Authors: David Haywood Young
Tags: #General Fiction
David Haywood Young
Cabin Fever Press
Copyright © 2015 David Haywood Young
All Rights Reserved
Table of Contents
f you’re reading this, I’m almost certainly dead. But I imagine you know that already. I don’t see how it could be a surprise.
Worse, from my point of view, is that everyone I ever knew or loved likely died with me. Or before. I’m not talking about aging and the inevitable march of time here. I doubt any part of the end was pretty or peaceful. And even if I’d known what was coming, from the beginning? I don’t know what I could have done to save any of us.
Still. Maybe you’ll find something in this that will help you. Before it’s too late. I hope so.
I might as well start with the first day I noticed anything unusual. Nothing before that matters anyway.
he lumpy road was smooth butter under my bare feet, the clean green air stained with warm flavors of asphalt filled and caressed my pumping lungs, the March sun lightly toasted the morning and then retreated to think of other things…days like this were what I had missed about running. Except it had never been so good, before these last few months. Too many injuries along the way. Barefoot running sounded so ridiculous—until I’d tried it. Now I could barely stand shoes at all. Foot-splints, earplugs for the feet. Never again!
“What is he—a hobo?”
I’d spotted throngs of urchins ahead, cavorting in hydrant-spray heaven, but hadn’t seen the three boys lounging in a pickup bed until I came abreast of them. I grinned, and thought about answering the twerp as my feet carried me past, but life is sometimes good: I heard a loud
“He ain’t no hobo! That’s Mister Ash!”
Sudden coughing. Then: “Dangit,” came the reply as I left them behind me. “You almost made me swallow my cigarette!”
I lost my grin. The kids were downwind of me, so I hadn’t noticed what they were doing…but the tow-headed smoker couldn’t have been more than nine years old. About my daughter’s age. She probably knew him.
Up ahead, water coursed down the curb on my side of the street. I moved left to avoid it, noting the slightly worse-than-usual yellow-brown tinge as our local drinking supply fountained into the air. I suspected Henge’s city fathers opened our hydrants periodically in an attempt to clean out the lines just prior to some sort of mandated testing—because otherwise they’d never bother. But it was fun for the children.
Just after I ducked and wove my way through the soaked and shrieking mob I came upon an old gray tomcat crouched in a stand of unmowed grass about three feet from the pavement. Back when he was a kitten he’d been friendly, and I’d stopped to pet him while walking by. Then as a young adult he started running away. Today, fat and certain, he bared his fangs in my general direction and hissed without bothering to so much as twitch his tail.
I hissed back, surprising him not at all, then padded onto Old Center Avenue. At the same time the breeze shifted. The smell of rain hit the back of my throat…I looked up and saw dark gray clouds moving in…
for the kill
, an inner voice cackled. I grinned again. I loved a good storm.
Old Center cut through what used to be my great-grandfather’s farm. Both sides of the road had gone to scrub, just four blocks from downtown. Coming here always struck me as if I’d suddenly left the town behind and entered the countryside. Except that our actual country roads were better-maintained. This one didn’t go anywhere in particular, and was slowly fading away. Which might have pleased Great-Granddad, since the land for it had been taken from him by the town council sixty years ago—right after he’d lost an election for mayor. For commerce, they’d said, citing eminent domain. There had been some sort of plan, but it had fallen through. And according to family legend they’d never quite gotten around to paying him anything for the land either.
The scrub was still in my family’s possession, though. Last I heard there were no current plans to sell or develop any of it. A good grudge can outlast a lifetime. Or several lifetimes. Most of my family died young.
Didn’t matter; I loved running here. As the sky darkened and the sounds of town—such as they were—faded away, I found myself peering into twisty recesses of black walnut, hemlock and prehistoric fern.
, I wondered as I laughed shallowly and let my mind spin through its exercise-induced oxygen deprivation,
an ancient and malevolent spirit lived in these woods?
An Elf, maybe, brought across time and ocean from its native habitat, slowly losing its mind to the tedium of modern life. Would it spot a passing runner, and ensorcell his mind? What if the runner had aspirations—had always wanted to run
—and the Elf smiled as it twisted the threads of thought and sinew, causing the runner to move faster than he ever had, to become a blur among the trees and gravel and aging broken shoals of dark and brooding chipseal? What if this scrub wood connected to another Wood, and the trail became eternal? Would the runner forever flash along the trail? Or would his mortal body expire, his heart exploding in his breast?
I imagined being that runner, and picked up my pace just for fun. It was easier than I’d expected, and the approaching storm’s ozone-laden air seemed to carry power I could use. I leapt and laughed along my track through the woods.
But not forever, or even until my body failed dramatically. I didn’t time myself, but it was only about a mile to the end of the road, and obviously the same coming back (though it generally
a bit longer). Call it twelve minutes, maybe—after which I’d re-entered, as I thought of it, my town.
Still. A good run. I’d needed the break; work wasn’t going well lately.
* * *
oney? Can you stop by the store and get some milk? And a few other things?”
I sighed. Then: “Text me a list,” I called back to her from our home’s entryway. I’d stop by, all right. After my shower, and before I got back to work…both of which would happen right there in the house. “You do know the grocery store’s not exactly on the way to anywhere I was going, right?”
Sometimes a silence can pierce your skull. Fortunately this one was interrupted by a buzz from my phone: she’d sent the list already.
I loved my wife. But not so much for her efficiency.
* * *
checked before I pulled out of our driveway. We apparently needed tomatoes. Plus basil, celery, and carrots. I detected soup in our near future. Worryingly, there was no meat listed. Rebecca had been making vegan noises for the last few months, and they’d stepped up in frequency lately. Though I hadn’t checked the fridge; maybe she already had animal flesh handy?
She also wanted aluminum foil and Diet Coke. So Walmart it was—the only other choice we had left in town was the Latino Market. They were cheaper, since most of their inventory came from Mexico, but they didn’t carry Coke products.
Outside the store, I reluctantly donned my homemade sandals. No raised heel, no arch support, and good luck finding anything like that in a store. Especially in Henge, West Virginia. But I wasn’t going to ruin my feet—again—for fashion’s sake.
* * *
added a pound of Italian sausage to my cart and began searching for a bucket of lard—just on principle; truthfully I didn’t cook and had no idea how to use it—but I spotted Mike Eisler, our chief of police, in front of me. He’d been a friend of my older brother, and I’d never liked him, so I swung into the soda aisle.
Where I ran into Rose Epley. When I was a kid, as far as I could tell everybody nearby was a relative, or nearly—so I’d never tried to figure out exactly how I was connected to Rose. By now it would be too embarrassing to ask. Something on my father’s side, I suspected. Maybe my mom’s too. Small-town West Virginia, you know?
“Jacob Ashton!” she exclaimed. “As I live and breathe. When are you bringing the little ones over for pizza? I
you wouldn’t be avoiding me this year.”
Rose organized a sort of founding-family reunion every year, on the first day of spring. It was coming up in a couple of weeks, and in fact avoiding her was
what I’d been doing. The whole thing was a little strange. Not
strange…quite. But nearly. It involved dressing up as our ancestors, telling stories, and hiking in the woods. Oh, and some hunting. And when I was a kid some of the men would take us boys aside for a bit of communal blood-drinking. In theory it meant we were all hunters together, and we would keep our old ways—which included not telling the women.
Eventually I grew up a little and figured out that “
don’t tell the women!
” wasn’t so much because it was an ancient and noble secret ritual but more out of fear the women would ban it. As they would have, in a heartbeat. So to speak.
I guess, given the stuff that happened later, I should tell you it wasn’t human blood. They used deer if they could get it…but my first time had been squirrel.
Which I still felt had been a little bit of a cheat. Hear me roar, said the mighty rodent hunter’s pimple-faced nephew? Not a high point in my life. Though I think it was supposed to be. I guess I was never a dutiful son of Henge. Or of my parents either. They’d had Fred for that, until Iraq.
Anyway, as far as I knew that stuff hadn’t happened in at least ten years—not since Mom and Dad died and Rose took over organizing the reunion. And I’d always kind of enjoyed the whole event otherwise, but Rebecca…well, she didn’t. Resentment because her own family had never been invited to participate before our marriage, probably, though she denied it. Last year we’d caused a minor stir by taking our kids to Hawaii for a week instead.
I smiled down at Rose. At just over four feet tall, with bright red hair, she’d been my favorite babysitter. For myself, years ago. She’d wanted to do the same for my kids, but Rebecca wouldn’t go for that either. Rose smoked like a chimney, and her most-recent husband worked for the prison the town fathers had foolishly—in my opinion—invited to settle just past the city limits.
In four years the non-inmate population of our county had doubled. And what nice people they were, too. Our land of opportunity.
“How’s Hank?” I asked Rose, trying to move the conversation away from dangerous topics.
She pursed her lips. “You know, today was supposed to be his day off. But something was goin’ on over at the prison, and he lit out this morning like his tail was on fire. That man gets on my nerves, with all his running around when a body ought to still be in bed.”
“Huh.” I kind of liked Hank. A lot more than her last couple of husbands. But if I was reading the signs correctly, his days were numbered. If Rose was criticizing him in public…I tried to put in a good word: “Well, the overtime will probably help.”
“Oh, you.” She poked my side. “What do you know about overtime? You went off to MIT, you have your own business you run from your house. You don’t have the same problems we locals do.”
I blinked. I wasn’t a local? My family had almost two hundred years of history here, and…well, I’d come
from college, hadn’t I? Ten years ago. Though it was true I didn’t have much to do with most of my relatives anymore.
A voice from behind startled me. “She’s got a point, Ash.”
I turned. Eisler, two feet away. I’d have preferred a few miles between us. “Hey, Mike. How’s the law business?”
He eyed me. “Poor. Like everything in this town. How’s the internet treating you? Spying on people’s a good way to pay the bills these days?”
I sighed. I hadn’t realized he knew that much about my company. “I guess. If that’s what you want to call it.”
He glanced at my sandals and sneered. “Stock up on staples while you can, Ash. You too, Rose. I shouldn’t ought to tell you folks—but there’s a riot at the prison. They’re calling in the National Guard. It’s not goin’ to be pretty out there.”