Seeding Hope Among the Ashes
07: Between a Pig and a Poke
Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg
“Homebase, this is First daughter, come in. Over.”
There was no response, so Alice shrugged at Mattie and repeated her broadcast. As the radio remained silent, she prepared to try again when it crackled in response.
“Homebase here. There’s no need to repeat yourself. After all, there’s not a lot of chatter on the line, it just takes us a while to reach the equipment.”
“Dad? It’s terrific hearing your voice again.” Alice’s voice brightened and a smile crept across her face. “It’s been a long few days.”
“I gathered. So how did things turn out? You’ve been incommunicado for some time. Whenever that happens I imagine the worst.”
“Well, it didn’t exactly go well. We lost one, but we managed to save the second. I was forced to treat someone I didn’t think would survive, which almost threatened the entire effort. You should broadcast what happened here as a warning to others about the risks of treating the sickest rather than the healthiest. If this was an inoculation it would be one thing, but for a treatment this brutal, treating someone with only so much time just doesn’t make sense.”
David’s sigh was obvious even over the static in the line. “I can relate. Losing someone after working that hard is devastating. It must have been tough.”
“She almost lost it,” Mattie added. “She ripped Liz’s chest open!”
“Actually, Dad, can you get Tom. I’ve got information he’s going to love. What Mattie says is true. It was the oddest thing. I was working on Liz when her abdomen opened up. But I got our first direct autopsy photos. I’m sure Tom can examine them to identify what happens to plague victims. With any luck, he can come up with improved treatments for the plagues. At least something we could use to delay their deaths long enough for your plasma treatment to work.”
“Sorry, but Tom is out on another supply run. But how is he supposed to examine a video autopsy, and how do you know enough to conduct one?”
“I don’t, and that’s the whole point. He can’t conduct one and the rest of us don’t know how to perform them. But I took detailed photos of as much as I could see so he can examine what occurs. Since I can’t send the photos, you have to ask Ayana to pick them up from Thomas when she brings their plasma resupply. I took samples of the blood, blood vessels and tissue. They’re storing it in a refrigerated cooler for her, but she’d better make this stop a priority. If we each perform these impromptu autopsies, they won’t be pretty, but hopefully we’ll learn more about how the plagues work.”
“That sounds great. I’m sure he’ll be excited.” David paused and silence descended on the line for a few moments. “So, I hate to ask something so personal, but did you or Mattie ... get involved with anyone?”
“Ew!” Mattie yelled from the passenger seat, pulling her knees up and scrunching up her face.
Alice laughed. “You mean more involved than holding someone as they shit, piss and vomit all over you, while you’re singing and cleaning them the whole time. You can’t get more personal than that. But no, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Thomas was definitely interested. He wouldn’t shut up about how much he loved us, but I emphatically told him no. Not so much because I wasn’t tempted, but because he was too weak. If we’d done anything, he’d be dead! He’s too fragile and I’d be too eager and athletic.”
“Well, that’s good to know on a number of fronts. But just so you know, I’m not overly concerned with whether you do or not. I realize there’s a natural inclination for incredibly close relationships to develop, so I’m not about judge. Despite refusing people repeatedly, I couldn’t get out of it myself, and I don’t regret a moment I spent with any of them.”
“Yeah, we know,” Mattie reminded him. “We were there and heard every word.”
“Hey, if you didn’t want to hear the details, there was absolutely no reason to listen in,” David argued.
“It was more of a political statement,” Mattie explained. “Given what we’d been through, it was important that you stopped treating us as kids. Alice made a very convincing argument.”
David laughed, having long known Alice was the initial instigator. “Well, I’m glad to hear from you both after so long. So now you’re separating; going in different directions, huh?”
“Yeah, things only get harder from here on out,” Alice replied. “Both for us and for you.”
“The hardest part is not being there to support you. I feel helpless, waiting days before anyone bothers to inform me of what’s happening.”
“Yeah, sorry about the radio silence. As you can tell, we aren’t getting the best reception. Being this low doesn’t help with transmissions.”
“Next time, tie a wire to a rock and toss it into atree or string it along the side of a building. That’ll improve your reception, even if only marginally. But it’s OK, just expect me to give you grief after making me wait so long,” David teased before they started describing the details of what each had been through lately.
“The idea of Alice conducting autopsies in the field must have Tom salivating.” Franklin was accompanying David on one of his periodic clean-up details. Since he was the only one capable of safely handling the dead, he took it upon himself to search the undergrowth on the ranch for the harder to find plague victims which might contaminate the soil or other animals. Franklin and Regina had limited the range of their flocks, so increasing their pasture area was a valuable benefit.
“He’s still not back yet, but I’m sure he’ll be intrigued.” David reached under a bush, extracting another emaciated bird carcass, which he dropped into his bag. “There’s a lot he can learn from these impromptu autopsies, especially if she and the other girls manage to conduct more of them in the field.”
“Well, Alice isn’t one to shy away from trying things on her own,” Franklin commented, remembering the bright but headstrong young woman. “After all, she takes after her old man.”
“I like to think so, but she’s also a bright and highly motivated woman in her own right.” David laughed at imaginary thoughts. “She’s currently wrestling with her own demons, though, just like the other girls.”
“How so?” Franklin prompted, intrigued by what the girls were up to.
“They’re discovering that saving someone isn’t a simple onetime thing. It creates a permanent attachment which can never be broken. It’s similar to giving birth, for both parties.”
Franklin laughed at the idea as well. “As I said; like father, like daughter.”
“She fended off the latest, who promised to follow her to the ends of the earth. But it’s hard beating back such utter devotion.”
“You don’t have to tell me.” Franklin glanced at David with an admiring look David still found unnerving, though he’d grown to expect them. “The issue might even be bigger. You realize, as we rebuild society, our old political boundaries and ideals will no longer have the same meaning. No one will remember Washington, Lincoln or even Julius Caesar. Instead they’ll celebrate those who are now reshaping civilization.”
“Yeah, and... ?” David asked, not liking where this was leading.
“The survivors will redraw state boarders based on different survivor groups, and they’ll rename cities. I expect you and each of the girls will soon have to deal with cities, monuments and memorials being named after you.”
David waved the thought aside, moving on to the next bush and digging around the underbrush. “That’s the last thing any of us need. We’re normal people struggling to survive. We were just lucky enough to make it when others didn’t.”
“Don’t be so shy, you did much more than that. Even before you recovered, you were doing things no one else could and giving people across the country directions, instructions, guidelines and objectives. That says a lot about you as both an individual and as a leader.”
David extracted an emaciated rat carcass, dangling it by its tail as he stood up. “Look, don’t you even think about writing a biography about what a ‘great leader’ I am. In time, people more deserving than I will step forward.”
Franklin smiled, glancing in the other direction as if distracted. “Do you realize what they’ve taken to calling this region, what used to be known as Fowler’s Crossing?”
“I’m not sure I want to know,” David groused, dropping the rat in his bag before scrounging through the underbrush once again.
“Everyone calls it ‘David’s Crossing’, at least those who don’t simply call it either home or ‘David’s place’. No one has the slightest clue who Fowler was. The only thing they know is we’re each here because of you. If it weren’t for you, we’d all be crouching in terror, afraid of approaching anyone else. You’ve changed lives, David, you’ve—”
“Ack! Get away!” Wendy’s scream resounded over the fields. David brought both her and her brother Adam with him, leaving them to help Regina with the chores.
Both men turned, looking back towards the house.
“Damn it, Jacob. Leave her alone!” Regina’s angry response sparked the two men into action.
David headed for the screams immediately, while Franklin took a moment to respond. It was a rule everyone recognized that you don’t fuck with David’s people. He was fiercely loyal and would do anything to protect those close to him. It was no surprise he’d rush to their defense. The fact the kids were the youngest survivors—aside from Mattie—and he hadn’t saved their sister and friends, added gravity to David’s resolve.
Realizing that running with a bag of animal carcasses wasn’t a brilliant idea; David flung it to the side. Franklin noted where it fell, as they’d need to collect it before it contaminated anything else. David though, was focused on the kids and wasn’t hampered by such distractions.
“Get back, you filthy brute!” Adam yelled, the emotions making his already high voice even shriller.
Not knowing the danger they faced, David ran as fast as he could. He’d known keeping Jacob was problematic for some time. When they’d first rescued him he’d been cute, adorable and represented a future source of survival. But what no one understood was his small size resulted more from malnourishment than age, and as he’d recovered he’d grown quickly. What’s more, since nobody knew much about farm livestock, they hadn’t realized why farmers don’t keep ungelded boars around long. The damn things grew huge, and their aggression matched their surging hormones.
Approaching the pigpen from the side, David didn’t hesitate. Though he never recovered his weight after his illness, he vaulted over the wooden fence, landing behind the group vainly trying to wrangle Jacob from his assault on little Wendy.
She’d been backed against Jacob’s shed, and with nowhere to go, he was shoving her roughly around with his snout. Jacob snorted like an angry bull and stamping his hooves dangerously close to Wendy’s legs. The defiant blonde 11-year-old tried to fend him off, but it had no effect on the massive animal. Adam tried valiantly to protect his sister by shoving the huge boar aside, but his actions didn’t even register with Jacob. Regina, learning more about livestock since taking over the ranch, prodded Jacob with a long pole, causing him to occasionally ignore Wendy to snap at the pole. Melissa Eisemann, looking elfin compared to Jacob’s massive size, was ineffectually trying to drag him away from Wendy by his hindquarters—asking to be kicked in the gut for the effort.
David ran across the pen, yelling over the disorganization. “Damn it, I told you to watch that pig. His hormones make him meaner than a snake!”
Wendy glanced up, still fending off Jacob’s snout with both hands, dodging his small but sharp tusks. “Help!” she pleaded, not looking relieved at David’s presence yet.
Regina gave Jacob one last poke before turning her head to shout at David. “We were. We were outside the fence. But when I dropped my bucket, Wendy crawled under the fence to get it.”
Reaching the scene, David shoved Melissa aside, grasped Regina’s pole and twisted it from her hands before turning on Jacob himself. Adam had enough sense to jump clear, not wanting to be caught between two behemoths: Jacob, a massive animal of powerful muscles and flashing teeth, and the no less frightening David, a thin man with a commanding nature no one ever questioned in an emergency.
“JACOB!” David bellowed.
The pig swiveled on David. Finding a more formidable opponent, he rushed forward, his raw aggression blinding him to who he was attacking. Rather than shying away, David stood his ground and smashed his open hand hard against the animal’s snout, producing a surprisingly loud crack. The combination blow and noise surprised and stunned Jacob, but it was too late to stop his rush and David was thrown backwards against the shed. He landed with a sharp crack as he slammed against the crudely constructed wooden structure. Jacob stepped back. He too, like everyone else, idolized David and the two of them had always gotten along well, so being struck by David rattled him. He took a couple steps backward.
“Get out of here,” David ordered Regina and the kids, shaking his head to clear his vision. They wasted no time doing so. Jacob, still panting hard, didn’t seem to notice. However, when Melissa moved away, Jacob’s head swiveled as the flash of her crimson skirt caught his attention. With little warning, he charged after the heavyset woman while she screeched and scrambled backwards.
Her screams, rather than frightening the boar, encouraged him and he barreled straight at her. David, realizing what was happening, jumped up, rushing after both.
Jacob caught Melissa at the far end of his pen, slamming her against the rails and breaking the fencing plank behind her. She screamed, clutching at her side as she collapsed, grunting heavily at the force of the impact. David, incensed, kicked Jacob in the ass, and when he turned, slapped him across the face. Again, the large boar seemed surprised David would turn on him, not quite connecting his responses to the others with David’s displeasure.
“Franklin, Greg, get her out of here,” David hissed, staring Jacob down. Surprisingly, the pig seemed cowed by David’s glare and didn’t make any protests.
Melissa struggled to her feet, clutching her thigh. “I’m OK. His baby tusks gored me, but other than that I’m fine.” She moved away, but her leg seemed to disagree with her prognosis.
“Bad Jacob,” David lectured as he led the full-sized boar back to his shelter. “I’m very disappointed in you!” Jacob lowered his head, as if ashamed at this dressing down. “Someone get some wipes and a medical kit. Cuts are dangerous around here, and you should all be checked to make sure you haven’t been injured worse than you think.”
“You know, I know you still think of Jacob as Alice’s little pet piglet, but I think we need to find a few cattle prods just for situations like this,” Regina suggested. But no one specifically responded.
The pen, which had been a wild melee of people and animals before was suddenly a peaceful but disturbed mud pit with divots, clots and small shards of clothing. Everyone had crawled free of the enclosure.
David spun to see what was wrong, not releasing his hold on Jacob. In response, Regina pointed down at his hand. Lifting it, he noted the plastic glove he used to carry the plague carcasses was tinged with red, blood pooling at the fingers. He also noted his sleeve sticking to his arm.
David shrugged. “I must have scraped myself when I fell. I’m not concerned. We can clean and tape it up easily enough.”
“No, look again,” Regina warned, pointing below his hand.
Glancing down, David’s eyes cane to rest on Jacob’s downturned face. He saw something which sent a shiver down his spine. Kneeling, still not releasing the animal, he looked Jacob in the eyes. Thinking he was forgiven, Jacob tried to lick David’s face, but David blocked him with his forearm while holding Jacob’s head back. Running down his face were a couple tracks of fresh blood along with a spotted red hand print.
“Crap!” David groaned, trying to wipe the blood from Jacob’s face with his sleeve. “Quick, get me something to clean this up with. If it stays, he’ll be infected.”
“The kids are already on their way,” Franklin assured him. “At least you wore gloves.”
“Damn it, the gloves don’t matter.” David continued wiping the blood away, though all he did was smear it around. “It’s my blood. The plagues are transmitted via fluid contact. The blood provides a direct infection route. I may have just killed our last chance at a dependable source of food in the future.”
“What is it, Melissa?” David responded crossly.
“Your concern about your blood on Jacob made me examine my wound again. Aside from my own, Jacob smeared blood on me as well. I don’t know if it’s mine, his or yours.”
“Crap! Could this get any worse?”
“Here’s the wipes,” Wendy yelled as she ducked under the fence, no longer intimidated by Jacob.
“I’ve got a bottle of bleach and another of antiseptic,” her brother Adam added, not as willing to enter Jacob’s pen.
David motioned Wendy forward. When she handed him the antiseptic wipes, he yanked out sheets to wipe Jacob’s face. He indicated for Adam to toss his load, which he did, throwing them to his sister. Jacob looked on, no longer upset by strangers and activity in his pen. David wasn’t sure, but he had a feeling the pig understood the risk of blood and exposure, having witnessed his farm mates dying after being exposed. In fact, if his sense of smell was anywhere near as good as Lassie’s, he probably knew better than David himself.
Wendy handed him the bottle of antiseptic, but he instead grabbed for the bleach, pouring it directly on the bloodstains on Jacobs face, legs and chest. Jacob reacted, pulling his head away, but David held him steady as he continued cleaning him up. Since they treated urine and sweat stains frequently, the bleach was watered down to manageable levels, but it still irritated Jacob’s sensitive nose.
Meanwhile Wendy ran the antiseptic to Melissa, who ripped her skirt off and began swapping her wound. It took several minutes of vigorous rubbing with a towel Wendy had brought to wipe it all off, but finally David sat back. “I did what I could. We’ll have to wait and see. But unless Oscar is already pregnant, we may have kissed one of our biggest hopes for survival goodbye.”
“Do you think the bleach will stop it?” Adam asked.
David shook his head, getting Jacob to lie down by patting the ground next to him. When he was smaller, Alice spent time teaching him how to be social, before he grew overly aggressive. “Maybe if we’d applied it right away, but after this long, I doubt it. The plagues are spread by direct contact, and exposure to blood is the fastest and most effective transfer mechanism we know. That’s what infected Peter and Nina. Just a few stray splatters of blood, and they both died because we couldn’t treat them soon enough.”
Melissa glanced up, her hand stopping its insistent scrubbing. “Does that mean... ?”
David shrugged sadly. “Yes, it means we need to treat you. If we wait to see if you’re infected, it may be too late. As I said, blood transfer is quite direct. If we don’t start treatment right away, your hopes of survival drop sharply.”
“What about Jacob?” Adam asked.
“Forget Jacob,” his sister hissed. “We’re talking about someone’s life here. Jacob’s just a damn pig.”
“But if he dies, we may not be able to feed everyone in the future.” Adam glanced around to determine whether everyone else thought his concerns were justified. Their silence answered him.
“There’s always the llamas and the buffalo,” Franklin suggested.
“That’s our hope,” David suggested, “but they aren’t as domesticated. We can’t lock them in small pens during the winter, and if they can’t find sufficient food they may starve. Either way, we’ll have to see how they fare before we can consider them sufficient.”
David turned to the others, scattered along the pen’s wooden fence poles. “We’re on the horns of a dilemma, folks. I should focus on Melissa, as it will take my full attention to guide her through the treatment. However, by ignoring Jacob, we’re guaranteeing he’ll die, possibly infecting the pen and Oscar too, potentially robbing humankind of its last large domesticated food source. We may find another immune breeding boar somewhere, but that’s a tremendous gamble to make when we’re talking about everyone’s survival.”
“You want to treat Jacob?” Franklin asked, stunned by the concept.
“Would that even work?” Seeing Jacob lying calm under David’s reassuring hands, Regina sat on the wooden fence surrounding Jacob’s pen, dangling her legs over the edge. Everyone kept their distance from Melissa, even though she had little chance of being any more contagious this soon. “Will your treatment work on a pig, or would his body reject another species’ blood?”
David sighed, glancing between Jacob and Melissa. “I wish Tom was here, he’d have a better idea of what’s involved.”
“Actually, the process is called xenograft; it refers to switching any body part between species.” Franklin reacted when everyone turned to regard him. “Hey, when we took over the ranch, I read up on animal care. I figured without Monique, I’d need to treat any animals that get sick.” He too climbed up on the fence to more comfortably discuss the situation, which he figured would get involved. “Pigs have sixteen separate blood types, but since your plasma is free of antibodies, it should be fine. What’s more, pigs are ideal for transplants because they’re one of our closest species. That’s why they’re used to test new drugs. The fact their organs are similarly sized to humans’ is an extra benefit.”
“So, barring any surprises, I could treat both.”
“You could, if you can manage it,” Greg pointed out. “Can you monitor Melissa and Jacob at the same time, without taking any breaks for four to five days?”
“What about the other people you’ve treated recently, couldn’t they help?” Regina asked.
“No, Melissa is already infected. By the time we reached Jeff and Jessica, who are now running their own treatment center in Harrisonburg, they couldn’t reach here in time. What’s more, the new girl I treated has been training with Ayana, so she’s unavailable too. I’m the only one available. The others can keep stockpiling plasma while I’m busy, but that’s about all.”
“Wait, am I going to be treated here in this pigpen, or does Jacob get a bed in the trailer beside me?” Melissa lowered her skirt and got up, too nervous to stand still. “Can we even fit Jacob on a bed? Would it even support his weight?”
“Not to mention, what’s the likelihood of getting gored while he’s sick?” Greg asked. “What’s more, if he doesn’t make it, how are you going to get his carcass out while you’re single-handedly treating Melissa?”
David shook his head, focusing on Jacob as he scratched his belly. Jacob seemed content, making little squeaking sounds just like when he was a wee piglet. “I haven’t decided whether I’ll even consider it yet. It would be incredibly risky for both of them. I’m not concerned about myself.”
“You may not be, but the rest of us are,” Regina argued. “If you get killed or injured, there’s nobody left to treat us when we get sick.”
Greg rubbed his chin before changing tactics. “Taking the contrary position, if Melissa ... didn’t survive, it would be sad, but it wouldn’t change the future of mankind. However, if pigs become extinct because we didn’t even try to rescue Jacob, we could all starve if the winters get so bad we can’t grow food.”
“Thanks a lot for the reassuring words,” Melissa teased, making a face at Greg’s response.
“You’d sacrifice Melissa to save a damn pig?” Wendy demanded.
“Watch the language, young lady,” David cautioned.
“Screw that!” Wendy planted her hands on her hips and stared at David through the fencing. “We’re talking about whether Melissa lives or dies. I mean, I like bacon too, but if it comes down to him or us, I’d choose one of us.”
David stopped rubbing Jacob as he answered Wendy, glancing at Melissa. “Don’t worry, it’s not him or Melissa. I’ll definitely treat her, I’m just considering whether I can treat Jacob, too.”
“Well, if it makes any difference, it’s already too late to eat him,” Adam argued. “So feeding him scraps from our limited food supply have been a waste if we let Jacob perish.”
Greg whistled. When everyone turned he was smiling a knowing grin. “And even if you successfully treat both Melissa and him, if Oscar isn’t already pregnant, then Jacob and Oscar will never be able to ... make bacon in the future.”
Melissa groaned, brushed the dirt off her hands and started walking towards the house. “Pardon me, but if you need to consider this, I suggest you do it in the SUV. Since my chances drop the longer it takes to start the treatment, I’d rather we get back as soon as possible.”
“Hold on.” Franklin jumped off the fence. “Since we can’t move Jacob to David’s without a struggle, you’ll need to remain here. I’ll call David’s and have someone bring the supplies out. Hopefully they can also find Tom so we can debate just how safe this is. Meanwhile we’ll stay here and figure out where David is going to treat you both, here, the house or the barn.”
Melissa sighed. “Getting the plague is one thing, having to share a bed with a pig is another, but suffering through both while lying on a dirty straw floor is about as low as you can sink.”
“It’s better than being dead,” Adam mumbled. None of them could argue with that.
“What kind of nonsense are you pulling?” The three workers turned as Tom stormed into the back of the barn where they were working. He stopped, swiveling his head. “Where the hell are you, anyway?”
“We’re in the horse trailer,” Greg called, “and yes, David’s in here with us too.”
Reassured of his target’s presence, Tom marched forward before hesitating near the entrance. “What the frig are you doing in here?”