“You don’t know who to call even if you fix it.”
Jonathan Harmon, M.D. flinched at the sound of his wife’s voice echoing loudly across the dim, carpetless living room. He put a hand to his chest, trying to get his breath back.
John smiled at her, thinking she had finally gained a little weight in the month they’d spent hiding in their home together. Anne was probably half of his 240 lbs, with hair still mostly brown instead of his salt and pepper. She looked good for 58. He hadn’t been as lucky.
“You did that a’purpose,” he accused with a grin in his voice.
Anne nodded, brown eyes twinkling above fine age lines, as she set the large afghan she was knitting on the recliner’s matching brown end table. “I had to. You look so sad.”
John turned back to the only window in their large, two-story farm house that they hadn’t covered in layers of thick plastic. Stalling, he took off his glasses and laid them on the cord he really didn’t know how to repair, aged blue eyes frowning at the Discovery Channel special going on in their muddy front yard.
Their neighbor’s dog had collapsed and died near the barn yesterday. The Collie’s beautiful coat was bloody from what was probably a gunshot, the carcass now a carpet of swarming, mutated ants, with bloated bodies twitching in effort and obvious communication as they struggled to move the food.
Backdropped by a view of the Rocky Mountains that was now hazy from the layer of grit in the darkening sky, the foraging ants were each the size of a quarter. The biggest he had seen around here yet, their bodies were constantly changing from all the radiation and chemicals they were ingesting from the carrion. All nests were getting regular doses of contaminated miracle-grow now and John hated to think about what it was doing to the snakes and spiders. Once Nature finished cleaning up, leaving only bones, these predators would move on to other food sources - like people - and though only time would tell, he was sure their bites would be poisonous.
The final waves of radiation sickness would be the next in a long line of dangerous viruses to mutate, but it would make smallpox and bird flu seem minor in comparison. The death toll from this man-made hell wouldn’t end for a century or more.
His eyes looked over rangeland covered in prairie grass that was permanently bent from the wind’s onslaught, fields ready for a planting season that would never come. Everything had changed. It had been 38 years since he and Anne were in the army, medics at the same MASH unit in Vietnam, but he had to remember what had kept him alive back then, so they could use it now.
“We need to pack up and go. The weather’s not as bad now that almost two months have passed. We’ve cleaned out the reserves we had.”
John didn’t look over, but was sure he had caught her off guard with his words. He didn’t know yet where they would end up, or if they would even be able to make the trip. It definitely wouldn’t be a blow off. He only knew that their hometown of Rawlins - the place they had both been born - was no longer safe, and even if it was, the temperatures were still falling, were below freezing right now. They couldn’t stay here much longer or they’d stay forever.
The lonely echo of his wife’s shoes on the bare wood floor as she moved toward him, had John wondering what it sounded like as it floated down to the dark, flooded tunnels of their barricaded basement. Was it a dinner bell to those open dark ways and everything that might now be calling that nasty area home? They heard noises sometimes, never sure if it was the moment they would have to defend themselves, but never went down there. They also didn’t remove the boards he had sealed it up with, only hammered the nails back in regularly, but they did occasionally tense and look that way, and he was glad she knew how to use both the shotgun and the rifle he kept by her chair. Not that a firearm would be very effective against sewer rats.
“But why should we, Johnnie? We get along here.”
“We’ve seen no signs of anyone coming to save us…and because of the basement.”
Scratch... sniff… sniff.
As if to prove his point, they heard the curious, hungry rodents clearly. The grates at the other end of their treeless grazing land kept out the bigger problems, but the rat populations had come in by the hundreds after the War and they’d had to seal off the unused parts of their home. The rodents were big, much too wide to get under the floors, but their pups wouldn’t be, and John expected to start seeing them in great numbers soon, considering they could have a litter a month.
“Where would we go? Other than those men with the guns, we ain’t seen a healthy person in nigh on two weeks.”
John forced his hand away from his aching stomach, eyes still on the yard. He wished that ugly green twilight sun would finish setting and hide the view so she wouldn’t see it and get upset.
The thought of leaving their home hadn’t occurred to her, was terrifying, and though he felt it too, the fear wasn’t strong enough to get John to change his mind. She had to see things his way this time. Her life depended on it.
“To NORAD, for starters. We’ll surrender to the Draft.” The graying sawbones said it firmly, almost sure they would find little at the Colorado complex. That world had moved on.
“What if it’s all like here, or worse?”
She was referring to the dead pets, dead police, dead crops, and of course, dead friends and neighbors they had known all their lives. The horrors were still fresh for Anne, especially the memory of passing the neighbor's wrecked truck on the two-lane dirt road to their farm. Both doors were open, and they’d seen the bullet holes in the windshield as they returned from their burning office to avoid the panic gripping their town, their country. She had wanted to stop, but there hadn’t been a reason to. The elderly couple was dead, their brains all over the road.
“We’ll have to do some searching. Other healthy survivors are out there. I know it doesn’t seem that way when you look out the window, but there are. We just have to find them.” He winced at his reference to the window.
“But we’re old, they won’t want us. Shouldn’t we just stay here?”
It broke John’s heart to tell her no, but he did, had to. “That, my dear Anne, is exactly what most people will do, and they’ll die. What the weather and disease don’t take, the gangs and starvation will. All these threats are lessened when humanity comes together. Despite its flaws, humankind is not better off without society.”
He looked into her frightened eyes and when she leaned toward him, tan slacks rustling, he gently surrounded her with his strong arms, hoping she wouldn’t notice his racing pulse. “You’re a Nurse, I’m a Doctor. It’s wrong of us to hide and deny them our help. They need us now more than ever.”
He kissed her wrinkled forehead, smiled at her, “Our age won’t matter, except to make us more valuable because of all our experience.”
John played his trump card without guilt, knowing her inability to catch pregnant (which he believed to be his fault) would keep her from arguing more. Suddenly sorry he had never talked to her about adopting, John ignored the pain in his gut and looked at her with doubtless blue eyes.
“There are a lot of kids out there too, Anna, kids who are alone and hurting. They need us. Trust me, my sweet, I do this for you.”
“I do, Johnnie. You know that. I always have.”
He nodded, gritting his teeth against a burning wave of pain that settled deep in his guts. “Good. We’ll leave this week.”
Anne turned her head and John tensed, expecting a bad reaction as her eyes landed on the gruesome scene outside. She shuddered and he opened his mouth to comfort her.
“I never did like that damned dog. It barked too much.”
Anne went back to her knitting, leaving him with a shocked look on his lightly bearded face, and a smile in his heart. Even after all these years, she was still capable of surprising him, and he was happier than he could say, that they had survived the actual War together. There was no one he would rather be with.
A while later, John was still at the window, big ants (and their dinner) gone, the freezing rain returning for yet another round. His mind was still on his wife of 37 years, on the half-truths he had told her. He never lied, but often left things out…and this time it was something huge. He would tell her soon, though. She had a right to know that this next year together would probably be their last.
John sighed. He had to get her to some kind of safety, and he had to do it now, knew she would refuse to go if he told her why they were really leaving.
Movement in the dimness caught John’s eye, mostly because they saw so little of it now, and he froze, watching a shadow limp across their driveway , keeping to the line of dying bushes around the edge of the long porch. They had seen a lot of radiation victims after the War, most in the early stages where travel was still possible, and he tensed, expecting one of the walking dead.
Tall and thin with dirty black curls under goggles, the young woman wore a long muddy coat that came to the tops of her black boots. Should he call to her? She looked healthy other than the slight limp - normal.
Before he could decide, she turned toward the window and saw him. Her eyes widened in fear, panicked feet slipping on muddy debris, and then she was gone, disappearing into the hazy darkness.
John started to go to the door anyway, and had to sit back down in the hard chair, grimacing at another sharp lance of burning pain. He rubbed his swollen stomach, wishing the pills would hurry. He needed a lab that still had power, so he could run some basic tests. It would be easier to plan his wife’s future if he knew how long he had before the cancer ended his life.
John sighed again. He would insist, something he didn’t usually do, and they would leave shortly, in the next few days. He wouldn’t stop until he found someone to look after his sweet, gentle mate. She would never last out in this hard, new World alone.
Glancing away from a missed ornament - a gaudy, grinning reindeer lying under the couch - Anne tied the last knot of string on the dark brown blanket, trying not to frown as she began to put away the knitting supplies.
She didn’t look at her husband - didn’t need to see him to know he was in pain, and gunny-sacking to keep her from finding out...again. He could try to distract her with talk of kids all he wanted, she did feel a bit of regret that she had never been able to bear him a son, hadn’t wanted to take one in that wasn’t theirs, but it didn’t keep her sharp eyes from noticing things. Something was wrong.
His eating and sleeping habits had changed drastically, and she had seen the empty pill bottles in the trash. He was protecting her from it, like he always did with the bad things, and while she would do what he wanted and pretend she had no clue, she knew what she knew. He was sick and looking for a place to leave her.
He wanted to be alone when he died, had said it many times, claiming it would hurt too much to say goodbye, and while she would do anything for him, she simply couldn't do that. Leaving him alone to die would be a betrayal of their life together, and now, after all that had happened, any betrayal of life was wrong. When they went, it would be together.
Nearly a week later
“Go faster, John! Faster!”
The horrified Doctor swung the wagon onto the dark woods that lined the road and killed the engine a few yards in, glad for the heavy fog and cover of night.
“Get down! Low as you can!”
The elderly couple shoved themselves into the floorboard as best they could. The hurting man stifled a groan at the cramped position, glasses sliding from his face as the engines grew closer.
Headlights flashed their way and they tried to get lower, the gunshots and engines upon them as the storm rolled overhead.
“I love you, Johnnie. Have since we was kids.”
A cold hand locked onto his hairy wrist through the sleeve of his plaid shirt, and John covered it with his own shaking fingers, afraid he might wet himself despite all his efforts not to.
“And I you, my Sweet.”
The large group of cars began to fly by and the couple froze, listening to the shots, wincing at each whine and ricochet. Drunken shouts echoed, along with thuds of metal hitting, scraping. Rain thumped on the roof, a tire squealed, and a bullet pinged off their bumper, making them both jump. As their grip on each other tightened, the fog was all that kept them from certain, painful death.
Long minutes later, the gang was out of sight, their noises fading to silence. Terrified it was a trick, that they’d been seen, John kept them still for another fifteen minutes, only moving when the bands of pain around his gut caused tears to slip out of his eyes against his will.
Driving without lights, John turned them west on 40, away from the gang. They would still go to Cheyenne Mountain, they would just take a different path. They had been on the road for five days now, and he had been careful to find ways through that didn’t require physical labor. They weren’t spring chickens, and he wasn’t taking any more chances than he had to. They were both a bit stiff and a little sore, but had agreed that they felt more alert than they had in a long time.
“How long will this add?”
John slid his glasses back in place. “Couple hours. We have to get off these frontage roads, but we’ll still make Routt Ridge by dawn.”
Anne nodded, wrinkled fingers turning on the heat and defrost, before digging into the bag behind his seat. “Here, take these.”
She dropped two white pills into his wrinkled hand, and held out an open mason jar of clear liquid. John took them with a grateful look in his faded blue eyes. His gut was on fire, blood in his temples pounding in time with his pain.
Anne said nothing, just turned on the CB, and went back to checking channels. He was her man, her love, and she wouldn’t let him suffer. She had a good idea now what was wrong, had been a nurse long enough to read the signs he couldn’t hide on this journey, and it would be a secret between them no more.
John’s eyes scanned the foggy landscape, able to see only faint outlines of dude ranches and big game hunting lodges. Other than those, and the occasional farm or dead vehicle in the road, there was almost nothing around here. It had been isolated before. Now, it was desolate except for the bluegrass that was exceptionally tall - up to the wagon’s roof in some places. Wind howling through the shadowy darkness, they moved steadily through the foggy drizzle for the next four hours.
John made good time, but when he saw the next set of bodies and cars that were still smoking, he began to worry more. This had been a group of travelers, maybe even a large family, and the gang had killed them all. The back trail was indeed leading straight to NORAD. Had they been there too?
The old man lurking inside winced as another bump jarred him against the sharp spring sticking out of the seat, and he shifted, trying to avoid it as the wagon chugged along the smoldering streets of Granby, Colorado.
He hoped Anne would stay asleep despite the rough ride, and he tried to take it easy so she would. The gentle snoring coming from the blanket-filled passenger seat gave him hope she might sleep through this particular stretch of road. One look out the foggy window and she would know they were in danger again.
Signs of a battle littered the area, and the winners had marked their victory with devastation. Homes were in flames - even the pine trees on front lawns were burning, their cheery Christmas lights melting onto their branches - cars were rammed through buildings, and lifeless bodies, even horses lay where they’d been shot. The blood hadn’t dried yet, and the doctor was horrified to see their tires leaving bloody tracks, but could do nothing about it. The puddles were unavoidable.
Even with the windows up, the smell was revolting: blood, shit, and charred skin. When he lowered the glass, stopped momentarily to listen for survivors, he heard only wind and crackling flames, nothing else. The equality state was no longer that. Now, only the strongest would survive…and those with them, John thought, looking over at his wife, before turning his eyes back to the dangerous land around them. He and Anne had been that type in their youth, but now he could only hope to find someone that would keep her protected.
Pushing away the worry, he tried to concentrate on the debris-laden road, but found his eyes flicking off the horror to peer at the sky. He hated it that there was no moon, no stars, just grit and thick, nasty smelling smoke. Like a damned episode of the Twilight Zone, he complained silently, grateful that the pills were pushing back the agony.
John had automatically slowed to watch for signs of survivors, but the gang had been very thorough and after a long minute, he drove on. Granby was a cemetery without a headstone.
Dawn was just starting to break as they cleared the city limits, the dusty sky barely hinting at light, and while he knew he couldn’t go another full day without sleep, he also knew they weren’t stopping near here, not even for a stretch. Those men might...
“Want me to drive?” Anne asked, making him jump. “I’ve got my glasses.”
He nodded, smiling tightly as he loosened the belt over his swollen abdomen. “Yes, but not yet. We’ll switch after brunch and I’ll snooze in your warm spot.”
She smiled back as she adjusted her silk shawl tighter over her sweater, then closed her eyes and laid her head back on the pillow against the locked door. Instead of giving him hell about not telling her he was sick, she was hadn’t even mentioned it, just adjusted to care for him as they traveled. She was handling the trip well. Had she too been just a little bored, a little restless?
Hell of a way to have an adventure, he thought, still wanting to see the stars. There was a bite to the wind that said they would be running the heater all day, and he was very glad of the cans on the luggage rack. Three hours at a gas station with a foot pump had given him a nasty backache, but they were good for two weeks of driving, and he hoped to find a safe place long before it ran out.
Along with the gang they had just hidden from, there had also been other dangers on this trip, like the radiation victim that had snuck up on them in the fog three days ago and almost got the door open before he could get the wagon into drive. Talk about taking some years off my life, John thought with a touch of bitterness. The weather was also hard to drive in, but at least the acid rain would force the walking dead to hole up somewhere and start dying. With the open sores and lack of reasoning skills, the zombies would go to ground and not come up.
The doctor inched along without headlights toward the government compound, casting his eyes over the tarp in the back of the wagon that hid their belongings - the last remnants of their life together. He desperately wanted to find a group of people like themselves…different. John knew they were out there, gathering somewhere, he could feel the pull of their calls, but saw no one, and the old Ford kept on chugging.
Half an hour before dawn barely lit the sky, the rain and fog had lightened and the wagon sat on Routt Ridge. The occupants waited silently, but their hope was gone, the billowing smoke was undeniable. Their safety was in flames.
Surveying the surrounding area, John watched ants taking the poison bait balls he’d thrown out of the window when they’d first stopped. The ants here were bigger, but their hill was enormous, - three feet high and probably just as wide - with a snakeskin and the bones of lizards scattered around it. The order of nature had been reversed and even here, the smells of smoke, rot, and mildew lingered under the fresh scent of clean air and pine trees.
“Check again. Maybe we’ll hear survivors.”
Anne did it slowly, but they heard nothing until the last station. John put a gentle hand on his wife’s wrist to keep her from changing the channel, almost able to feel something coming. “Wait.”
A second later, the radio lit up with heavy static an a man’s determined words.
“Safe Haven - Red Cross... Welcome all…survivors follow…clear means closer...”
They lost it, the radio going back to full static, and John looked over, not needing to see the horrors in the bunker to know they were there.
Anne’s voice was shaky, but there was confidence in her aged brown eyes - confidence in him. “Whatever you think, Johnnie.”
He hesitated, considered. They could at least check them out from a distance. With NORAD gone, there was nowhere else he could think of for them to go. If that complex had fallen, and the pillars of sickly black smoke said it had, then no place was safe.
John headed them west, sure they couldn’t have heard the transmission if the people were to the south. The mountains wouldn’t allow the waves to carry even that well on his cheap radio. He would narrow it down by the clarity of the calls, and they would see if this so-called Safe Haven was aptly named.
John believed leaving their home was the right thing to do. They had started seeing rats the day before, and his last memory of the home they’d shared for so long, was of hanging the Warning! Rodents! sign on the front door.
They would probably have been sick by now, if they’d stayed. He had waited as long as he could, and though he knew the group they ended up with probably wouldn’t be what he was hoping for, if his beloved wife would be safe and have a guaranteed place after he was gone, he would offer his services in exchange. If that didn’t work, he’d beg.
"This is Safe Haven Refugee Camp. Can anyone hear me?
Hello? Is anyone out there?"
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