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.