Monday, July 29, 2013

Cheese Mammich

Val dug in his backpack and pulled out all of his Hot Wheels, lining them up carefully. The winter sunlight poured in through the large windows and the room was pleasantly warm. He dug around in his backpack some more and pulled out the small radio and his secret bag of chips.

Scooching closer to the fire, rocking and watching the dancing flames, he chirped and munched on his chips, carefully eating only half the bag, then folding it closed to keep the rest safe for his baby sister.

My baby sister!” he told Bertram the tiger importantly. Bertram sat on the padded bench, slumped against an arm, his keen plastic eyes dancing in the firelight.

Fire too hot, no touch it,” Val told Bertram. “Burn you. Not safe.”

He rocked a little more, chirped a little more.

I find Robbie Rocket,” he said confidentially to the stuffed tiger. He flipped on the radio, breathing a sigh of relief when it came on, even if it was only static. Val was not able to replace batteries; he understood the concept, but had trouble getting the battery hatches open and lining the batteries up correctly. “Robbie Rocket, I talking you.”

Val went back to his Hot Wheels. His favorite, the helicopter, had important jobs to do flying over all the other cars. Leah tried to catch the helicopter as he flew it around, and he laughed.

Like Godzilla,” he told her, petting her head affectionately.

He poured some of his cup of water into the cats cup on the floor and drank the rest. He scooted over to the wall and laboriously levered himself up to a standing position. “Need help walking!” he yelled, but no one answered, so he walked very carefully leaning against the wall, then clinging to furniture, until he was sitting on the edge of the bed his mother slept on. He patted her.

Needa pee.”

She didn't respond.

Mama, needa potty now.” He shook her. “Mama!”

This time she snapped awake, startled. When woken suddenly, she tended to jerk sideways with a look of terror on her face, this was no different.

Mama, you so silly,” Val chuckled.

What's up, little man?” she asked groggily, working herself into a sitting position beside him.

Needa potty now. Please.”

Number one or number two?”

Mumber pee.”

She dragged the chamberpot out from beneath the commander's bed and helped him stabilize in a crouching position to use it.

Where is your brother? Where's your sister?” she asked, and he shrugged.

Go to Target, I think,” Val said.

Dammit! They went out, did they?”

Yes. Out the door. Not snowing yet. Snow coming.”

Eve pulled one of the wool blankets around her and slipped her shoes back on, leaving her left shoe untied. “Gonna kill that boy,” she muttered. She pulled herself up on her crutch; her ankle throbbed. “Val, I'm going to make sure your brother and sister are still inside the Fort. I want you to stay away from the fires, and find some place to play safely. You can play in here, or you can play in the parlor, just be warm and don't touch the fires, ok?”

Eye-formsitive!”  Val saluted.

Will had finally managed to extract the wheelchair from where it had fallen and become stuck to the ground, covered in a dusting of snow. He dragged it backwards up the stairs with one hand, holding the iron-topped hoe with his other hand. It was a much slower process than he'd have liked, and his back felt like it was crawling with stares.

He kept reminding himself it was full daylight, but the light seemed dimmer today with the white, sheeted sky. He heard nothing, and the silence was crushing. No cars, no people; the highways and sidewalks were silent.

Hoping Kat had seen him approaching the front gate, he knocked very quietly on the smaller inset door. The door swung open toward him to reveal a very angry Eve on the other side.

Mom!” he said, startled, and she held her finger to her lips. He quickly lifted the wheelchair over the high threshold and followed it in, latching the door behind himself.

I am going to murder you,” she said quietly. She turned and started limping back to the house, leaning on her crutch.

Mom, um, you were asleep and Val needs his chair.”

She whipped around to stare him down, fierce and terrible.

William Edward Aubrey... if you EVER step foot out of this fort again without letting me know where you're going, what you're doing, and when you'll be back, I will find you, and I will murder you, and then I will drag your dead ass back here and I will GROUND it FOREVER.”


Not ONE word. You have no idea how upset I am. I understand things have changed, and I get you'll have to go do things I hate, things that are dangerous. And I can't always go with you because there must always be one adult here for Katrin and Val.” She turned started limping toward the house again, ire apparent in even every strand of her currently unbrushed hair.

Mom,” Will said, catching up, pushing Val's chair. “I'm sorry.” She turned again and pulled him into a tight hug.

I love you, you nerd. Don't make a mother worry.”

He hugged her back, heard her fight off her sniffles, and she let him go. They walked together more slowly this time.

Val has a chamberpot for you. It's in my room.”

Aw!” Will groaned. “Wait, here, push his chair for balance.” She sat in it instead, moving it with her right foot and rolling the wheel with her left hand, her crutch on her lap. He ran back to the hospital ward and picked up one of the chair-like commodes, carrying back to the house behind Eve.

Val chirped to have his chair back. Will put the commode in the children's room for Val to use as needed. “There's bathrooms, modern toilets, in the barracks,” he remembered. “We can flush them with buckets of water. But if you can't get out in your chair, Val, here's a potty for you.”

Val gave him a thumbs up, then a pinky. He settled himself happily in his chair and rolled around the house.

Hungry, mama,” he yelled as he sailed around.

Go down into the kitchen and see what pots you can find. I can make grilled cheese if there's a frying pan,” Eve said to Val's siblings.

I love cheese mammich!” Val yelled.

Will and Katrin went out the back door of the house, down the stairs, and into the basement. Katrin flipped her lantern on so Will could raid the pantry. He loaded his huge basket up with a couple of pans, some bowls, and more blankets that were stored in a closed shelf.

While Eve cooked a late lunch over the fire, using a three legged cast iron pot as a stable raised surface, Will crouched beside her chair and said “I need to go out and get us more food. I can go back to the marina and get our supplies, even see if any of the houseboats left behind have anything.”

Nope. Not today, you can't. It'll be dark or storming by the time you get back.”

We will be out of food,” Will said.

Go to the Visitor's Center then. See what's up at the gift shop. It's closer. And I can watch from the top of the Round Tower. Lunch first. Don't you piss me off twice in one day.”

Ok, ok,” Will said, his hands up in capitulation.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Nobody Knows My Sorrow

Joe Raymond, veteran of the second World War, husband to a dead wife and father to a murdered daughter, woke before dawn, as he usually did. The stiffness was always worse in the morning, but he knew well enough to keep moving, even slowly. Coddling the pain only worsened the stiffness in his joints.

He checked the fire in the woodstove in the hospital ward, it was still going enough to warm the place. Most of the family was asleep, but he saw the gleam of the strange young man's eyes in the light of the lone lantern the family had left burning. In this light curly-haired Val seemed man and child and something fey and unfathomable. Joe swallowed, shivering, and turned his back to the young man.

Setting his own lantern on the small table near Eve Aubrey, he checked on his patient. The mother wasn't snoring any more, and had curled up on her side with her broken arm settled carefully alongside her. No new bleeding showed through the bandages. He was rather proud of how well he set and splinted the arm and stitched her up, though without an xray, in light of his dimming eyesight, he didn't have perfect confidence in the setting of the arm.

Of course, now he was short a SAM splint, but he'd get it back in time. Just hoped he didn't break something of his own before then.

Her obviously dyed deep red hair had mostly escaped the remnants of her braid and formed a thicket of brambles around her head, but the lump on the back of her skull had already started getting smaller. She would be in pain, but she would probably turn out fine.

Glancing over the rest of the room as Val silently surveyed him in turn, he saw the youngest, the young girl with straight, dark coffee hair curled up facing her mother, the larger calico cat snugly sleeping inside the curve of the child's body. Beyond her the teenage boy sprawled half off his own bed, his short straw hair standing up, his dark eyes with their deep-set bruised appearance moving beneath their lids as he dreamed. And past him, Val, and standing on Val's hip, the older, fiercer looking calico, staring back at Joe like Val himself was.

Without greeting them, he turned away and headed back to his room.

He made himself some coffee with a blue speckled enamelware percolator in the hearth of the fireplace in his own quarters, which is how he'd come to think of the doctor's room. It was set up comfortably enough with a bed, a desk, some small tables and chairs, and its own hearth.He'd been a medic in the War, so he felt fairly justified in using quarters in the hospital. When he'd arrived at Snelling, he'd used supplies from the quartermaster's shed to clear out the hospital chimneys to make sure they could be used, and then made himself at home here.

This was after he'd parked his truck in front of the gun shed and blocked the vehicle gate with barrels, just in case. He still felt that wall, the northwestern wall, was too short to be truly safe. Because of his fear a Red Flu rioter would jump up and climb the wall, Joe made certain to be very, very quiet. Those first days it had been clear that noise attracted their attention and their fury.

Over the next week as he'd stayed here alone at the Fort, he'd methodically cleaned all of the chimneys and explored the employee spaces to create a mental catalog of what supplies were there. It had a been a long week full of far too much thinking space.

He sat at the doctor's desk and sipped his coffee, eating some bread and margarine for breakfast. It was important to him not to think too much, not to think about his wife, dead of the original outbreak, or his daughter, murdered by a rioter back when the Red Flu returned.

Not to think about his son-in-law, crouching over the ruin he'd made of Joe's daughter, eating her, shaking and keening. Not to think of the fear that had nearly paralyzed Joe, not grief for his daughter, but fear that Jeff would see Joe standing there, that he would turn that strange rage on Joe.

Trembling, Joe set his coffee down for a moment. He put his head in his hands and sang softly to himself.

Out on a hike all day, dear
Part of the army grind
Weary and long the way, dear
But really I don't mind

I'm getting tired so I can sleep
I want to sleep so I can dream
I want to dream so I can be with you...”

As the trembling eased, he picked up his coffee, his mind cleared, his hands as sure as they ever were lately.

A quick, silent patrol showed no breaches of the Fort walls. Just as silently, he crept up the stairs to the walkway over the front gate and saw nothing moving there. From the top of the Round Tower, though, at the far west point of the Fort, he could see at least one person moving along Highway 5. From the aimless movements and the faintly audible sound of a human hooting, Joe deduced it was another of them. The rioters, the zombies, the infected.

He hurried down the circling stairs of the tower before the creature could see him. Dawn was bleaching the sky; a white sky meant more snow at some point today in addition to the thin layer of last night's fall remained on the ground.

Back in the hospital ward, he shook the teenager awake. “Got some work for you,” he whispered.

Okay,” the boy said sleepily, and fell back asleep.

Kid,” Joe said, shaking the boy more roughly. This time Will sat up.

I'm coming,” he said. “I'm awake.”

We need to bring more firewood up,” Joe told him. “There's some stacks down behind the commander's house. And we need to get some water going up here. There's a well, but it's unreliable, and I'm not betting on the safety of the water. Who knows how many bodies there are floating in the rivers down there like a stew.”

The kid stumbled after Joe, pulling on his far too lightweight jacket, and helped haul enough wood for the day up to the hospital. They stored it in the morgue.

I don't want to know these people, Joe thought, standing there in the morgue with a kid whose name he could not remember. I don't want to know anybody now.

There was still running water when I got here. I filled up a few barrels of it, and any container I could find, but they're all down in the reenactors area. I'll show you where and you can bring some containers up. Ground's slippery enough we can just slide them for now.”

Down in the employee area, Joe had emptied out many of the plastic bins each individual reenactor stored their costuming in and filled them with water before replacing their covers. As a result there were piles of clothing set on benches in the locker area. Will helped him push four of the water bins out of the building, then Will pushed them all up the hill toward the hospital while Joe pulled them with a rope, one at a time.

This water they stored in the doctor's supply room.

I'll give you some of my food, but I can't spare much. You could check the storage areas below the officer's barracks, there might be stuff from the store down there. Pretzels and candy. Later you and your mom will have to figure out how to bring more food in for you all, and replace some of mine.”

We'll do that, Mr Raymond – I mean, Joe,” Will said, though he was momentarily confused by this idea of not sharing what one had to share, as he knew his family would. His own instinct was to share what little they had if it would help.

Checked on your mom already. Grab her a crutch over there.” Joe pointed to some wooden, old fashioned crutches near the doctor's storage cabinet. “She'll be fine. She'll need more antibiotics on her injuries, the human mouth is filthy. I've left some on the counter there. Help her out. There's also my bottle of Advil for pain, but you'll have to replace that too.”

Will nodded.

After that you all will need to figure out where you'll stay. I don't care if you stay here in the Fort, it's safe enough, but you have to be quiet. Those things come running if there's too much noise. And you can't stay here in the hospital, we need to keep it open in case more injured show up.” Joe felt that last part was inspired. He didn't want the family close, and that was a decent excuse.

Where should we go?”

Don't care. Doesn't matter. Check it all out, and you know where the water and firewood are so you can get some for yourselves too. Of course -”

Yeah, we'll replace it,” Will said, a little sharply. The man may have been grumpy and stingy, but he'd treated Eve's wounds, so Will tried to keep his irritation private. He also knew, though, that the old man had not chopped any of this firewood, that it had all been here when he'd gotten here.

Joe gave Will a large basket with two loaves of bread, a chunk of hard cheese, margarine, four packets of powdered chicken noodle soup, and some rice.

There's dishes and pans over in the store,” Joe said, then ushered Will out and closed the door to his quarters.

Will stood there for a moment, his head cocked to the side like a confused puppy, then he shrugged and returned to his family.

Eve was slowly, achingly maneuvering herself into a sitting position when he came into the hospital ward room.

Morning,” she muttered as a greeting.

He gave her four of the Advil and the rest of Kat's flat soda from the night before.

Thanks, kid,” she said.

While she sat, getting her bearings, bleary eyed and low on caffeine, Will put more wood into the woodstove. “I'm gonna run to the store,” he said as he closed the stove door and stood back up.

Wait, what?” Eve asked.

The Fort store, remember, the mercantile? With the blue and white dishes you said would break if you looked at them funny?”

Oh, right, yes. The transferware. I love transferware.”

Whatever,” Will said, and grinned when she glared at him. “Be right back.”

Be quiet, and be careful.”

He nodded, and turned to the door.

Will – wait!” she called out, stopping him. “I, ah, I need to pee.”

Will went back to the doctor's supply area and grabbed one of the crutches to give to Eve. Handing it to her, he said “Just use one of the potty chairs here. I'll empty it when I get back.”

The commode?”

Whatever,” Will said, and smirked. He shut the door behind him as he stepped outside.

There were a lot of things on the shelf at the little one room store, many of which Will could not readily identify. Eve, he know, would know most of these things. Remembering her fear of breaking the pretty blue and white dishes, he gathered instead tin cups and glass and wooden dishes. He put them into a basket sitting on the floor big enough to hold two babies and possibly a small lamb. He took a knife for himself, then thought of Eve's broken kitchen knife and took one for her too. Will eyed the heavy cast iron pots, but figured that could wait until they were settled into different quarters.

Back at the hospital ward, he found Joe handing Eve a tin cup of coffee. The old man nodded at Will, then returned to his own quarters.

He was back again moments later with Leah, who had followed him home.

And again moments after that, with Cassie, who had also gone to his quarters to investigate.

This time he made sure both cats were accounted for in the hospital ward, then firmly shut the door between him and them.

Will fed the cats and took them outside to go to the bathroom. He emptied his mother's chamberpot, then Val's when Val woke up. Katrin grumpily took care of her own. Will fed them bread and butter, slices of cheese, and gave them tin cups of water, placing an extra cup on the floor for the cats.

We need to choose other quarters,” Will told his mother in a low voice. “Mr – ah, Joe – he said we need to keep the hospital ward clear in case more injured come in.”

Makes sense,” Eve said, clearly tired. “Did he say where he wanted us to go?”

He didn't care,” Will said.

Do... do you think it would be presumptuous to take the commander's house? If there's no one else in it right now?”

There's no one else here,” Will said. “If Mr Joe wanted the commander's quarters, he'd have taken them.”

Good point!”

Will knocked on Joe's door while Eve supervised the packing up of the dishes, the food, and the cats. “Mr Joe? We're going to move to the commander's house, ok?”

Fine, fine,” the old man said.

Joe watched them make their way across to the other side of the Fort. He was glad they chose the commander's house; even if the kids and that strange young man were loud at play, it would probably not be heard much beyond the fort.

Eve hobbled, using the crutch to avoid putting too much pressure on her sprained ankle. Will and Katrin each supported Val on one side as their brother wobbled after his mom. Val could still walk, though it tired him and he couldn't do so without sturdy support. Usually that would be his walker, but that was left behind at the rickety Victorian house. Once inside the commander's house, their breath visible in the air even inside, Eve and Val sat on a cushioned bench in the main hallway while Katrin and Will went back to gather more of their things.

Joe watched the two kids running back across the parade grounds, watched them hauling cats and supplies back to the commander's office. He saw Kat unfold and put out the folding wheelchair ramp, stored in the off season inside the commander's house.

Will and Kat ran back to the hospital ward, this time with a canvas sled Joe remembered being in the commander's basement. He watched them use the sled haul their blankets and the extra mattresses to their new quarters. He saw them use the sled to drag wood and two of the bins of water to the commander's house, using the wheelchair ramp to get it all inside.

Joe sighed, then made his way over to the commander's house. He knocked and entered without waiting for an invitation in. Eve was sitting on the bench directing traffic, Val was on the floor playing with the cats.

Didn't know if you had matches,” Joe said.

Joe showed Will how to properly light a fire in the parlor, and Kat, Val, and Eve moved into that room to warm up; Kat dragged the padded bench in for her mother as only small wooden chairs were in there. Val still had his backpack, with his Hot Wheels and other small toys, and Kat pulled her art supplies out of her own back pack.

Eve's head nodded in exhaustion. Joe frowned, and went off to light a fire in the master bedroom. “You rest yourself, Eve,” he said as he and Will helped her to the master bedroom and onto the small double bed. “Rest so you can heal and don't make my job difficult.”

She chuckled a little, and was asleep almost as soon as her son had drawn the blankets over her. With that, Joe nodded at Will, then returned to his own quarters without a word to Val or Katrin.

Ok, Katrin, I need you to come watch the front gate,” Will said.

Why? It's cold out there.”

Wear your jacket and wrap up in one of the wool blankets. I'm going to go get Val's chair and see if I can get some more of our supplies from the marina. I'll be quick, but I need you to open the gates for me when I get back. It's bright enough out now there shouldn't be many infected out and about, and I'll grab one of those iron-topped hoes from the store to use as a weapon.”

Will! You're not supposed to talk like that!”

Hoe, not ho. A hoe is a garden tool!”

Katrin eyed him suspiciously, but eventually nodded her agreement. While she wrapped herself up firmly in a brightly striped wool blanket, Will told Val to stay here and watch the cats and take care of Eve.

Mom sleepin'.”

I know,” Will said. “Just listen for her, and stay in here where it's warm.”

Val saluted him.

We need more walkie talkies,” Katrin whispered, her face pale, as she let her brother out of the Fort.

We'll get some,” Will said. “Now lock up behind me and go up to the walkway. I'll be right back with Val's chair, then I'll see about going down to get our food and supplies.”

Katrin saluted just as Val had, and the heavy red door swung shut between them. The sound of the locking sliding home was far louder and more ominous than Will liked.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ain't Nothing Gonna Break My Stride

Will did not even realize how quickly he was running as he hurried to his mother. She was unconscious and bleeding, the two Red Flu infected laying near her looked in worse shape. A broken knife Will recognized as her favorite kitchen knife lay near her leg.  The infected were twitching, but her stun gun was missing, probably fallen into the river.

She was breathing and had a pulse, so he quickly smashed the skulls of the infected with his baseball bat and tossed them into the river. By the time he got back from running up the trail to get Val's wheelchair to haul her up to the Fort, she was waking up, pushing herself to a sitting position with one hand, the other arm held close to her body.

Bastards,” she muttered. “Thank you, Will,” she added as he helped her up into the wheelchair. “I think my arm's broken. And my ankle is injured. And I might have gotten another brain injury.”

It means you still have a brain!” he said. “Right?”

When I feel better, I am going to kick your ass,” she grumbled.

He pushed the chair up the steep hill. By the time they reached the stairs, he was winded and his muscles were shaking. “I'm gonna have to drag you up the rest of the way,” he said.

No. Go see if there's a wool blanket in the Fort. That'll help. Go on, hurry, it's dark!”

He hurried up the stairs as best he could, and the old man let him back into the Fort.

Eve was already half way between the stairs and the Fort when he got back; she'd done a stubborn three-legged crawl to get there. She collapsed on to the blanket and Will dragged it toward the Fort. The old man called from the upper level of the front gate.

Hurry it! Movement southwest!”

Eve pushed with her good foot and Will pulled hard. He dragged her up over the threshold into the Fort and the old man slammed the door behind them, shooting the bolt home.

Hi. Eve Aubrey,” she said, sticking up her good hand.

Joe Raymond,” the old man said, and shook her hand.

Mom!” Kat shouted, running out of the gatehouse. She kneeled by her mother.

I'm just tired out,” Eve said. “It's not that bad, I'm just laying here because I'm tired.” She winced as she pulled herself to a sitting position.

Hospital ward,” the old man said, and he pointed toward a long building to the left of the front gate. Will and Kat dragged their mother over to that building and inside. Joe Raymond, taciturn old man, showed them the way into the main hospital room, then went to grab some lanterns.

It wasn't long before Eve was up on a hard, uncomfortable, short bed on the far side of the main hospital room, lanterns blazing all around the room, and a fire in the woodstove near the door. Will and Kat went back to the gatehouse to collect Val and the cats.

While the kids were gone, Joe spoke to Eve.

I can set that arm, but it's going to hurt like hell. I have rum or vodka.”

She studied his face, exhausted. He seemed bemused, a bit stern, but not unkind.

Think I need a second opinion?” she joked feebly.

I'd go with the rum,” he said. “Was a medic in the War. Started out here.”

Thank you,” she said.  He poured her a shot in a tin cup and she slugged it back.

The rum burned. She was vaguely aware of Will settling his brother on a tall backed wooden chair near the woodstove. Kat was bustling around, probably seeing to Cassie and Leah. Joe went off through the door farthest from Eve and came back shortly with a military looking first aid kit the size of a small suitcase.

Joe gave her another shot of rum in the tin cup. He motioned to Will to come hold his mother still.

She eyed the old man, eyed her son, then held the cup out for one more shot.

I will not scream, she thought to herself. If I scream, it will scare the kids.

She didn't scream.

After his mother fainted and Mr Raymond finished splinting and binding her arm, Will lay her carefully down on the bed. He watched as the old man cut her pants leg away and wrapped her swollen left ankle.

At least, Will thought, she'll be balanced. Sprained left leg, broken right arm.

Get me some water, and some rags. I've got bottled water down in the doctor's quarters at the end of this building. And there should be rags on a shelf between here and there, keep your eye out.”

Joe put a kettle on the stove. While he waited for Will to get back, he stared at Val.

Hungry,” Val said.

We left our granola bars behind,” Katrin said.

I see,” Joe said, still looking bemused. “I can feed you after I patch up your mom. Nothing terribly fancy.”

Mac cheese?” Val said hopefully.

I do have some hard cheddar, and some bread. Can't do macaroni and cheese, but I can do a grilled cheese sandwich and a soda. Soda's not cold though.”

Cheese mammich!” Val chirped, and rocked back and forth in place rather precipitously.

It's ok,” Katrin said when Joe Raymond's eyebrows shot up. “That's his happy dance.”

Will and Mr Raymond, as Will considered him in his head, got to work cleaning and patching Eve up. She had a nasty bump on her head and several bad scratches and bites. One bite on her unbroken arm required stitches, and Will was grateful his mother remained unconscious.

Probably wouldn't have given her rum if I'd seen the head lump,” Mr Raymond said. “She's breathing fine, though,” as she gave a loud snore.

After his mother was taken care of and sleeping cozily as could be on the short, hard bed, Will was sent over to the barracks to find and bring back extra mattresses and blankets to make the children more comfortable. He lay the extra mattresses on the three remaining beds on the same side of the room as Eve in the hospital ward.

They ate dinner of grilled cheese sandwiches with oat bread, with raisins on the side and room temperature soda to wash it all down. It was a testament to Katrin's hunger that she was willing to eat the food; her sensory issues played havoc with her willingness to eat most kinds of food. Will had been certain she'd only eat the raisins and drink the soda.  She loved grilled cheese, but it had to be white bread and american cheese, and had to be served with tomato soup.  At least, that's how it was before.

Potty now,” Val said urgently.

To hell with it. I'll show you the bathrooms tomorrow. Have him use the commode there and I'll show you where to empty it,” Mr Raymond said.

Me too,” Kat said. There were two commodes in the hospital ward, Katrin dragged one around so the high back was facing the room. Afterward she and Will carried the pots to a drain Mr Raymond showed them just outside of the hospital building.

I'm over in the doc's room at the end here,” Mr Raymond said abruptly, then turned to leave the Brood and their sleeping mother alone for the night.

Thank you, Mr Raymond,” Will said.

Just Joe,” he said, and walked off.

Even though they were safe behind thick walls, Will wedged chairs against the doors in their room. Katrin nodded approvingly, then checked the sturdiness.

Kat took the bed closest to her mother. Will put Val in the bed closest to the warm stove, and took the bed between his siblings.

Phone call,” Val said. From his jacket pocket he pulled out the bright yellow walkie talkie.

It took Will a moment to figure out how to use the thing. “Gary?” he asked into the microphone. He waited a couple minutes and tried again. “Gary?”

Gotcha!” came a fairly chipper voice. “Gary here. Is this Mother Eve and family?”

This is Will. Her son. She's injured, but we're at the Fort. It's safe and clear here, but the route here does have problems.”

Of course it does. What did you find?”

Well,” Will said. “We tried to come across the Highway 5 bridge, and something up there is burning, and the bridge is damaged. I don't think it's passable. We canoed over to Pike Island and walked up to the Fort. Pike Island had at least three infected.”

Had means you took care of them?”

Those three, yes. There may be more. There's a man here who is some kind of medic, he took care of Mom. He said the infected move around over here at night.”

Ok. Good to know. I'll check in with you again tomorrow evening. What time is it, 9 PM? Tomorrow at 9 PM. Right?”

Tomorrow at 9 PM,” Will agreed.

The Brood slept, if not like the dead, then at least very deeply. Cassie curled up against Eve's belly, and Leah sprawled across Katrin. Beyond the thick stone walls dancing with lantern light, the season's first snow began to fall.

Friday, July 12, 2013

I'm On A Boat

To the left of the parking lot was a large white building, the doors wide open and the glass broken. The gate to the marina itself stood smashed open as if a car had been driven through it. Beyond the gate, the general lack of boats lent a haunted feeling; those few boats left behind seemed unutterably lonely; as if waiting for a master who would never return.

The family explored a bit, finding little they could use. None of them knew how to hotwire or even drive a motorized boat. Finally, Katrin pointed back towards a Quonset hut.

A sign!”

They pedaled over to it quickly; the afternoon was stretching on and the sunlight would soon begin to dim, making hunting easier for the infected.

A hastily constructed sign on plyboard was tacked to a wooden post. Written in permanent marker with an arrow beneath was:

Everyone that can is leaving. Keys to the storage area are below. Don't think the infected can use keys so the shed should be safe. Help yourself to canoes. We went south.

Be Safe,

The arrow pointed down to a small pouch with a logo for Stand Up Minnesota. Inside the pouch was a business card for a Matt who worked for Paddle Taxi and a single key.

Katrin pointed at the shed next to the Quonset hut. Someone – Matt, one would guess – had drawn a huge asterisk on the door of the shed with permanent marker.

Oh, thank God,” Eve said when they got the shed unlocked and found four canoes stacked neatly inside, with oars and life jackets on the walls. Standing paddleboards rested against the back wall.

I want one of those!” Katrin said excitedly, pushing past Eve to get to one of the standing paddleboards.

Let's go quickly,” Eve said. “We're crossing to Pike Island.” She pointed across the river from them. “There's a foot bridge there that will take us across to the Fort.”

We can't take the bikes in these canoes,” Will said.

We'll load up two canoes with what we can,” Eve said. “I'll take Val and his wheelchair across, you take the other canoe.”

And I'll take a paddleboard!” Katrin said happily.

Need my walker,” Val said.

That's at the house,” Eve said. “We'll find you a new one soon. Wheelchair for now.”

Val gave her a disgruntled look, which remained on his face as she fastened him into a life jacket. He maintained eye contact and his grumpy face while she loaded him into a canoe.

Will loaded up the other canoe with their water and food and packs, with the tools and the two cats. The pet carrier part of Katrin's pet trailer unclipped so he could set the whole thing into the canoe with him. Katrin packed the cats' food in Will's canoe, too.

They all put on life jackets, then Will and Eve put the bikes into the shed and locked it, returning the key to its place.

The water was cold and dark. Eve spent the quick trip across worrying Katrin was going to fall off her standing board and slip downriver.

Not like it,” Val said, glaring at Pike Island.

It will be ok,” she told him.

Ghosts living there.”

No ghosts, Val,” she said. “You'll be ok. I'll be here.”

Zombie living there.”

Keep your eyes peeled,” she said after a moment of silence.

They pulled their crafts up onto the shore of the island. The trail Eve wanted to get them on was right next to the shore and she helped Val wobble his way up to it while Will carried his wheelchair to it. Katrin picked up the pet carrier with the complaining cats in it. Eve, Will and Katrin put their backpacks on, and Val held his pack on his lap.

We'll have to come back for the rest of the stuff,” Will said.

Yep, let's just get up to the Fort itself,” Eve agreed. “If it is dark by then, we'll come back in the morning.”

She pushed Val's chair. At some points the trail was rough enough that Will reached down and pulled the chair forward by the frame.

The family hurried toward the bridge that would take them across the river to the Fort. The only sounds were the river itself, Eve's breathing, and the complaining of the cats. Val pulled out his lightsaber and his light and turned both on, though the lightsaber no longer lit up.

Coming,” he muttered.

This time Eve heard him. “We're going,” she said. “We're going ahead to the Fort, right?”

As they reached the footbridge, both cats fell silent at the same moment. Will's hackles raised and he turned to look behind them.

Shit, Mom, zombie!” He brandished his dented baseball bat. Just visible behind them, creeping up the trail almost as if it was cautious, was one of the infected, an older male, clothes torn and mouth foaming. He made no noise, said no words.

No!” Eve hissed. “No time! Take your brother. I'll stop him at the bridge. You get your brother and sister safe up in the Fort and then come back to help. Them first!”

No, I...”

I will never get Val up the hill to the Fort fast enough!” she said. “You have to take them!”

Will snarled but listened, grabbing the handlebars of Val's chair and taking off at a run.

Mom!” Katrin said, trembling and white-faced.

What do we say to the god of death?” Eve roared.

Not today!” Katrin said, visibly channeling her small sword-fighting idol Arya Stark, and she bolted off after her brothers.

Eve followed up onto the footbridge, then turned to block the creature's passage. She pulled out and turned on her stun gun and stood, feet wide and braced, stun gun in one hand and her butcher knife in the other.

MY kids,” she growled.

The creature lurched forward faster, seeing the children run. As it came, Eve could see its left leg was injured, the ankle flipping outwards when it stepped too quickly. Its lips pulled back in a soundless snarl, closer, closer, and Eve could see the newly healed scar spread across its throat.

These creatures seemed to heal so quickly.

Then it was on the bridge. She waited until it was out over the river, then dropped her shoulder and charged it, lifting it into the air and hitting it with the stun gun as she'd done with the arm-dragger. It jerked against her, then it was falling. It hit the river with a splash and sank beneath the water, unable to swim while it was still affected by the stun gun.

And FUCK YOU!” Eve shouted at the dark water where the creature had disappeared, not even realizing she'd shouted until she heard an answering shout farther down the island.

I want!” the voice cried. “I want! I want I want I want want want!”

It emerged from the woods. This one was not limping.

Will moved faster than he had ever realized he could run. He'd spent most of his time previously reading or playing video games in slothful indolence. He wasn't overweight, but he hadn't been particularly fit, either. Now that didn't seem to matter. He ran for the Fort, Katrin and the cats at his heels.

Just gotta get you guys settled,” he said through gritted teeth. “Then I'll go back for Mom.”

They turned at last toward the front of the Fort, and were stopped by stairs.

Will swore, then he and Katrin unbuckled Val and he pulled Val up onto his back. They hurried on, leaving Val's wheelchair and his pack rolling slightly back down the trail until it came to a stop in some weeds to the side of the trail.

Will took them around the front of the Fort – no way to open that massive and locked door from the outside – and to a vehicle entrance on the side. He set Val on the ground and Val glared at him, pulling himself up to a standing position against the Fort's rough stone walls. Katrin was right behind them.

Come here,” Will said. “Set the cats by Val.” She did as he said, and he cupped his hands down by his knees.

What?” she asked, confused and a little suspicious.

I need you to climb over this door and open it from the inside,” he said. “There's a latch on the inside that you'll have to lift up, then we can bring Val and the cats inside.”

She nodded resolutely. Grabbing his shoulders, she stepped into his cupped hand and he lifted her upwards. With a grunt she pulled herself up, her hands gripping the top of the wide, tall gate.

Hell's bells, Kat,” Will groaned with the effort of lifting her. “Stop growing.”

I am going to tell Mom if you are calling me fat again!” she said stormily, then she was over.

Will listened for the sound of her hitting the ground, but there was nothing. Katrin's head popped back over the gate and he did a double take.

Barrels!” she said, upset. “There's all these barrels blocking the door! I'm standing on them.”

Will grimaced. “Here,” he said finally, and grabbed the cat carrier. He handed it up to her. “Set them down, then come meet us at the front door to the Fort. Let us in there.” She nodded and took the cats, disappearing again beyond the gate.

Val gave his brother a mutinous glare, but allowed Will to shift him up onto his back, and the two hurried back around to the main doors of Fort Snelling.

The front gates of Fort Snelling were topped by roofed stone walkway. The doors were broad and thick, painted red. Inside the right hand door a single person-sized door was inset; this was the door that swung open as Will and his brother made it to the front gates.

On the other side of the door stood a very old man, and behind him, clutching the cat carrier, was Katrin.

Quickly,” the old man said. “It's getting darker. There will be more of 'em in the dark.” Will ducked in the door so Val wouldn't hit his head and the old man slammed the door shut and drove the bolt home.

The old man stood there, staring at them for a moment.

Come to the gatehouse,” he said at last. “There's a chair for setting him.” He nodded at Val.

Will followed the old man to the gatehouse beside the front gates. It was dark inside, but Katrin fished one of her lanterns out of her pack and turned it on. There was a bed, a desk and a chair inside. Will set Val in the chair.

Wait here,” he told his siblings. “I'm going back to get Mom.”

I'll light them a fire, it's getting cold out,” the old man said. “I won't leave the door open for you. But I'll go up in the walkway and watch for you.”

Val solemnly handed Will his spotlight. Will nodded, man to man, and was off, racing back out of the Fort. He heard the door swing shut and lock behind him and knew the old man or Katrin had taken care of that.

Spotlight unlit in one hand and the dented bat in the other, Will ran back down the trails, back past Val's wheelchair, back down the trail toward the footbridge.

As he approached the footbridge he turned the spotlight on. Before him on the bridge lay three figures. None of them were moving, not even his mother.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Burned Bridges

The weather was crisp and cool, a perfect autumn late morning; the sun was a small piercing light rising in a frosty blue and white sky. The smell of turning leaves, that earthy wet smell of the world falling asleep, met the Aubreys as they rode as if greeting a neighbor. Everything seemed almost welcoming and familiar.

The family rode their bikes on the trail around a small lake, the sun making tiny white sails of the breeze-ruffled surface.

Val, plastic lightsaber extended and tightly held, stared silently behind them, his solemn face barely showing over the back of his seat in the pedicab.

Close, close,” he whispered, but Eve didn't hear him. Val pressed the button that in past months would light up the saber's green blade, but the toy hadn't worked properly for a while. “Need more batteries.”

Cassiopeia pressed her angry-looking small face against the mesh of the pet trailer, staring at Will as he came along at the end of the group.

It's ok, little old lady,” Will said. Cassie opened her mouth; about as often as she made noise she made these soundless meows.

They rode for a bit, quietly, at a mild pace. The trail seemed deserted even of the slinking dogs or wild creatures that one might expect to see.

Eve raised her hand and came to a stop. Will came up beside her and she pointed. Just off the side of the trail was a large, rotting fallen tree shrouded in bushes and brown weeds. Will was about to shrug when he saw what she was pointing at – movement beneath the tree.

In a nest dug into the fallen leaves and forest debris, sheltered by the trunk of the fallen tree, they could see the ragged shirt of a flu rioter, the fabric moving up and down so quickly the creature almost seemed to be hyperventilating. Now and then there was a little tremble, otherwise there was no other movement beyond the breathing. A soft growling snore arose from beneath the tree, and in the pet trailer, Leah hissed.

Eve jerked, startled at the cat's noise. Will put a warning hand on her arm and she shuddered, struggling to breathe silently.

Will pantomimed sleeping and she nodded. He held his hands up to ask what to do next. Katrin tugged on her mother's other sleeve, her eyes huge and anxious.

She pointed down the trail pleadingly.

Will pointed at his family, and up the trail. He quietly slid his baseball bat out of the makeshift holder he'd made it and held it ready.

Eve grimaced, but nodded resolutely. She pointed forward for Katrin, urging her on. Katrin shook her head at first, then swallowed and nodded, and drove her bike around her mother and took off ahead and quietly and swiftly as she could. Eve followed, turning back after a safe distance to watch Will catch up to them. Without a word they all continued swiftly on for worried moments, not even Val making a noise.

They didn't slow down until they'd passed the marina, silent and empty beneath the sun. Most of the slips appeared to be empty, but those remaining rocked, the leaves rustled gently as they slipped from their trees; so picturesque it seemed made to call human attention, though little of that remained.

It was asleep?” Will asked Eve when they stopped for a breath.

Seemed like it. Didn't seem to realize we were there,” she said.

Asleeping,” Val said.

They must sleep more during the day if the light hurts their eyes,” Katrin said.

Chips now.”

Val, wait until we get to the Fort and get settled, please,” Eve said.

Water?” Val asked, and Katrin found him a new water bottle. Eve worried. Val had always eaten so much, thanks to a blessedly high metabolism that she personally would have killed to have; at one point in an attempt to get him up to a more typical weight for a kid his age, the doctor had him on an extra thousand calories a day. Fewer people should mean more food for those who were left, but the infected ate nearly constantly and the preserved food that was most easily accessible was likely gone.

We need to get going if we want to get there before dark – dusk comes early in the fall,” she said.

THE FALL... OF MANKIND!” Will said dramatically, and Katrin punched his arm.

Before they even reached the climb up toward the bridge that would take them across the river and toward the Fort they realized there was a problem. Part of the bridge was hanging precariously askew with char marks and continuing wisps of smoke even now, a week after the Flu Riots began.

They drew to a stop and stared up at the broken bridge. Will rummaged in his pack for some binoculars he'd taken from the bike store.

It's wrecked. We're not going to be able to get Val across,” he said. “Half the piece by that column is hanging down, there's a burned up fuel truck half hanging off there, and the rest is all blocked with cars.”

Well, we can't leave Val behind!” Katrin hissed.

No one is suggesting that!” Eve said. She bit her lip. She did not swear all the swear words she knew if only because she could see Kat was becoming more distressed and if she realized Eve was also scared, it would make things even worse for her.

The family turned to the south a bit where the Fort, looking solid, peered down from the cliff top it had been built on nearly two hundred years earlier. The soft gold stone walls seemed to beckon with promises of safety and peace.

All that stood between Eve and her Brood and this bastion, those thick walls and heavy doors, those cannons for goodness sake, was the Mississippi River.

The marina!” Eve said suddenly.

Boat!” Val said excitedly.

They hurried back to the marina.