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 inched under the roof of the shelter with a bundle of firewood in his arms and stacked the logs on the growing pile. After the conversation with Andrea, he busied himself with the ax to create enough firewood to keep both fires burning through the night.
He stirred the embers in the fireplace and crafted a nest for three of the logs. Within minutes, he rebuilt the fire to a steady roar, its heat bouncing off of the shelter’s stone walls. The light from the flames illuminated both occupants of the shelter, but neither thanked nor acknowledged him. In fact, neither moved.
Mike slept on his back in the shadows of the lower bunk, his labored breath rattling in his lungs. The blanket lay crumpled at his waist, shoved off in a fit of fever. Sweat beaded across his bare chest and formed rivulets that dripped on the platform below. His trembling hands rested on his stomach, the fingers curled against the pain. Every few breaths, he moaned and tossed his head back and forth.
Travis sat on the dirt floor inches away from his ill friend. He curled tight into a sitting fetal position, his back against the stone wall, feet planted just in front of his butt, legs pulled up close to his chest, and knees under his chin. He wrapped his arms around his legs and clenched his hands together, finger knuckles white from the pressure. His head rested on his arms.
Unsure if Travis was awake or asleep, Cooper whispered, “How is he doing?”
Travis raised his head, his dark brown eyes dull in the shadows. He studied Mike for any signs of improvement but found none. “Not well.”
Travis turned his pleading eyes back to the younger boy. “You’ve seen others, you know, die from this. And you saw me recover. What was the difference? How did you know I was going to make it?”
Cooper hesitated, not sure how to treat Travis. They were friends because of Scouts, but not best friends or even Friends with a capital F. Not friends who had built a bond of trust over years.
Maybe friends was still too strong of a word. Travis was three years older, a chasm in teenage years. He was more of a role model, someone the younger boy admired and respected.
Cooper envied Travis’ mad soccer skills, watching him dribbling the ball back and forth with Mike during breaks in meetings. But when impromptu soccer matches broke out during campouts, Cooper couldn’t compete against the bigger and faster boys, so matched himself on the field against Scouts his own age.
During camping trips, he emulated Travis’ outdoor skills. He studied the knots and tried to tie them as taut. He worked hard to pitch a tent as tidy. Swinging an ax was a natural fit with his excess energy, so he learned quickly how to split wood and build campfires.
As a skinny, hyper thirteen-year-old, Cooper envied Travis’ easy physicality. The stamina for long hikes with a heavy backpack. The strength to conquer obstacles, scrambling over boulders or climbing rock walls. The smooth swimming strokes as he cut through a lake’s surface. As he endured his own gangly body, Cooper envied the muscularity that comes with the maturity of the older boy.
They had a friendly connection, but still a relationship of unequals. A mentor and student connection. A good-natured camaraderie, but not a partnership.
In the two years they knew each other and were Scouts together, this was the first time Travis had turned to Cooper for an answer. Not a test question to see if a skill had been learned, but an open question seeking Cooper’s knowledge.
Thus, it hurt that Cooper didn’t have an answer. When Travis was sick, he looked no different than Mr. Hamilton, Josh, Jake, or Will. Begging it not to be true, Cooper still believed Travis would die and leave him all alone in the woods. Cooper wasn’t just happy when Travis stepped out from that tent. He was stunned. His joyous reaction was as much from the surprise as the health of his patient.
And Mike? Mike looked just as Travis had, so maybe he would recover. But he also looked the same as all of their dead friends. So, maybe he wouldn’t.
He didn’t want to tell Travis that, not only because it signaled a dreadful harbinger for Mike but also because Travis might understand how close he came to death.
But he couldn’t bring himself to lie either even if the lie would bring a moment of comfort. Thus, the cold truth won out. “I can’t tell. I’m sorry.”
Travis nodded, reluctantly accepting the answer. He reached over and pulled the blanket to Mike’s shoulders. Mike promptly pushed it back down, groaning with the effort.
“Andrea isn’t a camper.”
Travis turned to Cooper, a puzzled look on his face.
“I mean, she’s camping in the woods now, but she wasn’t here before. She saw the sickness out there and came here to get away from it.”
Travis replied with a single word. “Oh.”
Once started, Cooper couldn’t stop. “She worked at a hospital. Saw how bad things were getting and decided she would be safer here.”
Hope filled Travis’ eyes. “She’s a doctor? A nurse? Can she help Mike?”
“No, a security guard.”
Just as quickly, hope drained from Travis’ eyes. He turned back to Mike and watched him breathe. “Was she sick? Did she recover?”
“The people she knew who were sick – does she know if anyone else recovered? Or did everyone else who got sick die?”
“She didn’t know of anyone, but she said she wouldn’t have known about patients that recovered. That would have been routine.” Cooper shook his head. “Routine. Her word. As if any of this is routine. Anyway, she said she wouldn’t have noticed. But she also couldn’t name anyone who had recovered.”
“Oh.” The single word again, but it spoke volumes. “I wonder why me. What makes me different?”
“Others probably recovered, Travis. The ones strong enough to fight it off.”
“Mike’s strong. He’s got to beat this.” Travis soaked a bandanna in water and squeezed drops onto Mike’s chapped lips. Mike rewarded the effort with choking before settling back into a rough sleep.
Sighing, Travis turned back and looked at the tents set up outside the shelter. “Y’all plan to sleep out there. In your tents.”
Cooper glumly nodded. “Sorry. It’s just, you know, none of us have been sick. We might catch it.”
“I understand, Coop. I really do. But remember something.”
“You didn’t catch it from me. Or Jake or Josh or Will. Or Mr. Hamilton or Mr. Chapman. You’ve been exposed tons, but you don’t have it.”
Cooper stood silently and watched Travis care for his friend before turning to return to the outdoor campfire.
“What’s it like out there? What did Andrea see?”
Cooper swallowed, thinking through all the stories Andrea told, and picked one. “Driving here, she said the interstate was mostly empty. Like weirdly empty. She rarely saw cars moving.”
Travis grimly nodded. “So lots of people sick and staying home.”
“Yeah, but worse than that. She said several times she came upon accidents. Cars had crashed and still blocked lanes. She had to drive into the median to get around them. People were still in the cars. Dead. One car was still smoking from an engine fire. No one cleared the wrecks. No one took the bodies. No one put out the fire. No one.”
Cooper watched Travis process the information and realize what it meant. No one was coming to rescue them. And, worse, no one might be out there when they got off the mountain.
Travis paled at the thought, but could only utter his single word before turning his attention back to Mike. “Oh.”