Anna and I talked this morning about looking for some people to help us work and protect the farm. She thinks its a good idea. We sure could use the help, and, she pointed out, we got lucky the other day with those scavengers. If they had seen Eva before she had seen them… I don’t want to think about it.
So I left Anna my rifle, and she agreed to keep Eva inside while I was gone. I threw on my hoodie, and armed myself. My hunting knife was strapped to my left leg, and my Glock was holstered on my right. I tied a strap to my 12-gauge and threw it over my shoulder. It’s not exactly the “safe” way to carry a gun, but shit, safety went out the window a long time ago.
What’s more, it allowed me to climb some of the sturdier trees in the area. I spent most of the day watching from the above. Safe and unseen in my perch.
I skulked up and down Lakeside End, the road my land is on, all morning. It was busy. Busier than I expected it to be. Three different groups came by, and that was only the ones that I saw. None of them seemed to be what I was looking for. Luckily, none of them looked like scavengers, either. They all seemed to have someplace to go, and they all walked past my drive without so much as a glance down it.
An entire family passed by at one point. A mother, father, and two kids. I was sorely tempted to make an offer to them — nothing motivates a man like protecting his family — but I didn’t. I’m not sure I know why. The father, a robust, bearded man, walked with purpose, seemingly intent on some destination far beyond my little patch of land. I don’t need someone who will constantly have eyes elsewhere. Also, I don’t need a patriarch who might challenge me if he thinks it’ll suit his family better. So I watched, and I waited.
All three groups came by early in the morning. However, after the family, no one came down the little road for hours. The sun was passing the midpoint in the sky when I decided it was a lost cause. I left my little road, and headed for the highway.
Highway 41 is about 10 miles south of the house. Taking the road, it’s almost twice that distance. I don’t need to take the road. That being said, it still took me about an hour and a half to reach the highway. When I got there, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I still can’t, really. It feels like a dream.
All the way to the horizon, the road was filled with cars. Rusted out, most had broken windows, some had crashed into the ones in front of them before they were abandoned. Skeletons of broken lives that had run until they had run out of gas. The pines that lined the highway, that I used to love driving through, now seemed ominous and threatening. The road was becoming overgrown already, grasses and mosses filling and covering cracks and potholes, creeping up and over concrete barriers. Nature was taking back her self from the last vestiges of humanity.
Then there were the bodies. Corpses, half-rotted, most dead from starvation or exposure; stretched thin. Faces frozen in grotesque expressions of pain. Some had been moved to the side of the road. There were even graves. Some were still in their cars.
Some had met a more violent end.
The living still walked among the dead. Gaunt, thin, faces, eyes deadened by the horrors around them. Men, women, and children passing in groups — seeking some sort of safety in numbers. Even those who walked alone would sometimes find themselves walking next to each other. They’d never look at each other, they never spoke, but there was solace in even the briefest companionship along the hellish journey from someplace on to someplace else. Yet that wasn’t the worst of it.
I must’ve watched for hours, perched midway up the sturdiest-looking white pine I could find. Maybe fifty people passed me. They never knew I was there, never even looked up. Every now and then, though, people would pass who were clearly different. Scavengers, like those who came to my land. The rags they wore weren’t clutched tight around their shoulders, they were worn with pride. They dangled off the skinny frames of the underfed like badges of honor. Some were splashed with red paint. Others were clearly covered in blood.
Their faces were wild, some grinning maniacally, others laughing stupidly at the madness around them. One such gang passed pretty close to me. Shiny, white, fresh, scars crisscrossed their faces and bodies. I’m pretty sure they did it to themselves.
These people had no destination. They simply walked among the damned, picking the corpses and cars clean, taking anything they saw value in.
One picked up the emaciated body of a woman, and began dancing with it. His friends laughed and clapped along — keeping time.
I watched this macabre spectacle, till out of the corner of my eye I spotted movement down the road. A young woman picking her way through the abandoned vehicles. She wasn’t looking up. She didn’t see them.
My jaw was so tight I could hear my teeth grinding in my skull. I couldn’t just watch. I couldn’t wait there. I wasn’t thinking. I started to climb down, but I couldn’t do it quickly, it would be too obvious. The scavengers were too close to me.
Then she screamed.
My head jerked up, and I saw their faces light up with sick glee. She turned and began running, scrambling between cars to get away. The one who’d been dancing dropped the corpse, and they gave chase. The jig was up. I jumped the rest of the way, landing with a thud. Something in my knee twinged as I hit the ground. I ignored it.
I poured everything I had into my legs and sprinted for the road. They were already so far ahead. I wasn’t getting closer, but they were closing in on the woman. I couldn’t build up a full run, because of all the cars in front of me. So I took the shorter route. I leapt onto a Kia and started jumping from roof to roof. I started to gain on them, but not fast enough. I pulled my handgun from my holster, and my shotgun from my shoulder. There were six of them. I had ten shots that could cover any distance.
She screamed again, and fell behind a car. They were almost on her.
Two men rose from behind a car. I didn’t even know they were there. One pulled out a knife and threw it at the band of scavengers. That was very brave, and very stupid.
The knife bounced handle-first off the back of one of the scavengers before clattering to the ground. It didn’t hurt them, but they stopped to see who was throwing stuff at them. They saw the two men behind them.
Then they saw me.
I was twenty feet away, and I raised my gun. I pulled the trigger three times, hitting two of them, before my momentum carried me straight into the group. I slid feet first into the chest of one of them, knocking us both to the ground. My shotgun got knocked out of my hand by the impact, but I had a moment to spare. The scavengers were too stunned by my appearance to act. I took it.
I fired two more times, and another fell backwards over a car.
One managed to get his wits about him, and roared as he dove at me. I grabbed him by the neck trying to keep him off. His breath stank and spittle drooled out of his mouth. His teeth had been filed to points. I jammed my pistol into his chest and fired twice. His body sandbagged over mine. I heaved him off only to get a kick to the head.
Spots danced in front of my vision and I curled up instinctively, throwing my arms around of my head. The next kick knocked the pistol out of my hands. The third came down on my ribs. Soon both remaining men were pounding me with kicks and stomps.
Then they were gone. After a moment I glanced up. The two men who had been hiding behind a car had tackled the two who were attacking me. They were grappling against one of the cars. They were strong, but untrained, and the scavengers were vicious. One clawed the new man, and started throwing him back. I glanced quickly around, but my pistol was gone.
My shotgun, however, was laying neglected about ten feet away.
I scrambled for it, hoping the two men would hold their own.
I stood up, and realized there was another. The one I had kicked. He looked at me, his eyes bloodshot red. I don’t think he even saw the gun in my hands. He charged at me. The shotgun went off like a cannon. The shot ripped him to shreds. His blood sprayed all over the remaining men.
Everyone froze for a second. In the lull you could hear the echo of the shot rebound around the forest. The four remaining men stared at me, forgetting their own fights for a second.
Then, the two scavengers screamed, a blood-curdling sound that grated on my ears. The two newcomers were fighting valiantly, but losing. There was blood everywhere. This had to end now.
Both men dropped, to the surprise of the scavengers. I pulled the trigger again, and one more was gone. The last man standing swiveled his head around wildly, before fixing his eyes on me. He bared his teeth at me like a dog. I shook my head, and pumped the shotgun. The empty shell clattered to the ground.
“Don’t do it.”
He charged at me. I pulled the trigger, and he was gone.
I helped both men up. Their faces and clothes were smeared with blood, though I wasn’t sure who it belonged to. Now I could get a good look at them, though. Both were about my height. One was broad-shouldered and broad-faced. He looked strong, if a bit pudgy, and the unkempt beard he’d grown did little to hide his pronounced chin. The other was skinnier, but seemed to be made of gristle. He had a hooked nose, and a boyish shape to his face. The lines that seemed carved into his features made it difficult to tell how old he was. He was the man who thanked me.
“Don’t worry about it.” I said. “That was a brave thing you did, rushing out like that. Couldn’t very well leave you to these bastards.”
The two looked at each other. “Well, that’s kinda what we felt.” The broad one spoke. His voice was deep, but it was wavering. I don’t blame him.
“Name’s Nate.” The skinny one held out his hand. I took it. “Bill.”
“Ted.” I shook the bigger man’s hand, too.
“Where’d the girl get to?” Nate asked. It was a good question. I scanned the area.
“Um… I’m here.” The soft voice drew our attention. She was hiding behind a car, her dark hair and eyes peering over the hood. She was quivering where she stood.
“Hey.” Nate turned towards her, his hands raised. I was surprised by how soft he could make his voice. “It’s okay. They’re dead. They can’t hurt you.”
She still looked terrified. “Nate.” I called. He looked at me. His face was still covered in scavenger blood. “You’ve got… um.” I gestured to my face. He looked at me, then Ted, and realization dawned on his face. “I don’t think we’re gonna be very comforting right now.”
“No… It’s okay.” The woman spoke. It sounded like the voice of a mouse. She stood up from behind the car, and walked around it towards us. All four of us stood there, surrounded by blood and bodies and gore. “Thank you.” She said, after a moment. She didn’t look us in the eyes. She kept staring at the ground at our feet. “Thank you so much. I thought I was going to die there, or…” She didn’t have to tell us or what. We knew.
“What’s your name?” I asked. She finally looked up.
“Well, Elaina, don’t worry about it, really.” Ted spoke up, his voice sounded stronger. “If these monsters can band together, so can we.”
She didn’t say anything, but she nodded.
I looked towards Ted and Nate. “Where were you all heading?”
They glanced at each other again. “Not really sure,” Nate said. “We were gonna try and get to Canada, we heard it’s better up there. Less scavengers.”
I nodded and looked at Elaina. “About the same. Was hoping to cross at the Soo.”
“What about you?” Ted looked at me sideways. “Where are you going armed to the teeth?”
“Actually I live around here. I came out here looking for survivors.”
All three of them looked at me incredulously. “You live around… here?” Nate finally said.
“Well, about ten miles north. We have space if you guys want to spend the night.”
All three looked at each other. I could tell there was a lot of apprehension at the idea. “You should at least come by. You can get cleaned up a bit. My wife will make dinner.”
They glanced at each other again, this time with hungry looks in their eyes. I found the real way to win them over: the promise of a warm meal.
I had to find my pistol before we left — it had been kicked under a car. Once I fished it out, we all got off the road as quickly as possible. We didn’t want to wait around to see if more Scavengers showed up. Ted, Nate, and I all cleaned up our faces and hands in a stream that we had to cross along the way. Even Elaina washed her face a bit. They seem a good bunch. Ted was a teacher down in Crystal Falls, and Nate had been a roofer there, before the war. They’d grown up together. Neither had much family left, so both tried to high-tail it out of there as soon as they could. Ted said it was dangerous to go out during the day, because that’s when the scavengers started patrolling the roads. Most traveled during the early morning or late evening. They had gotten stuck on the road, and had taken shelter under a car, waiting for dusk, when the scavengers attacked Elaina.
Elaina was pretty quiet. She said she was an accountant, but when we asked what she’d been doing since the war started, she quickly changed the subject. We didn’t press her.
They’re all here now. Anna was happy to have me back, though she insisted we all wash again and change clothes before dinner. Ted and Nate had extras in their backpacks, but Elaina had nothing. Anna gave her one of her dresses, and helped her wash up. Evangeline was ecstatic to have company again. Her and Elaina really hit it off. I didn’t realize how young she was, when we were on the road. Now that she’s cleaned up and fed it really shows. She could almost be a big sister to Eva. I think maybe she had little sister, the way her and Eva played together. She probably spoke more to Eva than to any of us.
We put Ted and Nate up in the shed, and gave them blankets and pillows. Elaina bunked in the guest room. though. I haven’t pitched my idea of letting them stay and work on the farm. I’ll tell them in the morning. If they do decide to stay, we’ll try to put them up in one of the empty houses nearby. There will be a lot of work to do, but we can probably get it done quickly if Nate and Ted help.
I’m glad Anna convinced me to go out there. Even if they don’t stay, if this just becomes one night of solace in a long hard life for them, I’m glad. I had no idea it was so bad out there.
Whew. This one took a while. Sorry about that, I hope I made it up by giving you guys the longest part yet! Let me know what you think!