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?”
“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?”
“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.”