Authors: Kelli Owen
Waiting Out Winter
© 2011 by Kelli Owen
All rights reserved.
No portion of this book may be
reproduced without written consent from the author.
© 2011 by Thunderstorm Books.
This title was previously produced as a signed limited hardcover edition and as a trade paperback edition.
Cover art © 2011 by Nick Tripicano
E-book Layout and Design
For Mark and Amanda–thank you for agreeing to leave the winter wonderland.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Bob Ford (
) and Ron Dickie (
) for pre-reading their little butts off. Thanks to Bob, Brian (
) and Coop for borrowing attitude, verbiage and habits to characters they knew nothing about and are nothing like. And to Paul Goblirsch, for letting a mare play with the stallions of the stable. (note: visit @’s at twitter.com)
Winter either bites with
its teeth or lashes with its tail.
“It is not the strongest
of the species that survives,
nor the most intelligent.
It is the one that is
the most adaptable to change.”
~ Charles Darwin
The last of the contaminated died last week, and Nick struggled to accept the parallel truth--the town was free of disease. The parade of unattended funerals was finished, but instead of finding relief, Nick fought the revelation. It felt hopeful, and he had become a pessimist months ago. His logic loomed like a foreboding rain cloud as he reminded himself no one, not even the officials, knew how long the contagion lasted, or if there was such a thing as an immune carrier--and they wouldn’t, until another outbreak showed them. Months of paranoia wouldn’t simply go away with one death, even if it claimed to be the last.
His dueling reaction continued to battle behind his sleepy eyes. A part of him wanted to walk next door, bang on the boarded windows, and shout to the sky with excitement, relief. But the other part of him knew better than to try to contact neighbors. Everyone had learned last fall that it was safer inside, so most people remained there with their families--or what was left of them--reluctant to trust any evidence, and unwilling to risk going outside if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. If there was any celebration of the final death, it was behind locked doors and plastic-covered windows, in small gatherings of survivors.
The Kontis family, like everyone else, had been inside for seven months now--a full five months after the buzzing had stopped. The once innocent sound had become an audible omen, and humanity had tuned in to what it was saying. Through the long winter months, Nick had gradually changed from a night owl to a morning person, and was debating the supposed final death and precursory buzzing while he boiled water for his first morning cup of instant coffee.
As he pulled the hot kettle from the fireplace, before the whistle woke the rest of the family, he heard it. Quiet. Far away. But there nonetheless.
Nick froze. The trembling of his hands caused hot water to slosh inside the dented tin kettle. That damn buzzing.
He whispered, as he set the water and coffee cup on the bricks of the fireplace hearth and reached for the flyswatter, which sat collecting dust on the end table. Always within reach, the simple household item had become a tool of survival and there were several in each room of the house. Swatter in hand, Nick stood and attempted to pinpoint the location of the buzzing.
The sound had stopped. He face began to spread in a half smile, not in recognition of humor but in acknowledgement of irony. He mentally compared the situation to elusive noises his truck had teased him with over the years. Whenever he brought it to the shop or got the tools out himself, the noise would mysteriously stop, making it impossible to locate. But the truck’s protests of age and abuse were nothing to fear—however, the once harmless yet annoying sound now brought unrivaled terror. He exhaled, trying to convince himself it was his lack of coffee and tired mind playing tricks on him, rather than an actual threat after so many months of anxious safety.
The buzzing resumed and Nick’s chest tightened in response. He looked down the hall where his family slept, unaware of the danger that had entered their shelter. The sound originated in the kitchen, the opposite direction of the bedrooms in the layout of the single-story ranch house. He crept down the hallway, closing doors with a whisper as he went, then turned back the way he’d come. Believing his family was better protected against the intruder, he headed back toward the kitchen. It had been five months since he fought the tiny enemy. He hoped it was like riding a bike.
As he tiptoed into the dark kitchen, the buzzing echoed in the powerless quiet of the house and fear crawled up from his stomach. He remembered the taste of it and thought back to the beginning.
Jerry rolled the windows up and pushed the parental control button to lock them, preventing Scott from lowering them again. “Why do you keep doing that? I’d rather deal with one of Mike’s pickled eggs and Old Milwaukee farts.” The stench of millions of roadkill worms hung in the air, not necessarily dissipating, but no longer gaining strength through an open window.
“Because I’m a kid at heart?” Scott offered, smirking at Nick before looking out at the black and green highway.
Nick followed Scott’s gaze. A thick layer of splattered insects in various stages of decay coated the asphalt. The black areas represented where the soft carcasses had dried, the greenish smears were fresh--or as fresh as death can smell.
“Because we’re men,” Nick grunted his Tim Allen impersonation. “Men like foul things.”
foul.” Jerry pulled the plastic off another pine-shaped air freshener and waved it around. “I thought they said they were going to do something about this.”
The sound of the tent worms popping under their tires reminded Nick of a kid playing with bubble wrap. “Yeah, before we left, they said the DNR was coming in to deal with it.”
“Vile things. Sarah’s been bitching all summer ‘cuz they’re eating her cherry tree.” Jerry threw the air freshener onto the dash.
“They covered my shed to the point that it looks like my siding is alive--it moves, it’s freaky looking.” Scott pushed his hand through his thinning hair. “They don’t stink as bad when they’re alive though.” The other two nodded.
“Gas station ahead.” Nick pointed between Scott and Jerry’s heads from the backseat, having kept watch for the next possible stop. “I need to piss.”
“Damn, your bladder gets smaller and smaller with age. You know that?” Jerry glanced at Nick in the rearview mirror.
“Shut it and pull in.”
Jerry snickered as he left the county highway for the gravel parking lot. “Now don’t take forever, I have a lonely wife to get back to and wonderful things to do to her.”
“Damn, man. That’s my sister you’re talking about--I don’t want to hear that!” Nick opened the door as they rolled to a stop and jumped out of the backseat of the quad-cab truck.
In front of the store, an old man regarded him with quiet, ancient eyes as Nick glanced at the battered restroom sign. He pivoted in the gravel toward the side of the building, following the direction of the sign’s arrow, and ignored the silent contempt he imagined in the man’s stare.
Locating the unisex bathroom, he pushed open the dented metal door and reached for the light switch. Dirty florescence bathed the unwashed room and Nick took in the disgusting ambiance. The dirt-coated floor, smeared from shuffling feet, was an unhealthy color he equated to the stains inside the cracked porcelain of the toilet bowl. Beneath the dirt, the cement floor had been painted the same color as the lower half of the walls--a muddy brown with a random pattern of darker splotches. The color rose up the wall like bile to abut an out of place chair rail, separating it from the filthy, off-white, top-half of the room. Where the stains of rust hadn’t grown across it like red algae, the outdated sink, yellowed with age and neglect, perfectly matched the lighter color of the bathroom wall. Nick wondered whether the color combination had been on purpose, and how much of the darker speckles were from design rather than lack of maintenance. He looked up at the weak overhead light, wondering if a colored bug-bulb gave the bathroom its ironic excremental hues. Instead, he saw several dozen fly-strips hanging from the ceiling around the uncovered white florescent tube.
“Damn,” he grimaced at the black bodies covering the sticky amber strips by the hundreds. “Clean the bathroom and maybe you wouldn’t have this problem.” Nick wished his journalistic mind didn’t always have to absorb every detail and quickly used the facilities without touching anything beyond the doorknob.
Out front again, he waved at the guys in the truck and motioned he was grabbing a drink from inside, Jerry waved the pine tree air freshener at him and Nick acknowledged the request with a thumbs up.
As Nick approached the door, he noticed the old man’s arms were covered in open wounds, oozing an infectious combination of blood and pus. The man wore stained, torn pants, and an equally dirty tank top that was all but thread-bare and appeared to have become one with the man’s skin in a few places. The signature flannel shirt wasn’t missing, Nick noted, but wadded up in the man’s lap, wet from sweat or pus, or a combination of the two. The man absently scratched at his arm as he looked up at Nick, one eye swollen shut by a bruise, which may have started as a wound similar to those on his arms but had definitely progressed into another abscess.
“They knew. They knew it would happen.” The man wiped an infection-smeared hand across his face and swatted at something in the air. “Weren’t no accident. Don’t care. Never cared. Did it on purpose. Can’t find Sam-Dog either. Probably a Greener now. You seen Sam-Dog?”
The old man sneered at Nick and waited for a response. His lip curled and showed off a checkerboard smile--dark recesses of missing teeth were neighbored by unhealthy, tobacco-stained nubs that hung precariously, waiting to fall away from the inflamed gums, which fought to support them. “No matter. You see him, you do what’s right and put him down. You’re not one of them. No suit. No safety. Hey, where’s your hat, boy?”
Nick opened his mouth to speak but decided against it. Other than Jerry’s truck, the parking lot held an older pickup truck, a dirty but newer model blue Taurus, and a classic Schwinn bicycle held together by duct tape--a canvas bag hanging off the bent handlebars. He decided the bike fit the baffling curmudgeon best and pushed the door open to distance himself from the obviously sick man.
Inside it was cooler and Nick was impressed the little roadside station would have air conditioning. His momentary respect for the place quickly dissolved when he noticed the windows were nailed shut and fly-strips were hung like forgotten Christmas decorations. He looked across the top of the low shelving units, located the soda, and walked to the back cooler to grab three Cokes. A reflection in the door caught his attention as the glass swung shut again.
Nick turned toward the woman and child in the next aisle, his brows gathering in confusion. What planet had he and the boys driven in to? It was easily eighty degrees outside and this woman had her child bundled up like it was the middle of winter. The poor kid had to be sweating underneath the full snowsuit, mittens and ski mask. Sure, it was air conditioned in here, but it wasn’t cold.
A glance up at the mother merely provided further confusion. He guessed the woman was somewhere in her late twenties, but she could easily pass as a decade or better older by the haggard features and washed, worn expression. She kept one hand on the faded purple of her daughter’s snowsuit shoulder at all times and constantly scanned the area around her through squinted, discerning lids, as if scoping the joint out in order to snatch expired products from the shelf in a senseless victory against the system. But something in her eyes reminded Nick of fear. Not the fear of being caught or fear of a missed opportunity. Something deeper echoed from the bag-lined blues and heavy sleep-deprived lids. She swatted at the air randomly, further adding to the mystique of the strange inhabitants of the sideshow gas station. Nick shook his head and filed it away, wishing he had brought his camera with him. It wasn’t Pulitzer material, but he was fairly certain any one of the reporters at work could have come up with a decent human-interest story to go along with the photo. He paid for the sodas and headed back to the truck, forgetting about the air freshener.
As the door swung behind him, he heard the old man muttering in the chair outside, “Shame we’re out of strips and swatters. Maybe some will come in next week.” Nick paused and thought about asking the old man what the hell he was talking about, but blew it off as senility.
“What took you so long?” Jerry started the engine and popped the truck into drive, rolling forward before Nick’s ass even hit the seat. “Christ the stink is going to kill us out here.”
“The stink?” Nick pulled his door shut. “Oh, the tent worms. I forgot all about them in the Twilight Zone Gas Station. It must not stink as bad here as it did on the highway.”
“Yeah.” Nick told them about the mother and child, sick old man, and fly-strip factory of a bathroom.
“Didn’t notice the pumps, did ya?” Scott nodded as they drove past and Nick saw the weathered sign on the front of the old fashion gas pump, “Out of Gas Delivery Soon.” But “Soon” had been crossed through with a marker and the word “Never” had been scrawled underneath it. “No biggie, we have enough gas to get home. New truck has dual tanks…”
“Yeah, but it’s still a weird little gas station.” Jerry spoke as he hit the pavement and gunned it out of there. “Maybe I’ll stop picking on all of Sarah’s bad horror movie choices for having freaky gas stations--apparently, it’s based in reality.” They laughed uncomfortably.