Friday, February 18, 2011

For The Greater Good 12


CHAPTER TWELVE


    The team had traveled for almost a week and had a decision to make. Taking a break, Glen gave the options, as he traced routes along the map with his finger.

    All eyes were on Rick to make the decision. “There are some positives and negatives to each route. The freeways will get us south, faster. I would think that if anyone else was traveling, they would also use the freeways…and that doesn’t appeal to me. On the other hand, the small back roads take longer and even though we haven’t had any more roadblocks since Pretty Boy Reservoir; that could change over the next hill.” He thought for a moment, “I don’t really care for either option.” 

    Glen double checked his maps and then pulled a handful of others from his canvas bag. Finding the one he wanted, “Here is something that might work.” He said, handing the map to Rick. “Along the Potomac River is the old C&O Canal. This is a linear park, with a bike path running through Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.”

    Rick looked at the map. “A park with a bike path? That might work…” he said reviewing the map again, “…let’s do it.”

    Glen smiled, as he felt good about making a contribution, other than filtering water or cooking. “We’ll still need to take some back roads, but we should reach the park tomorrow, if we can make Poolesville this evening.” He said.

    “Ok, what do you all think?” Rick addressed the group, “We ride longer than our usual early afternoon time, until we reach Poolesville?”

    It was unanimous, they all wanted to make better time, and get out of Maryland. The back roads twisted and turned through small hamlets which really didn’t qualify as towns. Stopping twice for water and rest, the team ran into a group walking from the Poolesville area.

    It was Glen’s turn on point. Raising his hand, they stopped. The team stood alongside the road, as four people, two young, and two old, who looked to be somewhere between half alive and dead, walked aimlessly towards the freeway. The man stopped to chat. “Where are y’all headed?” He said with a southern drawl.

    “Poolesville, and you?” Rick answered.

    “Away from here. We’ll get to the highway and go west, I figure,” he said, and then asked, “Could you use some extra people?”

    Rick didn’t say anything, just a questioning look.

    “My woman and me are having a hard time taking care of these kids. I’d like to find somebody that would take em.”

    Rick looked at the two pre-teen boys, “I don’t think so.”

    “Yeah well, I didn’t think so either, but I had to ask. We had three girls and found someone to take em off our hands yesterday…aw, we’ll do alright with these boys I reckon. Forget I said anything.”

    Rick nodded, “Were the girls yours?”

    “No, they was with another woman, don’t think she was their mother though. Anyway, she passed from radiation. We just couldn’t feed em all.” He said, rubbing his week’s growth of beard.

    “Have you seen many other people?”

    “Just that one fella, that’s caring for the three girls…everything and everyone else is dead.”

    Rick and the group waved goodbye and pedaled until they were out of sight. Finding a place to camp about three miles outside of Poolesville, it was early evening. Foregoing the usual group styled dinner and water filtering duties, each person ate from their own stash of canned goods.

    Rick finished setting up his shelter, Brenda and Christine came over and sat next to him.

    “Rick, we’re really concerned about that man trying to give away those boys.” Christine said.

    “I am too Christine.” He took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard of anyone giving kids away, like they were a litter of kittens.”

    “So, what if we run into someone else?” Brenda asked, the intonation of her voice crystal clear.

     Rick had spent enough time around Brenda to know her thinking. “Let’s play it by ear ok?” Rick said.

    Brenda smiled and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Thanks.” She said softly.

    Rick blushed.

    The following day brought new excitement, a change of scenery and the real possibility for progress to the unknown south. Poolesville was closer to Washington DC, and the multiple nuclear strikes, than Rick would have liked, but it was necessary to go through this area to get to the C&O Canal. Riding through the abandoned town felt like they were watching a science fiction movie. Bits of paper blew helter-skelter around the streets, dead cars blocking the only real intersection, and the total absence of any people or animals…along with the familiar stench of death. The team didn’t linger.

    The farms which lined the Maryland side of Potomac River and the C&O Canal, contrasted the housing developments and rich golf courses over on the Virginia side. The road that followed the old Canal was dirt in most places, mud and gravel in others. Once on the Canal road the team relaxed, a goal achieved.

    “Guys, since we don’t have much water, why don’t we make this a short day. Let’s stop at the first place with water and make camp.” Rick said, to the agreement of the team.

    The heat and humidity of the day was going to be typically oppressive Mid-Atlantic. The sky was a gray haze, not from pollution or radioactive fallout, but from the humidity. Everyone was working up a sweat.

    The first mile on the Canal road, Rick had second thoughts about taking this route. The dirt, mud, and stones made for a very tough ride, especially pulling a heavy trailer. The next mile on the challenging road, they approached a man and girl. Rick was on point, raising his hand, the group stopped and dismounted.

    Paul came up, looking at the man and girl in the distance. “I’ll cover you.” He said, then sat with his rifle at the ready.

    Rick started riding towards the two, quietly as he possibly could. Nearing the pair, the man turned. “Hello.” He said, taken by surprise.

    “Hi there.” Rick said, stopping by the two. Rick looked at the little girl, her red curly hair a tangled mass. He noticed that she had no shoes, her feet were bleeding and she limped. 

    The girl didn’t smile, and said nothing.

    “Are you ok?” He asked the girl. The little ones face was absent of color, looking as if she was ready to pass out. Rick got off the bike and knelt down to look her in the eyes. Placing his hand on her forehead, he felt that she had an elevated temperature, he also noticed her glassy eyes. “This girl is really sick.” He said to the man.

    The man said nothing, just giving Rick a dumbfounded look.

    The encounter happened next to the rear entrance of a small farm, the dark green head tall corn moving gently with puffs of breeze. A wire fence surrounding the farm joined a gate, inside were large oak shade trees and a tiny spring fed brook. Rick picked up the girl and held her with one arm, noticing how light she was. Unlatching and peeling the gate back, he carried her to the brook, setting the child down gently on the grassy bank.

    The team arrived and began to stand over the pair. Brenda came over. “I think she either has radiation poisoning or heat stroke.” Rick said to Brenda, as he started to dip water from the brook, wiping the girls forehead, trying to cool her off.

    Brenda knelt down, touching her face and forehead, “It looks to be heat exhaustion, not as bad as heat stroke.” Turning to Christine, she asked, “Can you get some drinking water.” Christine went to her bike and brought what was left of her water.

    Rick looked at the red haired waif of a child. He smiled, “Hi, my name is Rick…what’s yours?”

    She thought momentarily, “Emmy.” Muttering, her lips cracked from lack of water.

    “That’s a pretty name…and you have lovely red hair…where did you get that from?”

    The girl managed a smile, “My Mommy.” She said softly.

    “Did your Mommy also give you those freckles?”

    “No, Daddy says they are ‘Angel Kisses.’”

    “Well, Emmy…I think your Daddy is right.” He said, wrapping his arm beneath her upper back and raising her up for a sip of water. The girl drank noisily. Rick handed the empty water bottle to Christine. Brenda had retrieved both hers and Rick’s water bottles, giving her sips from both almost empty bottles. “You’re pretty thirsty.” Rick said.

    “I hurt.” She said, without tears.

    “What happened to your shoes Emmy?” Rick lay next to the girl, holding her in the cool water.

    He took them.”

    “Your Daddy took them?”

    “He’s not my Daddy…he’s a bad man.” She paused and then continued, “He said that I was a bad girl and that I would run away.” she then added, “He also threw away Zoe’s and Mary Ann’s shoes too.”

    Rick sat up, eyes growing wide at her comment. Brenda tapped him on the shoulder, looking over to her, she pointed to the girls shorts…blood mingled with the water, emanating from her crotch.

    “Emmy, where is Zoe and Mary Ann?” Rick asked gently.

    “He took them into the woods. He said they were sleeping…but I don’t believe him.” She replied angrily.

   “Emmy, this is Brenda…she is a nurse.”

    “For reals?”

    “Yeah, for reals…anyway, Brenda is going to look at your feet and your bottom. I know your feet hurt, does your bottom hurt too?” He asked as gently as he could.

    Emmy nodded. Rick started to get up, “Don’t leave me.” She pleaded in fear.

    “Honey, I’m not going to leave you…I’m going to get a towel in my bag, so we can dry you off, and Brenda needs to check you out, ok?” He added, “Brenda is really nice.” He said with a comforting tone.

    Emmy nodded her acceptance.

    Rick went to his rig and got his bath towel and first aid kit. Returning, the three women knelt, surrounding the girl, taking care of one of their own. Rick stood off to the side with Paul and Glen as Brenda examined her, bandaging her tiny rock chewed feet.

    “Where’s that guy?” Rick asked Paul.

    “He left when we showed up.”

    Brenda stood, joining the men. “Rick, she’s been raped….he tore her up pretty good.” She whispered angrily.

    Rick looked at Paul, “Paul I want you to take Glen and Knife…find this guy and kill him.” He ordered, and then added, “Nothing dramatic…just two in the head.”

    Paul nodded, Glen was already checking his weapon…Knife joined up and the three disconnected their trailers, heading out on the Canal trail riding their bikes.

    “Christine, if you’ll watch the road, I’m going to walk up this trail and see if there a house…maybe we can get some help.”

    Rick bent down to Emmy and Brenda, “I’m going to try and get some help, I’ll be back soon.”

    Emmy held out her hand to Rick, he kissed it and gave her a wink.

    Slinging the Garand around his shoulder, Rick started up the old path along the edge of the corn. He must have gone about a hundred yards, and entered a large back yard of the farm house. Clothes were strung along a line drying. “Hello!” He shouted towards the house. “Is anybody home?”

    A window on the back of the house opened, the white lace curtains inside blowing out. “Get off my property!” The reply from a woman inside commanded.

    “Ma’am…We have an injured girl, and need some help.” Rick asked.

    “I’m not falling for that one, now you get off my property, before I shoot you.”

    “Ma’am, I’ll be more than happy to get off your property, can we get some water for the girl…please?” Rick took a step towards the house.

    BOOM

    The shotgun blast peppered Rick with pellets. Feeling the sting, he was shot in the chest and face. Touching the wound on his face and finding a trickle of blood. “Lady…don’t do that again!” He ordered, and then calmly asked, “I’m not kidding about the injured girl…would you please help us?”

    Moments passed and out the back door a tiny white haired elderly woman came out, her double barreled shotgun pointed at Rick.

    Rick held his hands up. “We came across this girl…evidently she has been raped, and is showing signs of heat exhaustion and dehydration. We are almost out of water, or I wouldn’t have bothered you.” He said touching the pellet imbedded in his cheek. “We are down by the Canal road…by the way, my name is Rick.”

    The woman eyed him, noticing the Garand on his shoulder and his holstered pistol. “Irene…my name is Irene Biggs.”

    Rick turned and walked down the path with Irene following, her shotgun semi-ready. Reaching Brenda and Emmy, “What was that shot about?” Brenda looked up asking Rick.

    “Nothing…how’s our girl?”

    “You’re shot!” Brenda said, standing up touching Ricks face.

    “I’ll be alright…this is Irene. I guess she thought I was a cockroach.”

    Brenda eyed Irene cautiously.

    “I’m sorry about shooting you…with all that’s gone on.” She said apologetically.

    “Don’t worry about it…this is Brenda and this beautiful little girl is Emmy.” He introduced, more concerned with the girl than his minor wound.

    Emmy smiled at Rick. Irene looked at the girl and said to Rick, “Bring her up to the house.” Then to Emmy, “How are you feeling sweetheart?”

    “I’m ok…I hurt…but I’m ok.” she said, trying to be brave.

    Rick bent down, picking Emmy up easily as a bag of groceries. Bundling her in his bath towel, she wrapped her arms around his neck, burying her head in his shoulder. “Let’s get you taken care of, ok?” They started back towards the house. “So, Emmy…how old are you?”

    “Five…how old are you?”

    “Too old honey…I’m fifty two.” He smiled. “My daughter Laci was about your age…you would have liked her.”

    “My Mommy and Daddy are in heaven…is Laci in heaven too?”

    “Yes sweetie, she is.” Rick said. The girl started bringing back memories, which Rick had forgotten since Melissa.

    Reaching the backyard, Rick turned to Irene. “Where do we go?”

    “Let’s get her inside.” She said, opening the wood framed screen door and propping the shotgun against the wall. Leading Rick and Brenda into the living room of the old farm house, Rick laid Emmy down on the clean hardwood floor.

    “I’m going out back to pump some water.” Irene said to Rick and Brenda. “We’ll get Emmy some fresh water and then get her cleaned up…” Looking at the girl, “…You’ll be as good as new, honey.” She said smiling in a grandmotherly way.

    Rick knelt down, “I’m going to get our stuff off the road Emmy.”

    Reaching up, and touching the blood mark on his face, “You’re hurt.” Emmy said gently.

    “I’ll be alright, don’t worry about me, ok?”

    Brenda sat down next to Emmy and held her hand, preparing for a better look at her wounds and further first aid. 

    Rick waked out of the house and found Irene in the back yard, her arms working an antique metal hand pump. The creaking pump spilled a steady stream of clear, cool water into a bucket.

    Irene’s countenance changed dramatically, as Rick and the group became ‘friends and relatives’, and not ‘interlopers’. Irene looked at Rick, “I am really sorry.” She started to apologize again.

    “Irene, it’s ok. No harm…no foul, alright?” Rick assured her by giving her a hug. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

    “I’m almost finished with this…” she paused and added, “…it’s good to have decent people here. I hope that you’ll stay for dinner.”

    “I am always up for a good meal.” He smiled at her invitation. Taking a blue metal cup off of the pump and having a drink, “Oh man that’s good water.” He said, and refilling the cup, drinking heartily. “That’s some of the best I’ve ever had.”

    “We have a spring running under the farm, it about as pure as you can get.”

    Rick hung the cup back on the pump, “I do have to get our gear off the road, and let the others know where we’re at.”

    “How many are with you?”

    “Six, not including Emmy.” He said, walking towards Christine and the bikes.

    Christine stood at the gate, glancing both ways, her collapsible short-stocked AR-15 assault rifle at the ready.  “How is she?”

    “I think she’ll be fine after we get her hydrated, Brenda is taking care of her bottom.” Rick paused and added, “She’s just a kid, I don’t know why people think that it’s ok to do that to kids.”  Rick thought for a moment, rubbing the pellet wound.

    “They’re sick people Rick, and as shitty as this world is, we’re all better off without them preying on others.” Christine stated.

    “Christine, that’s the first time I’ve heard you cuss.” Rick said smiling.

      Christine smiled sheepishly, “Shut up Rick.” She said, laughing.

    “You know, I just realized that I gave an order for someone to be killed.”

    “Making those types of decisions is what a leader does Rick. Besides, that guy deserves a lot worse than what our guys will give him.”

    Rick nodded, wishing he could be with the trio. “I’m going to start hauling the bikes and trailers up to the house. Irene has invited us for some dinner.”

    Christine slung her rifle and helped Rick haul the bikes.


    The hunt for the rapist began the moment their bikes hit the trail. The previous evening’s showers softened the dirt, giving a clear impression of his travel. Paul noticed that the pedophiles footprints started off as a walk, closer together and his weight evenly distributed, once he had a little distance on the group, the prints spread out as he began to run. The man must have run close to a mile, and then his prints grouped closer together as he slowed back to a walk.

    Rounding a curve, the prints disappeared completely. All three dismounted, looking at the ground for sign. Knife spotted him first. The man had taken a path down to the Potomac River and sat on a boulder along the edge of the slow moving water.

    Like birds of prey, all three focused on him as they stalked quietly down the path towards their quarry. A small clearing along the path about fifty yards from the rapist gave each a good firing position.

    “Hey You!” Knife shouted. “I see that you like little girls.”

    The middle-aged man, stood up, surprised and now frightened, offered no explanation, no excuses or an apology. Gauging the distance to the nearest boulder, he tried to effect his escape by jumping to the nearby boulder.

    Knife and Glen opened fire with their AR-15’s, their .22 caliber high velocity rounds exploding into his tan t-shirt. Paul carefully took aim with the larger and much more powerful FAL. His first round, a quartering shot, caught the rapist on his side, spinning him around and stopping him until Paul squeezed off his second round, which impacted dead center in his chest, dropping him slowly to his knees and forward onto his face.   

    Knife and Glen, their twenty round magazines spent, started to reload and continue the barrage into the now dead and perforated bloody pulp of a man.

    “That’s it…cease fire.” Paul said to the two. Slowly the three made their way back to their bikes and the farm. After their return, Rick talked with the three about their mission. Satisfied at the results, he congratulated each, and then turned towards the house.


    The team, with the exception of Brenda who was with Emmy, gathered together inside Irene’s kitchen. A large pot of chicken and vegetable soup simmered on the homebuilt brick grill outside.

    “Irene, it looks like you’ve been preparing for something like this for a long time.” Knife said, admiring her efficient kitchen and antique filled house.

    “Preparing for this? No, this is just how I’ve lived my whole life. When you make your living on a farm, you learn to grow and put up food. What you don’t grow, you buy in bulk and store, for example, the chickens in our soup, I bought and canned a while back.”

    “So, are you married?” Knife questioned.

    “I was.” Irene said as she washed some utensils, “William and I were together for almost sixty years. We married pretty young, I was only fourteen and he was eighteen. My parents didn’t want us to get married so early, but that’s how things were back then.” Irene paused, “William died last year from prostate cancer.”

    “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” Knife commented, taking a dish towel and helping dry the wet kitchenware.

    “It was William who was prepared for this. If it wasn’t for him, I’d be dead right now.”

    “How’s that?” Glen asked, standing next to Knife, putting the flatware away.

    “Back in the fifties, this was before you both were born, our country and the Soviet Union seemed to be on a collision course for nuclear war. It was a hard and scary time for everyone.” She took a deep breath and continued. “Our government tried to get everyone thinking about surviving, heck they even showed short films at the movie house about ‘duck and cover’. Anyway a lot of folks put in bomb shelters; it was the fashionable thing to do at the time. William built one, but we didn’t take it too seriously, and in time, the threat went away. In the sixties we had the Cuban Missile crisis, and that scared William. It was then that he got serious about a shelter, and supplies. He maintained that even if the threat would go away, it would just be a matter of time before someone dropped a bomb.” She looked at Glen and smiled, “William was right all along.” Pausing again, “I really miss him.”

    The group stood silently. 

    Brenda and Emmy came into the kitchen, “Irene, thanks for the diapers, they’ll work great for keeping the bandages on Emmy’s wound.” Not referring to Emmy being raped or abused, but simply, a wound.

    “They were for my great-grandchildren…how are you doing sweetheart?” Irene replied and then turned to Emmy.

    “I’m fine.” Emmy said, and then sat at the kitchen table next to Rick.

    “She is such a trooper.” Brenda replied, standing behind her, and giving her a hug. Looking at Rick, “Did Emmy tell you that we are the fourth group she’s been with?”

    “No, you didn’t mention that.” Rick commented, his heart broken at the thought of what she must have gone through.

    “Anyway, I am going to give her a bath. I think she’s had enough water to float a ship.” She said smiling, Emmy nodded in agreement. “When will the soup be ready? I know she’s starving.”

    “It shouldn’t be too much longer, the chicken was already cooked and the vegetables were dehydrated, so anytime. I like to let it sit for the entire day, just simmering, but I certainly understand wanting to get some food in her quickly.” Irene said. “While dinner is cooking, why don’t you all get cleaned up.”

    Rick, Brenda and Emmy went outside. “I’ll take one of my pots and warm up some water for us.”

    Emmy went over and sat next to the grill, its warm fire radiating a comforting heat to her bandaged feet.

    “What do you think?” Brenda asked quietly.

    “I think that all three of us need to get to get cleaned up, and get something to eat.” Rick replied, playing around with Brenda.

    “That’s not what I meant, and you know it.” She quipped, and then moved closer to him, reaching her hand and taking his wrist, feeling the green hemp bracelet, and then releasing his hand.

    “I know what you meant,” he said smiling “I need to think about the logistics of this, that’s all.” He said, removing some of the gear from his trailer.

    Brenda stood silently, her emotions swirling with thoughts of caring for Emmy, and realizing that her feelings for Rick were growing deeper every day. It scared her to the point where she dare not say what she felt, as he might not ever be able to love someone else again. Hugging him was the only thing she could do. “Ok” she said, and then turned her attention to Emmy.

    Rick pumped some water into a pot, and set it next to the soup to warm. Brenda found her shampoo, conditioner and a brush. All three washed with the chilly water. Brenda finished up by picking out the pellet from Ricks cheek. 

    Inside the house Paul, Christine, Knife and Glen stayed behind, allowing the others their personal space to get cleaned up.

    “Irene, I see that at one time you had a vent of some sort to the outside. Was there a wood stove in here?” Paul asked, noticing a plate that was attached to the wall above the lifeless electric stove.

    Irene looked at Paul, “Yes, we had a wood stove for years.” She paused, “I begged William for the longest time about buying me one of those fancy electric ovens…he would say,” Speaking with a deep tone, mimicking her husband, “‘Irene, one day we won’t have any electricity, what will you cook on then?’” She smiled and added, “I sure would like to have that one back.”

    “Did you throw it away?” Knife asked.

    “William Biggs throw anything away? Not on your life. I would imagine that it’s covered up with junk out in the barn, along with everything else that’s accumulated for the past fifty years.” She chuckled.

    The clean threesome came inside, with little Emmy leading the way. Wearing Ricks bath towel, turban-wrapped around her head and one of his t-shirts, which came close to dragging the floor.  Brenda followed, also had her towel turban-wrapped around her hair, smiling broadly.

    The others took their cue, heading outside to wash.

    Brenda had Emmy sitting on her lap, gently brushing out her hair, trying to be gentle with the kinks and knots. Rick sat next to both of them, putting his arm around Brenda and whispering into her ear, “I think I’ve got it figured out.”

    That wasn’t what she really wanted to hear, but it was second best. “Tell me.”

    “Ok, we take your food and put it into my bucket. You carry Emmy, and if you get tired, then we’ll switch bikes.”

    Emmy looked up, excitedly she asked. “Can I go with you?”

    Rick looked at the girl, “Emmy, what we are doing is pretty dangerous. It really isn’t the place for kids.” He said seriously.

    “I’ll be good, I promise.” She countered.

    “Honey, I know you’ll be good…I’m not concerned about whether you’ll be good or not. I am concerned about keeping you safe.” Then realizing what he was saying, “You know, you’ve probably been through more than we have.” Pausing for a moment, “Are you sure you’d like to come with us?”

    Emmy nodded silently, as tears of joy filled her eyes and then streamed rapidly, single file down her cheeks.

    “Then I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe.” He said, giving her a kiss on the cheek.

    Emmy looked back at Brenda, her toothy grin and hugging Brenda tightly…she was definitely a happy kid, as was Brenda…and Rick.

    Irene looked at the three. “You all make a good family.” She said smiling.

    The others filtered back into the kitchen, clean and hungry.

    “Glen would you be a dear, and get the soup for us?’ Irene asked.

    Glen took some potholders and quickly brought the huge pot of chicken vegetable soup inside. Everyone sat down at the rough-hewn dining room table, worn smooth over time by multitudes of dinner’s which friends and family shared. Rick spooned soup into Emmy’s bowl, and the girl started to devour the meal.

    “Emmy would you like to say a Blessing?” Irene asked.

    Emmy nodded and bowed her head, as did everybody else. Her lips moved silently. Eventually she said aloud, “Amen.”

    “Emmy, we didn’t hear what you said.” Knife offered.

    “God did.” She replied confidently, as only a child could.

    The entire room erupted in laughter.

    Rick chuckled at her appetite. Everyone ate their fill, laughing and chatting as if this was a Thanksgiving meal, and they were blood relatives. They all felt the miles and horrors of the outside pass away, even Emmy relaxed and laughed.

    Once the meal was finished, Paul offered, “Irene, if we can find that wood stove, would you like us to hook it up for you?”

    Irene’s eyes widened, “That would be wonderful. If you can do that, then I’ll bake some bread.”

    “That’s all the encouragement I need.” Rick replied.

    “I hope you all will stay a few days…you’re more than welcome too.” Irene said.

    “I think we’d all like that Irene, thank you.” Christine said, the others nodding their agreement.

    Rick, Paul and Glen went outside after dinner, heading to the barn. Shining a flashlight around the darkened, cluttered and dusty interior, they soon found the black iron kitchen stove and its exhaust pipes.

    “There’s some really cool stuff in here.” Paul commented. “Irene was right, William didn’t throw anything away.”

    “Sure didn’t. I would think that installing this stove will take the better part of the day…then we need to make sure she has enough wood.” Rick said.

    “Do you think these chainsaws will work?” Glen asked, looking at a shelf with four well used, yet cleaned and apparently well maintained saws of differing sizes.

    “We’ll find out tomorrow.” Rick said. “Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us…this will be a nice change of pace, right?”

    They agreed.

    Brenda, Christine and Knife came into the barn, staying well away from any of the clutter, trying not to get dirty. “Rick, Emmy would like for you to tuck her in.” Brenda said.

    Rick smiled, “Wow, I haven’t heard that in a long time.” He turned to leave, “I’ll see you all later.”

    Brenda followed Rick to the house. “Irene has Emmy in the guest room, I put our sleeping bags next to the bed.”

    Rick looked at Brenda; she smiled, saying no more about it as they went into Emmy’s room.

    Emmy lay in bed, a glowing candle set in a hurricane globe, on the nightstand. Her eyes sparkled in the dim light as she reached up to give Rick a good night hug. “Would you read me a good night story?” She asked, knowing he would, as there was a book lying on her tummy.

    “Sure.” Rick took off his shoes, removing his holstered pistol with the extra magazines and emptied his pockets of all the other stuff he carried. “You can read, right?” He said laying next to her.

    “Yup…I love to read.”

    “Then why don’t you read me a story?”

    Sitting up, the excited Emmy started, “Good Night Moon.” She read perfectly, opening the thick-paged children’s book. After four pages, she looked over at Rick…he was sound asleep. Closing the book, she snuggled against him, falling fast asleep.

    Rick woke in the darkened room. Taking a moment to get his bearings, he felt the warm bodied girl sleeping soundlessly next to him in the small twin bed. Pressing the stem on his watch, the green dial glowed 4 am. Trying not to wake her, he sat up slowly, his feet touched Brenda who was sleeping on the floor. Standing and trying not to disturb either of them, Rick knelt down, lifting Brenda up. Waking, she smiled and muttered, “Hi.” He placed her next to the slumbering Emmy. Covering up both, he kissed Brenda on the forehead. “Go back to sleep.” He whispered, taking his things and quietly leaving the room.  
  
    Padding out into the dark kitchen, he dressed. The house was quiet, it was a beautiful sound, or lack thereof. Noiselessly walking out of the house and to his bike, Rick dug out the fixings for a pot of coffee, a half-empty pack of cigarettes and his sweatshirt for the cool morning air. The brick fireplace had some wood stacked next to it, Rick started a fire and set the coffee pot on. Earlier that evening it rained, as the grass was still wet. Rick dragged an Adirondack lawn chair from across the yard, setting it close to the fire-pit, wiping off the moisture, and then relaxed, settling deep in thought.

    The early morning stars twinkled brightly, as he smoked and sipped a steaming cup of coffee. His mind swam with thoughts of the past days events, eventually his memories came back to Melissa, then Linda and the kids.

    A noise from behind brought him back to reality, Irene was up and came outside.

    “Good morning” She said, walking over, warmly dressed in a sweat suit. “You’re up early, didn’t you sleep well?”

    “Good morning Irene, I usually get up this early anyway…it’s a good time for me to think.” He replied, “I slept very well, actually better that I have in a long time, thanks for asking.”

    “I like this time of the morning too.”

    “There’s some coffee, help yourself.” Rick offered.

    Irene went back into the house, got her favorite mug and returned. Rick had found the mate to the Adirondack chair he was sitting in, bringing it over and wiping it of the rain water, he arraigned it next to him. Tossing a few logs onto the fire, Irene and Rick sat, enjoying the breaking day. 

    “Last night, after you went to bed, your friends told me about what happened to you and how you all met.” She looked over at him, “that’s quite a story.”

    “I’m sure there’s a lot more interesting things that have happened to other folks, I just tried to survive, that’s all.” Rick said, trying to downplay his past. He also knew that Irene didn’t know the whole story, as Rick didn’t tell the team about his attempted suicide and the dreams, preferring to keep that to himself.

    “Emmy is a beautiful girl.” Irene stated, sipping the steaming brew.

    “Beautiful doesn’t begin to describe her. She…” He was cut off in mid sentence.

    “Little girls need their Daddies, Rick.” Irene stated flatly, “It’s very important for them.” She paused and then added, “She loves you, and trusts you, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.”

    Rick smiled as Irene’s comments took on the very same tone as his mother; the inflection and verbiage were identical. “Thanks Irene, I think you might be right.” He paused, “I just didn’t think that I would be in a place where I had another chance with kids.”

    “It seems to me, that with all that’s gone on, everything from here on out, is another chance.”

    “Can’t argue with that logic, I guess.” He replied. “How much land do you have?” Rick asked, shifting the subject.

    “I have a total of one hundred and fifty acres, with slightly over one hundred in crops now.”

    “Did you plant this?” Rick asked, motioning to the corn behind the house.

    “Oh no, Pepper did.” Irene replied.

    “Pepper?”

    Irene chuckled, “Pepper Wayne…his name is really Cecil, but we call him Pepper. Anyway, I lease Pepper my land, and that helps a lot as Social Security doesn’t go very far…and now it doesn’t go anywhere.” She laughed, bitter at the memories of being bullied into that system. Irene took another sip of her coffee, draining the cup.

    Rick got up to make another pot, and set it on the grate to cook. He sat silently as Irene told her story.

    “Pepper and William were buddies. They hunted and fished together, farmed together and years ago, used to go out drinking together…they stopped that nonsense, though. Anyway, Peppers wife Mary Beth, died about ten years ago…cancer of the blood.” She paused at the memories, “When William got serious about our shelter, he and Pepper built it, and then put one in on Peppers property.”

    “Does Pepper live near here?”

    “His place is about five miles up the Canal trail. He has about the same amount of land that I have.” Irene looked at Rick, “Can I tell you something…and you promise to think that I’m not crazy or anything?”

    Rick nodded.

    “When William passed away, it was really hard on me, as we were together for such a long time. After a while, things got better…but when those bombs went off.” She paused, took a deep breath and went on, “I was in the shelter by myself. I couldn’t imagine what life would be like afterwards, and quite frankly, could see no real reason to go on.”

    “I understand that feeling.”

    “I gave serious thought to…ending it all. Anyway, when I got to the point of doing it, I had a dream.”

    Ricks eye widened at the comment.

    “William came to me in the dream, he was as real as you and I sitting here are; he said that some friends would come by to help…and that things would get better.” She stopped and smiled, “You must be one of those friends.”

    Rick smiled, “I know about those dreams, I had something similar. My son told me to move on…evidently, I guess that ‘The Man Upstairs’ isn’t finished with us.” Rick smiled and paused, “Do you plan on staying here?”

    “Oh yes, I could never leave my home, it’s the only place I’ve ever known. It’s too bad William isn’t here to see this.”

    “See what?”

    “This years crop…I’ve never seen corn so beautiful and tall this early in all my life.”

    “So, this isn’t normal?”

    “Oh no, we’ve had almost perfect growing conditions. Every night we get a little rain, and the days are hot…perfect for corn, beans and tomatoes. I’ll have my work cut out for me canning all of this.” Irene’s eyes opened at a thought, “Do you think that Pepper made it through the bombs?”

    “You said he had a shelter, so if he was close by when the bombs went off, he might have.”

    Irene became visibly excited. “Do you think that you could go to his place and find out?”

    “Sure…we’ll be leaving in a day or so. We want to get that wood stove set up for you first.”

    Irene’s mind wandered, thinking of Pepper.

    “Irene…you, uh…like this guy?”

    Irene smiled sheepishly. “Pepper Wayne would come over after William died…we became very good friends.” She smiled and added, “Although not in that way.”

    Rick chuckled, “No problem, I’ll be more than happy to let him know that you’re alive and kicking.”

    The morning sunrise was spectacular. The quiet of the multicolored display was interrupted by the back door opening, Emmy ran out, tiptoeing through the damp grass and placing herself squarely on Ricks lap.

    “Good morning sweetie, did you sleep well?”

    “Yup.” She answered, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

    “Where’s Brenda?”

    “Mommies getting dressed.” She said absentmindedly.

    Rick looked at Irene who nodded and smiled at Emmy’s faux pas.

    “Emmy, how would you like some pancakes for breakfast?” Irene asked.

    Nodding her head vigorously, “Yummy.” 

    Irene got up to begin breakfast, as the others started wandering outside for some coffee. 

    Breakfast was simple and filling. Irene worked on the outdoor grill, making the pancakes and coffee. Afterwards, Rick, Paul and Glen started moving the electric stove and replacing it with the dusty mouse nest filled wood stove from the barn. William had evidently realized that the wood stove would be of use later as he left the old chimney on the outside of the house and the fire bricks on the walls and floor inside. By mid-afternoon the stove was installed.

    Glen asked Paul and Rick to show him to use the chain saws and cut wood. They both thought it strange, but agreed that Glen didn’t have an outdoor mindset from the past to build on. Rick instructed Glen how to start the saws, which worked perfectly. Evidently the EMP didn’t affect their minimal electronics. Rick also gave him a small tutorial on how to sharpen the saws chain. Paul showed Glen how to sharpen an axe and which type to use for the various work loads. Glen was a good student, listening and asking intelligent questions, then applying his knowledge to work up a sweat cutting and splitting the wood.

    Taking a break in the hot afternoon sunshine, Rick and Brenda sat on the lounge chairs in the back yard, watching Emmy swing on an old tire swing hanging on a tree in the yard. Smoke filtered up from the chimney as Irene finished her cleaning and began to reacquaint herself with its operation.

    “When do you want to leave?” Brenda asked Rick.

    “Tomorrow morning.”

    “This is a beautiful place, isn’t it?”

    “Yeah it sure is…I always dreamed that maybe one day I’d have a place like this.”

    “So, this isn’t where you’d want to stay?”

    “You mean here? No, I just don’t get the feeling that this place or this area is ‘home’. I don’t know where that place is yet, but it’s not here….and you?”

     “It’s kinda weird, but I agree with you, but I don’t think this is where we’re meant to be.”

    “Ok, so lets make sure that we have stuff for Emmy, I’ll let Paul and the others know that we head out in the morning.”

    Inside the house, it was evident that the wood stove worked, as the house was hot and filled with the aroma of baking bread. Knife and Glen were helping and learning how to turn flour into something totally delicious.

    “Wow…look at you.” Rick commented to Knife, wiping her flour splattered face with her sleeve as she kneaded the dough.

    Knife smiled, “Yeah…I like it.” Then as an after comment, “I like it a lot.”

    “Paul says that we are heading out tomorrow morning.” Glen said.

    Rick nodded and continued into the bedroom, making sure that he wasn’t leaving anything behind.

    The evening meal was simply spectacular. Irene brought out some canned corn, beans and beef. The homemade bread was beyond description as everybody filled up on it. The table was quiet as their time together seemed like much longer that it actually was. They had all grown much closer since being with Irene, it was a good experience.

    Everyone filtered to their rooms for the evening. Rick lay on his sleeping back next to the twin bed as Brenda read Emmy a story by the flickering candle light. It didn’t take long before Rick had fallen into a deep sleep.

    Emmy leaned over the edge of the bed, across Brenda’s waist, “He snores.” She said chuckling.

    “Yes he does…what do you think of him Emmy?” Brenda asked casually.

    “I love him.” She replied.

    “Me too.” Brenda said and kissed Emmy on the cheek. The story was finished, Brenda blew out the candle, snuggling next to Emmy and falling asleep.

    Rick woke at his normal before sunrise time. Quietly he gathered his clothes and stuff, and then headed out into the kitchen. He was surprised to see Knife standing at the kitchen sink, in the dark staring out through the window.

    She turned when he came close. “Good morning Rick.”

    “Good morning Knife, you’re up early.”

    “I know…I couldn’t sleep.”

    “Everything alright?”

    Knife sighed deeply. “I don’t know, I mean…I’ve been thinking.”

    “Hey, why don’t we make some coffee and talk about it.”

    “Yeah, I think that would be good…I need to talk.” The pair went outside and fired up the outside grill, and set the coffee pot. Moving the lawn chairs next to the fire, both sat warming up and waiting for the coffee to finish brewing.

    “So, what’s on your mind?” Rick asked, pouring Knife a cup and then himself.

    “This place, us, what we’re doing, where we’re going…and my past.” She said quietly.

    “Ok, well let’s break it down one at a time, ok?”

    She nodded, and started. “It seems that since we’ve been on this trail that I’ve changed.” Pausing, she explained, “When I grew up, my mother was a drunk…and my father wasn’t around too much. So, I did whatever I needed to do, to get along.” She sighed, “I screwed a lot of men to get what I wanted. I feel guilty about that now.”

    “Wow…sounds like your conscience is starting to weigh on you.”

    “Yeah it is.” She paused again, “I’m glad you didn’t take me up on my offer.” She smiled at Rick.

    “Why is that?” Rick smiled back.

    “It would’ve messed things up…besides, you’re spoken for.”

    “What do you mean…spoken for?”

    “Come on Rick…surely you know that Brenda is in love with you.”

    “Huh?”

    “You don’t know do you?” She chuckled, “Well, she is…and she told me in no uncertain terms to lay off of you.”

    “No shit?” He replied genuinely surprised at the announcement. “I guess that I’ve been too busy to notice.”

    “What’s it like to be in love?” She asked, diverting the subject.

    “You were never in love?” He paused as Knife shook her head. “But, you were married…didn’t you love Dave?”

    Taking a deep breath, “I loved part of Dave. You see, Dave was bipolar….basically two people. The happy Dave, I loved…the unhappy, suicidal, depressed, angry and jealous Dave I couldn’t stand.” She paused, “Paul and Christine didn’t know the ‘other’ Dave. So, after the bombs went off, the ‘other’ Dave…” Her voice trailed off, and she blurted out as tears rolled down her face, “I never screwed around on him…ever.”

    “I think I understand now.” Rick said, quietly listening.

    “Do you think that I’ll find someone? You know, to be with forever?”

    “Oh heck yeah.” He paused, “When Linda and I married, I didn’t have the fireworks or anything like that, our love was a comfortable and familiar kind of a thing. We both made a decision and a commitment to marry and to be together.”

    “And then there was Melissa.”

    Taking a moment he replied, “Yeah…then there was Melissa.” It was his turn to tear up. “I didn’t need to go to Washington and see if Linda and the kids made it out, I knew that nobody could make it through those blasts.” He wiped his eyes and continued, “Melissa was the woman who brought me the fireworks…I miss her so much.”

    “But you’re going to be able to go on, right?”

    “Yeah, I’ll be able to go on…and maybe? Who knows, maybe I’ll find someone too.”

    “You know what I did yesterday?” Knife changed the subject again.

    “Make bread?”

    She smiled, “Yes, I made bread…for the first time in my life I actually made bread and did something domestic…and I liked it.” She continued, “I see how you and Brenda are with Emmy…I want that Rick.”

    “Knife…I’m impressed. You are changing, and for the better.”

    “Maybe I should start by ditching ‘Knife’, what do you think?”

    “I like ‘Lisa’ a lot better than ‘Knife’.” He commented.

    “Lisa it is then.” She yawned, the heaviness off of her chest. “I think I’m going to go back to bed for a bit…thanks for the talk Rick.” With the conversation over, she went back into the house, leaving Rick alone with his own thoughts. 


* * * * *


    The black ball of earth slowly changed to bright blue as Captain O’Donnell moved from the southern tip of Africa towards the north.

    Opening the weapons bay door, and turning on the modified Rail Gun, he watched the systems computer monitor. He approached NOAA -18 with a closing speed of slightly over one hundred miles per hour. In the distance he spotted his target, the large solar panels soaking up the suns rays, converting that energy into electricity.

    He brought the vessel slightly to port, lining up on NOAA-18. Looking through the improvised sight, which was a miniscule square of tape applied to his visor. Pressing the trigger, he felt the stick bump. NOAA-18 moved slightly as the metal slug tore through the thin shell, pieces of 18 floated lazily away from the hit. Mark pressed the trigger twice more, moving his sight along the body of 18.

    “Marine Helo Seven…you are cleared to land.” The unidentified voice crackled through his earphones.

    Mark smiled as this was his signal that NOAA-18 was dead. Moving further from 18 and retracting the weapon, he moved his joystick quickly to the left, executing a perfect snap roll as a victory for his first kill. For this trip, he only had one target, he knew he’d be back and would have the freedom to take out more satellites, but for today, only one.

    Now he could relax and enjoy the rest of the ride, starting his landing procedure over the Artic, he would be home at Dreamland in less than an hour.

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