By Michal Morgan
Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved
— 4 —
White light flooded through the front windows of the house, and shadows chased each other across the kitchen. Jeremiah was seated with his back to the living room door. He spun around in his chair to look while Caroline craned her head trying to see around the door jam. Tom sat calmly sipping his coffee and idly picking crumbs off his plate with his finger.
Emma looked from the doorway to Tom, “What is that?”
“Sheriff’s deputy most likely,” Tom replied. “Listen.” The light went dark and a car accelerated slowly away. The distance from the road to the house made the sound a faint murmur of engine and crunching gravel.
“The police still patrol this area?” Emma looked surprised.
Tom considered a moment. “I wouldn’t call it patrolling exactly. More like making sure nothing valuable is left laying around to temp looters and that nobody is hoarding food,” he finished sarcastically.
Jeremiah turned to Tom, “Will they come back?”
“Can’t say,” Tom mused. “They probably saw the lamp light and decided to see if anyone would run by turning on theirs.”
Emma relaxed, “Can’t you talk to them about the looters next door?”
“All that would do is get both places raided,” Tom said. “Thieves stealing from thieves. No help there.” He rose from his seat, “Time to clean up and get things started.”
“We’ll take care of the dishes,” Emma offered. “I just need to have some hot water.”
Tom smiled at her, “Propane’s workin’. Matches are in the drawer. May I borrow Jeremiah for a few minutes?”
“What for?” Emma’s happy face had faded.
Tom looked pained, “I need his help in the garage out back, but I’ll manage.” He hooked a worn denim jacket off a hook by the door, and walked out into the first rosy glow of dawn.
“Why can’t I go Momma?” Jeremiah asked.
Emma sighed, “I need you to stay close, so we can see each other.”
“Mr. Lewis wouldn’t hurt me, and I can take care of myself.” Jeremiah insisted.
“I know baby.” Emma changed tactics, “I want you here to protect me and Caroline. That’s what Mr. Lewis told you to do isn’t it?”
Jeremiah’s face went serious, “How am I supposed to do what Mr. Lewis said when you took my gun?”
“Mr. Lewis grew up in a different time Jeremiah.” The water in the wide enamel pan on the stove was starting to steam slightly as Emma continued, “When he was a boy, his papa probably gave him a gun when he was your age. People don’t give children guns anymore, and I think it is too dangerous for you to have it until you are older and can learn how to use it safely.”
The tarp came off the ATV with a huge whoof of dust. Tom flailed at the cloud as he sat behind the steering wheel. A quick flip switched on the headlights, and Tom nodded in satisfaction. Levering himself out of the vehicle he began wandering from shelf to shelf. Sleeping bags. Two tarps with ropes. Ten gallons of gas. Hatchet, folding saw, and lifeboat matches. Fishing poles and tackle box. Blue enameled camp dishes.
Memory after memory went into the cargo bed of the ATV.
Fifty years of memories. A can of Flat-Fixer joined some motor oil and some rags in a cardboard box. Rain ponchos. Pliers, screwdrivers, and a small crowbar.
His wife lost to a stroke after forty-five years together. Road atlas of the United States. Beth really loved those long road trips they used to take because they could not afford to fly.
Their son, lost in Desert Storm. Tom picked up two jerry cans and walked out to the pump. ‘Friendly fire’, they called it. All Tom knew was Bill only got twenty-five years of life. He filled the cans and carried them back to the ATV.
The cargo bed was not quite full, and Tom played his flashlight around the shelves, and under the work bench searching for anything else that would be of use. He added a coil of rope, a siphon pump and thirty feet of hose, a pour spout for the gas cans, an entrenching tool, and cast iron Dutch oven.
That was it. Nothing else to add, but he was not ready to go back and face the people in his kitchen, so he stood with one hand on the bed of the ATV.
Screams from the house. Tom snatched the crowbar from the ATV and ran.
Emma became aware her arm was touching the pan of heating water on the stove and jerked it away.
“I told you not to move!” Lanky hair topped an emaciated face with bad teeth and wide staring eyes.
“Mama.” Caroline whined pitifully. Suddenly cut off by the man’s arm around her throat. Her eyes never left the knife blade in front of her face.
“Shut up!” Lanky hair was wiped away from his face, “Where are the pills?”
Emma tried to keep her voice level, “What pills? We don’t have any medicine here.”
“An old man lives here. He has to have meds,” Lanky insisted. “I’ll cut your kid!”
Caroline screamed in terror trying to twist away.
“No! Please!” Emma begged. “I don’t know where any pills are. Look at this place! Some people tore it apart. They probably took the pills.”
Lanky wiped his face with the back of his knife hand. “I’m not joking!” he screamed. “If you don’t give me the pills, I’ll cut her throat!” The knife moved down close to Caroline’s cheek, and she clenched her eyes shut.
“OK! OK!” Emma made frantic calming gestures. “I’ll give you the meds. Just let her go!”
“Where are they?” Lanky demanded.
“Let her go and I’ll give them to you,” Emma regained a touch of self-control.
Lanky pointed the knife at Emma, “When I get the meds, you get your kid. Not before.”
“They’re in my bag, back in the bedroom,” Emma said calmly. “I have to go through that door where you’re standing to get there.”
Lanky hesitated a second and tightened his grip on Caroline, “Then you go real slow.” He backed into the living room keeping Caroline in front of himself. The knife never far from her face.
Slowly, keeping her hands visible, Emma stepped across the kitchen to the door. She could not take her eyes away to spare a glance at Jeremiah lying limp on the floor with a pool of blood under his head. Lanky kept backing away until she entered the living room.
“Come on! Move!” Lanky’s hand encircled Caroline’s throat. Emma could hardly tear her eyes away from her daughter’s to find her way down the dark hallway.
Dawn was barely making the curtains of the bedroom glow when Emma stumbled in. She looked around frantically for some container she could pretend had medicine in it. Where are you Tom? The thought sounded like a prayer. A last gasp of hope.
Lanky’s shoulder scraped the door frame, “Hurry up!”
Emma stepped to the window, “I need some light.” She pulled the drapes open admitting the promise of a bright day to the room. She spotted a tumbled nightstand drawer on the floor. Snatching it up and dumping it on the bed she frantically searched through an old woman’s clutter. Looking up at Lanky, “It’s not here. The looters that came yesterday must have taken it.”
“Not good enou..” Lanky’s head suddenly launched itself to the limit of his skeletal neck. He pitched forward falling on top of Caroline. On top of the knife.
Emma shrieked and dove after her child. She clawed the ragged body off the little girl, and scooped her into her arms. “Are you alright baby?”
Caroline was sobbing against her, and Emma was making shushing noises when she noticed the man standing in the door way.
It was not Tom Lewis. The eyes were all wrong. Nothing there. Nobody looking out. Seeing nothing. The crowbar held in both hands across his body like a rifle. The crooked end half raised, ready to strike. Then he blinked and Tom was standing there.
“See to her. I’ll check on Jeremiah,” and he was gone down the hallway.