NEED TO PUT THE ITALICS BACK IN WHERE THEY BELONG
Mark, still tense, tried to prepare himself to tell the story again. Knowing we’d be at the table a while I brought over a basket of corn muffins and added sorghum and butter for those that wanted it, pulled Jessie’s upstairs highchair up next to Mark, and then pulled all the forage out of my sack and made a salad of greens wilted with bacon grease and heat some leftovers for navy bean soup.
Mark and Calvin must have been watched over by angels because they didn’t meet a single person until they got to the outskirts of town and knocked on the door at Big John’s Bait and Tackle. Big John’s sister Miz Louise answered the door with a shot gun.
“I tol’ you and tol’ you we ain’t got nuthin’ for you and that if you showed up here agin’ I’d …” she stopped, startled at the sight of them.
Calvin’s eyes were wide as he stared down the barrel of the old shotgun. “Uh, Mizzus Lou? We ain’t been here in forever and we’re right sorry we disturbed you. We’ll be leaving now if you don’t mind.”
“Calvin Rudolph Carlisle! Boy where are your brains?! No body with any sense at all goes knocking on doors this time o’ night. And Mark Griffey … boy … I oughta …”
To the two men’s embarrassment and confusion the older woman broke down in sobs. “Hey, whoa, Mizzus Lou … uh … wha?” That was Calvin. Mark was more constructive and he helped the woman to a chair in the little deli area and shut the door.
Miz Lou pulled herself together enough to say, “Mark, bar the door son. And can you go let Johnny know everything is all right? My legs are just give out.”
Mark said he walked back to the family’s living quarters and found Big John trying to get out of bed. He had been shot, nothing near fatal, but he lost a lot of blood and even at his age … Big John was Miz Lou’s baby brother … it took a while to get the tank back to full, especially with their nutrition not being what it should be.
Mark said, “Big John convinced us … threatened us more like if we so much as gave Miz Lou a hard time about staying for supper … to stay the night. We had grits and greens for dinner and Cal and I gave Miz Lou some of the dried beef we’d brought with us and some of those sausage sticks you made Del. You should have seen Big John’s face; he was so hungry it wasn’t funny.”
“What happened to his catfish pond?” Daddy asked.
“Been nearly fished out. People would come with nets in the night and take what they wanted instead of thinking about the consequences if they didn’t take it easy. You know how big that pond is. Big John says he is pretty sure there are some small ones in there but he said he hope that if he leaves it until spring the fish population will go back up. He just has to wait the people out and he’s thinking the winter is going to help with that. But that wasn’t all he said.”
“Son, listen to me, if you don’t have no reason to go to town then don’t. It ain’t the place to be. Lots a people from the urban areas are just squattin’ wherever they can find a place outta the weather. Lots of ‘em are sick … dying … bringing God knows what with ‘em.”
Mark and Calvin were shocked. They’d been prepared for some trouble but nothing like was described to them.
Miz Lou said, “They came in waves. The first ones weren’t too bad. Some would stop, most didn’t. Running fast away from the trouble with who knows what destination in mind. They were just running like cows in a stampede. Second wave started almost after the first but you could tell the difference. The first wave people still had some sense, the second wave … well they was all crazy scared beyond sense. They stripped what little there was left off the shelves and most didn’t bother paying for it. If Johnny hadn’t thought to see to us first … well, weren’t enough gold or silver to buy a can o’ beans that didn’t exist so then they started with lead.”
Mark saw Calvin’s confused look and clarified, “You mean they started using guns? Were many hurt?”
“Oh my stars and garters yes. Most of the dead were the infernal locusts though. It only took one riot before word went out to treat ‘em like looters. Not even city folks are stupid enough to hang around when they’s being targeted with a shot gun.”
Big John added, “Then things were quiet for a few days. We thought the worst was over. Then … then the … the walking dead started to arrive … what would be the third wave. Some of these people came through the explosions of them bombs … they looked like them old Jap pictures from world war two … or maybe they got caught by the fallout or something. You boys done good to be out of it and holed up. I’d had been there too if I’d had a place and the where with all to be able to keep us there. The townfolk, no matter what some may say, did what we could for them first ones that struggled in but it didn’t take long before we were overwhelmed. We just laid ‘em on the highschool football field, then the parking lot, then in the classrooms, then after that it was where ever there was an empty spot. As fast as we laid ‘em down or carried off the ones that died more would replace ‘em. The smell of it … worse than a barrel of catfish that had been left to rot in a closed up house in the middle of summer.” He shuddered.
“After a while the ones coming in stopped being grateful and started acting like they were owed something. For their pain and suffering, their losses, you name it, and it came up.”
“From who?” Mark asked, incredulous at people’s attitude.
Big John shrugged his one good shoulder, “FEMA, the government, the town folks, whoever had stuff that they didn’t. They were angry. And their anger begat violence. And that’s when the next wave of people started trickling in, worse than all the others put together. These were the gang bangers, rapists, prison trash, street people, the bottom feeders. Most of them had walked or stolen to get this far. Their weak had already died or been kilt off.”
“Most of the townspeople and those of us that live on the outskirts decided we’d had enough. There were too many to fight so we went home, locked our doors, and secured what little we had. That’s when the two groups turned on each other. It became a question of who was here first vs. who was stronger.”
Big John looked at Mark, “Some folks … some … tried to act like they were in charge, or they picked sides trying to get on the winning one. They did OK at first but then they found out they weren’t as in control of things as they thought. Some of the townfolks figured if they could just organize things, give those people what they thought they needed, then they’d ultimately control ‘em, maybe set them to work on farms and get some constructive use out of ‘em.”
Miz Lou snorted, “Use? Them kinda people have been useless their whole lives. They don’t know how to be useful and most of ‘em refuse to be teachable. That Ryland Harris was one of the first to get himself kilt … and he died hard as a lesson to others.” This time it was Miz Lou who shuddered.
Mark, more intelligent and intuitive than many people gave him credit for being, looked at Big John for a moment and then said, “My ex brother in law was a good friend of Ryland’s.”
Looking him straight in the eyes Big John said solemnly, “Yes he were. Mark … son …”
“Did Dee stay with him?”
“To … to both their ends from what people have said.”
“No one has seen her in a while. She started running with that gang of kids that hung around with those bangers that were living in their house. Most of those squatters seem to have picked up and moved. Your sister’s place ain’t sit up too well for hard times living, don’t even think it has a regular fire place in it, only a gas one.”
Miz Lou, having known Mark since he was a boy in her deceased son’s boy scout troop said, “Boy, don’t go do what you’re thinking. That house don’t hold nothing for you but pain.”
Mark, holding in his emotions as best he could said, “It’s not the place I want to go but I have to know about Cici, know for sure.”
Everyone finally found their beds but Mark said he didn’t sleep. He spent the time planning their route and trying not to dwell on what they might find when they got there and what they might see along the way.
It was still dark when Mark kicked Calvin awake, a maneuver not exactly appreciated. “Dang Mark, it isn’t even daylight yet.”
“Be glad. This way we’ll get down the road some more before anyone sees us.”
Miz Lou tried to get them to stay, at least for breakfast, but Big John understood and approved the move if not the destination. He told them the areas of town that were best avoided and which families they might seek refuge with if needed.
Calvin, not quite as bad as he sometimes acted said, “Mark, I’m sorry about your family but … Uncle Rudy only wanted us to find out what the state of the town was. We’ve pretty much got that. Actually walking into town might not be the smartest thing to do and might even draw attention we don’t want.”
Mark sighed and stopped. “Cal, I have to see about Dee myself. And I have to be sure that Cici is really gone and not waiting for someone to rescue her. She’s just a fourteen year old kid … and a girl kid at that. I …” He stopped unable to continue.
Calvin then made a decision that probably saved both of their lives. “Well, you can’t go by yourself and Del would likely kill me if I came back without you. Just promise me this quest or whatever you’re on won’t take us any further than the town and that we go back to the farm right afterwards.”
Mark nodded in agreement. They didn’t see anyone until about mid-day and since they looked like some of the out-of-towners they ducked into an empty shed.
The people were soon followed by others, many dressed in the urban-thug style. They were scavenging and begging from the few people that lived in the neighborhood. Everyone looked too beat down to be any trouble but then a fight broke out over some bit of something that had been found and the guys had to re-evaluate their opinion.
“You’d think they’d have better things to do,” said Calvin.
“Problem is they might not have enough to do. Or maybe not even know what to do so they are just doing what they saw people do in the movies. Survival 101 isn't exactly in most school curriculum.”
After a couple of hours the scavengers left and the guys were able to be on their way again. As night fell they finally reached the house they sought. Mark had prepared himself for bad but this was way on the other side of that.
The last time he has seen the place the yard had been a pristine monument to southern gentility with a fountain and bird bath in the front, carefully tended shrubbery, and large oaks and maples that were a riot of color in the autumn. The house was a faux southern mansion on the outside and was a cliché of every McMansion on the inside. It is like someone had turned the house into the local fundraising haunted house.
The yard was badly overgrown and debris lay like flotsam at a pier all over the place. Not a single window in the two-story house was intact. The wraparound porch was partially destroyed where a pick up truck had been run up onto it and Dee’s prize Cadillac sat in the fountain and the bird bath had been thrown through its windshield. The entire neighborhood looked wrecked and abandoned but Dee’s house looked particularly bad … or maybe it was just the contrasting memories from Mark’s childhood that made it appear so.
Strangely enough when they mounted the front porch they found the heavy front door locked. “He knew his doors and locks, I’ll give him that,” Mark muttered under his breath before turning to Calvin and saying, “Come around back. The less noise the better. I swear I feel someone or something staring at us.”
“Dude, what are you doing?” Calvin asked as Mark bent down beside the back porch.
“I used to sneak in and out of the house this way. We’re gonna have to crawl but I doubt they ever found the secret passage.”
“Cool,” Calvin said, up for the sudden adventure. Mark just shook his head and hoped the trap door hadn’t been nailed shut.
After crawling under the house and finding the gouges he had made to guide him in the dark before he was even a teenager, he finally reached what he was looking for.
“Bro, this is … amazing,” Calvin breathed, impressed at the very idea of having a hidden entrance and exit that the teenage Mark could use whenever he felt like it. “I always wondered how you got in and out without Dee’s husband killing you.”
“They remodeled the house and took out the old laundry chute. Instead of fixing the floor the right way, the guys just put a piece of plywood over it and built a closet around it in the downstairs room that became my bedroom.” The entrance didn’t seem to be quite as big as Mark remembered but they both managed to get through so long as they went one shoulder at a time.
The house smelled foul. “Gag, man Mark, check out your room Bro. I think I’m gonna puke. Smells like something crawled in here and ... and ... uh ... died,” he ended lamely realizing at the last second what he was saying.
But when their eyes finally adjusted they saw that it was worse than that. Human waste had been smeared on the walls spelling out the foulest obscenities. The carpet reeked of urine. Mark, in a shocked voice said, “It smells like a zoo … a human zoo.”
“Well, Miz Lou said that these people acted like animals.”
“Cal …” Mark said, un-amused at the attempt at humor.
“Sorry Mark,” Calvin said, truly contrite. “I keep forgetting this was your room, your home.”
“My room yes, my home never; it was just a place I used to live,” Mark said accepting Calvin’s apology.
Mark turned to leave when he spotted something he had previously overlooked. A pastel green envelope had been taped to the wall next to his secret exit. It look like the ones that Dee always favored and he pulled it off of the wall. It was so much cleaner than everything else that it stood out and was sealed with something inside it, but was unaddressed.
Opening the envelope a key fell out along with several sheets of paper the same color as the envelope.
“Mark,” it started in a scrawl that dug a pit in his stomach. “I’m putting this here and hope that you find it before any more scavengers break into the house. You are probably surprised that I knew about your rabbit hole but I figured after all you put up with you should be allowed to keep some secrets.
I don’t want to hurt you more and I am sorry to have to say goodbye in a letter again but I am glad you haven’t come any sooner. I don’t like what this world has turned into. It is too scary and I am glad to be leaving it.
I made an awful mess of my life. But I loved him, still do despite it all. I’m not asking you to understand that, I don’t understand it myself. I won’t go over everything that has happened, that would be too sad and I don’t have the time or strength. He made such awful mistakes. Then he made worse mistakes trying to fix the other mistakes. Eventually it killed him and now it looks like it has killed me too.
Those people, they just took over the house and when he objected they beat him terribly. I think it is the first time he’d ever been on the receiving end of it in his whole life. It just took a good chunk of his will to live out of him. Broke something that I don’t think was fixable. I did what I could for him – for the first time he was the weak one and I was the strong – but those people were so scary, even the women. And Cici, after seeing what her father really was, turned on him. She was just so angry. She wanted her old life back and hated everyone because it was gone for good. Then, just to hurt me, those people started to give her things, promise her things. She started acting like them, talking like them. Mark, they took our girl and … God help me … she helped to kill the father she had come to hate. I thought she was going to kill me too but she only spit on me and told me I wasn’t worth the bullet. But it didn’t matter, they’ve killed me anyway.
The only thing good to say about that is that they’ve killed themselves too. Some of the stuff they brought out of the city started making them sick, and because I had to clean up and play housekeeper so much it made me sick too. Only the outsider kids like Cici and a few of the others too low in rank to get near the stuff may have escaped but I don’t know for sure and I don’t think it even matters to me anymore.
I looked in the mirror after the healthy ones abandoned us and saw the truth. I’m dying. But I don’t regret it Mark, not now that everything is gone. The last one died during the night and I wondered what to do next. I sat at the kitchen table for hours before I decided to write this letter. I know you, you’ll eventually come. You might be angry and disappointed but you’ll still come. I just pray it’ll be too late for you to do anything. I don’t want to be rescued and it’s too late for you to save Cici, she’s made her choice.
I wasn’t a very good mother even though I tried hard. I was a terrible sister. I never stopped him from hitting you or saying all those bad things to you. I’m sorry for that. I was too scared. You turned out good anyway and took care of me when it should have been the other way around. I’m sorry for that too.
What I’m sorry for most is wasting the second chance God handed me. And then making it worse by not taking Cici in hand like I should have.
I never told him about your rabbit hole. He knew you were getting out somehow but he could never figure it out. I almost laughed at him once. It felt good. I remember that day. Almost laughing at him made me feel brave. I stole his spare keys and made copies of them at the hardware store and said they were for him. He never knew. I had the keys to his kingdom and he never knew.
You remember how he threw out some of Mommy and Daddy’s stuff and then locked the rest down in the basement in his storage room, holding it captive from us? I don’t know what is in there these days. I never could get up the nerve to actually use the keys I'd had made. And then he threw me out and it was too late. And even after I came back it was too late because they were down there, messing around and I was only allowed in there to clean when they would let me. After a while not even then.
Here is the key that room. I know you know how to get in there. He used to taunt us with it all the time but not so much after you got older … and bigger. Just think of the look on his face if he knew that after all that’s happened it is going to be you that gets whatever he has hidden in there. It almost makes me feel like laughing again. Almost.
But now I’m out of energy and paper. Just please try and forgive me Markie. I know I did all kinds of things wrong but I still loved you. And tell Jessie I loved him more than I knew how to tell him. And try and to say a prayer for Cici every now and then. Wherever my daughter is she is going to need it.
I think I have just enough energy left to walk down to the cemetery and sit on that bench by Mommy and Daddy. Their graveside was the only place he never followed me to and it seems like it can’t be long now. I’m coughing up blood just like they did and when I go, I want to do it in the one place I never had to be afraid of him.
Your Loving Sister”
Calvin had been reading over his shoulder. “Mark … man … I’m … I’m sorry.”
“She still outlived the old dirt bag and she died feeling free. That’s something. And to know she wasn’t completely blind to it all … that has to be enough; it's gonna have to be.”
“What about the key? I didn’t understand everything and her handwriting kinda got bad there at the end. What did she mean?”
“Come on, let’s go see.”
Mark led Calvin to the stairs that led to the basement, also known as the King’s Room. It had at one time been decorated like an expensive men’s club with a pool table, a bar, leather sofa and lots of other masculine touches. It also had a door that led outside that he would sometimes invite special friends home through. However as they descended the stairs they saw that it was nothing but a disgusting mess. Everything was broken, ripped apart, turned over. It looked like a troop of baboons with bad manners had been allowed to run loose.
Empty liquor bottles lay all over and it looked like they’d been cooking drugs on the bar in the corner. Mark ignored it all as if it wasn’t even there. He walked straight to a wall with what looked like built in bookcases.
“Cal, help me move all of this junk on the floor out of the way. The door opens out.”
“What door?” Calvin asked. Mark ignored him as he removed a wooden fleur delis revealing a keyed lock. He inserted the key, turned, and heard a click. Then he grabbed the trim on the bookcase and pulled.
“Holy crow! What is this?” Calvin exclaimed.
“Dee’s ex used to bring the best stuff from the pawn shop and store it here. I’m pretty sure he used to deal in stolen property too. Then about the time I got into highschool he decided that money wasn’t enough, he wanted social standing too, so he sold the place and turned most of the money over to some investor and he lived off of the interest. Right after I moved out to go to college is when he went for the younger women. It was a stupid big mess. To be honest I thought he would have emptied this place. Guess not.”
“No way can we carry all of this stuff. And even if we could that would be like paining a great big target on our backs.”
“You’re right,” Mark said while he fingered an old picture of his parents, Dee, and himself taken while he was in Kindergarten. “We’ll head back to the farm and I’ll bring my truck back. Let’s lock up. We need to get some sleep and we’ll head back first thing in the morning. It is already almost too dark to see.”
“Dude, I know they were your family and all but no way am I sleeping in this house. I may not be the cleanest guy but even I draw a line at sleeping in a zoo pen.”
So they wound up setting up camp in the detached garage. Mark and Calvin took turns being on watch. Calvin was taking the last watch and Mark was finally sleeping … at least until he was jerked from sleep by a scream.
“Man, listen to this guy. He screams like a girl,” a cruel voice laughed. “Now I’m not going to ask again homo, where’s the stuff? We were told there’d be someone here to give it to us and now you are trying to act like you don’t know nothing.”
It was Calvin they were beating on. Mark didn’t know what the “stuff” was but he had a pretty good idea after seeing the chemistry experiment down in the basement room.
“Mr. Nash, I couldn’t let Cal get killed. Those guys were worse than the raiders that hit the farm,” Mark said, prepared for my father to denounce his actions.
“Son, if you are trying to tell me you rid the world of some scum then stop worrying about what I might say. I spent 20 years defending this country from scum like that and over half of those training other men to do the job too. You did what you had to as a defender. Take the burden of it to God son … isn’t anyone else that’ll bring you real peace if that’s what you are looking for.”
Mark was momentarily struck dumb at Daddy’s easy acceptance of what he’d been forced to do but he soon recovered and continued his tale. “I’ll say something for Cal, he could have given me away but he didn’t. They beat on him pretty hard too. But they were really just playing with him, I could tell. For a couple of months I was a bouncer at that saloon way out on Arundel Road. I learned to tell the difference between the guys that only thought they were bad and the ones that really were and I can say those guys were very bad dudes. I cited in on the one that was about to use a knife on Cal and after that … after that things got kind of hairy. Picking off the four that had been beating on Cal wasn’t difficult but there were three more where they came from that I hadn’t seen.”
“Watch out!!” Cal managed to cry before three men could get a jump on Mark as they came running from the front of the house. Mark shot one of the three, Cal tripped up another and that left Mark to take on the third by hand after his rifle jammed. The gut shot man was carrying on and cursing, trying to pull a weapon. Cal finally got a weapon by taking a pistol off of one of the dead and permanently incapacitated both the wounded man and the man he’d tripped who had started to enter the fray with a wicked looking knife.
Mark finally wrestled with the third man until a loud pop caused him to stiffen up and then shudder and fall away. Calvin, trying to wipe the blood from his eyes rushed to Mark’s side, “What happened? You OK?”
“When we were rolling around he dropped his pistol. He finally picked it up again and we fought over it. He lost,” Mark said in a dead voice looking at his hands.
There really isn’t much more to the story after that. Mark confiscated one of the trucks that the bangers came in. He siphoned the gas from one in worst shape to fill up both tanks of the larger truck that wasn’t in much better shape but had a longer bed. Calvin and Mark rolled the truck into the garage and then spent the rest of that day loading everything from the storage room and a few things from the house into the truck bed and then because it was too late to start back they combed the rest of the neighborhood. They only took useful items and not anything else.
“Del, I brought back every jar I could find but all together it is only about fifty or so of them and most of them came from one house. There’s some other stuff in there useful like suran wrap, aluminum foil, Ziploc bags … ‘nother house had a bunch of those craft supplies like Dee …” Mark cleared his throat. “Like Dee used to like. Might have been more useful stuff but there was only so much room and I … I wasn’t thinking too straight. Mostly the houses were just nasty after either getting flooded in their basements … those were on the low end of the street … or they’d been cleaned out weeks ago by their owners or by scavengers.”
Mark settled his now sleeping son on his shoulder and leaned back in his chair, “We crashed for a few hours then about midnight we both decided to try and get as far as we could before daylight crept up on us. We were half way back to the farm before we both realized that we’d have to go the back way to get home since we’d pulled down the gully bridges. Lucky we remembered when we did as we only had to back track a little ways. But we ain’t the only ones that thought of that and we didn’t get near as far as we had intended before we had to drive into an old tobacco barn and hole up for the day.” Mark shook his head. “Turns out we weren’t the only ones that liked the look of the barn and a few hours after we stopped a small group of people slowly filed in. I can’t describe them but there isn’t any way to really get you to see how bad off they were. They reminded me of those lepers you’d hear about sometimes in Bible stories. They had sores all over them and this one lady …” Mark shuddered, “She was carry what we thought was just this nasty bundle of clothes or something. Then … then … this little hand falls out only … only you could tell … it had already started … decaying. The leader of the group saw me looking and then came over. I hated to even stand next to him he smelled so bad, like he was rotting from the inside out. He told us to just leave them in peace, especially the woman who was off her rocker, they were off to some federal camp or other trying to get some treatment for those of the group that could recover. The rest of them were just there to provide what protection they could for as long as they could. He said that it wasn’t safe to travel alone and for some of them it was the only thing they had left to give to their loved ones … to make sure they got to the next person who could take care of them.”
Mark would spend a long time getting the nightmare of that little hand to stop popping into his subconscious when he was stressed. “We left as soon as we could. I … I was afraid they were going to ask for a ride or something but they didn’t. I think they were just too beat down to even think to take the chance. Next night was even more frustrating if not as nauseating. But we were just too tired to stop again and waste another long day hole up in some hot barn or outbuilding so we kept going ‘til we made it to the farm.”
Micah said, “It doesn’t sound like you’ve slept much. I’ll … I’ll take morning chores. I’ve been doing them anyway.”
Mark opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again. “I appreciate it. But, it isn’t fair for you to have to do it all now that I’m back. If you milk the red fury I’ll get some wood chopped. I’ll need to work the kinks out tomorrow anyway.”
The “red fury” was our cow. We found out that Rudy hadn’t minded giving us a cow because that particular cow was on the cantankerous side and seemed to enjoy slapping her nasty tail right in the face of whoever was doing the milking. Daddy was the only one she ever minded but he was too weak to do the milking by that point.
Micah wasn’t sure what to make of Mark’s reaction and frankly, neither was I. I had long ago set the kitchen to rights and washed the dishes. I picked up Jessie and took him to put him in his crib … moved back besides Mark’s cot in the basement … and then walked back to see that Mark, Micah and Daddy had been having “men talk” with me out of the room. I caught the tail end of a handshake between Micah and Mark but Micah didn’t really look relieved. He didn’t look upset or angry any more but he didn’t look any happier either.
I came back into the room but no one deemed the “men talk” any of my business apparently since they didn’t say anything. I was just miffed enough that I said, “Mark, your turn.”
As his confused looked turned to outrage I asked him, “You didn’t really think you were going to get away with not letting me check your bruises did you?”
“I’m … I’m fine.”
“Daddy? Why don’t you explain to Mark just how persistent I can be when it comes to doctoring.”
My father tried really hard not to smile and then had to fight laughing in Mark’s face. Even Micah looked at him in sympathy. “Mark, better just let her. The longer you put it off the more she makes you pay. She’ll turn what could have been a little spray of Bactine into a full-blown mummification,” Micah said warningly.
“Oh for pity …,” he started but as he looked between the two other males he saw the truth of the inevitable.
He was banged up over less skin than Calvin but the licks the other guy got in were deeper and he had a couple of gashes that I had to clean out and dress. After that was taken care of everyone decided that emptying the truck was simply going to have to wait. We all trooped downstairs, crawled in bed and all but collapsed for the night.