I swear, I don’t know how Momma did it without getting cranky. Get up every morning without fail and cook breakfast for our family, fix and pack everyone’s lunches, and then decide what dinner would be and do all of the prep for that before starting the rest of her chores for the day. It drove me nuts and that was even before I had to remember all of Daniel’s texture issues and his likes and dislikes. If it had been just me I would have only eaten when I felt like it but I knew that Daniel needed a regular schedule he could count on or he got out of sorts. It didn’t particularly matter what he ate, he just needed to eat at regular intervals. That meant sometimes we ate leftovers for breakfast and breakfast for supper. Neither one of us cared though; it’s not like there was an adult around to tell us we were doing it wrong.
I also didn’t have a grocery store to get milk, bread and eggs from. If we wanted bread I had to bake it. If we wanted milk I had to make it using the powdered or canned stuff. If I wanted eggs I had to collect them from the cranky chickens or use the canned powdered stuff.
The bread wasn’t that hard. Being the girl I had to help Momma all the time anyway and it was pretty cool that I knew how to do stuff that even my teachers didn’t though the glow of that had long disappeared by the time I’d been doing it for a while. I baked once a week – a loaf of bread and a baker’s dozen of rolls. Sometimes I’d make cookies, donuts, or pretzels for the week, but not always. If I wanted something fresh I would make cornbread or tortillas. Daniel didn’t much care. He ate whatever I put in front of him but sometimes I wished he would at least have said, “Mmm mmm good” or something like that. But he didn’t and vain though it might have been I wished someone were around to tell me if I was a good cook or not.
Milk for cooking was no big deal for me either but the only way to get Daniel to drink the powdered milk was to flavor it. Sometimes I would make a creamsicle flavored milk drink that used Tang, powdered milk, and powdered vanilla pudding in a 1:1:2 ratio. When it started getting cooler I made hot chocolate or frothy butterscotch milk as a way to warm up after being outside. The butterscotch had milk, brown sugar and butter-flavored extract in it and marshmallows too before we ran out of them. Sometimes flavoring the milk was as simple as dumping in just a little bit of powdered koolaide and a little bit of sugar to sweeten it up a bit. Daniel thought the colored milk was funny and I didn’t mind him laughing at the table so long as he didn’t shoot the milk out of his nose.
During the spring and summer those stupid chickens gave us so many eggs we couldn’t eat them all, especially after Jeff went away. I put most of them in the cooler but when I got an extra gallon saved up I would pickle them with the leftover juice from the jars of pickled beets Momma had put up. Daniel and I both loved the sweet and sour bite of anything pickled and Momma would indulge us since she was happier about that than if we had been addicted to sugary sweets. Daniel’s favorite candy had been these awful super sour gummy worms that were rainbow colored. Dad used to buy them by the case when he would go to the big town for supplies. I looked everywhere for the stash of them my parents used to keep as a surprise … or bribe … for my brother but eventually came to understand that if there had been any left, they had been in the house when it was ransacked by the Blue Hats.
My anger at the Blue Hats never went away. The candy was just one more reason to wish the whole lot of them to Hades even though Momma would have threatened to wash my mouth out with soap had she heard me say it. I’m sure the preacher would have had something to say about my attitude as well but I didn’t care. They’d taken so much from us. I felt I wouldn’t spit on one of them even if they were on fire.
After a while it got to be there were more cold days than not. Daniel’s dislike of socks and mittens sometimes made it hard to let him get out and work off his energy but I never felt comfortable leaving him inside on his own so that I could go out and do my work. I was afraid he would throw the bolt on the exterior door and I wouldn’t be able to get back in or that he’d get into something and I wouldn’t get back to him in time. Finally I had to sit down and try and make those moccasins for him.
I looked through all of my mother’s costume patterns but none of them would work for what I needed because they were all sandal patterns. I was getting frustrated and was just about to see if I could do something with my old boots for him when I noticed a book on our library shelves that had belonged to Dad. It was on weaponry of the Middle Ages. Well, long story short I found a pattern in there for a simple leather boot that laced on the side.
I made the boots out of paper to start with and then made a demo pair out of an old fleece blanket so Daniel would have something to wear in the cave. After I made sure that he liked them well enough to actually wear them I made a pair for him out of leather. I made a mistake and gave him too much growing room so I made him “socks” out of the fleece since he seemed to do ok with that and he would put the fleece “socks” on and then put the leather “boots” on over that and by the time I laced them up on the side they fit pretty well and I didn’t have to worry about him so much. When it was really cold I would stuff a piece of rabbit fur down in the bottom with the furry side towards his foot and he was warm so I was happy. Just to be on the safe side we always dried our boots out after we came in so they’d always be ready for the next time we wanted to wear them. Neither of us could afford to get sick.
The one head cold that I got was a nightmare. Daniel tried to help but I think I wore myself out and took longer to get well just from worrying about him.
Thanksgiving came and went with no special celebration. It’s not that I didn’t feel we had things to be thankful for it was that it was too full of memories that hurt too badly. But after that I felt guilty. I couldn’t let the Blue Hats and everyone else take all of the good stuff away from us. I decided I could do it for Daniel if not for myself.
Daniel had never been into Santa Claus. Santa Claus was just a decoration to him; he knew the gifts came from Dad and Momma from the very beginning. It had always made me kind of sad but in the end it made it easier on me as well. After he would go to bed at night I would work on his gifts but I never had to play up the old fat guy in a red suit angle. I used my dad’s pedal powered lathe to make new handles for some old garden tools like Dad had always meant to. Then I used a nail I heated on the stove to burn his name into the handles.
It wasn’t much but it was all I had time for between planning and cooking our Christmas dinner and keeping up with the wood pile. I used the wood a lot faster than I replaced it and I knew that eventually I was going to be in real trouble if I didn’t figure out a better way of doing things.
The dinner was one of our dumbest hens. She’d somehow broken her wing and was at the bottom of the pecking order big time. I decided it was more humane to simply take her out and put her to better use. She wasn’t very big but I’d never been fond of butchering chickens so I was glad to have it over with and the carcass cleaned and roasting in the oven. She made two full meals for us and then I used the bones to make chicken broth for another two meals. It wasn’t like having turkey leftovers for days on end like we’d had last year but I figured I’d save the hams that were hanging in the cave’s smoked meat cellar for when I had nothing else.
The New Year came and went and eventually so did the snow, but spring didn’t seem to want to arrive. The weather arrived and the trees eventually did bud out but the flowers I was used to seeing barely stayed long enough for the bees and bugs to get to them. It seemed that the flowers … whether on the orchard trees or on the wild forage plant … only lasted a day or two and then they fell off. Something was wrong with the cycle of the growing things. No flowers meant no pollen and no pollen meant no fruit. No fruit … well, Heart Rot had finally circumnavigated the world and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it.
On the first truly snow-free day Daniel and I hiked to the home place, the first time we had been in a long time. The winter had not been kind to the building. Or maybe someone had come along and vandalized the place a little here and a little there; it was too hard to tell. We didn’t bother going in, it smelled of damp and rot and of something like ammonia. I expect what we smelled was where bats had gotten in and turned the place into a roost.
For some reason that day I just kept walking. I knew there was another house about a half mile down the road, an older couple that went to a different church than we had. My parents nodded at them when they saw them but I don’t think they ever socialized or anything. Dad told me one time that if their grandkids were over there to stay clear of them. Apparently their grandchildren were prone to getting into trouble, some of them with the law.
We used to hear their tractor on the same days that Dad would have his out and running but I hadn’t heard any people noise in a long time. I was hungry for people even if it meant running into those grandkids. I loved Daniel but he was a lot of work and he wasn’t always that easy to talk to. I could have saved our energy.
We walked down the road staying along the edge where the trees and bushes had grown closer than the county had ever allowed them to before. The ditches were damp so I avoided them but the top of the culverts were fine. The road had never been paved down this far, it was mostly limerock mixed with real gravel where pot holes had been filled in when the county was more flush with tax money. As much as my dad hated the county and state in his business he would have flipped a switch at the way the road looked that day.
The winter hadn’t been a friend to the road top anymore than it had been a friend to our old house. You could see where melted snow had puddled and then compacted the dirt in places making it appear like lots of gophers had gone to town leaving their burrow holes behind. In some of these holes grass had grown through, now brown and dead, but small bits of green could be seen where new growth was trying to head up. The edges of the road were badly eroded allowing even more of the wild grasses to grow into the road bed.
I’d taken note of an odd thing last year. Even as Heart Rot had stopped domesticated plants and trees from producing, and to a lesser extent affected the wild forage foods, the grasses didn’t seem to be bothered. The chickens loved the grass seed heads. Hay that was grass still made and grew but the wheat and oats had not … not even the wild oats had made seed heads last year. I told myself I would watch more closely to see what made and what didn’t because it might tell me when it was safe to plant outside again.
Eventually I screwed up my courage and I pulled Daniel across the open road with me to the road that led to the house. We had to push our way through the matted down rye grass that had grown up in the long drive way back to the house in the trees. When we got back there it was to find that this house had seen even more trouble than our old one had.
Not a window was intact and the front door was half off its hinges. The inside had been ransacked. Every room was the same; even the mirrors and toilets in the bathrooms were broken. It had happened months ago from the look of things. The weather had gotten in all over so much I didn’t even like walking too close to the windows, the floorboards were just that warped. Just for the heck of it I checked the attic and found the one space the vandals had forgotten.
There was a couple of old trunks up there with some clothes wrapped with cedar and moth balls and a few other boxes with little odds and ends but most of it was rotted or broken. In a corner I found some boxes of old blue and green jars and a couple of ceramic jugs and crocks. I had Daniel help me move the stuff I found interesting down the attic ladder.
He balked at first. I guess he thought I was stealing stuff but when we found the box of matchbox cars and plastic soldiers it got a lot easier to convince him that it wasn’t stealing when it was abandoned property. The trunks were just too heavy so I took out what looked usable and left the rest. I left stuff piled on the porch, mostly to air it out, while Daniel and I finished looking around.
The barn hadn’t been as cleaned out as the house but it was full of mice and one for sure whacked out cat that I decided it wasn’t worth messing with. Then we moved on to the tool shed which had been passed over. Leaned against the inside wall was a wheelbarrow and that is what we used to take the odds and ends that we had found back to the sink. From that day forward if we didn’t have any other chores to do we went exploring.
In the fifth house we found our first body. The house itself wasn’t anything special and it had been ransacked like the other houses; it was the body … or the person who used to occupy the body … that was different.
I was raised on a farm where the understanding that death is just part and parcel of life was a lesson reinforced day in and day out through all of the seasons. Dad also wouldn’t let Momma “shelter” us from the reality of death and dying either. Not everyone agrees with kids going to funerals and wakes but Dad always wanted us to understand the true condition of the human body. You are born and from that moment forward you are working towards dying; however, it isn’t the circumstances of your birth or how well (or not) that you die that you are going to be judged on. It is the choices you make during your life that dictate your hereafter.
Blaming where you come from, who your parents were, or how much you did or didn’t have growing up doesn’t dictate how you act. Dad said that there were too many people that had proven time and again that the circumstances of your birth could be overcome whether you were born poor, rich, to good parents or bad, and any combination you could come up with. In fact, Dad was always on about the fact that once you were old enough to understand that there was right and there was wrong you became personally accountable for all of your choices.
These things would run through my mind even though I was only fourteen because sometimes doing it all, basically by myself, would get overwhelming. I’d daydream about running away or maybe even just walking away … then I would think of Daniel and know I could never do it no matter what. Sometimes I would get angry, so angry it was hard not to take it out on Daniel and then I’d have to stop and just get away from him and the words of my Dad and Momma would run through my head. Sometimes I would even pick up the Bible and read it even when I wasn’t reading a story to Daniel. Sometimes when I was scared, bad scared, that is the only relief I could find.
Life wasn’t fair and as I looked at what was left of the man in front of me I had to say death didn’t look too fair for some people either. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to leave their last impression the way he did. I don’t know if he belonged with the house; given that he was just what was left of a skeleton I wouldn’t have recognized him one way or the other. And even calling it a “him” was making a wild guess based on that some of his … its … clothes was some once upon a time expensive looking suit and the fact that he/it was pretty tall and had big feet if the boots … purple cowboy boots … were any indication.
The wild colored cowboy boots were only the start of the weirdness. He/it was also wearing some kind of wizard’s hat, a pink tutu and was holding some funning looking purse. Daniel had a hard time computing what he was seeing. He looked at me and asked, “Is that real?”
“The person was real but I’m not sure about the costume,” was all I could think to tell him.
“Are you sure?” he asked like I was trying to pull his leg.
“Pretty sure, but it does look … kinda strange.”
“Yeah,” he said and then lost interest.
That wasn’t the first body we found but it remained the most unusual for a long, long time. When we’d find a body we’d always compare it to the first one we found. None of them ever quite measured up.
Throughout the spring and into the summer at least a couple times a week we would hunt around for abandoned houses to look through. Most of the time we found nothing but a few times we found useful stuff … wood from an abandoned wood pile (kept me from having to chop wood), cast iron cookware that was too heavy for someone to cart off, wood chips or sawdust for when I cleaned out the chicken coop, curtains that weren’t rotted and could be used to sew clothes from, jeans that I could cut down for Daniel or myself to wear.
Sometimes I would do something weird like swipe the windows out of the house. I got pretty fast at it too, especially if they were old wooden ones. I’d bring them back and clean them up real good before letting them come inside the cave and then I’d paint scenes on the glass part and hang them up like pictures. It was my way of trying to bring some of the outdoor scenery inside. I got pretty good at it, good enough that I’d try and paint people way off in the background waving hello.
Sometimes Daniel and I would look at those imaginary people and wonder if they’d ever come any closer.
“Dacey where did all the people go?” Daniel would ask.
“I expect there are some still around, we just haven’t seen any live ones. Every once in a while you still hear them on the radio,” I’d remind him.
“But when are we going to see some?”
“I don’t know. If we do see people you need to remember not to let them see you until I say it is OK.”
He’d nod his head and all I could do was pray that he’d mind me about that part. It was passing strange. When things were good … before Dad and Momma were killed … Daniel didn’t have a whole lot of use for people in general though he did have his favorites he’d pay attention to. But when things got bad and all the people seemed to go away he’d get on this kick of wanting to see some people … sort of like animals in the zoo I guess, like people would be evidence that all of our life from before wasn’t just a fairy story that we’d dreamed up.
God created people so that we needed connections. The healthiest connections are those we have with other people. It even says in the Bible that people were made to be with and work with other people. In Romans 12 it says that people are just like parts of a body, they are individual parts but they all work together like towards some common goal.
Now I loved Daniel. I guess we were as close as a brother and sister could get even with the limitations that Daniel’s condition imposed. But there were days when I craved the company of other people. Some of it was my age … I turned fifteen that summer and it had been so long since Jeff left us. Voices on the radio, few of them speaking a word I could understand, didn’t fill the gap that was growing in my life. I wanted to talk to someone, be with someone, that wasn’t Daniel. I loved Daniel so much it hurt but I needed more than he could ever provide.
That’s when I realized that all of that looking through houses we did … that I did … wasn’t for stuff, it was for another companion. I’d wanted to see other people so bad that when I did I nearly made a very foolish mistake.
That day we decided to traipse back over to the campground area to see what nature had done to all that we’d seen there since the last time we’d been. Nature could do some interesting things to people stuff. We measured the space of time by how quickly nature was reclaiming where man had left his mark. Sometimes it was grasses and vines that did the damage. Sometimes it was wild animals … curious, hungry, or angry … that got into things.
We’d become like animals ourselves, walking quietly through the woods. For all that there were no people about there were still animals and some of them had become viciously mean as their food sources had become scarcer. Bears and boars were especially bad and I’d had a few frightening run ins with both. The worst though were the dogs that had gone feral. There weren’t many of them but a few was all there needed to be.
The dogs that survived the lack of food and the depredation as human food were the strongest and meanest that had been bred. These were the fighting dogs, the alpha dogs that could lead a pack or be a vicious pack member. You treaded carefully out in the woods to prevent becoming a meal for the wild things that still lived.
As quiet as we were, as watchful, I was nearly on top of them before the old woman’s voice caught my attention.
“Abel … Abel … what am I going to do with you? The risks you take my boy. Ah well, this will last us many weeks and if you can get me another deer or a boar I’ll smoke the meat and we’ll double that time.”
The old woman was dressed in coveralls and boots and had I not heard her voice I wouldn’t have known her to be a female. The “Abel” she talked to was a young man with straight dark hair that was cut so that it hung to his collar all the way around … like someone who didn’t know how to cut hair had simply given him a blunt cut to keep him from looking like a girl. His clothes must have been someone’s cast offs because they didn’t fit very well; the pants and cuffs were both too short.
I never heard Abel speak though he must have as the woman seemed to hear his answers to her questions. I could tell Daniel was curious … for that matter so was I and I was deciding what to do when I heard one of the noises that could still strike fear in my heart. A deep growling came from the other side of their camp. I saw a dog get up from where it had been sitting hidden in the grass and face the woods away from us.
I looked at Daniel and saw his eyes huge and round. Daniel had a sixth sense about certain kinds of danger and all of his alarm bells were going off even though he never made a sound when he was like that. I immediately took my bow … it was the big and powerful compound crossbow that Dad had taught me to target shoot with … and made sure it was ready if I needed it. I normally went out with the regular compound bow but I had burnt the inside of my left arm on a grease splatter and switched to the crossbow until the blister healed more … and I’m glad I did.
I slowly got Daniel and I low to the ground and behind a tree. The dog was so intent, and the wind blowing just right, that it never even knew we were there. The young man looked hard where the dog was staring with its hackles raised for only a moment then he started throwing their camp into a back pack and trying to hurry the old woman up.
“But the meat!” she whispered frantically.
Abel just shook his head and started pulling the old woman away into the woods and calling the dog to their side. I would have followed them but no sooner had they gotten into the tall grass than men burst into the clearing.
It had been so long since I had seen one that the uniforms … as worn and frayed as they were … slammed into my memory like a ten pound hammer. Blue Hats, six of them, all armed to the teeth with scary looking automatic weapons. I didn’t understand one word in twenty; they weren’t speaking English and they were going too fast for me to even guess. They were swarthy with funny head coverings under their helmets and their scarves were different from the Blue Hat ascots that I had seen when we’d been prisoners.
Those men spit on the boar and started kicking dirt and leaves on it. One of them men, I guess the one in charge, screamed something that sounded like “Montoyo!!” out into the forest followed by some gibberish I couldn’t even begin to understand.
He made some kind of yodeling sound of triumph and lifted his gun into the sky and then one shot sounded and the man was flat on his back with unseeing eyes and well on his way to meeting his maker. That’s when things got a little crazy stupid.
The other five men started spraying the forest with what felt like a million bullets. I was glad that Daniel and I were prone on the ground or we would have been cut off in the middle. Those men were acting so freaked out that they even shot two of their own before they stopped.
They were talking to each other panic-fast and then another shot and they were down to two men. Those two men starting screaming and hollering and shooting some more and while I didn’t hear the shot there must have been another one because one of the two remaining Blue Hats fell, rolling over and over before fetching up against the trunk of a big maple.
That was it, the other guy turned tell and started running … straight into the young man called Abel. He had a big knife and they were fighting but you could tell something was off about Abel; then I saw the bloody bandage on his leg. He was almost winning when one of the men that I had thought was dead sat up and grabbed his gun and would have shot the young man in the back.
I didn’t think, there wasn’t time for it. I aimed and pulled the trigger on the cross bow and the small metal bolt went through the throat of the faker. I had been aiming for his eye but I’d never shot a person before and was scared enough I nearly wet myself. Daniel had wet himself and I knew we had to get out of there fast.
I guess we weren’t fast enough. I was running and pulling Daniel with me but Daniel’s coordination isn’t great even at the best of times and when he is freaking out it gets really bad. We were running over a bad patch when he went down and I wasn’t ready for it. A muscle in my thigh went ping and I was nearly doubled in two trying to keep from screeching from the pain.
I finally got ahold of myself and tried to get up. Big mistake. I had to sit down real fast but this time it was in a more controlled sit than an out of control fall. Daniel kept pulling at me until he realized I was hurt then he got even more scared. I was in the process of hugging him, trying to calm him down when the dog slunk out of the trees to my left.
Daniel froze. I froze. The dog just looked at us. I moved to try and get Daniel up a tree but the dog didn’t particularly like that idea. I was hoping it would eventually get bored and go away, hunt up its master or something. Only his master came through the trees next.
I got in front of Daniel the best I could. The guy wasn’t saying anything just looking at us like he wasn’t sure what to make of us.
“Abel, Abel,” the old woman whispered. “They’re just children, let them go. If we get back to the camp we might be able to save some of it. And you’ll be able to trade for a gun that has more ammo for it.”
I was kicking myself for not reloading the cross bow and swore then and there never, ever, ever to let myself make that kind of mistake again … assuming we got out of the mess we were in.
“Abel,” the old woman put her hand on the guy’s shoulder. “Let them go. They need to get back to their family and we need to go. That patrol has to have back up since I didn’t hear a vehicle.”
I don’t know what made me say it, “You can wash that meat off and save it. There’s a creek about 100 yards that way.” I tossed my chin in the general direction of a fresh spring I knew of. “The spring has good water, just don’t foul it up with a lot of blood and junk.”
The old woman asked suspiciously, “Why would you tell us that?”
“The Blue Hats are after you. They killed our parents. We’ve got the same enemy.” I shrugged not thinking I needed to give her any other reason. “Be careful, there’s a cranky bear around here so guard your meat … smoke it, don’t just dry it. The little valley the spring is in should protect you so long as you can … uh … you know … get rid of … the … uh … bodies.”
The old woman snorted, “Let the carrion eaters have them.”
“No,” I said sharply making her and the young man jump. “Dump them down the old outhouse holes. It’ll hide everything and hopefully not draw too many animals.”
“I’m not worried about animals honey, there’s two legged carrion eaters.” At my confused look she said, “Ain’t you seen them? The crazy ones? The ones that eat …? I thought everyone knew … you must have been living under a rock a long time. Look, take my word on it, you see someone that has sores on them or is acting strange, you get out of there real quick. And don’t let them get a bead on your boy there. The younger the better for them.”
“You talking about sick people that like little kids instead of people their own age?” I asked thinking I’d finally figured it out.
“No child … well, maybe there’s some of them in with those people but I’m talking about … think of them as the boogey men. They gobble up children. Now you understand what …”
All Daniel had heard was boogey men and he’d started to whimper. He was ten years old, nearly eleven, but he was behind for his age and living in a hole in the ground hadn’t done a thing to make that any better.
“OK … bad people. Got it,” I said doing my best to lend my strength to Daniel. I didn’t know which one to be more worried about. The old woman that seemed half crazy herself or the silent young man with her that was undeniably dangerous all on his own.
The old woman had had enough. “Come on Abel, we can’t afford to lose that meat. Come on boy, before something or someone else gets it. Didn’t you already lose a bit of flesh catching it? Don’t you want to keep what is ours?” She was pulling at his arm and he got up, still as silent as ever.
That’s when I saw the dog had belly crawled on my blind side up to Daniel. I made Daniel be real still but all the dog seemed interested in was smelling us. In fact she … it turned out to be a girl dog once I calmed down enough to notice … seemed to get a charge out of sticking her wet nose in Daniel’s neck and ear and making him squeak. Her stubby tail would have wagged if there had been enough left of it.
The old woman grumped, “That’s enough, come on dog. Abel, you too. And don’t think I’m going to let you two drag these kids back with us. I’m sure they’ve got people looking for them and I don’t want to stand here and get shot over it.”
That really did signal the end of the strange conversation though I had to shake my head to keep Daniel from saying something he shouldn’t have. They faded back into the trees but before Abel completely disappeared he tossed something at my feet … my bolt, still sticky and red.