It was easier to leave than I had thought it would be now that I had found some of my family alive. I didn’t say easy … just easier than I expected it to be. Dart was a surprise. He’d been one of the ones hardest on me but maybe looking back it wasn’t so much that he was hard on me as we had nothing in common including our ages and nothing to bridge the gap. And I was different and could be defensive because of it. I’m not saying that Dart was blameless … but maybe I wasn’t either. It takes two to build a relationship and sometimes a bridge for them to meet on. Perhaps time and this catastrophe had finally built that bridge for Dart and I … and time for us to both grow up fully. Dart might have been Thor’s age but Dad always complained the Aunt Belle refused to cut the umbilical cord.
Cellie … well Cellie was Cellie, still the princess Celeste, but she did seem to be a little different than before; just not as different as Dart appeared to be. And poor Edgard … I put him on my prayer list and knew he’d be there for a long time to come.
Aunt Belle for her part made me promise to come back if something happened and we couldn’t live at the farm. “You probably couldn’t make it back before spring anyway and by then they’ll ease up on things around here. And if you don’t need to come back, just as soon as we can get communications set back up I want you to send us word and let us know you are all right. Buck would never forgive me if we didn’t keep up with each other.” I loved my aunt but I took my dad’s warning to heart: he used to say it was a whole lot easier to love some folks when you didn’t have to live with them.
A few more familial kisses and hugs later and we were off into the early morning sun heading east out of Ewing. We bypassed Rose Hill as we’d been warned they were even more protective of their city limits than Ewing and then stopped in Cedar Hill for the evening. The population was sparse and not particularly friendly so we avoided contact. We camped behind a windbreak of trees and bushes and then got up early the next morning to warm up after a windy, chilly night. Collier Mill was as far as we got the next day but the day after that we managed to make fifteen miles and get all the way to Duffield.
That night, doing a pretty fair imitation of Thor’s growl, I told him, “I could walk faster than we’re riding. This is why I originally meant to just hike up the AT.”
“We could ditch the wagon but it seems a shame to after having brought it this far.” I know he was joshing me but I wasn’t in the mood to take it well.
I rolled my eyes, “You know doggone good and well I’m just complaining.”
He gave me a smirk and said, “And you know doggone good and well I’m just giving you what your complaints are worth.”
That brought on a tussle that ended with us both wishing the miles away. Thor stretched out on the bed we’d made for ourselves and asked, “Feel better?”
A little embarrassed by the fact that I did I told him, “Yeah, but I don’t guess it is very feminine of me to admit it.”
“Why? Because you needed to burn off some energy? What’s wrong with that? I’m not too fond of these calluses on our hindquarters we’re developing either. But the wagon was a good idea. We never could have carried enough supplies to get us through or taken advantage of some of the situations we’ve found ourselves in. Besides, what’s done is done and we’ve got bigger fish to fry in the coming days.” As ever, Thor was more practical than emotional.
I nodded. The next day we hoped to make it to Weber City but that was a good eighteen miles. On the plus side it was on a good highway. On the negative side it was on a good highway. Not only that but we’d be passing by Clinchport and then traveling parallel to at least one major railroad line, passing through Gate City which was a good sized city and then hopefully would make it through Weber City that was also a good sized city. Neither one of us was too happy about the route but there were few alternatives and all of them worse.
It wasn’t as bad as we feared but it wasn’t great either. We did have a few run-ins but generally we were left alone once we made out how armed we were more obvious to the casual observer. However that left us open to the suspicion of the townspeople and officials that we passed in more organized areas. We got hassled a few times from people who were just scared of us but were generally just encouraged to move along faster. We were welcomed no where it seemed, yet we were willing to pay a fair price for a place to park and set up camp. We were exhausted and travelling on the Bristol Highway before we found an abandoned dairy barn that we could camp in that we didn’t have to share with a number of other travelers.
We didn’t unpack much, just enough for me to grill the snake we had caught in the barn. Snake has never been my favorite as there are a lot of tiny bones you have to deal with but this was a big boa of all things; probably someone’s escaped pet living fat and sassy on the varmints that inhabit abandoned buildings. It wouldn’t have survived the winter so I didn't feel the least bad about turning it into dinner.
Turning the pieces of breaded meat in the skillet for me while I found a dry pair of socks Thor said in a tired voice, “It’ll be October tomorrow.”
Back when I had first started I had had no idea it would take me this long to get home and we were still looking at another sixty miles ahead of us. “You’re going to tell me we need to give the horses a rest.”
Thor signed and nodded. “Yeah, but not here. Before Bristol but definitely not here,” he said in disgust at the lingering slaughterhouse smell all around us. Something or someone had used the barn to deal with the carcasses of the cattle; the chains and ropes … and bits of cow … still hung from the rafters in one corner.
I was glad to escape the next morning and even happier when my clothes and hair had gotten rid of the last clinging traces of scent from that place. We lucked out and we found a tidy little hole to hide in just outside of Shelleys. I had worried at first we wouldn't make it that far as a light, cold rain had started to fall about two in the afternoon. Thor pointed to an overgrown driveway and we decided to take a chance. If there was anyone there we’d offer good coin for a night in a barn but it was obvious that the house had been abandoned for weeks if not months or longer. Upon closer inspection it appeared to be some kind of rental cabin.
As we set up for the night Thor asked, “You sure the horses are going to be OK in the garage?”
I laughed. “Thor, it’s out of the rain. It has a floor that used to be gravel but is mostly dirt at this point. I threw down as much of that tall grass as I could before it got dark and I’ll freshen it tomorrow when I muck things out. I’ll picket them outside tomorrow unless it keeps raining and if it does they’ll appreciate the garage even more. We on the other hand don’t have to worry about them being set on by wild animals or by horse thieves since we barred the back door and disconnected the wires on the garage door handle. And we can throw our bedding down on the floor here and sleep in front of the hearth. The fireplace has good draw so we aren’t going to suffocate. You’ve just turned feral is all and gotten used to sleeping outside.”
He finally nodded, “It is some different to be sleeping in a real house.”
“Better get used to it. When we get to the farm it is going to be a while before I hanker to be sleeping under the stars again. Surely a mattress appeals to you.”
He gave a belly laugh, “Hon, it’s not the mattress that appeals to me.”
I shook my head and said, “Oh you!” He laughed at my bright red face and then we cleaned up and enjoyed being toasty warm on a cold and rainy night.
The next morning I looked outside and realized it was still raining. Thor came up behind me and looked out over my shoulder. I told him, “A few degrees colder and I’d be worried about snow or ice.”
“Glad we brought up that big limb and put it on the back porch,” he mumbled.
“There’s a woodshed out back. There isn’t much in there but it’s dry and that should be all we need. Since my gear is more waterproof than yours I’ll go out and start bringing it in just in case it turns cooler.”
We spent the rest of that day cleaning our weapons, cleaning our bodies, and cleaning our under things. Because of the dampness in the air it took all day for the clothes to dry but it was worth the work and the wait. I also rearranged the wagon contents, moving the weight around to make it easier on the horses as I knew some steep grades were ahead of us.
The rain finally let up in the afternoon but it was too late to do any hunting. As a result we ate some cans of soup that I’d been saving for just such an eventuality. Chicken noodle soup wasn’t exactly haute cuisine but it filled the empty spaces and clean up was easy. I made some corn pone since I didn’t have any crackers and I rounded the meal out with a couple of the last apples which I baked on the coals of the fireplace.
All the while I did this my mind kept making lists, reviewing the route we had chosen for possible short cuts, and trying to avoid thinking about Uncle Bentley and what he had done.
“Why the long face?” Thor asked.
Not ready to bring up Uncle Bentley’s place in my thoughts I told him, “The later it gets the less likely the orchard is going to have anything left in it worth picking.”
“You’re worrying again.”
I nodded, “It’s getting to the point there is something to worry about. It’s getting cold early this year. We aren’t going to see anything from a garden until late spring at best. Even if the farm hasn’t been vandalized by man or beastie the winter is going to be hard. I know for a fact there isn’t enough wood and that is something that is going to have to be addressed right away. A big concern is I don’t know if the house is livable. The cabin should be but it isn’t as well insulated as the house is; there are some repairs that Dad let go since the grandmothers weren’t living there anymore. If it gets really bad we can move down to the basement of the house assuming there is no structural problem; there is a wood stove down there but that still means I have to get chopping as soon as we get there. And …”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Thor asked mildly.
I admitted, “Probably which is something else that worries me.”
Thor shook his head. “You keep saying all these things you’ll need to do. The word you’re looking for Hon is ‘us’. We’ll chop the wood and we’ll manage everything else … together. Maybe I have forgotten what living in snow is like but I remember enough not to be completely helpless.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh, Thor I didn’t mean it that way. I …” I stopped not sure where I was going with it.
“It won’t be like you remember it Hon. There’s no way. And I admit there is a lot of work ahead of us. For one we’ll likely need to barter … or even pay … for new livestock ‘cause I can’t imagine that yours survived that long on their own.”
I sighed, “The chickens were on an automatic feeder but I hate to think of what the poor dust mops went through. The two cows were sent for stud services at the local dairy so at least I can hope we’ll get them back. We stopped keeping last year hogs when Dad and I were able to get all of our pork hunting feral ones … it saved on feed. I was also going away to school – or that’s what they kept telling me – so they were trying to downsize their workload. The ducks and geese would most likely have fended for themselves but may have gone wild by now or been picked off by predators. I stopped keeping rabbits last year because I didn’t have time to take care of them properly. We released the last two batches of quail before we left. The barn cats … Oh Lord, they probably went after the chickens if they couldn’t keep fed on mice and tree rats. Mom’s old dog died last Thanksgiving and she refused to get another one but …” I stopped and looked at Thor who was listening politely. Then I snorted. “You know, instead of letting me run off at the mouth like a crazy person you could shut me up with a kiss.”
“Good idea,” he muttered while he obliged me.
It was just a distraction and we both knew it. That night I continued to make lists in my sleep and woke up even more tired than when I had gone to bed. I rarely drank coffee but I did that morning, heavily sugared and creamed with the powdered stuff, but Thor was nice enough not to mention it.
As we packed the last of our bedding away Thor told me, “I was looking at the map yesterday.”
“There is a way around Bristol.”
He just looked at me.
I told him, “All right. I understand. It’ll help us avoid the Interstate as well.”
After a moment Thor said, “That was easier than I thought it was going to be.”
“Look, I understand, OK?” I stood there looking at him. “No, I’m not happy about adding time to the trip but … I’m with you. Better to avoid Bristol and the Interstate.”
By taking parallel secondary roads we’d stay off the interstate and not have to worry about clogs, back tracking, or anything like that. We’d also avoid the more obvious travel routes which would mean – hypothetically – avoiding more people. We got to Burson Place that night but it was a hard, cold twelve miles.
I could feel people watching us every so often but it didn’t feel antagonistic, more like I’ll-leave-you-alone-if-you-leave-me-alone. That told me that there’d been trouble in the area at some point and everyone was being protective of what they had but hadn’t descended to the level of striking first and asking questions later. That night we stayed in Rust Hollow. We had only gone nine miles that day and could have easily made Fractionville or even Abingdon. We stopped early to prepare ourselves for any possible trouble getting through that area which there was no way to get around if we wanted to pick up the Jeb Stuart Highway which is what we needed to get to Damascus.
“Less than twenty miles and you can show me this Promised Land of yours we’ve been heading towards.” Thor was joking but not in a unkind way as we both sipped hot cider to warm up after a light mist had dampened the camp.
“What if I’m wrong? What if something’s happened and the farm is uninhabitable?”
“Trying to jinx us?”
I shook my head and all but cussed when my hair fell down again. “No, of course not. Datburn these ol’ hair bands. All the elastic is gone out of the ones that haven’t just out and out broke. When I shaved off my hair I never realized what a pain it was going to be to grow it back out.”
Thor gave me the puppy dog face and asked, “But you’ll do it right? You’ll grow it back out?”
“Honestly, men are so strange about long hair.” Shaking my head at his goofiness I told him, “Yes, I’ll grow it back out. I’m just being cranky.”
“And worrying too much. People around the world live in houses that aren’t much better than cardboard boxes and sheets of scrap metal.”
I interrupted to tell him, “Not in places where it snows they don’t.”
“I’m beginning to get the distinct notion that you don’t like cold weather, or maybe it’s just snow you don’t like.”
“I like both just fine … just so long as I have some place warm to come in out of it. And you’ll appreciate that too as soon as the novelty of it has worn off. And in case you haven’t noticed I’ve lost some of my padding so it is harder to stay warm.”
He inched closer to me and said, “Oh I’ve noticed, but you’re still padded in the right places.”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed. “Well, you won’t have to put up with waiting much longer. I made a promise to you … and me … when we get to the farm … well, you know.”
He got suddenly serious. “Rochelle, I’m not going to jump on you just as soon as we set foot on the place. I promised you a day of fun and some celebration, a day you can look back on when we turn old and gray. If that means waiting a little longer …”
He always caught me off guard when he turned all sweet and romantic. I wasn’t really worried about that part at all and was as eager as he was – or close to it – I just wanted to make sure that all my talk of the farm wasn’t just that … talk.
The next morning barely dawned. The sky was dreary and the wind tried to suck the warmth right out of us. The horses were cantankerous, having objected to leaving the protective shelter of the large metal storage shed had found to sleep in.
Abingdon was a mess. While being built around Interstate had once given it life had proven to be its death. I briefly wondered about my mother’s family but knew that since I didn’t really know where they lived it made no logical sense to hunt for them in the mess that was left of the city. There were a lot of detours to get around debris that had never been cleaned up. We could hear people off in the distance in all directions but they sounded more like a bunch of kids out playing than adults doing anything constructive.
Thor rode beside me and whispered, “Hopefully this wind is masking any sound we are making or it carries it away so people can’t casually track us.”
Nodding I responded, “This is bad. Look how picked over everything looks. And the insides of most of these buildings have seen weather damage too. There’s glass all over the place still. No one has made any effort to clean things up. Either the city has been completely abandoned or things are still so disorganized I’m not sure I would want to meet any survivors.”
Thor’s answering nod was silent. We were both thankful to leave Abingdon but it wasn’t without some effort. The I81 overpass had fallen across the route we needed and getting around it was a test of man, beast, and everyone’s patience. It was late when we pulled into Drowning Ford after a fourteen mile day.
“I suppose,” Thor started. “That we could have stopped back in Bethel or Osceola but I didn’t like the looks of the people that offered to let us pay for a place to stay for the night.”
“They didn’t sound like locals.” When Thor raised an eyebrow I explained, “Yeah, they were from the south, probably even Virginia, but it wasn’t a local accent … a mountain accent. Maybe from Virginia Beach or Richmond. They just seemed to have too much city in them.”
That gave Thor a chuckle. The farmer that we had eventually run into – nearly for real as his wagon had tipped on the other side of a blind corner – offered to let us bed down in his family’s spare room but we told him we’d just as soon stay with the horses though we appreciated his offer and didn’t want to offend him.
“Well, in your shoes I’d probably feel the same way. From Damascus you say? Ain’t heard a peep out of the place since the government closed the highway down.”
“They closed the Jeb Stuart down?!” I squeaked.
“Aw yeah, and you should have heard the commotion over it. But then the power went and people got more concerned with filling their bellies than filling their quota of gossip.”
The glass of milk the farmer’s wife gave me the next morning was the first real whole milk I’d had for a long time. Even when we were back at the Chuckri family the milk had had all of the cream skimmed out of it.
I licked my lips and said, “That was so good. Thank you.”
The round and happy natured woman laughed and said, “Well I’m glad you liked it. You came on a good day. I have enough butter to last for a while and Herbert says he’s full up to here with cheese so I decided to just leave the milk whole today. The grandkids will get the rest when they get here tonight.”
At my look of polite interest she said, “Our daughter is going to move back home. One, Herbert can use her husband’s help and two, their place just is too drafty. They had one of them new fangled propane set ups put in but they haven’t been able to get their tank filled. Our place may be nothing but an old farmhouse but it is nice and tight and we have a wood stove in addition to the three fireplaces. Lots of kids moving back home around here … assuming … well, lots of people just haven’t heard from their families. We’ve got a prayer list at the church that covers an entire wall in the sanctuary.”
Thor left some silver in their sugar bowl despite their protests that they hadn’t been out anything since we’d stayed in the barn but the safety and kindness was worth more to us than the silver even began to touch.
“People like that give me hope.” It wasn’t me that said it but Thor.
“I hope they can make it through the winter. If they can they seemed like the sort of folks that can survive whatever comes next for this country.”
Thor asked, “Have you noticed how the world has gotten smaller?”
The was over my head and I gave him a blank look. He explained, “Not too many people have mentioned the rest of the world. They haven’t asked if we’d heard anything about it nor said they knew anything about it. It’s almost as if nothing outside of their little farm or little towns … their little lives … exists or has any meaning for them anymore.”
I nodded, “I guess when you put it that way. We’ve been nearly all across this country together and I haven’t heard much myself. It’s almost like walls have been thrown up.”
“I’m wondering if it isn’t more than that,” Thor said, biting his the ends of his mustache like he did when he was in really deep thought.
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it. Would the greenies – or even the Twelvers – have stopped with just attacking this country if they were trying to bring about the end of the world? Or should I say the end of the human world? If it had only been the US then other countries would have come in and either stripped the resources to satisfy the loans they’d made, or to get some type of retribution for some imagined ill. I honestly have a hard time believing that we haven’t seen or at least heard of any dirty bombs or nuclear blasts occurring. No one has talked about seeing planes, not even drones, surveying the damage to the country’s infrastructure.”
“Well, that’s because of the EMP.”
He shook his head. “Hon, one EMP is not going to take out the entire world. If it wasn’t exploded in the exactly right spot one bomb wouldn’t even take out the entire country, it sure as heck wouldn’t have reached Europe or Asia. Given the extent of the damage from the burst in this country I suspect either two bombs detonated at an altitude of about 120 miles or one detonated at about 300 miles. One at 300 miles would affect all the way into Canada and down into Mexico – theoretically anyway – but that is still just North America. We should have still seen some type of incursions from other countries if they were unaffected by the EMP.”
Being with Thor everyday it was easy for me to forget he wasn’t just a regular guy, that his job used to involved stuff I’d probably never even thought about. “OK, then what’s your theory?”
“I’m working on a couple but none of them are pretty.”
Before lunch time we were pulling into Damascus and all I could do was sit on the wagon seat while tears fell down my face.