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?”