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Discover the World of Graham's Resolution 🌲🌲 🦌
Discover the World of Graham's Resolution 🌲🌲 🦌
(Published in 2013 👀)
Some said that China’s intent to develop the H5N1 virus merely came about as an attempt to culture a vaccine, knowing the nation’s dense population would be at catastrophic risk if attacked by such a virus. Others said that China’s motives had always been sinister, and that they had developed a weaponized form of the virus. In the end it didn’t matter what the intentions had been; having tinkered with Pandora’s box, and without safeguards in place, they had unleashed it. And not only on their own people; it spread like wildfire across the globe, exterminating more than six billion souls. The million or so who were still alive were somehow immune, but they were carriers. As for the virus itself, it became known simply as the China Pandemic.
🔴 Chapter 1
🔴 Chapter 1
A Fate Worse than Death
Shivering in the pounding Pacific Northwest rain, Hyun-Ok needed to see for herself what threat the grim man in the distance posed. She’d heard him yelling before, followed by a gunshot blast and then a terrible scream. Having already counted him an unsuitable candidate to offer her the aid she needed, she had to be certain he wasn’t an immediate threat to her and her son.
With a death grip on the bed of the parked black pickup truck behind which she had taken refuge, Hyun-Ok gasped in horror as the crazed man powered up a small, worn backhoe. He scooped his victim up with the bucket, then spilled him, still alive and screaming, into a massive fire he had kept burning all day in a Dumpster.
She slinked away, her broken sobs bringing on a coughing fit from her own infected lungs. The agonized screams finally stopped, and Hyun-Ok grieved in silence for the unlucky man’s soul as sparks flew skyward. She must escape this part of town! The grim man, Campos, had posted no trespassing signs, and his actions told her he meant it.
She was her son’s only hope, and there was little time left to ensure his future. The disease weakened Hyun-Ok more each day, and she knew she would soon die. She could not leave her five-year-old to fend for himself with the likes of Campos around. Her days of scouting had told her there was only one person left to consider; the search had already taken up too much valuable time and energy, and Bang had to be in caring hands soon.
The one she was thinking of had one more to bury anyway. She might as well spend what little time she had left with her son.
Hyun-Ok recovered from her coughing fit as best she could and continued her journey home. She would need to make the trip in silence through the forested night, hidden from the few remaining people. Since coming to the realization that Bang showed no signs of the virus she had been venturing out like this, into the dark, every night.
One by one those around her had died off as she cared for them, Bang always at her side. Her elderly mother had been the first to go, followed closely by her father. Shortly after that, her husband, though he desperately clung to life, not willing to abandon his wife and son.
Covered in the sweat of fever, and her words rasping, Hyun-Ok had assured him his son would be fine and urged him into a peaceful beyond. “I will be with you soon, my love,” she’d told him with tears streaming down her face. As weak as she was at the time, the tears had surprised her.
The endearment, and the true meaning of her words, had sparked something in her dying husband. His eyes darted from Hyun-Ok to Bang, who was standing at the bedside. In brutal agony, he drew himself up to gaze at his son’s face. “He must not be left alone and defenseless in this world gone mad!”
Hyun-Ok tried to comfort her husband with words, pushing him gently back toward the mattress, and she revealed her plan to safeguard their son. Her husband held them both close, praying aloud to an unhearing god that he could draw them with him as he slipped away.
That was just a week ago, and that night, after Bang drifted off to sleep, Hyun-Ok had gone out canvassing for the few remaining survivors in the neighborhood. Cloaked in black and defying the many dangers, she spied on the others and assessed them based on instinct alone. She estimated six hundred had originally occupied this immediate area in the Seattle suburb of Issaquah, and with only a 2 percent survival rate there should be twelve survivors—now known to be carriers. Of those she had only found seven.
Tonight she immediately discounted the first person she came across, two streets over, as being too elderly to be the guardian of a child of five. This lady only had a year left in her, if that. Hyun-Ok’s boy needed someone younger to carry him through life, at least into his teens.
The man she found next made her uncomfortable. She observed him decidedly grieving for his lost family, sitting out in a lawn chair in the night, yelling obscenities. He taunted and waited for the starving dogs, now gone wild, to smell him out. He shot at them, but it seemed to her that he was only trying to provoke an attack. She could sense his massive sorrow and knew his intentions were suicide by mauling if he could manage it. If not, he would likely soon take his own life. Sadly, she suspected that happened a lot with survivors.
Hyun-Ok crossed the highway unseen and found a scantily clad woman picking apples from a tree in a vacant lot. She knew the woman would attract the wrong kind of attention and wouldn’t be a good choice for her son’s welfare.
The man she had finally chosen seemed the only one capable of being her son’s guardian. Not only that, but something about him—either the way he carried his tall frame or the thoughtful dignity with which he buried his loved ones—assured Hyun-Ok that the neighbor named Graham would prove himself the best guardian. She knew that she could trust him with her boy. Knowing that as soon as Graham’s father passed away he’d have no more to bury, she could take her boy to him going on her own journey into death. One more day, she thought. But before then, I need to write to him about Bang.
With a sad smile, she stepped through the maze of parked vehicles, listening attentively to all sounds and alert for any dangers. She glanced back at the glow in the distance one last time. The last remaining obstacle would be to make Graham understand that he needed the boy as much as the boy needed him. She knew that would be the greatest challenge. She had to convince him of that or her son would be doomed.
🔴 Chapter 2
🔴 Chapter 2
The frail man reached out to his son. Through tears, Graham gently grasped his father’s shaking hands as he lay dying. He knew it was the closest they had ever been.
Graham reaffirmed that he would go on as they had planned, that he would always keep the rifle beside him. Through drowning coughs his father reminded Graham that taking his own life was not part of God’s plan; it would only ensure a soulless wandering in the afterlife and would prevent him from ever again joining his departed family.
Having seen the signs so many times before, Graham knew the end was drawing near. He became desperate, knowing that the difference this time would be him standing alone without a soul known to him. His father’s wheezing came in shorter gasps, his eyes drew quiet, and his face sank into itself. Graham went from the desperation of losing his father to praying for mercy and a quicker end; he could take no more of this torment. Just like all the others, one by one, they all died in anguish.
Graham could not understand why he still lived. He had watched helplessly as his wife Nelly had died, taking their unborn child with her. Then his dear mother left him, followed by his sister and four-year-old niece. And now his father.
“What will I do without you?” he asked.
“Do what I have taught you, Graham. Make good decisions along the way, and don’t regret anything. You’ll do fine. Always know that I’m proud of you.”
Graham wiped spittle from his father’s lips and clutched his hand.
When death finally came, his father assumed a peaceful demeanor and said for the last time, “I love you, son.”
Exhausted from the night’s endless vigil, Graham rubbed his face. Tears of frustration, fear, and loss streamed down through his light brown whiskers. He had not shaved since way back when things were normal, and he did not care if he ever shaved again. Food, and even the very air he needed to breathe, had lost all importance. He could only wonder how he could possibly go on without his father’s strength and guidance.
With his last racking sob, Graham took a deep breath. “Buck up,” his father would have said sternly. And that’s what he decided to do. He was now the father of the clan, and he continued as if there was a family to lead.
There was only the one last grave, though this one would be the hardest to dig. Such little consolation would have to do at this moment. Everyone he’d ever known was now gone: all of his family, friends, and acquaintances. From the lowliest beggar to the wealthiest tycoon, no class had gone untouched; even the president had died. This was an equal opportunity pandemic; no one could be accused of racism or class warfare.
With only the blue shadowy morning light peering in on them, Graham reached over to close the blue-veined eyes of the man he loved and admired.
“Good-bye, Dad,” he whispered, kissing him on the forehead. He wrapped the edges of the white bedsheet slowly around his father’s body; it was a skill he had learned through repetition. Then he left the room, walking lightly so as not to disturb the peace.
* * *
His father had asked Graham to leave space in the middle of the other four graves in his mother’s prized rhododendron garden. On one side lay his mother and Nelly, and on the other his sister and niece. His father had wanted it that way so he could “safeguard the ladies.” Graham had known that his dad, always the gentleman, would hold out to the very last, until after the ladies had gone.
In October the soft loamy ground would still shovel easily, though it would freeze soon enough. The autumn rains were often misty, but this morning it rained as if it meant it. The digging would have to wait.
Graham dreaded this final act almost as much as when he’d buried his beloved Nelly. He slumped down in his father’s living room chair and sobbed uncontrollably. “Where do I go from here?” he yelled, grabbing his water glass and flinging it across the room, where it crashed against the wall.
But he already had his answer; his father had already made him commit to certain plans. Graham remembered this but asked aloud, “What for?” He continued to sob, frustrated by the lack of answers.
He left the bedroom, walking to the dining room window to peer out into his mother’s garden. He saw the fading leaves of the rhododendrons, and the memory of their spring flowers made him wish he could somehow share his grief with Nelly.
After the pandemic had started, he and his wife had fled to his parents’ isolated home from the chaos that had come to Seattle. With Nelly’s teaching job suspended due to futile quarantine efforts and Graham’s job as a math professor gone, it only made sense to get the hell out of their apartment in the city. The decision became final when shots rang out one night, waking him from his sleep and causing him to clutch his pregnant wife securely against him. The next day they learned their neighbors had been murdered for their food supply. Fearing that he and Nelly were next, he packed the car and they left.
As humanity died off, people turned on one another. Fresh food was at a premium, and even preserved foods were running short. The immune preyed on the living; they desperately searched for dwindling food supplies because the grocery stores were no longer being stocked. To make things worse, counties had implemented quarantine roadblocks in an ill-fated attempt to lock infected populations out, thus making residents prisoners within their own communities.
Even though Graham had been raised by a Marine Corps father, he staunchly believed in gun control. He blamed easy access to guns for the various school shooting tragedies and railed against the ongoing wars fought abroad. These views had been furthered in the liberal-minded schools and universities he’d attended and subsequently taught in.
Having grown up in the Northwest, Graham embraced its culture and ideals, unlike his mother and father, who had kept their worldly views to themselves. They had never taken sides publicly nor tried to push their own views on their children. They had wanted Graham to become his own man in their troubled world.
Though Graham’s dad had insisted that he learn to hunt at a very early age, Graham had never owned a gun of his own. His father often tried to convince him to have a pistol with him for protection, especially since he was married and lived in what his dad thought a dangerous neighborhood. Graham had always refused, and had even tried to convince his father that those were the old ways of thinking and that every situation could be reasoned out peacefully.
His father, of course, doubted this based on his own experience. While he worried about his son’s attitude, through the years the older man’s subtle teachings provided Graham with the skills he needed to survive. He wanted the boy to be prepared regardless of personal ideals or political affiliation. They spent a lot of time in the wilderness. Even at their family cabin, where all manner of survival skills were keenly disguised as camping or hunting lore, he tricked his son into learning.
They would sometimes arrive at the old cabin that had been retrofitted over the years with running water and electricity to find both unavailable. Graham’s father would then show him how to set up solar panels for power and how to sterilize the nearby lake water. He also taught him how to hunt and cook outdoors over a wood fire. Graham now realized how clever the man had been in those early days to teach him so well.
Before it all came apart, Graham and Nelly had been happy and enjoyed healthy lives; they had just celebrated their second year of marriage. She was a planner and a list maker and, not surprisingly, had their futures all mapped out.
Graham usually arrived home first and got dinner ready for them. On one particular day, Nelly had been down with a cold, so he’d planned to make her favorite knockoff of a soup they both enjoyed from a local Italian restaurant, the one with sausage and kale. He was startled that evening when he found her home from work early, balled up and crying on their bed. She was not one for weeping fits, so he knew something terrible must have happened to her as bent down to comfort her. She resisted, and sat up to face him. “I’m pregnant!” she blurted out through tears.
“You’re what?” he asked, stunned.
“I’m pregnant. We’re going to have a baby, and it’s way too early. It’s not part of the plan. Now I won’t be able to get my master's degree.”
He pulled her toward him, even though she struggled and kissed her swollen red lips. “You’re so silly, Nelly. We’re going to have a baby! It’ll all work out. I love you!”
But nothing did work out. Soon later the pandemic came, and it took Nelly and their unborn child.
Now that he was all alone, Graham wondered how many in the neighborhood were still alive and how many would, as his father had warned, have “evil intent.”
The pelting rain had dwindled to a light mist. Graham retrieved his slicker and shovel from the garage, and his rifle from beside the door. A rifle: it felt as natural to him now as carrying his keys. Anytime he ventured outside he had it slung over his shoulder; indoors it was always within arm’s reach. “At all times,” his father had insisted.
Graham knew it was time. His throat tightened as he tried to suppress more tears. Out among the rhododendrons he leaned the rifle within reach against the garden shed. The wind picked up as he stood and listened. He and his father had made a practice of this early on; the act of listening had become one of the rituals of survival. The silence should be filled with familiar sounds, and the total absence of them could mean trouble. There were very few familiar sounds now.
No distant train could be heard, no planes overhead. No lawnmowers, or cars’ squealing belts, or the ever-present roar of Interstate 90 passing through town. Neighborhood chatter and children at play were now only past memories, but they were the sounds that Graham missed.
What he did hear was often met with the natural instinct of fight or flight: the howling of a dog (or was it a wolf?); the noise of dogs fighting over prey, as fear-inducing as any distant gunshot; the occasional scream, though in recent days these had become less frequent. This was what Graham chose to distract himself with while bending over the soaked loam next to the mounded grave of his mother; the ruminations of a world gone silent.
As sweat dripped from his nose he heaved each shovelful with vengeance, using the activity to release some of his anger. He continued to toss shovel after shovel of dirt, ignoring the pain in his back and shoulders.
Then he could not help it. Graham broke down again as an image of tossing a ball with his father in that very spot crossed his mind. He dropped the shovel and put his hands on the back of his neck. He fell to his knees in the damp grass. “No, this cannot be happening,” he cried, lifting his face toward the sky.
At that moment, out of the corner of his eye, Graham spotted a form in gray next to the barberry bush. It was so slight that he nearly missed it altogether. In one fluid motion he quickly retrieved his rifle, cursing himself for not noticing something sooner.
Graham leveled the rifle and aimed, grief fueling his anger. “Get back! I will shoot you!” The shape slipped back around the corner, but he knew it hid there. He could sense its presence, but had no idea of who or what it could be.
“There is nothing for you here, so please leave,” he added more calmly.
Then a muffled coughing signaled someone around the corner. Graham knew it was not his imagination; he took several wide side steps to view the hidden space, then adjusted his aim to get a visual of the one who dared intrude upon his private grieving.
A slight female form stood against the house, hooded, bent over in a futile attempt to restrain a persistent cough. When the cough lessened, she lifted her head to gaze at Graham. Her eyes pleaded with him as she raised her hand up in a gesture to show she meant no harm.
The frail woman limped forward, stopped, and raised her hands again. Graham could tell she was weak with the disease, and after she took a couple more steps he could clearly see she would not last more than an hour or so. Her face showed all the signs he’d seen before, and the fact that she was able to stand was a miracle alone. Her whole body rattled with the endless coughing. Graham walked within fifteen feet of her and lowered the business end of his rifle. He met the woman’s pleading gaze with his own, knowing her dying breath might come at any minute.
She must be one of the few still alive with the virus. But not for long.
“I am Hyun-Ok,” she said, barely audible; it was the voice of a woman weakened and scarred. She gestured vaguely behind her. “This is my son Bang.”
Graham took several steps back and held up his hand, knowing right away what she wanted from him. He shook his head. “No, I can’t take on someone else.”
She shuffled forward a few steps and pleaded again. “I have watched you, you’re a good man. Please, you’re the only one. He is immune, like you.”
Before she could say any more, she stumbled on the rocky driveway, falling to her knees and coughing again. Bang ran to her side.
Surprised at seeing such a small child, Graham slung his rifle over his shoulder and took several steps closer to her. He’d never taken any notice of the danger the virus might cause him. Hell, he’d even tried to catch it once Nelly had passed away.
Graham lifted the dying woman’s small frame into his arms while the boy watched his every move. The child trailed him closely as he moved toward the house.
He had few choices here. He could not watch this woman die right in his driveway, especially with her child there; he doubted his father would have allowed this either. He opened the sliding glass door with one free hand while the lady continued to cough in his arms. He could not see the boy, but knew he was close behind. He laid her down on the living room sofa and heard the boy slide the door closed. Graham pulled his mother’s red floral quilt down from the back of the sofa and laid it over the tiny woman.
He watched as the little boy ran to his mother’s side. She reached for him, and once she regained control she reached for Graham’s hand as well. She looked at him with desperate eyes.
“Please, Graham, you must take him, there is no other,” she said.
He wondered how she knew his name. “Let me get you some water,” he said, trying to stall the conversation. It dawned on him how cruel her plight must feel, knowing she would leave a young child alone and helpless in this new world.
“No, there is so little time now,” she mumbled. “Please don't bother.”
Graham no longer felt so sorry for himself; he knew the boy’s predicament was much worse than his own, but still he felt unprepared to take him on as a responsibility.
Hyun-Ok grabbed his hand to keep him close.
Before she uttered another word, she joined her son’s small hand with Graham’s. “You need him as much as he needs you. Please, take him,” she continued, crying.
Graham found himself nodding as he became more aware of her desperation. At any second she would perish right there on the couch in front of her son. He could not take any more heartbreak.
He gave in.
“I’ll take him. I’ll take care of him.”
To bring her peace, he lifted the child onto the couch next to his mother. As Bang cried, Graham’s voice cracked. “It’s okay. I promise to take good care of him.”
He wanted to give her this gift. He’d had no control over the loss of his loved ones, but he could at least give this stranger peace. He wanted to show her some humanity in her dying moments. He missed the kindness of the living.
Hyun-Ok looked up at him, and Graham saw that the same peacefulness that had come over his father just before dawn was now coming to her. Her face softened and she managed a weak smile, moving her eyes from Graham to her son. She blinked away tears and her smile faded. Then her mouth fell open. The spark of life was gone just like that. She had completed the transfer on borrowed time.
Graham stared at her for a few moments in silence. He heard a low, muffled cry starting deep in the boy, who remained curled up next to his mother. Graham could understand his sorrow; the boy, too, had seen too much death—and so early in his life. He stroked Bang’s head as the boy clung to his mother’s side, sobbing.
Graham gently closed Hyun-Ok’s eyes and laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “It’s going to be all right,” he said, but Bang pulled away from him and clung to his mother.
Graham stepped back. He shook his head, cursing himself for the promise he’d just made. He walked away, leaving the little boy there. He now had another grave to dig before sundown.
🔴 Chapter 3
🔴 Chapter 3
The Dark before Dawn
Graham dug the dead woman’s grave next to his beloved Nelly’s; he wanted to think that the two would have gotten along in the living world. They both loved children, and he didn’t think he wanted this brave little lady to be alone. This just seemed like the right thing to do.
Exhausted, he trudged back inside, stomping the dirt off his boots at the door. The boy still lay at his mother’s side. Graham knew this wasn’t a good sign. What if I can’t get him away from his mother’s dead body?
He walked over to the boy and shook him awake. Eyes just like his mother’s, but now rimmed in red, looked up at him.
Hey, kid, what’s your name again?” Graham asked. The boy hesitated.
“Look, my name’s Graham. What’s yours?”
Graham wasn’t sure he heard it right. “What?”
“Bang!” the boy said and rolled over, weeping.
“Come on, Bang, I need your help,” Graham said.
The boy closed his eyes and buried his face in his mother’s side.
“Hey, come on. We have work to do,” Graham insisted, pulling him away from his mother and off the couch. Bang began to kick and scream, landing a lucky strike against Graham’s shin.
“God dammit, kid!” He held Bang firmly by one arm, and pulled him, kicking and screaming, into his father’s bedroom.
“Look!” Graham said, pointing to his dead father and yelling over the crying. Bang quieted and looked up at Graham, terrified. His eyes and nose were running, and he tried to stop his sniffling.
“We have to bury him, and then we’ll bury your mother,” Graham said in a stern voice. “But I need your help.”
Graham let go of the boy’s arm, and Bang took hold of the dead man’s sheet. Graham took a deep breath.
“All right, Dad, here we go.” Graham worked his arms under his father’s lifeless body, which had already begun to stiffen. It was easier to lift than he had thought it would be, and he cradled his father against his chest.
“You follow me,” he told the boy. He didn’t expect him to be happy, or even quiet; he just wanted to give him a part in the task to keep him busy. Bang followed him through the house and out the door. Once outside, Graham stopped for a moment and buried his head in his father’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Dad,” he said, wishing he knew of a more dignified way of transporting him.
The late afternoon sky was gray, and more rain was on the way. Graham laid his father at the edge of the grave, then jumped down into the hole and looked up at Bang. Somehow the boy had quieted, maybe because he had something to do, or maybe because he was stunned with so many dead people around. Whatever the reason, Graham was grateful.
“Okay, you help me get him in here,” Graham said, struggling to hold back his own emotions. “Try to give him a little push.”
Graham dragged his deceased father over toward him. The boy helped push as much as he could, which was barely at all. The body started to sink to the bottom too quickly in what ended up in more of a controlled fall. Graham couldn’t help but cry. He settled his father neatly within the grave and started to climb up out of the hole. The first thing Graham noticed above ground was the kid had completely disappeared. He looked all around the yard but saw no sign of him.
“Shit!” Graham said, followed by, “Hey, Bang!”
Graham ran to the back door of the house, thinking that perhaps Bang had gone back to his dead mother’s side. But looking through the glass door he couldn’t see the boy. Then he heard a yell and a dog barking from the front of the property.
Graham grabbed his rifle and ran to the front of the house to see Bang running down the street with a pit bull at his heels. He yelled and ran toward the dog, startling it enough that it turned in his direction. Graham aimed and fired, killing the attack dog instantly.
Knowing they had caused a commotion enough to attract other predators, Graham didn’t delay; with one arm he grabbed Bang, who was crying and kicking, and ran home, closing the gate behind them. He then sat Bang down in the grass and knelt next to him.
“Okay, okay, be quiet! It’s done now. The dog is dead,” Graham said. He felt guilty for forcing the kid to behave, but he needed him to quiet down. Graham went to the front gate to look for more dogs; so far there weren’t any.
“You need to be quiet or the other mean dogs will find us,” he said, rubbing Bang’s head. The boy tried to stifle his crying. “Are you okay? Did he bite you?”
Bang shook his head. Graham took a rag out of his pants pocket and wiped the tears and snot away. The little boy’s chest heaved with his effort to hold back his sobs.
“I know this is tough, but you can’t run away from me. Your mom wanted you to stay with me so I could take care of you. I promised her. Please don’t do that again. Now, come on, let’s finish our job.” Graham got up and headed back to the graves, taking his rifle with him all the while keeping an eye on the street for more dogs. If he were lucky, the dead, rather than he or Bang, would attract predators.
“We need to be quiet out here, okay?” he said to Bang. The boy followed slowly behind him at a slight distance.
Graham knelt at the edge of his father’s grave, as if in a moment of prayer or meditation, then stood up and grabbed his shovel. When Bang walked over, Graham handed him a smaller shovel.
“Here, you can use this one,” but the boy just started shaking his head and crying again. “Fine,” Graham muttered in frustration. “Just sit down there, then.”
He reluctantly picked up a shovelful of dirt and slowly swung it over the hole. He started at his father’s feet and carefully dropped in the soil. He grabbed another shovelful, and another, but when it came time to cover his father’s face he was reluctant. He didn’t cry, but still he shook with grief.
The next thing he knew, the boy shouted out as a dog snarled close behind them. Graham looked up and saw two more. He reached for Bang and pulled him away just as the dog bit into the kid’s jacket. He flung the boy behind him, toward the edge of the grave. Bang scrambled away from the edge, bawling. Graham swung the shovel at the attack dog and smacked it in the head. He then grabbed his rifle, putting a bullet into the skull of the stunned dog.
“Get out of here!” he yelled at the other two.
With its teeth bared, head down, another dog came at him. The third tried to edge around him toward the boy. Graham shot the closest dog squarely in the forehead, so close that he felt the misty splatter of blood on his face.
The last dog tried to take advantage by lunging at Graham, but it was too little too late. Using the gun barrel as a club, he knocked the dog to the side. He had just enough time to squeeze off a shot, wounding the dog in the hip. He cocked the rifle one last time and fired.
Nothing happened. He was out of ammunition, right when an enraged and wounded beast was coming after him. He tossed the rifle down and grabbed the shovel again, slipping in the mud and falling on his side. The injured dog locked its teeth into Graham’s pants leg.
He swung the shovel with all his might. There was a clang and a yelp, but he still felt the dog pulling on his pants. He swung again and finally heard silence. He scrambled to his feet.
Bang just stared at the dead animal. The growling had stopped, but the boy’s bawling did not; he was nearly hysterical. Graham dropped the shovel and grabbed him by the shoulders. “Shhh, be quiet, or more will come,” he told him in a harsh whisper. He left him there and quickly filled in his father’s grave, mounding the dirt deeply and looking all around him as he did.
He tossed the dogs’ bodies in a wheelbarrow, and then went back to kneel again at his father’s grave. Though Graham had never been a religious man, he hoped now that all of his loved ones were in a better place. His heart ached as he smoothed the mounded dirt with his rough hands to level it out.
“It’s so hard to say good-bye, Dad. I don’t know what I’m going to do without you.” Then he remembered what his father would expect of him. He stood, grabbed his rifle, and led the sobbing boy inside the house.
There was still the boy’s mother to bury, and dusk was quickly falling, so he knew he had to hurry. Bang immediately ran to the body, and Graham could tell this was going to be a battle.
He used a rag to wipe mud from the rifle quickly and reloaded it. “We have to bury her now,” Graham said when he was done.
“No!” the boy cried.
“We can’t leave her here. It’s getting dark, and we have to do it now,” Graham said gruffly, walking over to the couch. Bang put his arms around his mother as if to guard her. Graham pulled him back by the shoulders and said, “Look, kid, we have to do this right now. You can either help or you can stand back. Don’t make me lock you in a room. The least you can do for your mother right now is be strong and help me.”
Graham pulled the red floral quilt down from the back of the couch wrapped it around Hyun-Ok, much as he’d done with the others. At first Bang just stood there sobbing; then he began patting her wrapped legs. As Graham started to cover the rest of Hyun-Ok, he noticed a necklace with a medallion. He took it off her body as the boy watched. He then reached for Bang, who pulled back, clearly untrusting until he realized what Graham was trying to do. He let Graham put the chain over his head. The medallion landed with a thump against Bang’s narrow, bony chest.
“She has a book in her pocket there,” the boy said, pointing to her gray jacket. They were the first words he’d spoken other than his name and “no.”
Graham felt in her coat and found a small journal in a leather sleeve.
“Is this for you?” Graham asked Bang, who just shrugged, not knowing the answer.
“Well, you hold on to it for now,” Graham instructed. He continued to wrap Hyun-Ok but stopped when he got to her face.
“Go ahead and say good-bye,” he said to Bang.
The boy sniffled, and then kissed her on the cheek. He hugged her one last time and stroked her long silky hair.
Graham looked outside and realized the night was coming quickly. He pulled the boy back gently from his mother. “Okay, it’s time. We need to get her buried now.”
The boy watched as Graham covered her face with the quilt. “No, no, no!” he cried again. Bang tried to tear the quilt off, and Graham had to pull him away, restraining him. He knew this was heartbreaking for the boy, but he didn’t have a choice.
“Look,” he said, “we have to bury her now or we’ll have more trouble with the dogs. Do you want that? Your mother wants you to be safe and stay alive. We can’t do that if there are dogs attacking us.”
Bang looked miserable and confused and just shook his head again.
“All right then, let’s get this done before dark,” Graham said, slinging his rifle over his shoulder.
He picked up Hyun-Ok’s light frame and led the small procession out to her last resting place. The boy followed, unable to suppress his grief. The closer Graham got to the grave, the more Bang struggled to pull the quilt away, and Graham ordered, “Knock it off!”
When they reached the grave, Graham lowered Hyun-Ok’s body to the grass at the edge of the hole. Bang pulled more of the quilt off, exposing her feet, and Graham pushed him away, landing him on his rear.
Looking around first for any more predators, Graham jumped into the hole. “Give me a hand, kid,” he whispered, but the boy ignored him.
Graham pulled Hyun-Ok’s body into the grave and gently lowered her to the bottom. Bang scrambled over to the grave’s edge, again yelling, “No, No!”
Graham quit worrying about the kid and instead shoveled dirt into the grave as quickly as he could with Bang crying all the while. He felt awful having to do it this way, but the circumstances left him with no choice. Nightfall meant predators.
By the time Graham finished it was nearly dark, and Bang’s sobs had faded to whimpers. Graham, exhausted both emotionally and physically, began to smooth the mounded dirt atop the grave. To his surprise, Bang shoved his hands away and began smoothing it himself. Graham let him do it.
Another howl pierced the backyard silence, sending a chill up Graham’s spine. Not knowing the kid’s religious beliefs, he said, “Okay, kid, hurry up and say good-bye.”
The boy said something in what Graham assumed must be Korean, but he wasn’t sure. He knelt beside the boy and bowed his head. He hoped that bringing Hyun-Ok into his home had allowed her to pass peacefully. Out loud, so the boy could hear him, he said, “Just like I promised, I will look after your son.” Graham heard another howl, then reached over and picked up Bang, who leaned, now spent and tearless, against his shoulder.
Discover the World of Surrender the Sun 🏔️🏔️☃️
Discover the World of Surrender the Sun 🏔️🏔️☃️
Where's the pilot? was the first thing that came to mind when I regained consciousness after the battle of a lifetime for the last available aircraft that might save us all from this disaster.
Maeve read my mind and said, “You captured him alive. He’s in the next room.”
I nodded, knowing I couldn’t fly them out of there myself.
Then she raised an eyebrow, as I sat up and made a grumbling noise.
I pointed to my clothes on the chair. Despite her misgivings, I had to talk to that pilot.
But my nose wrinkled at the scent of the plaster over my leg wound, and my head spun.
Despite that, I gripped the edge of the bed as Maeve handed over my clothes. Then I spotted Ben sitting quietly in a nearby chair, cradling a black cat.
The boy glanced at me, then avoided eye contact. I knew the fear he was battling instantly. It was the same fear that had consumed my best friend and his father.
Ben remained silent, while I dressed.
He glanced up at me again while his eyes flooded and I waved my hand to him.
After a moment’s hesitation, he shooed the cat from his lap and ran to my side burying his face.
I ran a bandaged hand through his hair and graveled out, "I'm fine, Buddy. I won't leave you and your mom. Ever…”
Continue reading if you like:
- Stories of Hope in the Face of Disaster
- Heros when Humanity is at its Worst
- Forming New Family Bonds
- Starting Over
- Orphans Finding Their Way
- Surviving and Thriving
- Finding Strength in the Darkness
🔴 Chapter 1
🔴 Chapter 1
October 31, 2030
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
Lying on her blanket-strewn queen-sized bed, the one she’d once shared with Roger, Maeve dreamed. He was there again…with her, laughing as she complained about him leaving his coffee cups everywhere in the garage growing islands of fluffy green mold. “It wouldn’t kill you to put them in the dishwasher yourself, you know.”
Levering open the dishwasher door, she made a show of turning the dirty mug upside down and placing it on the top rack. “See, it’s that easy. Even easy enough for you to do.” He grabbed her around the waist and tickled her until she squealed.
“Easy, huh?” But the tone of his voice meant something entirely different than the ease of washing moldy mugs.
But as she glanced down, pasty blood covered his camo trousers, causing them to turn a shade of puce as the red mingled with the brown. She begged him to release her and knew the deceit of the scene then.
As he quickly lifted her up into his embrace, she stole one last look into his eyes before the dream faded and he was snatched from her again. Before he left her, she reached up and pressed her hands against his rough cheeks, engulfing him so that she would remember him this time, the feel of his pressed lips to hers. She held the illusion even as his form began to dissipate no matter how hard she willed to hang on to him. “I love you. Don’t leave me.”
Her hand moved over the soft, rumpled sheets then, in the space he should have been but would never be again. Burying her face into the covers, she sobbed as dawn brought yet another day with the realization she’d lost him forever.
Maeve wiped away the tears before she turned to her six-year-old son standing in the doorway. “Good morning, Ben. I’ll be up in just a second, buddy.”
“You were dreaming again. I heard you.”
Like many mornings before, she needed to divert the conversation, or they’d both end up in turmoil with past memories and ghosts haunting them throughout the day. “Hey,” she said, “you have a Halloween party today, right?”
“Uh huh,” he said as he padded barefoot to her bedside. She pulled him closer. Ben’s little boy smell still made her ache. His features were so like Roger’s, set in miniature. His dark hair and brown eyes were the color of milk chocolate. She adored that Ben resembled his father more than herself. At least she had a permanent part of her dead husband after all.
She brushed her son’s overgrown bangs out of his eyes then hugged him tighter. She knew he sensed her sadness. Fending off her emotions, she needed to pull strength from somewhere else deep inside for the both of them today. This was the wrong way to start the day; she knew that by repetition.
Drawing a smile to her lips, she kissed him. “Go get your cowboy costume on and I’ll get in the shower. Scoot.”
“OK, can I have cereal for breakfast this morning?”
“That would be far too much sugar with class treats later today. How about some oatmeal instead?”
He nodded and then sprinted down the carpeted hallway to his bedroom as she yelled, “Walk please.”
Resigned to the fact that she now had to start the day, Maeve sat up and pulled her legs over the side of the bed. Running her hands through her long red hair, she tried to pull her wild mane behind her. In doing so, she glanced at the picture on her bedside table. The image with her and Roger and the infant Ben. The proud parents that somehow made this miracle stared back out at her with perfectly drawn happiness in their expressions; not a hint of tragedy marred their faces.
The Maeve today barely recognized those people. How the pain of losing Roger hurt as if his death had happened just the day before! She resented the picture now. How could they’ve been so happy? Didn’t they know the life they led couldn’t last for very long? People died in war. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and her husband along with them. Why did they think they were immune to death? The image brought her no more joy. It only brought her jealousy now. She kept the photo there on her nightstand out of tradition, hoping that someday she’d feel something more beyond bitter resentment for having him ripped from her and her son.
Not like this. Not today.
Maeve ran her fingers through her hair again and shook them, causing her hair to wave around wildly. Ugh, get going, she said to herself to shed the malaise trying to possess her today. She whipped the covers to the side and moved herself to the edge of the bed. Without the warmth of the covers, she realized she could see her breath out before her in her own room. No wonder Ben ran to his room. It’s freezing in here. She hurried to the adjoining bathroom. Starting the shower, more to warm the space than herself, Maeve removed her nightshirt and brushed her teeth as they chattered from the invading freezing temperatures.
As the room began to fog with warm steam, she stepped into the water, still clutching the toothbrush between her teeth. She would take any compromise to warm herself, and if that meant brushing in the shower, so be it.
A haze wafted up around her as she turned in the warm cascading spray and then finished the task. Once thoroughly warmed and cleaned, she dressed for the day, reluctant to leave the soothing heat of the small bathroom. Then she descended the stairs of the A-frame house and landed on the cold wood floor on the main level.
Switching on her iPad that she kept in the kitchen, she set the station to the local live news stream out of Spokane while she turned on the Keurig and began Ben’s oatmeal.
“It’s cold in here, Mom. I can even see my breath,” Ben said as he entered the room dressed in his cowboy getup, minus the holster and six-shooters that the school frowned upon. Joining her in the kitchen, he climbed up on the barstool while watching his mom carry on with their morning routine.
“I noticed. Maybe the furnace is out,” she said, and while the Keurig emitted a welcome scent, she stepped over into the hallway near the garage and checked the regulator on the wall. “I don’t know. It says sixty-seven. I can hear the furnace running. I’ll push it up a little anyway. I’ll have to call someone to come out and check it today.”
“Look at the news, Mom,” Ben said. “There’s a snowstorm.”
She followed his small finger pointing to the screen. The weatherman was expressing concern over the new weather disturbance coming their way. “Great, and at the end of October, too,” Maeve said. She finished making her coffee while she watched the news report with her son on the iPad screen.
“KREX News reporting. Bob Madeira here. Folks, bundle up. The lowest recorded temperature in the Spokane region is seven degrees recorded back in 2002. I hate to break it to you, but it’s five degrees out there right now. I’m sure there’s a lot of broken pipes in the region, and area plumbers will be out in full force today. Especially for those who haven’t blown out their sprinklers yet, like me…
“Residents in Coeur d’Alene are enjoying three-degree weather this morning. In fact, let’s check the forecast for this week—woo wee, it’s going to be a shiver-fest. The highs are well below freezing the rest of this week and into the next. Most schools have either closed for the day, or there’s a two-hour late start. Check your local school. It’s a deep freeze, folks, with no end in sight…”
“Fantastic!” Maeve said with a chill.
“Is it going to snow?” Ben asked with excitement. His eyes sprung wide.
“Oh…I hope not. I never thought that stuff would melt off last year. Eat your oatmeal,” Maeve said and plunked his bowl down in front of him. “I’m going to start the truck and get the engine warmed up before we go.”
She set her hot coffee cup down reluctantly. Maeve slid into her boots and pulled her black puffy coat on, then opened the door to the garage and felt the meaning of freezing cold hitting her face. “Three degrees, my arse…Ugh, oh.” She fumbled with her zipper as her fingers became numbed. “Gosh darn it, friggin’ cold out here,” she grumbled on her way to the driver’s side of her cream-and-black SUV, a Toyota FJ Cruiser.
Once behind the wheel, she hit the garage door opener and then put the keys in the ignition. Then the garage door made a sound unlike its usual racket. “What the heck?” she said, looking in the rearview mirror. The door remained in place.
She pressed the door opener again, and this time, it lifted maybe two inches before giving up and closing once again. “Damn thing’s frozen, man…”
Maeve stepped out of the FJ. “What would Roger do?” She’d uttered this phrase countless times since his death, and it had helped her figure out how to handle many tasks in the past, though now she knew it was a reliance she needed to let go of.
She scanned his workbench, remembering him squirting something from a blue spray bottle that he kept inside the door during the coldest months of winter.
“Where is that thing?”
She rifled through a few boxes of random automotive bottles and then found the one she was looking for. Maeve unscrewed the lid and smelled the contents. “Vinegar?” After replacing the top, she shook the contents. Though she knew the concoction was a year old, she hoped the solution would still work.
She began spraying the door’s seal, hoping to melt whatever was frozen. Again she tried the door after waiting a few seconds, and though the door did open, it opened a bit slower, like a cranky old man rising from his bed with enough complaints and resentment to color the rest of his day with a bad attitude.
Maeve stood there looking at the frozen landscape outside her home in amazement. She could swear the month was January instead of October: everything was covered in a determined layer of frost and appeared brittle before its time. The sugar maple in her front yard had yet to lose all of its bronzed leaves—each leaf perfectly caught in a colorful stagnation now encapsulated in white crystals. Mounds of leaves were scattered everywhere over the graveled driveway and covered with a thick layer of icy frost. The long road leading to their private twenty acres within the Coeur d’Alene National Forest was beset with wild critter trails, their footsteps marking their paths from an early emergence of the day regardless of the human interlopers.
She blew out an icy breath. “Wonderful…” Though she didn’t think the conditions were really any kind of wonderful. She meant the statement as sarcasm—the beauty of the frozen scene was undeniably a beautiful winter scene, just far too early in autumn.
She turned on her heel and started the FJ; this time though, it took two tries to get the cold engine to comply with her request. She remembered Roger telling her once that cold weather was as hard on engines as it was on people. She doubted him then, though now it seemed his statement was redeemed.
“Ben, get your big coat on and gloves and your hat,” she said as she entered the now-warmed house once again.
“Do I have to? No one else will be wearing theirs,” Ben complained.
“No, you don’t, but take one step out there without your warmest gear on and you’ll lose your nose to frostbite. You don’t really need those fingers either, do you?” She shook her head in mock agreement.
“Mom!” Ben rolled his eyes.
“Seriously, you heard the weatherman. Bundle up, buddy.”
“OK,” Ben said as he climbed off the stool, taking big steps with slumped shoulders up the stairs. He finished his morning routine with the reluctant addition of winter gear while Maeve finished her now lukewarm coffee, cleaned out Ben’s breakfast bowl, and listened to the news while she packed their lunches and grabbed her gear for the day.
As Maeve pulled out of the long driveway and drove away from the house, she was thankful for the choppy gravel drive. She would have slid on the sloped icy frost halfway down the path without the benefit of the grit. However, once she pulled off of Scenic Bay Drive onto the nicely paved Beauty Bay Drive, she began sliding to the other side of the road. The slick street made it nearly impossible to gain traction even after she put the FJ into four-wheel drive.
“Well, that wasn’t the way I’d planned it.”
“You’re a bad driver,” Ben announced with confidence from the backseat.
She checked her son in the rearview mirror, arched her eyebrow, and asked, “Whoever told you that I was a bad driver?”
“That’s what Grandpa Jack says.”
Maeve let out a frustrated breath. “I am not a bad driver. Grandpa Jack tells that story of when I was learning to drive. I haven’t run into a police officer since I was a teenager.” She began to drive down their sparsely inhabited road as she left. “I’m going to have to have a talk with Grandpa Jack next time we go to Maine. What are you laughing about back there?”
Ben giggled again. “You,” he said, pointing. “Ran into a policeman!”
“Agh! Some things you never live down. I swear even your…”
She swallowed hard. She’d done it again. She’d forgotten…As impossible as it was to forget her husband’s death, it happened from time to time, even now. “Even your dad used to give me a hard time about that one.” She ended her statement with a smile and then glanced in the rearview mirror to see how Ben had taken the mention of his father again.
She found him with a half-smile staring out the window. It wasn’t so bad now. A month ago she couldn’t even mention Roger’s name without Ben and herself resorting to tears still or at least a painful knot in their throats. Now, it was just the painful knot and a clenched stomach. Time heals all wounds? That’s a trick I’d like to see, she thought, still glancing at her boy’s reflection as he appeared to brace for impact.
“Mom!” Ben shouted with his arm outstretched. With a sickening crunch, a blurry rust-brown beast flitted to the side of the road. Careening recklessly, the SUV skidded out of control, finally coming to a stop on the icy, narrow, winding two-lane street.
Her heart pounding like a racing piston, Maeve turned to her son. “Ben! Are you all right?” Her hands shook like leaves. “Ben?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m fine. You hit him, I think?”
“Was it a deer? A moose? I didn’t even see what it was.” She scanned the windows to catch a glimpse with hopes she hadn’t killed the unknown creature.
“You hit a man, Mom! It was a man on a horse. It was the hermit guy, I bet.”
“Oh my goodness!”
“You hit him, Mom!”
“Oh jeez,” she said. There were tracks in the icy frost on the road leading off the side and into the forest, but she didn’t see anyone, man or beast, out there anywhere.
Sitting sideways in the middle of the road, she restarted the SUV and then pulled the truck over to the side of the road with her emergency flashing lights on. “Stay right here, Ben,” she said as she released her seatbelt that now clenched across her lap like a vise. This stretch of Beauty Bay Road traversing through the thick forest was always her favorite part. She could breathe deeply here in its seclusion and felt peace unlike anywhere else in the world. It wasn’t until five more miles up the two-lane road that her breath became more shallow and tense as the small town of Coeur d’Alene came into view.
Roger often told her the thickly forested area was home to several ex-military men who just couldn’t take society anymore after the trauma of war and used the forest as a sanctuary of sorts. They lived off the land there, and now Maeve was afraid she’d just killed or maimed one of them, the one they called the Hermit.
“Hello?” she shouted after she quickly shut the door to keep the warmth inside of the truck for Ben. She cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Are you all right?” She waited for a response as she followed the tracks in the frost leading from the road into the evergreen forest. They became harder to detect the farther she went, as the canopy of the woods held back the frost and the evidence of footprints. Once, two feet in the dense brush, she looked back at Ben looking through the truck window after her. Her breath puffed out in little clouds in front of her face. Her nose was already numb, and her cheeks felt frozen solid. She crossed her arms and suddenly had the feeling someone was watching her, and though she was cold, there was something more making her shiver.
“I’m sorry I hit you. Please let me help,” she yelled again, breaking the solitude of the forest. That’s when she finally saw him and had the feeling it was only because he’d let her see him. A man hidden in plain sight appeared before her. Wearing military camo much like Roger’s, he blended in well with the evergreen surroundings.
His raspy voice startled her. It was as if he hadn’t used it in quite some time. “Don’t yell. You should watch where you’re going. Especially with a kid in the car,” he said, motioning toward the SUV.
Her mouth agape, she finally said, “I…I’m sorry. Did I hurt you or your horse?”
“You almost did. He’s fine. I think you murdered a few fallen branches on the road though. Go on. Just watch where you’re going,” he said gruffly, but his eyes were soft and unyielding as he held her attention.
“Can I bring you anything?” she said, assuming he was the hermit Ben mentioned.
“I have everything I need.”
She took the hint that he wanted her to leave. “OK. OK then. I’m Maeve Tildon,” she said and held out her hand for him to shake.
He stared at the offering.
Her hand hanging in midair for longer than a comfortable time, she let it drop. “If you find out later that you, or your horse, are hurt…well, I live down Scenic Bay Road. There’s a sign on the mailbox that says Tildon. You can’t miss us. Just let me know. I’ll pay for any medical expenses or vet bills,” she said and turned her head toward her SUV, then suddenly turned back again. “I’m just very sorry.” As if she really wanted him to know she truly was.
He nodded at her and diverted his vision to the side.
She figured that was the end of their short conversation, and she turned to leave again.
“Hey, you’re Maeve? Roger’s Maeve?”
She turned. “Yeah. I mean, I…Roger…he died. Over…there.”
The man stood there a moment, silent, maneuvering the news around in his head as if a puzzle piece he’d tried to fit into place had found home. She knew the feeling.
“I hadn’t heard. I’m sorry. When?”
Caught off guard, she said, “Almost a year now. Did you know him?”
He took a step back. “Yeah. I knew Roger.”
She responded the way she always did. With sad eyes, she smiled slightly because there was no way to respond appropriately to having someone ripped from you. If there was, she hadn’t figured it out yet. She turned, and when she did, she did it into herself. Set back a mile in grief in an instant, again.
She walked back to the opening from the forest to her truck holding her son. Then she turned, and this time when she looked back, the man was gone. Vanished into the woods.
She never did see the horse she’d nearly hit.
Shaking her head as if his image had been a dream, she made her way back to the SUV and climbed inside, noticing it was nearly as cold inside now as it was outside. Ben was shivering in his car seat.
“Did you find the Hermit?”
“I found a man. It’s not nice to call someone a hermit, Ben.”
She started the truck.
“What’s his name then? That’s what they call him at school. He has a horse. Was the horse hurt?”
“Far too many questions all at once, son. He didn’t mention his name, and it looks like they’re both fine, thank goodness.” She lowered the emergency brake handle and restarted the engine.
“Let’s go. You’re going to be late for school this morning.”
🔴 Chapter 2
🔴 Chapter 2
Maeve opened the bookshop door with the force of her body and leaned hard against the glass door pane. Once inside, she was so cold that her breath was as apparent inside as out. “Don’t they have the furnace on yet?” she said with no one to hear since her employees were not scheduled to arrive until later in the afternoon when business typically picked up.
She shook off her gloves and squeezed her fingers open and shut, trying to get them to work like normal.
She’d barely made it into town after dropping Ben off at Fernan Elementary School. Everyone remarked how terribly cold it was so early in October. Admonishments that the school should have called a two-hour-late session were whispered none too quietly down the hallways.
“Don’t stand outside for me,” she’d told her son. “Wait inside until you see me in the turnaround. OK, Ben?” She didn’t want him to freeze outside after school, and sometimes the teacher’s aides couldn’t be trusted to take the right care in severe weather.
“Yes, Mom,” he’d said, but she still doubted his words; he would be given to peer pressure and little boy attitudes by the end of the day.
Still, she stifled her motherly fears knowing he’d be fine, and while she doubted there would be much traffic today with the weather, she got the bookstore ready anyway. Perhaps a few patrons would come out just to get warm in her bookstore after watching the latest hit at the movie theater less than a block away.
Maeve opened the bookstore when Roger was deployed with some inheritance money she gained after her mother had passed away. She had hoped the work would be enough to divert her from her husband’s absence. The new Stoneriver complex proved to be a great asset to Coeur d’Alene with its new theater and shops. Several restaurants occupied the once-vacant stores, and with the almost occupied condos above, they were certainly out of the financial woes that were present when the complex started back in the early 2000s.
She’d only just started making headway in the ledger books when she was notified of Roger’s untimely death. Now, she hoped the shop’s income would be enough to support her and Ben the rest of the way. Roger’s retirement she didn’t touch. Those funds went into an account exclusively for Ben to someday use as his college trust as he saw fit. At least there was that. She didn’t have to worry about where the money for college would come from.
The few employees Maeve kept did inventory in the evenings and worked part-time on the weekends while the others filled in. Maeve kept herself for Ben most weekends and worked days until he was out of school. That way, he would have some semblance of a normal life. That was how she saw it in her mind anyway. A normal life for a little boy without a father. One she could never replace anyway.
After turning on the cash register computer system, Maeve checked the back door and looked for any packages left for her. She’d been expecting a shipment from Ingram Content any day, and though today would mark the shipment one day late, she wasn’t worried. The ice on the roads was holding everything back; she’d already received a shipping delay notice in her e-mail.
A familiar jingle caught her attention. She returned to the front of the store, only to find Elizabeth, the lady that ran the sports store next door, standing inside.
“Yes, I’m here,” she said as she rounded the many shelves containing the books she loved.
“Did you hear?”
“The water pipes in my unit froze and burst. There’s no water.”
“No, I didn’t hear. Are they coming to fix it?”
“No, not yet. All the condos above are also out of water. Isn’t this something? Three degrees at the end of October? At this rate, we’ll be in a deep freeze by Christmas.”
“Oh gosh, don’t even say that.”
“Well, it’s true. Didn’t you hear about the preordained Ice Age? Many scientists have predicted this for a long time. It’s all over the news. I remember my mother talking about it when I was a teenager. She said the same thing happened back in 1645 and the Thames in southern England froze over. They ice-skated on the river. There are old paintings about it. ‘It’s happened before. It’ll happen again,’” she said. “Like an abusive husband.” Elizabeth laughed.
“Are you going to close up shop then?” Maeve asked, thinking closing up might be a good idea for her, too.
“I have to stick around and wait for the plumber to show up. If he shows up. But you could go home. I doubt anyone’ll venture out today anyway. The streets are terribly slick, and they’ve closed the theater.”
“School’s open, though.”
“Ben went in then, did he? I heard they were going to let out early.”
“Well, if that’s the case, I should just call Angelina and Justin and have them stay home. I’ll just pick up Ben and go home and watch movies all day. Maybe make some soup and popcorn.”
“That’s a splendid idea. You deserve to take some time off, Maeve.”
Again Maeve half smiled and backed away. Her widowhood always came up, no matter how subtle the conversation. She backed a little more and said, “Well, call me if anything happens, then. I’ll just close up the store and head back and pick up Ben on the way.” Maeve flipped off the cash register and then asked, “Did they say what the high today would be?”
Her friend stepped back inside the store quickly. “I heard this is it. Three degrees. That’s why it’s such a big deal. I bet I don’t get any trick-or-treaters tonight with this cold weather.”
“Ugh, that’s right. Halloween. I might take Ben by your place, but the roads are so slick, and if this keeps up by dark it’ll be more like zero degrees. Too cold to take little ones out.”
“I agree, and not safe to drive on the frozen streets. Do you have anyone nearby to walk him to?”
Maeve shook her head, “No, we’re out in Beauty Bay. Might as well be the boonies. We like it that way, usually.”
“You could bring him to our house. Sam’s home—I’ll call him to have something ready; it’s on your way home anyway. Then head back. I bet Halloween will be canceled for a lot of children this year. Too bad, but it’s safer that way, certainly not worth frostbite.”
“Thank you. That’s very sweet of you, but like you said, we’ll just go straight home.” Maeve could always count on her friend for quick parenting advice. “I’ll lock up and go get him now.”
* * *
A few minutes later, Maeve pulled up into the school parking lot. As she walked toward the green-painted school bell of Fernan Elementary School, she wasn’t surprised to see they’d put down salt on the icy parking lot again to keep the parents from colliding into one another. She also wasn’t surprised to see that several parents also had the practical idea of picking their kids up early on this treacherous weather day. The parking lot was full to overflowing. Why they didn’t cancel classes in the first place confounded her.
“Hi, Maeve. Ben is in the cafeteria with the rest of the class,” his teacher said as she passed by. “Did you get the text alert on your phone? Some parents are saying they didn’t receive theirs.”
“No, I just thought I’d close up my shop and come by early to get him because of the weather.”
“That was smart of you. The furnace isn’t working here, and we can’t hold class in the frigid classrooms, so we alerted the call-in system, which apparently isn’t working either.”
“Gosh, I hope you get home early, too. It’s supposed to get even colder in a few hours.”
“I know. I’m worried. We live out toward the Palouse hills, and my kids have to walk quite a ways to our farm from the bus stop, and it’s way too cold for exposed noses. I have to get my entire class home before I can leave and try to catch them before they start the walk home.”
“I’m sorry. That’s the opposite end of the lake for me, or I’d offer to help. Well, I’ll get Ben out of here. I hope you get to leave earlier,” Maeve said on her way to the cafeteria. She jogged a little down the hall and felt guilty, but something was telling her to hurry home. In the pit of her stomach, a funny feeling advised her to get Ben and get home now. Maeve rounded the corner of the cafeteria when she heard the principal, Mrs. Campbell, announce to all the children:
“Boys and girls, sometimes we have weather emergencies that might affect our plans. So I would like for each of you to please be responsible for yourselves and your younger siblings. It’s simply not safe for trick-or-treating tonight, and so we are thankful that you’ve each been able to spend your holiday indoors with us today. When you go home, I want you all to stay safely inside. The cold temperatures are just too dangerous to be outside for any length of time. Your parents may have plans to do something else fun inside for the evening instead. In such cold weather, you could easily lose your fingers and toes, and that’s not a very nice trick on Halloween. So enjoy the treats you’ve received here at school instead of going out this evening. Perhaps enjoy Charlie Brown on television or play family games instead. Be sure to bundle up, because no one is leaving these doors without their winter weather apparel on their person.”
Maeve listened and was very thankful the school was taking the harsh weather seriously. She’d hate to think of children getting stranded off the school bus on their way home for any length of time in this dangerous cold without their coats on.
Maeve scanned the crowd for her little cowboy, and soon she spotted him with his floppy brown hat on. It must be a parent thing. I can look into any group and zone in on my own child almost instantly.
Ben spotted her too, and as she stood there shivering, she motioned with her hand for him to come to her. He got up from his spot on the floor and waded through the other boys and girls dressed as everything from princesses to a creative slice of pepperoni pizza.
“Hi, Mom,” he said, dragging his school backpack and coat behind him.
“You heard the principal. Put on your coat and gloves.”
Ben didn’t protest this time since he saw several of his buddies also putting on their outerwear. “They canceled Halloween?” Ben asked quizzically, trying to make sense of what the principal was trying to convey.
“Sort of. It’s way too cold, so it’s not safe to be exposed outside right now. Let’s hurry and get you in the car before the parking lot turns chaotic.” She took her son by his gloved hand and led him outside. One step into the frigid air and the sharp cold took their breath away. Once Ben was strapped securely in his car seat, Maeve checked the rearview mirror again. The last thing she wanted to do was disappoint her son. He’d had far too much of that already in his young six years. And a parking lot crash wasn’t a good idea either since she’d had a bad driver reputation to overcome since that morning.
His unruly brown mop was turned sideways as he contemplated the issues outside of the window. “Mom? If we don’t do Halloween tonight, can we do it when the temperature gets warmer again?”
With an inner sigh of relief, she smiled. “Yes, of course, Ben. I’m certain a lot of other parents are considering the same thing. Sometimes Mother Nature makes you change even the best-laid plans. We’ll cuddle up by the fire tonight and eat popcorn and watch movies. Does that sound like a good idea?”
“That’s a very good idea, Mom,” Ben said.
🔴 Chapter 3
🔴 Chapter 3
Though Maeve slid on the ice in the shadows of the large pine trees along the way, the trip home was uneventful, and she gave the stranger credit for it because she’d heeded his advice. The man had been on her mind all day. She knew just about everyone that her Roger had known, and not once had she ever run across this particular man with the deep-set blue eyes. She would have remembered those eyes, so piercingly blue you couldn’t help but compare their vibrancy to every shade in nature.
No, she doubted she’d ever met him before, but he knew her by name. Meaning Roger had to have mentioned her to him over time. Roger did say a few of the fellas that came back with him after their third tour were too lost to serve again. He’d stated that they simply slipped into the forest and were rarely seen. She thought it must be a temporary situation, them just needing some time to adjust to life again. Others in town picked up the story. Maeve believed it was only a small-town rumor, but now she began to consider what fact might lie in those tales. Perhaps some who returned were too far gone from society to fully return. No one could blame them. Roger, when home on leave, suffered from nightmares. Even when he was still home with them, she’d lost a part of him to war even then.
Like most evenings when she returned home, she changed into her black leggings, wool socks, and Roger’s denim button-up chambray work shirt that hung nearly to her knees. She’d worn the shirt more than Roger ever had, but the soft shirt reminded her of him, and she imagined she could still smell his scent between the fibers.
“Come on, Mom!” Ben called from the living room.
“Patience, son.” Maeve shuffled the pot filled with kernels over the gas burner. Of course she could have just microwaved the fluffy stuff, but the kernels never turned out as good. She preferred the old-fashioned method. So with one hand held tightly over the lid, she moved the pot lightly over the gas burner to keep the corn kernels from burning as they heated and began to pop. As the sound of the grains rattling around the bottom of the pan lessened, she held the pot higher over the burner. Then, she quickly poured the contents into a large bowl and poured melted butter and kosher salt over the kernels, tossing the popped corn as she went; each bite held the perfect amount of each ingredient to perfection. “I’m almost done.”
“Smells so good!”
She held the large round popcorn bowl with one arm and grabbed napkins with the other, and as the fireplace sparked and crackled, she cuddled up under a plaid fleece blanket with her son; between them, the popcorn bowl rested.
Ben looked as if he were in nirvana when she placed the bowl down in front of him. Together they watched the latest movie hit rated PG, but even so, Maeve kept the remote close at hand in case anything inappropriate showed up. She’d learned as a parent how to easily pretend to “accidentally” change the channel whenever something too risqué happened to be shown. So far Ben had not caught on, or so she hoped.
As evening began to set in as early as four, she remembered she needed to set food out for the stray cat Ben had named Jet, who often slept underneath their back porch. “I’m going to feed the cat before it gets too dark. I’ll be right back.” So as Ben watched the dinosaurs lamenting the newest villain in their midst, Maeve tiptoed into the kitchen to pour kibble into a bowl. When she opened the door, an intense cold blast stunned her in place. Closing the door behind her, she flipped on the back porch light. Then, in slippers, she made her way down the wooden porch steps. So cold was she, just in the chambray shirt, that she clutched her free arm around her middle and began to shiver right away.
“Jet,” she called out, knowing she sounded silly—As if the cat knows his name—but that was the routine she and Ben had begun. The cat usually came running out of the brush but always held back a distance. It seemed he was a reluctant domesticate. Actually, the man she met today reminded her of the tomcat. Somewhere between the wild and what should be. Never to be fully tamed again and always a little broken, or so that was how they preferred life to be, him and the cat. Never committing fully to the assimilation of man or beast, but somewhere in the in-between.
Those like them were never accepted fully in any part of life. So they remained on their own and preferred it that way.
“Jet! Come on, it’s too darn cold out here! Brrr,” she shivered.
But Jet never emerged from the woods as he always did. She was reluctant to leave food out near the house to entice other creatures of the forest, some of which could be dangerous, but she made an exception on this cold night. “Well, I’m going to leave your bowl here,” she said, and in case the cat watched her from behind the trees, he would know where she placed his dinner.
Maeve tiptoed back inside and locked the door. Then she hurried back to the warmth on the couch with her son and the fireplace.
“You’re freezing, Mom,” Ben complained as she slid in next to him under the covers on the warm couch.
“I know. It’s freezing out there for this time of year. After the movie, we should watch the weather report again and find out what’s going on before we go to bed.”
As soon as the film was through, though, Ben lay asleep leaning against her side. She changed the channel and turned the volume down.
Bob Madeira appeared again on the news channel, and she’d never seen the charming meteorologist look so troubled.
“I don’t see an end to this, folks. Nothing in the forecast would indicate a lessening of the current trend. It’s winter no matter the calendar date. Expect snow in the morning up to eight inches in the Coeur d’Alene area. Keep your pets inside and make sure your children are bundled up if they go outside. Please limit their time to ten minutes. It’s that cold. Schools are closed across the region, and please stay home if you don’t have to go to work. Check in with elderly residents and make sure they have sufficient heat. Be careful out there, folks.”
“Snow? Eight inches? Great.”
Maeve lifted Ben up, and at six years old he was becoming too big for her to carry him for much longer. She was five foot five and hefted books all day long, but she conceded now to herself that the days were numbered when it came to lugging her son’s weight around. It was a sad realization. Had his dad been alive, he would have had a few more years of a parent carrying him around on occasion.
She climbed the stairs and placed him gently in his bed but didn’t close the door so that the heat could continue to penetrate the cold, empty space. She tucked him in and then went to the hall closet to retrieve another blanket to spread out across him. “Good night, Ben. Sweet dreams,” she whispered.
Maeve padded back downstairs into the living room and added another log to the woodstove, poking the inferno around a little with the pointy end of an iron poker that she kept nearby. The cord of wood Roger had chopped the last time he was home was quickly dwindling away, and she’d have to order some more or split some herself to keep them warm through the winter because the furnace just wasn’t keeping up with the low temperatures. Their property backed up into the Coeur d’Alene National Forest, so there was plenty of downed wood to choose from. She’d have to go and see if she could round up a few smaller logs as a last resort.
Looking into the flames, she sighed deeply, trying to keep her sadness over Roger at bay. It was a daily battle. She knew it did her and Ben no good to keep mourning him. His death had been nearly a year ago now, and she wasn’t crying herself to sleep at night anymore. She knew if she kept going down that long, dark, fruitless road, not only would she lose herself, but her son as well. She could not forsake Ben.
Maeve had muted the television, but she caught a glimpse of the school closures streaming at the bottom of the screen, and there flashed all of Coeur d’Alene’s school districts reporting closures for the rest of the week. “That does it,” she said to herself, picking herself up off the floor and retrieving a wine glass from the cupboard and a bottle of her favorite Smoking Loon Merlot. After she had armed herself with a corkscrew, she brought the items back into the living room and sipped a glass while picking at the remaining popcorn kernels that were stuck to the bottom of the wide plastic bowl while she gazed into the flames of the fireplace. That evening was the first time she’d had a drink and not sunk into the abyss of missing Roger. Of course she missed him, but she’d crossed that bridge, and now she could enjoy the taste and honor his memory as well.
Then, suddenly, she heard a cat screech, and she nearly spilled the wine when she jumped up from the couch. “What the heck?” she said and set the glass on the end table before going out to investigate.
Remembering the intense cold, she wrapped the blanket around her shoulders before she opened the back door. Something had tripped the motion detector light Roger had installed, and Maeve believed the perpetrator was nothing more than Jet, the cat.
The door handle was icy to the touch, and when she unlocked it, the door nearly flung open by itself from the wind pressure. In only a few hours the wind had picked up and was now gusting violently. She noticed debris strewn all over the yard where earlier there were only the expected leaves of fall.
“Jet?” she called to the cat, her voice lost to the wind. She wasn’t opposed to letting the cat hang out in the garage if he would only trust her enough to let him inside. “Jet, come here,” she called out. Again and again, her voice was stolen by the howling wintry wind.
She stepped outside a few more feet and closed the door behind her. The light beam played with shadows on the ground, and though she saw it with her own eyes, she was confused at the same time. Where she’d loaded some of the last few logs left over from Roger’s cordage, a large stack of freshly hewn logs lay. Something was out there—or rather someone—and had given her fresh wood. No human should be exposed to this weather, especially at night. She thought to herself, What in the world?
Maeve stepped back inside the house briefly and donned a proper jacket and insulated rubber boots. She grabbed a flashlight and gloves as well and went outside to the woodpile and shined the light beam on the ground to see if there was any sign of the mysterious wood delivery guy.
She, in fact, saw several boot prints on the frost-covered ground and followed them to the tree line where she also found hoofprints. They were fresh prints, even on the frozen ground. Then suddenly she realized who he must be and that he could still be there somewhere in the dark. The funny thing was, she wasn’t as afraid of him as she thought she should be.
She cupped her hands around her mouth and let her voice carry on the wind as her wild red hair blew around her. “Thank you!”
Part of her wanted to add you didn’t need to do that, but hadn’t she just lamented about how in the world she was going to get more wood? Her home butted up against the section of the dense forest he must have come from. Maeve grabbed as much of the wood as she could carry to haul back inside with her, and when she arrived back at the porch, she saw then what she hadn’t before. A neatly stacked set of wood remained beside the doorway.
“That’s why Jet shrieked. That guy must have scared him.” Maeve looked around once more and realized now there were snowflakes drifting on the wind. The storm was starting, and she hoped she had prepared enough for herself and Ben because it looked as if they were going nowhere for several days.
🔵 Your Next Adventure Awaits:
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"I’ve read 98% of A.R. Shaw’s books and delighted in each and every one. She knits characters together in compelling and interesting ways. I’ve read books where it was difficult to keep multiple character stories straight as the series expanded. This is not the case here. I felt so familiar with these people. I wondered about their feelings, their motivations, their lives long before the SHTF. I so often could see myself in certain storylines OR, more often, wondered how I’d fare in their circumstances. And I felt this way about both Graham’s Resolution and Surrender the Sun. I adore how these tales are woven. I’m so glad to have found Shaw."
- Kristi M.