Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 11

Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 11

New chapters of the serial novel, Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods, will be posted each Thursday. Subscribe to have new chapters delivered to your mailbox.

If you are new to the story, I suggest starting at Chapter 1.


Andrea Fletcher fled into the mountains to escape the sickness. She didn’t expect to find others here, not in early January. Why hadn’t she abandoned that sick boy as soon as she saw him? Did they think he would live? Why were they trying to get out of the wilderness she was so desperate to get into? How much she should tell them?

Little Cooper, stumbling about cooking their dinner and rattling on with a motormouth that wouldn’t quit, looked too fragile to handle the news of the outside world. Thin, wiry, with those bright blue eyes sparkling under that tousled blond hair, he reminded her of boys from her own middle school days. Boys she didn’t like.

Just shy of her 13th birthday, she walked onto the football field, determined to try out for the team, and listened to boys like Cooper laugh. Girls don’t play football, they howled. That’s a boys game.

They didn’t laugh when she slammed them into lockers or stuffed them into trash cans in the weeks to come. If they had let her play, she would have drilled them into the grass of the field.

The coaches directed her to girls basketball and softball. Not as fun as crushing the boys into the turf, but she still held the record for most fouls in a season of basketball and ejections in a middle school softball career. She believed in contact even in a non-contact sport.

Travis might be older, but he was sitting inside the shelter bawling his eyes out while his best friend was dying. He didn’t look like he could handle knowing what was happening in the wider world.

With his jet black hair, moody brown eyes, and soccer player physique, he resembled the pretty boys who ignored her in high school. Future frat boys dating the cheerleaders and too good for a girl like her. She had plenty of boyfriends, but they were rougher around the edges than a Boy Scout like Travis.

On her 16th birthday, she skipped school and hung out with one. He hadn’t technically dropped out, yet, but he wasn’t making it to school very much either. They smoked weed and made out, both favorite activities of his though she preferred his grass over his ass. His fumbling was more of a turn-off than a turn-on, yet another boy she tolerated while she wondered why she didn’t care for boys as much as her friends.

The live scenes on TV of blue skies and planes flying into towers put a stop to that day’s games. When he tried to get her to turn off the TV and climb back into his bed, she slapped him and turned the volume up. He sulked and begged, while she shushed him.

While staring at the TV, she knew she wanted revenge for those heinous acts. Animals that flew innocent people into towers full of more innocent people deserved to die and she was happy to oblige. The military, however, made her wait two more years.

By then, she had a new boyfriend, though he wasn’t much different from the others. At least he was quick about physical things. And he was as gung-ho about kicking ass as she was, so they enlisted together.

The Army refused to allow Andrea into the infantry. They offered her clerical roles and kitchen work, but she badgered them until they directed her to the Military Police. At first, the thought of not seeing combat like her boyfriend frustrated her. That didn’t change when she received word an IED exploded and killed him on a combat patrol just a few weeks after being in country. Apparently, he was quick about dying, too.

Turns out, though, that she saw more conflict than he ever did. The MPs cleared road routes for the supply teams, which had them routinely encountering IEDs and bad guys. She thrived on the adrenaline rush, always volunteering for as dangerous of assignments as the Army would allow.

By the time she was Meagan’s age, she was exchanging her Army uniform for a police uniform. She couldn’t imagine the younger woman chasing a perp through a public housing project or wrestling a domestic abuser to the ground, much less holding her ground in some unforgiving desert as a suicide bomber approached. To Andrea, Meagan seemed as immature and inexperienced as Travis and Cooper.

The police did not work quite the same way as the MPs. Catch a guy planting IEDs and he was on his way to count the virgins in heaven. But the police believed in due process and courts and bureaucracy. Her Sergeant wrote her up and warned her four times for aggressiveness before she saw Tammy that final time.

Like previous visits, Tammy sat in her dingy kitchen with a cigarette dangling from her hand, a baby with an ill-fitting diaper balanced in her lap. She denied that Bobby, the drunken blob being questioned by another officer, had ever hit her. She loved him and he loved her, she swore. Even if neither of them were sure if he was the daddy.

Not that the love explained the black eye. Or the dried blood under her broken nose. Or the missing teeth. Or the bruises around her neck. But good old drunken Bobby never raised a hand to her, she swore.

Despite Tammy’s denials, Andrea arrested Bobby. For the fifth time. Frustrated at Bobby and the courts and Tammy and a sergeant warning her to watch her temper, Andrea may not have been as careful with the stumbling drunk as she should have been. He tripped and fell, smashing his face into the side of her patrol car. Three times.

And, for that, they took her badge.

A few months later, a fellow officer stopped by the McDonald’s that had hired her. As he placed his order, and received his law enforcement discount, he leaned forward and asked if she had heard they arrested Bobby again. And, this time, it looked like he was going away for a while. Tammy couldn’t deny the beatings any more from a pauper’s grave. His lawyer was trying to get the charges reduced to manslaughter, claiming her death was accidental.

The officer also slipped her the name and phone number of the head of security for the local hospital, which led to her last job – and her soulmate.

One Friday night shortly after starting work for the hospital, the Emergency Room staff called Andrea to deal with yet another meth-head freaking out. When she entered the room, the druggie was threatening a nurse. Andrea tackled and cuffed him. The nurse was uninjured, but offered to buy dinner in the cafeteria as a thank you. They talked and laughed until a beeper called the nurse back to the ER.

Marissa was everything Andrea wasn’t. Sophisticated. Smart. Calm. Beautiful. But, for some reason Andrea would never understand, Marissa thought Andrea was all those things, too. And Marissa gave her feelings and desires that no boy had ever done.

They arranged their shifts together. Ate meals in the cafeteria together. Rented an apartment together just a mile away from the hospital. For the first time in her life, Andrea was happy. Truly, completely happy. Bliss.

The number of flu cases in the ER rose several weeks ago. No one thought much about it since the flu season always began as the days shortened and the weather grew colder. And the high numbers of patients just led the medical teams to blame a poorly planned vaccine that missed the predominant flu viruses that year – a not uncommon occurrence.

Even the first deaths shocked no one. They were a big enough hospital to see flu deaths every year, just part of the 30,000 deaths to the virus each year.

As the numbers of sick and dead grew, preventive efforts escalated. The hospital implemented visitor restrictions, limiting only immediate family in patient rooms. Andrea helped enforce those rules, much as she had in prior flu seasons.

TV stations and newspapers reported that the flu season had begun and seemed to be stronger than normal. A public bored by the hype of the news cycle ignored the reports and groused about having to cover for sick coworkers.

Absences at the hospital grew as doctors and nurses, technicians and janitorial staff, cafeteria workers and administrators succumbed to the bug. The morgue overflowed and annexed extra rooms in the basement to store bodies pending shipment to funeral homes.

The media, bored with the flu story, focused on the latest Hollywood star caught on a compromising video with a rising star of politics. A blogger highlighting the spread of illnesses was dismissed as a conspiracy theorist.

Like most of the public, Andrea’s concern didn’t escalate until the night Marissa came home coughing. The hospital staff worked twelve-hour shifts to cover for sick personnel. Marissa needed a good night’s sleep before her shift the next day.

By the next morning, Andrea knew Marissa couldn’t handle any shift. She couldn’t stand. She couldn’t sit up. She couldn’t hold down any food.

Scared and desperate, Andrea called in sick for both of them. No one questioned the request and wished her a speedy recovery, urging them to stay in their apartment until fully recovered, preventing further contamination.

No one ever called to follow up.

On the fourth day, Marissa was wheezing and coughing up blood. Andrea called 911 for an ambulance, but no one answered the call. At first, a recording announced that her call was important and would be taken in the order it was received.

Later, she couldn’t even reach the recording and heard only ring after ring. In her last calls, the phone simply clicked and went silent.

By the fifth morning, Marissa was fading. Andrea scooped her up in her arms and held her in the bed, singing a lullaby. At some point, Marissa took her last breath. Andrea held her and wept for hours.

She waited for the sickness to come take her, prayed for it. She sat for days in the darkened apartment, but the flu didn’t want her.

Unable to call for an ambulance and unsure what to do with Marissa’s body, Andrea wrapped her in a blanket and carried her to the pickup truck they shared.

The apartment complex was eerily quiet. No kids were running around or riding their bikes. No cars came or went. The only movement she saw was a blind cracked open in Apartment 1637, but when she looked, the blind snapped shut.

The trip to the hospital was quick with little traffic on the road, but Humvees blocked the entrances. Soldiers stood behind the vehicles, surgical masks on their faces and weapons in their hands, fear and worry etched on their faces.

She approached the first set of Humvees and identified herself as a former MP. A private, leveling his weapon, ordered her to halt. She explained that she was an employee of the hospital. At first, he was excited, but then disappointed to discover she was not medical staff. Security guard? Nope, they didn’t need her. Turn around and go home. Essential personnel only.

She asked about Marissa. What was she to do with a body? His expression hardened and he directed her to a back entrance. A makeshift morgue, he promised.

She circled the hospital and approached the back entrance, blocked much like the front, but the MPs directed her to a waiting line of cars inching toward a large military tent. People shrouded in hazmat suits scurried about. Refrigerated trucks sat at the edge of the tent. Stacked body bags towered to the top of the trailers. Occupied body bags.

The horror settled into Andrea’s bones as she calculated how many body bags fit in a trailer. She turned her truck and drove away. Marissa was not going inside a trailer and hauled off to some mass grave. Not like she had seen in the desert overseas. Discarded like so much garbage. Not her Marissa.

Nothing was left for her in town. No reason to return to the apartment. She headed to Interstate 40. Traffic was light and she made good time east toward the mountains on the horizon. The one place she had always felt human, disappearing into the towering trees.

Only to discover these people trying to escape.

No, she wouldn’t tell this fragile crew details. She wouldn’t tell them about pulling down a fire road and digging a grave deep in the forest. She wouldn’t describe how she had sat beside that grave, hand on the mound, saying goodbye to Marissa. She wouldn’t describe contemplating the gun she held in her hand and the peace it might bring.

She would tell them only about the number of sick and dying. About her decision to escape into the mountains and wait it out.

They would believe her and stay with her. Or they would go see for themselves. The choice was theirs. Either way, she was staying.

She told her tale. At least, the parts she was willing to tell.

And they listened in horror.


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Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 10

Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 10

New chapters of the serial novel, Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods, will be posted each Thursday. Subscribe to have new chapters delivered to your mailbox.

If you are new to the story, I suggest starting at Chapter 1.


Travis sat cross-legged on the dirt floor of the shelter, his head resting against the rock wall. A few feet away, Mike slept on the lower bunk, his breath rattling in his chest.

Shelters within the park varied in their amenities. Some were little more three wooden walls and a roof. Others, like the Cosby shelter they were in, were far more elaborate.

Thick logs supported wooden trusses and an expansive metal roof. The front half of the structure, though covered by a roof, was open on the sides. During the summer, the thick wooden benches along the perimeter allowed hikers to rest, read or organize gear under the protection of the roof while still enjoying a gentle breeze. During the winter, however, snow swirled in the stiff winds.

Three stone walls adjoined the roof in the back half of the building to block the winds. Two wooden platforms stretched from one end of the back wall to the other, creating bunks for sleeping. Wide and deep, they allowed several hikers to share the communal sleeping space in the crowded summer months.

One side wall expanded to include a giant stone fireplace. A fire roared, radiating heat against the stone walls, keeping the area comfortable despite the open front.

The roof skylights allowed ample natural light inside the space, making it much more inviting than most shelters.

With the stone walls, fireplace, skylights, and comfortable sleeping areas, hikers commonly referred to the Cosby Shelter as “posh.” They crammed the space during the crowded summer months rather than hiking on to less popular – and more rustic – shelters.

In the middle of winter, however, the excess space of the lower bunk seemed to swallow Mike as he slept uneasily inside a sleeping bag. Plenty of room was available for the entire party to be inside, but the others opted to huddle around the campfire outside. Maintaining two fires was an excessive amount of work for a small expedition of five people, but the others avoided staying near the sick Mike for too long.

Travis assumed he couldn’t catch the deadly flu again, having just suffered through it days before. But Meagan and Cooper hadn’t succumbed to the virus. Perhaps they were immune. Or maybe their battle was yet to come.

And the new lady? He didn’t know. He couldn’t even remember her name. Andrea? Angela?

They had cooked dinner over the outside campfire. When it was ready, Cooper raced inside, handed Travis a full mug of stew, and exited quickly. The others banded close around the campfire, eating the stew for extra heat, while Travis removed his jacket inside the toasty shelter, warm compared to the outdoors. He left Mike’s side only to retrieve firewood.

Mike’s gagging and coughing penetrated Travis’ thoughts. Alarmed, he helped his friend sit up and supported his feverish body. The coughs loosened thick phlegm which flew from Mike’s mouth and landed on his sleeping bag. Travis noted the bright red blood in the spittle, but wiped it away with an old t-shirt.

The episode passed and Mike breathed a little easier. He opened his mouth to speak, but the effort sent him into another coughing spasm. Travis glanced outside and noticed the rest of the crew watching with worried faces.

When Mike recovered, he whispered in a foggy voice, “Thanks.”

“You feeling any better?”

Mike looked up, his dilated eyes struggling to focus. Recognition spread across his features and he attempted a smile. “Travis? Is that you? When did you get here?”

Since the arrival earlier in the day, this marked the third time they had had this conversation. Mike floated from present to past to some fantasy land difficult to understand. He remembered none of the conversations, making Travis play a disconcerting, repetitive role. “Yeah, Mike, I’m here.”

“Good. I’m glad you made it.” Mike licked his lips and looked around the shelter, taking in details as if he had never seen the building, much less slept in it for the last several days. “Is my dad with you? He had to stop and rest. He wasn’t feeling well. I went to get the ranger for him.”

Explaining Mr. Chapman’s death earlier had not gone well, so Travis opted for an easier path. Since Mike had no recollection of that conversation, Travis disregarded it. He struggled to keep eye contact as he forced the half-truth through his lips. “He’s right down the trail. Near to here.”

Mike nodded and stared around the shelter. He waved one hand at the empty area beside him on the lower bunk. “Where’s Will? And Josh and Jake? We were playing poker here. Will took all of our money. Like usual. He said he would give me a chance to win it back.”

Travis swallowed hard and tried to push his last vision of the dead boys out of his mind. This part of the conversation was new. “They were here?”

“Yeah. Sitting in a semicircle. Playing cards. They’ve been coming and going all morning. Last few days, I think. Keeping me company. Said they were waiting for me to come with them as soon as I got past being sick.”

Goosebumps rose on Travis’ arms. “Got past being sick?”

“Yeah. Ain’t that a weird way to say it?” Mike continued searching the room for his fellow Scouts. “Where did they go?”

Travis struggled with an answer, torn between not lying to his friend and not upsetting him with details he wouldn’t remember a few minutes later. “Uh, they are with your dad.”

“Oh, good. Is Mr. Hamilton with them, too?”

Travis swallowed and answered with more truth than he wanted to accept. “Yeah. They’re all together.”

“What about Coop? He wasn’t playing cards with us. Where is he?”

Chills ran up Travis spine and he shuddered. “Coop’s right outside. See him cutting wood for the fire?” The thirteen-year-old was wielding the ax like an old hand, making quick work building a wood pile.

Mike licked his lips again, his tongue swollen and purplish. “I worried about them. They were all so sick. Except Coop. But you were, too. But now everyone’s better.”

Travis wished he saw them all healthy and happy again, but knowing Mike saw them that way both comforted and terrified him. And his respect for Cooper grew realizing that he had dealt with several people dealing with the delusions of fever, not just one.

With shaking hands, he held a canteen to Mike’s cracked lips to pour a few drops of water on his swollen tongue. Mike rewarded the effort with another coughing fit, doubling over as the pain racked his body. A trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth.

As the coughing subsided, Travis gently laid his friend’s head back on the winter coat rolled into a makeshift pillow and pulled the sleeping bag up to his shoulders. He wiped the blood away from the corners of Mike’s mouth with the ragged t-shirt. His friend’s labored breathing remained steady as he settled back to the dirt floor. “You asleep?”

Mike coughed a little and swallowed. “Not yet.”

Travis picked up a stick and drew in the dirt floor. “Do you remember the crayons?”

Mike breathed in and out several times, a dry rattling sound, before answering. “What about crayons?”

“First grade. You loaned me yours. Do you remember that?”

“No.” Raspy breathing. In and out. “You know what I remember?”

“What?”

“The way you colored.”

Travis turned to look at his friend in the shadows. “What do you mean?”

“So neat. Orderly. You would draw everything first with a pencil. And then color it. You colored everything in the lines. Nothing slipped out the boundaries.” Wheezing in and out. “It’s who you are. You can’t color outside the lines.”

Travis thought back to the first grade. Sharing crayons with his new friend. Crude drawings of houses and trees and stick people and clouds and sun. What bothered him that day was not the broken crayons. He accepted having less than others. But not having yellow for the sun? Having to substitute purple? That was wrong. But Mike was right, all the colors were inside the lines.

He turned to say something to his friend, but Mike’s slurred voice came through first. “Hey, Travis?”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t have my algebra homework done. Can you help me with it? Hurry, before Mrs. Mumford gets here.”

Mike’s fever had stolen him again from the present and his friend. He was back in a place where dead Scouts played poker and algebra teachers demanded you show your work.

Travis choked back tears. “I got your homework, buddy. Don’t worry.”


Click Here To Go To The Next Chapter – Chapter 11!

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Brad And His Date

Brad And His Date

I watched Brad and his date on a sidewalk in Folly Beach.

It’s the truth. This whole story is the truth.

Except for the parts I invented. We authors create tales on the flimsiest foundations, but don’t worry, I will be clear which parts of this story are true and which parts are fiction.

Let me confess right up front – I don’t know his name.

We had just finished dinner at one of the many restaurants along the main drag of the little beach town. In the summer, we would have searched to find a parking place blocks away and then battled the crowds on the sidewalk. But, in the off-season, I had parallel parked my Jeep across the street from the restaurant. Our hunger satisfied by dinner, we strolled to the car and settled into the seats. As I was placing the key in the ignition, I noticed the young man standing on the sidewalk a few feet away.

Young twenty-something. Loose fitting jeans and a long-sleeve surf-shirt in the cool evening air. A pair of ragged Vans tennis shoes. Shaggy, surfer-blond hair spilling out under his backwards facing ballcap. Perfect white teeth flashing a mischievous grin against his tanned face.

A college student hanging out at the beach for spring break? Or a young man living on the beach as he figured out his life? Whatever the story, he possessed a fleeting handsomeness of youth that allowed him to sail through life with a wink and a smile, his arm draped around his date’s waist.

We agreed his name was Brad, but his date’s name eluded us. She was much more mysterious. Attractive. Tall. Taller than Brad. Much taller. Shapely. Exotic. So many like her dotting the beach town. Native. Rooted deep in the town. Brad was passing through, but she was here to stay.

Brad didn’t deserve her. Didn’t appreciate her. Didn’t even acknowledge how much she supported him.

How did we know Brad was such a scoundrel?

His arm was around her. He was leaning on her. But he wasn’t paying her any attention. Instead, he held his phone in his spare hand. Ignoring her, he dialed a number. Spoke for a moment until they hung up on him. And then dialed the next number.

Who was he calling while his date silently accepted his ungracious behavior?

Girls. Despite his arm wrapped around this beauty, Brad was calling girl after girl. “Hey, wanna come down to Folly Beach and have some fun?”

“Funny, Brad, I thought you lost my number. Since I told you to lose it. Now get out of my life, pig.”

SLAM.

That wink and a smile charm only went so far, and the recipients of his calls were brutal in their responses. But Brad was undeterred by the hang-ups. He scanned the contact list in his little black phone and hit the dial button. While he hugged his date tighter, he held the phone to his ear and pleaded his case to the next poor girl who answered the phone.

Wait. I promised to tell you which parts of the story are true and which are not. I must confess. I didn’t hear the conversations. I don’t know what Brad said, what was said to him, or even whom he called.

But I could see Brad. A few feet away standing on a sidewalk in Folly Beach. His arm around this shapely lass. His phone in his other hand. Dial. Stick the phone to his ear. Talk for a few seconds. Listen for even fewer. Pull the phone away. Scowl at the screen in disgust. Scroll his contact list. Dial his next victim. Repeat cycle.

Instead of calling girls, perhaps he was dialing buddies.

“Hey. It’s Brad. I’m drunk. Can’t find my car. Can you come get me?”

“Geez, Brad. Again? Grow up. Besides, I live in San Diego now.”

SLAM.

Disgusted by the hang-up, Brad moved to the next name in his friend list.

“Hey. It’s Brad. I’m drunk. Can’t find my car. Can you come get me?”

“Dude. It’s Tuesday. I have to get up early for work tomorrow.”

SLAM.

Did I forget to mention earlier that Brad was drunk? Not tipsy. Drunk. Stumbling drunk. The world-is-spinning drunk. Not-sure-which-side-is-up drunk. Brad’s legs wobbled. He leaned. He tried to focus on his phone. The contact list faded in a drunken blur. He dialed numbers at random. All that is true, though I don’t really know if some of his calls went wildly off the mark.

“Hey. This is Brad. I think. I’m not sure what my name is. Anyway, I’m in some beach town. Not sure where. Pacific. Atlantic. One of those. Can you come get me?”

“No conozco ningún Brads.” I do not know any Brads.

SLAM.

All of those are possible conversations, but I need to stick to the truth. We sat in the car and watched Brad struggle to remain upright, his phone clenched in one hand while he dialed number after number. He would speak. Pull the phone away from his ear. Grimace in disgust and shake his head. Scan the screen. And repeat the process.

No call lasted more than five seconds, so any of the above scenarios could have been true. Or something yet unimagined happened in the calls. Regardless, Brad was determined to converse with someone.

Too determined. He removed his arm from around his date, stood straight up and gripped the phone with both hands, doggedness spreading across his face right up to his bleary eyes.

Unfortunately for Brad, standing without the support of his date was not the wisest move. He tilted forward, leaned back, twisted left, and veered right. His feet shuffled and his head bobbed. Through it all, both hands grasped his precious phone as he searched for someone to answer his calls.

Gravity took over. His knees buckled. His butt sagged toward the ground. He fell backwards, plummeting to earth while still entranced by the electronics in his mitts.

But Brad’s date was there for him. She never hesitated. Despite his disregard for her, she stood for him. His back collided into her body. She stood firm and took his weight with nary a flinch at the collision. Never wavered a single inch.

Brad, always the cad, never took his eyes off his crucial communication device. He didn’t thank her. Never even looked at her. He leaned his back against her, his knees still bent, studied his phone and dialed again. Spoke. Pulled it away from his ear and stared at it in disgust.

Another hang-up.

Brad had had enough. He was done calling. Perhaps he last called Zach Zebulon without success. With no one left to call, he pushed himself up and away from his stoic date. Glassy eyed, he pocketed his phone without falling on his face, a feat that took several attempts. His hand would slide past a pocket and he would stare in wonder at the still present gadget. He tried again and failed. On the third attempt, he snagged the pocket and the phone was holstered.

Technology secured, he stumbled down the sidewalk. Staggered past the t-shirt shops, restaurants and bars that dot the town. Maybe he was headed home. Perhaps he knocked on doors looking for a couch to call his own for the night. With a wink and a smile, he might have succeeded.

But he would wake up the next morning hungover and hurting. He would still be a scoundrel. A cold-hearted swine. He wouldn’t remember how his date stood by him in his time of need and how he left her all alone on that sidewalk.

That part of the story is true. I know it’s so because he walked away from her without a peep over his shoulder. She had been there to comfort him. Supported him. Met his antics with infinite patience. After all the commiseration she provided, he walked away. Without a goodbye, a thank you, or even a wave.

She remained all alone on the sidewalk. Standing tall and proud. She would be there waiting, day and night, a respite for the next drunk soul. The smooth bark of her trunk supporting their weight. Her palm fronds waving in the ocean breeze. Just one of many of the sisterhood of palm trees in a beach town supporting sodden souls.

Brad didn’t deserve her, but she was there for him.

Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 09

Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 09

New chapters of the serial novel, Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods, will be posted each Thursday. Subscribe to have new chapters delivered to your mailbox.

If you are new to the story, I suggest starting at Chapter 1.


“Beautiful, isn’t it?”

The rising sun, though still invisible below the horizon, reflected red and orange light off the clouds scattered to the east. The stars, brilliant pinpoints just moments earlier, disappeared one by one in the brightening skies. Heavy snow hung in the boughs of the trees, glistening in the growing daylight. The overnight winds had dropped to a gentle breeze. A branch shifted and snow plopped to the ground.

Travis’ reverie broken, he resumed stacking firewood near the roaring campfire. “Yeah, it’s beautiful.” He sighed and glanced towards Mr. Chapman’s body buried in the snow. The steady snowfall throughout the night covered their gruesome find, now barely more than a ridge in the white carpet blanketing the forest. “But Mike’s out there somewhere.”

“Maybe at the ranger’s station.”

Travis shook his head. “I doubt it. If he found rangers, they would have found us. They would have come right back up this trail.”

Meagan draped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. “Then he found shelter. Waited out the storms just like us.” Travis grunted and turned away, so she tried again. “He’s a good friend, huh?”

“My crayon friend.”

“Crayon friend? Huh?”

“First grade. My mom had the list of supplies to buy, but she couldn’t afford them all, so she skipped the crayons. The teacher scrounged up this box of 7 or 8 broken crayons for me. I was going to make the sun purple because it was one of the colors. Mike was sitting beside me with this giant box of 64 brand new crayons. He pulled out a yellow, handed it to me and said, ‘The sun should be yellow.’ We’ve been friends ever since.”

“That’s a good friend.”

Travis swung the ax, splitting a piece of wood with a single stroke. “Yeah. The best. Shared crayons ever since. Got me into his kids’ soccer league even though my mom couldn’t afford the registration fee. Ate dinner at their house when she was working late. Took me to Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.”

“We’ll find him, Travis.”

As he attacked the branches with his ax, Meagan assessed the growing stack of logs. “We aren’t moving out this morning?”

“I don’t think we can. Last night’s storm added at least a foot of snow.” He studied the snow-laden trail. “But with Mike out there. What if he’s hurt?”

She hung a pot to boil over the fire and counted the foil packets stacked on the boulder, their kitchen prep rock. “Do we have enough food to wait?”

Travis swung the ax and split another log. “It’s weird, you know?”

Shaken by the twists and turns in the conversation, she waited. When no answer was coming, she prodded, “Weird? How?”

He leaned on the ax as he studied the clear sky. “Mr. Hamilton tried to teach me how to read the sky. To know what weather was coming. Never really made sense to me when I could look at my phone and know.”

The first rays of the morning sun hit Meagan in the face. “Looks nice today.”

“But what if there is another storm coming? And another behind it? I don’t know what’s going to happen next, so I don’t know if we have enough food. I should have packed it all. So stupid.”

Meagan shook her head. “We all thought it would take a day. You’re the one who insisted on carrying several days of food. We wouldn’t be having breakfast without that.”

He looked up and held her gaze. “So, what should we do? Stay until the trail clears some and risk running out of food? Or try to break trail and risk getting injured on the trail? Because I don’t know the answer.”

“We go. I ain’t staying here.” They spun to see Cooper standing in front of the tent. “I can’t stay here. Not knowing he’s lying there dead under the snow.”

“Breaking trail in this mess would be a ton of work, Coop. And we could get hurt.”

Cooper glared defiantly back. “Be easier than yesterday. We can actually see the trail markers on the trees. No wind. No blowing snow. And we can tie ourselves together again if we hit rough patches. We can trade off the lead so we take turns breaking trail. And, tonight, we can be sleeping in a warm building after making plans with rangers to come get our friends.”

Travis started to protest when Cooper cut him off. “And we can find Mike.”

A half hour later, the sun was a brilliant yellow ball in the sky. Full daylight found breakfast cooked and consumed. Sleeping bags rolled. Tents dropped and folded. Backpacks packed. Fire extinguished.

Backpack on his shoulders and waist belt cinched, Cooper shifted his weight from foot to foot as he waited impatiently for the other two. As soon as they were ready, he turned and trudged down the trail, plowing through the powdery snow. Meagan fell into step a few feet behind him.

Travis paused beside the snowy burial mound. At its head, a wooden cross had been lashed together and driven into the ground. Somehow, Cooper had done that undetected while the others broke camp. He glanced up to see the back of the younger boy disappearing around the curve of the trail and nodded his thanks. “We’ll be back for you, Mr. Chapman. I promise.”

After the first half hour of hiking, Cooper reluctantly gave up the point position. Travis insisted that they rotate the arduous task of breaking through the heavy snow clogging the trail. Each step risked coming down wrong on a buried rock or log or sliding a foot deep into a hidden hole. Their progress was painfully slow as the day wore on and they marched in silence.

As the sun reached its zenith in the sky, Cooper noticed the smoke.

Travis was on his third turn at point, carefully choosing his footing with each step. Meagan was behind him with Cooper bobbing and weaving in the rear, begging to retake the lead and hurry their progress.

With their eyes focused on the uneven ground, Travis and Meagan had to look up and follow Cooper’s finger to see the column of smoke rising ahead.

Cooper didn’t wait to be asked, but plunged down the trail leaving the others to follow in his wake. They rounded a bend and saw the trail shelter well off to the side. Without the smoke, they would have marched past the hidden building.

A large campfire roared a welcoming heat. A backpack rested against the exterior wall. Just inside the shelter, a lone figure hovered, oblivious to their approach.

Cooper ran as fast he could toward the shelter, slipping and stumbling through the woods. Travis shouted, “Mike!” as he stayed on the younger boy’s heels.

The shadow in the shelter turned toward them and stepped into the light. She wore faded jeans and a red and white flannel shirt. Her hiking boots were scuffed and worn, but sturdy. Her short brown hair was flecked with gray. A pair of bright green eyes highlighted her ruddy face.

The boys stopped a few feet short as Meagan caught up behind them. Travis stepped forward. “Sorry, ma’am. We thought you were a friend of ours.”

Her voice was gravelly, the sound of a long-term smoker. “This friend. He your age?”

“Yes, ma’am. He’s gone ahead to get help from the rangers.”

She nodded and pointed inside the shelter. “Your friend is in here.”

Travis stepped around her and into the shadows of the shelter. Mike was stretched across a bunk along the wall, a gray wool blanket covering his legs. He turned his head at the sound of Travis’ entrance, his eyes glowing in the low light.

Travis walked across the small room. “Hey, buddy, we’ve been looking for you.”

Mike opened his mouth, but no sounds came out. He closed his mouth again and licked his chapped lips with a swollen tongue. Sweat dripped from his brow. He held his hand out, the fingers trembling.

Travis dropped to his knees and grasped his friend’s hand. The skin was papery and hot, the raging fever burning inside him.


Click Here To Go To The Next Chapter – Chapter 10!

The cover image is licensed under Creative Commons: 0.0 License from Qimono on Pixabay.

Books Read March 2018

Books Read March 2018

Welcome to the March edition of my reading recaps. Ten books read this month brings the year-to-date total to 28 books, a pace that will exceed the annual target of 100 books.

More importantly, this month’s list includes two new (to me) authors – one of which I will heartily recommend (not so much on the other).

Before we get there, a huge thank you to everyone following the Pestilence serial novel. Response to the eighth chapter posted last week was record breaking and I can’t thank you enough. Your support in reading and sharing the story is much appreciated.

Books Read March 2018

Full disclosure – the links in this post are all Amazon affiliate links. If you make a purchase through one of those links, I receive a small commission from Amazon.

J.T. Ellison – Based on the recommendation of a reader, I read the first of the Lt. Taylor Jackson series, All The Pretty Girls, and liked it so much that I also read the second in the series, 14. Lt. Jackson is a female lieutenant of homicide for the Nashville Metro Police. She is confident, intelligent, and her squad respects her. And she is tireless in her pursuit of criminals. As a special bonus for me, the various locations around Nashville come alive because I have been to so many of them (I spent summers growing up at my grandfather’s in Nashville). I heartily recommend Ellison to you if you enjoy good mysteries.

Shawn Grady – Unfortunately, my other new (to me) author just didn’t work. Through The Fire follows a troubled firefighter and his pursuit of an arsonist. When the bad guy is revealed, I admit to being confused as to the why and how, but I struggled more because the writing style kept disrupting me from the flow of the story. To be fair, the writer receives some solid reviews – particularly from readers of Christian literature – so take my experience with a grain of salt. Note that I notice his book – as of this writing – is available for free to download on Kindle, so feel free to give it a try as an introduction to his other novels.

Harlan Coben – A good example of differences in taste and style were the two Harlan Coben novels I read this month, Tell No One and Miracle Cure. I loved Tell No One and didn’t love Miracle Cure, so I am continuing my track record of liking half of Coben’s books. The protagonist of Tell No One, Dr. David Beck, struggles to understand the abduction and murder of his wife eight years earlier. A surprise discovery raises questions about the guilt of the man convicted for the crime – and everyone’s perception of what happened. The suspect pool is wide, including Dr. Beck himself. A quite worthwhile read.

Michael Connelly – Three books read this month – The Black Box, The Gods of Guilt, and The Burning Room. The Gods of Guilt focuses on Micky Haller (aka, The Lincoln Lawyer) and the other two follow my favorite detective, Harry Bosch. The mysteries are terrific, the characters are great, and the writing is fast paced. I admit to liking the Bosch books better than the Haller books, but they both appear in many novels together.

David Baldacci – Deliver Us From Evil follows two competing groups who become intertwined as they hunt down some of the most heinous people in the world, in this case an ex-Nazi who has moved on to human trafficking. Lots of intrigue and mystery.

Lisa Gardner – The 7th Month – Dee Dee Warren is a homicide detective for Boston PD. In her 7th month of pregnancy, she is trying to take it easy and has an opportunity to consult on a movie being filmed in Boston. Great plan until murder and intrigue invades the set. Lisa Gardner is one of my favorite writers of the dark, sinister world of serial killers, but I should note that this is a novella. I wanted several hundred pages more, but still lots of fun.

Coming up in April

Sitting beside my bed are books by Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, J.T. Ellison, Nevada Barr, Lisa Gardner, Clive Cussler, Chris Bohjalian, Ken Harmon and even Edger Allen Poe, so I look forward to sharing those books with you next month.

As always, what are you reading? I love getting ideas of books I should have on my list.


Today’s featured image includes a photo by Roman Kraft which has been used with permission from Unsplash

The book covers on the featured image are the copyright properties of the respective author / publishers and are used under Fair Use Provisions.

Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 08

Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods: Chapter 08

New chapters of the serial novel, Pestilence: Journey Through The Woods, will be posted each Thursday. Subscribe to have new chapters delivered to your mailbox.

If you are new to the story, I suggest starting at Chapter 1.


Cooper stumbled over a rock buried in the snow and fell to his knees. With a gloved hand, he brushed clear the crystallized frozen breath that clung to his eyebrows and hood wrapped around his head. He stared into the driving flakes, hoping to spot a painted blaze on a tree. Getting lost in these woods in this weather would be a fatal mistake.

Am I still on the trail? Or have I wandered off again?

Earlier in the morning, the light flurries had been non-threatening, but they had increased into a blinding snowstorm in just a few hours. They had unwittingly started their travels just as Mother Nature was unleashing another winter storm across the mountain ridges. Temperatures plummeted and stiff winds whistled through the trees.

Shivering, Cooper placed his gloved hands in the drifts in front of him and pushed with his numb fingers. His leg muscles protested and knees popped as he struggled to stand. Travis came up behind him, grabbed his backpack frame, and lifted him to his feet.

“You want me to take the lead for a while?”

Cooper shook his head, determined to find the trail shelter. An hour ago, they agreed to forgo reaching the ranger station in the storm. Setting up the tents in the relentless wind would be difficult, so they had focused on finding one of the many shelters built along the Appalachian Trail. In the summer, late arrivals often found the shelters overflowing with weary hikers, particularly on the many rainy evenings. No such crowd problem existed in early January, but the lack of visibility was frightening.

“I can make it. Just a little further.”

If I haven’t passed it. Can’t see more than a few feet. God help us if I don’t find it.

Cooper stepped forward and placed a hiking boot on yet another icy rock buried in the fluff. He slipped, struggled, found a footing, and lifted his other boot. Wary of falling again, he inched his way, step by step, down the trail.

Peering into the dim light, he spotted the familiar white rectangle signifying the Appalachian Trail painted several feet off the ground on a tree trunk. Relief swam through his body. Too exhausted to turn and talk, he drew Travis’ attention to the trail marker by reaching out and patting it as he continued down the trail.

The white blazes were designed for easy viewing in the lush green forests of summer, not during heavy snow. Trail maintenance crews would repaint many in the spring before the crowds of through-hikers descended. For now, the paint was faded and chipped. Sometimes, a blaze was painted on a rock, useless now buried under inches of snow.

The trail itself would be a foot-worn path of rock and dirt amongst green undergrowth in the summer. But the snow covered the trail the same as the forest floor, camouflaging it. Without a clear view of the painted markers or the visible wear of the trail, they could wander deep into the forest and freeze to death.

Wary of getting separated, Travis had taken a climbing rope and connected the three at their waists as the snow intensified. When Cooper turned, Travis was barely visible through the mist and snow, but the tugs on the rope signified that he was there.

Meagan was not even a shadow behind Travis. The last Cooper had seen her during an earlier break, she had only nodded wearily to questions, the snow clinging to her hat, face, and backpack.

Stumbling down the trail, Cooper saw an outline of something large. His hope grew that they had found the shelter, its roof a protector from the weather. But as the shadow took shape as a giant fallen tree blocking the trail, his spirit was crushed.

He stopped and waited for his partners to join him. Together, they studied the obstacle.

The tree had fallen uphill, left to right across the trail. The trunk of the tree was barely visible several feet in front of them through the thick branches. Looking up, the falling snow stinging his eyes, Cooper couldn’t make out the tips of the branches towering overhead. If they tried to climb straight through the branches, they would have to disconnect from each other. The backpacks would get snagged and make passage impossible. Cutting a path through the limbs could take hours and darkness would shroud them before they cleared the tree.

If not through, around. We can just walk around.

To the right, they would scramble up the hill over rocks and snow until they found the top of the tree, and then drop back down on the other side through the brush. The sprawling limbs would make the path wide and hazardous. Any obstacles, hidden in the maddening fog, would compound the danger.

The only remaining choice was to go left, around the root ball, wherever it might be. The trunk disappeared in the mist off the side of the trail, making it difficult to determine how wide the detour might need to be. The terrain sloped away meaning a scramble down the mountain to the roots and then a climb back up the top on the other side. But as they approached the bottom of the tree, the branches would be thicker and stronger, safer to grasp and steady their descent.

It might be twenty feet. It might be fifty. But somewhere to their left, the tree ended and they could walk around.

As long as other trees had not fallen across it. Or a jumble of boulders blocked the path.

Cooper, being the lightest, volunteered to go first. They untied the rope that kept them together on the trail and used it as a belay line to support him if he fell. Secured to Travis by the safety rope, the younger boy inched his way down the side of the tree. Hidden rocks tripped him up. Small trees and brush clogged the path. More than once, he tripped and fell, the safety rope growing taut and keeping him from sliding down the hill. He would stand, brush off, and continue working downhill until the base of the tree came into sight.

The tree’s massive root system stood vertical, a giant wall looming in the fog providing relief from the howling winds. They supported the trunk high in the air, allowing for an easy passage underneath before clambering back up the hill.

Cooper removed the rope, hollered up the hill, and Travis recoiled it. Meagan was next, still supported by Travis. Cooper ate an energy bar and rested, his back against the root ball that protected him from the wind. He stared into the fog, waiting to glimpse Meagan. When she materialized through the mist, he ran to her, and guided her to the makeshift shelter. She collapsed beside him, exhausted.

Cooper untied her and retied the line to his own waist. Unlike the other two, Travis would have no one above him controlling a safety line. If he fell and slid down the mountain, the smaller Cooper would have to stop him as he passed. Being well aware of the risk, Cooper braced himself against the tree.

Travis began his descent. As the rope slacked, Cooper would pull it around his waist and coil it beside him, keeping the length feeding to Travis as short as possible. His hands and face were numb. He fought the ice-caked rope as, inch by inch, Travis crept down the mountain. He slipped, stumbled, and slid, but never fell. As he stumbled into view, Cooper felt the stress seep from his tired shoulders.

Once at the bottom, they had to climb back up the hill on the other side of the tree. Cooper, the most rested now, would go first. He would then use the safety line to assist the others back up the trail.

After enjoying the windbreak provided by the rootball, the wind sliced through Cooper as he opted to crab going up, balanced on his hands and toes. With a wider stance, he had less chance of falling. The wind and cold nipped at his face, his nose growing numb. He would stop, flap his arms to accelerate the blood flow, and resume climbing once he could feel the ground under his fingers.

The risk was missing the trail. A scant foot wide, it was barely noticeable under the foot of snow that had piled up. If he climbed past it, he would have to descend again to find safety.

And if I can’t find it?

Each flat spot became a possibility. Crawling on hands and knees, Cooper would inch away from the tree to see if the flatness continued as the trail would, or if it would slope again. Disappointed time after time, he would return to the tree and continue climbing up the hill. His hands grew colder. Breathing became more difficult. The sky grew darker. The snow fell even harder.

Finding another flat spot, Cooper crawled away from the tree. Lots of rocks, but no hill. More flat. A tree to the side. A white blaze four feet up. Cooper hugged the tree and fought back tears. Once he regained composure, he shouted over the wind for Meagan and Travis to join him.

They scrambled up the hill, supported by the safety rope. Climbing on hands and knees was faster than the descent was by foot. Reassembled, they huddled together and shivered. A fierce blast of wind hit their faces and they ducked into their coat collars.

Cooper stared down the trail which disappeared in the blinding snow just a few feet away. “What if we have missed the shelter? I don’t know how much further I can go.”

Travis shrugged. “Then we set up tents, build a fire, and wait until morning. Right here. The tree blocks the wind. The branches give us fuel for the fire.”

Meagan nodded. “We’re cold. Tired. We could wander off the trail. I vote to stay right here.”

“Ok, Meagan and I will get the tents up. Coop, you get a fire going.”

Cooper stood and shook the snow off his coat. He clapped his hands together to get blood flowing. Spying a snow-covered log on the edge of the trail, he decided the trail itself would be a perfect fire pit. Normally a violation, but no one was out here to see.

He dropped to his knees and brushed snow away until he uncovered the rocky surface. Removing his gloves, he built a small pyramid of twigs with shivering hands. He lit a wooden match from his backpack, but the winds gusted and extinguished it. When he tried to retrieve a replacement match, he could not feel them with his numbed hands.

Frustrated, he sat back on his haunches, cupped his hands, and blew warm air across the fingers. Slowly, feeling returned so that he could separate a second match from his small bundle. Lighting it, he cupped his hand around the precious flame. He guided it to some stripped birch bark, the flame eagerly lapping the papery texture. He slid the birch under the pile of twigs and soon had a small fire going. The wind battled the infant fire, but he sheltered it with his body and fed larger and larger branches to it. Soon he had a blaze that could withstand the gusts.

With the fire established, he looked around for a boulder to serve as a kitchen prep area and cleared snow from it. Retrieving his backpack, he unpacked foils of freeze-dried food packages and a pot to cook them in. He added more wood to the fire and erected a small overhanging branch that would hold the cooking dinner. Snow was packed into the pot to melt over the fire for boiling water.

His body thawing, confidence grew. They would eat and go to sleep inside the tents quickly, but he was determined to make dinner as comfortable as possible. He turned to the log at the side of the trail and brushed snow off it. Squeezed together, two could sit on it, but he needed a third seat.

Just as he had resigned himself to standing and eating, he spied another snow-covered log just a few feet up the trail. It looked longer than the first log, maybe even 6-feet long. If it wasn’t frozen to the ground, he could clear it off, drag it over to the fire, and they would all have comfortable seating. He stumbled the few feet down the trail, dropped to his knees, and swept a layer of snow off of it.

The log wasn’t smooth. Snow was caked in dips and crevices. He used his fingers to dig away the powder, but was surprised to grab cloth.

A flag? A coat?

He lifted the frozen cloth, breaking bits of ice away from the surface. As darkness spread with the approaching evening, he struggled to make sense of what he was exhuming. His fingers wrapped around a new piece of fabric. A different texture. A different color. The ice clung stubbornly to it, so he grabbed it with both hands and pulled, revealing what lay buried underneath.

Travis was inside the tent, unrolling their sleeping bags, when the scream hit his ears. He scrambled outside and looked over to see Meagan doing the same. Scanning the campsite, they spotted Cooper sitting in the snow a few feet beyond the fire. He had his knees pulled up to his chest, rocking back and forth, wailing at the top of his lungs.

They raced over to him and dropped beside him. “Coop. What’s wrong?”

Cooper moaned, a pitiful and soulful sound. He unwrapped one arm from his legs and raised it, a shaking finger pointed at the mound in the snow. He opened his mouth, but only a groan escaped.

Travis followed the finger to the uncovered mass. He crawled forward, pulled back the cloth, and stared into Mr. Chapman’s frozen face.


Click Here To Go To The Next Chapter – Chapter 9!

The cover image is licensed under Creative Commons: 0.0 License from Qimono on Pixabay.