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.
“Four days?” Travis shook his head in disbelief. “How can I have slept for four whole days?”
“You didn’t sleep through it all. I can’t believe you don’t remember.” Cooper wrung his hands and shivered, unnerved at Travis’ memory loss. “When we were cooking dinner Wednesday night, you said you had a headache. Achy. Stuff like that.”
A vague memory floated through Travis’ mind. “I remember that much. And throwing up. After that, nothing.”
Cooper’s face crinkled in disgust. “Yeah, it was gross. And it got worse. Tossed your cookies at one end and explosive diarrhea out the other. You couldn’t stop. You curled up in the snow and begged for it to end. Sobbed.”
“I don’t remember any of that.”
“You had a crazy fever. The first time I grabbed you to keep you from falling, your skin was burning up like you might burst into flames. It felt like a piece of paper. Like I might poke a hole through it.” He studied his hands as if he was looking for blisters. “Nothing you said made any sense. Weird crap about monsters and aliens out to get you. Talking to people who weren’t here. Girls at school. Your soccer teammates. Asked for your mommy.”
Travis sat dumbfounded and watched Cooper stir the soup.
“You passed out. Breathed funny. Shivered. Mr. Hamilton told us to get you into your sleeping bag after we got you cleaned up. Your clothes . . .”
Travis whispered, “Wow.”
“Anyway, we got you in there. About 1 o’clock in the morning, you screamed. Some weird dream. You scrambled out of the tent and threw up again. Except there was nothing there, but you tried. Cried in pain. Begged it to stop. And that’s when others got sick.”
The boys were quiet for several minutes, listening to the wind rustle through the bare branches. A few birds flitted through the trees, but the woods were silent otherwise. Travis sipped his coffee before prodding Cooper further. “Did everyone get sick?”
“Everyone but Mike and me. I was so freaking out he would start vomiting. I couldn’t have done it by myself if he had gotten sick, too. Drug you guys back to your tents. Changed your clothes when you didn’t make it in time. Washing clothes. Fetching water. Made you drink water. If Mike hadn’t been here . . .” Cooper looked away, fighting back tears.
Travis scanned the surrounding woods for any sign of his best friend, but didn’t see him. “You had to make us drink water?”
Cooper kicked the snow-covered ground with his boot. Flecks of dark dirt sprinkled the white snow. “Mr. Chapman said you might die from dehydration. It was hard because you spit the water out or pushed it away. You kept screaming that it hurt to drink. I was so scared you weren’t getting enough. Thought you would die if I didn’t make you drink water.”
The spoon clanked against the metal side of the pot as Cooper swirled the soup. When he looked up, his bright blue eyes sparkled with moisture. “You freaked me out. I can’t believe you’re sitting here being normal now.”
As he sipped his coffee, Travis turned the story over in his mind. He couldn’t remember anything beyond the illness descending as he sat in front of the campfire Wednesday evening. The other days were a dark hole. “Coop, you did great. Thanks. I mean it. You did awesome.”
The boy’s head came up and he smiled. He stirred the pot again and sniffed the aroma. “Soup’s ready.” He dropped the ladle to the ground and scanned the circle of tents. “I need a bowl. Something.”
Travis couldn’t help but smile. He drained the last of the coffee and held out his mug. “Coop. Use this.”
Cooper stopped whirling and grabbed the cup. “Yeah. Of course. Makes sense.”
He picked up the dropped spoon, wiped it on his jeans, and ladled soup. Travis shook his head and graciously accepted the steaming mug, the extra dirt as seasoning.
Rocking on his feet, Cooper watched Travis take a sip. “Good, huh? Is it? Good?”
Slurping a second gulp of the hot soup, the older boy nodded. “Yeah, Cooper, it’s perfect.” He continued to drink the soup while watching his cook shifting his feet. “So, it’s Sunday?”
“Monday.” Cooper held up his hand and extended fingers one at a time as he counted the days. “You got sick Wednesday night. You slept all day Thursday and Friday and Saturday and Sunday. Unless you were crawling around out here in the snow throwing up and stuff.”
Travis looked around the quiet campsite at the snow drifts. “So the snow didn’t come early. This is the storm they predicted for Sunday night.”
Cooper motioned toward the pile of firewood. “That’s why I cut all that. To keep a fire going as the snow fell. Plus I was having to boil water to make you guys drink it. And I needed more hot water to wash those nasty clothes.”
Admiration grew for the young boy’s efforts. “You’ve been working hard, Coop.”
The boy bounced on his feet. “Yeah, me and Mike, er, Mike and me, whatever, we made a system. We took turns hauling water up from the creek so one of us stayed up here if one of you needed us. The creek froze last night and I couldn’t get any more and I didn’t think of the snow. We used this big pot to boil water for drinking and that other one for the clothes and Mike said not to ever, ever, ever mix them up. Which I knew of course. And we hung up clothes over here.”
Travis sipped his soup, amused as Cooper zipped around the campsite pointing out work stations. “Coop?”
Stopping in mid-sentence and mid-stride, the young boy looked across the campsite. “Yeah?”
“You need to take your meds.”
The color drained from his face as Cooper shook his head. “It’s ok, really, I don’t need them.”
“You said everyone but you and Mike got sick.”
Confused by the change in conversation, Cooper’s head shake morphed into a nod.
“Mr. Hamilton, too?”
“Is that why you haven’t gotten your meds? Cause he got sick?”
“So you haven’t taken them since Wednesday?”
A head shake no.
“You’ve been bouncing around since Thursday?”
Cooper shook his head vigorously. “No, it’s weird. Doesn’t work like that. The stuff I take is a stimulant which sounds weird giving a stimulant to someone hyper, but it helps me focus even though you would think it would make me bounce.” He took a deep breath. “So when I come off them I get sluggish first. And I get hyper again later. Weird, huh?”
“So you were dragging around Thursday?”
“Yeah. At first, I thought I was sick, too. Mike was kinda freaking though he was trying to act like he wasn’t. But I wasn’t tossing cookies and I didn’t have the squirts and I didn’t have a fever like you guys and I wasn’t . . .”
Travis stood and stretched. “Got it. No more details. It’s kinda nice not having any memory of it.” His body didn’t protest the coffee and soup and he was regaining strength. Not eating for five days explained why he was so weak. He ladled a second helping of soup into the mug while he watched Cooper dart around the campsite. “As soon as I finish this, I will go get your meds. Is that a deal?”
Cooper froze and stared. “I don’t wanna.”
“It’s ok. They will help.”
“No, I mean, Mr. Hamilton. You shouldn’t get them without him.”
“It’s no big deal. I will go into his tent and get them. Mr. Hamilton will understand.”
The younger boy raced over and stood trembling. “No. Really. Don’t go in there.”
“Why? Because he’s still sick?” Cooper stared at Travis, his eyes pleading. “Come on, Coop. You and Mike took care of all of us. I can handle Mr. Hamilton being sick.”
“You don’t understand. He ain’t sick no more.”
“Well, that’s good news. Makes it even easier to get your meds. It’s cool.”
The young boy’s voice rose and pleaded. “No, you don’t understand. You can’t go in there.”
Travis paused, the half empty mug held in the air, and studied Cooper’s face. “Why not, Coop?”
“Because he’s in there.”
Puzzled, Travis studied the closed tent. “He’s in his tent. In the middle of the day? And he’s not sick? What’s going on, Coop?”
The boy hung his head as tears flowed out of his eyes. Dread filled Travis as he dropped the mug in the snow. He turned and marched toward the closed tent, kicking up plumes of snow. “Mr. Hamilton? You in there? I’m coming in.”
Cooper ran beside him. “Please don’t go in there. Please. Don’t.”
Travis dropped to his knees in front of the tent. He stretched out his trembling hand and pulled the zipper up. The door flapped open in the breeze.
A pair of boots sat empty just inside the door, rolled hiking socks stuffed in the top. A shirt, jeans and a jacket lay atop a backpack on one side of the tent. A sleeping bag covered the other half.
Travis’ eyes adjusted from the sun-brightened snow to the gloominess inside the tent. The foot of the sleeping bag was closest to the door, outlining the feet and legs of its occupant. His eyes followed the outline of a body in the sleeping bag. Mr. Hamilton’s head lay exposed outside the sleeping bag. His thinning hair pointed in all directions. The skin on his face was pale and waxy. His cloudy eyes were open and staring into nothingness. His chest lay still, no rise and fall, no breath.
Cooper stood sobbing beside the open tent. “We tried so hard. Mike and me. Ran around taking care of everyone. Made sure they got water. We checked on him, I promise. As much as we could. Lots of times. But, then, we checked again and . . . He was dead.”