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.
“How about Beef Stroganoff?” Cooper held food packets in his hands. Freeze-dried meals were lightweight for backpacking but could be quickly turned into a meal.
Travis’ face turned a light shade of green. “Coop. You remember how sick I have been, right?”
“Oops. Guess that would look like . . . Never mind.” Cooper returned to sorting freeze-dried meals for their hike out to the Big Creek Ranger Station. With exhaustion from five sleepless nights hitting him, he wanted to find something for dinner before the sun set. “Hey, how about vegetable soup? I’ve got plenty.”
Travis and Meagan picked through the backpacks around the camp and selected the most appropriate tools. Axe. Matches. Climbing rope. Carabiners. They prepared for as many unexpected events as possible, but wanted to avoid carrying too much weight and slowing themselves down. In good weather, the hike to Big Creek Ranger Station was a day with light equipment, but they wanted enough supplies to last several days in case the unpredictable winter weather turned.
Each person would take two days of clothes and a sleeping bag. Meagan would carry Mr. Chapman’s tent and Travis and Cooper would share Travis’. They would split other supplies. Satisfied with their choices, they distributed the equipment among the three backpacks. Cooper added the food and returned to the campfire to prepare dinner.
Meagan sniffed the aroma of soup cooking. Freeze-dried food only took a few minutes to cook, so dinner would be quick. “I’m worried about this trail. I’ve done it several times. On good clear days. Or maybe some rain. But never snow covered.”
Travis leaned back against a tree. “Boulders cover the trail. Easy to trip over them when you can see them. I don’t want to find them the hard way in the snow.”
“And lots of ice everywhere. Would be easy to slip over the side. Ever seen that?”
“Once. A few years ago but over in the Pisgah National Forest. We came around a bend and some guy was panicking. His wife had fallen over the edge and hit her head. We could get over the side with ropes and check on her. Rangers took a few hours to get her out. Without help coming . . .” He left the conclusion unsaid.
Cooper interrupted their conversation for dinner. They sat on rocks in front of the fire, sipping the steaming soup from their mugs. They discussed snippets of the plan for the next day, but conversation was muted otherwise.
Travis closed his eyes as the warm soup filled his tender stomach. Though still weak from the illness, his strength had grown throughout the day. He felt energy returning as his body absorbed nutrients. With a solid night of sleep, he would be ready to tackle the trail early the next morning.
They cleaned dinner dishes and sat around the campfire as the sun set, each quiet in their own thoughts. Travis smiled as Cooper’s head kept sinking against his chest, exhaustion overcoming him after five sleepless nights. “Coop. Go to bed. Long day tomorrow.”
Cooper stood, stretched, and stared at his tent. Even with the tent flaps closed, he could see Will’s lifeless body in his mind. “I can’t sleep in there.”
“No, Coop. Go sleep in Mike’s sleeping bag. It’s OK. I promise.”
Hesitant at first, Cooper stumbled across the campsite and into the tent. He was asleep within minutes.
With Cooper out of hearing range, Meagan turned to Travis. “How bad was it?”
He shrugged off the question. “I don’t remember any of it. You two know more about the sickness than I do. I know how bad I felt when I woke up.”
“It’s weird you are the only one who got over it.”
“Mike’s dad got over it, too.”
Meagan stared at his face in the orange glow of the fire. “You don’t know that. You only know he walked out of here still sick.”
Travis stood and added a log to the fire. He watched the flames lick at the bark before he responded. “I’ve thought about that. Since they didn’t make it back, maybe they holed up somewhere while Mike nursed his dad. Maybe Mr. Chapman didn’t make it. I don’t want to think it.”
“But you have to be ready for the possibility.”
“I know. Mike was right. He should have gone alone. Maybe his dad slowed him down.”
“Maybe. Or he was injured on the trail.”
Travis kicked at the drifts of snow, anger growing at being forced to face the possibilities. “I know nothing, OK? I don’t even remember anything since Wednesday. But we will find them tomorrow.”
Meagan walked over to Travis and draped her arm over his shoulder. She lifted his head with her hand and stared into his eyes. “I know. I get it. I’m scared, too. When I left my camp, I thought it was just food poisoning. My head’s been spinning ever since I walked in here and found you had been sick, too.”
Travis’ body went limp. “Me, too. I never even thought about it affecting others. Maybe it’s in the water here. Or something spread by sick animals.”
“Or, maybe, it’s just a flu virus.”
Meagan took Travis’ hand and guided him back to the rocks by the campfire. As they sat and stared into the flames, she shared her fears. “I’ve been thinking. Three out of the four of us got sick. Six out of your eight. Could’ve been two of our four or whatever, but that’s a 75% infection rate.”
Travis absorbed that for a moment and studied his hands. “Are you saying that maybe this is hitting everywhere? That 75% of everyone is getting sick?”
Meagan looked into the fire to avoid Travis’ eyes. “Not exactly. What if all four of my group had gotten sick?”
Travis shrugged. “Like you said, one plus or minus – hard to tell what it means.”
Meagan turned and grabbed Travis’ hands. “You don’t understand. If it had been all four of us, you would have never known.”
“So how many groups are out here where everyone got sick? And we don’t know it?”
“Some, maybe. I guess.”
“But, that’s the problem, Travis. Maybe the infection rate is 90 or 95 or even 99%. We only know about groups where it isn’t 100%.”
Travis pulled his hands away and turned toward the fire. “That’s crazy.”
“Do you know about the 1918 epidemic? The Spanish flu?”
“The worst pandemic in world history. One-third of all people in the world were infected and got sick.”
“That’s a lot less than 90%.”
“Yes, Travis, it is. But it says a high infection rate is possible. Think about how easy it is to catch a cold from someone, though colds don’t kill as many people as the Spanish flu did.”
He sat staring into the fire, his mind racing with what little he knew. “How many people died?”
“Depends on who you believe. Somewhere between 5 and 10% of the people who became infected.”
“But I’m the only one who has recovered.”
“That we know of, yes. But think of HIV. Before we discovered drugs that combated HIV, it was 100% fatal. That’s the first thing that scares me. It’s possible to have both a high infection rate and a high mortality rate.”
Travis paced around the fire, circle after circle. Stars speckled the sky as darkness grew. “That’s the first thing that scares you? What’s the second? What could be worse?”
Meagan walked over to Travis and grasped his hands in her own. She glanced over at the tent where Cooper slept and then turned back and looked into Travis’ eyes. “You’ve already been sick, right?”
“And you appear to be recovering.”
“If this is a virus, that means you built up immunity. Odds are, you can’t get sick again.”
Travis nodded. “Yeah. So?”
“So that’s the worst thing. Cooper and I haven’t been sick yet. What if we aren’t immune?”