“This is Radio Scott once again. This is our…,” Alice halted, unsure just how long they’d been broadcasting for, “well, frankly we’ve given up trying to keep track of time. Since the Great Death was so significant to all our lives, it’s made every other historic event pale into insignificance. While history remains good for teaching, dating everything in the current world according to when everything else occurred now makes little sense. Although we still have clocks, we’ve zeroed them out starting from the day we recovered, since that’s how we now view the world.
Anyway, we’re unsure whether anyone is listening to us at the moment, although we’re going with the assumption that someone is. At the moment, we’ve seen no sign of anyone else even being alive. What we have done is to check on the plants and animals around us, to see just how far the Great Death has extended. It seems to have affected most life on the planet, but has affected plants much less than the animal kingdom.
What we’ve observed is that there seems to be a weird inverse relationship between numbers and exposure. The more of any species there is, the higher the death rate. Thus while mice, rats, roaches, ants and yes, humans have been essentially wiped out, we found a whole family of llamas who were unaffected, simply because the plagues didn’t have the opportunity to gain a foothold with them.
Likewise, in the plant world, it seems the more common plants have been wiped out. These include the ubiquitous pine trees, potatoes and corn; each of which appears to be a thing of the past. If you have any of these that is unaffected, don’t be afraid to eat anything what was packaged previously, but realize you’ll likely never see it again. Likewise, if you have some planted near you, don’t burn them or plow them under, as that will only spread their diseases to whatever else you plant. Instead you’ll have to pull them up individually and bury them in a pit where any new plant growth won’t reach. For the pines I suggest you simply leave them, as we don’t have any suggestions concerning how to handle them. Just don’t burn them in your fireplace!
What we’ve determined is that these diseases need an entry point into any given species, and that the more numerous the species is, the more likely it is for it to gain that foothold. However, that same limitation of numbers also works to help save us. When there are that many viable entities, there’s also a greater chance that they’ll find a way of combating the disease. Thus it’s entirely possible there might be some thriving corn and potato plants, but if you find them, don’t eat them, because they are needed to… propagate… their surviving genes.
A case in point is pigs. Although they seem to have been hit hard, we have at least one surviving animal. However, we suspect this is very different in the North Carolina region, home of many pig farms. What’s more, we suspect that the traditional farming mentality has worked against itself. If the tendency of farmers is to isolate and slaughter any individual that might affect the rest of the herd, then they guarantee that none of those animals will survive, because there won’t be any individuals who will be able to survive the affliction. Since pigs aren’t as numerous around here, they had a better chance to survive. But the key is that everyone has to marshal their resources. Though you might be hungry, don’t eat the remaining livestock. We need the few survivors more than we need a free meal. Let’s hope that they’ll be able to recover and regenerate quickly, so they once again serve as a food source in the future, but please; don’t threaten both them and us by slaughtering them indiscriminately.
So far we’ve managed to save a sprinkling of the existing animals, and we’ve done better with the edible plants, but we’ve got to do better. The best bet for now, is to survive off of the existing excesses of yesterday. Live off of the store products you’ve saved, or that you can find in your neighbors cupboards. Again, we emphasize that everyone should stay away from grocery stores, since the produce there was exposed to too many different people, giving the diseases a chance to adapt and spread, but there should be enough left in individual cabinets to allow us to prepare for the future. While picking through the kitchens of the deceased may seem risky, it’s probably less so than venturing into the grocery stores.
Again, the first order of importance is to plan for the future. You’ll need warmth, fuel is handy if you have access to it, but it’ll only last for so long. You need to plan to survive without it. You also need to focus on supplies. Stock up on as much safe food as you can find, and by that I mean sealed containers of food that haven’t been exposed to anything. Beyond that, you need to establish gardens, because this surplus of packaged products is going to be temporary, and we need to plan to survive long after they’re gone.
The coming winter is going to be quite hard. Expect a much colder than normal winter with significant snowfall. You’ll need to find a place that allows you to be self-sufficient, with water, food and other resources nearby, because once winter sets in you may not be able to move about easily. We’ll continue to offer advice and news as we discover it, but for now, stay safe and protect yourselves.”
Setting off early, David and Alice first stopped at the police station again. They took two vehicles this time, David taking his SUV bearing the hole in the windshield from when Maggie had shot someone trying to highjack them at a roadblock, while Alice drove the ‘dead truck’ they’d picked up there the previous day.
As expected, there was no one there and no sign that anyone had been by. Telling Alice to get busy cleaning up what they’d missed the day before, David set about breaking in. Despite being a police station, it was surprisingly easy to get in. Being a small community they only had a couple of cells, which mainly served occasionally as a drunk tank. They never had any serious crime, and if they did they’d transport them to more secure facilities elsewhere. They’d never had a need for reinforcements or bars on the windows. It was well built, as the recent gun battle that had occurred there showed, the bricks outside showing the multiple nicks resulting from rifle fire on it, but now there was no one to defend it.
It didn’t take David long to find what he wanted. As a deputized officer, the police chief had already given David all their guns, body armor and other weapons, since he had more people and could protect them better, but David was interested in other things. Breaking into the filing cabinet, he found the personnel records and looked up the addresses of the last officers he’d known to still be alive. With that accomplished, he locked everything up again and headed out to rejoin Alice.
First they visited the home of Ben Adams, David’s friend and the local sheriff. Even though the sheriff’s position was a county one, he lived in the immediate vicinity. As they expected, there was no sign of life from outside.
“You stay here and clean up outside, I’ll be back in a minute,” he instructed his daughter.
“The hell I will,” she told him. “I’m going wherever you do. There’s no telling what you may find, and I’ve already seen enough death so I won’t be shocked by whatever we find.”
David just shrugged, leading the way as he approached the house. Finding the front door locked, rather than trying to break in they checked the back door and windows, finding most of the windows open given the summer heat without any air conditioning. Climbing in, David helped Alice in, and then they both explored the house.
They found Ben in the master bedroom. As expected, he was dead. His wife had passed away earlier, so there wasn’t anyone else in the house. After they carried the body outside, David suggested Alice grab anything they could use from the kitchen while he searched for his handgun. He found it in the bedside table, as well as a spare hunting rifle in the bedroom closet. There were also a few boxes of ammo. It didn’t amount to much, but he’d prefer not leaving them for someone else to find. For some reason, David didn’t like the idea of anyone picking up a policeman’s firearm, even though he’d suggested everyone arm themselves over the radio.
They checked Frank Simmons’ place next, the last officer remaining on duty before David and Alice had gotten sick. They discovered the same thing, finding him dead on his couch. His dog curled up under him, looking like it had suffered as much as he had. They did what they had before, removing the bodies, taking anything they could use, and closing the house up but leaving it unlocked.
Walking out the front door, David saw something that attracted his attention, and walked across the street. There, tied to a corner of the front porch, were the remains of a family dog, dead of a shotgun blast from close range. It was a bit grisly, and would have been more so if there were any flies nearby. It seemed clear the owner of the house decided to take his frustration and anger out on the family pet, probably after he discovered it had infected him only after petting it extensively. Or maybe after it had infected his wife or children. In either case, it seemed a stupid thing to do, because not only had he only infected himself from the blowback of the animal’s blood, but he’d also infected the whole sidewalk in front of the house. Anyone who wanted to access the house would need to carefully clean the entire area with bleach, including the grass and dirt where the animal now rested. It left both David and Alice feeling uneasy about how disruptive things had gotten by the end.
Finally they checked on Nancy Evens, the receptionist who remained on the force, helping Sheriff Adams when the police station had been assaulted by some gun toting locals looking to steal the police weapons. That short firefight had killed Alice’s mother, David’s ex, so David had been watching her to see how she reacted, but she hadn’t shown any outward signs of distress.
They found no signs of Nancy, or of any household pets, despite finding a cat box. They also didn’t find the handgun and rifle they knew Ben had left her with, afraid the police station would be attacked again. Once more, they left the house open as they left.
“It doesn’t look like anyone in town is left,” Alice observed, stating the obvious.
“No, but I had to check.”
“Why did you leave the houses open?” she asked.
“If anyone comes along and needs something, it’d be easier for everyone involved if they didn’t have to break in or damage anything. All these empty houses will decay if left unoccupied and any house that we don’t remove bodies from will soon become uninhabitable from the smell. Leaving a few houses habitable means we’ll have some places nearby that other people can use.”
“Doesn’t that mean we should empty the houses near us? Just in case we find anyone who wants to join us?”
“Yeah, I was planning on that, but I wanted to check on everyone else first. We’ll do that tomorrow morning. I’ll also see if I can arrange to switch the circuits so I can power those houses, just in case we need to in the future.”
She didn’t respond, merely nodding in understanding as they headed out to the two vehicles again.
Though they’d expected it, their inability to find any other survivors was disconcerting. Before they’d surmised as much, but then it had only been a general assumption. Now they knew they were alone, and that minor difference seemed fairly major now. Even though they lived in a small town; that meant the Great Death had wiped out an incredible number of people and the implications left Alice’s head reeling.
Continuing on, they didn’t pick up a lot of bodies, but they stopped for any large animals they found in the middle of the road, as well as tossing the human bodies they’d found investigating their friends’ houses. Small animal carcasses wouldn’t impede their traffic, while large ones would. And human remains, well, they were simply too disturbing to leave exposed if they had any choice.
Having nowhere else to check locally, they set out, seeing what they could find nearby. Stopping to move a deer carcass off the road, David was backing the dead truck so it would be easier to lift the deer while Alice busied herself picking up the various small carcasses. David got out and was approaching the animal when Alice called out.
Jerking around, David saw Alice taking off at a run.
“Alice!” he called, before taking off after her, not knowing what she was doing. He followed her around the corner, a short distance away, only to find her glancing around looking for something.
“What the hell is going on?” he demanded, upset and nervous about any number of things that might go wrong. Having seen so many of his close friends die recently, he was now extra cautious of his daughter, even if it wasn’t justified in this case.
“I was sure I saw someone,” she explained, spinning around in a slow circle, taking in all the avenues of escape, “but I can’t find him now.”
“I’m sure you’re mistaken. It’s probably just like yesterday. You’re so busy looking for survivors that you’re interpreting any gust of wind or change in the lighting as being someone. Why would someone try to avoid the only other surviving people they’d encountered?” David asked.
“I don’t know, maybe because they’re afraid of armed survivalists?” Alice asked him snidely.
“Yeah, there is that,” he conceded. “Anyway, they’re gone now, if there was anyone, and unless you want to search each house looking for them, I suggest we get back to business.”
“Yeah, I was probably mistaken,” she agreed, even though she didn’t sound sincere about it as they returned to the truck where she helped him lift the deer onto the truck.
“You know, you must be right about the insects,” David observed. “Normally if you tried to touch a deer this time of year, you’d be covered in ticks. Now, I don’t see a single one.”
“Well, if there’s one animal I don’t miss, it’s the tick. I can’t see them adding anything to the overall animal kingdom.”
“Still, it’s a major change to the ecosystem, and I don’t trust major changes. They always involve unexpected complications. Hopefully the cooling from the asteroids will solve the massive storms the global warming was causing, but it’ll probably produce just as much trouble anyway.”
“Dad, in case you haven’t noticed, the whole ecosystem has just been turned on its head. There’s no one else left, and most of the animals are dead.”
“Yeah, you’ve got a point,” he conceded. “Anyway, we can continue now that this is out of the road. I guess we can avoid the rest of the animals, unless of course you want to make life easier for your mysterious strangers.”
“No, thanks, I’m sure they’re fine on their own,” she laughed as they both got into their separate vehicles. “After all, I wouldn’t want to take away the only thing remaining they have to do.”
“Why did we stop here?” Alice asked as they exited their cars in front of a house she didn’t recognize.
“This is the house where I shot that dog and had that confrontation with the two boys,” David explained. “The father seemed like he knew how to prepare, so I’d like to check on them. They said they’d listen to our broadcasts, so hopefully they won’t be too freaked out to meet us.”
“Yeah, that’s if they’re still alive,” Alice complained. She remembered his story about the incident. He’d come upon a dog gnawing on the exposed flesh of a dead man left on the street for the city to dispose of, something the town hadn’t been able to do. David had put the dog down, figuring that once a dog learned to associate humans with food it would always be dangerous. That had provoked a natural response, as the animal’s owners had come running out of the house with their guns drawn. But instead of resisting, or fleeing in panic, David had remained where he sat, telling the boys why he’d done what he had, and also telling them how to prepare for the future. He’d eventually won them over, and hoped that acceptance had extended to their father, whom he’d never met.
“That’s always the understanding,” her father replied as they approached the house.
Of course no one answered, not even to demand who they were. Surprisingly, David found the front door open, which surprised him considering how wary the family had been before. Entering cautiously, they looked around, finding the father upstairs in bed and one son crumpled up in an easy chair downstairs, both dead, and both having obviously died from the Great Death.
“Let’s take care of them; they deserve to be buried, even if it’s not a proper ceremony. After that we’ll see if they have anything we can use. I’m guessing since they were preparing for the long haul, that they probably collected some things worth keeping.”
Alice agreed, so they returned to the truck to collect some heavy duty plastic sheets. They were almost to the truck, preparing their gloves, when they were surprised.
“Hold it right there. Don’t move a muscle, I know how to shoot.”
Moving very slowly, David turned to see a young girl with blonde hair, clear skin marred only by the remnants of the plague’s pox marks, and probably no older than ten or twelve. She was wearing a cap sitting askew on her head, but looked healthy otherwise, though she had a bit of a deadened look to her eyes.
“I’m sure you do. What is it you wanted?” David asked patiently.
“I want you to leave my family’s property alone. It doesn’t belong to you, and it’s not for you to steal whatever you want.”
“You look like you’ve been through a lot,” David said, taken a slow step towards the girl now pointing a rifle at him while waving Alice back. “I can see it’s taken a real toll on you.”
“I’ve shot things before, I’m not afraid to shoot you,” she insisted.
“I don’t doubt it. I can see the resolve in your eyes. I’m sure your father was very proud of you.”
“Not really, he took the boys out all the time, but he hardly had time for me,” she said, hardly able to keep the sad expression from her face.
Her response surprised Alice, since she was revealing her innermost secrets to someone she was preparing to shoot, but she figured it reflected what it was like finding yourself all alone, with no one else to talk to or confide in.
“Well, I’m sure he’s sorry he never managed to,” David continued, still moving slowly towards her. “Sometimes parents have a hard time relating to their kids. If he had, I’m sure he’d tell you that you’re holding that rifle improperly. If you were to fire it now, you’d likely injure yourself, missing your target as you threw yourself off balance.”
“Really?” she asked, looking at him skeptically.
“I’ll tell you what; I’ve got a pistol I think would be better for you. It’s small and harder to aim, but you can hide it better, and while it also has a kick I’m sure we can show you how to fire it.”
Alice had no idea what her father was trying to do, tempting a nervous young kid to shoot him, but she trusted his judgment. Still, she watched the two of them as she angled around to the side, so that she’d be out of firing range in case things got out of hand.
“I’m not lowering the gun,” the girl warned him.
“Hey, I’m willing to trade you a loaded pistol for your rifle, it’s an even trade. I’m not planning on keeping the rifle, I just don’t want to see you get injured using it improperly,” David responded, not directly addressing her threat.
“You’d give me the gun and show me how to use it?”
“Yeah. If you don’t object, I’m going to reach for it now. Just so you know; I’ve got two in my waistband. I’m going to give you the smaller one.”
“OK, just no sudden moves,” she cautioned, her eyes studying his every movement, though she’d occasionally glance at Alice watching for any unexpected movements from either one. She was certainly expecting the worst.
He slowly pulled the pistol out of his pants and held it out to her, using only two fingers and holding it barrel down by a loose grip on the handle. She glanced at it, then lowered her rifle slightly. When she did, David stepped closer to her. “The safety is on. Like most guns, it’s got a kick to it, so you’d best use two hands holding it.” He took another step and handed her the gun.
She looked hesitantly at it, then at her own rifle, finally making her decision. She lowered her rifle and reached for the pistol.
“Mind if I hold your rifle for you?” David asked. She looked at him in indecision for a moment, then shook her head as she took the gun from him and examined it.
“You think I can shoot someone with this?”
“I think you could use some practice, otherwise you’re likely to miss more often than you hit anything, but I’d be willing to teach you. I taught Alice here.”
“Who are you?” she asked, glancing up at him while she sighted along the barrel pointing it away from him.
“I’m David Scott and this is my daughter, Alice. Who are you? I was here a couple weeks ago and met your brothers.”
“I remember that,” she told him. “They told Dad about what you were doing, and why you shot our dog. We listened to your broadcasts, until they went off the air, that is. Only one of the two boys was my brother.”
“We just saw your father and brother. I’m sorry you had to see them like that.”
“Could you help me move them? They buried my Mom and Terrance, but then both Dad and James died the same night, and they were both too big for me to move. They started to smell, so I moved next door. The owners died a while back, so Dad had the boys move the bodies out. I’ve been living there ever since.”
“We’d be glad to do that for you. That’s why we were coming back out, to get some tarps to wrap the bodies in.”
“That would be nice. Then I can move back in, and they’d be buried proper,” she replied, finally lowering the gun.
“I take it you were sick too?” he asked.
“Yeah, after everyone else died and I moved here, I got real sick. I thought I was gonna die, but then I got better.”
“Yeah, we had something similar. All our friends and family died at the same time.”
“What about that girl who did the 12 o’clock news?” she asked, looking concerned.
“That was Sara, and she didn’t make it.” Alice answered, moving closer now that she was no longer aiming at them.
“That’s too bad, I liked her voice best. Though I liked yours too,” she hurriedly added for Alice’s sake. “You did the six o’clock?”
“Yeah, that was me,” Alice told her, now standing near the others.
“I like your voice too. You always sound so smart, but the other girl sounded more like the people I knew,” she added, looking mildly upset at yet another death piled on top of all the others she’d suffered through. Her lip trembled a bit at the memories that thought provoked, but she quickly squelched that reaction, looking up at them again.
“I’ll tell you what,” Alice suggested, taking her father’s actions as a guide, “we’ve got a shooting range at our property. We’ve got electricity, food, and some animals. If you come with us, I’ll show you how to shoot both guns.”
“If you help with Dad and James, and get my stuff for me, I will,” she told them. “I was worried how I’d survive on my own, but Dad always said not to trust anyone I met. He said they’d try to trick me and take everything we had.”
“Don’t worry, we won’t take any of it. If you want we’ll take it with us, and if you ever decide to leave, you can take it all with you,” David assured her.
“You’re David, right?” she asked. When he nodded his head she continued. “If you help take care of everything, I’d be happy to join you. I was worried how I’d manage on my own. I knew I’d have to find someone else to join up with, but I was afraid of who I might meet.”
“Well, I think you’ll like working with us. Now let’s see if we can give your family a decent burial and give them some peace.”
David got everyone organized after that, getting everyone protected and carting the tarps into the house.
“Are you sure you want to be here for this? If you don’t, we’ll come and get you after we’re finished.”
“No, I need to be sure they’ve been treated properly. It’ll help me say goodbye to them finally. I need to be here for this.”
“OK, let Alice and me handle the bodies. You can get their things organized and supervise what we do,” he told her as he led them inside.
She was actually helpful, showing them where they kept their supplies, following along as he and Alice carried the big men outside one by one. After they got the bodies set onto the truck, explaining that they planned to bury them at their house since they didn’t have the equipment to bury them here, they started loading her stuff. She nodded that she understood and helped them locate everything they might need.
The Malcolms had been pretty organized. While their setup wasn’t as nice as David’s, they’d stocked up on a lot of canned supplies, had stockpiled quite a collection of guns, and had also collected a lot of books on a variety of topics, something that David hadn’t even considered yet. They also had a generator, which David thought they’d better take as well, even if they didn’t really need it. If nothing else it would be there when Mattie needed it, or they could use it if they visited one of the farms again.
It took quite a while to load everything, and when they did it took most of both trucks. When they finished, they left Mattie to say her goodbyes, which she did quickly and silently and then they headed off, heading home instead of continuing to look for other survivors.
Traveling only about a dozen miles, David noticed Alice stopping behind him. Mattie had chosen to ride with him, proudly holding her gun at the ready. Applying his own brakes, he observed Alice climbing out of her car and running off into a nearby field between two houses, just like she’d done the other day. He shoved the car into reverse and quickly backed up, hoping to catch up with her.
“Damn that kid,” he swore.
“What’s she doing?” Mattie asked, glancing back to see what was happening.
“She thinks she sees someone else. She’s so anxious to meet other people that she’s looking everywhere for them. Stay here, I’ll be back soon,” he instructed her, taking off after Alice.
Alice was sure she’d seen something this time, but once she stopped they’d taken off, fleeing from her. Unable to understand what they were doing, she took out after them, calling out for them to stop. She heard her father rapidly reversing, but knew he’d follow, always being protective of her, but she couldn’t afford to let his opportunity slip past.
Entering an open field, she saw the person, a man in a coat, at the end of the field. It looked like he’d been sick as well, as he wasn’t making very fast progress. Though Alice wasn’t in very good shape yet either, it seemed like she’d been recovering longer than this guy had, as she was catching up to him.
“Alice!” her father called out, but she didn’t bother stopping to answer him. They couldn’t let this person get away. She didn’t mind if he didn’t want to join them, but she wanted to offer him the option if nothing else.
As she closed in on him, he glanced back, and seeing her progress, turned and fumbled with his coat, pulling a pistol out and pointed it at her.
“Stop! Come any closer and I’ll shoot!”
Alice ground to a halt, looking at the man in disbelief.
“We just wanted to let you know that there are others still alive like you. You don’t have to join us if you—”
“Just get the hell away from me,” he shouted. He was thin, gaunt and unshaven for at least a good week. His clothes were also filthy and wrinkled. “I’ve seen what’s happened to everyone else. I’m not about to get sick again. If you come any closer I’ll kill you where you stand.”
Alice could hear her father approaching from behind, but she figured she’d try what he’d done with Mattie, and took a slow step ahead.
“We don’t mean you any harm. We just want to…”
The man fired at her. Alice had no idea where the bullet went, but she quickly backed up several steps. Her father caught up to her then and stood in front of her, ostensibly to protect her.
“Just let me take her back,” he called out. “We’ll leave you alone. If you ever want to join us—”
“I won’t,” he assured them. “Joining people means death. I’d rather be alive alone than dead with friends.” Then he turned and ran off, leaving them alone in the field.
“Can you believe that?” Alice asked her father.
“We’d better get back. I had to leave Mattie when you took off, and she’s going to be spooked by the gunshot.”
“Why would someone rather be alone when we have all kinds of things to help them?”
“You heard him, he’s afraid of the Great Death. He’s afraid if he gets too close to us, we’ll expose him.”
“But we’ve already had it. From what you described, that means that what we have is already dead and it isn’t contagious.”
“As far as we know,” he cautioned her. “We still have no idea how these diseases work, and it’s safer to be cautious than to take unnecessary risks. Give him time. Maybe he’ll reconsider, but in either case, it’s his choice to make to join us or not.”
“How about if we leave him a peace offering?” Alice suggested.
“If the guy is gunning for us, I think it’s best if we just got in our car and left,” David countered.
“But we need to show him we mean him no harm. Maybe just some food and a note telling him to tune us in on the radio?”
“That’s assuming he has a working radio,” her father reminded her.
“Still, it’s something,” she replied.
“OK, we’ll do that much,” he conceded as they reached the road and saw Mattie again. She was standing outside the truck, aiming her rifle behind them. Luckily she knew enough to know when to use a pistol and when to choose the rifle. Even if her father hadn’t personally trained her, he at least taught her much of what she needed to know.
When they rejoined Mattie, she wanted to know what’d happened, and Alice excitedly described the encounter while David hurried to leave Alice’s gift. They got it set up, leaving a short note under some canned food explaining about the radio station and how they were trying to help people prepare for what was coming. After that he directed them to their cars and got them moving, afraid what the man might do if he returned to find them still there.
“Shit, I can’t stop shaking”, Alice complained as they headed to their vehicles once again.
“That’s the adrenaline. You’ll be like that for a couple hours,” her father warned her.
“It’s odd. I didn’t respond like this when I was involved in a gunfight, but someone pulls a pistol on me from too far off to hit me, and I fall apart.”
Mattie cocked her head at this admission by Alice, but chose not to ask anything about it then.
“It’s different each time,” David said, even though he only had limited experience with it himself. “You probably felt you didn’t have a choice then, so you reacted decisively, whereas here you felt helpless.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Alice groused as she got into her truck, ending the discussion.
Driving off, Alice glanced back, wondering how that man’s mind worked and how he could value starving on his own over having people looking out for him. She hoped he’d be OK on his own, but she suspected that if he hadn’t gotten sick yet, it wouldn’t be long until he did, and she didn’t know how long he’d survive on his own.
“So he didn’t want to talk at all?” Mattie asked as they settled into the house after having unloaded the truck.
“Nope,” Alice replied, having finished the nightly broadcast. “He didn’t want to have anything to do with us. Apparently he was so afraid of getting sick he wasn’t willing to risk any human interaction at all.”
“Actually, I can’t say I blame them,” Mattie reflected, still staring at all the functioning electronics they had. “I joined you because I didn’t think I had a chance on my own. If I can’t even take care of myself, or know how to fire a gun properly, then I won’t be able to survive by myself. But my Dad told me to avoid anyone I met, that they’d either expose me or take advantage of me.”
“Still, but I’d expect he’d at least listen to what we had to say,” Alice countered, still trying to figure out what was motivating the person who’d shot at her.
“He’s trying to survive,” David tried to explain, serving them both some ice cream, something they both stared hungrily at. “They’ve seen everyone die around them after having been exposed, so they figure the only way to survive is to avoid any human contact.”
“But you can’t live without human contact,” she argued.
“That may be, in the long run, but if you’re only interested in living as long as you can, it’s safer avoiding any contact than it is risking being comforted by someone.”
“Still, I can’t understand it. We accomplished so much by working together, and what did this guy manage to do on his own? Did he help anyone? Did he save anyone? Is he helping rebuild the world?”
“No, as I said, he’s just trying to survive,” David tried explaining again, even as he dug into his own ice cream. Although they had some in the freezer, they didn’t have a lot, so this was a special treat in honor of Mattie joining them. Unless they could find an ice cream maker and a living cow, it wouldn’t be long before this was only a distant memory.
“Well, I’m not sure I can understand such thinking, but it’s clear I’m not going to figure it out now,” Alice concluded. “So Mattie, tell us more about your family. Which one was your brother, and who was the other kid?”
“James was my brother. He was just about to go to college, working construction for the summer. My father, Charles, worked at a coal plant south of here until it closed, but was on disability since then. He had ‘black lung’ or something. He coughed a lot.”
“And the other boy that tried to shoot my father?” Alice prompted.
“Oh, that was Terrance White. He was a friend of James. They went to the same high school. When everything got messed up, he came to stay with us. His parents died early on. But he died after my mother did. My Mom died before David showed up at our house.”
“Wow, you’ve had it rough as well,” Alice observed.
“I was lonely after everyone died,” she admitted. “I was afraid to cry, scared that I’d need to defend myself and that I wouldn’t be able to if I was crying. I kept waking up at night, terrified that someone would try to kidnap, kill or rape me.”
Alice felt terribly for her, moving in to give her a hug, but she recoiled from her touch, so Alice eased back, granting the young girl her space. This new world was going to take some getting used to.
“So this is all yours?” Mattie asked before correcting herself. “I mean, it was yours before everything, well…?”
“Yeah, I built it after I split up from my ex-wife, Alice’s mother,” David said. “I wanted to get away from everything bad I felt we’d been exposed to in the city, so I spent what little money I had making it special, including the wind turbine that’s now supplying our power, the freezers we’ve got stocked, and the hard to find entrance to the property.”
“And all the animals out front?” she asked, wondering why they’d keep their own mini zoo.
“That’s Dad playing Noah,” Alice teased. “He thinks it’s necessary to save anything surviving the Great Death so we’ll have access to it later. He’s afraid it’ll be too dangerous to leave them on their own in the wild. He thinks he knows more about surviving than they do, despite the fact they’ve been doing it all their lives. But he’s hoping to nurture them and hopefully utilize them in the future.”
“Yeah, we can use the wool from the llamas, ride the horse after the available gas spoils, and eventually eat the other animals, but only after they’ve recovered. The main idea is to keep our options open. But it shouldn’t take long to do that. They say that 24 rabbits were released in Australia in the late eighteen hundreds, and that they numbered in the millions only six years later. I’m hoping we have something similar here, and that we can either trade them with other survivors, or let some of them loose to breed in the wild.”
“I didn’t examine them closely,” Mattie admitted, “not knowing whether it was safe to or not. I only noticed the horse and the llamas because they were so obvious. Were the llamas from that farm nearby?”
“Yeah, the old Philips farm. They used to show them to the local kids,” David explained.
“Yeah, I visited there a couple of times. I didn’t think there were a lot of wild llamas wandering around. Why are there so many llamas and so few horses? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”
So Alice and her father explained his theory about why uncommon animals stood a better chance of survival, and how those with large numbers suffered exceptionally, but also stand a better chance of recovery in the long run. She had trouble with a couple of the concepts, but grasped the basics.
“So can I keep a pet rabbit?”
“You can keep one of the babies if you want, but frankly, you’ll probably be helping to raise all of them, so keeping one might seem a bit less special by then,” David suggested.
“Still, I think it’d be nice to have something soft to cuddle with,” she replied.
“Something we’re not afraid to touch,” Alice offered, guessing what she left unsaid. Instead of answering they both looked at David.
“Sure, as long as we’re sure they’re doing fine otherwise. I’d like to keep some of them essentially wild, so we’ll have to separate the domesticated ones from the others.” They both nodded eagerly, so David let the subject pass without further comment.
“We’ll need to do some general stuff around home tomorrow. I figure we should check the pond, see whether the Great Death affected the fish there as well. I’ll put out a couple traps that you two can check, just to see if there’s anything else that lived through this locally. I’ll also take you out to practice shooting, Mattie. But after that Alice and I’ll need to clean out the neighboring houses.”
“You’re going to leave me here?” Mattie asked, sounding nervous.
“Sure, we’ll just be at the end of the road, and anyone that comes along will have to drive by us. You should be fine, after all, you’ve been living on your own for a while now, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess, but now that you’re here, I’d really rather not be alone if I can avoid it,” she informed them. “When I didn’t have a choice I thought about how much I missed people, so now I’m not anxious to be alone again.”
“Well, we were planning to gather the dead from the homes nearby, so I was hoping to avoid having to expose you to that,” David admitted.
“Please, I watched my own parents die, and we’d been dumping bodies on the side of the road before you told us not to anymore. I’ve seen dead people before. I won’t be shocked by it.”
“I’m not so sure of that, but I’ll concede the point,” David said. “We’ll let you search the properties for useful items like books, flashlights, batteries, canned goods or anything else you can find. That’ll free us to concentrate on what we need to do.”
“Dad’s hoping we’ll be able to find enough survivors that we can use the nearby houses to house them,” Alice explained.
“You mean you think there will be enough they won’t all fit in here?” Mattie asked as she stared at the massive interior of the house. “This place is HUGE!”
“It’s actually not as big as it looks,” David tried to explain. “The high ceilings make it look big, but there aren’t that many separate rooms, and I imagine if there are any families they’ll want separate living quarters.”
Mattie didn’t seem convinced, shaking her head in disagreement.
“OK, what’s wrong with that?” David asked, trying to get her to open up instead of merely disagreeing. He needed to teach her that he respected her opinion, and would need it in the future so he didn’t overlook anything simple that could threaten their survival.
“I don’t think anyone will want to live anywhere else, and I doubt there are many families left,” she said.
“That may be, but it’s better to empty them now. If nothing else, we can use them for supplies or to keep the animals in if we don’t have enough room here,” David suggested. “It’s better to use the buildings than simply leaving them to deteriorate, though there’s no rush to do it now.”
Although there was a lot more that everyone wanted to discuss, the opportunities to do so were limited. There were the animals to feed, the plants to take care of, the supplies to be stored, and maintenance to be done. Everyone ended up heading to bed soon after the ten o’clock broadcast, too exhausted to contemplate what tomorrow might bring.
After David insisted everyone retire for the night, Mattie was assigned to the spare bedroom, the one they both assured her was ‘surgically clean’. Yet as she lay down, something was bothering her. She wasn’t quite sure what it was, but David and Alice just weren’t acting normally. They’d been acting strangely, like they were hiding something. Unable to shake her suspicions, she finally got up and crept out, looking for any sign of the other two. Not seeing either one, or any lights, she finally opened Alice’s door and peeked in. Unable to see clearly, but not seeing the recognizable shape she expected, she walked in for a closer look. Only realizing once she drew near that Alice wasn’t even there, and her bed hadn’t even been slept in.
Mattie knew there was only one other place she could be, and that thought scared her as she could only imagine one reason why she’d be there. Still, they seemed like decent people, so she couldn’t really believe they’d do that. Moving delicately, she approached their door, pressing her ear against it and listening for any sign of activity. When she heard nothing but the sound of the regular breath of sleep, she relaxed. If they were doing anything, then surely they’d still be at it by now. Still, she didn’t feel very relieved.
She’d keep their little secret, hoping that either one would come to her and admit what was going on. But she didn’t know what she’d do if they didn’t. She’d already committed to them, and she knew that although she had, she couldn’t hope to survive without them. Yes, she’d had plenty of canned food at home, but it would only last for so long, and it was only so long until some other people came wandering by, looking for anything they could find. She may be able to stand up to them, possibly even shoot one, but if it came to that, she knew she wouldn’t stand a chance.
Returning to her room, she decided she needed to consider this and contemplate her options. Whatever happened, she needed choices. Her father and David both survived as long as they had because they planned ahead. That was something she needed to do too.