Snug as a bug in a rug … or not. But we are getting there. It hasn’t been easy but we’ve at least started in a small way. That night outside of Elkton was the last time I really felt like writing for a while. The cold, monotony, and ultimate failure of our daily searches would get to us and we’d get cranky or the silence between us would get pretty intense. Then we’d snap back and be fine. Maybe if there’d been more people to share the workload with or bridge the space between us that our personal baggage created … but then again, maybe not. More than likely that would just have been a way of avoiding having to deal with each other’s issues.
It was during one of the good days that we ran into one of the worst things and one of our lowest days when we were blessed the greatest. Go figure. It’s like we had to experience a high to truly appreciate the shock of the low and experience the low to truly understand the high. It seems that there are days when everything is a lesson within a lesson in this life.
After Elkton we hit what Donovan called “Hill Country.” Every once in a while an outcropping of gray limestone or yellow sandstone would escape being completely covered by snow and I’d get a rambling lecture. He would tell me that the gray limestone was used by the early settlers for fireplaces and fire rocks as it withstands intense heat really well. There is also a blue limestone but I’ve yet to see any, or recognize it if I have seen it. He said around limestone you have good red clay and it makes good farmland even if you have to terrace it. The red sandstone has deposits of iron in it. There is also yellow and white sandstone in the area and sometimes you’ll see them all mixed together. The dirt where the sandstone is primarily yellow clay and it makes for poor farmland no matter what you do to it; it won’t hold fertilizer or mix very well with compost. Both types of rock will form caves which was an advantage to us since it meant that we didn’t have to look for a particular rock before we started looking for a cave.
“The area doesn’t have the same density of caves as Carter County but there are quite a few around here. If we had headed south from Elkton we could have gone to Glover’s Cave. That cave is pretty big and has been used since before the white man crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
“Why didn’t we just stop there? Maybe there were other people and …”
“I thought about it Emma. I just …”
I was a tad on the cranky side right about then and getting tired from tramping fruitlessly through the snow day in and day out. “Just what? What would have been so bad about checking if we were that close? What if there was a big survivor post there and … I don’t know … I just don’t understand? I thought the point was to like find a good place and stuff.”
He startled me with his angry reply. “If you laugh I swear I’ll twist your tail.”
Despite the fact that Donovan can be a pain, cantankerous, and that he suffers from an advanced case of testosterone poisoning he rarely makes direct threats like that and when he does he usually doesn’t mean it. This time I really think he did.
At the shocked look on my face he growled, “I … I mean it Emma.”
Running out of patience I asked, “Do I look like I’m laughing?! Tell me already.”
“I had a … a dream,” he mumbled.
My jaw must have dropped because he went stomping off, swinging the walking stick like he wanted to beat something with it … probably me.
“Hey! Hey Donovan, stop already will you?”
“Why? So you can laugh? Or worst yet, maybe you think I’m possessed or something. I’m a grown man Emma … I don’t need your patronizing.”
“Yeah, well I think you’re possessed all right. Possessed of a severe case of hard headedness and unwarranted defensiveness. You surprised me is all. If I’d said the same thing to you you’d have done more than just stand there with your mouth hanging open like I did.”
He finally stopped and let me catch up with him. “Maybe,” he muttered.
“No maybes about it. So, you had a dream. A good dream of someplace else being where we should head or …?”
I didn’t get to finish before he said, “Someone took you OK?. It was bad. Like Level 5 only the nightmare version. And something about the people who did it … I don’t know Emma. I don’t know exactly what it was or is, I just know that somewhere around Glover’s Cave is something bad and if we go there I won’t … won’t be able to protect you. It woke me up in a cold sweat.”
I looked at him. He wasn’t happy about the dream … having it or telling me about it. I doubted seriously he was fibbing just as an excuse to explain why he didn’t want to go that way. That isn’t like him at all. I ignored his prickliness and put my hand on his arm and I could feel that his defensive shields were fully engaged. “So … OK. Glover’s Cave is not a good idea. Next time just clue me in so I won’t step in the stinky stuff.”
“Just like that?” he asked suspiciously.
“Sure. Why not? You’ve never given me any reason to doubt you before. Why start now? Your reason might be a little … unusual, but it can’t be any stranger than us wandering around playing Last Man On Earth … not the Charlton Heston or Will Smith version, but the original. However, let’s pick a different ending to our biopic. Vincent Price may have been classier but he still wound up dead.”
He looked at me and then snorted, “You really are a geek aren’t you?”
“That’s geek-ess; geek is the male form of the noun and you said you refused to think of me like a guy friend.” I was really cutting up and acting stupid to get his mind off of what was obviously something he was very uncomfortable admitting to. I wanted to let him know it really was OK. I was exaggerating the swing of my hips, playing up the girl angle, and looked back over my shoulder to bat my eyes really goofy. We both started laughing, Donovan in surprise if nothing else, and then there was nothing beneath my feet and I was falling.
Before I could scream I landed hard enough to knock the wind out of myself. I could hear Donovan calling my name right above me but it took me nearly a half minute to do more than wheeze.
“S’OK … knocked … wind …”
His voice sounded a little less frantic when he asked, “You sure? Nothing broken, twisted, mangled?”
“Give … give me a sec. Landed on something … ow! … what is this?”
I pulled my flashlight out of my pack because the dim light from the hole in the ceiling that I had fallen through wasn’t enough, especially not with Donovan half stuck through it. I finally got a good look at what I had landed on and scrabbled away. Then I started mewling and then outright screaming because every where I turned my light they were stacked like cordwood.
“Emma! What is it?! Emma!!”
“I … want … out!! Donovan!!! I want out now!!!” I yelled near the top of my lungs. The sound of my voice bounced back to me in an eerie echo.
I panicked. I freely admit it. I could hear him calling my name, trying to calm me down, but I was beyond reason. I ran into another stack of them, knocking some … things … over causing me to scream some more. Then I hit a wall, rolled through an opening and just kept running and climbing and sliding. I hit a tumble of rocks about knee high and I pitched top or tail and then punched through a thin snow drift, landing outside in the light and fresh air.
Donovan must have heard the crash and my crying. Yeah, I was crying. When I say I panicked I really did it all the way. He slid down the hill and I guess he couldn’t figure out what was going on. He had his gun out.
“Emma! Emma!! Calm down. Listen to me. Was it an animal? A person?” He was trying to push me behind him to protect me and I was trying to practically crawl up in his arms.
Then he slapped me. Not hard, but hard enough. Later he even made me sit still while he checked to see if he had bruised me any. I don't hold it against him; the shock of it was just enough to finally break the grip of anarchy my brain had descended into.
“Donovan. Oh … oh … I,” and while I was still crying at least I was getting back in control and after a few deep breaths I had myself locked down again even if I was breathing like a baby elephant was sitting on my chest.
“Emma what the @#$% just happened?!”
“I’m … I’m sorry … I’m … It …,” I grabbed him again when he started to move.
“Come on, we’re knee deep in snow. It’s not so deep over there. Was it an animal? Are you … claustrophobic or something?”
“Donovan I … I think …,” I had to take another deep breath before I could tell him. “I think it … it was … a … a butcher shop.”
But I couldn’t answer him. I was under control, but just barely.
“Emma, stay here. I’m going to check …”
“No!” Then in a calmer voice I forced myself to say, “No, I’m coming with you.”
He gave me the eye and asked, “Are you sure?”
I nodded and then followed him through the crevice I had shot out of and back to the small cave. I had a hard time being there but we didn’t stay long. Only long enough for Donovan to understand why I called it a butcher shop and why I reacted the way I did.”
I led the way back into the light, then sat on a rock.
“Stay here. I need to take another look around in there.”
When he came back out he shared the rock I was sitting on. He looked as green as I felt but he put his arm around me which helped settle me down and warm us both up after the shock. After collecting himself he said gently, his voice shaking a bit too, “They’ve been gone a long time Emma. There’s no blood on the floor in there or in the ice surrounding the bits and parts so they were dead before they were …,” he belched, shuddered, and then continued. “You saw the man sitting at the table? It was likely him. There was a journal. Last date was six months after Impact Day. Didn’t make any kind of sense and wasn’t really legible either. His face and hands were covered in sores. He, I think he, took his own life. A lot … a lot of the corpses of the … the corpses appear emaciated. My … my guess is they survived the initial impacts and then the cold set in and the food ran out … and then people got desperate. There are all sorts of stories from history about this happening. As horrible as it is we shouldn’t be surprised given the extent of the catastrophe and lack of game we have seen in the area.”
Even the Bible speaks of it happening. I looked it up in my Concordance later and was surprised at how many times it came up (Deuteronomy 28:53-57; Leviticus 26:29; 2 Kings 6:26-29; Jeremiah 19:9; Ezekiel 5:10; Lamentations 4:10; John 6: 53-56). It causes an instinctive and distinctive reaction in the psyche of most people. It’s one of the greatest cross-cultural taboos yet it still happens more often than anyone wants to admit. Something will cause an individual to shred that last boundary of humanity and cross into the truly unspeakable.
We walked back to the half-track and moved our base camp a little sooner than we had planned. Neither one of us believed we would find what we wanted near that cave. Fuel was running low and our discovery cast a pall over the next several days. I think we were beginning to lose confidence or maybe hope.
After dinner the last night at the next camp before we moved yet again, I left the fire to go read my Bible when Donovan said, “Don’t go. It’s … it’s warmer here.”
I turned and asked him, “You sure?”
As I was sitting back down on the stump I had been using as a camp chair he asked me, “Why do you?”
“Why do I … oh you mean this?” I asked pointed to the leather bound book that had belonged to my father. At his grunt I answered, “Different reasons.”
He squinted one of his “elaborate or else” looks so I shrugged and said, “Every foible and problem known to man can be found within these pages. There really is nothing new under the sun … theft, murder, lying, cheating … sexual deviancies, mental illness … bastardy, infertility, loneliness … slavery, kidnapping, bullying … arrogance, promiscuousness, fear, loathing … cults, gambling, addictions … dystopia, war, pestilence, taxes …”
He humphed as a way to stop my list and said, “Sounds depressing.”
“No because there’s also adventure, excitement, exploration … stories of love, stories of redemption … hope, faith, miracles … heroic deeds … promises kept and promises to look forward to. I’ve never found any other textbook that has ever taught me as much and kept me coming back for more time and again.”
He gave a chuff of laughter and said, “You almost make it sound real.”
“OK, so what are you reading tonight?”
“I’ve been in the Psalms. King David was quite a guy, yet he was his own worst enemy. But when he had it right he really had it right.” I opened at the place I had marked and read Psalm 42. Donovan was pretty quiet after that but I think the depression had lifted just a little, for both of us
In the gray light of the morning neither one of us seemed to have been able to hold onto the feelings of hope and renewal. Call me weak or call me human, the sights I had seen still haunted me and I couldn’t seem to shake it. I wasn’t the only one. We were quiet as we packed up and were sharing a cup of instant cocoa when he said, “Emma, we don’t have that much fuel left. I … I underestimated what it was going to take …”
“Uh … what?”
“I said I have no regrets. I’d do it all again … except maybe that cave; that I could live without repeating.”
He snorted, “You and me both.”
“Where to next partner?”
“You sure you want me picking? I haven’t had much luck up to this point.”
I’m not sure why I said it. It sounded even cornier than I thought it would. “I’ll follow where you lead.”
He looked at me real hard and then said, “See that track over there? There’s a gravel road under the snow. I think it goes back down towards the river we’ve been seeing. Could be a fish camp or campground along there. Doesn’t look like too many downed trees either; the hollows appear like they were pretty well protected compared to all of the other areas we’ve been in.”
“Don’t know … but … I just don’t know Emma. As much noise as this thing makes,” he said kicking our ride’s front tire, “and that we haven’t been trying to be quiet, and someone should have been by or we would have scared up an animal or two if there were any. But nothing. Nada. Zip.”
With that less than happy thought we were off again. The grade was steeper than anything I had ever driven on and I felt the tires and tracks taking turns slipping in the snow.
“Want me to drive?” he asked when he saw how tense I was.
“If it gets steeper maybe. I can’t believe anyone would drive this on a regular basis.”
“Might not have. We’re pretty far back in the hills. Could be a logging road or might go to … some … one’s …” His voice trailed off and then, “Stop … that look like a house to you?”
House was too kind a description once we reached it. We’d also reached the end of the road.
We got out of the half-track and started looking around. We found him at the foot of the steps at the rear of the shack. Here was another one that had been gone a long while. The difference was the way he was dressed … or not dressed. His head was pillowed on a once expensive looking down jacket, like he’d just stopped to take a nap and gotten too comfortable to move. But before Donovan covered his face I could swear he had a look of peace about him. No animal had gotten to the body so it looked a bit like a well-preserved ice mummy.
Donovan was checking the shack to see if we had another one of the desperate few while I stayed outside. You know how it is when you are standing around with nothing to do and no one to tell you no, you get nosy. There was an old mailbox – why would anyone have one out in the middle of nowhere like that anyway – and when I flipped down the lid I was surprised to see a few sheets of notebook paper. I pulled it out and before long I called, “Donovan!” When he stepped out onto the porch I said, “There’s a cave!”