The End: Chapter 5
When Solo wakes me the next morning, before sunrise as usual, Gabriel and Noah are already up and gone, their blankets folded neatly on the end of each sofa. I find Noah in the garage, working on the bear hide.
"Morning." I say, stepping into the freezing garage with Solo on my heels.
Noah turns to me, grinning.
"Mornin' dearie. Really can't tell you what a treat it was to sleep soundly for a change...and warm too! We've had a rough road the last couple of months." He continues working on the bearskin.
"Well, you're safe here, so consider yourselves home."
"Well, Gabe and I will do our best to make ourselves useful. I believe he's gone up to your little watch tower there." He gestures toward the crows nest. "Quite a blizzard going on outside, started about an hour ago."
"Hungry?" I inquire. At the word, Solo whines and licks my hand, politely requesting his own breakfast.
"Yes ma'am. Always." Noah replies lightly, eyes never leaving his work.
I fix a skillet full of rabbit stew full and thick grits to pour it over, then give Solo his usual ration of venison mixed with some squirrel meat. As the stew begins to simmer in the cast iron skillet, it fills the station with it's aroma, drawing Gabriel down from the nest. Solo meets him at the base of the spiral stairs, growling. He percieves them as intruders in his territory, potential threats, and has made up his mind to assert his dominance. I call him to me and he reluctantly allows Gabriel to enter the room.
"Smells great." Gabe says, eyeing the stew.
He sits on the edge of the couch closest to the woodstove, rubbing his hands together. The gaunt face under his beard tells me that rousing that bear from it's den had been more an act of desperation than boldness. Noah comes in toting an armload of wood for the stove.
"Come get some grub, old man." Gabriel goads him.
Noah grumbles as he sets the wood down, then joins Gabe on the sofa while I ladle large portions of the thick stew and grits into bowls for them. We talk over the meal, recalling the various trials we'd encountered since we all last saw each other. It occurs to me how oddly close we are, though only having met once before, brought together by the tragic loss of life as we all knew it. It is as if I've known them all my life. Besides our collective acute losses, we share another bond; we are all share an incendiary spark which refuses to be snuffed out, we are all survivors.
Noah and Gabriel spend the next few days hanging around the station, regaining their strength, making minor repairs and improvements to the station. I take Solo out daily, no longer using the rope and harness as he has been virtually glued to my side since the newcomers' arrival. We walk the snow-blanketed beach, trek through the woods and back to the station again, always keeping a sharp eye out for signs of infected or marauders. At times, Solo is still cub-like, bouncing around me in the snow, enticing me to chase him. I indulge his juvenile antics, glad to leave the world behind for a while. Other times, the wild roots of his nature bring forth the same stern, serious air of his mother. I can see more and more of both his parents in him every day; he is already darker than his dam, taking on the steely storm cloud gray of his father with paws too big for his lanky frame, indicating he will also inherit his sire's size. Despite his clumsily large paws, his movements are svelte; each step graceful and precise. So far he will not tolerate Noah or Gabriel getting within a foot or so of me and I have insisted they leave the patrols to me and get their rest so Solo can get some space.
Today it is particularly nice; sunny but still snowing and it has Solo feeling extra playful. He snatches my glove off my hand and dashes away, whirling back toward me, tossing snow into the air. I give chase and eventually find myself ina tug-of-war. Solo growls mischieviously and shakes his head, tearing the glove from my grip. He drops it and bounds away a few feet then suddenly drops the game as Gabriel appears around the corner of an old shed. Solo is back at my side in an instant, growling fiercely.
"It's ok" I tell him, scratching his half-ear.
I meet Gabe halfway, Solo trailing me.
"Everything ok?" I ask, curious as to why he has ventured out to find me.
"Sure, you were gone longer today than the last couple of days..." He trails off.
"That's sweet of you. I'm okay, just lost track of time."
"Well, you can't be too careful, you know. You shouldn't be out here int he open like this, playing around. It's not safe. You let your guard down and that's how you get got." His tone is stern, too stern for me to react reasonably after being alone so long.
"Solo watches my back and I watch his when we are out here.If you haven't noticed, I've done ok on my own and if I recall correctly, I had the jump on you from the moment you and Noah stepped into town. If you hadn't been healthy, sane individuals, you woudve been dead before you even knew I was here."
Gabriel's expression hardens and I wonder if I've been too harsh.
"Yes, well, if you don't mind, since I'm already out here, I'll go the rest of the way with you."
I consent and we make our way back to the station, Solo keeping himself between us all the way. We enter through the garage, stomping the snow off our boots and find Noah working diligently on the bear skin.
"Looking good, Pop." Gabe tells him, admiring his father's work.
"Be one hell of a blanket once it's finished." Noah says, not taking his eyes off his work.We ditch our snow gear just inside the door and Gabe brushes past me, clearly still annoyed. I ignore him and toss Solo one of his favorite treats; a frozen fillet of fish. Leaving him to gnaw it contentedly under the table, I turn my attention to Gabriel who is sitting in front of the woodstove cleaning one of the three identical rifles I'd recovered from the marauders. I perch on the other end of the couch, almost feeling bad about snapping at him. It's been so long since I've had to worry about relating to another person, I'm no longer sure I know how.
"I may need to practice a bit on my people skills." I offer as an apology.
"You've been alone a long time with naught but a wolf to keep you company... it's to be expected." He says, eyes riveted on his work.
I can't help but smile at his words.
"You're saying I'm wolfish?"
"Not quite-" He looks up, grinning under this thick cobalt beard. "Just slightly feral..."
I feign an expression of insult
"Well!" I huff exasperatedly and nudge him with my shoulder.
He chuckles and runs a loving hand over the rifle. "We lost our guns at the last stop we made before we made it here... had a whole load of other supplies too. Pop was well prepared for all this long before it happened. He went out and built that old cabin in the middle of nowhere... did you know he had a fallout shelter underneath it? Had livestock out int he yard too; few pigs, some chickens, a milk-cow. If we hadn't been found we could have lasted there for years..." He trails off as Noah comes in from the garage. Solo abandons the last of his fish to rush toward him, bristling. When the old man ignores him and walks past, Solo seems deflated, almost disappointed, and goes back to finish his treat, glancing back at Noach over his shoulder as he goes.
Noah places two large cuts of the fresh bear meat on the tabletop and goes to work cutting potatoes and carrots. A little while later, we all (Solo included), feast on the rich, delicious meat and the vegetables cooked to velvety perfection in bear grease. It's already getting dark outside, but the woodstove casts a warm glow across the floor, giving the station a cozy, homey feel. Noah, Gabriel and I sit talking and playing cards with the worn old deck from the ranger's desk. As we start a new game, Gabe tells us to wait and goes to the pack he'd been carrying when they'd arrived. He pulls from it a large mason jar and fetches three glasses from the kitchen cupboard.
"Oh Lord, son, did you really keep some of that crap?!"
Gabriel only grins mischieviously as he unscrews the jar's lid and pours some of it's content in each glass.
"Damn right I did!" He passes me a glass while Noah looks at me, almost apologetically.
"We came across an old still in the mountains in Virginia. Knuckledhead here-" he jabs his thumb toward Gabriel "- just HAD to have some I guess."
"Ahhh come on old man. How many more opportunities are we gonna have to stumble upon high quality white lighting like this?"
"Hmph!" Noah grunts, taking a swig. "Engine degreaser." He mumbles.
I wake on the couch the next morning, tucked snugly under a flannel blanket. I don't recall going to sleep here, in fact, I don't recall much of anything after my second cup of moonshine. Noah is gone, Gabriel gearing up to head out in the snow.
"Going out?" I inquire groggily.
"Thought Pop and I could handle patrol today."
I am already pulling on my boots, Solo whining anxiously to get outside.
"I'll join you." I offer, "Solo needs to get out anyway." I stand too quickly, my head spinning, and sit back down, fighting the urge to vomit.
"Never saw anyone throw back white lightnin' like you did. Maybe you ought to lie back down for a while."
I take a deep breath and shake my head, slowly, in protest.
"No, I'm ok. Just toss me my coat and coveralls if you will."
He brings them over, watching me struggle into the coveralls with an amused look on his face.
"Pop went down to the beach already but we should be able to catch him easy enough."
We find NOah on the beach and the four of us, Solo bounding ahead, hike the path of my usual route. We continue this routine daily, although Noah prefers to stay in the station most mornings. Each day, Solo grows more tolerant of our two new companions, although he still bristles whenever he feels they're too close to me.
February 14th. I mark the day off on the worn, tattered pocket calendar, and it dawns on me that it is my eldest brother's birthday. Today Thomas would be thirty eight years old.
"Happy Valentine's day." Gabriel's voice comes from behind me.
I turn to him teary-eyed. I have done my best not to dwell on the fact that my brothers have not come as we'd planned and have only spoken vaguely of them to Noah and Gabe. As of late, though, it is all I can think of. Gabriel's innocent comment on the day triggers an unexpected emotional reaction I cannot control. The burden of my grief overwhelms me and spills forth like a raging river. Gabe says nothing, only holds me as I sob, my face buried against his chest. He steers me toward the closest sofa, Solo circling us, licking my hands anxiously. Gabe sits me down and waits patiently for the flood to subside. Finally, I get my breath and control of myself. Gabe lets me go, sitting next to me without a word.
"I'm sorry. I'm so embarrassed." I tell him, wiping my eyes.
Gabriel's usually sharp eyes are softened and sympathetic. He shakes his head, placing a hand on my shoulder.
"No need to be sorry and don't be embarrassed, just tell me what's wrong."
I tell him my grievance and he nods in quiet understanding.
"There's no telling where the military sent them, they could have been clear across the country and still on the road coming toward you as we speak. Think of how long it took all of us to get here, and we were only a few states away." He says encouragingly. "Blood is a strong thing...if I'd had anyone but Pop before the world went to shit, I'd have done anything to get to them, and I'm sure your brothers will do the same."
I can only nod and stifle back more tears as I try to genuinely believe in his words, try not to lose hope.
"I'm lucky to have you and Noah here with me." I tell him, not wanting to seem ungrateful for their company.
"No," Gabe says, brushing a strand of hair from my tearstained face. "It's us who are lucky. When we got here we were depleted of ll supplies except a couple of hunting knives, our bows and a handful of arrows. Pop was exhausted and we hadn't eaten in over a week." Here he pauses, eyes downcast.
"We got caught outside Mackinac City. Maurauders, a whole commune of them. They were completely mad, not just murdering travellers and eating them, but eating each other too. Worse than rabid dogs, the lot of them. We escaped...barely, but we lost everything in the process. The knives and bows we found later in the trunk of a car on the road. We had little luck in hunting and Pop's age was getting the better of him with the lack of food and shelter, I was certain he'd come down with pneumonia or worse, I'd wake up one morning and just find him dead. The weather was hell..." He trails off again, sighs heavily. "Well anyway, we're all lucky to have each other. When your brothers arrive, our odd little family will be that much stronger." He gets up from the couch, offering me his hand. I take it, getting to my feet.
"Now" Gabe says, looking at me in mock sternness, "No more tears, young lady."
I manage a smile and he, feeling certain he's comforted me thoroughly, heads out on patrol. Shortly after his departure, Noah comes in from the garage, toting something under his arm.
"Come here, dearie." He says, calling me away from the woodstove where I stand tending a pot of grits.
I cross the main room to where he stands at the kitchen table, clearing away the clutter. He unrolls onto it the bearskin he's worked on to tediously since their arrival. He has expertly tanned the hide and sewn to the underside a soft flannel blanket which he has cut to match the shape exactly. It is magnificent and he beams with just pride at his work.
"Oh Noah. It's beautiful." I say in awe.
"A gift for our gracious hostess." He says, prompting me to hug him without thinking.
"Now, now girl. Don't go all soft on me." He tells me in feigned gruffness.
That night, warm under my new bearskin, feeling content, I fall asleep quickly. Then the nightmares come.
I could hear the moans of the infected as they stumbled out of the ravine, unsure of which way I'd gone. From my vantage point in the tree, I could see them searching for me, sniffing the air, listening for movement or breathing. Then the worst possible, most unexpected thing occurred. In my haste to hide, I hasn't chosen a proper limb on which to rest. So preoccupied was I in watching the searching horde, I never noticed the limb was not strong enough to support my weight and was giving way beneath me; until it was too late.
I crashed to the ground in an undignified heap, having his my head on the way. My left leg was bent under me at an odd angle, pain erupting from it and several other parts of my body. When I hit the ground, though, I could only think of escape. I know the racket I'd made falling would draw the dead right to me. Already I could hear them clamboring toward me. I scrambled to my feet, a sharp pain which screamed above the rest shot down my leg and as I hobbled as fast as I could, my head pounded and I knew I was losing both daylight and what little head start I'd had on the horde very fast.
I managed to keep ahead of them for a while but along the way I lost track of my direction and couldn't find my way back to the road. As the ghouls bore down on me, I unholstered my gun and began firing....