Authors: C. L. Scholey
“Or hot corn on the cob, rolled in a mountain of freshly made butter,” Chris said, then shoved more meat into his mouth with a filthy hand.
Emmy chewed daintily, swallowed, and added, “Or a steaming Hawaiian, gooey cheese stuffed crust pizza with root beer floats.” This was met with vigorous nods of approval.
“I would settle for a cup of steeped hot tea,” Marge said.
Tansy concurred. Hot tea with lots of cream, not milk, real sugar, not fake sugar. Something to add a few pounds to them. They were suffering from malnutrition. All the walking they were doing, unable to fortify themselves with protein, fats or calories, was taking its toll as the food dwindled. They were tired faster than when they first began their journey. Arms and legs were feeling the stress of heavy burdens. Their clothes hung on them.
Nothing they owned seemed as precious as their clothes. They each had only one change of clothing, alternated and washed in dirty streams or rinsed out in rainwater. Objects were discarded randomly in desperate attempts to lighten burdens. Something once considered invaluable was reassessed, discarded. A sad trail of cherished belongings left behind in their tired wake.
Tansy ran a hand through Michaela’s hair, patting and smoothing. She watched Chris throw a heavy log of walnut on the fire hoping it would burn through the night offering them warmth, light, and a measure of security. If not from furry animals then from the human kind.
Jokingly, Chris told them he was sure he’d heard a lion’s roar, and laughed, but the idea plagued Tansy. What if it was?
What if the storms hadn’t killed animals trapped in zoos, but released them back into the wild? All kinds of animals, African lions could be walking free in North America. Arctic timber wolves, hyenas, gorillas? A giraffe left to roam free, so beautiful and helpless. How could they survive? Where could they find shelter? Would they even have the instincts to?
The animals survived off of vegetation. Tansy had seen a small amount of vegetation still existed. With winter approaching, it would be difficult for the little group of humans to find fodder, especially when the snow flew. She wished she knew of vegetation that would supplement their diets and keep them healthy through their long trek. Meat alone would sustain them, if they found enough of it; Tansy knew they needed vegetables and fruit. People became vegetarians and survived; could people become strict carnivores and live?
What about scurvy, malnutrition, lack of essential vitamins, nutrients, how could they hope to live without proper nutrition? Tansy’s thoughts were in an upheaval. Their step forward, providing their own meat was tinged with a knowledgeable leap backwards. If they could hunt, they could forage, but for what?
Tansy’s mind raced. Her grandmother had made dandelion wine and a horrible cough medicine also from dandelions that would make Buckley’s seem enjoyable in comparison. This wasn’t the season for dandelions, what could she do? It wasn’t as if she could access a computer, call information, or her mother, her mother would have told her, “I’m not a library dear.”
Tansy almost shouted with her revelation, of course a library, if one still stood. In the next town they must find one. No greater wealth could be found other than in books. A book on vegetation in winter, in summer, a book on survival, on skinning rabbits, it had to be there.
Relieved, Tansy closed her eyes. They may be helpless because they were advanced, but because they were advanced they weren’t without knowledge.
* * * *
Tansy rose with new purpose. The drizzle falling through the tree tops wouldn’t deter her. She was on a mission. Thankfully, they had insight to pack a map, even if some of the roads and landmarks were gone; they just needed a basic direction. Tansy had a direction in mind. The little town was closer than she speculated. Leaving the children with Marge, who argued they shouldn’t split up, Tansy headed out.
The town was destroyed, not really a surprise, but Tansy was disappointed. She wrapped her arms around her drenched figure and pushed forward. Climbing over the debris of what might have once been a town hall, Tansy paused to get her bearings. It wasn’t much of a downtown, probably hadn’t been to begin with. No more than the remains of a few buildings, and deserted.
Tansy looked into the gray distance and saw the image of a very old house. She set out for it at a fast pace and was soon pawing through the debris. She made her way around the side of the demolished home hoping to find cans that might have been spared. Tansy remained adamant about keeping the can opener she’d brought from home. She argued the need for it as they still came across the occasional canned foods that fared better and were more durable than glass.
A glint of metal caught her eye and Tansy began tossing broken wood from the top of what looked to be a cellar. When she had cleared the mess she stood looking at a door latched and bolted from the outside. There was a padlock attached.
Tansy found a rock she could hold comfortably in her hand and started bashing at the lock. With all the rain, or perhaps it was just age, the rusty padlock broke after her fourth try. She had a little trouble with the bolt and ended up smashing that.
Tansy pulled at the door. The hinges gave a protest in the form of an eerie creak but swung back. The door was heavy and now sweat mixed with drizzle as Tansy peered down. She could make out a set of rickety steps descending into darkness. The hair rose on the back of her neck; the dankness of a rotting smell wafted up to her. Her nose crinkled and she looked around expecting something akin to zombie people approaching. Giving herself a shake, Tansy unzipped her backpack and produced a tiny flashlight. The batteries worked, but after turning it on, the light dull, she realized that wouldn’t be the case much longer.
She took one uneasy step down. The stair held; the rickety board sank a bit under her feet. Another step offered a suspicious groan, nothing more. The third step was missing; Tansy’s short legs were hard-pressed to reach the next. There was no railing to hold onto and she ended up sitting on the second step to reach the fourth. Then again no fifth step, but she reached the bottom and lowered herself to the moist dirt floor.
It became apparent she was in a root cellar; an adjacent door had been attached to the inside of the house but was crushed. She remembered her great-grandmother had owned a house with a root cellar. Her great-grandmother had always been doing down jams and preserves. Tansy’s heart leaped and her search became earnest as she looked throughout the large space. One quick cast of her dying light and, there. On one of the shelves she approached were jars.
Tansy’s legs shook with excitement. She reached a tentative hand outwards as her fingers closed around a Mason jar dark with some filling, she opened it. Delving her baby finger inside and lifting the contents to her nose she sniffed. Tansy’s heart almost burst with joy, she knew that smell; it was blackberry jam. She stuffed her finger into her mouth and made contented sucking noises. She did it again and again, the whole time trying to undue her backpack. There were six jars in all, each containing something different. Tansy wasn’t sure what, it was too dark to see, but she wanted it all. Once all the jars were collected, she hurried her way back to the others.
* * * *
Tansy placed a pair of ratty but fairly clean wet pants over a rope strung near the fire to dry. She shook her head, rubbed her neck then stretched. Afterwards, she stuck her hands as close to the fire as she dared, they were red, chapped and very cold. She didn’t know what to do if they were suddenly stuck in a snowstorm. It was too cold to wash outside without risking pneumonia. They had a little soap left and used the small cast iron pot she brought propped up over four stones and placed over a small cooking fire to heat water to wash their bodies with.
They were likely to get a lot dirtier before warmer weather would return and they could bathe in a lake or stream. Tansy didn’t know how her ancestors could stand to be so dirty. She smelled putrid.
Everyone was sound asleep but her. Everyone for once had gone to bed with a full belly. She had saved a little of the food she had found. Her mind rationalized two things: save the food and ration it. Also, they could die tomorrow so why not just eat it. She compromised; Tansy let them eat what they wanted, knowing their bellies had shrunk and they wouldn’t be able to finish it all. She was right; two jars of homemade peaches were left.
After hanging the laundry in their tight quarters, Tansy thought hard. Perhaps the root cellar wasn’t just a fluke or a lucky find. Maybe because it was built under the frost line it was a bit safer. The cave they were in was also a lucky find. It was chance they stumbled onto this one. They couldn’t stay here, they had to keep moving. They would be safe at the mines; she knew that. Her mind wouldn’t even consider that they wouldn’t.
Tansy wondered about people, or lack thereof. She knew people must be hiding, they heard the voices and cries of others when they slept in the subway, but were too terrified to approach them. They’d seen dozens of bodies and body parts. Animals were few and far between. What actually existed out there?
The fire spit and popped then calmed. Tansy also calmed, she knew they’d once again be on the move in the morning. If she were going to be able to carry Michaela, she’d need to be rested. Tansy curled around the child. Her eyes watered at the small amount of smoke within the cave. They were warm with the heat the fire cast and their combined body heat. She slept.
* * * *
He knew it was a tiger. When he’d first seen it and blinked hard, it was still there. How it got there was a different matter altogether, and if he didn’t do something and fast, he was about to become six foot three and a half inches and two hundred and forty-five pounds of raw hamburger. The menacing tiger licked its lips as if in affirmation to his disturbing thought.
his mind screamed.
his brain screamed back. He had found a small town after escaping the tornado and the elephants...the elephants he didn’t want to contemplate. On some level, he was positive he was in hell, zoo hell, but hell nonetheless.
Aidan backed up, never breaking eye contact with the tiger. Creeping with one hand behind, feeling the way, not wanting to trip. The tiger roared and goose bumps rose on his flesh, his jet-black hair had grown in longer, but he swore it stood on end. He stopped dead in his tracks as the tiger gathered itself, readying to pounce. Aidan’s hands came up to fend off the inevitable. As the tiger lunged, Aidan dropped to the ground and heard an explosion. His breath was knocked out of him and he thought he might have passed out when he felt the heavy weight of the tiger being yanked off him.
“Well, don’t just lie there, buddy; give me some help,” came an irritated groan.
Aidan didn’t think twice, he shoved and pushed to get the hulking beast off and soon the other man had him clasped under his arms and pulled. As his legs were freed, both men fell backwards into a heap. Lying there half on and half off the other man, Aidan looked back and gratefully offered him his hand.
The man grasped the outstretched hand, gave it a firm shake, and shoved Aidan off him while also yanking him to his feet in one fluent motion.
Slightly shorter, but of a more burly build, Aidan assessed the man. He was older than Aidan, had longish dark blond hair, hazel eyes, and a large rifle.
So the posse has arrived.
“I’m Ethan,” said the man. He held out his hand while cradling the rifle in his other.
“Mine’s Aidan,” he replied, and clutched back at the first live human being he’d seen.
“Have you eaten lately?” Ethan asked.
The man offered him a friendly smile, displaying white even teeth and gestured Aidan to come with him.
“Follow me; I need to get back to my wife, Sarah, and my son. I hadn’t expected to be gone this long and I’m hesitant to leave them alone to begin with,” Ethan said and began to move away at a fast pace.
Aidan followed closely on his heels; no, he wasn’t going to let this one get away. They traveled out of town toward a muddy dirt path that might have once been a road. The storms had tossed sticks, logs and branches haphazardly over it. The day was overcast, the sky quiet. It was eerie. A densely wooded area but there were no squirrels playing, no birds singing, the lack of noise had a foreboding quality.
“Ethan?” Aidan began. “Could I ask you a question?” without waiting for a response Aidan forged ahead. “Are we dead?”
“Where’ve you been, on another planet?” Ethan responded with a confused grin.
Aidan cringed, another planet for sure. Jail was like nothing he ever experienced. Solitary confinement would be more amply named solitary hell. He’d been placed there for fighting and saving another’s life, and it caused a great rage within him. It didn’t matter the guard argued it was for his own safety. Aidan couldn’t stand being left alone with his memories.
Depression had hung over his head until he thought he would expire. After the guard realized Aidan’s problem, he made it a point to visit him regularly, bringing him magazines and baked goods from home. He chatted with him occasionally in a friendly way. Even though it had been the same guard who released him, Aidan spent a great deal of time pondering he had been betrayed. Perhaps the guard had feared him after all. He had left him alone in this nightmare without so much as one word on what occurred.
A new fear came on swift wings, what if Ethan sent him packing? What if he found out about jail and left him all alone on the trail? He’d be better off if he shot him than to be left all alone to wander aimlessly through a sea of debris and dead bodies. Aidan was no liar, nor was he a coward, and if he possessed nothing else in this hell of a world he maintained his integrity.
“I was in jail,” Aidan said, his eyes downcast.
“What did you do?”
“I killed a man who murdered my mother.”
He looked up, his gaze locked with Ethan’s. In that moment he bared his soul, his raw emotions. All the anger and hurt and frustration shone from his eyes bright with unshed tears. Aidan wanted more than anything to accompany this man back to his family, back to reality and sanity. He couldn’t go on alone any longer.