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.
“Don’t you dare hug me.”
Cooper stopped three feet away, his outstretched arms drifting down to his sides. “Sorry, dude, I’m just so happy to see you’re alive. And standing up. And breathing. And not throwing up. And moving around. And . . .”
Travis held up his hands in surrender. “OK, I get it. Really. I just need coffee to wake up first. Please.”
Cooper’s face lit up with a smile as he raced back across the snow to the pot hanging over the roaring fire. “Coffee? Oh, yeah, sure, dude, I got coffee. It’s right here. A fresh pot. Just brewed it myself. Well, of course, myself, but . . .”
“You drank the first pot all by yourself, didn’t you?”
Cooper stopped bouncing through the snow. He cocked his head as a puzzled look spread across his face. “Yeah, dude, how did you know?”
Travis smiled and shrugged. “Just a wild guess.”
Dismissing the question, Cooper spun in the snow until he spotted an empty mug sitting on a rock. He filled the cup with the steaming hot, black liquid. He raced back to Travis, half of the coffee splashing out of the cup and onto the white snow below. “Here, dude. Just made it. Fresh, you know. Hope you like it. I am so glad you are up. I can’t believe it. You were so sick.”
Travis sipped the hot liquid and felt it slide down his throat. His stomach rumbled a protest, but accepted the coffee.
“Hey, dude, do you want me to fix you some breakfast? Yeah, breakfast, that’s just what you need. I bet you’re hungry after all of that mess. Probably starving. I can make some scrambled eggs . . .”
Gripping the hot mug in one hand, Travis waved the other in protest and shook his head. “Eggs?”
The younger boy shrugged his shoulder. “Well, freeze dried eggs. They aren’t real eggs. I mean I couldn’t carry them in my pack. That would make a mess.”
Travis smiled weakly. “No, Coop, I get that they’re freeze dried. I meant the thought of eggs makes my stomach churn.”
“Oh, yeah, I didn’t think of that.” Cooper looked downtrodden, and then smiled again. “Hey, wait, I know, I have chicken noodle soup. Really. Well, it’s freeze dried, too, but it’s soup, and soup is basically water anyway and it’s chicken noodle, and that should be good. And, you know, good for you and all. At least that’s what my mom says. How about that, huh, dude?”
Travis smiled. “Yeah, actually, chicken noodle soup would be perfect.”
Cooper bounced in the snow and took off running. He tripped over a tree root, went sprawling, stood up, shook the snow off, and ran again. He flipped open the top of a backpack leaning against a tree and began rummaging through its contents, spilling foil packages of freeze-dried goods onto the ground. Dropping to his knees, he studied the labels until he found the object of his search, holding it high over his head in triumph. “Got it. I knew I had it, dude. I just knew it. See. Chicken noodle soup.”
With his prize in hand, Cooper raced back to the fire. Picking up an empty pot, he looked around the campsite, frustration growing on his face. “Water, I need some water,” he mumbled.
Bemused, Travis couldn’t help but grin. “Uh, Cooper, snow. All around us.”
Cooper laughed and bounced. “Oh, yeah, dude, sorry, wasn’t thinking. Snow. Of course.”
The young boy scooped up a pot full of snow and then stuffed additional handfuls until the pan overflowed. Satisfied, he hung it from a hook over the fire. Watching the snow melt, Cooper bounced from foot to foot.
Travis shook his head at the antics. “Uh, Cooper, have you taken your meds today?”
“Uh, no, why?” Cooper looked down at his shuffling face and grinned. “Oh, I’m acting hyper, huh, dude?”
“Yeah, just a wee bit. And if you call me dude one more time, I am going to have to kick your skinny little ass, right?”
Cooper nodded meekly. “Yeah, sure, du . . . I mean, Travis, sure.”
“Why haven’t you taken your meds?”
“Because Mr. Hamilton has them and I don’t want to go in there.” The boy’s face paled as he pointed toward the Scoutmaster’s tent. Troop rules required that all medications were controlled by the adults, ensuring that no pharmaceuticals were abused, but also that required medications were taken timely.
“I understand. We will take care of that as soon as he is back.” Travis looked at Cooper who had a horrified look on his face. “Look, I really appreciate everything. I just don’t want you to get hurt running around, right?”
Cooper hung his head and meekly nodded. Travis was afraid that he had hurt Cooper’s feelings. “Don’t get me wrong, Coop, you’ve done great. The coffee is perfect. The soup is going to be awesome. And look at all of this firewood. Did you cut all that?”
Cooper nodded as he stirred the powdered soup into the melting snow in the pot.
Travis waved his arm around. “It’s good we have firewood because we may not be able to break camp today, but that will be enough wood for a week of campers. That’s a lot of work for one morning, isn’t it?”
Cooper’s eyes widened and he shook his head. “I didn’t do all of that this morning.”
Puzzled, Travis stared at the mountain of firewood. “Was that already here? I don’t remember it.”
“No, I mean, I cut it all, but not this morning.”
“No, I’ve been cutting wood for four days.”
Travis sat down heavily on an exposed log. Four days? He looked around and studied the campsite. Five tents – 1 for each pair of boys and 1 for each of the two adult leaders – sat deep in the snow, drifts up their sides. Only light traces of snow spotted the ground when they had arrived. The sky had been filled with stars, no snow threatening.
So maybe he had been sick longer than he thought. But four days? How was that possible? And where was everyone else?
Branches creaked and groaned in the wind, but otherwise only silence echoed through the woods. Trembling, he asked, “What do you mean four days? Have we been here four days?”
“Du . . . I mean, Travis, you’ve been asleep for four days.”