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 crawled from his tent as the eastern sky was hinting of the pending sunrise. Scattered clouds floated gently in the pink to the east while the brilliant moon settled over the ridges to the west.
Winter in the Great Smoky Mountains gyrated between brutal cold and spring-like warmth. Well-above freezing days followed blizzard-like conditions. Rarely did the weather remain frozen for more than a few days at a time. Overnight, temperatures had risen and breezes calmed, foretelling a day of melting snow.
Despite the improving weather and the beautiful sunrise, Cooper remained unsettled. Mike might not recover. Travis could go into a tailspin if he lost his best friend. Meagan had become listless. Andrea – freaking new-on-the-scene Andrea – had told tales of a world gone mad.
To keep his mind from picking at the bad thoughts, Cooper busied himself with camp chores. He stirred the embers left from the previous night’s campfire and tossed fresh logs on the hot coals. The added firewood ignited and soon a healthy fire roared with welcoming heat.
After hanging a coffee pot to brew, he marched to the shelter where Travis slept fitfully, still seated on the dirt floor and leaning against the stone wall. His normally shiny and straight dark hair hung in dirty clumps.
Cooper repeated his fire-building efforts, this time in the stone fireplace. The flames chased the shadows from the shelter, revealing Mike sprawled in the lower bunk. Each breath rasped through his lungs. The harsh rattling sound haunted Cooper’s fresh memories of their friends left dead. Would Mike soon join them? Would he recover?
Fearful of the contagion within the shelter, he escaped to the fresh air. Despite the ample woodpile that would feed the two fires for days, he opted to swing the ax to burn his nervous energy. His retrieved medication sat untouched in the bottom of his backpack. Telling no one, Cooper opted to avoid taking his meds until they were out of the woods. He liked the way his mind raced without it and figured the extra energy couldn’t hurt.
Awakened by the firewood chopping, Andrea emerged from her tent and poured a cup of coffee. She watched Cooper’s antics and smiled. The little group she had met in the woods was soft. All were comfortable camping and being outdoors, but she hadn’t seen any signs they were capable of dealing with a collapsing world.
But Cooper had a spark. He looked around for work that needed to be done and did it, like chopping firewood and preparing meals. He had cared for more sick people than any of them, watched his friends die, and still kept moving.
Travis sat motionless in a shelter watching his friend. The sadness overwhelmed him.
Meagan had fought her own battles alone early on, but once she found this group, she relaxed and let them lead.
But Cooper? Her stories last night hadn’t depressed him. The stories had pissed him off. He was mad at her for telling the tales and mad at the world for creating them. Anger gave him the ability to fight what was coming. Maybe the scrawny kid would end up being their salvation, if only he would step up to the plate.
“You’re a bouncing bunny in the morning, little dude.”
He paused and studied her, his icy gaze communicating his dislike for her. He gripped the ax in his hands, focused his rage on the log standing in front of him, and swung hard. The target split in a single, fierce stroke. “Just getting work done.”
She nodded her approval as she sipped her coffee. She eyed the shelter and the immobile Travis. Without asking, she knew the blaze in the fireplace was courtesy Cooper. “Travis and Mike ok?”
“Both asleep but alive.”
Andrea grunted in response to his clipped answer. Like bad guys she arrested as a cop, Cooper was mad at her for all the wrong reasons. They got arrested because they had broken the law. Cooper was mad because he didn’t like what the world had become. Andrea was just the messenger, but didn’t begrudge him his anger. She admired it, poked at it, and encouraged it.
Meagan slid out of her tent, stretched and yawned. Without checking on Travis and Mike or helping Cooper, she retrieved her own coffee and settled beside the fire. Several times, she turned to Andrea to say something, but held it back. Andrea waited for the inevitable.
Cooper paused mid-swing and stared at the ladies as Andrea responded, “So what?”
“Your stories last night. What are we supposed to do about them?”
Andrea shrugged. “Just the facts. Do with them what you want.”
Cooper propped the ax against a tree and joined them around the fire, sweat dripping down his face. Meagan watched him settle in before continuing, “Your plan is to hide in the woods, right?”
“I wouldn’t call it hide, but, yeah, I’m staying here in the mountains. Nothing left for me out there.”
“So what should we do?”
Andrea turned and met Meagan’s lost eyes. She understood their resistance to her tales. She wouldn’t have believed it without seeing things firsthand. In an even voice, she replied, “Whatever you and the Boy Scouts decide.”
Cooper interjected, his voice rising in anger. “Meaning you think we should all hide in the mountains. Don’t even try to go home.”
Andrea made a show of balancing her mug on a rock before answering. “Kid, I told you what I’m doing, staying here in the mountains. I can hunt and fish. Stay in shelters. That’s it. That works for me. But you do what you want.”
Cooper sat trembling, his face red and taut. He broke twigs into little pieces and tossed them one by one into the fire. “My parents are out there. My little sister. I gotta find ‘em.”
Andrea studied her fingers twisting against each other. She had never planned on other people being here in the dead of winter and would avoid them in normal times. But she liked the kid as quirky as he was. She didn’t want him to get hurt in the world happening outside these mountains.
“All I’m saying is that things are falling apart out there. The wrecks I saw tell me that firemen are overwhelmed. And I know there aren’t enough paramedics or nurses or doctors. So that means there aren’t enough cops and they can’t get to everything either. It’s gonna get dangerous. That’s all I’m saying.”
She picked up the mug and slurped the hot liquid. “Maybe your parents and sister are out there. Maybe they’re waiting for you to get home. I hope that’s true. But what I saw tells me it’s probably not true. They’re probably dead. Or dying.”
Cooper stood and glared at her. “Don’t say that. Take it back. Right now. Take it back!”
Andrea laughed, more coldly and cruelly than she meant. “Take it back? Kid, this ain’t grammar school. No take backs. I gave you the two possibilities.”
Cooper’s rage purpled his face. His body shook and his mouth opened, but only a groan escaped.
Not tough enough. Not yet. She needed to test him. “Come on, kid, what do you want to say? Tell me to go to hell? Come on, say it. The world you left ain’t out there so you better toughen up.”
Flustered, Cooper stormed off into the woods, his boots stomping in the melting snow. He reached out and snapped branches off trees, throwing them to the ground as he disappeared. Andrea sighed her disappointment he hadn’t fought back. He reminded her of green soldiers overseas, the kind who didn’t believe war was that bad. The kind who didn’t make it home.
Meagan shook her head disapprovingly. “He’s only 13, you know.”
Meagan sneered in contempt. “I don’t know. A touch of compassion?”
Andrea grabbed a log from the pile and tossed it roughly onto the fire. Sparks flew into the air as the embers absorbed the new fuel. “Compassion? You mean lie to him? Tell him everything is rosy? Snowflake, the world’s going to hell in a handbasket and I ain’t gonna coddle some snot-nose little kid. And it ain’t fair to him to feed him a bunch of BS anyway. He’s gonna have to man up and so are you, Sweet Cheeks.”
“Man up? Is that what you are doing? Running off to the woods to hide?”
“Look, Missy . . .”
“No, you look.” Cooper stormed back into the campfire area and planted his boots into the ground. “Here’s what we’ll do. We’re staying right here and taking care of Travis until Mike recovers or doesn’t. Whatever happens. And then we’re hiking out to the ranger’s station.”
He pointed a quivering finger at Andrea. “You can stay here in these woods and rot or you can go with us, I don’t care.”
He turned to stomp his way back to the shelter and Travis, but spun back only a few steps away. “Oh, and Andrea, if you don’t like it, you can go to hell.”
Andrea watched the boy’s back and muttered, “Atta boy, Coop, I knew you had it in you.”