Donovan came down the steps and took the notebook paper out of my hand. “Emma. Emma! Stop waiving that in my face already. What is this and where did you get it?”
So I explained it to him and he sat down on the porch steps to read it for himself.
I’ll give it one more day just in case. I’ll sit and watch the road one more time and then, if they don’t come, then I’ve made up my mind what I’m going to do. They were supposed to be here weeks ago. I kept thinking that Dad would drive up any day and it wasn’t any big deal at first because I had the others for company only they’re all gone now.
Dad and I hauled everything up here. That was the plan, we would bug out to this cabin and wait things out. It only took a day and a half since we used my truck and his trailer too. We even managed to get the dumb cow up here and she never cooperates for nothing.
I would be with them now if it wasn’t for my stupid truck. I spent all my birthday money and the money from working on Mr. Brewster’s farm last summer and the thing let me down right when I needed it most. Dad said not to worry about it but to start moving everything into the cave and he was going to go back and get Mom and Cindy and be back before night, but they never came.
I waited and was almost ready to walk out the next morning when Jen, Kermit, and Lisa showed up in Kermit’s jeep. They were totally freaking. Kermit’s dad told him to take the girls and run up here since he knew we had a root cellar in the cabin. I let them stay even though they said they hadn’t seen my parents. I knew that mom wouldn’t mind; Dad would have something to say about it but Kermit’s dad and mine were buddies from a long ways back. I figured he wouldn’t yell too loud and then maybe Kermit’s dad would owe him and he wouldn’t look at me so cross-eyed when I asked Jen to the prom. Mr. Barlow was always cleaning his gun every time I came over to ask if Jen could go someplace. Dad was the same way when Kermit came over to ask if Cindy could go out. I heard them laughing about it one time. Kermit and I never thought it was very funny.
Of course Dad would really be cleaning his gun if he knew the kind of stuff that Kermit was up to. I could have killed him, he brought his whole stash with him. I told him to hide the stuff out in the woods so dad wouldn’t find it. Not that he did what I told him to, if he had maybe they would be alive. I found out later that he hid it back in the big cavern after I showed them where everything was. The three of them helped me get everything moved in – figured it would be a good way to soften Dad up to them staying – and we only tripped over that stupid lip a couple of times.
Things got worse after the Bad Day. I can still hear the girls screaming when the rocks fell and the wind blew. The radio stopped working that day too and we couldn’t get any news. We kept talking about going to town but I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to get over the road because of all the ash and downed trees. Kermit’s four wheel drive wasn’t always reliable.
Ash was everywhere and I kept trying to make them at least put a bandana over their face when they went outside but they wouldn’t even though it made their eyes water and their skin itch. They said I wasn't their boss. The girls would only listen to Kermit and he was acting like a loser. Over the next few days we found a lot of animals dead in the forest. When we went down to the river we saw it was full of stuff and really muddy and gray. Then we started seeing the dead bodies float by. I think that was the beginning of the end. The girls really started freaking out. We were all coughing all the time by then but they were coughing more than me. A lot more.
Kermit’s answer for everything was a pill. The pills helped them to deal with stuff. The pills helped them when the coughing got worse. The pills … the pills were just an excuse. Kermit like his pills and he was getting his sisters hooked too. It got to be where they were bombed out of their heads most of the time. Then it started getting cold which was really crazy since it was summer. The girls only had like shorts and tank tops so they had to share my clothes or stay in the cave next to the fire. One day I came back from watching the road to find they were completely out of it and playing in the cold, muddy ash; it had started to sleet and they wanted to make mud pies for some stupid reason.
The next day Lisa started running a fever and Kermit wasn’t far behind her. We blamed the weather at first but they didn't have a cold after all. I think whatever was wrong with their lungs finally got too bad and they just … they started coughing so hard it sounded like they were getting tore up on the inside. One night Kermit started coughing up all this blood and then he just stopped breathing. I like totally couldn’t believe it. I'd known him like my whole life and suddenly he just was gone. Lisa lasted another week but Jen and I woke up one morning and she had all these bloody bubbles in the corner of her mouth and her nose. She’d gone some time during the night.
Jen and I were OK for about two weeks. We weren’t fighting and she seemed to be like trying to pull herself back together but then I caught her hiding her handkerchief; it had blood in it. She cried so hard she puked which was gross but I felt really bad for her. I used to think that I loved Jen but by then I knew it had just been kid stuff. Some days I hardly felt anything about anything. On those days all I did was sit and watch the road. I must have been sitting there when Jen took all of the pills that Kermit had left.
Jen has been gone almost three weeks. I woke up this morning and it was snowing again; that makes ten days straight now. And I was coughing again. And there was blood in my mouth after one really bad time. So, I’m going to sit here one last time. If they show up everything will be OK but if they don’t, everything will still be OK because I’m going to go to sleep and all my troubles will be over with one way or the other.
I was trying to not think about how heartbreaking the letter was. The boy couldn’t have been any more than sixteen or seventeen. The longer Donovan stayed quiet the more time it gave me to feel bad. I wondered how many times he was going to read the letter. Eventually I couldn’t stand it anymore and I asked, “So what do you think? Where do you think it is? It really does say there is a cave around here, it has to be the one we’ve been looking for.”
“Take it easy. Let’s not count our chickens before they’re hatched Emma.”
“I’m not saying that this isn’t what we’ve been looking for. We just need to move careful. If some of his friends knew enough to get to this place early on, that means that maybe others maybe new enough to find it later on.”
I wanted to get angry at him for not sharing my excitement but he was right. Security was his thing so I knew I needed to let him to do it. I’d gotten use to his guns a long time ago. They are basically just part of who he is and was what he asked for even before he asked for his pants after he woke up from surgery. I learned it was less work to leave them under his cot than to have to keep putting them up and then him asking for them back. He always seemed to know when I’d messed with them even if I hadn’t actually moved them.
He had his sidearm out; he’d taken it out of its holster before we got out of the half-track. I had the rifle slung over my shoulder. Then he took the rifle back and holstered the sidearm.
“Emma, I’ve asked you not to just stand out in the open like this.”
“Uh, um I got …”
“I know,” he said real patient. “But you’ve got to start remembering. We aren’t the only people left in the world, we just don’t know where they are, how many there are, or what kind of people they are.”
As lectures went, that was a pretty mild one compared to some he’d dished out but when he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Please. Do you want to leave me all alone?” it really sunk in that there was more than one reason why the team of two we had built was important.
“You think that’s what happened to the kid? He was alone and couldn’t handle it?”
“That played a pretty big role if this letter is authentic. If he had really thought his family was alive he could have siphoned the gas out of his truck and put it in the jeep and gone looking for them. I don’t see either vehicle around here though. For all we know the kid could have been out of his head and made it all up or been wandering around.”
“Oh man, wandering … I hadn’t even thought of that. The cave – assuming there is one – could be anywhere.”
“Relax Emma. We’ll look.”
“But where could it be?”
“Let’s assume he’s letter is accurate. The cave is away from the shack, but not too far that he couldn’t easily haul stuff from a truck parked at the shack to it.”
I added, “And … yeah, it says you walk into it. That could be versus climbing down into it or up into it.”
“Now wait, didn’t he say it was a pain to lift some of the stuff over the lip?”
“Yeah and that his friends were surprised by the cave because they’d only been thinking of the root cellar to hide in.”
We looked around us. The shack was thrown together in a flat place between the hills and the descent to the river. We theorized if the cave opening is large enough to walk into carrying boxes or bags yet not close enough to the shack to be seen from there maybe it is set at an angle or set back from the shack in some way or maybe even camouflaged. We probably weren’t looking for a hole in the ground because that would mean a ladder and surely he would have mentioned one instead of saying that two people could move stuff into the cave.
“Let’s try over there,” Donovan said pointing to some boulders that tumbled out of a heavily treed edge of the closest ascending area.
We’d been looking over an hour and I was getting depressed. We had walked a good piece away from the shack and half-track and still hadn’t found anything. We thought we had found it once but it was only an overhanging ledge.
I sighed and said, “I guess you were right, he must have wandered her from someplace else.”
“That’s not what I said. I said that was one possibility, not that it’s what definitely happened. Why don’t we take a break, eat lunch, and then move closer to the river area.”
I was tired and cold. I wanted to take a break and take a load off my feet for a minute but there wasn’t any rocks or stumps to sit on, there wasn’t even trees right there so I leaned against what I thought was another little overhang … and promptly fell in.
“Uh … I think I found it.”
He broke the snow drift away so he could fit through, trying hard not to laugh when a big wad of snow fell from the ceiling and hit me square in the face.
“Well glad you are amused. Now shut up and help me up.”
He did after he wound up his flashlight and looked around in the small room we were in. “There’s another opening in the back here. Come on.”
We’d definitely found “the cave.” What a mess. It looked like some of the dorm rooms would look close to the end of the semester when dirty clothes, fast food containers, and sundry other flotsam would pile just as high and as deep as it could get. It smelled like the dorms would too, like it needed to be condemned by the floor safety monitor. And it had a sour smoky smell from the wood ashes that overflowed from what we assume is supposed to be some type of fireplace. The bedding piled around the living space was filthy and rank as well.
There was yet another wide crevice, sort of like a hall way, in the back of that room and that opened into an even larger cavern that was full of junk. Well, not really junk but lots of stuff. It looked like a cross between a barn, a storage center, someone’s attic, and the junk room of a maintenance shed. Some of that stuff has been there a long time.
“Why didn’t they live in the big cavern instead of the smaller one?”
“They were kids and it was too much work to clean things up in the big one more than likely. This smaller room was probably easier to heat too.”
“Oh. Why …”
“Emma, let’s save the why’s and think about whether we’re staying here.”
“Why wouldn’t we?”
“Security, shelter, food, and water. And we need to see if whatever sickened those kids in the letter is still around to start with.”
“Well gee, aren’t you a spoil sport.” But I said it so that he knew I wasn’t really against what he was trying to do. There is a time to be all giddy and happy and then there is a time to use some logic and commonsense. I was actually glad to leave the cave and go back to the half-track for lunch.
While we ate we talked it over and we are pretty sure the conclusions we came to are the right ones. Donovan explained that he was in the Philippines on some assignment right after one of the volcanic explosions and there is this stuff that forms called “vog” which is a combination of volcanic ash and fog – same as smoke and fog makes smog – that when breathed can cause lots of respiratory problems and flu like symptoms. Severe cases left untreated can turn into a type of pneumonia or even death because all the little air sacks inside the lungs get coated in what amounts to concrete when the ash and water particles in the lungs mix. There may have been similar type problems from the ash that fell from Impact Day. And who knows what was in some of that ash. The first salvagers from our bunker reported skin irritations but that tapered off real quick. The kids going out and playing in the stuff when they were drugged up only increased their exposure. Then as it got colder and they suffered whatever other depravations and shocks they suffered it just … well, they just didn’t survive it.
The only haze that remains is high up in the sky and it may very well be years before that completely clears up. The snow has settled the heavier particles and keeps them trapped. If the snow and ice ever melt we’ll have a mess but for now it looks OK.
So that kicked out the concern over what made the kids sick; we felt safe that the cave could be the “shelter” part of the equation. Next came food and water. We’ve been very careful about filtering all of our drinking water, only using the cleanest snow, but those filters won’t last forever. We have to be able to secure a good source of drinking water and we think we have.
When we went back to the cave Donovan remarked that the kids had to have been getting water from some place. There isn’t any in the shack or in the empty root cellar beneath the shack, the river was contaminated according to the letter (and is now frozen over from our investigation) so we went looking around. Sure enough in the back of the big cavern was yet another series of caverns and we found where rope had been tied like a hand rail. You go down a sort of hill and there is what Donovan says is a spring fed pool. Where the water goes when he leaves the cave we don’t know and I sure as heck am not volunteering to find out. That water is cold! Worse, there are things living in the pool.
I thought Donovan was going to split something vital when I scooped up some water to test with his handy dandy pH kit and found this … thing … looking back at me. I made him jump a mile when I screamed because of the awful echo down there. When Donovan got a good look at the creature he said it couldn’t look because it was one of those blind troglobite things that live their whole livecycle inside caves where there isn’t any light. Oh, I could have hit him. It was a shrimp looking thing but it was magnified by the test tube so that it looked huge. Not that I’m afraid of bugs – Florida’s state bird was the cockroach – but anyone would have let out a yell if they saw that thing without expecting to. There are also some funky looking fish down in there.
The pool is actually kind of deep, I wouldn’t want to fall in. Donovan says he is going to rope it off somehow just in case one of us slips on the slope and tumbles down. There was absolutely no reason for him to look at me like that when he said it. OK, so I trip and stumble a little more than he does, but come on it’s certainly not a crime.
So with that – the water trickles out of a limestone deposit like a really small waterfall – we had the fresh water figured out. That was shelter and water. The food is kind of iffier though we are better off than we were before even if we don’t stay.
We are down to only a few self-heat meals but we’ve got another seven months of food packed away in the back of the half-track, nearly eight if we are careful. We looked for the animals the boy mentioned but nothing. You could see where they were put at one point but we suspect the kids may have slaughtered them for food or they died or they were turned loose and died. Whichever way you cut it they are long gone. The dung is well dried and while it smells a bit of animals in the big cavern it doesn’t smell all that bad like they were in there long. Also there is a bunch of animal feed in there … field corn, wheat, millet seeds and a room full of what Donovan called silage. I think silage is like a mixed salad for the animals to go along with the grains, kind of a diet balancer but I don’t need Donovan laughing at me anymore today so I’m not going to ask. I don’t know for sure how he expects to but apparently he said it will make good compost material
I’m so irritated with myself. I’ve squealed and screamed just enough to remind him that I’m a girl and he’s getting all he-man and annoying again right when I almost had him broke of that bad habit. Although sometimes it is kind of fun.
Oh good grief, I’m getting off track and that is all Donovan’s fault. We’ve got the tent pitched in the smallest front cave but for some reason he thought that maybe I needed my space or something so he’s sleeping like a mummy and I’m lying here writing because I can’t get to sleep because I’m cold.
Back to the food, Donovan swears that we can actually eat some of the feed. We can grind the corn for cornmeal and the wheat too, even if we have to do it between two big rocks. There isn't all that much but I figure every little bit helps. There’s some other stuff in there but not too awful much. Some jugs of crystallized honey, something that Donovan called blackstrap molasses that is so thick it won’t even pour, some salt and then other pantry type odds and ends. It looks like they just threw everything from the kitchen (and rest of the house) into boxes, bags, and clothes baskets and it has sat right where it was first put down. I got itchy to go in there and start inventorying and organizing things but Donovan said what was making him itch was the bedding and stuff in the kids’ living quarters.
So it looks like we are going to stay but before we can move in we’ve got to do a little spring cleaning. Or should I say it looks like I’m going to get stuck doing some spring cleaning. Donovan said he wants to scout around a little bit tomorrow. We still don’t know what happened to the three other bodies. We don’t think they are in the cave but we haven’t had the light to explore the whole thing very well. Some of that will be helped with tomorrow after we clean out the wood stove and light it. We’ll bring in the wind up lamp that I’m using now for our brightest light. And Donovan said he’ll make some torches for us after he figures out a way to make some wall sconces for them. All very medieval sounding but maybe that is what the world has been reduced to. Hope we have a second Renaissance before I’m old and gray.