Authors: N.C. Reed
The List! Daddy’s List of “People Who You Can Trust”! How had he forgotten the List? It was one of the things Daddy had said was most important, people to check with if anything ever happened. Of course, he didn’t think Daddy had ever counted on something like this. In fact, Billy knew he hadn’t, because there wasn’t a notebook for “When You Might Be the Last Person Alive”. Daddy had been plenty smart, but there was no way he could have seen this coming.
He started toward the house once more, feeling better now that he had remembered the List. The List would tell him who to go check on, who to trust, who to help, and who to ask for help, if he needed it. He didn’t think he would need it, but you never knew.
He’d get The List out as soon as he got home. He stopped again, and took out his notebook. In block letters he wrote “If they ain’t on the list, don’t trust them.”
There. He’d remember that now.
Billy parked the Ranger in the barn and went straight to the house. He wanted to take a look at The List before he forgot it. He knew he’d remember it again, since it was in his notebook, but he wanted to see it now. The idea that he just might not be all alone in the world had chased away some of his fear, at least for the moment.
Billy almost ran the final few steps, taking the porch steps themselves two at a time. Rommel bounced along behind, sensing that his person was excited. Billy went to his father’s study, and looked at the shelf of notebooks and research material there. He quickly found what he was looking for and pulled the notebook down. It was dusty, he noted, and felt a momentary twinge at that. His mother would not have approved. He took his notebook out, made a note to dust the house, then put it away and grabbed the large three ring binder from the desk. Sitting in what had been his father’s favorite chair, Billy opened the book.
I have made a list for you of the people you should be able to count on if there is ever a problem. Being able to count on someone, or trust them, doesn’t mean they get to know all your business. If they ask something I’ve told you should be kept
secret, you don’t have to lie, nor should you be rude by saying ‘none of your business’. Just smile, and say ‘I’m okay for now. I’ll have to let the future take care of itself’.
Doing this lets them know that you are okay, and that they don’t need to worry. One last thing. Remember that hard times sometimes changes people. Just because someone is on this list, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should automatically trust them. Think of it as a car problem. You think you know what’s wrong, but until you check under the hood, you can’t be sure.
Always check under the hood, son.
“Yeah, always check under the hood,” Billy repeated aloud. He could remember that. He took out his notebook again, and added ‘always check under the hood’ to his note about trusting people on the list. Once that was done, he turned to the next page. There was The List. His father had organized the list by distance. The closer someone was to him, the higher on the list. Sure enough, Mister Silvers and Widow George were right there at the top.
The Widow George was first, Mister Silvers and his family second.
Ignoring the rest of the list for now, Billy set the book on the desk, and looked at Rommel.
“Let’s go check on the neighbors, boy.”
Billy eased his truck into the Widow George’s driveway, careful to make sure she had plenty of time to see him coming. As he parked the car, he remembered again how Rommel had spooked the cattle. Turning to the dog, he pointed at him.
“Stay.” Rommel looked at him, almost as if he was hurt, Billy noted, but he lay down in the seat. Billy ruffled his massive head lightly.
“Good boy.” He got out of his truck, debating on whether or not to take his rifle. He was wearing his pistol all the time now, and the rifle might spook the elderly woman. He left it lying on the seat.
Walking slowly, looking around him carefully as he went, Billy made his way to the Widow George’s carport door. Her car was still here. He always used the carport door, because the Widow George always used it. She didn’t like people tramping through her living room, she said. Billy respected that. He didn’t like people snooping around his shop, either. Never had.
He rang the bell, and waited, and waited. Then he waited some more, before ringing the bell again. Nothing. He was about to turn away when he noticed that the interior door was slightly ajar.
Billy froze, not knowing what to do. Should he go inside, and check on Widow George? What if she was dead? What would he do then? What if she was alive…? was his next thought….and needed help? What if she needed help he couldn’t give her? She might be hurt, or sick, she might have fallen. . . .
Billy took a deep breath, realizing that he was about to panic. I can’t just concentrate on what if, he chided himself. I’m panicking over things that might not even be. Gotta keep calm. Check under the hood. He took another deep breath, and opened the door.
The stench was overwhelming. Billy immediately gagged, and ran back out of the house. He ran to the edge of the carport, and stopped, stomach heaving as he tried to get his breath back, and get that stench from his nostrils. Nothing he had encountered in town had prepared him for this.
Gasping for air almost made him panic. The idea of suffocating was actually trying to suffocate him with fear of suffocating. He fought to clear his head as well as his lungs.
“Gotta keep calm, gotta keep calm, gotta keep calm. . . .” he thought.
He felt a bump at his leg and almost jumped. He looked down to see Rommel looking up at him. When the dog had seen Billy run from the house, he had leapt out the window of the truck to protect his person from whatever was chasing him.
But nothing was chasing me except fear, Billy’s mind registered in slow motion. That realization helped him to finally get his breathing under control. Calm, calm, calm. . . .
“Thanks, Rommel,” he finally managed to say, rubbing the dog’s head. “Good boy.” Rommel’s tail stub wagged as if to say, ‘of course’. Billy looked back at the house and immediately felt the gag reflex again.
I need to bury the poor soul, I guess, he thought to himself. But I just can’t go back in there, not right now. I’ll come back, maybe, with a mask and gloves, and maybe some Lysol to disinfect. . . . He stopped right there.
What if he wasn’t really immune? What if the virus had killed poor Widow George and Billy was still alive by pure luck? If he went in there he might get sick and die. What if breathing that foul air, even for a second, was all it had took to make him sick? Would he die now? If he did, would there be anyone left?
Who would take care of Rommel? Who would feed the horses and the cows? Billy’s only thought at the idea of his own death was who would care for the things he left behind. He had no idea how odd, or how very rare, that was. He fought off the re-emerging panic attack, breathing deep, clean air as he moved toward his truck.
“I’m sorry Widow George, I just can’t take the chance”, he thought to himself. As if she might hear him. He looked at Rommel, walking right by his side.
“We can’t take the chance, boy,” he explained. “Let’s go and see if Mister Silvers is alive.”
Billy felt his dread building as he approached Mister Silver’s farm. His experience at the Widow George’s house had not yet left him, and probably wouldn’t for a while. There was nothing he could do for her, though, and he was smart enough to recognize that. So he was doing the only thing he could do under the circumstances.
He turned onto the small road that led to Mister Silver’s house, only to find that the gate was closed and locked. Was that a good sign? Billy didn’t know. He did know that he wouldn’t trespass. He thought about leaving a note for Mister Silvers, but decided against it. He didn’t know who might read it. He wasn't sure he wasn’t the only one left alive, but he wasn’t sure he was, either.
Billy didn’t want any trouble. Not from anywhere. He decided that he’d check on Mister Silvers and his family another time. He started back for his truck.
“Stop where you are!” he heard someone shout. Billy turned to see where the voice had come from.
“I said stop!” the voice called again, this time more frantic. Billy thought the voice was coming from his left hand side, from inside the woods along the roadway to Mister Silvers.
“It’s just me, Billy Todd!” Billy called out. “I wanted to see if Mister Silvers was okay!”
“Oh great, the dummy from down the road,” he heard a female voice full of scorn from the other side of the drive say. Billy frowned at that. That wasn’t really called for, was it? He was just being neighborly, trying to check up on people.
“We don’t have whatever it is you need, so get moving!” the female voice shouted.
“I don’t need anything,” Billy replied, puzzled. “I was just tryin’ to see if Mister Silvers and his family were okay. I checked on the Widow George, and then. . . .”
“What about the Widow George?” the male voice called. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Billy was starting to get mad, now. “I went to check on her, just like I was here, only. . .only she wasn’t okay,” he finished, his voice dropping some, and his anger abating as he thought about what he’d experienced at the George house.
“You take her things?” the female voice demanded. “Kill her for them, maybe?” That was it.
“You know what?” Billy shouted. “I don’t seem to care no more if you’re okay or not. I came up here hopin’ to find out I wasn’t the only person left alive in the world. Now, I wish I was.” With that he started back to his truck, stomping the whole way.
“We didn’t say you could leave!” the female voice shrilled.
“Last time I checked, I don’t need your permission,” he yelled back. He grabbed the door, and got into the truck. He did something then he’d never done before. He slammed the truck into gear, and spun his tires in anger as he peeled out, heading back home. He could still hear the two voices yelling, but he was so mad now that he wouldn’t have stopped if they had stepped in front of him.
Well, I guess I can cross Old Man Silvers off the list, too.
He just couldn’t understand. He would be glad to see someone he knew. True, he might not just invite them in for tea, but he wouldn’t be rude to them. He was pretty sure, now, that he had been dealing with Mister Silvers’ son and daughter. They had no call to be so rude, or so mean. The very idea that he would hurt Widow George!
If Billy had one failing, it was his anger. Billy was slow to anger. He always had been. His mother had told him that even as a baby he had never really been fussy, and rarely cried out. He was even tempered, almost to a fault, but that even temper and slow boiling point had a drawback.
When Billy got mad, he was mad all over, and he didn’t, as a rule, get over it. Ever.
And right now, Billy was mad.
“Dummy from down the road, huh?” Billy said to himself. “Accusing me of doing something bad to Widow George! Of all the things! I’ve known that kind old woman my whole life!” Rommel looked at his person in confusion, but read Billy’s anger correctly and sat still and silent on the seat beside him.
Billy was so mad that he drove right passed his driveway. He was half way to town before he realized it, too. He slowed his truck, and tried to simmer down. A few deep breaths and he began to center himself again. Now he was starting to get angry at himself for getting angry in the first place, which reminded him why he was mad in the first place, which made him mad all over again.
“I got to quit thinkin’ on this,” he murmured to himself. “I can’t get mad. I can’t stay mad. I got too much to do.” He looked at Rommel.
“I have known Widow George my whole life, you know,” he said to the dog. “I can’t leave her there like that. It ain’t Christian. Mamma an Daddy wouldn’t like me to do that. I gotta take care of her.” Having said it aloud, Billy knew what he had to do.
“I guess we’ll go into town, boy,” he said finally “since we’re already half way there anyway. I’ll get what I need for the Widow George and the stuff on my list, and then we’ll go and bury her proper. I can’t do no less than that for someone who was so nice to me all my life.”
Billy had forgotten his trepidation about the cars along the road into town. Those fears came rolling back as he started to see them again. He drove very carefully around them as if afraid he could somehow disturb them.
Remembering that he was coming to town in part to get the things he would need to bury the Widow George, Billy was again reminded of all the people who had died in town, and now these on the road. Who would bury them? Say words over them?
“I can’t do it all,” he said to himself, shaking his head. “I can’t do it all. I’m going to take care of the Widow, and then I’m going home, and I’m going to stay there.” Seeking out people who might still be alive just wasn’t working out, he decided. He could make it just fine on his own, and he knew it. It would be nice to have other people to talk to, but he didn’t need it. He just wanted it.
“And Mamma always said that needful things came before wantful things,” he thought to himself. “I might want to have neighbors again, have friends again, but I don’t need them”, and that was the end of it, so far as Billy was concerned.
Billy was in town by now, still driving carefully, although the streets in town weren’t nearly as bad as the road leading into it. He eased to a stop when he neared the center of town, looking at the sky. Frowning, he looked at his watch.
“Wow!” he exclaimed out loud. “It’s almost four!” It had been a full day. He looked at Rommel.
“I didn’t know how late it was, boy. I think we need to hurry.” He started looking at his list. As he read things off, a flurry of ideas started coming to him. Things he needed, things he should learn more about, things he should look for. Frantically, lest the ideas get away, Billy started scratching them down on his notebook.
Billy sighed in frustration as things begin to slip away from him. Fleeting bits of information he had not been able to get down on paper nagged at him, but he couldn’t recall them all.
“Dang it,” he slapped his leg in more frustration. “Rommel, we need to think more on this. I need to make a plan about the town, that’s what, and stick to it. Yeah, that’s what. I need a plan to get everything I need, and get it. Once I’m done, we won’t never have to come back here no more. Sound good to you?” Rommel wagged his tail stump, though of course he had no idea what Billy was saying. Billy didn’t care, he was just glad for the company.
“We can either go back home and think on it, or we can stay here, at the shop,” Billy said, this time more to himself than anything. He looked at his fuel gauge. He still had a half tank of gas in one tank. He switched over, and saw the needle rise to three-quarters in the passenger tank.
“We’ll get what we need for right now, and head home,” he decided.
Billy went to the Co-Op and grabbed some gloves and a mask like people used to spray chemicals with. He hoped it would keep the smell from getting to him at the George house. He grabbed a large bag of lime as well, and a shovel from the rack. He finally grabbed a roll of heavy plastic. Taking these to the truck, he placed them in the back. It was getting late, he realized.
“Let’s go, Rommel!” he called. “I don’t wanna have to be buryin’ no body in the dark!” Rommel dutifully jumped into the truck and the two started back out of town. Billy noted that there were several U-Haul trailers at Mister Traywick’s, and nodded to himself. He’d use one of them when he came back.
Billy forcefully ignored the cars on the road this time, and drove with purpose to the Widow George’s house. Once there, he put on the mask, donned the gloves, and rolled out enough of the plastic to place poor Widow George’s body in. He went straight to the carport door again, but hesitated once he got there.
What am I going to find in here?
Taking a deep, calming breath, he shook of that thought, and went into the house.
The mask kept the odor away, but the house was awash in flies. Huge, ugly, biting, black flies. Billy went first and opened the windows and doors, allowing some air in, and many of the flies out. That done, he looked at the mass on the kitchen floor.
The Widow George had died on her kitchen floor. Her body was the most horrible thing Billy had ever seen. Black and blue, bloated and swollen, covered in fly larva, just the sight was enough to turn his stomach. He looked away for a moment, unable to recognize the kind old woman. She had always been very nice to Billy. Treated as well as she would have treated her family. It was hard to see her like this.
Shaking his fear off, Billy turned to his work. He poured a bit of the lime on Widow George’s body, helping get rid of the last of the flies. Next, he carefully laid the plastic out on the floor next to her, making sure it was straight. Thinking of what was next, Billy hesitated again. Knowing he had no choice, he was still reluctant to touch the body. Carefully he reached down and gently took her ankles in his hands, pulling her toward. . . .
Her body came apart.
Billy stood frozen in horror for a full second, and then the room began to spin around him. In seconds he was hyper-ventilating, gasping for air through the mask’s filters, panic filling his mind and preventing any form of rational thought. He backed away from the body, fighting the urge to retch, eyes locked on the horrid scene. He stumbled slightly as his foot hit the back of a chair from the kitchen table, and then he was running blindly out of the door.
When Billy hit the carport door he was still in a panic, and running was the only thing he could seem to do, so he kept running. Rommel’s head came up when Billy came running out of the strange house, and he instantly looked to see what might be chasing his person. To Rommel, the house smelled like death, and he didn’t like that. It reminded him too much of his last person.
When nothing came out of the house, Rommel took off chasing Billy down. His person was almost fifty yards away from the house when Rommel tackled him, bring them both to the ground. Stunned, Billy ripped off the mask, still gasping for air. He laid there on his back, looking at the sky for a long time, his breath coming in ragged gulps.
“Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod. . . .” His mind echoed that one phrase for a very long time. He didn’t know how long he had lain there when he finally got himself under control. He rolled over to his hands and knees, his breath calmer if still a little ragged, and pushed himself to his feet.
“I ain’t goin’ back in there,” he declared for anyone nearby to hear. Of course there was no one. Billy was simply talking aloud, trying to allay his fears in any way he could.
“C’mon, Rommel,” he ordered. The dog fell in beside him as he walked to his truck. He threw the mask to the ground, followed by the gloves, which he would never have used again, anyway.
With tears in his eyes, both at his failure, and at the horror he had seen, Billy backed his truck away from the house, and headed home.
He swore right then and there that he wouldn’t come back. He couldn’t do no more for Widow George.
He had to look after himself now.
Once home, Billy went immediately and took a long, hot shower. As he stood beneath the shower head, the image at Widow George’s house played over and over in his mind, terrorizing him all over again.
Billy had never had an encounter like that. When his parents had died, he had been distraught, but their bodies had been cleaned and dressed at the funeral home before Billy ever saw them. He had not had to endure the trauma of seeing them immediately after the accident.
Both of Billy’s parent’s had been only children. He had no close relatives that he knew of anywhere. As a result, the loss of his parents had been his first real world loss, other than favorite pets as a boy, and one horse that had been injured in a fall and had to be put down.
The first weeks after his parents had died had been very hard for Billy. He was used to having them around, depended on them to help him see things clearly. Fortunately, his parents had prepared him well for the time when they would no longer be with him. They hadn’t anticipated him losing both of them at once, nor so early, but both his mother and father were realists. They knew that anything could happen, at any time, and had worked hard to ensure that Billy would be able to survive on his own without them. Had they not done so, Billy would have been in dire straits after the plague.
Billy shut off the hot water, allowing the cold to keep pouring over him. The water helped to calm him, as he fought to get the horrible images out of his mind. This had been a very long day, and it had been trying for him in many ways. He breathed deeply as the water flowed, feeling his calm slowly returning to him.
Calm was always Billy’s watchword. He knew that he was easily frustrated and easily distracted. He couldn’t allow that. Not anymore. He shut the water off, finally. Leaving the shower, he dressed in clean clothes. He looked at the clothes he had discarded, and decided to dispose of them. Right away.
He gathered them up, careful to wear gloves, and took them outside. The waning light was just enough for him to see the burning barrel he kept a good distance from the house, and he walked straight to it, and dumped the clothes without a thought as soon as he made sure the pockets were empty.
It was supper time, but Billy didn’t have an appetite, and something told him he wouldn’t keep the food down regardless. So instead, he fixed himself some lemonade and sat on the front porch for a long while that evening, listening to the crickets and the night birds, and watching fireflies in the distance. He breathed long and deep, enjoying the cooler air now that night was upon him.
Finally, when he was so very tired that he could barely keep his eyes open, Billy went to bed. Rommel trotted into the bedroom behind him, jumping onto the large bed. The dog watched Billy closely, as if he knew something was bothering his person. He didn’t know what it was, but it was enough that he could sense Billy’s unease.
Billy was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, but rest was elusive that night. His dreams were haunted by images of Widow George, asking him why he hadn’t buried her proper, of bodies in cars along the road, crying in anguish that they were not moved, and of blind panic and sheer terror at the images.