“Do you think it’s one of them?”
“I dunno. Has it moved?”
“Not for the last ten minutes.”
“How do you think it got here?”
“Dunno. Was it here before?”
“Don’t remember seeing it, but the wind last night might have blown the leaves off it.”
“Throw something at it.”
“You do it.”
My friend Trey and I were looking at a body. It was a middle aged man, about forty five, although my only reference to middle aged men was Mr. Greyson over the ridge. It looked about as old as him, and about the same color, so maybe it was all right. It was lying on its side under a bush, with it’s arms crossed on its chest, and its head was turned away from us.
“Should we go around it, look at it from the front?” Trey asked.
“Well, we have to, if we want to get home.” I said. We’d been hunting for the better part of the morning, checking our snares and having a fair amount of luck. We had three rabbits apiece, and I had an extra squirrel I managed to knock out of a tree with a well-thrown rock. We had seen the tracks of a deer, but we had nothing on us that would take down a large animal. We had our packs and our knives, but that was it.
We walked carefully through the brush, trying to keep to the game trail that ran a zig-zag pattern through the woods. Behind our houses was a decent sized forest, and we had both grown up exploring and hunting it’s depths. There wasn’t much to the forest we hadn’t seen, so to come across this body suddenly was having to admit it wasn’t there before. And in that case, there was a really good chance it was one of them.
We slowly walked around the man, trying to see it’s face before it saw us. If it was one of them, it would have dark splotches all over its face. If it wasn’t, it would look normal. That was the easiest way to tell, although not all of them had the splotches. Some were normal-looking, and you couldn’t tell they were a problem until they tried to get you.
Trey bumped my arm. I looked over at him and he pointed to the body once, then pointed to his own eyes. He shook his head and I took him at his word. I couldn’t see the face at the angle I was at, being taller than he was, but Trey was telling me he didn’t think it was one. We’d seen them before, and we knew what they could do, so we were naturally cautious about approaching one. We’d also seen plenty of dead bodies as well, so if this was another one of those, no big deal.
We worked our way across the path, and moved away from the body. I’d tell my dad about it and he would probably come out and drag it over to the burn hole. It was a deep pit, about fifty feet across, and was originally thirty feet deep. It had started out as a retention pit for the floods we would get, but it served another purpose in the end.
“Hey, Josh?” Trey said as we followed the trail again.
Whatever I was thinking of answering flew out of my head as the bushes the body was under suddenly exploded. The corpse, which it was now obvious it wasn’t, thrashed and torn at the clinging shrub as it tried to free itself.
Trey and I took one look at the monster coming after us and we didn’t have to think twice. We turned and ran for our lives.
Behind us, the infected person tore free of the foliage and came after us in the typical fast walk of someone who had fallen prey to the disease that had killed so many. It seemed they couldn’t quite work out the mechanics of running, but walking fast was the next best thing. Of course, when you were twelve years old like Trey and I were, a fast walking adult was almost on par with as fast as we could run.
“Go, go, go!” I yelled, pushing Trey on. He was the slower of the two of us, and the most likely to trip on something. If he was behind me he wouldn’t have made it. I could hear the man stumbling, wheezing, and trying like crazy to get at us. If we fell, or stopped, he’d tear us apart.
“Where can we go?” Trey yelled, running past a small stand of trees. That was a landmark for us, and told us we were close to our homes.
“Head down the hill, we’ll get him with the rocks!” I panted, stealing alook behind me and wishing immediately I hadn’t. The man was moving fast, and his walk was pretty steady, which on these people meant he had been infected fairly recently, and his mind still remembered how to move. Thank God he had forgotten how to run.
“Are you nuts?” Trey wheezed, turning left anyway. “We’ll get in trouble for sure!”
“Gotta risk it, unless you want to run forever.” I said, moving down the hill. The forest we emerged from led out onto a huge man-made hill, which extended for a quarter mile in front of us. The top was flat and grassy, and the sides were steep enough to give even a healthy person a case of the heaves. Going up was hard enough, but going down was a piece of cake. We just let gravity take over and slid down the grass until we reached the rocks at the bottom.
The rocks were huge, the smallest of them being larger than my fist. The larger ones we couldn’t even move if we tried together. But we didn’t need those, we just needed ones that were about the size of a pumpkin. Trey and I each picked up a rock the size of a baseball and lay in wait for the diseased man to come tumbling down.
We heard him before we saw him. Those infected with the Tripp Virus wheezed a lot, since they were missing a lot of their lung tissue and their throats were messed up. It wasn’t too bad in the daylight, but at night it creeped me out.
In a minute, the man walked of the edge of the hill, and fell right onto his face. He slid that way for a while, and wound up crashing head first into the same rock pile we did. Blood poured out of a deep gash on his cheek, and the impact stunned him just enough for us to move.
“Get him!” I yelled at Trey, heaving my rock up and dumping it on the prone man’s shoulders. The man wheezed suddenly and tried to turn his head, but it was wedged in between two rocks and not going anywhere.
Trey tossed his rock onto the man’s back, and then jumped on top of the rocks, adding his weight to the stones. The combined heaviness was too much for the infected man, and he couldn’t do anything but lay there and bleed.
Trey looked over at me. “You gotta kill him, man!”
I looked down at the pathetic creature with a mixture of loathing, disgust, and fear. I had seen these things since the day I was born, and I never got used to them. But that didn’t stop me from doing what needed to be done, and I picked up the biggest rock I could lift. Pushing it over my head, I brought it down with both hands onto the head of the infected man. The rock cracked into the man’s skull, stunning him, and I lifted the rock again, bringing it down again. This time there was a serious crack as the rock broke the skull and penetrated the brain. The man’s thrashing ceased, and lay there as blood leaked out of his head and into the rocks around him.
Trey climbed off and we looked down at the dead man.
“That was close, man.” Trey said.
I nodded. “Yeah, but we got this.” I said with bravado I didn’t feel.
“Let’s get home.” Trey said.
“Better get our rabbits back.” I said, starting to climb up the hill. We had pitched our catch when the Tripp victim started chasing us.
“Ugh.” Trey said. “I hate backtracking. Stupid Tripper.”
We called them Trippers, after the virus came. According to my dad, it was a little thing that suddenly became a big problem. It started with the street junkies, the homeless, and the runaways. No one really paid any attention to the spread because it was out of sight. The way things worked, if it wasn’t seen it wasn’t a problem. But according to the rumors, the virus came in with a load of marijuana. It was ingested, and from there it took off in its new host. It attacked the neural pathways in the brain, causing the victim to forget everything about themselves, turning them into mindless husks. After that, it went to work on the nervous system itself, eating away at the pain receptors. People with the virus could lose a limb and not feel a thing. Finally, the virus slowed down the body systems, with the heart beating only ten or twelve times a minute. But they could still move nearly as quickly as they could before they caught the disease. The weird thing was they seemed to just keep going, even after they should have died from starvation, exposure, or dehydration.
The virus transferred from host to host through bodily fluids, and could live for seventy-two hours in open air. That was how it spread. The virus turned the victims into mindless animals, attacking anything they saw as a threat. My dad explained that as we learned later, they were territorial, which was why they attacked everyone they saw on their turf. Trippers, being mindless, didn’t stay in one place but wandered about. They didn’t attack each other, and my dad said it was because they didn’t see other infected as threats. They lived in a constant state of high alert, ready to fly at anything.
I didn’t see any of this, because on the day I was born, I saved my dad’s life. My father was a policeman, and just as my mom went into labor, his station was called up to help put down an outbreak of Trippers. Every single officer who answered the call that day died. My dad called me his luck, and I suppose for that one day I was.
Dad took us home the next day, and three days later the hospital we had been in was overrun. There were too many Trippers out there to deal with, and the police couldn’t handle them all. Eventually things just fell apart, and we’d been on our own ever since.
We managed better than most, at first, and it was probably my dad that returned the favor by saving us all during the really bad times. Once the Trippers took over, and the police were gone, people started banding together for survival. Problem was, desperate people put in a desperate situations with death right around the corner tended to tear themselves apart from within. My dad told me stories about finding several groups of people all lying dead in a bunch, and it looked like they had just simply killed each other.
We probably also survived because we lived pretty far away from main population centers. We had a house on the far end of a small town, with a forest in the backyard and a creek nearby. It was all I had ever known.
Trey lived across the street, and the creek that wound its way around the area went directly through his back yard. Water was never a problem for his family. Trey’s mom used to be a schoolteacher and for lack of anything else to do, she took it upon herself to educate Trey and myself. Since she didn’t have to follow any curriculum, we probably got a better education than we could have in the normal world. Trey’s dad was a pipefitter, and before the end of civilization he had owned a small but successful business. These days, he occupied himself with figuring out how to bring more water to larger areas of growing vegetables and fruits.
I threw a wave to Trey as he headed off around the front of my house and took of for his own. I hung the rabbits from a small branch, taking care they didn’t reach low enough for a scavenger to get them. I felt like I earned the jumpers today.
“Mom! I’m home!” I yelled as I entered into the garage through the side door. I took off my gear, putting everything in it’s proper place. Dad taught me that trick. If I ever had to leave in a hurry, and if it was dark or light, I always knew where my stuff was and could get it without delay. Dad taught me a lot of tricks. Some Mom knew about, some she was better off not knowing.
“How was the snare line?” Mom asked, like she always did. I never knew if Mom actually cared about it, or was just being polite. She didn’t go outside much, and usually went to bed right after dark. Dad said she took the end of the world pretty hard, but I couldn’t see the big deal.
“It was good, I got three decent rabbits.” I said , washing my hands in the sink.
“Good for you.” Mom said absently. “Are you going to clean them, or let your father do it again?”
I ducked a little. “I’ll go do it right now.” I said, moving to the door.
“Josh…?” Mom called out as I stepped into the garage.
“We can spare one of the rabbits for the Simpsons. I heard Lucy’s mom isn’t feeling well, and they haven’t had much luck with their traps.” Mom said.
“All right.” I said, closing the door. Under my breath I added, “That’s because they can’t bait worth a damn, and their traps are too big anyway. This ain’t Africa.”
I spent the next hour cleaning and washing the rabbits. I didn’t bring up the Tripper to my mom, since she would have freaked out, and I don’t need that today. I was a little shaky, the more I thought about it, since I had never actually killed a Tripper before. I had seen my dad do it a hundred times, and there was that big attack where I loaded guns for my dad while the Trippers attacked the house, but I hadn’t ever had to do it myself.
I didn’t know what to feel about it. On the one hand, I felt glad I was alive. On the other hand, I had killed someone. I guess it would be different if I had to kill someone I knew, but I don’t know. I guess it was just him or me, and I made it him.
I finished with the rabbits just in time to see my dad come back from his rounds. When everything went south, as he called it, he knew people would tear each other apart unless there was some kind of order being kept. So my dad, being a police officer, decided to keep his badge on and handle the normal, everyday problems that came up from people trying to survive. He didn’t call himself a police officer anymore, he just called himself the Law. He wore his badge and gun, and went around the homesteads checking on people, making sure things were okay, dealing with Trippers if they showed up, and generally keeping the peace. He told me at first he was a little freaked by the responsibility, since he was essentially judge, jury, and executioner, but people seemed to realize it was necessary and was glad someone was willing to step up and do it.
I walked into the house the same time my dad did, after he put up and took care of his ride.
“Hey, pal! How’s things?” My dad asked me as he gave my mother a kiss. Mom’s worried faced looked calmer now, like the stress of being alone was gone now that Dad was home.
“I caught three rabbits today, they’re in the tank right now. Mom wants me to take one over to the Simpsons later.” I said, looking up at my dad. He was a big man, broad shouldered and strong. I must have sounded different because my dad looked at me sideways and squinted slightly.
“Good for you! Let’s go take a look at them and see which one we want to send to the Simpson’s.” My dad took me by the shoulder and led me into the garage where we kept the water tank for the cleaned kills.
We closed the door behind us and walked over to the tank. It was a small stock tank my dad picked up from somewhere, and we used it for cleaning game and keeping the flies off our kills.
I pulled out the jumpers and dad’s mouth turned down as he nodded and looked appraisingly at the rabbits.
“We can give them that middle one there, that should keep them for a day.” Dad said. As I put the rabbits back, Dad asked the question I worried about since this morning.
“Anything you need to tell me?” Dad asked, putting a hand on my shoulder. I was tall for my age, and developing broad shoulders myself, but at the moment I felt like a three year old who just got caught stealing the cookies.
I looked down. “Trey and I killed a Tripper today.”
My dad took me by both shoulders and looked me in the eyes. He was as serious as I had ever seen him.
“Take me there, now.” He said quietly. He went over to the small locker we had by the door and pulled out a rifle. It was a simple .22 rifle, but it was all we needed right now. Dad had trained me on it and I knew how to use it, but I wasn’t supposed to take it out unless there was an emergency. Trippers were attracted to loud noises, and gunshots seemed to make them angry. Or angrier. That was a lesson that wasn’t learned early enough. Dad said all the gunshots from people and cops trying to defend themselves just made the situation worse. Crazed Trippers were not a nice thing to see.
Dad poked his head into the house to tell mom we were going to check on something and we would be back in a few minutes. Just to keep her from worrying, Dad told me to string my bow and take it with me. I slipped the string on quickly, and threw my quiver onto my back. I loved my bow, and according to my dad, I was pretty good with it. I made my own arrows, and practiced whenever I could. I didn’t take it with too often to hunt because it tended to get in the way. The only time I took it hunting was when I was looking for big game like deer.
We walked across the side yard and up the steps that took us to the top of our fence. It was a tall wooden fence that Dad had reinforced with rocks over the years. It could keep out a horde of crazed trippers and twice it had.
“Where did it come from?” Dad asked as we jumped down off the fence.
“Don’t know.” I said adjusting my quiver which had shifted in the jump. “Trey and I saw a body laying under a bush, and we looked close, trying to see if it was a Tripper or if it was just someone who was sleeping. It chased us out of the woods.”
“Did you have your bow with you?” Dad asked.
“No, just my knife. The guy was pretty big.” I said.
“All right. What then?”
“Well, Trey and I slid down the north side, and waited by the big rocks, near the creek. The guy fell down the steep hill, but we jumped him when fell. “ I said.
“What do you mean?” Dad asked sternly. “You didn’t touch him yourself, did you?”
“No, Dad. Sheesh. We threw big rocks on him to keep him down, and then I crushed his skull with another rock. Trey stood on him, too. He couldn’t move.” I was kind of defensive about the situation, since I thought I had done pretty good.
My father thought about that one for a bit. He didn’t say anything for a while, then he burst out laughing.
“That’s great!” He clapped me on the back as he beamed with pride. “That took guts and brains, and I couldn’t have done better myself!” He laughed again.
I felt a lot better, and actually looked forward to seeing my handiwork again.
We slipped down the small ditch, and crossed the small two-lane road that ran behind our house. It had been a long time since a car was on that road, and it was broken up and cracked all over. Dad said that there were roads all over the place, and you once could go anywhere in the country just by getting in your car. Our car was up on blocks, with the tires off. Dad said it wasn’t going anywhere, anyway.
Crossing the street, Dad stopped and turned his head into the wind. He closed his eyes and listened, and I knew enough to keep quiet when he did this. He told me he was using his radar, and I figured it had to be true, since we never got into trouble when he did this.
Crossing the road, we slipped through the brush and worked our way over to the rocks. There wasn’t a lot of animal activity right now, and I was slightly curious as to why. We had been here so many times it was funny how the locals had adapted to us.
Getting to the rocky areas was pretty easy once we worked our way through the brush. The path I used on a regular basis was easy for me, but dad had a time because he had to get down to my height to clear the branches and brambles.
“Where is he?” Dad asked, looking around. “Never mind, I see him.” Dad went over to where the body still lay, looking over the kill area, and looking up towards the top of the hill. He stepped halfway up the slope and looked down at the body from a higher angle.
For my part, I couldn’t figure out what the heck he was doing. The body was right down here, right in front of me. It sure wasn’t going anywhere and it sure wasn’t going to tell us where it came from. I had nothing to do but warm myself in the sun and watch the lazy water of the creek flow under the bridge and trickle out of sight around a bend.
After a minute I got bored, so I used the time to practice drawing an arrow from my quiver and nocking it. I tried to do it faster and faster, and finally quit when I lost my grip on the arrow and threw it ten yards away.
“Damn.” I said as I made my way over to where I thought the arrow had gone.
“What did you say?” Dad called. He was down by the body, looking at the rocks and pulling the man over to see his face. From my angle he didn’t get better looking in direct sunlight.
“Nothing. “ I said quickly. Dad didn’t swear, so I ended up learning the fundamentals from Trey. Dad always said we are judged by our words and deeds, so if you may have blown it on one, you could always try to build up the other. I figured I could curse as long as I did something heroic once in a while.
I reached the spot where I thought I saw my arrow land and looked carefully for the fletching. I didn’t see it right away, and knelt down for another look. I swept my hand through the grass, and thought I felt the shaft but was disappointed when it turned out to be a weed.
Another sweep gave me a possibility, and I felt the stick up to the end, where it flared outward in plastic fletching. I was just about to stand up and shout my find when I saw it.
Up the road, just across the bridge, was a tripper. It was an older one, with deep red splotches on his face. His clothes were tattered, like he had been outside for a long time. One foot dragged along the other, but that was a fooler. When the rage hit, they moved fast no matter how bad they were injured. There were some deep looking claw marks on his face, and dried blood crusted his neck and shoulder.
I didn’t want to shout but I had to warn my dad somehow. I looked back and instead of seeing my father, I saw nothing at all. He was nowhere to be seen.
I didn’t know what to do. I had my bow, but I’d never shot at a tripper before. If I missed, he would be on me in seconds. I needed to be able to shoot again quickly, but I didn’t know how. I was shaking as I watched the tripper move closer and closer.
As I sat there in the brush, I realized I was concealed, and the tripper would walk on by. Maybe I could get him from behind, which would buy me some seconds if I missed of didn’t get a kill shot on the first try. I didn’t have any options, I just hoped my dad wouldn’t come strolling over the hill, whistling like he normally does, and get that tripper all riled up.
It was dead silent as the infected man slowly trudged past. I could see more details, and there was a deep, black bite mark on his left arm. If I had to guess, that was where he originally got bit. Once you were bit, it was over for you in a matter of hours. There was no cure, and there was no vaccine. At least, we never heard of any. Dad said it was a mercy to put these poor creatures down, since they were living in hell, anyway. Their minds gone, their memories gone, their bodies altered and twisted. I wondered sometimes if they attacked the living in the hopes of getting killed, that they could end their suffering with a bullet to the head.
I pushed all that out of my head as I slowly made my way through the brush and grass. Years of stalking small game since the time I could walk had made me a very stealthy hunter, and I saw the tripper as my prey now. That was the only way I could do what needed to be done without falling down in fear. Besides, my dad was probably watching, waiting for me to make a move, since his rifle would call any more trippers to the area.
It wasn’t easy crawling forward with a loaded recurve bow in my hands, but when I reached the edge of the road, I was glad I had it ready, since the tripper was a lot closer than I had anticipated. I stood up on the side of the road, still partially concealed by the tall grass that grew there. Behind me was the bridge over the creek, and I could hear the water as it tumbled past the dozens of rocks Trey and I had thrown in there over the years. That sound probably had helped mask my approach, and for that I was grateful. When I realized that I could have crawled out of the grass at the feet of the tripper, I started to sweat again.
Pulling back my arrow, I held the string for a second as I adjusted my aim. The arrow trembled slightly, as the energy from the limbs prepared to launch it forward. I adjusted for the wind coming from the north, and let go.
I didn’t watch the arrow, I was busy whipping out another and nocking it quickly, drawing the string back and looking for a target to come running at me. I was a bit surprised to find no target, so I eased the string forward, keeping my hand on the arrow. I stepped out of the grass and onto the road.
The tripper lay face down in the middle of the road, with his head turned to the side. Sticking out of the back of his head was my arrow. The point had gone in on the right side of the back of his skull, and the field point had blown through the bone like it wasn’t there. Creeping forward, I could see the arrow tip had exited through the right eye, close to the nose. The eye was turned in my direction, almost as if it was asking me what the heck just happened.
I looked at the tripper for a long time, not feeling anything. It was like a switch had turned off when I hunted him. It wasn’t an infected person anymore, worthy of our fear and pity. It was just something I had to put down for my safety and my dad’s.
Just as I was about to pull the arrow out, a voice called out of the brush.
“Leave it there.”
I jumped a mile and nearly fired an arrow at the sound when my dad stepped out of the grass. He was holding his rifle and pointing it at the tripper. Kneeling down, he looked over the man from head to toe, taking careful note of the two foot pointy stick poking in and out of the man’s head.
Dad looked a bit more, then scanned the area where the tripper had come from. Seeing no danger, he stood up and, grabbing a handful of pant leg, dragged the dead man over to the side of the road.
As he worked, Dad spoke to me. “You’ll have to replace that arrow, Josh. It’s full of virus now, and you could get yourself infected.”
I understood that thinking, as we usually washed and burned anything that had come in contact with a tripper. I wasn’t happy having to make another arrow, but I had done it before and would likely do it again. We didn’t get out much to scrounge up any pre-made stuff, and when we did, we were usually looking for stuff for the house. Dad was always wanting ammo and canned stuff, mom was usually looking for some sort of material. I typically grabbed whatever was shiny.
After hauling the tripper away, Dad went and hauled the other dead man out of the rocks. He wasn’t as pretty as the other guy, who was sporting a new arrow through his head. This guy was bloody and flat headed from where I had pounded his skull in. Dad just grabbed another handful of leg and pulled it over the man’s head, yanking him out of the rocks. Blood and brains eased out of the wound as the body was dragged through the gravel.
I was watching the proceedings with interest, as I usually did with the things my Dad did. He never wasted movement, never did anything that required him to clean up later. Everything was thought out, and he always had a plan.
Once the bodies were out of the way, Dad piled a bunch of rocks on the men. It was as good as a burial as they were ever going to get, since their families were probably long gone.
One thing bothered me and I must have had a look on my face, since my Dad asked me the question I had in my head.
“So why didn’t I shoot him?” My dad asked me.
“Yeah!” I said, probably too loudly. “How come you let me waste an arrow?” I was focusing on the fact I had to make more arrows now.
Dad smiled. “Don’t get me wrong , Josh, I would have killed him had you been in any danger. But I wanted to see if you could get close without being heard or seen, and I wanted to see if you would be able to take down a full adult with your bow.”
Dad ruffled my hair a bit. “You passed on both counts. Now I know I don’t have to worry about you when I’m away..”
I was mollified, but still a little angry. I decided to change the subject.
“Where did he come from?” I was serious in my question. If these two trippers were a sign of things to come, I didn’t want to run into them when I ran my trap line.
Dad got a real serious look on his face. “Don’t know or sure. I’m trying to figure that one out. If he came from the north, that’s to be expected. But if he came from the south or west, there could be some serious trouble ahead.”
“South means there’s trouble in Manhattan and the outliers. West means there’s trouble in Frankfort.” Dad said simply. “The guy you took down with your bow was old, likely two to three years infected. The other guy, the first one, he probably was more fresh, and that’s a worry to me.”
“What can we do?” I asked, not having a clue as to where my dad was going with this.
“Well, I think the only thing to do is to track his back as far as we can, and get a general direction as to where he might have come from. After that, we check our maps and head for the towns and homes that way.” Dad said.
I thought about that one. It was going to take a lot of work, just for one tripper. “Maybe he was just a roamer.” I said. Roamers were just trippers that wandered the countryside, sometimes just laying down for a while. They were a nasty surprise when they jumped out of the grass at you. Dad nearly got killed when three of them tried to jump him. Fortunately Dad’s horse jumped away in time and he put enough space between himself and them to get the killing shots off.
“Can’t know unless we look.” Dad said. “We’ll start off tomorrow morning.” Dad started to head across the street to the opening that led to our property.
I suddenly got excited. “I can come with?”
Dad nodded, smiling. “Of course. You’re too good with your bow to leave behind. But you might want to make a few more arrows.”
I walked lightly behind my Dad, my steps barely touching the ground. I had never been invited to a search before. I wondered if I should ask to bring Trey, but I decided against it. I’d rather have Trey jealous of me for a change.
Back at the house, Dad went into the stable to take care of his horse. With cars not working and electricity scare, we made do with what was available. Dad didn’t mind. He said it allowed him to slow down and make sure he didn’t miss anything.
Just as I passed the door, Dad turned to me. “Don’t forget the rabbit for the Simpsons.”
Crud. I’d hoped he had forgotten that little nugget. Oh, well. “On it. I’ll be back later.” I said, hauling the rabbit out of the tank and dumping it in a sack.
“Take your bow.” Dad said from behind the horse. “Just in case.”
I didn’t know what my dad was thinking, and he didn’t reveal his plans all that often, so when he did something out of the ordinary, it tended to stick out. Something was at play, and I was very curious as to what it might be. But I knew dad wasn’t going to tell me, and mom sure as heck wasn’t.
“Already have it.” I said. I had a feeling this wasn’t going to be a routine visit, and it wasn’t even supper time yet.
I stepped out of our property and walked along the road that connected the houses in this area. I thought it odd to have a collection of homes out in the middle of nowhere, but Dad had pointed out that when everyone had cars and gas, people drove all over the place. Living away from stores and towns was perfectly normal back then.
I wouldn’t know. All I’ve ever known was this world, where people walked or rode horses. Some people rode bicycles, and Trey’s family had this bicycle car that his dad had picked up somewhere.
As me, I was walking. I tied the sack to my belt so I could have my hands free, but the down side of that was the wet rabbit got my right pant leg wet from my knee down.
I passed several houses that were empty, the creepiest being the one at the bottom of a hill just three houses down from mine. Dad said when the everything went bad, that family refused to join the other families in fighting off the trippers and just shut themselves into their house. No one has ever seen them again. Trey said the dad went crazy and ate everyone else in there, except for his little boy, who escaped by climbing into the attic. Trey said the dad spends his time walking around the house, following the noises of the attic.
I didn’t believe him, but passing by that small home tucked away in a wooded corner, I did wonder if some of the rumors were true. I’d never seen a light or movement in that house in the entire year my dad had finally let me out on my own. As I walked by, I stopped suddenly. Did a curtain move? I looked carefully from the road, but could not see any movement in any of the windows. Out of spite, I brought my bow up and drew the string back, hearing the slight rasp as the arrow slid along the shelf. I aimed at each window, daring myself to fire, but after a time I slowly eased the bow back. I shook my head, calling myself all sorts of names for my imagination.
I walked on, looking back once more. My breath caught in my throat, and I moved quickly away. In the far right window, a small white hand was gently touching the glass.
I turned right at the fork in the road, and walked past several occupied homes. These people had survived the worst of the trippers and were doing well on their own. They had fenced their yards with timber taken from abandoned homes, and used their neighbors’ land for additional grazing and planting. If you found yourself alone with five homes around you empty, you could easily gain an additional acre or three with just a few removals of fence between the yards. That’s how we gained the land for our horse and our gardening.
At the end of the block, I stepped up to a gate and peeked over the top. I was at the Simpsons, a decent sized ranch house on a corner lot. They worked pretty hard to keep their land up, but while they were good farmers, they couldn’t keep up in the meat. It was sad, really. They had a decent bit of forest behind them, and a small creek as well. They could have dammed that creek and had fish for the taking, and good snares would catch the small animals coming to drink. Heck, even bigger game might stroll down just for the asking.
I rang the little bell that hung on a string by the gate. I knew better than to just stroll up to a house unannounced. That would get me killed or seriously hurt. Dad said back in the day a lot of people were killed by trippers coming up to the house and people stepping out to meet them, thinking they were just other folks. You learned too late that you were about to be wiped out.
“Who’s out there?” A small voice called out.
I recognized Lucy’s voice. Lucy Simpson was a girl about my age, and she came over to my house three days a week for schooling. She was nice, but lately she had been getting moody, and two days out the three she was mad at me or Trey for something we said or did.
“It’s Josh, Lucy!” I called. “Got a rabbit for you if you want it. I got lucky on the trap line today. Mom said to bring it over to see if you wanted it.”
“Leave it there.” Lucy said. “Mom’s not feeling well, and I don’t want you to get sick.”
I winced. Sickness was a constant problem, and I tended to think more people died from the flu each year than tripper attacks.
“Will do. Hope your mom feels better soon.” I said, hanging the sack over the gate.
“Thanks. Tell your mom we said thanks.” Lucy said, closing the door.
I turned away, not answering, since she wouldn’t have heard me anyway. I guess I got lucky in that she didn’t hate me today.
I turned away and looking down the road to the left, I could see several dark homes down a very dark road. The trees were thick, and their canopy cast deep shadows over most of the area. It nearly looked like a cave that I was standing at the entrance to. I did a bit of mental calculation, and I realized this road would take me behind Trey’s house, which I could cross and get to my own house quicker than backtracking the way I had come.
That sounded like a plan to me, so I moved in that direction. The sun was heading towards evening, and the adjusted sunlight lit up the entrance to the ‘cave.’ I seriously doubted I would have gone if it was darker, but right now it didn’t seem so bad. As I walked further, I chuckled to myself, realizing I was barely a quarter mile from my house, and I could have saved myself a walk if I had only realized this route earlier.
I passed a house on the left, and it looked like it had been abandoned a long time ago. The drapes were falling down in one window, and an upper window was broken. The front door looked like it was slightly open, but I wasn’t planning on going in there. The house was dead, and likely everyone who had ever lived there was dead, too.
On my right was another house, and it looked in better shape, although I doubted anyone lived there. It aroused my curiosity, because it’s backyard was directly across from the backyard of the little house in the valley.
“You’re a fool, go home.” I told myself as I walked up the driveway. Common sense didn’t win the argument, and I told myself I was just looking for information to give my dad. I looped my bow over my shoulder, and put my arrow back in it’s quiver.
I walked up the driveway, and a squirrel chattered at me from the oak tree in the front yard. The grass was hugely overgrown, and was nearly as tall as myself. The house was dark and silent, and I began to think I was the only visitor this place had had in years. In the back yard, the growth was about the same, although the rose bushes were huge. A small swing set stood lonely in the corner of the lot, and a plastic turtle graced the yard next to the cracked and weathered porch.
I looked back at the house, and it was as dark in the back as it was in the front. The house was simple, but nice, and the trees around the lot meant that this place must have been nice and cool in the summer.
The back yard was fenced in, and I was grateful for the chance to get close to the creepy house without being observed. I didn’t have any real reason to be doing what I was, and if I thought about it long enough, I might come up with an explanation which might have found an excuse even for me.
At the edge of the yard, I looked at the fence for a moment. It was eight feet tall, and that was three feet higher than I was currently occupying. Hmm.
A quick glance around the yard didn’t give me any inspiration, so I was about to leave when I noticed the swing set was just a foot taller than fence. Worked for me. I climbed the play area quickly, and found myself in a small clubhouse with the roof high above me. I tried to see what was in the house, but I couldn’t get a good angle on it. I worked my way to the outside of the little clubhouse, and climbed slowly to the top of the awning supports. I straddled the top beam of the clubhouse, and looked out over the yard to the house beyond.
It was as every bit as dark as the front. A small stream worked its way through the properties in this area, and I could see it was deep enough to dam if they wanted a supply of water and fish right outside of their door. A big bay window allowed me to peek in the interior of the house and look around. At the worst, I could see of there was anyone living there at all that my Dad could visit.
From my perch I could see very little. It was dark and gloomy, and there didn’t seem to be anyone around. The house was very neat, and there didn’t seem to be a speck of dirt anywhere.
That last thought struck me as odd. Shouldn’t there be some dust? Just as I pondered that a face appeared in the far window. I was so startled I nearly fell off the swing set. As it was, I managed to nock an arrow and aim a shaft at the face staring out at me.
As quickly as It had appeared, it was gone. I wondered for a minute while I composed myself. I was breathing hard, wondering if I had seen a ghost. Just for the heck of it, I aimed the arrow at the house and let go, not caring where it hit. I lowered the bow and as I climbed out of the playset I heard a bang as the arrowI shot collided with something sturdy. I had a lot to tell Trey, and the sooner the better.
I ran back to the street and down to the cul-de-sac. One of the homes was occupied, and I could see people moving about as the day was coming to a close. I worked my way over to the back of the furthest house, guessing Trey’s would be right on the line.
I checked the area, and didn’t see any problems, so I slipped down the bank of the creek and worked my way slowly across the creek. I didn’t mind getting wet, I knew I was going to be home soon and would be able to dry off quickly. Dad might wonder what took me so long, but he’d forget about it as soon as I told him the valley house was occupied.
On the other side of the creek I had to be wary of Trey’s nets and trap lines, and it took me a good ten minutes just to clear his yard. Crossing the road, I went through the gate of my own property, and stopped cold. In the middle of the yard, sticking out of the ground, was my arrow, the one I had shot at the valley house. I didn’t know what to do. I was panicky, because I didn’t want my dad to find out and I really didn’t want my mom to find out.
I raced to the garage and put away my gear, dripping water all over the floor. Molly, dad’s mare, looked at me with big brown reproachful eyes as I stumbled and dropped things all over the place. I threw an extra handful of grass in her bin to keep her quiet, then I went back out to the yard.
The arrow was still there, sticking accusingly in the lawn. I ran over to it and removed it, pulling up a good chunk of dirt. The broad head dripped soil, and as I looked it over I was struck by another surprise.
This wasn’t my arrow.