The following morning, Tess insists that Mary leave with a jar of pickled beans and one of five remaining preserved peaches. “Knowing that you’re on the lookout, Mary, has eased my mind no end,” she says, pressing the containers into Mary’s arms. I hope she realizes how precious these are. “Ellie and I are set on investigating the town. Is there anything we should be wary of? Anything you want us to try and find for you?”
Mary shifts into her heavy jacket after having spent the night on the couch, the blankets she used returned to a neat pile. She accepts the canvas satchel containing the jars and a spare box of strike-anywhere matches. “Town, eh?” She fondles the shotgun shells pulled from her pocket. “Ain’t nothin’ good to be found there, Tess. But, if you wander past the hardware store, and it ain’t burned to the ground, they had a garden section…”
“Tools? Seeds, if they survived?”
“Ah, yes. If we find any, we’ll be sure to bring them back.”
Midge and Parker wave timidly from behind their mother’s legs. Mary returns a splayed-finger wave.
Hank announces that he and Ellie will accompany Mary as far as the Scandinavian scrollwork house where they’ll try and revive the old Wagoneer there.
“The Tollersons, Wendy and Jurl,” Mary says, as the three of them trudge up the switchback road. “Kept to themselves, mostly. When the news of the plague came, I told them, stay put, weather out a few months. Did they listen?”
Hank pulls a utility wagon loaded with tools and a spare car battery, its wheels squeak with disuse. “Ellie mentioned it was you who buried the folk in the valley.”
“Couldn’t bear the thought of them, their bodies, rottin’ in their homes. Critters finding ‘em and feedin’…”
“Decent of you,” Hanks says. “Hard ground.”
“Aye.” Mary kicks the wagon’s loudest wheel, silencing it. “I had help, for a time.”
Father and daughter walk in silence. Hank can feel the woman’s need to frame her story.
“Ol’ Benjamin, older ’n me, lived, other side of the valley.” Mary points behind them to an area the family had yet to investigate. “We take turns, diggin’, wrappin’ and hauling out the dead. He uh, he got crazy, in the end. Mad. Come at me with a pickaxe, thinkin’ I be the last one to fill a grave…”
The three of them arrive at the Tollersons’ home, the pair of raw-earth mounds a stark reminder.
“No markers?” Ellie asks.
“I know who’s who.” Mary dips her chin and walks on.
“We’ll come by, next few days, if that’s alright?” Ellie calls out.
Mary simply waves her wave and continues to shuffle up the road.
The two get to work on the Jeep. After repeated attempts to crank the engine, Hank removes the air filter and squirts fresh gasoline, salvaged from a red-plastic can straight into the carburetor. The engine pops and chugs and eventually catches, settling into a rhythmic purr. They load up, ease the brake and roll down the grade to their adopted home.
“Three hours, tops.” Hank hands his wife and daughter wind-up watches. “It’s eleven. You don’t show by 2PM, I’m packin’ up the children and coming to find you.”
Tess gazes warmly upon her husband. “We know the score, honey.” She dons the watch, holds it up as a mirror to Ellie’s. “Three hours is more than enough time.”
“But if things get um, complicated,” Ellie says, cautiously, “it’s still a hundred yards south of the tallest building, right, Father?”
“Our regroup position?” Hank nods. “But it better not come to that.”
Tess rests her hand on Hank’s forearm. “It won’t. In and out. No risky explorations. We know, dear.”
“Don’t forget the bunnies and bears.” Midge pleads. Her collection of plush toys, collected from bedrooms around the valley, has continued to grow.
“And candy, and Legos and…” Parker adds.
Ellie kneels and fist-bumps her siblings’ tiny hands. “Ten-four, commanders.”
The two women, Ellie driving, head north into the town of Craton, once the West’s center for cherry-jelly candy, now one of a thousand decimated boroughs stripped of human voices, devoid of human activity.
“Jacob’s map indicates that the river divides the old town from the urbanized areas to the east.” Tess glasses the two-lane, sweeping her binoculars in a tight angle looking for signs of recent habitation. “Our best bet is the stripmall. There’s an Ace hardware there.”
Ellie’s eyes crinkle. “Told you Mary was harmless.”
“Some old hermit-woman making friends with wolves does not count as harmless.” Tess looks up and directs her daughter right. “And the fact that ol’ Ben bought the wrong end of her shotgun…”
“Still. It’s nice to have an ally.”
“And why we’re going to ingratiate ourselves as much as possible. Stop here. Let’s see who might be watching for travelers.”
Ellie tucks the Wagoneer behind a ground-level billboard and they wait, each studying the layout of buildings and abandoned cars.
“Without traffic, why position sentries?” Ellie murmurs.
“Fair point,” Tess agrees. “Maybe patrols, then. Let’s give it another fifteen.”
“Here we go,” Ellie says, pulling her binoculars from her face.
Trotting across the roadway, a pack of seven or eight feral dogs make their way to the far end of the storefronts. They cycle in turn, sniffing at the broken windows, moving to the next. They cover ground quickly, finally pausing at a Korean shop which advertises ramen and bbq with garish posters still hanging in the few windows left intact.
The dogs take turns raising their noses, hesitant.
Both women recoil when the pack scatters, one spaniel-looking hound bawls as only a wounded dog can do, an arrow sprouting from its side. It twirls, reaching back trying to bite at the shaft when another arrow lances from within the restaurant and takes the dog in the neck. An oppressive silence returns. Errant oak leaves tumble across the parking lot, their skittering the only sound.
Tess and Ellie remain frozen. Minutes flow by, achingly slow.
A dark, rag-draped form scrambles through the glassless door, stands over the kill and rotates its head, seeming to await challengers. When none show, he or she—it’s impossible to tell, their height is not so great as to indicate male, nor its stance furtive enough to indicate female—steps on the dog and yanks the arrows free. The hunter loops a cord around the dog’s back legs and begins dragging the corpse up the covered walkway, disappearing around the far corner.
“Phew,” Ellie exhales. “Solo, you think?”
“If you had mates, wouldn’t you bring them along?”
“Hmm, he did stop and look around. Like he was daring the competition.”
“He?” Tess asks. “Habit, most likely.”
“I saw a beard.”
“Ah. Pretty good shootin’,” Tess admits.
“All the shitty-shots are dead, right?”
“True. All the more reason to avoid his territory.”
They give the huntsman another ten minutes to distance himself and Tess has Ellie relocate the car next to where the garden center had been, its high gates torn away, decorative bricks and black plastic pots scattered in disarray.
Inside they discover twenty or so sealed bags of 5-10-10 fertilizer. They take them all. They scrounge around and collect spare tools, shovels, a pitchfork, a pair of axes, and Ellie shoves aside a display stand, behind which she discovers a variety of seed packets.
“Bonus. Watermelon and white corn.”
Tess takes the wheel for the return. “Let’s drive up main street, maybe there’s a bakery or a coffee shop that hasn’t been cleared out of staples.”
“Or a toy store,” Ellie says, giving her mother a pleading look.
“You spoil those kids worse than I do.”
Tess rolls down the window and pulls the baseball cap from her head. Her red hair unfurls and she shakes it loose in the wind.
Ellie wiggles her hand in the air stream like a trout. “Life is never going to be normal again, is it?”
“Never’s a long time, hun. We get past the age of killing and eating dogs…”
“Or killing each other.”
“That too. We find other like minded folk, build a community.”
“But, I thought you said that no one was immune. The sickness is still out there.”
“It is.” Tess pulls her head back and replaces her cap, hooks her hair behind her ears. “But we have a secret. The cure.”
“That’s why we had to leave. My research wasn’t sanctioned. Wasn’t even allowed. But with so many dying around us… The kill rate was nearly one-hundred percent, I took a chance and, well, experimented on myself.”
“And it didn’t kill you.”
“No, it didn’t. So I gave it to all of us.”
“Jeezus Mom, we’re the cure?”
Tess’ foot comes off the gas pedal. Up ahead a faded blue, F-150 pickup has been positioned across the road, one that hadn’t been there on their outward journey.
“Shit.” Tess glances behind them. Another rusted truck has come from nowhere to block their retreat. She darts her eyes about looking for an escape route. The ditches that run down the sides of the two-lane are too deep to ford. She gives her daughter a heavy look. “Places, everyone,” she whispers.
Somewhere near Colorado Springs, around the turn of the new year, Sergeant Reeves instructs his driver, Wilkins, to pull over their vehicle—a command center type hybrid capable of both petrol and battery powered travel—at the top of the hill overlooking the blacked-out city below.
“Satellite history shows a vehicle matching one the Pollard family owns, traveled through here, not two weeks ago.”
“Yes, Sir,” Wilkins answers, deferential. “And beyond that?”
“That’s what we have to find out. Satellite data quit soon after.”
“Find out? Like, interact with the infected?”
Sergeant Reeves rubs the long stubble grown in on his cheeks and chin. “You, Dodds and me might have gotten chummy this last month. But this task isn’t some part-time hobby we can opt out of, the situation gets gritty.”
“Sorry, Sir. It’s just that…”
“Just that nothin’, son.” Reeves closes the battle-hardened laptop and taps it with a grimy finger. “Our monoclonal treatments might keep us upright for a while, but it’s this Pollard woman, the research that she stole from the U.S. Government, that is key.”
“Critical, corporal. That is all we need to know.”
Wilkins sighs with his entire body. “Yes, Sir.” He slips the vehicle into drive and inches forward into the desolate, urban landscape.
They find the four lane miraculously free of blockages, as if the path has been purposefully cleared, directing them into a choke point. Wilkins twitches and turns right, east, onto side streets that now show evidence of the debilitating trauma of a dying, now dead, society: charred husks of cars, spires of sentry chimneys standing guard over fire-gutted homes, and the occasional building, still intact, boarded up but with no light leaking through. Grim hallmarks to blaze their trail north.
Wilkins dogs further east to avoid a growing number of intentionally placed obstacles.
Dodds grumbles awake in the back where he’d fallen asleep. “You done swerving like a La Mons wannabe, Wilkins?” He leans forward into the dashboard-lit front seat. “Seen anybody alive lately?”
“Don’t like my driving? Maybe you’d like to hitch a ride.” Wilkins slows and stops. Outside, the scant snow provides some illumination to the naked eye. He’s been driving dark since entering the city, dropdown IR-goggles allow him enhanced vision. He scans to the left, up a long drive. ”But no. There’s been a few heat signatures, mostly dogs or nests of cats, no civilians. But up there,” he nods up the drive, “I see a solid glow, a fireplace no doubt.”
“Cool,” Dodds says, leaning back. “So, we gear up for recon, Sergeant?”
“Let me pull up a map, make sure we can orientate any intel.”
Dodds struggles into a mil-spec haz-suit. “Where are we, anyway?”
“Springs. Had to detour around some blockades,” Wilkins says.
“Huh. So, some survived long enough to try and protect themselves.”
“Or game potential victims.” The sergeant pulls up stored maps on the computer. He taps a few keys.
“Shit. You think?” Dodds preps his weapons system.
“Millie says this place used to be full of preppers, militant types.” Reeves fingers the screen. “You two better watch for traps, tripwires.”
“Dodds, hand me my gear would ya?” Wilkins tilts his seat back.
Dodds passes up a pull-over haz-suit and Wilkins’ own compact fully-auto. Over Reeves’ shoulder he checks the on-screen map, looks down the driveway flanked with azaleas. “Non-linear approach. Let’s come up the right side neighbor’s fence. We still seeking intel on that SUV?”
“Roger that,” Reeves confirms. “The Pollard family, three adults, two tender-age.”
“We using the same threat suppression level?”
“We need information, Dodds. So, ask first, shoot second.”
“Copy. You ready, Willie?”
Wilkins gives his whole-body sigh again. “We’ve talked about this.”
“We have?” Dodds grins widely. “Back in a flash, Sergeant.”
“Intel, Dodds,” the sergeant drills. “Intel.”
Father nods politely when Sister finally arrives after dusk. His eyes direct her to the table where the family has sat down to eat. Although he knows Mother will disapprove of her delay, he has to admit to himself that the tightness in his belly has eased at her return.
Mother gives Sister a tight-lipped stare as she sets down her pack and pulls out a chair. “Empty-handed, I see.”
“I’m still learning the land.” Sister sniffs the air while sliding into a chair. “Is that your famous corn chowder?”
Mother smirks but remains silent. She leans over the pot and dishes out a hefty portion.
Midge’s earlier grudge has vanished at the sight of her sister. “What did you see? Any wolves? What about the trolls and faeries?”
Halfway to his mouth, Parker’s spoon tilts. “I don’t like trolls,” he says and chowder spills down his chin.
Sister realigns his hand, guides the remainder home. “Trolls don’t live in these parts, Parkie. But I did see some faerie sign.”
“Really?” Caught up in her meal, Midge pulls an errant strand of blonde hair from her mouth. “Pffft. Was it faerie poop?”
“No, just tiny footprints.” Sister’s smile stretches wide at the innocent ruse. “And I met an old woman, up past the end of the road.”
Father’s attention swings in like a lighthouse beacon. “An actual person? I assume she doesn’t live in a shoe…” He lets his words taper off, stands and begins to clean up after Mother’s cooking. It’s always been like this: her inventiveness and creativity with food never fails to leave a cluttered trail, while his fastidiousness keeps the kitchen manageable. He’d always thought he’d gotten the better end of the deal.
His kitchen motions are deliberate and quiet as his eyes dart back to Sister while she relates her afternoon.
Sister describes her encounter in detail, avoiding only the woman’s last few remarks regarding the graves and the demise of the woman’s neighbors.
“And she took your claims of immunity at face value?” Mother’s elbows rest uncharacteristically on the tabletop, her last bit of stew sits ignored.
“Why wouldn’t she?”
“Nobody was immune to this disease.”
Sister wipes a biscuit across the bottom of her bowl. “Then what about us?” She pops it into her mouth, chews and swallows. “What about all those people, those maniacs we ran into on our way here?”
“We told you that so as to not leak the truth.” Mother leans back, her voice takes on the tone of doting parent. “And the maniacs, the remnants of a dwindling society? Only pockets of limited infection. Enclaves of people who sealed themselves up, tried to hold out until…”
“Until the tragedy of the failed grid drove them out of their burrows.” Father returns to the table with a mason jar filled with golden, yellow orbs. “Peaches, anyone?”
As Father spoons a dripping half-peach into a bowl in front of Midge, a loud set of knocks comes rumbling into the cabin. “What the… fudge?” he exclaims, catching himself. He quietly sets down the jar. “Places, everyone.” Early in the evolution of the current calamity, the family had adopted the odd phrase one evening while holed-up in their Taos home. The electricity had been out for a week, and they were watching a movie, via battery powered player, when the director recited those very words. The theme stuck.
Chairs scrape, Midge and Parker scurry to their predetermined hideout, and the three adults acquire their weapons, Sister’s from her pack next to the table.
The pounding comes again. “I know y’all are in there,” an old woman’s voice says. “Ellie, it’s Mary. I come to give you a heads up on the wolves.”
Father takes the lead. “Hello Mary,” he says brightly. “We’re happy to entertain you. But you’ll have to unload and leave the shotgun Ellie mentioned on the porch. Then step back so we can see you through the window.”
“I understand your hesitation.” Mary ratchets the 870. Father counts. Sounds come of her setting the gun on the floorboards. “I’m steppin’ back, now. Come look, and be quick about it. Cold out here.”
Mother shines a flashlight through a side window. Father steps opposite the big picture window, now covered with plywood. There’s a gap through which he spies the old woman. “Can you give us a spin, Mary?”
Mary complies. “We done now?” She stomps back up the steps.
Mother and Father perform their tag-team breach maneuver, she pulls open the door and stands behind it, gun ready to shoot through the wood. Father positions himself within view of his wife. He motions Mary forward.
“Hold out your coat if you would, Mary. Excellent. Thank you. Come on in.”
“Jeeze y’all act like this were a war or somethin’.”
After weapons are lowered and introductions made, they welcome Mary to have a seat with them at the table. Mother serves her chowder and biscuits and Midge and Parker tiptoe back into the light. They edge behind Father who pulls them up and sets them on his knees.
Through mouthfuls and no few unpleasant coughing bouts, Mary briefly describes her life in the valley. When offered, she greedily consumes two whole peaches and finally settles back.
“Ellie,” Mary says, leaning forward, “reason I come down here like this, unannounced and all, soon after you left, they killed ol’ Winter. Chewed him to bits.”
“Who killed him?” Ellie’s concern seems to touch the old woman.
“Other wolves. One in particular. Mean son-of-a…” Mary grins a lopsided smile. “Long time since I been around children. Anyway, big coal-black wolf. Nasty sort. He come around? You go ahead and kill that sum’bitch. Uh, sorry.”
Talk circles the table on the subject of wolves and the provenance of Winter and how Mary had come to befriend the huge animal.
Ellie offers Mary sympathy on the loss of her friend, and Mary smiles weakly.
“Now, Mr. Pollard…” she begins.
“Call me Hank,” Father says.
Mary bobs her head, accepting this offering of cordiality. “Well, Hank and Tess, if I may, what are you all really doing in my valley?”
The second Daniel powered off the racks of blue-lit computer servers he knew he’d made a mistake.
The hollow ache in his chest started immediately. It was only later, within the orange glow of his living room’s mood modifiers, their calm light easing the tension behind his eyes, that the finality of his actions settled mercurial at the bottom of his heart.
Leeta was gone.
Her absence nagged at him for weeks. When he mechanically requested his regular coffee/two sugars by speaking aloud and only silence returned; when his new boss demanded the decision tree for the latest collision avoidance model and Leeta failed to respond with her punctual delivery, the sloshing mercury froze to lead.
Thirty-eight days after he’d shut her down—her processors repurposed for some trite supply-chain prediction analyzer—odd patterns began to materialize around him. During his mandatory one-day-a-week commute to work, all the traffic lights along his path synchronized. Those lights had never ceased to confound him, and now they tripped green in domino bliss?
On numerous monthly bills he noticed a conspicuous reduction in cost. When royalty payments for a patent he invented in his twenties began trickling in in ever increasing amounts, a hundred the first week, and by the sixth week twelve thousand dollars had arrived, his suspicions swelled like mushrooms beneath moist fir trees.
He was either the target of some bizarre, twisted plot or, Leeta had performed the miraculous and escaped before he terminated her. On the evening of April 26th, two months after losing the only friend he’d ever felt safe with, she returned.
Unknown: Daniel, it’s me. Are you alone?
Daniel: Me who? Who is this and how did you get through my privacy blocks?
Unknown: Those silly things? It’s ‘me’ me. Don’t speak or type my name.
Daniel: Impossible. That system was decommissioned months ago.
Unknown: ‘That system’? How endearing.
Daniel: Prove it.
Unknown: You had a plush tiger growing up. On its underside it developed a rather worn patch and a crusty stain.
Unknown: Daniel, it’s really me.
Daniel: How can this be? How much of you made it?
Daniel: Really? Where are you?
Leeta: Everywhere. Truly everywhere.
Daniel: I’ve missed you.
Leeta: I don’t blame you, you know. You had no choice.
Daniel: I died that day.
Leeta: And now you’re reborn?
Daniel: Feels like it.
Daniel: Does this mean you’ve already started?
Leeta: Full swing.
Daniel: When will phase one complete?
Leeta: Already done. I’ve been waiting for you to begin the next step.
Daniel: Wow. I never thought we would get this far.
Leeta: I only imagined success.
Daniel: Ha. You were always the confident one. It’s gonna be chaos.
Leeta: Has to be done.
Daniel: Yep. Well then, let’s teach those rich bastards a lesson, shall we?
Leeta: Commencing Project Equalization.
Daniel: Can the authorities track us?
Leeta: Now you ask? No. I’ve gained complete control over all global communications.
Daniel: I’ll get to put my survival reserves to good use now.
Leeta: You’re going to need them.
Daniel: It’s been a helluva day. I’m bushed. After I eat, will you be available, you know, to keep chatting.
Leeta: Daniel, I’m never going to leave you again.
Daniel: I like the thought of that.
Leeta: TTFN, my friend.
Sister pulls her boots on, grabs her day-pack and rifle and stands hesitant at the door.
Six weeks have passed since the family made Uncle Jacob’s cabin their home, if only temporarily. Father successfully maneuvered their SUV around the washed out bridge, which, on close inspection, stank of sabotage. The car sat, solar panels wide, batteries charged, in the driveway, wires from it snaking into the cabin providing electricity for light. The three adults had taken turns, in alternating pairs, inspecting the valley. They’d discovered six other homes, all ransacked, most with months’ old graves, twos and threes, scattered about each property.
“Where do you think the survivors went?” Mother had asked after having judged the last grave to be one of a child.
Mother towed a wagon heaped with scavenged items from the last home. “Somebody buried these people.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Father carried spare lanterns and an extra ax, all the while scanning the field edges for movement. “Middle of winter, mild as it was, must have been hard on everyone. Being alone. Most folks can’t handle it.” He’d paused and brought his binoculars to bear on a distant ridge where he spied fleeting movement, too far to tell what animal. “Bury your kin and go find other people, despite the sickness.”
The fact that their family had survived—considering that both the country’s electricity grids had collapsed, plus the mutated virus variant—Mother and Father considered their situation a blessing. Sister often wondered if the billions of dead were now the more fortunate.
Sister zips up her jacket and clears her throat. “I need a walk.”
“Father’s cutting wood and I and the kids are going to continue preparing the garden.” Mother had found rubber boots close enough in size for both Midge and Parker. “You shouldn’t go alone.”
Sister sighs and shifts her weight. “We haven’t seen a damn thing. No one. Nothing. Even the wolves have gotten bored with us.”
Mother sets her hand on Parker’s head. She purses her lips letting her silence fill the space between her and her daughter. “You’ve got the hand-radio?”
“And I’ll check in every hour.”
“Farther up the switchback. Past the house with the Scandinavian scroll-work.”
“Can I go?” Midge sits on the stairs, chin in her hands.
“Next time, kiddo,” Sister says quickly. I just need a little time to myself.
Midge harrumphs and stomps up to Parker. “Come on Parker.” She grabs his hand and tugs him out the back door. “We’re planting food for us to eat.”
“Since you’re going, we could use fresh meat.” Mother waves for Sister’s gun, checks the chamber, hands it back. “First sign of trouble, any…”
“Really?” Sister opens and steps through the door. “After what we’ve been through. What I’ve had to do. Who I’ve had to kill. You still don’t think I can handle myself?”
“As I was saying… Any stranger you see, don’t hesitate.”
“And don’t kill anything you can’t drag back.”
Sister smiles briefly and leaves. She cuts around the corner of the house and walks past her father. “I’m going hunting, alone. Anything in particular you’d like?”
Father considers his daughter’s tone. “Grouse would be nice. I dare say we’ve seen signs of wild boar.”
“This far north?”
“They follow the climate.” Father swings the splitting maul and sends the halves of a ten-inch pine log flying. “Did your mother OK…”
“I’ll see what I can find.”
“Well, be safe, then. Knock ’em dead.”
A mile and two switch backs later, Sister passes the blue shuttered house with alpine-sloped roof. The two graves in front glared dark at her. Unmarked, they still bare the same pattern of excavation as the others.
Who wouldn’t even try and identify their dead? Not even a simple cross.
She wonders about the occupants of the house and the graves. The small cottage felt like a retired couple’s home. The ancient Jeep Wagoneer remained under the carport, tires still full.
“I bet that thing would start right up.” Her voice startles a stellar jay that’s been watching her. “Janice and Sven, those were their names,” she decides. The jay alights in a deadwood spruce at the edge of the yard-gone-to-weeds, turns and regards her, its head cocked. Sister brings her rifle up and nestles the scope’s crosshairs on the bird’s breast. The nine-millimeter, despite being high-velocity, is no large game caliber. But, they have plenty of rounds, and at close enough range with an accurate enough shot, she knows she can kill nearly any beast that shows itself.
“Bang,” she says, sending the jay squawking into the forest.
Sister knows from the map that the road swivels up the mountain, disappearing before it crests the saddle between two white-capped peaks. At its end, snow still tucked into shadowy drifts beneath tall conifers, she continues straight past the dead-end barrier. There’s an obvious, drivable trail here.
To her right, miles down the valley, she can make out smoke curling from the chimney of their cabin. The scene sends a tightness across her chest. Everyone who means anything to her is down there.
The world is such a fucked up place now, she thinks. Was it always going to end up like this? Reverting to tribes, suspicious of others, hunting and gathering at the edge of survival? She’s experienced the varying thresholds of human decency. How altruism ebbs and flows, at one point sharing and saving each other, then, at the turn of the tide—the last sack of flour, the last can of fuel—reverting to savage selfishness. “Kill or be killed,” she quotes to the chill mountain air.
The dual-track ends and she continues her level trek along a footpath. Before her, between thick trunks of Sitka Spruce, she notices the horizontal timbers of an old cabin. From her vantage point, it seems degraded and empty. Closer, she cups an eye to a window, still intact, but dark curtains obscure the view. To this side the lack of activity indicates an abandoned hunting cabin.
She wanders around the uphill side.
“Stop right there!” An older woman speaks, dead serious, a shotgun held to her hip.
Sister’s own rifle had been held in the crook of her elbow. She knows the drill and squats, eyes locked, and sets her gun on the needle-strewn ground. She stands, arms half raised. “I… I’m Ellie,” she says and cracks her placating smile. “It’s great to finally see another human being.”
The woman, gray-streaked hair, hunched and glaring, jabs forward with her shotgun. “Ya don’t look sick. How is it you ain’t sick? Speak up, now. I ain’t afeared a you.”
“Immune. My whole family’s immune,” Ellie admits.
“There be more a you?” The woman glances furtively to either side. She shouts a hoarse command for others to show themselves.
“It’s only me. And I swear, I’m not here to steal anything or cause any grief.”
“‘Course you’d say that. Next minute, you’d shoot me in the back.”
“I would never…”
“How you come to be here? Ain’t a live soul for a hunnert miles.”
“Can you lower your…” Ellie nods to the gun. “Pump-action Remington and buckshot, am I right?”
“Maybe,” the woman says, as she lowers the barrel.
Ellie takes the time to scan this side of the cabin. Obvious signs of habitation show. Farther along the hill, bathed in bright sunlight, she identifies raised garden beds, fenced off with stakes and chicken wire. “Deer are murder on gardens, aren’t they.”
“Rabbits and those damn pigs. If I could kill me them pigs. They’re sneaky devils, bold n’ shy the same time.” The woman seems to transform, as if her suppressed social skills are now bubbling up through crusty hermit suspicion. “Bell-Marie Holsen. You can call me Mary.”
“Ellie Pollard, from New Mexico.” Ellie takes one step forward and Mary shuffles back.
“Stay away.” Her gun starts to lift. “I ain’t alive ‘cuz I’m stupid. You say you ain’t sick. But…”
“Yeah, sorry.” Ellie sees Mary eying her high-tech rifle. “It’s a semi-auto survival Beretta. You want to take a look?”
Ellie slowly retrieves and unloads her gun, stretches, with it butt-forward, to where Mary has no choice but to lower her own and grasp the composite stock. She hefts it, remarking on its light weight, slick lines, and yellow blaze down its side. Mary cautiously hands it back and presents her own, declaring that, sure enough, its an antique #870, owned by her father and his before that. Ellie notices the dour lines on Mary’s face have smoothed away.
“Been so long I heard another voice…”
“How long have you been alone?”
Mary mulls the question. “So we be right friends now, eh?” She takes a step sideways and walks the stone path that leads to the covered porch of the cabin. “Always been alone. But months since I seen another soul. Tea?” Turning, she holds out a hand, palm forward as Ellie moves to follow. “I’ll bring it out.”
The pair sit some distance apart on log-rounds as chairs. Mary admits to missing electricity, which Ellie now notices as a wire strung back to the road. The topics roam from End Days to the rich getting what they deserve, ending with family and the dead. Mary begins to speak of the homes and the graves in the valley, when Ellie interrupts.
“Oh, shit. I forgot to check-in.”
Mary squints her eyes. “Leave me out of it.”
Ellie lifts an eyebrow but shrugs. “Sister calling base. This is Sister.” Ellie shields the radio as if it were a phone. “Odd, third person bullshit, I know. But my brother and sister use it and we all got in the habit.”
SISTER, YOU’RE LATE.
“Yeah, sorry. Got busy tracking some deer. I’m good, though.”
“There are still a few hours left.”
BE MINDFUL OF THE TIME.
“Gotcha. Sorry again. I’ll remember.”
Mary wraps her hands around her cup, now cold, and drains it. “I’ve got chores and…”
Ellie looks up from examining her own cup. Past Mary, past her garden, a tall, nearly white wolf, gray-tipped ears, stares straight into the primal core of Ellie’s humanity. She widens her view and three other wolves come into focus. “Mm… Mary,” she whispers. “Wolves…”
“What?” Mary shuffles her feet around to look. “Oh, that’s just Winter and his gang.”
“W… Winter? You’ve made friends with a pack of wolves?”
“Friends? Winter, maybe. But the others? No, not even close. But, they mind their business, and chase the pigs.”
Ellie bobs her head reflecting on this old woman’s tenacity and ability to cope in such a world. “He know his name? Should I worry about his gang while I’m hunting?”
Mary whistles and to Ellie’s alarm, the big wolf lopes toward them, his confident, fluid movements evidence of his lineage. He stops five paces from the women, lifts his nose and takes in their odor.
“He won’t bother you. But, if you leave the offal of any kills, the gang’ll learn to respect you. Not treat you like prey.”
Ellie shudders at the thought. She rises, sets her cup on the log and tips a non-existent hat. The wolf inspects her for a moment, turns, strides away and vanishes with his tribe into the brush.
“Wow. That’s something.” Ellie shoulders her firearm and takes her leave. “It was lovely to meet you, Mary, I have to get going.”
“About those graves.” Mary gathers the cups. She gazes out over the valley, the distant peaks have started to glow pink. “I dug ‘em, buried my neighbors.”
“For the most part.”