Authors: C. L. Scholey
Ethan stood quietly for a moment. “Come on,” Ethan said, exhaling loudly. He clamped a hand onto Aidan’s shoulder and gave him a wry smile. “Anyone who’d go to jail for his mother doesn’t seem all bad.”
* * * *
The traveling was slow going. At night Tansy and her brood found shelters in basements with partial roofs, under bridges that were standing. When they were lucky, which wasn’t often, a tiny cave or hole in the ground gave them some relief from the bitter weather. Their feet and legs ached from constant motion and the cold, while noses ran like leaky faucets. Tansy wept most nights from the agony in her back and shoulders from carrying Michaela, they took turns with her, but the loads they carried to survive were heavy. The drudgery of day to day living, existing, had taken its toll.
Marge was faring the worst, her feet were an agony of broken blisters; her limping grew pronounced as the days dragged by. Her hands and face were chapped and peeling. The weight she lost had her clothes hanging, she looked thinner; her gaunt forlorn face held deep black circles around tired red-rimmed eyes devoid of life, she wept often for Sam.
They found a small building with a sturdy cement basement that was dry but smelled of mold.
A vending machine held a single bottle of semi-frozen water and an icy can of diet Pepsi. Tansy searched the corners of their new shelter, not wanting Mike to become easy prey for rats.
Tansy had taken the initiative and made a slingshot. It was a crude piece of stick that looked like a small divining rod. She found a stretchable piece of black rubber from a car’s engine. She slit two small holes in either side of a piece of leather from a ripped jacket, threaded the rubber through the leather at the ends and practiced. At first she couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, even if one had been standing. With determination she became a fair shot, at least enough to frighten any vermin away. It was only by accident she found she could hit food. While aiming at a large coniferous tree, Tansy absently aimed for a branch, her gaze intent on her target. The next thing she knew a large plump gray squirrel lay dead at her feet. Her stomach queasy, Tansy thought they couldn’t possibly eat it, or could they?
After the initial shock of getting over what they were eating, it became a habit of searching for the quick little creatures. Survival instincts kicked in. Tansy remembered making a bola with her grandfather, a few hand-sized stones attached to pieces of rope and spun overhead. They’d done it for fun, but her grandfather mentioned you could hunt birds like that. Not many seemed to exist, but taking a chance paid off when Tansy noticed a small group of geese by a pond.
Tansy felt exhilarated when the geese took flight and she let fly her weapon bringing down one of them. As always, her elation died when she realized what her next task would be. Though the bird wasn’t as difficult to gut and clean she hoped she would get over the need to vomit when the innards came outwards.
“Look what I found,” Emmy squealed.
Emmy, Chris and Shanie had gone for a small search of the building. Tansy, Marge and Michaela stayed to set up their sleeping quarters. Tansy started a fire with a piece of flint, a stone that seemed fairly common and the back of her steel blade. The matches were gone, their lighters exhausted. It had been with hesitation Tansy had thrown out their flashlight, but with batteries nonexistent and their need to always lighten the load, it seemed the only intelligent thing to do. It came with bittersweet feelings. Their grip on their past life was coming to an end.
“Toilet paper,” Emmy shouted, waving it about for all to see with a look so full of self-satisfaction her mother was hard-pressed not to laugh. Although it would be a welcome relief, everyone was feeling a bit raw from using old rags and leaves or whatever they could get their hands on.
“I found it on the floor in a cubical. There’s no water in the toilets, and the sinks don’t work, but I grabbed it when I saw it.” She then smiled secretly and held out her hand. “Best of all look what I found.” Three closed packets lay on Emmy’s open palm.
“Oh, presents,” Michaela declared.
Chris turned crimson and Marge chuckled.
“They’re presents all right,” Emmy concurred.
Besides toilet paper, tampons had been nonexistent. Tansy hadn’t thought about it. After Michaela was born she hemorrhaged and needed an emergency hysterectomy. Marge had been a ‘late in life’ mom. Approaching sixty she’d hit menopause and not having any daughters she had been unconcerned. Emmy, mortified, had run into the problem. Granted she had been late but her mother reassured her it was not uncommon during a stressful time.
“Could I have one?” Shanie asked.
Emmy leaned closely to Shanie in a conspiratorial sort of way. When Shanie offered her an embarrassed nod, Emmy handed over all three packets. Michaela rebelled with a shriek of protest wanting a present too, but Chris was quick to offer a distraction. He did what Michaela referred to as the duck dance. His lips pursed and with arms outstretched he preceded to waddle-chase the child and was rewarded with appreciative laughter from all.
Wooden chairs broken into pieces lay in a pile close to a fire. Tansy stuffed the rest of a rodent’s nest into a small pouch she was using as a tinder kit. Rodents gathered small bits of fluff and soft dry things that were receptive to minor sparks.
They shared the can of diet pop from the vending machine for dinner. It was the only sustenance they’d had besides the last of their provisions, depleted almost two days prior, a solitary can of chicken broth. Tansy gave Michaela the last sip of water from the bottle they found. Michaela succumbed to her exhaustion soon after.
The night was quiet, too quiet for Tansy. She couldn’t help but have an uneasy feeling. They were pressed against the far side of the wall, the concrete cold against their backs, but it offered the most protection. The tornadoes had been subsiding, the rain lessening. Tansy assumed it was because of steady colder temperatures. The smell of snow was in the air and Tansy worried; they had a long distance to travel.
They would now face frostbite, hypothermia and hibernating animals. There would be no plant life as it would most certainly get buried. Their existence would depend on what they could find. Searching for scraps like wild animals.
Tansy was the last to sleep; her heavy eyelids closed reluctantly and soon she slumbered. Dreams of chaos and doom haunted her until soon she was sitting bolt upright. The fire had died down to embers, Tansy reached for the pile of wood nearby. When she rebuilt the fire, she settled back beside Michaela who was too weak to move in her sleep.
Something wasn’t right; Tansy didn’t know what. She didn’t know how she knew, she could just feel it. Then she heard it, a whisper, a soft expletive and then silence. They weren’t alone. Her hand closed on the rifle she always kept by her side. With her toes, she nudged Chris who was to her left, his face in her direction. He opened his eyes. When Chris noted Tansy’s strained features in the soft light, he moved his hand slightly to clasp his mother’s; her eyes flew open immediately. All knew they were in for trouble.
At a signal from Tansy, the three jumped up, protectively standing in front of the others. Emmy and Shanie woke instantly and amidst the confusion rose to join their ranks while Michaela still slumbered. A chuckle from the shadows sounded as three powerfully built men came into their view. They advanced upon them. Tansy’s breath caught.
She had never felt so terrified in her life.
The men were filthy. Their pungent clothing was caked in dirt and grime, or smeared blood and fouled guts. Tansy detected a rotted odor permeating from the lot of them. Her offended nose wrinkled. She thought
“Easy baby, we’re not going to hurt you,” the largest man said, sauntering closer. He pulled a filthy hat from his head. He was bald, his features pure rough male, it made him look dangerous as hell. She could see his powerful muscles ripple under his clothing, they were that huge. All of them had short unruly beards covering dirty unwashed faces. All three were dressed in army fatigues, although nothing about them spoke army, a decided lack of nobility of character. The largest man, obviously the leader of the pack, looked them over with a leer, his eyes lingering on the two teenage girls.
“Don’t come any closer,” Tansy warned, holding her rifle high. Her heart hammered within her chest. She was terrified. Terrified for her girls. The rifle held only a single shot at a time. Even if she made it count there would be two men left, all three were over six foot four, the largest easily six-six, powerfully built.
“It’s all right,” the biggest man soothed.
“Stay back,” Tansy warned again, teeth gritted, her riffle trained on his broad chest.
The man raised his hands in supplication and he stopped advancing. They stood calmly, one with his arms crossed over his chest grinning.
Michaela woke and pulled herself up by grasping her mother’s pant leg. One of the men looked wide-eyed at the child, then to Tansy and back to Mike. His interest angered Tansy and her hand steadied the rifle onto him, lowering the barrel to the man’s groin.
“I’m a damned good shot,” Tansy threatened.
* * * *
Cord, the largest man took note of the situation and the fierceness of the woman’s protective instinct. He learned from experience females could be fearless and irrational when protecting their young and he best be cautious. In the past they counted on their size to persuade any women they came across, few and far between, to be accepting and cowed into not resisting. So many had been sick or injured, not much fight or resistance was left in them. But he could tell these were different, defiance challenged him from all directions; he was intrigued. Cord knew the world had changed. He knew women and children weren’t faring well. Only the strong were prevailing. The weak would live only if they had the protection of the strong. Perhaps they should include these strong-willed newcomers in a new hierarchy...his.
Cord looked at the bedraggled lot. The child, no more than a baby, was helpless, but he could use her to manipulate the mother. The oldest woman, thin and tired, again no threat, but she would take up valuable food. The boy looked defiant, but could be overpowered by any of them. The girls, one very tiny and the other younger, were definitely no match for any of them. Only the woman holding the rifle gave him a moment’s pause. He considered his options and decided to propose a plan. She looked intelligent, he didn’t want to have to hurt her, but might if it served his purpose. Although, he was anticipating an interesting battle of wills.
“Why don’t we all just calm down?” Cord said. He smiled a smile he knew most women found irresistible, but apparently it didn’t work on enraged mothers.
“Keep your eyes off my baby,” the woman with the rifle hissed, murderous intent was written all over her, only now the rifle was aimed at Clint’s groin.
“Take it easy; Clint’s not a pedophile, lady,” explained Cord. “Your kid looks a lot like his own daughter who died a while back.”
Clint looked terribly affronted and confirmed this. “She does, she looks jist like my little Bess. I’m Clint; this here’s Randy, that’s Cord.”
As if this introduction made everything all right Clint began to approach without caution, but at the woman’s command for them to keep their distance, he stopped.
“Go away,” this was angrily commanded by the boy.
“Beat it,” the young girl said, she held a bola in one hand.
The older teen grabbed hold of a slingshot.
“Maybe we should sit and discuss this rationally,” Cord said in his best mediator voice.
“Get out. Discussion’s over,” the boy quipped.
Keeping his face calm, Cord made a mental note to kick the boy’s ass after they’d neutralized the situation. Cord instead looked at the oldest woman, who resembled a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. He directed his comments to her; she seemed the most vulnerable of them all.
“We just want a place to stay for the night. A storm is really kicking up out there, please don’t send us out into the pitch dark and freezing cold,” he mimicked a placating voice, then slyly added, “We can keep each other safe. If we join together we’ll be stronger. We have food and water we’ll share.”
The older woman looked compelled then gazed at the woman with the rifle. Her head ducked. Cord was right; the spirited one was in charge. They locked gazes.
“I’m sure you can find another part of the building for the night,” she said.
Clint stepped forward. “I promise no one will harm you. I’m jist gonna start our own fire at the other wall.” He moved off into the darkness where they heard him fumbling for a moment. Shortly there was a small fire going.
With the fire established, Cord sauntered over to their pile of broken chairs, ignoring outraged looks, grabbed a huge armful of the wood and ambled back to join his friends. He knew how to get the woman’s undivided attention, for now he dismissed them.
Tansy, like the rest of her brood, stood watching uncertainly. They were too afraid to sleep. But one thing was certain; there really was a storm outside. They not only heard it blowing from up the stairs, but the men had been covered in snow when they first saw them, faces red in the soft glow of the fire from the biting cold.
Tansy sat, encouraging the others to do the same. “You kids better get some rest. As soon as the sun comes up, we’re leaving.”
“But what if the storm hasn’t let up?” Emmy asked.
Tansy didn’t know what to do. The thought, “the devil you know and the devil you don’t know,” came to mind. But which was which? Were the men the devil they knew? Tansy could guess what they wanted. She was also well aware of frostbite, pneumonia and hypothermia. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place. A new thought entered Tansy’s mind as she smelled something. The aroma was of meat. Tansy wondered what food they had; she noted her eyes weren’t the only ones following the scent. Michaela was practically drooling. Her hopeful hungry gaze went to Tansy’s.