Clinging to Hope as the World Falters
19: Death Comes Calling

Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg

“So what the hell happened out there? My guys showed up and found the place a mess, completely ransacked, with dead bodies all over.”

“Well, Ben, it was a mess. But just so you know, we took all the weapons and ammunition to insure no one else would have access to it, so if you can find whoever is in charge of the materiel, I’ll gladly hand it over.”

Sheriff Benjamin Adams laughed over the radio. “Right now there’s no existing government. The so-called Federal government is fighting for its very existence, the military is in open revolt against the Pentagon, and no one is paying anyone, so everyone is fleeing in droves. I doubt anyone will come to claim anything, and I certainly don’t want any of it. I have enough trouble with people wanting to challenge us, if we had that many weapons stored here we’d be fighting off people constantly. You’re better equipped to defend it than we are. You’re isolated, you’re hard to reach, and you can easily see anyone approaching. Plus, right now you’ve got a lot more people there than I have in my entire police force.”

“All right, we’ll hold onto them, but if anyone makes a claim, call me and I’ll bring them to you. Personally, I’m not looking forward to have any quasi-military outfit showing up on my doorstep demanding I turn over a large amount of guns and weapons.”

“OK, that makes sense. While I’m not anxious to be caught in the middle of something like that either, I don’t mind acting as an intermediary. Now, what exactly happened?”

“It looks like a band of survivalists were driving around, attacking every source of guns they could find. I don’t know how much they’d gotten. We stumbled across them as they were looting the armory, but we also found the local gun shop after they’d raided it. We have his stuff as well. You might have better luck contacting him.”

“Yeah, I’ve been afraid of the survivalists for a while. I figured they’d start acting out sooner or later, and of course, once they do, they’d come after any source of guns. Frankly, I was expecting them to attack us first. As for the owner of the gun shop, I’m sad to say he didn’t make it. We found him dead in his home. His whole family perished with him. So was there any sign of who they were? Were there any survivors, any prisoners, and did you get any information from them?”

“There weren’t any survivors. There were a bunch of them, six in fact, and I suspect one had some military background, but they weren’t well trained or organized, so I’m pretty sure the military guy didn’t have any actual combat experience. They knew enough to back each other up and to operate in an organized fashion, but they couldn’t seem to stick with any one plan of action, and their actions showed they had no idea what they were actually doing. If they’d thought to post a guard we’d never have been able to take them.”

“Yeah, I saw where they tried shooting their way out by launching rockets against reinforced walls at close range. No one with any actual combat experience would be stupid enough to try that. Any idea where they were from?”

“Well, the license plates were West Virginian, so it looks like they weren’t from far away, but I have no idea if they were local or not. For all I know, they may already have a bunch of weapons from other places stashed away and just waiting for some other group to find and use. They could also have others they’d left behind who may have other weapons. But no one seemed very talkative, so we have no clue. Frankly, when you’re defending yourself against people armed with both body armor and combat weaponry you don’t stop to discuss much. Basically we focused on head shots rather than risking they’d shoot us in the back if we didn’t.”

“Man, speaking of people with no combat experience, remind me never to piss you off.”

“Don’t worry, I don’t take to shooting anyone very easily. But I’ll be damned if I allow people to wantonly threaten or destroy my home, or any of my friends or family.”

“Well, since we no longer have access to our computers or any statewide or national records, we’ve got no way of tracing who they may have been. No one recognized them, so they weren’t locals, that much is sure. What’s more, I’m sure they aren’t the last who will try something like that, so personally, I’m glad you took the temptation away. The armory represented a giant magnet for anyone who has an ‘each man for himself’ mentality.”

“Yeah, that and liquor stores, I’m sure.”

“Well, most of the liquor stores have already been stripped. Most people just grab what they want, and then smash the other full bottles just for the fun of it, so hopefully there will be a shortage of drunkenness for a while. I’m sure someone will start their own stills, but right now there isn’t much alcohol to go around.”

“Well, I just wanted to check in, but I’ve got to check up on everyone. I figure I’ve got a couple of very traumatized teens at the moment. By the way, how’d our new guys work out?”

“You mean, Billy, Adrian and Frank? They were great. They came in and refused to shake hands or take their masks and gloves off. They set to work burying all the bodies we had on hand, then asked if there was anything more they could do. When we suggested they might want to go looking for bodies, they said they weren’t crazy about interacting with people. I replied they wouldn’t be likely to, and when I suggested they could use our trucks and we’d supply both the gas for the job and a refill for their car for payment, they agreed to do what they could. They’ve been gone for a while, so I assume they’ve been having some luck finding more bodies. I’m looking forward to speaking to them when they get back so I can get a more reliable death count than I’ve had recently.”

“OK, if you see them, tell them not to work too hard. But we’ll keep the food warm whenever they show up.”

After they finished, Erica was quick to speak up. “You know, I hate to say it, but thanks for taking everyone out of the house. Normally the same girls have been doing the broadcast every day and we’ve been letting them carry the load, but now that I’ve done it myself, I feel much more comfortable with it.”

“Well that’s good. I’ll have to discuss what you’ve learned today, as I’m sure it’s vital, but right now I need to talk to the girls about what we’ve been through.”

Erica agreed that had precedence and got back to operating the short wave radio, making notes of what she’d already learned during the day.

“Maggie, where are Alice and Amy?” David asked, after having searched the house for them. “I wanted to talk to them about what they experienced.”

“Good luck. You’re too late. They both took off for the firing range you set up. They grabbed a couple of the M4s we brought back with us, and plan to learn how to use them.”

“What? Those aren’t ours. We shouldn’t be using them like our toys.”

“Then you should have explained that to them. But I don’t think you have to worry, I’m sure the National Guard unit will be glad to get their supplies back, and they aren’t likely to question whether we had to use a couple in getting them back. Besides, the people we kept from stealing them used much more than we’re likely to.”

“Still, it’s the principle. I don’t want the girls to think we’re entitled to use whatever is in the house. We’re trying to preserve the rule of law here, and we can’t do that if we don’t respect the laws of ownership.”

“Again, you should have talked to the girls when we got here. But you can find them out at the target range.”

“Great, so they’re blowing the targets to shreds firing the guns at full auto?”

“Don’t be silly. Listen carefully. I realize your house is fairly well insulated, but do you hear any rapid fire shots?” Maggie asked. David took the time to do so, and noticed he didn’t. He could hear an occasional single shot, but that was about it.

“They’re more interested in being able to defend themselves. Amy felt ill-equipped to defend herself, especially using a shotgun when everyone else had M4s or pistols. She couldn’t really get close enough to anyone to defend herself.”

“OK, I can see that—even though in the close quarters of the armory the shotgun was probably a better weapon—but how are the girls themselves? I was afraid they’d be having a crisis about having killed someone, but instead they’re out practicing how to kill the next person more efficiently.”

“Again, you’ll have to discuss that with them. I suspect you’ll find that out tonight when they either crawl into your bed or not. But right now they’re more concerned with knowing how to defend themselves. They found themselves dangerously unprepared, even though they did an excellent job of it. You should really be proud of them. And now they’re trying to ensure they won’t be in a similar situation when and if it happens again.”

“Well, what about you? How are you holding up? You had to kill your first man today, and that’s got to have been a maj—”

“David, don’t worry about everyone else so much. I did what I needed to do when you were threatened. I realized that if I didn’t you could have been killed, so it was an easy decision for me. I’d do the same thing if we were attacked, and I hope everyone else here would do the same thing. Frankly, after the other girls hear about what happened, I’m sure everyone else will be out practicing, too. Even little Erica.”

“OK, as long as you think you’re doing OK. We’ll talk later, and if you have troubles at any point, feel fre—”

“David, stop worrying so much. If I need your help I know where to find you. Now go find those girls and help them learn how to fire those rifles properly. You’ll have to teach the rest of us later.”

Approaching the makeshift firing range he’d set up, David noticed Alice and Amy taking turns firing single shots at a distant target, taking time to carefully aim, check their sights, firing, then when both finished, examining the results and discussing what they needed to try next.

“Damn, firing this thing is tough with a cast on your arm,” Amy groused as David approached.

“Hey girls, I was wondering what you were up to.”

“Hey, Dad, after what we went through today we wanted to make sure we knew how to handle these things.”

“Yeah, we have no desire to be firing a short range shotgun when everyone else is equipped with automatic rifles,” Amy replied.

“How’s the arm, Alice?”

“It’s fine. It’s still sore, but Maggie did a good job taking care of it.”

“Just be careful. You’ve got to work and exercise it. The problem with gunshot wounds like that is that they tend to tighten and limit movement, making it difficult to use your arm.”

“Yeah, Maggie mentioned that. She gave me a couple of exercises to do during the day to try to keep it moving, yet not tear the stitches she put in.”

“Man, you’re so lucky,” Amy responded. “I’d love a gunfight scar. It’s a wordless testament to how tough you are. It’s like a tattoo that posers aren’t allowed to get.”

“Yeah, well don’t go standing in front of any bullets in order to get one. They’re a pain in the butt, and they’re best avoided,” David warned her.

“Speaking of which, I wanted to discuss what you’d been through. You both killed your first man today, and I was expecting to talk you through it, so I’m surprised to find you out here practicing for your next gun fight.”

“I’m sure it just hasn’t hit home yet, and I’m sure we’ll come looking for you when we’re unable to sleep tonight, but right now we’re both trying to work out our fear issues,” Alice carefully explained as she broke her gun down and began cleaning it. David was surprised she could do so without having had anyone show her the process or what to clean. He’d actually brought his gun with him so he could show them how he cleaned his own rifle, and instead it looked like he’d have to get a lesson on how to disassemble an M4 from them. “We were both terrified that we were outgunned, and that if we didn’t do something that you and Maggie would be killed. Thus we were damned if we did and damned if we didn’t. That’s not a good place to be.”

“Yeah, I guess I can see that. You do realize that these aren’t our guns, though, don’t you?”

“What do you mean?” Amy asked, looking at him quizzically as she, too, started to break her own gun apart.

“We only took these to keep them safe. Using them ourselves makes us no better than the people trying to steal them. They aren’t ours. They belong to the National Guard unit here.”

“And where were they?” Alice asked pointedly. “Why aren’t they out helping people? It seems to me that we’re doing the work of the National Guard around here.”

“As far as I’m concerned, there is no more National Guard,” Amy replied. “The national government is in disarray, there’s an open revolt against the government, the Army, Navy and Air Force are collapsing; just where do you think those National Guard members are at the moment, and who do you think is going to pay for the upkeep and protection of their equipment?”

“Still, we can’t just ‘claim’ ownership of something that isn’t ours. That’s theft, and we’re trying to preserve order. You can’t defend something when you undermine it at the same time. The idea is that we’ll hold on to these until someone shows up to claim them. When they do, we can ask them whether they represent a responsible national organization or not, and what claim they actually have on the weapons, but taking them for ourselves is just wrong.”

“That might very well be,” Alice replied, lifting the rifle barrel to see how clean it was, “but we risked our lives today trying to defend what they’ve abandoned. We came close to getting killed for it. If we’re to defend against others who are out stealing these types of weapons, we need to know how they work. I see this more as a defense and education effort. We’re not using them willy-nilly. We can return them if they want them, but while we have them we’ve got to be prepared to defend both them and us.”

“Look, I can see your point of view, and I’m not going to stop you from getting more familiar with the guns, but don’t get too attached to them. They aren’t ours, and we can’t lay claim to them. As soon as someone makes a claim on them we’ll have to turn them over.”

“They’ll have to pull them from my cold dead hands,” Amy replied in a low raspy imitation of Charlton Heston. Both girls broke out laughing.

“You should be careful what you say, because it may come back to bite you. There are more than a few people who would be willing to do just that. After all, I’m sure anyone connected to the people we killed today would be more than glad to do just that.”

“We know, Dad, that’s why we’re out here getting used to handling these things,” Alice answered in a cool voice.

“Well, besides these not being our guns, we also won’t be able to take a large collection of M4s everywhere we go. If you girls want, I can give you some spare handguns we just picked up. They might be easier to fire with your cast, Amy. Again, they aren’t ours, but the owner isn’t able to reclaim them at the moment. If someone tries, I’ll just pay them for what we felt it necessary to use. That way you’ll be better able to defend yourselves without looking like the very jackboots we’re trying to defend against.”

“What’s a ‘jackboot’?” Amy asked, looking up in confusion.

“Never mind, we’ll discuss it later. But basically it’s a reference to when the Nazi were taking up arms and making threatening gestures to everyone around them.”

“Got it, no grand parades downtown, no indoctrination camps, and no invading Poland,” Amy summarized.

“You kids are getting too smart for your own good. Anyway, I’m glad you’re handling this so well.”

“About the pistols,” Amy said, addressing the topic that David had suggested earlier, “I’d rather struggle with a more powerful gun than try to combat automatic weapon fire with only six bullets. It’s really not that tough. It’s just that the rifle shakes the cast, and I occasionally knock it against the gun.”

“Well, you’ll need to discuss that with Maggie. Just be sure you aren’t going to damage your arm by firing them.”

“I’ll ask her, but I don’t see much alternative right now. As long as people are out wandering the streets with guns, we’ll need to be prepared. And frankly, I don’t think anyone else is ready to learn how to handle these yet. I’ll be fine, but I’ll check with her anyway,” Amy assured him.

“By the way, where did you get the gun cleaning kits?”

“They were in the supplies we picked up. There were scopes, nettings, camouflage outfits, all kinds of stuff,” Alice said. “They even had the manual on how to clean them as well.”

“Look, one last thing, let’s try to keep this quiet, OK? I don’t want the other girls getting upset, and I don’t want everyone making a mad dash for these very dangerous weapons.”

“We won’t talk it up, but we’re not going to deny anything if they ask,” Alice told him flatly. “We’ve learned to trust each other, and we’re not about to start keeping secrets at this point.”

“Right,” Amy agreed. “I think the trust we’ve established with each other is more valuable than any short term gain you’re hoping to gain by hiding this information.”

“Well, just keep in mind that you need to be preparing for your broadcast. Since the other girls are gone, you’ll be on soon, and you can’t rely on the other girls to update you on what’s been happening since they aren’t here,” David reminded them.

“OK, we’ll be in soon. There are a couple of more things that we want to try first.”

“Yeah, like full auto,” Amy quipped as David started to walk away, carrying his plain gun cleaning kit with him. He groaned, but he’d been expecting it, so he couldn’t really complain too much.

“Hey, guys, I heard good things about your work today. How’d it go?” David asked, approaching the three guys who’d been helping the sheriff deal with the increasing amount of dead bodies.

“Hold on, David,” Adrian called out, holding up his hand to warn him away. “We’ve got trouble. Frank started running out of steam midday. We’d thought he was simply tired, so we let him sleep it off in the back seat, but he’s gotten much worse. He’s feverish, barely able to stand, and his face and body are now covered in the marks that he only had a few of this morning.”

Instead of stopping, David halted just long enough to pull on the gloves he always carried with him.

“Here, let me help. It looks like you’re having trouble handling him on your own.”

“Please, you’ve done enough for us. We’re already exposed, and we don’t want to risk compromising you any more than you’ve done by welcoming us.”

“Nonsense, I know how to protect myself. If it wasn’t for you, we’d have been the ones helping to bury bodies today. We can’t stop living and contributing just because of the threat of death. All you can do is limit the risk, but we’ve likely already been exposed simply by breathing airborne contaminants. If we’re going to get ill, we’ll get ill whether we help or not. But if we refuse to help, then other diseases will multiply and spread, normally easily controllable diseases like dysentery. But leaving infected bodies lying out would just spread the disease much more rapidly.”

David reached them midway through his little speech, and helped steady Frank and assisted the others in guiding him into the little camper they’d been staying in.

“Look, you really don’t need to do this. We’ve got it in hand, and—”

“Hey, quit protesting. I’m not about to leave anyone I’ve invited in alone when they get sick. Sure, I could let you two handle Frank, but then what would happen when the rest of you get sick? No, we can’t live our lives in abject fear of risk. You minimize it, but you don’t avoid it.”

By then they’d reached the camper, and David asked the obvious question while they were lifting Frank in through the doorway.

“Have you two considered how you’re going to deal with your own exposure? Staying in this poorly ventilated camper shell isn’t going to be terribly healthy.”

“Well, like you said, we can hardly ignore him. We were discussing it on the way back, after it was apparent he’d taken a turn for the worse,” Billy explained. “We really don’t want to expose the rest of you more than you already have, but we thought we’d start sleeping outside. Although we’ve got sleeping bags, we’re afraid of possible cross contamination. But since you’ve wrapped the mattresses in plastic we felt they’d be better protected against the elements, and we wouldn’t have to worry about what to do with them afterwards.”

“Well, the plastic wrap wasn’t to protect us from cooties,” David insisted as they lowered Frank into the bed. “I’d originally gotten them because most beds easily double in weight simply from the amount of dead skin cells, dust mites, and dust mite poop they accumulate. However, it’s also important when someone gets sick, so that if they soil themselves you can clean it up easily. It just makes sense.”

“That may be so, but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that most people suffering from this didn’t think to invest in them before this occurred,” Adrian pointed out.

“No, although these things are hardly expensive, they’re fairly hard to find. What’s more, no one really likes them on pillows, so those are even harder to find. If you find the pillows too hard to sleep on, don’t hesitate taking them off. If you do, we’ll just be sure to burn the pillows that have been exposed afterwards. After all, the important thing is helping everyone recover. The more people we can have survive this sickness, the better our chances of surviving it are overall.”

“That’s pretty brave talk, coming from a group that’s managed to avoid it so far,” Adrian remarked. “Do you think you’ll feel the same when it’s someone close to you that gets sick?”

“Frankly, I’m not so sure. Right now I’m trying to remain logical and practical, even though I feel like running and screaming. But if something threatened one of my girls or my daughter, I’m not sure I’d feel quite so principled.”

“Well, at least you’re honest,” Billy responded. “As for us, this brings it that much closer. I figure we’re not that far from what Frank’s going through right now. So at the moment, this ‘community works’ idea of yours is the best way to keep us from focusing on it.”

“You sure you don’t need to discuss it, thrash it out a little?” David asked.

“No, quite frankly I figure I’ll have plenty of time to consider it when I’m lying in bed, shivering like Frank is. With any luck I’ll be too incapacitated to think about it much, but while I’m able to do something to distract myself, I will, especially something that makes me feel like I’m making a difference with the remainder of my life.”

“Well, you three are certainly an inspiration for the rest of us. I’ll see about having the girls bring you a steady supply of liquids. You’ve got the hose already connected nearby, so if things get ... messy, you’ll be prepared. I’ll also try to stop by frequently, or at least have someone else stop by. Whatever we can do, just let us know.”

“We will, David, we will,” they both answered as Billy set about wiping Frank down and Adrian began dragging their sleeping supplies outside.

“Hey, the others should be home soon, and once they do things are going to get crazy. Frankly I’m amazed at how professional you’ve been. Instead of pestering Alice and Amy you’ve been working hard,” David told Erica, encouraging her as she continued to prepare for their broadcast.

“We told them to describe what happened later tonight, when we’ll have time to appreciate it, but right now it would just be a distraction,” Erica replied. “There’s a lot to go over. You should sit down; I need to brief you about it first, though.”

“OK, go ahead, I’ve already been dealing with bad news, what’s so important this time?” David asked, not bothering to sit down.

“I specifically asked the people at the hospital how long someone with symptoms is likely to last. They said that the lifespan of the illness, for lack of a better word, has been shortening. It used to take up to a week, but now it’s down to only a couple of days.”

“Is that from when they show symptoms, or from when they get sick?” David asked, alarmed for what this would mean for the boys.

“From the first symptoms, and what’s more, it seems the disease is mutating, getting more efficient as time passes. The death rate has skyrocketed. Very few people arriving in the hospital are surviving, so they’ve given up on cremating them and are simply piling them up outside.”

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