Authors: C. L. Scholey
He suddenly determined not to fail this child, as he felt he failed his. Whether the woman liked it or not, he felt he’d been sent to them for a reason. The entire lot of them seemed so vulnerable. Clint cast a quick glance across the room and noticed his friends in the corner. They hadn’t moved. Though Clint felt more dismay, none of the others noticed; they had handguns trained on the boy.
Aidan sat sipping tea in a bomb shelter. Ethan brought him home and introduced him to his wife Sarah and his son Ricky. Sarah was a tiny woman in her early forties who was obviously suffering from some kind of ailment. She crept about as if in constant pain, but smiled with apparent relief when Ethan introduced him. She fawned and fussed over Aidan, offering him food and drinks until he glowed red from embarrassment at all the attention. She was sweet and kindhearted, a woman any man would protect to the death upon meeting. The honest concern she displayed made Aidan feel warm and accepted within moments of entering their domicile. Ethan’s son Ricky was a rambunctious lad of eight; his questions pelted Aidan incessantly until his mother demanded he stop to let Aidan catch his breath.
“But Mommy,” the boy said breathlessly, “we haven’t seen anyone else in years.”
“Or at least two and a half months,” Ethan responded dryly.
Aidan chuckled and offered the boy a smile of indulgence. “It’s okay, I don’t mind.”
“All right,” Sarah interjected. “But just a few more questions before bedtime.”
“Have you seen any dead bodies?” Ricky asked, his excited eyes wide.
“Richard Ethan Morrison,” his mother declared mortified. “That is quite enough.”
“Don’t you ‘aw Mom’ me, young man.”
“You said I could ask.”
“A few reasonable questions.”
“Perhaps it’s bedtime, son,” Ethan said and tousled the youngster’s hair.
“No buts, young man, listen to your father.”
Knowing that tone of voice Ricky retreated, shoulders slouched head low, for his cot on the other side of the small space where he had his own tiny room.
“Hey, champ,” Aidan called. Ricky turned and waited. “No bodies, but I saw elephants, and wait till tomorrow. I’ll tell you how your dad saved me from a tiger.”
“Cute kid,” Aidan said.
“Cute yes, precocious most definitely,” Ethan said with pride.
Sitting close to her husband, Sarah drank in Aidan’s features; he was the first person she had seen besides her husband and son in months. She noted he would be handsome if he weren’t so filthy. His hair was a thick mop of black with the odd curl in disarray, his eyes were a beautiful chocolate brown with long black lashes, his beard was un-kept and greasy, but his coffee-colored skin would undoubtedly glow if scrubbed clean.
Aidan’s clothes were ripped in spots, threadbare in others. The one thing she did notice about him was that he didn’t seem to be suffering from any serious hunger and showed no signs of malnutrition. His clothes did hang on him, but not because of weight loss; it was more probable he had borrowed someone else’s clothes. Hopefully someone who was done using them. As that thought popped into her head, Sarah blushed with embarrassment, grateful he couldn’t read her mind.
“You’re wondering what I did to end up in jail.” It was a statement, said without anger.
Aidan’s eyes saddened. He put down his cup and both hands rubbed at his legs as he stretched his back.
“Well, I just...it was because...” Sarah stammered.
“It’s all right, Ethan saved my life. You have a right to know who and what I am,” Aidan said. With some trepidation he began his story, worried about their reaction. His honor and integrity were all he had left. He’d gone into solitary for his beliefs; he wouldn’t dismiss them now.
“I was a bit difficult for my mom to handle. She had a few boyfriends, some real jerks, nasty creeps. My dad left before I was born, hit the road, apparently the moment he found out about me. By the time I was ten I’d been arrested twice, just petty things. I was always lashing out trying to get my mom’s attention. At twelve I stole a car. I took it for a joy ride...through a neighbor’s garage. The cop who brought me home told my mother she best do something with me before I ended up in a gutter somewhere.” He paused to collect his thoughts.
“The cop recommended this guy who took in boys like me. Not a foster home or baby jail, as the police like to call it, but a nice guy who tried to help boys who seemed a bit too busy for their own good. Ray was a good man, saved my life. He taught me to hunt and fish; he taught me all kinds of things about living off the land. He said I had a real knack for it, and I do. Later when I was old enough, he got me into the army. They soon realized I was very good at tracking.
“Anyway, I ended up in a special unit; it took me lots of interesting places. I sent money home to my mom and we started talking. We talked about my dad, something she had never done before. She apologized for not being a good mom and I said I was sorry for being such a brat. We grew close. I was happy I finally had a family.
“I came home on leave, a surprise. It was my mother’s birthday. I found her in her trailer curled in a tight ball in a corner, bloodied. She was dead but hadn’t been for long. I was an hour late...one damn hour. It was almost as if she had been waiting for me, trying to hang on as if she had known I was coming. I’ll spare you the gory details about her suffering, but she was beaten up pretty bad before he...before he stabbed her.”
Aidan stopped as Sarah put her hand to her mouth and closed her eyes. Ethan put a comforting hand out to cover hers and smiled at her, she offered a weak smile in return.
“I was devastated,” Aidan said. “She was the only family I had and she was stolen from me. As I stood by her grave, alone, I realized I was all she had too. Looking at her birth date, the same day as her death, carved into the cold stone, I grew incensed. We had never had anything except each other, and even that for not too long. Now she was gone, my entire family was gone. It was an angry heartless and soulless fury that possessed me.
“I wanted revenge in the worst way. I used my position and the resources I had available and I tracked down the animal that killed her. I hunted him with less compassion than a rabid wolf. I made him scream out an apology, made him beg like my mother must have. Then I shot him and put him out of my misery. I turned myself in later that day, handed over my weapon to my commanding officer. I gave a full confession and was sentenced.”
He was done. It was out. Aidan waited for their reaction; he waited for them to order him out of their old bomb shelter. Ethan’s grandfather or great-grandfather must have put it in during one of the world wars. Someone must have added to it later because it had three small rooms. It was still full of canned food, old canned food if the dust was any indication. It had a woman’s touch that made him smile; his mother had liked knick-knacks. Useless things, he thought, but she liked them.
“Would you like more tea?” Sarah asked him.
Aidan looked at her stupidly, he had just spilled his guts and she wanted to get him more tea? Then he realized her hands were working nervously. The tea wasn’t really for him it was for her.
woman, I’ll bet she’s never killed a spider. I’ll bet she asks her husband to shoo them out of the place.
“More tea sounds great,” Aidan answered, and suddenly it did.
* * * *
Later, Aidan and Ethan sat alone. They talked about their childhoods, their jobs, the turn of events, and finally their situation. They both agreed there wasn’t any army coming in to save them. Aidan had been walking for two months, keeping track of the dismal days by notching marks in his ‘acquired’ belt. Sarah, Ethan and Ricky were the only people alive he’d seen. Aidan had lied to Ricky when he said he hadn’t seen bodies, he suspected there were thousands. He thought it a cruel irony his cell had kept him alive. He had ended up in solitary for sure, a different and crueler solitary, he thought with bitterness. Two months of unending death, fear and confusion, he felt he had more than served his time.
“No one’s left to clean up the mess out there. Cities lay in ruins. Bodies buried under tons of debris or worse, out in the open left rotting. Flooding, lots of flooding. You’re lucky you’re high on a hill. Not far from here cars are buried higher than their hoods under water,” Aidan said after a long sip of brandy, his eyes closed, he thought he held heaven in his mouth at that moment, trying to rid his mind of the devastation he had witnessed, though not succeeding. He knew the images would remain with him until the end of his days.
“It’s that bad?” Ethan asked again, he was becoming agitated. He had been hoping it wasn’t that bad, hoping there would be more people, doctor people, specialist people, hospitals, some kind of help.
“What’s wrong with her?” Aidan quietly asked.
Ethan became taciturn, he rolled his brandy glass between his hands, he remembered when he and his father had put the brandy down here with glasses. His father had jokingly told him he might want a quiet getaway from his wife in a few years, after they had been married a while longer. But the bottle had remained untouched; he loved his wife more than life itself. She and Ricky were his whole life; he loved spending time with them.
With sad eyes, Ethan looked up at Aidan. Aidan knew that look, it was the despair to end all despair look. Aidan sighed and nodded his head in understanding. Death was death even if you were still living through it. Whether it came on swift wings or on the back of a turtle it would come. With heavy hearts, both men finished their drinks and ambled off to their sleeping places, hoping to find solace in dreams. Even their nightmares couldn’t be worse than what they were living.
The next morning Aidan awoke to the smell of beans cooking, he was sure he was still dreaming; he must be back at Ray’s home. He knew he had better get up, he had work to do. Perhaps he and Ray could find some time to go fishing, maybe take the boat out on the lake.
Aidan felt his eyes being gently pried open. As things came into focus, he saw the mischievous face of Ricky no more than two inches from his own. Ricky seemed to take careful examination, until finally satisfied he yelled over his shoulder loud enough to wake the dead.
“He’s awake, Mom, maybe.”
“Well if he wasn’t, he is now,” Ethan muttered, rubbing his hands over his face.
Ethan sauntered over to the small kitchen which was also a living room, dining room and now Aidan’s bedroom. Aidan rolled into a sitting position, feet now planted on the floor. He had definitely slept in worse places. On reflection his mind wandered to that small metal piping after the elephant incident. He gave his head a shake, best not to remember that just yet. Aidan rose and made his way to the table. Sarah was scooping tablespoons of beans from their original can onto tin plates. She was cooking on a tiny tabletop indoor-outdoor barbeque that was made originally for charcoal but now they were using woodchips. Only embers smoldered, it was apparent Sarah used their resources sparingly, while maintaining a healthy knowledge of limited ventilation.
When Sarah placed his share in front of Aidan, he nearly wept with gratitude. He had found enough to eat; he was skilled at living off the land in any season or under any circumstances. But here was this small family sharing what meager rations they had, and they were meager. Even if they had canned food, it wouldn’t last forever. They treated him in a way others hadn’t over the last few years, with kindness, decency and respect. Like he was important, like he was worth something.
“Don’t you like beans?” Ricky asked Aidan, full of concern. The boy had made short work of his own.
“I love beans,” Aidan said in a choked voice. The look he sent Sarah was so thankful she reached over to squeeze his shoulder. “Maybe your mother would like a break tonight and let me cook dinner.”
“Sure, I’d love that,” Sarah said. “I have lots of canned food you can choose from, meats, fruits, vegetables. I usually decide on two at dinner. The grill, as you can see, is small. Or if you’re game, I have some jars of spaghetti sauce left and pasta or noodles. Usually I cook that, Ethan is better at cleaning up afterwards than cooking.” She sent a fond gaze her husband’s way while he chuckled agreeing with her.
“Well, no ma’am,” Aidan began; he shoved the last of the brown beans into his mouth and stood up to stretch. “I mean, not only will I cook it, but I’ll find it.”
“Find it?” Ricky asked with excitement.
“Yes find it, clean it, cook it, and you can help eat it.”
“Can I help catch it, please?” Ricky begged; his hopeful gaze went from his mother to his father.
After a brief hesitation Ethan was prepared to begin his reasoning on why his mother needed him to protect her, but Sarah answered.
“Yes, you must go,” her words were directed to Ricky but her eyes remained on her husband. “You need to learn soon enough how to take care of yourself out there.”
Ethan had been prepared to protest, but at his wife’s pleading look he relented. He understood only too well what she was thinking. She had always been afraid to let Ricky go out in case something happened to Ethan. She hadn’t wanted him to die alone if he got lost in the elements; if he was unable to find his way back alone, he would be doomed.
“Go, I’ll be fine. I’ve wanted a chance to finish that blanket,” Sarah said.
Ethan had found some mismatched yarn on one of his jaunts to the town in search of food, he knew how much Sarah loved to knit and he couldn’t pass it by. His discovery of the yarn was bittersweet, as Sarah had asked him one night to place the finished blanket over her head when the time came. She couldn’t stand the thought of dirt falling onto her face and over her eyes when she was buried.
Ethan gave in. With a whoop of delight, Ricky ran for his coat, boots, hat and a small bow and arrow set his father had given him for his seventh birthday. Ricky ran over to kiss his mother then excitedly threw his arms around her thin shoulders and squeezed.
“I love you, Mommy,” he whispered in her ear. “I’ll bring you back a really big something.”