Eileen Stewart had grown accustomed to loss. It clung to her like a shadow over the last five years, ever since the death of her only child.
He had suddenly and unexpectedly been torn from her world in a car accident after a teenage couple ran a stop sign at a four way back road. They were going twice the speed limit, in love and feeling invincible. His body was crushed by the force of their SUV. She received notification of the accident while she was at work. An entire classroom of students needed to watch as an aide politely knocked at the door. She was teaching the accomplishments of the Han Dynasty that day. It was an odd detail to remember, but it stuck with her. Eileen had spent the night before putting finishing touches on a slide presentation full of artifacts she was certain would be of interest. She knew something must have been terribly wrong for them to quietly summon her to the front office, but she still couldn’t help being annoyed. It was difficult enough to gain the attention of high school students. Minutes later, a local police officer delivered her the news.
Her son was dead, and in a desperate attempt to keep from drowning in grief Eileen tried to find small miracles in the depths of her sadness. Her son was killed on impact, which meant he didn’t suffer. He had been driving alone, so no one else had been hurt. Both teenagers survived the impact, though they would undoubtedly shoulder this horror for the rest of their lives. She had already planned her lessons for the month, so her limited bereavement time would be easier on the rest of the staff. None of it helped, but it gave her mind something to do instead of sinking into a dreaded silence.
A year later, almost to the day, Eileen’s mother passed away. The small miracles were easier to find this time. Her mother had been suffering from cancer, and the final months leading up to her passing had been preparation for the end. Mercifully she was able to receive hospice in Eileen’s home, and while it was heartbreaking to watch such a strong woman deteriorate to being bedridden there was also something oddly warm about having her family under one roof again. She passed away on a beautiful spring day. Sunlight flooded the bedroom with warmth, and Eileen had held her husband’s hand and thought how terrible it had been that her son had died alone and not surrounded by those who dearly loved him.
Six months later Eileen was making funeral arrangements for her father. The doctors had said it was old age and a failing blood pressure that took him, but Eileen knew those were just kind words from a medical professional. Her father had died of heartbreak. Without his wife, his best friend and confidant to guide his days he withered. It was a small miracle that he could once again be with his love. Eileen told herself that during his wake, but such words felt as though they hardly had any meaning. He was gone, and that was the truth of it.
The oppressive cycle of tragedy had become a norm for Eileen, but it was beginning to take its toll. By the time she had grown accustomed to one kind of loss another would step in to take its place. It became harder to find comfort in things, knowing that few things reliably endured. On the day her husband was killed the feeling of loss was such a numbing sensation that she couldn’t shed a tear until weeks later. When she cried, it wasn’t for the absence of his presence in her life. She had grown afraid she had forgotten how to mourn, and felt blessed when tears began to blur her vision. Crying meant she could still feel. Weeping, bawling, curled on the hard wood of her now empty home, Eileen let the grief of loss pass over her and felt thankful for the small miracle of the crippling pain that meant she was still human.
Her husband, like so many others in her small town community, perished in the early days of the Federation’s collapse when some kind of invisible force dissolved him in an instant. One moment they were helping children evacuate from the school with a false air of calm and order. In the next Eileen turned and a spray of red mist along the ground was all that had remained of him. She was certain she screamed, but couldn’t fully trust a memory riddled with such trauma. All around her others had suffered the same fate. Spots of red marked the ground like violent flicks from a painter’s brush, vaguely hinting at the space where a living creature once stood. Her mind couldn’t begin to piece together what had transpired. Not when there was a school bus of screaming children calling out to her. The interior windows were painted in thick coats of dripping red. Her husband was gone, but she still had work to do.
She stopped calling them small miracles after that. There was nothing small nor miraculous about the wave of death that cut through the town of South Clemson. It was a dark and uncomfortable secret that Eileen was, in a way, thankful for it all. For the first time in years she wasn’t alone in her pain. This trauma that had seized the world so brutally had forced everyone into the act of grieving. Finally, she didn’t need to explain to anyone why she felt so tired. No one asked her to smile. Friends didn’t expect nor encourage her to ‘be better’ over time. Instead she could focus on what was next without being harassed by the expectation of improvement.
The first few days in the aftermath of the tragedy were the hardest. Neighbors vacated their homes as strangers flooded the streets with the intent of traveling to other towns, or cities, or remote destinations they felt were safe. Some were looters, rioters, or the kind of crazies that looked for any excuse to hurt others - but South Clemson was a southern community. Though fractured and injured by this unimaginable violence, those who intended to keep to their roots quickly bonded together.
Eileen stayed exactly where she had always lived. This was her home. She had worked hard for years to be able to purchase it. Three bedrooms, two baths, and a den with gorgeous open windows. Her favorite spot was an alcove where she could lay back and take in the fresh air and read while fat bees hovering over the hydrangeas struck against the glass. She raised her son here, and when he had grown old enough to move on to college she had turned his room into the studio filled with books she had always dreamed of having as a little girl. Her mother had spent the last moments of her life here. It was a good place. Maybe the last of the good places on earth.
It wasn’t long before her decision to stay felt justified. As Eileen joined members of the community in salvaging supplies reports of walking nightmares in the outside world began to filter in. There was talk of creatures who hunted people for food, or sport, or out of instinct. The military reported anomalies that didn’t fit in the natural world, and while Eileen avoided gossip as best she could, such news only helped to confirm her decision. The world had grown strange and dangerous. If she was to be crushed within the claws of some monster, let it happen in a place she loved dearly.
It never once struck her how quickly she adjusted to living in such a tumultuous time, but years of living in a state of survival had made the transition simple. She had replaced school shooting exercises with community drills on where to flee should an invasive creature appear. Instead of spending her unpaid hours grading papers and creating educational programs she was cultivating a garden and helping administer medicine for some of the older residents in their neighborhood. She still helped babysit children, though geography questions were growing less frequent. The stressors in her life had hardly changed. They simply shifted.
Eileen worked, Eileen ate, and Eileen slept. But Eileen wasn’t living. She was waiting. She knew from a lifetime of experience that it wouldn’t be long before she was again asked to give more than she was ready to part with. Three months after the death of her husband Eileen was surprised to find that when the call to take from her had finally arrived, no one would willingly do so. Instead, she volunteered.
Twice a week the survivors of South Clemson met to discuss their needs. They met at the old church, which had been closed down years ago as a historical site to a then-expanding town. Nestled directly between the three remaining suburbs it had once again become a place of relevance. The old stone foundation was cleaned, its roof was repaired, and the interior pews were restored to serve the purpose of a community hub and watchpost for the residential areas. There were even solar panels installed to help power a military radio.
After the world seemed to end the residents of South Clemson told themselves they only needed to hold on until help would arrive. As time passed and it became clear no help was coming, they pivoted from waiting to figuring out how they could best help themselves. There had been heated arguments. Eileen didn’t take part in any of them. She wasn’t interested in figuring out safety patrols, or deciding how guns and ammo should be distributed in every home. Food was a concern, but she had a garden and was confident that she could build a nice chicken coop with a little bit of help from her neighbor’s two kids. Most of the time her attendance was appreciated, but she was never expected to contribute.
Today was different. Elroy was quick to hush everyone into silence. He was a stern looking man with a bulbous nose, balding head, and a habit of wearing drab cardigans no matter the time of year. Most found him to be hyper-critical of those around him, but with resources strained to the limit it was that exact kind of scrutiny that made him perfect to keep track of the community’s needs.
Eileen listened as he reviewed his findings from the week. Their food supplies were low, but holding. Two thirds of their homes had been given security upgrades and light repairs, and he was confident the rest of the community would be secure before the fall. They held a private meeting to deliberate where their new school should be, and were in the process of making a final decision over the next few days. Their problem was medicine.
“We have an abundance of cleaning supplies and antibiotics, but our local pharmacy has officially run out of anything more complex. We have a handful of epinephrine injectors, and about ten people in this room alone who have sting allergies. We’re almost clean out of insulin, levothyroxine, and atorvastatin in any brand you can pronounce. If it helped with blood pressure, we’re also low on it. Nancy’s son needs refills on his inhaler.” Elroy fumbled through the list on his clipboard.
“There’s a shipping warehouse two hours from here. It’s connected to a Vardon building that we think is a science lab.” a deep voice spoke, and Eileen recognized the purposeful drawl of Desmin’s baritone before he stood to address the room. Desmin used to own a local framing store, but the joke was that his real job was as a linebacker. His physical strength and natural calm had been valuable assets in restoring order. When he spoke, the community listened.
“That’s right. We know it was used as a distribution center for all kinds of crap. Vardon Development used to keep all their warehouses grouped up for easier shipping.” Elroy cleared his throat before he continued. “If we can get in and access their supplies, we could set ourselves up for...well...until all that stuff expires.”
“How do you know it’s safe?” someone called out. Elroy stuttered to answer, but Desmin placed a hand on the man’s shoulder in a display of unity.
“We don’t.” Desmin said. “It could be occupied. The place is huge, but it could possibly be looted. Maybe even burned to the ground. There could be something lurking out there. But if we don’t act now, I can think of more than a few families that are going to be in trouble soon. This is a risk, but it’s one I think we should take.”
There was a murmur of commotion in the church’s hall. Eileen could hear the same question repeated in hushed tones around her. Who would go? Elroy and Desmin waited for those gathered to calm themselves before continuing. Elroy would stay behind. He wasn’t in the best shape, and it was agreed he could do more to help here. In his stead his close friend Mason would lead the expedition - a fact that immediately soured Eileen’s optimism of a successful journey. Mason was a twig of a man, known for stubborn arguments and little else.
Desmin would go, and that announcement instantly shifted the room into a tense discomfort. No one wanted to risk Desmin’s life - but who would willingly join him? Clark, a teenager who lost his family in the tragedy, agreed without hesitation. He was eager to prove himself, a fast runner, and no one with authority in his life was left to refuse his offer. Jorge joined him shortly after, to the protest of his wife. They had a son who needed the medicine.
Kate was a former nurse, and didn’t get a chance to fully stand before her offer was vetoed by a chorus of gasps and pleas. Her expertise was too valuable to lose, but she fought against the crowd anyway. Who else would know what medication would be best to take? What if there were other things on site that could be pilfered? A dialysis machine, defibrillators, or IV equipment could prove vital in the future. Were any of these men qualified to know what they were looking at, now that the internet was no longer accessible?
Eileen stood, and the room grew quiet. “I’ll go.” she said. She was no nurse, but her days as a teacher had granted her a limited amount of trauma training. She had experience with medicine, and argued that with a proper list detailing everything they could possibly want, the odds of them coming back empty handed were quite low. As long as they could find a way into Vardon Development, Eileen would make sure they came back with something of use.
There was a murmur of agreement. They needed someone like Eileen on this mission, but as the evening came to a close and no others offered to join, Eileen wondered why she had offered to go to begin with. Perhaps she was tired. Or maybe she had grown too accustomed to the feeling of exhaustion that had come to define her life.
The same questions ran through her head in a loop as she walked back to her home that evening. Did she have a death wish? Was this a subconscious penance, for surviving when so many around her had perished? Would someone else have volunteered had she stayed quiet? She knew there had to be a reason beyond the obvious for her sudden nomination, but she wasn’t quite sure what it could be. By the time she stepped into her home and locked the door behind her, she no longer really cared. Her bed was calling her. It was large, and warm, and smelled of fresh air and lavender. Having lived to reach this moment, that was all that really mattered.
As her eyes fluttered close her mind settled on a single truth: Her community put out the call in need of help. Eileen would always answer.
Eileen woke up early every morning. It was a habit she had developed as a teacher and it had proved impossible to kick. Sometimes she loathed it. No matter how late she stayed up her body and mind robbed her of any extra sleep. But these days the habit of being an early riser proved to be invaluable in making the most of limited daylight hours.
Breakfast was dried fruit and granola. She ate in her kitchen while reading every morning. When she was a teacher she would refresh herself on period work relevant to her students. These days she read anything fresh and unknown. Trashy romance, detective stories, comics, poetry anthologies, and anything else she scavenged would find a home resting close by her kitchen table.
After eating she walked down to the old church. It was a cool morning that would have been ideal for gardening, but Eileen needed to know just how much work needed to be done before she could unwind into daily chores. She walked down the street, waving to her neighbors who had just begun to tend to their own outdoor business. They were walking dogs, or gardening, or preparing fresh planks of wood to help reinforce doors and shutter windows. Eileen looked away at the last act. She knew it was a kind service to help provide security, but she would refuse it when they finally reached her home. She would rather die from an unknown intruder than deny herself the sun.
The church was busy. Men and women flocked from it in small groups, carrying offerings of bags or boxes or crates to be organized and reorganized by someone else. It looked like chaos, but there were glimmers of order that shone from afar. A truck was being filled with gasoline while its bed was fitted with rope, a hand truck, a set of storage bins, and several canvas bags. Eileen wasn’t sure where they got the truck from, but she liked it. It had a cloth top that could be pulled along the top of the flatbed, and was a smooth looking black tone that she was certain would make night travel feel a little safer.
Eileen only faintly recognized someone had called her name, but by the time she had turned to acknowledge them their voice had grown agitated at the thought of being ignored. When she saw it was Mason she immediately regretted her choice to pay attention.
“You better not be on anything.” he said.
“Heh. Take a joke. Roy wanted me to make sure you were alright to head out tonight. He thinks we should leave with some kind of cover.”
“Tonight’s fine. What time?” she said.
“We want to hit the road at sundown. Be here then, around nine. Leave the heels at home, alright? Boots only.”
Eileen replied with a cold glare that drew a raspy laugh from the Mason’s scrawny lungs. The man walked away, content with his message delivery, and once again Eileen couldn’t help but regret taking part in this whole excursion. A sharp whistle from behind carried her attention toward Desmin. He was carrying two gas canisters, which Eileen offered to help with. Desmin held out a can for her to hold, then quickly pulled it away. She laughed as he juked beside her, exaggerating an evasion from her grasp before settling into a slow walk by her side.
“Mason run his mouth off?” he asked.
“It’s alright.” Eileen looked off toward the church.
“No, it ain’t. I wanted to talk to you before everyone got together. Can you handle his bullshit?
“Yeah. I can deal with him.”
“Good, because I’ve got to ask you a favor.” Desmin guided their walk to the truck, where he slid both tanks of gas onto the back of the flatbed. He waited for a pair of nearby workers to pass, tying the cans of gas against the wall of the flatbed as busywork until he could speak quietly. “I’m worried about the kid.”
“Mhm. He’s a good kid. I know he wants to help. His heart is in the right place, but he’s got a short fuse. Don’t get me wrong right now, we’re beggars. We need as many hands as we can get for this, but Clark together with Mason? That’s a problem.”
Eileen agreed. Clark had been carrying a chip on his shoulder since his family passed away. He may be a threat to himself, and under the right circumstances he could put all of their lives at risk.
“I think Clark will listen to me. Jorge and I can keep him focused and busy, but Mason antagonizes. He can’t keep his mouth shut, and I can’t imagine it won’t take long before he says something that’ll set the kid off. I need to know: Can you handle dealing with Mason on your own?”
“You want us to split up?”
“What I’m thinking is, we know the Vardon lot has at least two buildings. The corporate building used to have a ton of on site services, including their own pharmacy. One of Nessa’s kids used to deliver mail there. Talked about how nice the campus was. I think that’d be an easy score.”
“So I go with Mason to the corporate building.”
“And while you do that, Jorge and I can clear out the warehouse with Clark. We’ll cover more ground and still be able to watch each other’s backs. But I’m not about to put you in a situation you don’t want to be in. I know that guy’s a piece of work.”
“It’s fine. I’m used to babysitting.”
Desmin laughed as he snapped the truck bed shut. “For real now. No pressure. We can stick it out as a team and just keep an eye on Clark.”
“No, you’re right. It makes sense. I can deal with Mason. He’s an idiot, but he’s not dangerous. Not to me anyway.”
“Nah, not to you. But if he gives you a hard time you have my permission to sock him.”
“If I feel the urge to hit him I’ll at least wait until we’re back home.” Eileen smiled.
They continued to talk while loading the truck, though very little of their discussion had to do with the trip ahead. Instead they spoke about the better parts of their morning. How the nice weather made Desmin consider installing a skylight in his den, and how Eileen had considered the same when she lived in a flat. They talked about yard work, and growing crops, and how hard it was going to be to find a new good book in a few years if things didn’t somehow go back to normal.
It was a nice day. One of the nicest in a long while, despite the distractions around her pointing toward an inevitable conclusion. After the truck was loaded Eileen ate sandwiches with Clark and Jorge, cleaned a rifle that she hoped she wouldn’t have to use on their trip, and did her best to avoid Mason until the sun began to set and their group needed to leave.
Many families gathered to watch them go. Eileen was the last to step into the truck, settling into the passenger seat while the other three men squeezed into the rear cabin. She could hear the cheers of support and encouragement from the church as Desmin brought the engine to life and began to drive away. She didn’t turn her head to see them wave. Eileen could hear their support, but it felt more like cowardice. Of course they were happy. They all chose not to go. In less than a day Eileen’s small party of scavengers would return with medicine, and food, and whatever else they could find that would turn into hope for the future.
Or they wouldn’t come back at all. Eileen felt fine with that.
The Vardon warehouse was only two hours away. It would have been a relatively short drive before the world had gone to hell, but the journey felt more tense knowing that anything could be lurking in the dark. In the dark of night Desmin guided their path through back roads for as long as he could manage until they reached the highway. Back at the church there had been a heated debate as to what route should be taken, but it was ultimately decided that speed would be of the utmost importance.
Their drive was silent and with the world around them blanketed in darkness it was impossible to see if anything was approaching them. Instead their only glimpse into the outside beyond South Clemson came in brief flashes of light. As the low beams of their truck caught signs or other strips of metal they saw trees, or driveways, or houses, or abandoned back roads leading to places best ignored. Clark, Jorge, and Mason craned their necks and strained against their seatbelts to try and see something, anything, out there in the dark.
Eileen looked ahead. She knew it was pointless to worry about some creature ambushing their vehicle. She wasn’t about to spend the next two hours in a constant state of panic. Instead she kept her eyes on the road, and tried to think of the last time she had been driven anywhere. Resisting the urge to close her eyes and enjoy the rocking sway of their trip, she let her mind drift off to the past. To car pools, and family gatherings, and midnight road trips where she could escape the hectic chaos of her day and just be alone.
They picked up the pace once their truck reached the highway, and Desmin broke the silence that had uncomfortably settled over their journey with an exasperated sigh of relief. The road was clear, but Desmin was still careful not to drive too fast. Abandoned cars occasionally dotted their surroundings, and there was no telling what obstacles were up ahead until they were directly within view. Even at a leisurely pace, by the time they reached the exit marking the industrial park where the warehouse resided it had felt like no time at all had passed.
Vardon Development owned a massive portion of the land here, but in the black of night it was difficult to see more than the occasional gated driveway or tall barbed-wire fence. Eileen watched with a passing interest as they drove past campuses owned by the former multi-billion dollar corporation. She assumed the majority of these lots were dedicated to construction equipment. Vardon Development was a lot of things, but it was most famous as a building contractor. Now and then the lights of their truck caught flashes of reflective hazards and the cautionary yellow paint used on construction machinery. She made a mental note as they passed tractors and other large digging equipment, wondering if there was any way to find enough fuel to make use of something like a bulldozer.
The pharmacy and shipping center was at the furthest end of the road, and Desmin slowed their arrival when it became clear they were reaching the main gate. For a minute all Eileen could hear was the clicking sound of unbuckled belts, shifting bags, and metal tools occasionally scraping against cloth. By the time their truck pulled to the front gate, they were ready to move.
They were all relieved to find that the pair of automated sheet metal doors marking the entrance to the Vardon Pharmacy Center were closed and bolted shut. Dirt had settled along the exterior from a recent storm. There were no other tire tracks or footprints. Even the chain looked somewhat weathered.
“Radios on.” Desmin said. He made sure everyone was set to the right frequency before turning in his seat. “We need to move fast. The second we open this gate, I’m going to pull the truck over to the warehouse. Clark and Joseph will go with me. Eileen, Mason, you two are going to hit up the main building. There’s a pharmacy there. If we can’t find anything, you two should definitely.”
“Wait, who decided this? How come I have to go with her?” Mason frowned.
“You want to debate about this now, or you want to wait until we’re home?”
Everyone in the truck looked to Mason for a reply. Mason only sneered and looked out the window. Desmin kept talking.
“Check in every ten minutes. Just a quick callout. If anything bad happens, if you see anything strange, if you think something’s watching you, you call it out and we meet back at the truck. No questions.”
There was a murmur of agreement before Desmin pulled the truck closer to the gate. Eileen’s heart was racing, but she felt sharper than ever. Focused. Something inside her even felt like this was going to be easy. No matter what was on the other side, their objective couldn’t be clearer.
After a count to three Eileen opened the passenger door and raced to the back of the truck as everyone else sprinted into position. She plucked a backpack stuffed with goods from the truck bed, along with her rifle and a powerful handheld floodlight. Jorge was already using bolt cutters on the weathered chain by the time she made it back to the gate, and together with Clark and Mason they pulled open the iron barrier for their vehicle to slip through.
Eileen and Mason parted ways with the truck, though it didn’t go far from sight. It was a short jog to the corporate building from the main gate. The warehouses were across the parking lot, which was empty save for a few cars that looked as though they had been abandoned for some time. Eileen watched the truck drive until it came to a stop, then made a mental note of how far away it was. Mason did the same, though she heard him swear at how long it would take to reach from where they were.
They ran to the front of the office building before Eileen turned on her floodlight. She had a strange feeling in her heart that the place was empty of danger, but there was no reason to think this building was safe to explore. Shining the light in through the glass doors Eileen took note of how lifeless the interior was. She imagined at one point in time the lobby was filled with workers moving to and from offices. There was a small fountain where workers could sit, and a flight of stairs that lazily spiraled down into an indoor court that led up to a second, third, and fourth floor. She passed her light over the front security desk before Mason tested the door’s handle. It was unlocked. They stepped inside.
It had been several months since Eileen had last heard a proper echo, and the slight squeak of her boot against the linoleum floor made her stomach turn. She could picture the sound traveling far in this open hall, bending around corners to find its way toward some inhabitant. Mason must have felt the same way. His eyes darted nervously in every direction, following the beam of his flashlight that twitched and spun as if he would suddenly catch a stalker. Such movements only made the sound of squeaking worse. Eileen desperately wished she were alone.
Scanning a directory plaque they saw the pharmacy was on the fourth floor, and they followed the boxed spiral stairs up as quickly as possible. Eileen kept the heavy floodlight facing ahead as they rotated past the first, second, the third floors. There was no preventing the sound of their footsteps. She could hear the dull stomp of their soles echoing in the open hall. A crystal chandelier hanging from the building’s tall ceiling occasionally caught a flash from their light. By the time Eileen reached the fourth floor she was certain that if something were here, it would soon be coming their way.
The walls here had been cleared away to make room for the single, long glass barrier of a storefront. On the other side were rows of shelving packed with items in neatly organized sections. Eileen focused her beam on a sign that read ALLERGIES then FEMININE CARE and COUGH & COLD. Mason tried the glass door only to find it was stuck. All pretense to stealth was tossed out the window as the man recklessly pulled at the handle, then kicked the glass in an attempt to force it open.
“Wait!” Eileen hissed.
“Wait for what? We need in here!” he snarled back, drawing his pistol after giving the door another unsuccessful kick.
Eileen didn’t have time to argue. Mason aimed for the glass near the door hinges and fired three quick shots. The first rippled a crack through the entire door, but it was clear from the way the sheet became fogged with damage that the glass was reinforced in some way. His second and third shot only contributed to the crackling fracture, but when he kicked his boot against the door again the glass cracked away from the hinge before crumpling over into a single sheet of broken substance.
Their radio crackled to life.
“Eileen? Is everything alright?” Desmin’s voice sounded frantic, and Eileen quickly brought the radio to her lips to reply clearly.
“It’s fine. Mason shot a door. We’re in.”
“Roger that.” Desmin’s confirmation was brief, but Eileen could feel his frustration.
With the door open there was no sense in wasting time. They unloaded their bags and began to quickly sort out what should be carried first. Eileen read the list Kate had given her and focused Mason’s attention on over the counter goods. While he fumbled his way through cold medicine and headache pills she made her way behind the counter and began to sift through their prescription drugs.
It was more than she could have hoped for. Most of what was available had expiry dates for over a year from now. Some were months away from going ‘bad’, and Eileen was careful to avoid anything that appeared to require refrigeration. She stocked up on allergy pens and inhalers, then moved her way alphabetically through the list of more valuable drugs. Painkillers, antibiotics, and things she couldn’t quite pronounce but seemed important enough to warrant a spot on her list circled with red pen.
“Just grab it all! Stop wasting time.” Mason said between shoveling a stand of headache pills into a duffel bag.
“We don’t need it all. Any room I can save will be room for other things.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll let you handle the woman’s products. I can grab first aid.”
“Yup.” Eileen desperately wanted him to stop talking. She was trying her hardest to move quickly and silently, but Mason seemed convinced no one was around to hear him roughly pushing small boxes into a bag.
“Suppose you’re used to packing things up by now.” Mason said.
“What?” Eileen looked up from her packing.
“What do you mean?” Eileen pushed a bundle of something unpronounceable into her bag before glaring at Mason.
“I mean, with you having to move out.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Ah. My bad then. My mistake.” Mason chewed the bottom of his lip. He glanced away, but Eileen’s cold glare made reconsider staying silent. “There’s been talk about turning your place into a school. You’ve got all those books. Plus the extra rooms, and the small library. It’s a big house for one woman, you know.”
“And who decided this?” Eileen spoke slowly and carefully. She wasn’t sure if he was lying or trying to get a rise out of her.
“Nothing’s been decided! We were just talking.”
“Right. Just a casual chat about kicking me out of my own home. Who is ‘we’?”
“It’s no one. And it wouldn’t be kicking you out. You could take one of the other homes.”
“This is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. Is this Elroy’s plan? Your drinking buddies?”
“Drop it, alright? We’ve got work to do.” Mason turned his back to her and knelt down, using work as an excuse to shield himself from her livid glare.
Eileen turned back to her list of pharmaceutical requests, but could hardly focus. She couldn’t read labels or rummage through medication. All she could think about was what it would feel like to bundle away her things. To be told to leave behind her books for someone else to use. To pack away her art, and the photos of her family, and to disassemble the bedroom that hadn’t changed in the slightest since her husband was murdered. This was the place she was supposed to be her home until the very end. She didn’t think there was anything left for her to lose, but even if none of what Mason said was true, he had just revealed how wrong she was.
Her hands trembled as she closed the zipper on her bag. Somehow she had managed to fill it, and an objective-driven part of her mind made her pick up a second bag to recover the last of the supplies they could carry. She eyed Mason shoveling boxes of condoms into a third bag while she sorted through feminine care products.
“Did you check the back?” he asked, nodding to a closed door behind the front counter.
“No.” she said.
“You think we should?”
“I don’t know. We already have a lot to carry.” Eileen finished stuffing the backpack, zipping it closed before getting on the radio. “Our bags are full. We’re coming to you now, over.”
“Hey, how bout you talk to me before you make a call like that? We’ve still got shit here we can look through.” Mason put on his backpack before slinging a second back over his shoulder. There was a third duffel on the floor, and Eileen watched him struggle to find the best way to distribute the weight while holding it.
“We can’t carry any more anyway. We know there’s more here. We’re supposed to be quick.” Eileen gestured for the door, already feeling uncomfortable that her rifle needed to be stowed across her back so that she could hold the floodlight.
Stepping over the broken glass door Eileen gave a quick sweep of their surroundings before letting Mason take the lead. His boots crunched loudly across the door.
“Mason! Come on, can you at least try to be quiet?” she said, trying to avoid stepping on as much glass as possible.
“Don’t be a bitch. No one’s here. If they were, we would have seen 'em by now.”
Eileen struggled to keep her voice low as she moved into the hall beside him. She kept her light low, not wanting to project the beam through the transparent railings that marked the stairs down. “Listen. We don’t have to like each other. But we need to shut up and be as quiet as possible until we’re back in the truck. We don’t know what’s out there.”
“Whatever. Look, I’m sorry I got you all busted up about your house or whatever, but you don’t have to get all hysterical on me-”
As Mason stumbled backwards it took Eileen a moment to register that she had thrown the first punch. She was surprised it connected with his jaw. She needed to drop the floodlight to do it, and by the time she sucker punched him the floodlight clattered to the ground, angling its beam of light off along the neutral grey carpet of the fourth floor. Her knuckles seared with a flash of terrible pain and she pulled her hand close to nurse the damage she had inflicted upon herself.
She heard the stumble of Mason’s boots and the dull sound of hollow metal being rung. He never made a sound. By the time she looked up Mason had already tumbled backwards over the fourth floor railing. Eileen couldn’t make it to the edge before his body vanished into the dark. A single ringing crack sounded off through the open lobby, though it was overshadowed by a loud and firm slapping thud.
Eileen stood in silence, holding her hand. Her mind raced through what had happened. What had she done? Was he dead? He couldn’t have survived the fall...but if he did, she had to do something. That was her obligation right now. She had to see.
Eileen picked up the floodlight and made her way downstairs. Being quiet no longer mattered. If something killed her now, it would almost be a blessing. She prayed for it with every rotation down each flight of stairs. Let something come, so it would take her.
Or take him. Then all her problems would go away, wouldn’t they?
She reached the first floor winded, and took a minute to catch her breath before gathering the courage to pass her light over his body. He had landed toward the center of the open hall, and from the outward spray of blood he must have landed hard on his head or neck. She didn’t want to take in the details. One of the bags he was holding had been thrown from his grip. The other two lay affixed to his corpse.
Eileen kept her light on Mason’s body in quiet contemplation. Her radio crackled to life. Desmin’s voice spoke low.
“We’re heading back to the truck. What’s your status?”
She couldn’t possibly carry all these bags alone. But could she leave them behind? This was months, if not a solid year of medicine. These supplies were invaluable to the survival of her neighbors. Coming back with anything was a blessing, but knowing that she was leaving anything behind felt she was committing a second sin. She had murdered now, but it would be murder again if someone grew ill and didn’t have means to recover in the future.
Eileen placed her floodlight on the ground facing away from Mason’s broken corpse, then scooped up the bag that had fallen separate from his body. With a trembling hand she brought the radio up to her mouth and forced herself to speak. “There’s trouble. I’m coming.” She was carrying too much weight to run properly, but she kept a swift walking pace to the entrance of the building. Out in the parking lot the truck’s headlights flashed to life, and she could see its low beams turn and angle their way to her.
Stumbling out into the parking lot she waved her hand for them to meet her out in the open. She couldn’t see their expressions through the glass until Desmin pulled the truck beside her, and she did her best to plow through his look of fear and concern. The passenger door opened as all three men rushed to help her shed her baggage.
“Where’s Mason?” Desmin searched behind her in the dark.
“He’s gone. But I can get his bags.” Eileen turned to leave but Desmin’s firm grasp on her arm held her in place.
“No.” he said. “We aren’t risking anything else.”
“Let me go.” Eileen tried to yank herself free, but his grip was firm. “We need it. I can get it. Give me two minutes.”
“Then I’m going with you.”
“No. Just me. You three can stay together. I know exactly where it is, and I’ll keep my radio on the entire time. And if I can’t get it, then you’ll just lose two instead of three.” Eileen didn’t know where this was coming from. She had never lied like this before, but knew more than anything else they couldn’t be allowed to see his body.
“That’s not your call to make.” Desmin’s voice was firm, but she could feel his grip on her ease. She snapped herself free and began to back away.
“It’s exactly my fucking call to make. We can’t afford to lose you. This is the risk I signed up for. Now let me go and do this.”
She didn’t wait for a reply. True to her plan, Eileen made a dash back for the entrance of the building, clicking her radio on as a roar from the truck’s engine rumbled to life behind her. She could hear Desmin pulling the truck closer to the entrance, and passing through the entrance she made sure to announce her position knowing she would quickly disappear from their sight.
“I’m in the main lobby.” she said, speaking quietly though she knew there was likely no one else nearby. “Passing reception. It’s close. I’m close. I see it.”
Blood was beginning to soak into one of the bags resting at the side of Mason’s twisted body. It pulled away from his body easily, and she pushed it behind her to give herself room for what was next. His backpack still rested on his body, and with no means to cut it loose she was forced to move his corpse. The floodlight she had left sitting was mercifully pointed away, but it was impossible to avoid the small details of his demise. She pulled the first strap from his arm with ease after discovering his shoulder was dislocated, but to get the second loose she needed to rotate part of his body. Despite trying to cast her eyes aside Eileen was unable to avoid seeing the way his cracked skull protruded through his scalp.
“I’ve got it. I’m coming out now.” she called into the radio.
With both bags in hand Eileen looked down at Mason’s body. He was always a small man, but with only the slightest bit of illumination highlighting his corpse he looked like something else entirely. It wasn’t the sad sight she had expected to witness. It was quite the opposite. She couldn’t possibly feel sad over this. After all she had lost, after what this man had subtly tried to threaten to take away from her, Eileen stared down on Mason’s crumpled form and realized how he somehow appeared even smaller in death. He looked pathetic.
She scooped the floodlight off the ground and ran back outside. Desmin had parked the truck angled to pick her up, and as she rushed from the building Jorge had the passenger door ready for her to step inside. There was a moment of panic when others noticed the blood soaked bag, and as Desmin sent them peeling away from the building Eileen was forced to prove that she wasn’t hurt.
Eileen told them what she knew for a fact. They had cleared as much of the pharmacy as they could. When they were leaving something struck them both. She couldn’t see what it was, but it was strong. It knocked her down before lifting Mason off the ground and throwing him to his death. Eileen shined her light looking for an attacker, but couldn’t find anything. Perhaps it was afraid of the light.
Somehow, in the chaos of it all, she fled without being injured any further. Jorge and Clark didn’t press her for more. They were happy she was alive. Desmin made it clear she was going to see the town doctor when they arrived, and Eileen didn’t disagree. She spent the rest of the car ride back in silence. She stared out the window into the black of their surroundings and quietly squeezed her sore hand.
Their group arrived back in South Clemson before sunrise to a mix of celebration and shock. Eileen had considered their haul from the pharmacy to be exceptional, but in the quiet of her thoughts on the ride back she had forgotten the others were responsible for supplies as well. Neighbors were eager to greet and aid them as they emerged from the truck. There were audible gasps at Eileen’s blood-covered clothing, and she was quickly pulled aside while Kate was summoned for her nursing expertise. As Eileen insisted that she was fine others began to unpack what had been recovered.
From the back of the flatbed several boxes were unloaded, containing dried and non-perishable food. The warehouse Desmin’s group had found had been a mixed blessing of supplies. More valuable than the food were bags of vegetable seeds and two palettes of honey and peanut butter. Combined with the bags of medicine they had received, their successful expedition was cause for tremendous relief.
Elroy went to congratulate them at first, but found himself at a loss for words when he realized only four people exited the vehicle. The older man sat down and watched the work unfold at a distance. While supplies were organized he slipped away, back to his home, where he could mourn the loss of his friend in peace.
Eileen couldn’t remember the rest of the evening. She knew several members of the community took it upon themselves to make sure she made it back to her home, but once she was alone and could feel the cool press of her bedsheets against her skin, all of the stress of her evening journey seemed to melt away. When she opened her eyes she knew by the way the sun had filtered in that it was sometime in the afternoon.
She lifted herself off the bed and immediately stripped off her bloodstained clothing from the night before. Most of the blood had been washed off by Kate during her medical examination, but as Eileen stepped to the mirror she found small patches that had managed to stain her skin. It took only a few minutes to sponge away every last patch of faded red, and the moment she was dry she slipped into a comfortable sundress and fell back into the comfort of her bed.
Eileen felt entirely normal, as though nothing in the world around her had truly changed. When she closed her eyes she could imagine the last evening had never even happened. The only way she knew the memory was real was the feeling in her hand. Every flex of her hand made her knuckles ache in pain. She carefully wrapped a bandage around it, enjoying the gentle ease of pressure over the width of her palm. Once she threw away the bloodstained clothing all that would be left to remind her of the previous night would be the ache of her hand, and even that would fade away in time.
A heavy knock made her sit up, and she walked downstairs to see Desmin’s shadowed silhouette through the tinted viewing window of her front door. He looked worried, but breathed a sigh of relief when she let him in. He passed a cold pie into her hands with a smile.
“I came by twice earlier. Hope I didn't knock too loud. This was fresh a few hours ago, but I figured you needed the rest.”
“And what about you?” Eileen led the way to the kitchen where she began to cut two slices for them to share at her table. It was strawberry.
“Slept plenty. How are you holding up?”
“I’m alright. Actually, I think I feel fine.” she passed him a plate and fork, then sat down across the table.
“Yeah? I was worried you might think it was your fault.”
Eileen paused as her fork slipped into the crust of her strawberry slice. She looked up to see Desmin watching her, plate in hand, dessert untouched. She put her plate down and thought carefully about what to say.
“I’m not going to pretend I cared about Mason. I didn’t want anything to happen to him, but we all left here knowing something could happen to any of us. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more to help him...” Eileen took a deep exhale, and looked outside the viewing window in her kitchen.
“Eileen, that’s not-”
“-No, it’s alright. Really. I’ve lost a lot of things close to my heart. I can’t say this to anyone else, but I’m alright telling you: I’m sorry he’s gone. But I’m not sad about it either, you know? I can’t be. I just don’t have it in me right now.”
Desmin smiled, and offered a nod of acceptance while Eileen finally took a bite of her pie. It was sweet and delicious and made just for her in thanks for everything she had managed to bring back. Desmin filled her in on the small details she had slept through. The supplies were distributed, plans were being made to understand how they can best use the seed they discovered, and there was even talk of planning another expedition weeks in advance. To somewhere else, of course. With an invisible stalker roaming the territory Vardon Development was too dangerous to try their luck at for a second time, but the threat of winter was very real. Any supplies they could gather before the weather turned harsh would be a small blessing for the future.
“How’s your hand?” Desmin pointed with his fork before scraping the last bit of crust from his plate.
“It’s alright. Sore but nothing’s broken.” Eileen carefully flexed her fingers.
“Good to hear. That happened when you fell?”
“Pushed. I was pushed.” she corrected. “And I guess so. I probably landed on it wrong.”
“Mm. Yeah, be careful. Be sure to let it rest. My cousin had an injury like that. Got his hand caught under a box he was lifting, now every morning he needs to stretch out his whole hand otherwise it just seizes up. I mean, he used to. God knows what he’s up to these days.”
“Still stretching every morning, hopefully.” Eileen scooped up his plate onto hers.
Desmin looked as though he had more to say, but a sharp knock at the door paused their chat. Eileen left her guest in the kitchen to find Elroy sweating in the midday sun at her front steps. His eyes were red and watery, but she knew better than to bring up why. Men like Elroy were often too proud to have their feelings acknowledged. The way his hands fit into his pockets nervously made it look like he was just here to pass along a message. Eileen understood even without him saying a word. She stepped aside and offered him shade within her home.
“Thank you. I hope I’m not disturbing anything.” Elroy took a labored step indoors. He was a man in poor shape, and Eileen’s home was a reasonable uphill walk from the church where he normally did his work.
“Desmin just stopped by. Want a slice of pie? And some water?”
“Yes ma’am. I’d love a bottle, if you have one.”
Eileen wondered when the last time her kitchen had seen so much company. Desmin stood so Elroy could take his seat at the table, preferring to stand in the entryway while Eileen served her guest a bottle of water. While Elroy caught his breath and cooled his skin there was a general exchange of pleasantries. It was hot today. The church was busy. Small harvests were looking excellent from the last bit of rainfall they had. Desmin and Eileen were both feeling alright. The town will never stop being thankful for their bravery. Nancy’s son would be covered for his asthma, for now.
When the conversation began to slow, Desmin politely excused himself. It was clear Elroy had something to say, but it took the man another hour before he could bring himself to reveal what was on his mind. He asked small questions about her home instead. How had she lived here? Did she do any renovation? Was there much damage to her property after the storm last week? Eileen answered politely, and let him settle into the idea of bringing up a difficult subject with a relative stranger. She cut him another slice of pie then used her knife to serve herself a sliver of crust while they talked. It wasn’t until Elroy cleared his throat and pushed away an empty plate of strawberry soaked pie crumbs that she knew he had finally gathered the courage to speak.
“You, uh, were with him. When he died.” Elroy’s eyes explored the kitchen while he spoke.
“I was.” Eileen nodded.
“Was it quick?”
“He died quick.”
“Did you see him? After?”
“How did he look?”
Eileen scraped another small piece of pie from the tray, plucking a strip of mashed strawberry off the tip of her serving knife. “I’m not going to say he looked good. But he was peaceful. After we got hit he likely knew that he was going to die, but at least he was dying for a good reason. Like a hero would.”
Elroy soaked in her words, and he worked hard to hold back tears that had been fighting their way to the surface. He rubbed his eyes and the bridge of his nose, wiping his face with a washcloth when he realized there was no point in keeping up the facade any longer. Eileen looked away. She could respect not wanting to be seen at such a vulnerable moment. She remembered when she used to fear the way people would look at her when she cried. How ugly and terrible she felt, and how that ugliness would linger in their memories forever.
“I’ve known him since grade school. He used to get in all kinds of trouble. You know, dumb kid stuff. But I’d be there and sometimes I could bail him out. Sometimes he’d just drag me down with him.” Elroy chuckled. “I know he was rough around the edges. Sometimes people are just like that, but he was always good to me. He was a good friend. Losing him just feels...so tragic. I’m glad the last thing he’ll be remembered for is doing something that’s helped so many.”
“That’s a good legacy to leave behind.” Eileen said.
“Uh-huh.” Elroy sighed. “Thank you. I’ve taken up a lot of your time but, I do have one more thing to ask while I’m here. We, ah, there’s been some talk about starting up a school.”
Eileen’s gaze snapped to Elroy, who was too busy gathering himself from his emotional confession to notice the intensity of her focus. “What kind of school?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. But we have kids that need to learn. Right now they’re learning about how to survive, like we all are. But they need other things too. Math, and history, and shit that I don’t even know about. We, uh, well we were having talks about where a place like that should be. And who should run it. We know you have experience as an educator, and you probably have the biggest collection of books of anyone in South or North Clemson.”
“You want my home to be a school, and me to run it.”
“Well, I had suggested maybe we could help you remodel a bit if need be. And then-”
“Let me stop you there. I’m not remodeling my home, and I’m not moving out.”
“Yes, but wouldn’t it be less stressful if you had-”
“I’m not moving. I can teach. I’ll live here, and we can set up a schedule where kids come a few days out of the week for some kind of course. We can open up the living room for it. Lord knows, I’m not entertaining any guests these days.”
“I’m sorry, I never meant to suggest we’d just kick you out. I just wasn’t sure if you’d want to live in the same space you had to work in.”
Eileen smiled. “All my life has been work. If the rest of my life is going to be this, then it’s going to be on my terms.”
“Very reasonable. Thank you Eileen.” Elroy pushed himself to stand, and extended his hand. “We can talk about what you’ll need. Whatever you need to make it happen, including help around your property, I’m sure we can get it done.”
It was then that Eileen realized how tightly she had been idly gripping the serving knife. It had found its way under the table, clasped between both hands while she listened patiently to news she had already been delivered. She quietly slipped the blade into her other palm, shook Elroy’s hand, and thanked him for being so understanding. They would work out the fine details over the next few days, after she had some time to figure out what teaching a small community of mixed age groups would look like. It seemed like a challenge, but this wasn’t the first time she had been asked to do the impossible for the sake of children.
She closed and locked the door as Elroy left to return back to his workstation at the old church. She watched him walk down her driveway, and noticed one of the flowers that lined the dirt path to her front step had been trampled. Had he done that earlier when clumsily marching uphill to her home?
As Elroy’s form began to slowly disappear downhill she wondered how quickly he’d reach the bottom if she just stabbed that manipulative prick right in the neck and kicked his fucking ass right back down to the hole he crawled out of. He would be like a bloated piece of spin art, spraying blood in wild and uneven patterns across the dirt.
Eileen slipped the extra deadbolt on her door into place then eyed the rifle that was hanging near her doorway. She didn’t remember bringing it back with her last night but was glad to see it was hanging in its proper place. Her fingers found their way back to the deadbolt, and with a gentle motion she flipped and undid the lock on her front door.
This was her home. It was the last thing on earth that truly belonged to her. Let someone come and try and take something, anything else from her possession. Let them try, and see what would happen next.
The serving knife was still in her hand. She would clean it soon, after she treated herself to another slice of dessert.