“What are you doing?” Karen said from under the crisp sheets, “Are you okay?”
Brett was sitting on the edge of the camper bed peering through the slats of the mini blinds, “I couldn’t sleep, something feels wrong.”
Karen rubbed the sleep from her eyes, a yawn interrupted her reply, “Everything feels wrong lately, can you be a little more specific?”
Silence was her answer. Brett was too busy watching a field mouse scavenge food scraps from under a rabbit hutch nearby. He was empathizing with the mouse’s struggle to survive.
“Okay just let me know if I need to get up and start running again,” she said sarcastically, “apparently that’s the answer for everything these days. Who knew there would be so much cardio in the apocalypse?”
“Not yet, but I’d be ready. We don’t know what’s ahead of us.” Brett’s answer wasn’t very reassuring. As if to illustrate his gloomy outlook, a hawk raced in and snatched the little mouse in its razor-sharp talons. The little guy dropped his morsel as he was flown away to meet his fate. A couple of hens ran to fight over the morsel.
Brett’s hand dropped away from the blinds and he moved to put his shoes on.
“Do you think we’ll ever be able to not sleep in our clothes again?” Karen tugged at her twisted shirt under the sheet.
“I’m going outside to look around.” Brett said as he stepped through the narrow bedroom doorway.
“Okay, I’m getting up.” Karen grumbled. The morning light in the small room revealed another framed photo on the wall. The image was a small happy family picnicking in front of the camper. Something about the photos made Karen feel like she was intruding in someone else’s home, but it felt more like a home that the owners would not return to.
As Brett stepped from the camper the smell of food caught his attention. He saw Joe in front of a little gas camping stove up on the wood porch of his trailer.
Joe turned when he heard the familiar sound of the camper door open and close. He was trying to decide what to do with his new guests. Out of an abundance of caution he had boobytrapped his door just in case they or anyone else got the idea to pay him a midnight visit.
“Good morning,” Joe said through a wry smile, “Sleep okay?”
“Mornin, yeah pretty good. It was nice to sleep on a bed again.” Joe wasn’t the only one forcing the friendly smile. Brett was just as wary as their new friend, and he lied about the good night’s sleep. He was on edge all night.
“Great, here’s some chow.” Joe slid several eggs on a paper plate next to some sliced heirloom tomatoes and some chopped potatoes from his garden.
“Wow, this looks great,” Brett took the plate, “seems like you’ve managed well given the circumstances.”
Brett’s observation struck a protective chord with Joe, but he played it off. “Just doing what I can, that’s all.”
Brett salivated as he took the plate, “Have you heard any news?”
“I was monitoring the prepper frequencies last night on the radio and heard all kinds of chatter about unrest and people fleeing the cities. Most of it was probably rumor but I’m concerned that things might get sporty around here if we aren’t careful.”
“What do you mean?” Karen appeared and joined the conversation, “Aren’t we way off the beaten path here? We walked through the woods for days to get here.”
“Good morning,” Joe handed her a plate of food with his reply, “I’m not sure which way you came in but right down that hill is a major road that heads into the city.” Joe gestured with a greasy spatula, “And that way is the highway, normally we would be able to hear the traffic.” He nodded in the other direction. “And right through those trees is a housing development. I think that’s where the gang was coming from.”
Brett and Karen looked at each other in surprise. “We are that close to other people? If the system has crashed that means a lot of people could be getting desperate.” Brett observed.
“Yup, hence the reason I went after you with the shotgun.” Joe flipped another egg as he spoke. “I was tired of being harassed by those jerks. I wanted to send a message.”
“Message received.” Karen rubbed the buckshot wound on her shoulder.
Joe raised his eyebrows sheepishly and turned off the little camp stove.
“Did you call the police?” Brett asked between bites.
Joe chuckled at the question, “Yeah right. The last time I saw a cop was when they tried to set up a roadblock at the bridge a few days ago. Apparently, that didn’t go over too well with the people trying to get to their homes.”
“Why was there a roadblock?” Karen asked.
“No idea, but all that’s left of it is a shot up police car. Since then, not a cop in sight. Wouldn’t matter anyway, phones are down, the internet might be up but without electricity, there’s no connection.”
“What about neighbors?” Brett folded up his paper plate, “Have you tried putting together a neighborhood watch?”
Joe’s posture went sullen. “We had a couple of families that were working together over the last few days. But the gang went from house to house working their way up the hill. Some fought back and some just left. A few came this way to circle the wagons but…” Joe swung his gaze to the camper for a brief moment and then to an area off the edge of the yard. Several long piles of freshly disturbed dirt seemed to tell the story. His expression went from sadness to anger.
At that moment Brett and Karen connected the dots of the family photos they saw inside. The awkward pause in the conversation made it obvious that neither had any words to share.
Joe wanted to change the subject and collected the trash from breakfast. He separated it out to things he could compost, things he would feed to his animals and trash that had no use.
“Let me help you with that.” Brett offered.
“Thanks, I have to be conscious of the trash these days. Garbage trucks don’t come anymore, and the vermin seems to know it. If I can’t use it, I have to bury it. If I can use it, it gets washed or fed to an animal or dumped on the compost pile.” Joe said.
“Why not just burn the trash,” Karen asked, “isn’t digging more work?”
“Well, a couple of reasons. Burning trash gives off pollutants and dioxins that will settle on my vegetable gardens. Well, that’s what one of my gardening books said anyway. No sense in taking any chances. And, to make it worse, the smoke might be seen by people in the hills around us.” Joe scanned the ridgeline barely visible through the trees. “I don’t want any more attention.”
Brett and Karen were trying to grasp their situation. They thought they had found refuge deep in a relatively safe forest only to realize that they were right in the middle of the chaos. They struggled with the thought that only a couple days prior, a fatal battle had taken place right where they were standing. It seemed as though every time they managed to get even an inch of breathing room; they were thrown right back into the fray as more danger came their way. Today would be no different.
The sound of vehicles speeding up the gravel road echoed through the trees. A staccato of pops rang out, sounding like someone had set off a string of firecrackers. Brett and Karen stood confused, trying to understand what was happening but Joe didn’t hesitate. He reached inside the trailer door and quickly retrieved his shotgun and an AR-15.
“Do you know how to shoot either of these?” He asked the pair.
“It’s been a while, but I know the AR.” Brett answered.
Joe hesitated another second to decide if he should trust the new couple with a firearm. He judged the fear in their eyes and tossed the AR at Brett along with a small bailout bag that held some spare loaded magazines. He glanced at Karen, “Sorry, but I don’t have anything to give you.”
She pulled the sharp stick from her back pocket and held it up as if she had drawn the short straw.
“C’mon Clyde!” Joe released his German Shepherd from the chain and sprinted down the back porch towards the wood line with the others in tow.
The trio ran into the woods, heading towards a bend in the road that led back to the city. They caught a glimpse of two vehicles kicking up a dust cloud as they sped around the curve, heading toward Joe’s home.
“Get down!” Joe yelled when he saw the cars getting ready to pass near them. Brett and Karen dove for cover. Another volley of shots and the sound of tires on gravel turned into a series of thuds and tearing metal. The lead car lost control on the turn, slid from the roadway, and rolled several times down the embankment just feet away from the group.
The second car skidded sideways to a stop slinging gravel over the group’s heads. A spray of rocks pelted Karen who was slow to duck. Two men wearing goggles and bandanas bailed out and moved toward the crashed car with weapons at the ready. Shots rang out from the crashed car and the men on the road returned fire into the smoking vehicle.
“We need to do something!” Brett said as loud as he dared.
Joe looked at the crash and saw what appeared to be a woman trapped upside down in a seat belt and a man returning fire with a handgun through the rear window of the upside-down car. He nodded at Brett and they took aim to surprise the attackers from their flank.
Joe initiated the attack with a volley of several blasts from the shotgun. Brett squeezed the trigger to follow suit, but the AR failed to fire. He was confused until he realized the safety was still engaged. With the flip of the selector and some self-directed curse words he took aim and joined the ambush.
The two men were less than ten yards away when they were cut down by surprise. Brett slid back into his army training and ran up on the road to secure the kill zone and disarm the attackers. Joe quickly followed with Clyde by his side. The masked men had suffered fatal injuries, and there was nothing left to be done.
Karen had other plans and was already crawling to the overturned car to help the victims. She arrived to see the man trying to help his wife get unbuckled from her seat belt. Because she was hanging upside down, the buckle was jammed, and he started to panic when the belt failed to release. The man remembered he had a small rescue tool with a window punch and seat belt cutter on his key ring. He was trying to reassure the woman when Karen arrived at the car.
“Listen, I’m going to cut your belt and you’re going to fall but I think we can catch you.” The husband made eye contact with Karen in a non-verbal agreement to work together. “Are you ready?” She nodded nervously.
Between the three of them, they managed to cut the belt and ease the wife down without any further injury.
“Can you move?” Karen asked the wife.
“I think so.”
They heard some rustling and saw Brett, Joe, and Clyde sliding down the small hill to the crash site.
“Is everyone alright?” Brett asked as he crouched down to see in the smashed vehicle.
“So far. We need to get them out.” Karen said.
“What happened to your face?” Brett asked Karen.
She rubbed her face and realized what happened, “I was pelted when the car sprayed rocks everywhere. Why am I always the one who gets injured?”
“It wasn’t my fault this time.” Joe said from a safe distance.
The group helped extract the new couple from the smashed car and they all found a spot to rest after the ordeal.
“So, I’m Brett, this is Karen and that’s Joe,” Brett made the introductions, “I just realized, I hope you are the good guys in that chase. We apparently just went with the underdogs in that fight without asking.”
The realization that these two might be bad people hit Joe like a load of bricks and he held his shotgun a little tighter.
“I’m Adam and this is Jessica,” the man said, “we were headed south and got turned around. There was a roadblock down there,” he gestured over his shoulder, “those two tried to stop us but when we saw the guns we ran.”
“Was there anyone else?” Karen asked.
“Not that we saw.”
“There will be. If they were with the gang down in that housing development, they must’ve heard the gunfire,” Joe said, “they’ll come looking.”
Brett knew what had to be done. “Then we better clear the road and get rid of that car.”
“What about those men?” Jessica was way out of her element and she didn’t even realize it yet. “We can’t leave them; shouldn’t we call the police?”
“We’ve already had this conversation once today. No one is coming.” Brett said.
“I have a place for them,” Joe scanned the road for signs of trouble, “but we better get going before their friends come looking.”
The raised eyebrows from the rest of the group said what they were all thinking, why does he have a place for bodies out in the woods?
“What? We can put them in the other car, take them back, bury them and stash the car in the woods.” Joe’s answer did little to comfort those around him.
The new couple was trying to decide if they should go with these people or take their chances on the road alone. They chose the relative safety of going with their rescuers and would end up burying their first bodies that day.