Seeding Hope Among the Ashes
Chapter 3: Passing the Torch

Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg

Opening the inner waiting room door, Debbie helped Wilber walk through. He exited the inner hallway slowly, shuffling his feet and fighting the temptation to clutch the wall.

Emanuel rose from his seat. “Holy Shi... , you’re back!”

Debbie flashed them a triumphant but weary grin. “Yeah, Wilber’s recovered enough to venture back into the land of the living.”

Nate, the only other person present, glanced behind them as Debbie pulled the door until it clicked shut with a resounding note of finality. “Uh, does that mean Betsy... ?”

Debbie shook her head, holding an unsteady Wilber. “No, it just means Wilber recovered quicker than she did. She’s still in a semi-catatonic state. It’s not unusual at this stage.”

Reassured, Nate stood too and looked Wilber over, sizing him up. “Well, I’m glad for that. Rufus was so nervous he said he couldn’t stand waiting with us. We’ve been taking turns waiting for word. You only caught the two of us because we haven’t gotten started on our other tasks yet.”

“How long do you think Betsy will be out of it?” Emanuel asked, looking for any sign of hope she’d recover as well.

“Actually, Wilber’s only here because his body pulled a quick one, doing something we’ve never seen before.”

Wilber smiled proudly, speaking for the first time with a cockeyed grin. “Yeah, I crapped everything out of me.”

“That’s exactly what he did,” Debbie explained. “David’s treatment works because it halts the body’s normal auto-immune response. Since no one has ever had any previous exposure to the Great Death, the body is slow to respond, allowing the plagues to spread until it’s reached the majority of the body. When the immune system finally wakes up, it attacks every organ in the body, causing so much damage it kills everything. However, Wilber’s body seemed to have figured out what was going on and his autoimmune system adapted. When it did, it physically expelled the infected cells the body’s normal immune response had already killed, allowing him to recover sooner.”

Wilber continued, smiling broadly at the image. “I shit like you wouldn’t believe. I hardly had anything left in me at the time, but I somehow found enough to shit, piss and vomit for about five minutes straight.”

“Sounds lovely,” Nate replied, wrinkling his nose. “So will Betsy encounter the same thing?”

“No, everyone responds like that over the course of the treatment,” Debbie elaborated, “but Wilber’s was a onetime thing where his body was physically rejecting anything it didn’t recognize. By expelling all the accumulated crap—pardon my choice of words—it gave his body an easier time dealing with the rest.”

“So we don’t know how Betsy will fare yet?” Emanuel asked, cocking his head to the side.

Debbie responded with a shrug. “No, this is the most difficult point for us. We try to keep reassuring and encouraging them, but they give no indication they’re still present. They’re mostly nonresponsive. Despite their fevers raging and their pulse pounding, essentially their body goes into hibernation. We don’t know whether they’ve suffered brain damage until they wake and we can evaluate them. So far, despite the high fevers, no one’s suffered any brain damage, so it’s entirely possible that the treatment offers protection from that as well.”

“We may have been out of it, but I was aware of nearly everything,” Wilber explained, finally describing what he’d suffered. “But, since I kept drifting in and out and didn’t possess the strength to respond, the whole thing had this weird dreamlike quality to it. I’d hear snippets of conversation, and because I wanted to survive so much, I grabbed onto those fragments of encouragement. That’s why Debbie and Natalie were so essential. They keep telling stories which forced us to pay attention, so we had to concentrate and work to remain alert. I wasn’t always sure what was happening, but I remember most of it.”

“That was the design.” Debbie flexed her knee, stifling a yawn. “The normal reaction is to assume they’re gone and ignore them until they finally pass away. It took us a long time to accept David’s continuing to sing to comatose victims the rest of us were sure were gone. But since he’d been through it, he knew what it’s like. That’s the whole point. The singing forces them to use the left hemisphere of the brain, which helps them to work at getting better, rather than simply responding to the pain. It’s like a crossroads, without the singing it’s a one-way path to death. With it, there’s a clear fork in the road, both trails lead to continued agony, but one leads to capitulation while the other diverts to eventual survival. If it wasn’t for David’s techniques, none of us would have survived.”

“So is it safe for us to be here with Wilber?” Nate looked like he was torn between backing out of the room and rushing to hug his friend. His body was waiting for his brain to tell him what to do, his legs and arms twitching, ready to either flee or celebrate.

“After he had time to recover, I scrubbed him down with an antibacterial scrub we’ve developed. It’s part antibacterial, which is hard to find now, and part diluted bleach, which is still readily available.” Debbie flashed them a reassuring smile, clutching Wilber’s arm reassuringly. “That should have killed everything, but we’re still not sure of how the entire process works. But he’s as clean as we can get him at this stage. He’s still running a slight fever, so you want to stay as far back as you are now, but as it lets up, you can treat him just like you do us.”

“She said I could finally take a shower. I’m dying to wash all the dead skin off of me.” Wilber stood a little straighter, as if the idea of accomplishing something gave him more energy. “The antiseptic gets rid of the dangerous stuff, but it leaves your skin raw and your hair greasy and filthy. I really want to soap up, let the water pour over me and shampoo my hair.”

“Is a shower safe?” Emanuel asked, glancing at Wilber doubtfully. “After all, you said the virus remains dangerous as long as it’s damp. If he washes his skin, wouldn’t that flush the infected cells into the water supply?”

“Well, as we’ve already said, it’s not safe relying on public waterways, so as long as you don’t bathe in a river or flush the water into the public sewers it should be OK. Just make sure you either have a decent septic system, where the water can leech into the ground, or dump the water into a pit where the water gets filtered before it reaches the water table and it’ll be fine.

Emanuel shook his head. “No, we rely on rainwater and we can find plenty of places to set up communal showers. It will be worth being careful where we pee so we don’t need to worry whether the water we’re drinking is compromised or not.”

“Well, wherever you take him, just keep your distance and don’t touch his towels,” Debbie reminded them.

“She tells me we need to keep about six to eight feet distance for now, and only two to three once I’m fully recovered,” Wilber assured them.

“If you can get him settled, I need to relieve Natalie.” Debbie indicated the room they’d just left Natalie and Betsy in with her thumb. “She’s exhausted and needs a break.”

“I must say, you don’t look much better than Wilber,” Nate reflected.

“Hell, I am doing better,” Wilber told them with a broad smile. “I’ve been sleeping for days. I’m weak and it was a fitful sleep, but I’m raring to go.”

“OK, you get back in there and watch over our friend Betsy,” Nate told her. “I’ll help Wilber get his first shower and Emanuel can let Rufus know what’s happening.”

“I’m sure he’d appreciate hearing the news,” Debbie said, trying to stifle another yawn.

“You should know, we haven’t just been sitting around since you disappeared three days ago,” Emanuel added before Debbie had a chance to disappear. She turned, fighting her own tiredness as she waited for him to finish, afraid to lean against the wall.

“You were right,” Nate said, forgetting about Wilber for the moment. “Apparently word got out something is going on. We’ve seen several new people. They’re shy, but two of them talked to Rufus. They wouldn’t come near, but when he described what you were doing they were definitely interested. They said they’d think about it, but we’ve noticed two others lurking about, watching us.”

“I’m guessing they’re waiting to determine how successful you are.” Emanuel waved out the window, indicating the various lost souls hiding outside, his enthusiasm palatable. “I have no idea how they spread the word when no one talks to anyone else, but these people are observers. They stay in the shadows and watch everything occurring around them, so I can see how they’d pick up on subtle clues we miss.”

“We’ve taken to leaving out cans of food, with notes to please leave the can opener if they want more,” Nate added. “We’ve also left your cell phones. These people are interested, as they take everything—except the can openers. So these are reasonable, thoughtful individuals interested in more than just taking whatever they can find. We can work with them—especially if they see we’re successful.”

“Anything else?” Debbie asked, as if this newest revelation was old news.

“You’re not impressed?” Emanuel emphasized his words by waving his hands in the air. “This is major. It means your plan is working and much faster than you’d thought. By healing two people, we’ve cemented our community and we stand to increase it substantially. We can have a working community soon. “We’ve been working to collect resources too. We’ve been collecting salvageable food as well as determining which areas were frequented for supplies, so we know where to look for new people. We’ve put up notices explaining what we’re doing. We’ve also visited several stores, houses and warehouses, collecting winter clothing, skiing and camping supplies. We’ve been breaking up any wood furniture we find, so we’ll have wood to burn if we need it, but we’re hoping to have enough electricity and oil to keep heaters going.”

Nate jumped in, continuing Emanuel’s tale. “We found a site on the outskirts of town which sold solar panels. We’ve grabbed quite a few which are still functional. They can’t supply a large building like this, but they can keep a couple of small houses powered. We’re going to hook a couple up here just to provide regular power and save the rest so we can set up different communities, each of which can form a locus collecting nearby loners.”

“You’re doing well,” Debbie told them. “I’m proud of you. You’re right, this is happening much faster than we’d planned, but that’s because you’re motivated, putting in extra effort and thinking ahead, planning what’s needed. You’ll do well. Let Wilber clean up and recover more, then let him wander around outside so people can observe him. Make sure you use a cane,” she suggested, smiling at Wilber. “But as I said, I’ve still got a lot to do, so I’ll see you in another few days. Good luck and we’ll talk about what you’ve accomplished and what our next moves are once we’ve gotten Betsy settled.”

“You’ve got it.” Emanuel started towards Wilber but stopped, motioning him forward instead. Old habits are hard to break. “And thanks. You have no idea what this means to us. This is the difference between helplessness and our eventual recovery.”

“Believe me,” Debbie replied, turning and opening the door, speaking over her shoulder, “I’m very familiar with what it means. Having been through the fear, witnessing multiple recoveries and seeing the world brighten around me, I am familiar with how important it is. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s still a life to save, and right now, Betsy is the most important thing in my world.”

Emanuel, Nate and Wilber watched her as she disappeared, firmly closing the door behind her. They each had a renewed sense of wonder and gratitude at what she was sacrificing for them, and each swore they wouldn’t let this opportunity go to waste.

Natalie gently sung the familiar stories to Betsy while Debbie cleaned up and prepared something to eat. For Betsy, that meant creating a thin broth they could dribble in her mouth to supply her body with enough energy to continue her fight. Although they’d both taken catnaps, it was difficult getting much actual sleep when you’re continually waiting for disaster to strike. Your fears keep you too alert to ignore the many imaginary noises.

“Chicken noodle or tomato?” Debbie asked, glancing over her shoulder weighing two soup cans in her hands.

“I don’t really care,” Natalie responded, taking her eyes off her patient long enough to glance up. “Fix what you want. I won’t eat until we can feed Betsy, and even then I won’t dare eat until you’re finished so we don’t risk burning her with hot soup if something happens.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve been through this before.” Debbie carried a small bowl of broth as she approached. “I know the procedure well enough.”

Moving aside to give her friend room, Natalie hummed her song not wanting to distract either of them. Debbie, taking a spoonful of the broth, carefully dribbled some into Betsy’s mouth, which Natalie held open for her. This, like so many things they did, required more than one person. Debbie wondered whether David would have succeeded with his treatments if Alice hadn’t recovered at the same time. She laughed to herself, realizing she’d discover when they moved on to their next destination and would have to do the same thing on their own.

Debbie began dribbling another spoonful into Betsy’s open mouth when the door opened behind them.

“Hello, I brought you—”

“What are you doing?” Natalie yelled, jumping up before she even realized who it was. “You can’t come in here!”

“Relax,” Wilber said. “I’m immune, remember.”

“Maybe, but you should be recovering, and every time you wander in and out, you spread—”

“Yeah, yeah, I decided the two of you needed some real food. I knew you were going to be eating some kind of canned crap and the two of you deserve better. If you continue treating yourselves so badly, you won’t be around when the next person needs you.”

Natalie was about to respond when she stopped and glanced at the food, her mouth already watering over the delicious smell wafting towards her. After four full days of nothing but lukewarm food, she was craving something more appetizing. Debbie, though, just smiled as she continued feeding Betsy. She thought the fact Betsy was accepting more than she usually did was a good sign. Even if she wasn’t consciously responding, the idea her reflexes were functioning showed she was recovering.

Giving up the fight, Natalie waved him in. “Close the door so we keep the contaminants to a minimum. What did you bring?”

Wilber kicked the door closed while balancing his tray in his hands. “You’ve got the dehumidifier going outside, so I’m pretty sure it’ll keep anything escaping from infecting anyone. Besides, no one else dares enter these inner rooms.” Turning, he set the tray on the cabinet and pulled the cover from one of the plates with a theatrical flair. “Ta-da! I spent hours on this, making sure it was perfect. It’s three-cheese macaroni-and-cheese with bacon, mashed potatoes and peas.”

“Ohh, we’re being treated to gastronomical delights of the rarest kind,” Natalie teased. “Where’d you get bacon, potatoes and peas?”

“Where else? Dried bacon bits and freeze-dried potatoes and peas from a camping supply store. The cheeses are from a cheese shop the others located, and were securely stored and wrapped.”

“Well, I’m not about to complain. Your culinary surprise might very well be our last taste of an American staple. I’d never dare eat a fresh potato, even if we could find any. Let’s finish up here and—”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” Debbie offered. “Betsy’s swallowing more than I expected. I’ll be finished soon.”

“You don’t have to offer twice,” Natalie replied, licking her lips. “Hot food with real vegetables definitely beats cold soup poured out of a can.”

“Hey, I warmed it the best I could,” Debbie argued, grinning, knowing it had been a half-hearted effort at best.

“A single recycled warming candle doesn’t do much.” Natalie took the fork Wilber offered and tasted the food. “Damn, you did an excellent job. I’d love to see what you could do with some real food.”

“Well, if you ever find any, tell me and I’ll fix you a wonderful meal. But given all we have is whatever hasn’t spoiled, I think I did pretty well. Hey, Debbie, you’d better get over here if you want to get some before the cheese solidifies.”

“I’m done,” she replied, standing up and dropping the spoon back in the cup. “If you could watch Betsy for us, I can take the time to eat. Just don’t touch her as I’d hate for you to have to scrub up again.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Wilber said, trading positions with her. “After my shower, I rubbed myself with skin cream so my skin isn’t as dry and irritated. And I don’t mind helping out. After all, that’s why I’m here.”

“I thought you were supposed to be recovering and making appearances?” Debbie commented as she put aside the empty broth cup and picked up the second spoon.

“Man, I can’t believe how good plain potatoes taste after I’d given up on ever eating them again,” Natalie told her as she helped herself to a forkful of potatoes, noodles and peas.

“I showered, relaxed and then went for a stroll outside. I couldn’t see anyone, but Nate told me they saw a couple people observing us. I guess they’ve gotten better at noticing people than we were before. After a substantial nap, I ventured back outside, then came in and looked for something to do. Then I had the clever idea of paying back a little of what I owe you. I gather you two haven’t been keeping track of how long you’ve been locked up in here.”

Natalie turned as he was speaking, still chewing and preparing to say something when she noted Wilber’s expression. She elbowed Debbie, who glanced up, distracted from the hot food. When she looked at her, Natalie motioned at Wilber. Turning while trying to swallow one last bite, Debbie noticed him too.

He was staring at Debbie, without expecting her to turn around. He wore a sad stricken puppy dog look, his eyes appearing extra-large and forlorn. Debbie glanced back at Natalie, who gave her a knowing smile as she popped a stray pea into her mouth.

“No, we’ve been a bit ... distracted,” Debbie answered, giving Wilber a sidelong glance, hoping to catch him watching her when he didn’t realize he was being observed. No matter who was speaking, or what was said, Wilber was watching her, tracking her every movement as if the entire world revolved around her.

Shaking her head and not knowing how to respond, Debbie turned and grabbed more food. Natalie, who’d been watching the entire exchange, leaned in close.

“Looks like someone’s in love,” she teased.

“But why me? I’m just a kid and I’m leaving in another few days.”

“You were the one watching him while I covered Betsy. It’s just like how we feel about David. There’s a natural feeling of attraction to someone who saves your life.”

“Do you mind if I check her temperature?” Wilber asked, self-conscious about the two girls whispering while he stood by with nothing to do.

“Grab some gloves from the cabinet,” Natalie said, pointing out their location with her fork.

“Don’t forget the wine.” Wilber crossed the room, extracted a pair of gloves, and put them on. “Rufus found a stash someone hid away. The others wanted to toast you when you came out, but I told them you’d probably appreciate it more now.”

“How’s Rufus doing?” Debbie asked, hoping to get Wilber thinking about something other than her. “I got the impression he’s a little anxious about Betsy.”

“Rufus has always had a thing for Betsy. The two of them hit it off right away, but of course no one would ever risk doing anything about it. He’s been watching out for her ever since they first ran across each other a couple weeks ago. He and I almost came to blows when he objected to how I was looking at her.” Wilber appeared unable to catch the parallel to how he was responding to Debbie. He walked back to Betsy, glancing at Debbie with big puppy-dog eyes while feeling Betsy’s forehead with the back of his hand.

“We’ve got an electric thermometer you can use,” Natalie suggested, pointing it out while Debbie opened the bottle of wine.

“You know, we should really keep this as a future antiseptic,” she said as she popped the cork and poured two glasses.

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