Disclaimers: In chapter one.
"Goodbye everybody, I’ve got to go. Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth."
Written by: Susanne Beck, Okasha. Directed by: TNovan
When the crowded rooms and the close press of humanity gets to be too much, Dakota escapes to the glassed in porch, closing the door behind her and reveling in the silence of a South Dakota winter evening. It’s snowing again. The flakes, heavy and wet, hiss through the air in a soothing monotone.
It’s been two days since the shooting, and her wound, not much more than a graze, is healing, though still painful.
The storm door squeals in protest as it is opened again, and the floorboards groan out accompaniment as Dakota’s father joins her on the porch. She hears a slight rustle, then the flick of a match being struck against the wooden casement, and soon the air is filled with the sweet smell of pipe tobacco. Its scent brings Dakota back to the days of her childhood when her whole world was the man standing beside her and her only goal in life was to see the light of pride in his eyes. Eyes that are, like hers, a brilliant, pale blue; a queer genetic anomaly going back as long as anyone can remember.
For long moments, the porch is silent save for quiet breaths and the hissing of the snow.
The remnants of the MacGregor family, Kimberly, her two grown daughters and two granddaughters, have taken up residence in a small house just to the west of the main home. Dakota’s mother helps them through their grief as best she can, trying to break through the silent, staring shock that melds them to their beds and chairs; living statues crafted by the hand of a madman.
The rest of the family spends its days huddled around the CB radio, gleaning and hoarding each bit of information the way a prospector pans for gold dust. Wild speculation paints the airwaves in crazy, neon colors. Space aliens have landed in Washington DC. Peter Westerhaus has sold out to certain Middle Eastern interests, handing them the United States on a silver platter. And the most popular: God is using Satan’s tools to cleanse the earth in preparation for the return of His Son.
Each rumor is treated as Gospel truth; examined like a diamond for clarity and flaws, and kept or discarded based on its possible merit.
"Your spirit wanders."
Shaken from her reverie, Dakota lets out a small sigh, tips her head slightly, and leans a shoulder against the sturdy frame of the porch. She eyes her father directly, taking in his gentle, somber countenance.
"Where will you go?"
"Home. At least, at first. I need to…."
Her voice trails off, but her father nods his understanding.
"South, I think. To Rapid City."
"To the base?"
"Your mother will forbid it."
Dakota nods, dropping her gaze to the worn boards. "I know that, too." Her voice is no more than a whisper, its timbre blending with the falling snow.
A soft rustle of cloth eases the silence, and when Dakota raises her eyes, her father is holding an object out to her. Her eyes widen as the significance of the object becomes abundantly clear.
"Your medicine pouch…."
"Le icu wo, chunkshi."
Reaching out, she allows her fingers to curl around the small, worn pouch. In turn, her father’s warm fingers curl around her own. Their eyes meet. He gives her a rare and precious smile.
"If I were younger, and did not have a family to protect, I would do as you are now, Dakota." His face sobers and he releases her hand. "Go now. Say goodbye to your brothers and sisters. I will talk to your mother."
Rising to his feet, he is gone before she can open her mouth to thank him.
Twenty minutes later, Dakota stands by her truck, gazing one last time upon her family whose faces are pressed against the large windows, fogging them and making the watching figures dreamy and indistinct.
Her mother’s face is the only one she can see clearly, and her expression is a swirling thundercloud of anger, love, and fear. Her heavy arms are crossed against her ample bosom, and as Dakota meets her eyes, she scowls and turns away.
Clenching her jaw in frustration, Dakota also turns and opens the door to her truck. Before she can step in, her mother comes at her from behind, wrapping her arms around Dakota’s slim waist and pulling her back.
"Yé shni ye, chunkshi. Yé shni ye."
Dakota turns in her mother’s arms, bringing up chilled hands to cup soft, careworn cheeks. "I have to go, Mother. I need to do this."
"And I need you here, Dakota. Here, with your family, where you belong."
Dakota’s mother turns to look at her husband, then back at her daughter. "Please. I’m asking you. Stay."
The older woman’s face hardens. "Then you are no daughter of mine." She takes in a breath. "Is that what you want?"
Dakota shakes her head. "No, that’s not what I want at all."
Her mother smiles, triumphant.
Dakota continues. "But, if that’s how you feel it must be, then there’s nothing I can do to stop you, Mother. This is something I have to do." Releasing her mother, she steps away. "I love you, Mother. Always."
A long, tense moment passes between them.
"I need to go." Dakota’s voice is soft, regretful.
Before she can turn away, her arms are once again filled with the solid, firm body of her mother. They embrace tightly, almost desperately, before finally parting.
Turning quickly, Dakota jumps into her truck, starts it, and drives off, savagely ignoring the tears sparkling in her eyes.
"Shit," Kirsten grumps as her truck, a valiant old campaigner, wheezes its last and coasts to a stop along the curb in a tiny town in western Pennsylvania, completely out of gas. Slamming the steering wheel with one gloved hand, she opens the door and steps out into the cold air, a great deal further from her destination than she’d planned.
The turnpike and vast east-west highways she’d planned to use are almost completely impassible. The news of the uprising had taken the country by sudden storm, and people jumped in their cars with just the clothes on their backs, desperate to flee a hopeless situation.
Some had been murdered where they sat, behind the wheel. Others still had been killed in multi-vehicle pileups or smashed under the wreckage of hurtling semis. She had even passed several hastily erected, and now abandoned, military checkpoints through which ordinary, innocent citizens had been heartlessly mown down by the supposed protectors of their freedom and constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Sickened, the young scientist was forced off the highways and onto secondary roads. Even there, signs of death loomed everywhere, and she had spent hours and hours of precious time skirting around roads blocked by smashed cars and shattered bodies.
Until she reached the outskirts of western Pennsylvania and her truck had finally given up the ghost.
She finds herself in a ghost town the likes of which old Spaghetti Westerns were made. There is no sign of life anywhere she looks, and the air as barren save for a howling wind and the rusted protest of a sign hanging from long chains hooked to the eaves of a roof.
Thompson’s Realty, the sign says. A Great Place to call Home.
"Not anymore," she says, then laughs a little at the poor joke. As if in response, Asimov whines, and she widens the door, beckoning him out.
They both hear the hiss of a startled cat, and before Kirsten can even open her mouth, Asimov is off like a shot, chasing the fleeing feline down the empty street.
"You’d better get your ass back here or I’ll leave without you!" Kirsten shouts, then listens as her words echo off the storefronts that border each side of the street. She waits long enough to realize that her threat has gone unheeded. "Great. Now even my dog doesn’t believe me."
Turning, her ears pick up another sound. It’s one she can’t quite decipher. Her heart gathers speed and, reaching into the open cab of her truck, she grabs her pistol and hauls it out, aiming in the direction of the sound.
The question echoes, and when it finally dies off, the sound, still indecipherable, is still there. Curiosity sets her feet in motion, heading for a staid, brickfaced church sitting on the corner.
Turning the corner, she stops dead, as the source of the noise becomes readily apparent.
A huge cross dominates the church’s lawn, and upon that cross, two bodies hang, one from each arm. Their faces are purple, their tongues and eyes, protruding. Each head is cocked identically, almost comically, lolling from the stalk of a broken neck.
Both wear a cardboard placard around their necks, each bearing the same crudely written phrase.
REPENT!! FOR THE HOUR OF GOD IS AT HAND!!
Turning away from the gruesome sight, her gaze catches the front of the church. The doors, red as barn paint, have been broken inward and lay shattered and crazy-canted in the vestibule. Unable to help herself, she climbs the steps and enters the church itself, then almost reverses her course as the overwhelming stench of death and decay permeates her nostrils and twists her guts into a heaving uproar.
"Dear God. Oh, Jesus."
The church must have, at one time, been filled to capacity. Now all that remains are the men, the very old, and the very young. She doesn’t have to look to know that each body bears at least one bullet hole, adult and child alike.
Bodies are stacked in the aisles and pews like cordwood. These people didn’t die easily.
As she looks up toward the altar, she freezes once again, draw dropping silently open like a trap door at the end of well-oiled hinges.
The Lector, clad in a dark, somber suit, lies draped over the altar, half of his head missing. His stiffened fingers curl inward as if trying to form fists of their own volition. A huge, gold-leafed bible, it’s thin pages dotted with blood, lies open before him. He almost appears to be reading it with the one eye he has left.
But even that isn’t the worst atrocity in this room.
No, that honor belongs to the life-sized cross hanging above the altar. Instead of the requisite figure of the crucified Jesus staring up into the Heavens through sorrowing eyes, the Priest, clad in heavy purple, white and gold vestments, hangs, long nails driven through his wrists and feet.
A crude facsimile of the Crown of Thorns—in actuality some barbed wire from the local hardware store—is pressed upon his bald head, and runnels of dried blood paint his face like ruby tears.
Another sign loops around his neck, this time bearing only one word.
"Oooookay, then. That’s quite enough of this. I think I’d best be going now."
With deliberate steps, Kirsten turns and walks out of the church as quickly as her feet will carry her. Only when she has turned the corner and is out of sight of the two hanging corpses does she stop, one hand pressed to her chest. Her heart thumps crazily against it as if trying to exit through muscle and bone.
Finally, her breathing and heartrate calm, and she chances a look around. The town is as empty, and as silent, as it was when she first entered. This helps to calm her further.
"Alright then, let’s get down to business."
It is well past midnight, and the only light that glows in the fair-sized ranch house comes from the large and roaring fire in the fieldstone fireplace. The electricity and phones are out, but in South Dakota, in winter, that’s almost a given. An unlit oil lantern sits on a low table that boarders a long, low-slung couch.
Koda sits on the couch, one long leg tucked beneath her, the other thrown casually over the stout wooden arm. With steady hands, she works through a fat stack of glossy photos. Some she lingers over, a smile creasing her face. Others she flips quickly past, pain darkening the blue of her eyes.
On the mantle, a brass clock in the shape of a galloping horse ticks, keeping a time that she senses will no longer be needed in this world.
The last in the stack of pictures comes up, and, smiling, she lifts it closer to her face, placing the others down on the rough-hewn coffee table. The photo is of a slim, beautiful Lakota woman, her coal, almond eyes sparkling with love and laughter. Clad in a white, beaded gown, she grins with mischievous intent as her hands, filled with a large piece of cake dripping with frosting, begin to move forward as if to shove said cake into the face of the picture taker.
"Got me good, didn’t ya," Dakota whispers, trailing a gentle thumb over the woman’s grinning features. "I miss you."
Holding the picture to her chest, she unfolds herself and lays full length on the couch, staring into the crackling flames until sleep finally overtakes her.
The sound of trashcans rattling in an alleyway almost causes Kirsten’s heart to leap out of her mouth, and she spins, pointing her gun in the direction of the noise. A slat thin, mangy mutt runs out of the alley, grinning at her, and she comes a hairsbreadth away from blowing it to Kingdom Come, Kentucky.
Seeing her, the dog stops and growls, its hackles raising in spiky tufts over bony shoulders, its teeth white and glimmering.
"Nice doggy. Niiiice doggy."
The dog growls again, dropping low on its haunches and slinking forward.
Kirsten follows its progress with the muzzle of her gun. "Oh, c’mon, pooch, you really don’t want to be doing this."
The dog, apparently, has a different take on the situation.
"Okay, so you do want to be doing this." She waggles her gun. "Trust me, there are easier ways to get some dinner, dog. I bet I don’t even taste that good." She pauses. "Well, figuratively speaking, anyway."
Continuing its advance, the dog gathers its legs underneath itself, muscles tensing, preparing to leap.
"Aw hell," Kirsten sighs, her finger tightening on the trigger.
Before either party can move, a blur of black and silver bisects the invisible line between them, and the dog yelps as it is driven away, rolling several times before it lands on its side, chest aspirating weakly like a bellows running out of air.
"Asimov! It’s about time you showed up!"
Asimov looks over his shoulder, tongue lolling.
"Don’t play innocent with me, you flea-bitten throw rug. Now, if you’re done playing with your little friend there, we need to get moving. It won’t stay light forever, ya know."
Lifting a gigantic paw, Asimov graciously allows his prey to escape, yelping and whining, back into the darkness of the alley from which it came, scrawny tail tucked between its legs.
Sticking the gun into the waistband of her jeans, Kirsten rubs her hands together. "Alright then. First things first. We need to get us some wheels. A van, I think. Will a full gas tank. And keys in the ignition."
Asimov gives her a look.
"Alright, alright. So I’m a little picky. Is that a crime?"
Rolling her eyes, Kirsten moves down the road, away from the church and its gruesome spectacle. Rounding another corner, her eyes light up as she spies a used car lot. Its red, white and blue pennants flicker and flap in the freshening breeze, displaying their wares in a manic frenzy to no one.
She walks slowly along the sidewalk, looking over the selection—what there is of one. The cars are, for the most part, dusty, dented, and gently rusting as they rest on slowly softening and tread-worn tires. The hand lettered signs, once bright and eye-catching, are now faded and cracked under the harsh mercies of the glaring sun and bitter wind.
Asimov looks up at his mistress and whines.
"I know, boy. We’ll find something. Don’t worry."
Turning in at the gate, she makes her way into the lot, stepping over several fallen bodies, resolving not to look.
Cordwood, she thinks to herself. Just cordwood, stacks of it, like the stuff that lays outside the cabin on the Cape, waiting for winter.
Near the back of the lot, there is a service bay, and just outside that service bay is a large, white cargo van which looks to be perfect for her needs. It has a few dents, and the driver’s side rocker panel has seen better decades, but the tires look new, and as long as the battery is well juiced, she thinks she can run with it.
As she steps around to the passenger’s side, she stops cold. The body of a young man, barely out of his teens, lays half in and half out of the van. He was obviously once a detailer, since there is a cloth in one hand and a sponge in the other. If not for the now familiar unnatural cock of his head, she would think that he was just resting; taking a break from what she believes has to be one of the world’s most monotonous jobs. His face is young and handsome in a Midwestern, corn-fed way, and the wind whips his curly blonde hair into a halo around his head.
He should be on a football field somewhere tackling behemoths and scoring cheerleaders.
Her eyes begin to well and she wipes at them savagely, unable to spare the time she’d need to mourn.
Not now. Just keep going. You need to keep it together K, or you’re gonna end up just like him.
Taking in a deep breath, she reaches forward and, as gently as she possibly can, eases the young man from his place inside the van. As soon as he is flat on the ground, she stands up and wipes her hands on the fabric of her jeans, then takes the large step up into the van.
The boy has done his job well. The van is immaculately clean inside, and smells fresh despite housing a corpse for God knows how many days. There are two bench seats, one in front, one behind. The rest of the huge van is completely empty. She looks over at the control panel. Though old, the transmission is automatic, and, best of all, the keys are dangling from the ignition. This brings a smile to her face and she turns to look down at the whining dog waiting just outside. "Asimov, I think we’re in business."
The morning dawns bitterly cold and thankfully clear. Dakota has been up for several hours. Her sturdy knapsack is packed to the brim with clothing and non perishable foodstuffs. The fire is out and the hearth has been swept clean of ashes. Dakota’s breath comes forth in frosty plumes as she walks through the rooms of her home saying a quiet goodbye to things she knows she’ll never see again.
Crossing through the living room, she stops at a door just to the left of the stairs leading up to the loft, and twists the knob, entering into another, large and chilled room.
A flick of the switch, and brilliant fluorescent lights flicker and hum to life, powered by the backup generator seated to the rear of the house. The lights reveal a sterile space in white and chrome. Two examination tables sit side by side, their surfaces sparkling and immaculate. Two walls sport inlaid cabinets upon which a wide variety of surgical instruments rest, covered in sterile wrap. A huge autoclave sits in a corner, silent, cold and dark. Along the third wall are several rows of large, wire kennels, stacked three high, and along the forth, four incubators and one warmer bed rest. All are empty.
As a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitation Specialist, Dakota has spent the majority of her adult life in this room, patiently coaxing warmth, food and life back into injured or abandoned animals native to her home state.
If she listens closely enough, she fancies she can hear the meeps, howls, growls, purrs, and screeching cries of each and every animal she has treated here. She has mourned each death and celebrated each second chance at life that her skills, and luck, have been able to grant. Her sharp eyes scan the room, imprinting each piece of equipment, each warm success, each sad defeat, indelibly to memory.
And then, with a soft sigh, she turns to leave, plunging the room into blackness once again.
Her truck packed and warming, Dakota makes one last trip, plowing through thigh-deep snow to the back of her sprawling ranch. Her horses have been fed and watered and set free to wander, or to stay, as they will. Her house has been raided of all useful items, and only this one thing is left to do before she can begin her trek into the unknown.
The piled stone marker is covered with snow, a fanciful little hillock protruding from an otherwise flat landscape. Bending down, she carefully brushes the snow away until the rocks are uncovered to her gaze.
The front of the cairn is inlaid with a small, stone marker, carved in loving detail. The marker holds three simple words.
Ungloving her left hand, she brushes the very tips of her fingers against the words, eyes dim with remembering. A long moment is passed in this utter silence, until the sun spreads its rays over the barn and highlights the cairn in lines of dazzling gold.
With a slow blink to clear the tears welling in her eyes, Dakota reaches up and twists the simple gold band from her finger. She stares at it, watching as it sparkles in the newborn sunlight, then she tucks it reverently into a seam in the rocks, drawing her fingers over its warmth one last time before withdrawing.
"I’ll never forget you."
She moves through a world gone all to white. White earth, white sky, bare, snow-covered trees. Ice swirls in netted patterns like her grandmother’s best crocheted tablecloth where the steady thump of the windshield wipers does not reach. Her breath makes a white cloud about her in the unheated cabin of her truck.
White is the color of the north. White is the color of death.
Before her the white road lies unmarked. Ten miles from home, and no traffic has passed here since the snowfall stopped just at dawn. The only sign of life is a line of small four-toed prints running along a barbed wire fence line. A fox, moving fast.
Koda’s gloved fingers curl stiffly about the rim of the steering wheel. Her feet, numb despite three pairs of wool and silk socks and the fleece linings of her boots, somehow manage to find the accelerator and the brake as needed. Snow and ice limit her speed, even with the chains. Which, she thinks, is just as well. She cannot afford an accident.
She can’t afford to turn on the heater, either. It is not that she fears sensors or spy satellites. Her truck’s V-8 will show up in the infrared half the size of Mount Rushmore in any case. She has more than enough gas in her double tanks to make the forty miles to Rapid City and back, taking farm-to-market roads like this one to avoid the Interstate, enough to scout the extent of the devastation in this corner of South Dakota. The trouble is that she has no idea if she will be able to buy or scavenge so much as another drop between now and her return.
Take nothing for granted, her father said as she hugged him good-bye. Trust nothing and no one. Come back safe.
The wound in her side aches with the cold. She holds the pain away from her, just as she does the memories of the night before. There will be a time again for rage, a time for mourning. She cannot afford them now.
Twelve miles, and a sign appears on her right, to the north of the road. Standing Buffalo Ranch, home to Paul and Virginia Hurley and their five kids. The welded pipe gate leans open, the cattle guard clotted with snow. There are no tire marks on the narrow road that leads up to the ranch house and barns, out of sight over a low ridge. Koda can just see the spokes of a generator windmill, its three blades and their hub hung with ice. No tire marks, possibly no electricity. No one out doing anything about it.
She swerves the truck into the turnoff, the chains racketing on the metal grill as she crosses the cattle guard. Beside her on the seat, blunt and angular in its functional ugliness, is the Uzi she took from one of the things that killed the MacGregors. If what she has begun to fear is true, she will not need it. Still, it gives her comfort.
Blasting another of the things to atoms would give her more.
How many dead? How many taken?
She has no answers to those questions.
Why? Dear God and all the saints, spirits of my ancestors, why?
She has no answer to that question, either.
Koda does not realize that she has some spark of hope left until she sees the ranch house door swinging open and the snow in the entryway. The point of light, infinitely small as it is, winks out. Gone. Darkness. The white expanse between house and barn is unmarked. Two vehicles are drawn up in the carport. One is Paul Hurley’s Dodge Ram crew cab; the other is an SUV she does not recognize. She pulls up behind them, crosswise, and waits. There is no movement behind the gauzy front curtains, none behind the smaller window near the driveway where a bottle of Dawn dish soap and a long-handled sponge perch on the sill beneath a gingham ruffle. When she thinks she has waited long enough, she waits as long again. Still nothing.
Slowly Koda takes her hands from the steering wheel. She lifts the Uzi from its resting place beside her and slings the strap crosswise over her left shoulder, maneuvering it past the wide brim of her hat. Briefly she checks the magazine. Very carefully, she eases her door open and slithers down and forward to crouch behind the bulk of the still-running engine. There is a moment when she is, blessedly, almost warm with its heat. Then the wind, not strong but straight off six feet of packed snow and ice, reasserts itself, and her feet remind her that she is standing calf-deep more of the same.
Koda whips from behind the truck and runs low and as fast as the snow will let her for the front porch. She comes up short with her back against the wall, her weapon raised. For the first time she hears a sound from within the house, a small dog barking incessantly, somewhere toward the back and up. She eases through the doorframe and into the front hall. Nothing. Beyond is the living room, where a feathery dusting of snow lies across the dark green carpet and a small aquarium holds angelfish, brilliant and ethereal, suspended like jewels in ice. The dining room, separated from the parlor by an open arch, seems in order, Virginia’s proud collection of majolica serving dishes still stately in their place of honor along the sideboard. Only the CD tower lying across the door to the den is out of place, with its flat plastic cases spilled out beside it.
Koda knows what she will find when she enters the room and has braced herself
for it. Paul Hurley is there, still on the couch in front of the television, empty eyes staring at the ceiling with his head bent back against the cushions at a ninety-degree angle. A Budweiser can tilts floorward in his half-open hand. David, youngest of the five children, lies at his feet, an obscene red blossom of blood and torn flesh in the middle of his back. Shotgun. Eddie, older by five years, sprawls in the lounger, neck broken like his father’s, a bag of potato chips still in his lap.
Cold inside now, no longer feeling the frigid air, Koda takes the can from Paul’s hand and attempts gently to move his fingers. Their rigidity tells her what she already knows must be true. When she turns David over, as much not to have to see the terrible hole in his body as to see his face and know for certain that he is David, he slips from her stiff hands and thumps solidly against the television cabinet. Frozen. Frozen cold and dead.
It is a line from a poem from some forgotten moment of her childhood, lifetimes, eons distant from this time and this place. It goes round in her head, over and over, Frozen. Frozen cold and dead. Her own horror is beyond her understanding. She has seen harder deaths, has dissected human bodies as part of her training. Still the line of the poem goes round, as if to keep her mind from worse things.
Frozen. Frozen cold and dead.
The dog’s yapping is louder here in the den. Koda steps carefully around the coffee table and climbs the stairs, setting her feet soundlessly on the treads. The barking grows clearer with each step, higher and more frantic. At the landing, she has a clear view of the master bedroom through the open door. The blue-and-russet log cabin quilt lies undisturbed, forming an angular pattern with the brass bars of Hurleys’ antique bed. In another room, curlers and makeup litter the dresser. Double closets stand open, with girls’ jeans and sweaters strewn over the floor amid broken glass from a framed poster of Britney Spears that tilts crazily against the wall. There are no bodies in the room, despite the clear signs of a struggle.
The yapping comes from behind a third bedroom door, this one closed. As Koda turns the knob and pushes it open, a small furry body flings itself against her knees, alternately panting and barking. She swings the Uzi behind her back, out of the dog’s reach, and hunkers down to soothe the frantic creature, gently rubbing its ears. "There, fella," she croons. "There, baby. It’s all right. I’ve got you. There, there."
As it calms, reassured by her experienced touch and the low monotone of her voice, she ascertains that it is a neutered male Yorkshire terrier, dehydrated and not recently fed. A bedraggled blue bow clinging to a tuft of fur above his eyes matches the polish on his manicured nails. Not a country dog. The tag on his rhinestone-studded collar identifies him as Louie and his mistress as Adele Hurley of Pierre, with address and telephone number.
Which, she notes with an unexpected sense of relief, explains the Suburban.
When she finally enters the room, Louie now quiet at her heels except for a low whine, she finds Adele toppled forward on the rug, the legs of her walker jutting absurdly past her hips. Blood has soaked her short grey hair, stiffened by the freezing cold into scarlet spikes. An elderly man lies half on and half off the bed, his battered skull partly concealed by a fold of the comforter. Clumsy with the bulk of her gloves, Koda removes his billfold from his hip pocket and thumbs through the plasticine card pockets until she finds his driver’s license. He is—he was, she corrects herself--Theodore Hurley, also of Pierre.
Koda knows that Paul’s father is long dead, having attended his funeral three years before. Theodore must have been an uncle.
A search of the rest of the house yields no sign of Virginia or her three adolescent daughters. In the kitchen Koda discovers that the hot tap is dripping and that there is still water from it. Thank you God for propane. She sets about feeding and watering Louie and examining the contents of Virginia’s pantry. As she counts the cans of beans and the Mason jars filled with bright gold and purple preserves, spiced peaches, pickled beets, a shudder creeps over her skin that has nothing to do with the cold. She feels like a ghoul, pawing through the remnants of a woman’s life.
Remnants that will help feed her own family and the refugees gathered in their home. Virginia would not want her good food to go to waste. There will, she tells herself, be no more trips to the Safeway anytime soon.
Koda finds the matches and lights a burner to make herself a cup of the Hurleys’ instant Maxwell House, then lights the oven, leaving it open so the room will warm. She closes the swinging door behind her as she returns upstairs to search the linen cabinet. Five blankets she carries down and sets out on a chair in the den; one, the thickest quilt she can find, she makes into a bed for Louie beside the stove. She is almost comfortable as she sips the dark brew—almost coffee, she thinks wryly-- warming her fingers that seem to be gone all to cold bone against the thick earthenware of the cup. Almost she finds herself smiling as Louie turns twice widdershins and thumps down onto the mounded bedspread with a wheezy sigh, full-bellied and secure for the first time in days. Within seconds he begins to snore.
Promising herself another cup before she leaves, Koda pulls her gloves back on and slogs through the snow to the barn. The doors are closed but not locked. When her eyes accustom themselves to the dim light, she finds a pair of Holstein cows and a heifer huddled together amid the hay, their breath making cloudy weather about them. An Appaloosa turns his head toward her expectantly as she approaches his stall; his quarterhorse stablemate, more impatient, whinnies loudly and stamps. She rubs their noses in turn, speaking softly.
Half an hour later, the cows and horses are fed and watered, the stalls mucked out. In the process of finding and dragging out a sack of feed, Koda has also discovered a dozen red hens and a rooster along a shelf in an empty stall. Now, replete, they are back on their perch, clucking softly, settling down once more. Like Louie, they are as comfortable and safe as she can make them.
Only one thing left to do now.
Koda takes the snow shovel from its place against the barn wall and makes her way to the north side of the house, where the sun, when it comes out, will be slow to melt the drifts, where more fall will pile high. With it she digs a shallow trench, long but narrow, under the eaves. The ground beneath is frozen.
One by one, she brings the dead from the house and lays them in all the grave she can make for them. She expects the children to be the hardest. And while her heart clenches as she wraps their bodies, cold as any stone, and bears them out to their burials, it is the old folk who come nearest to breaking it. They should have died in their beds, at home, their children and grandchildren about them. Wise, content in their passing.
Ate, she promises her father as the silent tears spill from her eyes; Ina, my mother: I will not let you die like this.
Gently Koda drops the snow over the bodies; gently smoothes the surface so that there will be no sign of disturbance with the next fall. She turns to go.
It is too stark; there should be some ceremony, some leave-taking. The Hurleys are Irish Catholic, every man jack and woman of them for four generations all the way back to Ellis Island and a thousand years before that. She cannot find their priest in Rapid City and send him back; it is far too dangerous, even if he is somehow still alive. She will have to do, half-heathen that she is.
She searches her memory for the words, and they come to her, the Church’s prayer for those about to step onto the Blue Road of the spirit. She signs a cross above the snow and murmurs, "Go forth, Christian souls, out of this world: in the name of the Father, who has created you; in the name of the Son, who has redeemed you; in the name of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies you. Into Paradise may the angels lead you; at your coming may the martyrs receive you, and lead you into the Holy City, Jerusalem. Amen."
Koda stands a moment more by the grave, head bowed in respect. Then she turns once again to the care of the living.
Back in the house, the second and not nearly so satisfying cup of not-quite-coffee in her hand, Koda wrestles briefly with herself whether to leave the oven on for Louie. She opts for safety and her mother’s training in the end, turns it off, ruffles the sleeping dog’s ears a last time, and returns to her truck. As she swings back out of the driveway, she thumbs her CB on. "Tacoma. Tacoma, come in."
"Hey, Koda! You comin’ home already? You got a flat? You need me to come help you?"
"Hey yourself, bro. We’ve been there, done that. Mom and Dad need you at home."
"Yeah, sure." A whole world of adolescent male discouragement is loaded onto the two words.
Virginia. Charleston. Koda’s hand clenches on the mike. I won’t let that happen to you either, little brother. Not while I live. But she says, steadily, "Is Dad around? Phoenix?"
"I’ll get ‘em. Hang on."
It is Phoenix who takes the call. "Dad’s out in the barn. What’s up?"
Guardedly, Koda describes what she has found at the Hurley ranch. "It’s the same pattern. Paul and the boys are dead. So are an elderly couple I think were his aunt and uncle. The girls and Virginia are missing. Soon as you can, you and Dad need to come get the food out of the pantry and take the livestock, including a small shaggy dog named Louie."
"Louie?" There is laughter in Phoenix’s voice.
"Yeah, Louie. Mom’ll like him. There are trailers here; you just need to bring the trucks."
"And listen. Nobody’s been here since they were killed. If you see more tracks than mine, one set coming and another set going—
"Gotcha again," he interrupted her. "We’ll be careful. You do the same."
"Later," he echoes, and breaks the connection.
Kirsten pulls along the drop off curb in front of the Shop ‘n Go Market. Jumping out of the van, she walks to the back and opens the large cargo doors, displaying an interior which now has a number of five and ten gallon gas cans, filled to the brim with fuel. Gas had taken her awhile to get, given that without any electricity to power the pumps, she had to resort to siphoning, which left her nauseous and with the foul taste of gasoline in her mouth.
Asimov whines at her from the rear bench seat and she looks at him. "You stay here and guard the truck, boy. No chasing cats, or dogs, or rats, or whatever else strikes your fancy. You just stay here, alright? I’ll be back in a little while."
The large dog whines again, but finally settles down, propping his big head on the top of the seat and looking at her through soulful brown eyes.
"Not this time, boy. I’m sorry, but I need to move quick and not be chasing you around the store. We’ll be on the road soon, I promise."
With a long suffering sigh that would do a Jewish mother proud, Asimov seems to accept his mistress’ terms and drops his head off the seat, stretching his body along the back in preparation for a nap.
Nodding in satisfaction, Kirsten steps away from the van and walks toward the wide glass doors of the supermarket. Engaged in her thoughts, she doesn’t stop until forced to do so by a thick sheet of glass pressed tight against her body. Stunned, she takes a step back and stares at the door for a moment, perplexed.
Then she utters a shaky laugh and mentally slaps her head. Without electricity, the automatic doors have become as useful as a flag to a hen. Stepping forward, more cautiously this time as though the doors might suddenly grow fangs and attempt to bite, she wraps a hand around the small handle and pulls. It takes most of her strength, but she manages to bully the door open wide enough to slip through.
And steps immediately back outside again as the high, sweet stench of decaying food and rotting human assaults her senses for the second time that afternoon. It’s a good thing that her stomach is filled with nothing but hunger, or she would be adding to the stench.
Wiping heavily watering eyes with both hands, she takes a few deep breaths of cold, outside air and contemplates her options.
There aren’t many. The next store down is a SavMor Pharmacy, but unless she plans to spend the rest of her time on the road subsisting on cheese crackers washed down by swigs of cherry-flavored laxative, the grocery store is the only game in town.
Reaching into her back pocket, she pulls out a gray bandana, flaps it out, and ties it securely around her nose and mouth. It won’t do much, she’s quite sure, but it’s better than nothing.
Girding her figurative loins, she steps back to the door and once again bullies it open by main strength. Her stomach immediately twists and growls out its outrage as the stench assaults her senses anew, but she silently commands it to shut up, and takes a step forward into the store.
Her gaze is immediately drawn upwards by a large, bright sign that catches the rays of the slowly dying sun.
Wednesdays are Senior Days at Shop ‘n Go! Golden age discounts for our golden age members!
Without looking down, she mentally calculates the days, and a grimace spreads hidden over her face as she realizes that today is Friday. Finally allowing her gaze to lower, she finds herself in the middle of an abattoir.
Elderly men and women had heeded the sign and died in droves. They are scattered through the aisles like fallen trees, still dressed in their Sunday best. A smattering of younger people, mostly adolescent boys and a couple of grown men, lay sprawled out by the cash registers and the manager’s booth. The enemy had caught them unaware and they’d never had time to defend themselves, not that they could have against their inhuman murderers.
The lights flicker and hum, dimming and brightening in a pulsing rhythm courtesy of the backup generator that is obviously breathing its last.
The aisles are so tightly packed with corpses that she’ll never get a cart down any of them. Resigning herself, she grabs two hand baskets and carefully makes her way over and around the dead, searching for what she’ll need to survive the long trip she has ahead of her.
An hour, and five trips later, she’s finally done. Canned goods, dog food, the few fresh vegetables and fruits she could find, water by the gallon, and several butane stoves she found in the clearance aisle share space with the gas cans in the van’s large cargo hold. A quick trip to the neighboring pharmacy, not nearly as crowded with rotting corpses, yielded first aid items, personal care items, and enough narcotics to land her in jail, had there been anyone around to arrest her.
She thinks for a moment, then steps into the cargo hold, grabbing her backpack and pulling out a fresh set of clothes. The ones she’s wearing reek of death and decay, and once she’s stripped them off—wishing mightily for a bath—she tosses them onto the pavement of the lot never to be used again.
Jumping out of the van, she closes the cargo doors, locks them against accidental opening, and returns to the driver’s seat. Asimov wakes up from his nap and jumps into the front seat beside her. Smiling and ruffling his ears, she tosses him a chew-hoof she picked up in the market, starts the ignition, and drives quickly away from the small town, leaving it deserted of the living once again.
She returns to a world of undisturbed whiteness. There has been no further snowfall, but neither has any melted. The flat white stretches away in all directions, broken only by fence posts jutting through the drifts at intervals. Icicles hang from barbed wire strung between like Christmas tinsel. The blank sky offers no light, casts no shadows. It is a world of the dead, for the dead.
For the first time, Koda is grateful for the miserable cold. Without it, without the growl of the powerful engine under her truck’s hood, her senses would have nothing to cling to. She has lived on the northern plains all her life, has lived with the winters that come sliding down over open country from the blue pack ice of the Arctic Circle. She has driven snowy roads in the depths of January, when, like now, her truck has been the only moving thing besides the howling wind.
This is different.
She is a woman on whom solitude rests easily. This is not solitude. This is isolation from the very idea of life.
Koda strikes the rim of the steering wheel with the flat of her hand, hard. Damn. Damn again. She hates being helpless before a disaster she does not understand, cannot quite piece together. All right, Rivers. Break it down and sort it out. Treat it as an epidemic. Find patient zero, chart the spread.
She knows her data set is incomplete, but the basic pattern has held true for the MacGregors, for the Hurleys and for all the survivors who have managed to make it to a CB.
Item. The uprising seems to be spread at least across North America. She does not know what has happened in Europe or Africa, Asia or South America. It is fairly obvious that less technologically oriented cultures are likely to have more survivors. At least temporarily.
Item. In all cases the men and boys have been slaughtered, together with the older women. Girls and younger women have disappeared.
Item. Two thousand years ago, the pattern would have been familiar. Kill the men, rape the women, sell the virgin girls as slaves.
Which makes no sense.
Foreign attack? South Dakota has been riddled for decades with nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. So has North Dakota. The prospect of mutual assured destruction has kept them in their silos. Could the Defense Department codes have fallen into enemy hands? And if so, which enemy?
And if so, why now?
Abruptly she brakes the truck. There, cut deep in the snow ahead of her, are the tracks of another vehicle. She studies the marks carefully. Wide body. Wide, heavy tires, heavily chained. The asphalt shows through in places where the links have bitten through the ice. A truck of some kind, possibly heavily loaded.
She gets out of the pickup, Uzi slung again over her shoulder. Slowly, she walks up the road between the ruts but sees nothing that can tell her more. No conveniently dropped candy wrappers, no cigarette butts, no beer cans, nothing to tell her whether the occupants of the other truck are human or not. When she has gone a couple hundred yards she gives it up and turns back.
She scans the flat landscape in all directions. White drifts, bare trees, the dark lines of fences. In the field to her left, there are humps in the snow that may be hay bales or frozen cattle. Most of her route into Rapid City will be through open country like this. She is a little more than five miles north of Elm Creek. There is a bridge.
The snow lies too deep for her to cut across country. The next intersection with another road is on the other side of that bridge.
She can turn around, or she can go on.
No choice. Back behind the wheel of the pickup, Koda pulls the fleece-lined leather glove off her right hand. Underneath it is another of knitted wool; below that a silk mitt. She turns the key in the ignition, then drives with her left hand. The right rests on the freezing metal grip of the Uzi in her lap.
A mile along she sees the first living thing that has crossed her path since she set out. Far out in a rolling meadow to her left, just this side of a line of trees, there is a spill of black across the snow. It moves, separates, shifts again. Ravens. Her gaze follows the line of the rise. There, high above, another bird soars with its wings held in a shallow V. Its form is black against the sky; in the poor light all she can see is a silhouette. Raptor. Not an owl. Not a falcon by the shape of the wings. Hawk or eagle, then.
The sight warms her slightly from within. She is not quite sure why, except that she is pleased to see other living things in this barren landscape. Going about their lives, unaffected by the disaster that has overtaken their two-legged relations. As she watches, the bird banks and turns south, moving toward the creek, and disappears from sight.
A half mile from the bridge, she is still following the tracks of the unknown vehicle. The road curves here, a long, slow, shallow arc that passes through a stand of lodgepole pine and will put her onto a straight stretch no more than a couple hundred yards from the creek. If there is danger, it will be here.
It is waiting for her at the bridge.
A cold stillness spreads around her heart as Koda takes in the blockade. Two troop-carrier trucks are drawn up across the road, blocking the bridge. Four figures in military green winter fatigues stand in front of them, three of them with M-1’s held ready, the fourth with a mobile launcher on its shoulder and a bandolier of grenades strung across its chest. Even beneath the bulky clothing, she can make out the bulge of pistols at their belts. In her rear view mirror, she sees two more muffled and heavily armed figures step out of the trees and take up position behind her.
There is no hope of driving around them and through the creek. It is too deep at this point, the banks too steep. Koda brakes the pickup halfway between the woods and the barricade. She waits
One of the figures has a bullhorn. The voice that comes through has no human tone, only the flat, tinny quality of the amplifier. "You in the truck. Get out slowly with your hands on top of your head.!"
There are three possibilities. These soldiers may be not be human. They may be marauders set loose by the spreading chaos. Or they may be what they seem.
Deliberately, keeping her right hand in full view through the windshield, Koda slides out, placing both hands firmly on the crown of her Stetson and keeping the door between herself and the soldiers.
"Stand clear of the vehicle!"
Koda hesitates for a heartbeat. Once she is in the open, the Uzi will be in full view. She calculates the odds that she can reach it and take a few of these bastards, if bastards they are, with her before they shoot her down.
Another of the figures steps forward, arm raised. There is a grenade in its hand. "Stand clear NOW!"
The voice is female, deep and furry in the way of the Louisiana bayous. Almost certainly it belongs to a human. Between the soldier’s cap and the high collar that conceals most of her face, Koda can just make out the glint of dark eyes. Warily, stepping sideways, she comes out from behind the door.
She shouts, "You guys wanna introduce yourselves?" just as one exclaims, "Shit! He has a gun!"
The figure with the grenade takes a step forward. "Keep your hands away from your weapon!"
"They are away! Who the fuck are you?"
"We’re the free people of the United States! Take your left hand off your head and unbutton your coat and shirt! Let us see your throat!"
"Do it! Or I’ll frag your truck and incinerate you along with it!"
Non-negotiable. No more time to decide.
The woman brings her hands forward to pull the pin. Before she can reach it, a hawk plunges toward her out of the sky, screaming. It hurtles downward to within inches of her face, pulling up nanoseconds short of collision, talons outstretched to strike. Then it shoots upward again at an almost vertical angle. The woman yells, recoils , waivers and topples backward into the snow, the grenade disappearing somewhere in the drift.
Laughter catches in Koda’s throat as one of the other soldiers raises a gun to shoot at the bird. "No!" she shouts, pulling furiously at the collar of her coat with her right hand, raising her left in a fist. She whistles loud, piercingly. "Wiyo! Wiyo Cetan!"
She whistles three times. At the third, the hawk hovers briefly at her zenith, then stoops again, making straight for Koda. Koda whistles a fourth time, at a lower pitch, and the hawk’s body swings forward. Great wings backing air, it comes to light gently, almost delicately, on her fist. Then, mantling and hissing at the dumbstruck soldiers, it sidesteps its way up her arm to her shoulder. One of its wings strikes Koda’s hat, knocking it off her head, and her hair comes tumbling down. The hawk settles, glaring.
The leader has regained her feet. A wide grin splits her dark face as she opens her own collar, showing unmarked human flesh. "Colonel Margaret Allen, United States Air Force. Pleased to meet you."
"Dakota Rivers. Lakota Nation."
The Colonel offers her hand to shake, and Koda takes it. "You a vet?"
"I saw your license plate." Koda follows her gaze back to her truck, where the registration numbers are split by a caduceus overlaying a V. "Figured you were human, but we’re not taking any chances."
"You from the base?"
The Colonel grimaces. "What’s left of it." Then, "What are you doing out on the road? You have people in the city?"
Koda shakes her head. "Scouting."
"With a hawk? That’s a red-tail, isn’t it?"
"Not it. She."
Another of the soldiers has gotten himself sufficiently together to approach. Koda stares at him. He is the first living man she has seen in three days who is not her kin. Her right hand drops to her waist, near the Uzi. He follows her gaze, then opens the throat of his coat.. "I’m real, too. August Schimmel. That’s a hell of a pet you’ve got there."
Wiyo mantles again, and Koda smiles. It is not a particularly reassuring smile. "Not a pet. A friend."
Colonel Allen bends down and retrieves Koda’s hat, hands it to her. "Come on over to one of the carriers where it’s warm. We need to talk."
Koda nods. As she follows the other woman toward the dark olive trucks, Wiyo leaves her shoulder with a hiss and rises to settle in a bare sycamore by the bridge. The small flicker of hope that had gone out when she found the Hurleys massacred rekindles itself in a far corner of Koda’s mind. There are other people alive, and fighting. She is not alone.
And that ends this week’s episode of The Growing. We hope you are enjoying. If you feel moved to do so, please drop us a line at email@example.com and let us know! Thanks and see you next week!
Continued - Chapter 3
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