Authors: e a lake
“When do you think they should be here?” I asked, trying to end the boredom.
She shrugged, spinning the cylinder again. “Within a day or two,” she answered, blowing make-believe dirt from the gun. “They were here a week ago. Then north of here for a couple nights, then north of that for the last four.” She pointed at the home. “Here is where they’ll stop next.”
I stared at the dilapidated faded green shack. “I got all fall. I don’t care.” As long as I got clean shots at Clyde and Jimmy, I really didn’t care how long this lasted.
“Sun’s almost down,” Jean said beside me, standing from her comfortable spot. “You take first watch and I’ll take the late night to morning.” She turned and grinned at me. “You got a blanket?”
I gave it to her, but I made sure she knew I was none too happy about it. “Don’t drool on it,” I chided, turning back to the shitty excuse for a home. “I don’t want your spit all over me while I’m sleeping.”
Midday we sat and snacked on whatever both of us had left. Jean’s dwindling supplies were much better than what I had, at least in my mind.
My pack had one-half container of dried venison, two small green apples and a handful of shriveled, spongy carrots.
Jean removed several large pieces of semi-stale flatbread from her backpack, accompanied by two flavors of jam. She also produced some dried cubed beef and dried pears. Compared to my stash, hers was like dining at The Ritz.
She asked, so I told her my story while we waited. I told her all of it: Chicago, my job, my folks, my wife. I told her about being drunk when the world ended, which made her smile. I told her about Frank, Lettie, Marge and Nate.
I explained my involvement with Daisy and Libby. That brought a sad smile to her face, one that spoke of her own pain. I even told her about Violet and Hope. I told her the whole story about Violet.
“Sounds like you have a decision to make when you get back,” she remarked. “What are you going to do?”
I wrung my hands and grimaced. “I’m going to have to send her and Hope away to live with Wilson and Lettie. There’s no other solution. I can’t risk losing a good thing with Daisy. Not for an 18-year-old girl.”
Jean looked at me, confused. “I thought you said she was 14?”
I smiled and chuckled. “And now you understand the complexities of Violet. What about you? You got family?”
Her eyes darkened. “Lucy is about all I got left. Mom and Dad died last winter. Both sets of grandparents are long gone. I got a brother, Jackson. He’s somewhere in New York, I suppose I’ll never see him again.”
I gave her my full attention. Her dead expression took a turn for the worse. “You got a husband?”
“Had one,” she answered quietly. “He died about a year in. Type one diabetic. He was okay at first. But that went south quickly once the insulin went bad and then dried up.”
Her answer came somewhere between matter-of-fact and all out crying. I dared the question I hated most. “Any kids?” I knew better, but had to ask.
“One. She’s dead, too. Caught the same fever my folks did.” She looked at me and I saw her eyes water. “Madison. She was four.”
I rubbed her right elbow. “I’m sorry.” A better man would have said something comforting, something a little more heartfelt. But not me.
“Thanks,” she answered quietly. “That’s why I got to get Lucy back. She’s all I got left.” She peeked at me. “Her and Raymond.”
I chortled. “You got a boyfriend?”
She grinned and shook her head. “Do I look like the kind of gal who would date a man who goes by Raymond? I don’t think so. He’s Lucy’s man.”
We sat silently waiting for something to happen. But nothing happened all day, and by the looks of things, it would be another day before our targets showed up.
She took my hand and interlocked our fingers. “You’re a decent man, Bob Reiniger. In a different world, we might have been something.” She let the words hang in the still afternoon air.
“But not in this world.” I decided to make it easy for her.
She sighed and leaned in. Placing a soft kiss on my lips, she moved my hands to her body.
And for some reason, I didn’t fight it.
The songs of the morning birds in the trees above woke me. I opened my eyes to little slits and noticed the first light of morning covering the forest. Not enough to make out colors, but enough to show me I wasn’t alone.
I slid away from Jean carefully so as not to wake her. Stretching a kink from my back, I studied the quiet house across the small opening.
Still no one there
, I thought. Good, it would have been embarrassing to be caught in the throes of passion by the men I was after.
Pulling a spongy apple from my pack, I dared a peek at my new friend — lover, I guess. I couldn’t figure what had caused my reaction to her advance, but it had happened. And even in the woods, on a bed of pines needles covered with a blanket I shared with Daisy at most times, it felt right.
I knew I should have felt remorse, but I didn’t. I’d cheated on Daisy. Just as I had cheated on Shelly with Daisy. However, in the upside down world we lived in, this was how it was. Tomorrow could be my death day. I enjoyed the moment knowing that another human and I found a connection. And that was special; there were so few connections left to be made in this world.
Our stories were similar. Except Jean knew most of her family, and a lot of friends she later admitted, were already dead. I had no idea. I’d always thought of Shelly still being alive. Same for Mom, Dad, Bud and his family. Now I wondered.
Jean woke a few minutes later, stretching and pulling her opened shirt closed. He face wore no telltale signs of embarrassment as I snuck one last peek at her smallish bare chest. Making eye contact with her, she grinned.
“I don’t suppose you have coffee and a cigarette to offer a girl,” she joked. Pulling her hair into a ponytail, she put her brown leather cowboy hat on and adjusted the brim. Man, she was sexy.
I held up my canteen for her. “I got water,” I offered, watching her take it from my hand. I noticed a single finger lingered on my hand for an extra second. “As for smoking, never was one. So I don’t have any idea what I’m missing there.”
She checked the house, nodding at it. “Still nothing?”
I peeked back for another look. “Quiet as can be. Unless they snuck in and didn’t want to disturb us last night.” I wasn’t sure how she’d take the mention of our late day tryst, but her smile grew, so I knew it was okay.
“That was nice,” she said, looking away. “But don’t be thinking we’re going steady now or anything.” That caused me to laugh. “Will you tell Daisy?”
Now that was an interesting question. “Yeah,” I admitted after some thought. “Eventually. She’ll understand. I’m just glad you won’t be hunting me down after this.”
She laughed. “You got enough women in your life, Bob. You don’t need another one.” She became serious and more focused on the house. “They should be back today, tomorrow at the latest. What’s our plan?”
I glanced back at her. What was our plan?
In the warmth of the afternoon sun, I watched Jean sleep. We had agreed earlier to take turns napping. One person would watch while the other slept. We wanted to be rested when Barster and his man showed up. It was as far as we ever got on our plan.
I listened as Jean snored slightly. It made me smile. Violet too had a cute little snore when she was overtired. Not the kind like my grandfather had, a snore that could wake the dead. Just a cute, little, tiny snore.
Before her turn to nap, Jean snuck to a nearby fast-moving creek where she filled our canteens and bathed. She didn’t tell me she had, but she was gone long enough to bathe. That and the wet hair and glisten of water on her clavicle told me she was clean.
I woke her when my eyes began to become heavy. By the sun, I knew it was late afternoon. Maybe this wasn’t the day of redemption. Perhaps it would have to wait until tomorrow.
I would contemplate all of that after my nap.
Day 1,106 — continued
A distant sound stirred me out of my slumber. As I bolted up, a hand covered my mouth, Jean’s gloved hand. As I focused on her, she raised a single finger to her lips.
“Shhh,” she whispered. “They just got here.”
Slowly sitting up, I turned and faced the home in the early evening light. In front of us, three riders dismounted their steeds and stood tightly in a group. Someone was talking, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Jean pointed with a shaking hand. “There’s Lucy,” she said. The girl stood slightly apart from the men, staring at the ground. Where Jean was tall and thin, her sister lacked any height. She was a stolen waif, lost in a forest of madness.
“The taller one is Barster,” Jean continued. “And that short, skinny shit is Jimmy Darling.”
She said the second man’s name with so much disdain that I just had to ask.
“Do you know them both from before?” I asked, staring into her eyes for any sense of recognition. “Or just the short one?”
She remained focused on her sister, moving in small motions to get a better glimpse through the pine boughs.
“Barster, no,” she replied, keeping her voice low so that we remained undetected. “Jimmy I know. I’ve known him for a long time. And I always thought he was as rotten as he’s proven to be.”
There had to be more to the story. I sat back and waited for Jean to speak again. She glanced at me with a half-shrug.
“Jimmy’s from nearby where I grew up…where
grew up.” For a moment, a memory must have invaded her thoughts. She shook at one point and came back around. “He was hot on me for a while. But then I got married and he left me alone.”
“And then Lucy…” I added, knowing only half the tale. But it made sense, at least to me.
“She was always so sweet, so innocent, so pure,” Jean said, sounding sad. “It wasn’t bad enough whatever happened happened. Then people started dying and then Jimmy grabbed her one night when she went out for supplies. I knew it was him.” She stared directly at me. “It was always gonna be him.”
“How old is she?”
Jean sighed almost loud enough for the others to hear her. Luckily, they were too involved with getting the saddles off the horses. “I’m 26, Lucy’s 21.”
“And her boyfriend has no interest in finding her? Or helping out at the very least?” I probably shouldn’t have asked that question. I already knew how Jean felt about her sister’s beau.
“Raymond’s a coward,” she said softly. “I haven’t seen him since before she got taken and not a lick of him since. He knows what’s happened. He’s probably just moved on.”
“Maybe he died,” I added quickly.
Jean laughed. “Oh, the world should be so lucky.” She nodded at the house.
Turning my attention back to my targets, I caught my first glimpse of the chain that held Lucy captive. It looked like an old, steel dog chain. Maybe 10 or 15 feet long, one end wrapped around her neck, the other held tightly by none other than Clyde Barster.
In the low light, I couldn’t recognize the man’s face, but his distinct voice took me back to when they first robbed us at Lettie’s place. A soft ringing in my ears must have meant my blood pressure was on the rise.
“Here ya go, darling,” Barster crowed, tossing a gunnysack at Lucy. “Find us something in there to cook up for dinner. And if you behave real nice like, I might even let you have a bite to eat.”
I noticed Jean fingering her revolver. “You want to take them now?” I asked.
Her eyes darted left, then right, and finally she looked up. “Too dark, not safe. We’ll have to wait until morning.”
In front of us, Lucy screamed as Jimmy molested her in plain sight. I felt a lump grow in my throat, and a quick glance at Jean told me she felt the same. Her face tightened to the point where I thought her lips might explode.
“Jimmy!” Barster shouted. “You got all night to do as you please with her. Have her get a meal cooked, then you can have your fun.”
I touched Jean’s right shoulder and she flinched. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, watching her wipe away the first tear I’d seen her shed. “I know this is hard.”
She sat back, clenching her fists. “I’ve been here before. Not this place, but another they use. I was so close to getting Lucy back. But they had an extra man then. He spotted me in the brush and I had to run.
“This is the third time I’ve seen my sister since she was taken. And every single time Jimmy Darling has his grubby hands all over her.” She turned and grabbed my forearm. “He’s mine. I want him. I want to cut his balls off and feed them to him while he dies. That’s what I want done with that prick.”
Raising a hand to my mouth, I tried to hide some of my horror. “How about we just kill him instead? Case closed that way. Plus, we won’t have a eunuch chasing after us for the rest of creation.”
She nodded once, her face still drawn and tight. “You can kill him, right after I get done with him.”
I turned and watched as someone lit a lamp or candle inside. The last we saw of the trio was Barster himself hanging a sheet over the window. That meant no night attack; too risky with a young lady inside who was an innocent.
So we waited, and Lucy’s cries haunted our nighttime watch.
I didn’t sleep except for a few winks here and there. I had to beg Jean to close her eyes for a little bit, which she finally did. Neither of us would be any good without a little rest. That actually felt like a recipe for death to me.
We both were wide awake by first light. That was kind of funny, I thought. The house was finally quiet.
There had been a fair amount of commotion during the evening inside the house. As we watched and listened, swatting to keep the bugs at bay, the two men argued verbosely.
“We don’t need no more supplies right now,” one said in a growling tone. “We got plenty of what it takes to live good for the next week. So drop it.” I assumed that was Barster.
“But we need to keep the pressure on that place to the south of here,” the second man whined. “We need to drive those people off so we can have that place before winter.”