as he told us how Joe found him. It turned out Joe stumbled across him trying to bandage up his shoulder after he was bit. Before the virus had had a chance to truly take over Joe brought him back locking him up in a small utility closet checking on him periodically. Once Tony had made it through the dying phase he knew he was one of the immune. "And if he wasn't?" Landon asked a bit impressed "I mean that was a pretty big risk to take." "Not really" Joe casually spoke. "If he turned we would have popped a few nicely aims bullets at him or taken his head off." Shocked everyone stared at Joe, even Tony before a loud laugh erupted. Tony in my peripheral grabbed his head. Wide eyed and hating seeing him in pain like that I shushed everyone. “You okay?" I asked not sure I should touch him. His eyes did that freaky flicker again, but a moment later he nodded tapping my hands with one of his as he forced a weak smile. "Yeah I'm fine." "Should we go?” I asked lifting myself from my seat. “Maybe let you rest?" I didn’t want to, but I didn’t want to push him either. "No stay" he said pulling me to him "I only just got you back." "But you're in pain." "Not anymore." he said shaking his head "Just have a hard time when things get loud. Believe me" he said almost chuckling "It used to be way worse. Noise of any kind was beyond a battle. It hurt and would send me into a crazy state. You think you have a slap that can sting. You've never been smacked by him." he said jutting his chin to Joe. Joe quietly laughed "We found for some a good slap was all they needed to snap out of it. Tony was the one that taught me that trick." he pointed playfully. "Thank god for that. He had me cornered one day. He was thrashing and snapping and had tossed me around pretty good. Didn't matter what I did he just kept coming. I was alone and cornered with no room to throw my arm back and punch him. Almost nose to nose I knew I was done for. The only thing I had left was a good smack. Let me tell you" he chuckled "I was scared shitless before I slapped him. I slapped him good too. I held my breath sure that I just sent him flying off the ledge he was already well on his way down from. Both of us froze. Me it was an, oh shit moment. For Tony it was thankfully an awakening. Let me tell you I left the second he came too. I wasn't sticking around to see if it stuck." The feel of Tony's laugh vibrating through my back was like a slice of heaven. "Well, I am as I said much better now, but that is some good advice right there Holly." I tilted my head up to see him. "If I ever seem to be lost or not coming back a good slab has never let us down." "I think I can manage that." I grinned teasingly up to him. "I am sure you can." Tony chuckled. Tony turned his attention back to everyone "We are building ourselves into an army." "How does that work?" Landon asked resting his arms on the table. "I mean...when you go off are you not looking to rip us apart like they are?" "No" Tony said casually "Actually that is the interesting thing. We don't want to hurt you at all. When we are new to this it is near impossible to control when we lose it or who we lose it on. It’s like fighting a demon inside. It is screaming at you to rip whatever it is causing you pain apart. End it, kill it. But we can hear you and in time we learn how to fight it." "How?" Jordan asked "How are you going to know who to attack when you are out there? I mean..." "How will we know not to attack you?" Tony smirked. Jordan who hadn’t managed to feel comfortable yet wiped his palms on his pants. I assumed they were a bit sweaty the way he swallowed. "A few of us here have a death wish." Joe said "We bring a few immune into a room and then we talk, yell, touch, whatever it takes to piss them off. Depending on their level of control it doesn't always take much. Then we help them work at calming themselves down or focusing their anger on what they should unleash it on. We've even brought in deranged for the stronger ones." "You've brought in deranged" I barked angrily. "Are you trying to get them killed?" Tony dropped his hand under the table wrapping it around mine. "It's the only way to test what we have been working toward.” he said, his eyes needling me to understand. “We need the deranged to practice zoning our fury and pain at someone.” “But you could be killed. You are lucky to be alive at all.” "Holly” he said with a light squeeze of my hand “I am strong and this is necessary. We need to get into the city.” “But Tony…” “I hear you Holly, but you know as well as I do we need that city. Without it we die.” It was clear his mind was made up a long time ago. I didn’t like that he was one of the ones that had to risk his life, but I also couldn’t argue that we needed it. I was in fact planning an army myself and had every intention of fighting alongside it, so I dropped the argument. "You don't worry about how strong they are?" Landon asked. "Amazingly it turns out we are equal if not stronger." Tony said almost proudly. “It really quite incredible, almost super hero like.” Joe said with a dreamy look in his eye. “It’s like watching good fighting evil, vampire fighting werewolf, Batman fighting Bane.” He sat back in his seat the dreamy look still in his eye “You’ve never seen anything like it.” "If nothing else it is a pretty fair fight.” Tony stated. Jordan, finally relaxing a bit he looked at Tony intrigued “When do you think you will be going?” “Not for a bit.” Tony replied sounding disappointed. “There are a lot of us here, but we are all at different levels in our control. The ones that are ready work with the ones that aren’t, but it is a slow process. They’ll get there though.” he said offering us a confident stare. With that the conversation turned to light chatter and before I knew it I found that the only ones left in the room was Tony and I. I found myself oddly nervous. Not that he would attack and kill me, but where to go from there. It had been so long that I had fantasized about this moment. It wasn’t quite like this in my dreams, but… Tony made the first move. Rising from his seat he took my hand leading me to him. Holding me in the flicker of the torches a small smile lingered on his lips. He began swaying and I followed. Resting my head to his chest I listened to the beating sound of his heart as we danced to music that wasn’t there, our shadows moving on the walls all around us. Tony shifted, his hand gently lifting my chin so I would see him “I still love you with all my heart Holly.” I reached up touching the light stubble on his strong jaw smiling softly “And you are still my everything Tony.” He ran his hand into my hair before rubbing his knuckles ever so gently on my cheek. Lost in his eyes and his touch I slowly lifted to my toes as he leaned down, our lips meeting. It was everything I had been dreaming of; the touch of his lips, the feel of his hands, the sound of his breaths. I was in heaven. In that moment he could have ribbed me apart and I would have died a happy woman. I would like to say we made mad passionate love that night, but we didn’t want our reunion to end in blood shed. Since we weren’t sure it wouldn’t we were content to just dance and test the waters with plenty of sweet kisses. Normally one can look ahead and see vividly what the future will bring. With the world the way it is, it is difficult to see what tomorrow will hold, let alone next week or a few years from now; but I was now content to live day to day knowing that Tony was going to be at my side. Can we really raise the armies we want and make our way to the city? That I don’t know, but I’ll let you know if we get there…For now I am just going to enjoy being in Tony’’s arms.

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