Sarah Kelley lugged her heavy backpack onto her shoulders. The damn thing weighed a ton. She stood for a moment to allow her body to adjust to the burden and to listen. Listening had become a vital survival skill. Of course, sight was important too, but sounds can travel around corners, over barriers, and up stairs. Her big brother, Scott, had been a marine sniper and he had taught her how to listen, look, hide, and live off the land. He had been her hero, but the cursed plague had taken his life just the same. In spite of the incessant sadness she felt at his passing, she would not give up. She owed it to Scott, to his memory. She was determined to survive and find a better life.
Of course, survival itself would be no mean feat. Since the awful plague broke out, any big city had become a jungle filled with unspeakable dangers. She had witnessed too many deaths to count.
Her hand brushed a useless light switch. She had reflexively continued to flip them long after the power had gone out. Old habits die hard. Candles were her only source of illumination now. Would things ever be the same again?
Sarah unbolted her apartment door and eased it open on carefully oiled hinges. Any telltale squeak could alert some vile predator lying in wait. Once again, she stopped to listen. No threatening sounds came to her ear. The opening hardly looked like a doorway anymore because she had piled a mass of debris outside to conceal the entrance to her apartment. Hidden behind a large crate, only a low opening remained, and she crawled through on her hands and knees. Anyone walking down the hall would have no idea that anyone was living in the seemingly abandoned building. She stifled a scream when a large rat scurried down the littered hall just a few feet from her face.
Her hand rested on the pistol that Scott had given her years before. Neither of them could have guessed that her marksmanship would become such a vital survival skill. She had two full magazines and a box of shells. They would have to last for as long as possible.
When she was convinced that no danger was lurking, she poked her head into the hall. Dusk had fallen and she planned to use the darkness to make her escape. Night presented its own set of dangers, but she would be very difficult to see. Her long auburn hair was tucked into a black stocking cap, and the fair skin on her hands was covered with black gloves. She had even daubed her face with black makeup. For all practical purposes, she was invisible.
Her crepe soled boots allowed her to move silently down the four flights of stairs. The building’s outer door had been scavenged months ago, so she would not have to risk making any noise opening it. One of the competing gangs had left their mark on the sidewalk outside.
A harsh male voice startled her. “Get your ass over here, bitch.” Sarah gripped her pistol until she was sure that the speaker was not talking to her. She peered into the inky darkness until she was able to make out the outline of a burly figure standing at the end of the block. In spite of the marginal lighting, Sarah had no difficulty recognizing Juan. He was the brutal warlord who ruled the neighborhood. His hapless woman stood at his side. Sarah had never heard her called anything but “bitch”.
Bitch quickly knelt at Juan’s feet and he gathered a mass of her dirty blonde hair into one of his hands. Sarah expected him to backhand his slave, but he did not. Instead, he unzipped his jeans and ordered Bitch to service him. Sarah turned away. Since the plague, scenes like this were too common an occurrence. The strong victimized the weak and most women were mere chattel. Sarah had peered out her apartment window and seen Juan molest Bitch many times. He thought nothing of making his woman parade around naked with her hands bound and a rope around her neck. He regularly took her doggy style or buggered her in full view. Sarah knew that if she stayed in the city much longer, her luck would run out and she would end up as some brute’s bitch too. The thought sickened her. The endless dark winter was over, and she could travel now to start a new life.
After a few interminable minutes, Sarah heard Juan release an animalistic grunt. “Lick it clean, bitch, or I’ll take my belt to your lard ass.” Sarah needed all her will to resist taking aim and putting a bullet into Juan’s head, but two realities restrained her. The first was that the sound of the pistol shot would announce her presence. The second was that killing Juan would not make things any better for Bitch. In fact, it might make them even worse. Bitch and Juan had an arrangement that served both of their needs. Without Juan’s protection, Bitch’s life would likely be more dreadful.
As soon as Juan and Bitch melted into the darkness, Sarah started moving. From time to time, screams split the silence. One particularly horrifying wail was accompanied by the unmistakable sound of a pack of dogs attacking their victim. She cringed. Every danger did not walk on two legs. A small pack of rats that were devouring a dead cat eyed her as she passed.
A little before dawn, Sarah reached the coast highway. For a moment her mind drifted to happier days when she and Scott would drive this route in her red Toyota on their way to a day of fun at the big amusement park. She brushed a tear away. Someday she would be happy again.
At sunrise, she took cover under a bridge and pulled a granola bar out of her backpack. It had come from a box that she scavenged from a sporting goods store last week. She had been amazed to find any unspoiled food, and it had taken all her self-control to not dig into the tasty treats in spite of the fact that she knew she would need them for her escape. Before the plague she had never been forced to deal with issues like this.
The cursed plague had changed everything. It had appeared almost two years ago. The Center for Disease Control and many other scientific agencies around the world had given their best effort to control the raging virus, but they had accomplished little more than name it as NK-271 and determine that it was spread by air from person to person. Within the first eleven months, an astounding ninety-nine percent of the human population was dead. All semblance of organized society melted away. The death toll had been even heavier in highly populated areas. The population of her city had shrunk from almost three million to about two thousand. Familiar faces disappeared without any explanation. Sarah’s roommate, Wendy, went out one day to scavenge for food, and she never returned.
At first the putrid smell of death had been awful. Sarah was amazed that anyone had survived, but nature’s cleaner-uppers, the rats and vultures, had stripped the rotting flesh from nearly every skeleton. They seemed to be immune to the disease. Spring brought sweet smelling air but a new challenge for the handful of survivors—hunger. Scavenging had been easy at first because without electricity, the first winter’s brutal cold had kept an amazing stock of the frozen food edible. Canned goods and dried foods had been plentiful for a much longer time, but that seemingly bottomless store was finally exhausted too.
The warlords quickly learned that food was power, and they hoarded as much as they could get their hands on. For the first time in anyone’s memory, a can of beans was more valuable than a bag of marijuana. Sarah’s apartment had been next to a huge supermarket which she had visited nearly every night until Juan’s thugs sealed it off. They had even found enough diesel fuel stored in above ground tanks to keep the store’s emergency generators working for weeks.
The ruthless gangsters were free to build bonfires to keep themselves and their vassals warm in the winter cold. Those who resisted were forced to freeze or submit. Her apartment vantage point had allowed her to see many free people give up everything in exchange for a little warmth. Fortunately, she had foreseen this problem and had gathered a large number of bricks of paraffin that she was able to burn in a small heater designed for camp use. The fire was tiny but it had been enough to keep her alive and free.
Sarah heard a noise that brought her back to the present. Someone was walking down the road above her and they were singing. Sarah crept to the edge of her shelter and waited. At first she could not make out the singer’s words, but in short order, she realized that the song made no sense. Many of those who had been lucky enough to survive the plague had then lost their minds under the strain of seeing their world destroyed. This poor soul was one of them. She doubted that he would be able to survive for much longer. The insane fall prey to many hazards.
By the time Sarah had hiked for thirty miles, she was exhausted. The country she had covered was blessedly unpopulated. She had originally planned to walk to the rural area west of the state border, but this territory was beginning to look inviting too. When she got to the place where the coast road crossed the freeway, she decided to find a place to stay for the night. Her eye fell on a small cottage that looked abandoned. A good part of its roof was missing, but the protection of its walls was what she wanted most and there was no rain in sight.
Sarah recalled the tactical exercises that Scott had taught her. She made a very stealthy approach toward a side of the house that had no window. Along the way, she picked up a dozen or so small stones. She took cover behind a tree that was about thirty feet from the building. Her arm was strong, so the first stone hit the wall with a loud crack that would rouse any inhabitant. Hearing no sound, she launched another stone. It drew no response either. Finally, she tossed the rest of the stones into the air so they would fall through the largest hole in the roof. They made a truly impressive clatter, but no one emerged.
Sarah drew her pistol and approached the front door. Her boot kicked it open. Without warning, something ran between her legs and she emitted a bloodcurdling scream. The mangy critter had been as frightened as her, and as soon as she could draw a normal breath, she laughed heartily just the way Scott would have if he had been able to see her foolish antic.
The cabin’s interior was exactly as she had expected it to be. Scavengers had carried away everything of value, and the stuff that remained was covered with a heavy coating of rain-speckled dust. Sarah studied the floor carefully for any footprints. The raccoon had tracked everywhere, but there were no human prints. She quickly inspected the bathroom. Of course, it had no supply of water. She would have killed for a warm shower, but that would have been too much to wish for. Juan had rigged up a rudimentary shower that he allowed some of the young women to use while he and his thugs watched. That was a price Sarah refused to pay.
Sarah cautiously opened the door to the only unexplored room. Amazingly, a bed stood in the small part of the building that was still covered by a roof. Sarah approached it warily. Its presence seemed too good to be true. Was she wrong? Was the building still in use? If it was, she did not want to deal with its inhabitant. She munched on a bag of trail mix until full darkness fell. No one returned, so she decided to bed down for the night.
She awoke a little after dawn, rested and ready to continue her journey. A few drops of precious water from her canteen dampened a wash cloth enough to allow her to wipe her face. She was well aware that her supply of water was severely limited, but she could not tolerate a grungy face. As she was patting her skin dry, she peered out a broken window and saw something on the horizon. Less than a mile away on the big lake was a large sailboat. The craft had certainly been some wealthy man’s yacht. But instead of being the customary gleaming white, this vessel had been painted a shiny black that gave it an ominous appearance.
Seeing any boat since the plague was unusual and Sarah felt very uneasy. The times were lawless so she wondered if the boat was crewed by pirates. If it was, they would find little resistance in these deserted parts. The boat continued making its way to the east, and she hoped that her presence had gone unnoticed. Thank goodness the freeway did not follow the coast too closely, she thought, as she decided to walk along it.
* * *
Sister Emily tapped softly on Pastor Parker’s bedroom door. “Father Parker, your broadcast will begin in twenty minutes. You need to wake up.” Emily had been the pastor’s housekeeper for eight years and had grown to be a surrogate daughter who had helped him through the devastating loss of his Lucy. The cursed plague had stolen his beloved wife from him, and he often wondered why God could not have taken him instead.
Parker loved to take a nap at this time of day, and he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes for a few seconds. “Thank you, sister. I’ll be up in a moment.” He listened as Emily’s slippered feet pattered away. She was such a good girl and so devoted. In fact, she was too devoted. She had refused three marriage proposals so she could continue to serve him. He was perceptive enough to see that she would eagerly accept a proposal from him in a heartbeat, but he would not make such an offer. The idea was scandalous. Emily had lived in the manse since she was a teenager, and he would surely be accused of taking advantage her if they were to wed. Anyway, he simply had no desire to marry the girl.
Wildwood needed its young women to marry and give birth to as many children as possible. The earth needed to be replenished, and she would have to do her part with a young man. He vowed to talk to her about choosing a mate soon. She needed to do her duty. Finding a willing young man would be no difficulty for an attractive girl like her.
Pastor Parker got to his feet and strode into his bathroom. He brushed his thick hair and beard for a moment. His colorful robe, wooden staff, and sandals made him look the part of the biblical patriarch that he tried so hard to portray. He was well aware that he possessed no supernatural powers, but most of his flock refused to believe that, especially since he had predicted the devastation. His message had been based on the frightening trends he had observed rather than any true prophetic vision, but that made no difference. Still, he was glad that he had been able to induce his followers to stockpile the huge supply of food and other materials that sustained them now. God does indeed work in mysterious ways and with unworthy people.
Several members of his flock greeted Pastor Parker and stepped aside deferentially as he made his way to the radio studio. Before the plague, he had addressed hundreds of thousands each week. Now only a handful of ingenious survivors had any access to electricity for his message. Still, he was determined to offer the gospel and an invitation to join the Wildwood community to any who could hear.
He took his seat behind the big golden microphone and began to speak. “Brothers and sisters, I address you in the name of the Lord God Almighty. This is God’s humble servant, Paul Parker, bringing you the word of God direct from Wildwood, the City of Refuge, located on his island sanctuary in the middle of Lake Erie. Our community is a safe haven from the devastation that has wracked our world.”
“I understand the hopelessness that many of you are suffering from, and I want to tell you that there is relief from your despair here at Wildwood. We offer food for the hungry, care for the sick, and friendship for the lonely. Please, come and cast your lot with ours. We are holding out our hands to you.”
Parker went on in this vein for nearly an hour. He closed the broadcast by giving detailed instructions on how his listeners could make their way to Wildwood and wishing them well. When he rose and walked into the refreshing air outside, David Walsh approached him. Brother Walsh was Parker’s chief disciple and his most ardent believer. The young man was powerfully built and projected a commanding presence. David saw his pastor as nothing less than a great prophet who spoke directly for God.
Parker was more than a little uncomfortable with Walsh’s adoration, but he knew that a man like him would be necessary to lead Wildwood in the future. No leader lives forever. A moment later, Parker and Walsh were joined by Adriana. She was Brother Walsh’s pretty wife of nearly two years. The disciple wrapped his arm around her slim waist and pulled her to his side. She ran her hands through her luxuriant chestnut curls and gave a radiant smile. Her expression grew impatient when Walsh dropped a hand and brazenly fondled her bottom.
“Two of our coast watchers reported seeing The Black Witch prowling off our north shore again,” Sister Walsh said.
“Well, well. I wonder what Captain Paulus is up to now,” Parker said. “David, make sure the night patrols are doubled.”
“It is already taken care of,” Brother Walsh said.