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 stormed into the shelter interrupting Travis’ fitful sleep. “Andrea is so irritating telling us about how the world has changed and everyone’s dead and there’s no hope. We’ve begged her to stop, but she is relentless. She makes me so mad.”
The younger boy continued ranting for several minutes. The sight of him gesturing with his hands and stomping his feet would have made Travis laugh on better days. Still, it managed to buoy his spirits a little and he even returned a little teasing. “So you’re saying she’s good girlfriend material?”
“Girlfriend? Are you nuts? Have you heard a word I said?” He stretched out his arm and pointed at her sitting by the campfire, spittle flying from his lips in frustration as he couldn’t even manage a complete sentence. “That woman. She. I can’t believe. She. Argh!” Cooper flopped down on one of the wooden benches, crossed his arms, and exhaled. “I can’t stand her.”
“Well? Do something about it.”
“I did. I told her to go to hell.”
Travis smiled and shook his head. “Cooper Gatley, I didn’t know you had it in you.”
The boy hung his head and kicked at the dirt with his foot. “Well, she made me mad.”
With the smile lingering on his face, Travis leaned back against the stone wall and closed his eyes. “She helped Mike, so she can’t be all bad.”
With the winter storm fading into yesterday’s memory, the sounds of the day were softer. The winds gently rustled branches overhead. A few birds fluttered their wings as they ventured through the forest. The fire crackled and logs settled on the embers. Cooper’s feet swooshed across the dirt floor as he swung his legs.
His ears, however, focused on Mike’s breathing, ragged and struggling. Each shallow intake rasped through the thickness of his lungs. His chest struggled to rise, fighting against an unseen pressure but gasping for more oxygen.
Once filled, his lungs slowly pushed the air back out, a low wheezing sound of air escaping. The wind whistled through his throat as saliva bubbled on his chapped lips.
Then, a pause. A long, quiet, uneasy pause. Travis often raised his head to stare at his friend, wondering if he would fight through another breath or if that had been the last. The silence would extend.
Just as Travis lost hope, another breath raked through the congestion as his body fought to absorb a lung of precious air.
Every few minutes, the rhythm was broken as a coughing fit erupted, a battle against the mucus choking his throat. Mike would roll his head head to his side and expel thick phlegm, often mixed with bright red blood during the most violent coughs. Travis used an old t-shirt to swab his mouth and remove the worst of the thick substance.
Overnight, Mike’s breathing had become more shallow, his bouts of coughs increased in frequency and severity, and the pause between breaths lengthened.
Mike’s skin was fiery hot to the touch as the debilitating fever ravaged his body. His skin was papery dry and pale, lips chapped and cracked. His jaw hung loose, exposing the swollen tongue. Travis surrendered the battle to keep the blanket over his friend.
Despite the burning internal heat, little sweat appeared on his skin as his dehydration deepened. Travis used a wet cloth to wring a few drops of water into his friend’s parched mouth, but even that scant moisture would send Mike into a painful coughing fit. They were surrounded with deep snow, a nearly endless supply of fresh water, but lacked a way to get the liquid into Mike’s body.
Deep in the previous night, around 3 a.m., Mike startled Travis awake with a nearly incomprehensible babble. He was sitting up in the bunk ripping the little clothing off his body. He screamed about demons, fire and death – an unfathomable tale that sounded biblical. Old Testament fire and damnation. Or maybe it was medieval with fire breathing dragons.
None of it made any sense, but Travis held his friend and talked soothingly until he finally relaxed. Through it all, Mike never recognized nor acknowledged his presence. He didn’t even realize he was camping.
Since that outburst, Mike had not spoken a single word. He slept nearly motionless, the breath rattling in and out of his lungs.
Travis maintained the slimmest sliver of hope his friend would recover, but he found himself more and more begging that the end would be gentle. Just don’t let him choke in a coughing fit, or scream about more demons. Anything but the demons.
Exhausted, Travis relaxed against the rock wall and focused on the sound of his friend’s breathing. In. Out. In. Out. Travis drifted to sleep while listening to the pattern.
A mumble interrupted Travis’ slumber. Mike attempted to speak, staring off into the woods.
Travis rose to his knees and spotted Cooper out of the corner of his eyes, bug-eyed and staring at the shadows of the bunk. He ignored the younger boy and leaned over his friend, “Mike? I’m here.”
Mike’s face was red, but dry, bloodshot eyes open wide, nose draining a river of mucus. His chapped lips moved slowly, attempting to form words. His arms reached into the air, attempting to grasp some unseen object. Travis grabbed his friend’s hands and continued to softly call Mike’s name.
With the touch, Mike’s eyes fluttered and shifted, staring at something past Travis’ head, something unseen. He squeezed Travis’ hand with his bony fingers and tried again to speak. Travis leaned closer, “Mike? It’s ok. I got you.”
Mike’s eyes tried to focus and failed, but his lips moved again, a hissing air coming out. Travis leaned until his ear was almost touching.
And then he heard it. A single word. Uttered over and over.
“Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama. Mama.”
As the mantra faded, Mike’s hands relaxed their grip and his arms fell to his sides. His speech efforts stopped, the lips halted in mid-syllable. No more breath rattled through his lungs. His eyes remained open, focused on something the living could not see.
Silence and loneliness descended over the heartbroken Travis. He slumped against the wall and stared at his immobile friend until the vision blurred from the tears filling his eyes. He had never felt so alone.