Authors: Juliette Harper
Tags: #apocalyptic, #Urban, #story, #short, #read, #Survival, #Paranormal, #zombie, #novella
FERMATA: THE SPRING
A Post-Apocalyptic Survival Series
Spring 2016: The Cabin
Through the long winter the inhabitants of the small cabin slowly learned more about one another. Vick's strength returned steadily, but she was plagued with a lingering sense of fatigue, spending long afternoons writing in her journal and then sitting with Lucy and Abbott by the fire late into the night.
The old man, sensing that her recovery was as much psychological as physical, proved to be an outstanding listener. He asked questions that invited long, introspective responses, so that the odyssey that brought the survivors to his door unfolded naturally and contemplatively. The talks were as much for their benefit as his, and often when Vick trailed into silence, Lucy would pick up the narrative.
They always spoke in low tones because Hettie and Beth were sleeping nearby, but neither ever gave any sign of awakening or being aware of the lengthy conversations. When that fact became apparent, Abbott finally pointed to the blanket "walls" of the space the old woman shared with the little girl and said, "Tell me about them."
Lucy looked at Vick and they shared a silent moment of communication. "We might as well," Lucy said. "He has to know sooner or later."
Vick shifted in her chair and stared into the fire as if gathering her thoughts. Then she began. "Finding Beth wasn't easy for me."
Other than a thick layer of dust, the toy store had survived the mayhem intact, proving Vick’s sardonic contention that the dead weren’t into board games. “Lucy, we’re in the middle of the worst remake of 'Night of the Living Dead' imaginable and you want jigsaw puzzles?”
Lucy grinned and pulled out a 15,000-piece puzzle made up of brightly colored interlocking shapes. “I can beat you at this.”
“Putting together a puzzle is not a game, Lucy.”
“Sure it is, if I get it together faster than you can. And
it’s better than getting crushed night after night at Scrabble. I mean honestly, what the hell does 'quixotry' mean anyway?”
“The act of creating visionary schemes,” Vick said.
“You made that up,” Lucy accused.
Vick started to laugh, but a shuffling sound to her right made her snap her gun up level in a double-handed stance. “Dead,” she said simply.
Lucy dropped the puzzle box and swung round with her shotgun. Ever since they'd found the 12-gauge suppressor in a gun store, Lucy had insisted on carrying the pump action weapon. It wasn't completely quiet, but it was quiet enough. Vick derisively called it her "blunderbuss," another word Lucy had to look up.
"I'm not as good with a gun as you are," Lucy said, defending her choice of weapon. "It's hard to miss with this thing."
"Fine," Vick said, "just make sure you hit the dead and not me."
As they both stood at the ready in the toy store, a display of stuffed animals tumbled to the floor and a filthy little figure in a pink dress came out, her tangled, dirty ringlets of hair hanging around a thin baby face.
“Aw damn," Lucy said, partially lowering the shotgun. "It's a kid. Anything but that.”
The sight of the child made Vick go cold. She willed her mind to go quiet and still, letting a steel curtain drop over her green eyes. “Go outside,” she ordered in a level tone. "You don't need to watch this."
“I’m not going anywhere,” Lucky said, sounding a little annoyed. “You don’t always have to do the hard things alone.”
Through clenched teeth, Vick said, "Fine. If you’re staying, shut up.” Every time she had to shoot a child, she went back to that night in Maurice's office. Is this what she had done then? Had she gone to a place in her mind where she really was what her dear departed husband had always called her? “A cold-hearted, methodical bitch?”
She didn’t know why she pulled the trigger that night, but she could account for every pull of that same, tiny, functional lever in the months and years since. And when she had to put a bullet in a child’s head, she always heard the same sound. That click just before the shot. Logically, she knew it was impossible for time to still to the point that she could hear the firing pin strike the shell, but she always heard it just the same -- and it always sent the same realization through her. Hell had no fires that could damn her more than that sound or make her feel more searing pain.
Vick put the front sight between the child's startlingly clear, blue eyes and breathed out slowly as she squeezed the trigger, only to swear sharply when Lucy’s arm struck her hands. The bullet hurtled wide and exploded a gumball machine.
“Have you lost your goddamn mind?” Vick yelled, re-sighting on the child. She just wanted to get it over with. Once was bad enough.
“Vick," Lucy barked urgently. "Stop! Look at her. She’s crying.”
And then Vick saw it. The rivulets of tears washing away the filth on the gaunt cheeks.
The sound of the muffled shot had been enough to send the child into hysterics. Lucy approached her carefully, talking in gentle tones. When Lucy held out her arms, the little girl allowed herself to be picked up, and instantly locked her arms around Lucy’s neck. Through gasping sobs she gave her name as Beth.
As Lucy comforted the terrified girl, she looked at Vick imploringly for help, but the other woman simply turned on her heel and walked away.
Lucy stared after her in disbelief. “I have to get some things for her,” she said to Vick’s retreating back. “We’re not set up for a kid back at the house.”
“Vick, I need you to watch her.”
“I can see her from here.”
When Beth’s sobs subsided, Lucy sat her down in a circle of stuffed animals and alphabet blocks. “Now you stay right here,” she said, kissing her little forehead. “I’ll be right back. You stay here. Promise?”
The child’s eyes were still enormous with fright, and she was clutching a stuffed rabbit, but she nodded her head vigorously.
Lucy walked over to where Vick was staring fixedly out the front window of the store watching for signs of activity in the street. “What is wrong with you?!” she hissed.
“I don’t like children,” Vick snapped.
“Since when?” Lucy shot back. “There’s a child’s room back at the house on the second floor.”
Vick turned toward her. If Lucy hadn’t known her so well, she would have recoiled from the force of the look. Instead, she stood her ground when Vick said menacingly, “I told you never to mention that room.”
“And I don’t mention it,” Lucy whispered angrily, “but don’t tell me some cock-and-bull story about not liking children. And don’t scare an already terrified child because you can’t deal with your memories.”
“You mind your own business, Lucy,” Vick said in an icy tone.
“Last time I looked, lady, you are my business.”
The drive back to Maine was long and silent. Vick kept her eyes fixed on the road while Lucy sat in the passenger seat with Beth asleep in her arms. Once back at the house, Vick stalked off to her study and slammed the door.
Lucy carried the filthy child upstairs and gave her a bath, dressing her with the clothes she’d taken from the store in Boston. Then she carried a couple of straight-backed chairs up from the dining room to use as make-shift bed rails and settled the child in the room next to her own.
She watched Beth sleeping and smiled, remembering how her own younger brothers rolled out of bed when they were this child’s age. Then they were pains in her backside. Now that they were gone, they were a pain in her heart.
When Lucy was satisfied that Beth wouldn’t wake up, she went downstairs. The door to the study was ajar, and for a second she thought about going inside. Instead, she stood in the shaft of light falling from within and shifted her field of vision until she saw Vick sitting at the desk.
There was an open bottle of brandy in front of her friend and a shot glass in her hand. As Lucy watched, Vick filled it four times, downing each shot without flinching. There was a picture in a frame sitting in the middle of the desk, but Lucy couldn’t make out the image.
What unnerved her most was the way Vick’s hands were shaking. She looked for all the world like a junkie in need of a fix. In the two years they’d been at the house, Lucy had never even been able to get her friend to have a beer with her.
Vick always said the same thing. “Drinking leads to thinking.” Instead of alcohol, Vick drank coffee – one endless cup after another. It was no mystery to Lucy why the woman didn’t sleep. Lucy secretly dreaded the day when they couldn’t find any more coffee to salvage from the ruins of the stores where they “shopped.”
Lucy stood there and quietly watched her friend suffer. Vick was a take-no-prisoners kind of woman. Lucy knew with complete certainty that Vick had her back. She had no doubt that Vick cared for her. But she also knew she couldn’t walk into that room.
Instead, she stood there and watched as Vick put her head in her hands and began to sob. There is no lonelier sound in the world than listening to someone you love cry and having to let them do it.
Tears spilled out of Lucy’s own eyes as she sat down, put her back against the wall, and just stayed there in case Vick needed her. She knew that a survival instinct as strong as Vick’s wasn’t drawn from a shallow well. It was pulled up from the bottom of an ocean of pain. In those moments, Lucy didn’t know the depths of that ocean, but she was soon to find out.
“Lucy. Lucy! Wake up!”
Groggy eyes blinked into focus. “Don’t shout, honey. You’ll wake the baby,” she mumbled.
In spite of herself, the corners of Vick’s mouth threatened a smile. “Very funny. Would you like to tell me what you’re doing asleep on the floor outside my study?”
“I didn’t want to interrupt you.”
“Interrupt me at what?” she asked suspiciously.
Honest eyes met hers and Lucy said, “I saw that you were reading, and I know you don’t get a chance to enjoy your books much anymore. I didn’t want to bother you.”
Vick stared down at the younger woman and swallowed the sudden lump that came into her throat. She knew Lucy was lying, and Lucy knew she knew she was lying. Lucy had seen, and she just sat down outside the door like the faithful soul she was. Even with most of a bottle of brandy in her, it took all Vick had to say, “Thank you.”
“Just take the thank you, Lucy. Did you want to ask me something?”
Looking visibly relieved, Lucy got up off the floor. It still seemed odd to her that she was so much taller than Vick when Vick cast a much longer shadow.
“While I was bathing Beth, she started talking about wanting to go to the ‘safe place’ to find her Mom. I think we should try to get some information out of her. Maybe we need to know what this ‘safe place’ is all about.”
Vick’s expression hardened. “There’s no such thing as a safe place, Lucy. There never has been. Good night.”
The Cabin, 2016
"Beth was the first person you found alive after Lucy?" Abbott asked.
"Yes," Vick said, "and it made no sense to either one of us. She couldn't have been more than 2 or 3 when the epidemic hit. So even though I didn't believe what she was saying about a safe place, it was clear that someone had to have been taking care of her."
"It was more than that," Lucy said. "Beth wasn't nearly traumatized enough to have been living on the streets for long, and she wasn't hungry enough. She's never been able to tell us exactly how she came to be in that store, but she definitely wanted to go back to what she thought of as home."
Abbott chewed at the end of his pipe. "Did you look for her home?" he asked.
Lucy and Vick exchanged another long look. Vick swallowed hard and shook her head, a cue for Lucy to answer. "In time we did," she said, "but not until we found out something about Beth that shook Vick up pretty hard. Can I tell him?"
Vick nodded, turning her eyes to the fire again and listened as Lucy resumed the story.