Episode 6: Light In The Darkness
You can see the full series of this fictional story here.
The forest was still and quiet when the early morning dew met the first rays of warm sunlight, and for a few moments Jason was just a Dad, hiking a trail with his son on a summer morning like any other. But as he watched his son Jim moving along the trail ahead of him, it was impossible to keep his worried thoughts at bay. What’s going to become of him? Keep it tight buddy, he’s going to be fine. Jason knew his youngest wasn’t as strong as Dale, and now the pressure of being the next able man if something should happen to Jason was on him. Look at the way he held it together so far, and it was Dale who made the mistake at the creek, and Jim did well even then. Jason allowed himself to smile, turns out he’s tougher than you thought buddy. But as he put that worry to rest, others came flooding in to take its place. So Jason decided to keep his mind occupied by reviewing survival skills as they hiked along like they did when both his boys were young.
“Alright,” Jason said, jogging up to his son, “Let’s play name that plant.”
“Hmm?” Jim shook his head and looked to his dad as if he’d just woken from a nap.
“Name the plant, let’s play.”
“Oh, uh, alright.”
Jim didn’t feel like playing anything, but to explain why was to tell his dad that it was his fault that Dale had fallen, and that he’d ran into Longhauser in the woods but didn’t say anything and that worry and fear occupied most of his brain power that morning; so, Jim, took a deep, mind-clearing breath and agreed to play. His father looked around as they walked, side by side now, and then pointed to the edge of the trail at a thicket of stems and branches spotted with clusters of tiny greenish-berries that looked like mini clusters of grapes.
“We’ll start you off with an easy one.”
Jim looked at the lance shaped leaves and four-foot stems shooting and tangling loosely over each other, and the tiny bunches of unripe berries and recognized it immediately.
“Pokeweed,” he said, and Jason smiled.
“Correct, but what is it good for?”
“Nothing,” Jim replied, “it’s poisonous, even touching the berries can get the poison into the skin.”
“Correct again,” Jason said, “Kind of.” Jim gave his father a confused look.
“Just because a plant isn’t digestible, doesn’t mean it’s useless.”
“I know,” Jim said, realizing his mistake.
“Tell me then,” Jason continued, “what good is this Pokeweed to us?”
They had stopped beside the pokeweed’s tangled stems that would hold ripe berries by the end of August. Jim was having trouble focusing on the plant.
“Uh, well,” Jim fumbled for an answer, “I heard you could boil it over and over and then you could eat it,” He said, and saw his dad frown.
“Think bigger than that,” Jason encouraged. Jim tried to think but his thoughts kept running back to yesterday, when he ignored his brother to aim at the rabbit, and…
“Rabbits!” he blurted out.
“Rabbits and deer, and a bunch of other animals eat this stuff,” Jim said.
“Right, and…” Jason prodded.
“And so when we need to hunt, we can check around these plants for trails or runs, or maybe set up a blind by a thicket like this and wait for them to feed.”
“Well done boy,” Jason said, “And forget that noise about boiling the stems, sure some people do it, but it ain’t worth the risk, especially when we got plenty of chickweed growing around here.”
Jim took the clue from his father, and scanned the forest along the trail as they began walking again. Chickweed: low to the ground, dark green and burgundy, Jim told himself, and the leaves pair in opposites, at intervals, juicy stems. His eyes fell on a sprawling patch of Chickweed on a well-lit patch of ground off to the right of the trail.
“There’s some,” Jim said, and pointed.
“Very good,” Jason replied, “that little guy is chock full of minerals and Vitamin C, which will help keep out immune systems up” Jason reached down and plucked a few leaves from the juicy foliage.
“It’s got a short blooming period,” he continued, his voice suddenly a bit more sullen, “we should pick some on the way back.”
Jim nodded and kept walking ahead, while Jason’s thoughts fell back into worry. If Dale’s injuries get infected, or if Cathy’s fever comes back strong, we’re going to need everything we can get to help everyone stay healthy. Jim was now a few yards up the trail again. We’ve got lots of Sweet Annie and Echinacea in the gardens, those are great medicinal plants, and we’ve preserved plenty for later use, so quit worrying, you old softie. Jason tried to focus on the trail and finding another plant for Jim to identify, but his thoughts continued to wander. Don’t forget all the medicine in the first aid kits and medical supply stores at the retreat, injuries are among the things you actually are prepared for, so focus. Jason looked around to make sure they were still heading in the right direction. You’re out here for one reason: find Delmar, see if he knows anything, and assess the situation from a larger scope to move forward. Jason knew from his days of active duty that acting with clear and attainable objectives was the best way to keep focused and effective when the shit hit the fan.
“Hold there, Jim,” Jason called up to his son. They’d been walking for hours, passing sub-trails and offshoots, but now the main trail forked in two directions.
“Which way Dad?”
“To the left, but let’s take a minute to rest,” Jason replied. They shuffled their heavy packs to the ground and drank from their canteens. The cold water felt good against the war dryness of their throats. The sun had risen higher now, and Jason figured it to be close to noon.
“Wonder how Mom and Dale and Cathy are doing,” Jim said, staring out into the woods.
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Jason replied, but a passing breeze cooled the sweat on his back making his shiver, and he felt worry settling over him again. They’re fine, he repeated to himself, but the feeling proved unshakable.
Patricia was bringing vegetable soup to Cathy and Dale when the knock at the front door came. All three turned their heads towards the unexpected sound. “Who is it Mommy?” Cathy asked without fear or suspicion.
“I don’t know baby, but I need you to go to your safe place,” Patricia said standing slowly and placing her fingers over her lips in the quiet signal, “and you need to be very quiet. Cathy, though only five years old, understood what her mother was saying, because they had practiced this maneuver many times. She went to the safe room of the cabin, swiftly and quietly and waited to hear the magic word that let her know to unlock the door.
“What do you think?” Dale asked his mother.
“I don’t know, but sit up, and cover me from the window,” she said, handing him his rifle.
“I can’t get a clear shot at the front door from here,” Dale was sitting up, despite the angle of traction his leg sat in, and staring through the scope of his gun.
“No, but you can cover the field and tree line to the South,” she replied.
Patricia removed her pistol from the holster at her waist, and clicked the safety off. She made her way to the front door quietly, and stared with one eye through the peephole. The smiling grey-bearded, face of Blake Longhauser lie on the other side. What the hell is he doing here? She thought, her guard lowered slightly in confusion. Jason never told him about this place… I don’t think… I mean, it’s been years since we’ve even seen him. She struggled to make a decision, all the while Blake Longhauser waited patiently, smiling as if he had come by on a whim as he passed through the neighborhood.
“Password?!” She finally shouted through the door.
“Patty? Is that you?!” Blake replied warmly.
“Password?” She demanded again, and cocked her pistol loudly.
“Hey, Patty, it’s me, Blake Longhauser, remember?” He was still smiling as Patricia watched through the peephole.
“How did you find this place?” She asked coldly.
“I ran into Jim last night in the woods, about a mile back, didn’t he tell you?”
“He didn’t say anything, and he would have, so I’ll ask again, and for the last time, how did you find this place, and what are you doing here?”
“Patty, calm down, I’m here to help,” Blake’s voice sounded concerned, “I’m telling ya, I ran into Jim last night, it was late, and I was on my way back to my retreat when I ran into Jim.” Patricia waited to hear more.
“Jim told me what happened to Dale,” Blake said, “He said you and Jason had already pulled him up from the ravine, and that you were headed here.”
Damn it Jimmy, Patricia cursed under her breath, then she asked aloud, “So what are you doing here?”
“Patty,” Blake almost sounded hurt, “I came to help.” Blake lifted what appeared to be a medical kit up so that she could see it through the peephole. I brought my volunteer firefighting medical kit, told Jim to tell you I’d be by this morning.”
Patty’s breathing was rapid, and her heart beat furiously in her chest. She knew she what she was supposed to do, which was to get him the hell off the porch, but with so much happening in the last 48 hours, she had to admit it was nice to see a friendly face, even one from the past. Still, she said to herself, we have rules and passwords for a reason.
“I’m sorry Blake,” She said, trying her best to steady her voice, “We can’t let you in just yet. It was very nice of you to bring your kit, but Dale is fine now, and we’re well supplied.”
“Patty, don’t be ridiculous, I’ve got morphine, a proper I.V. set up, even gear to do a blood transfusion if, heaven for bid, it came to that, just let me have a quick look at him, as a trained medic.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, but Blake had hit her in the weak spot, and she fought to keep it together. We have rules for a reason. Damn it Jason, I wish you were here, she thought, eyeing the medical bag now hanging from Blake’s shoulder.
“Fine,” Longhauser sighed, “I understand, but I really wish you’d reconsider, fall like that could produce some internal injuries that might be hard to spot to an untrained eye.” He turned and stepped away from the door, He appeared unarmed, no gun, no knife was visible, Patricia watched him walking off and she was overcome with emotion.
“Wait!” she said, opening the door, “Wait, Blake, come on back.” Patricia was trying to smile through her nervousness, “I’m sure you understand my precaution.” He stopped and turned when he heard her speaking.
“Certainly,” he said with a wide grin.
“We have rules about outsiders,” she said, putting the pistol back into it’s holster, “but, you’re an old friend.” She stepped onto the porch, “And until we know more about what’s going on out there, I think maybe an old friend, with a bag full of medical supplies, is a welcome thing.”
Blake walked briskly now towards Patricia, extending his arms wide for a hug.
“I knew you’d come around Patty,” he said, with a big smile. She opened her arms to greet his hug, but as he came close his arms dropped rapidly to her waist. He grabbed the pistol from her holster and pushed her hard against the door frame with his free hand. Her head banged against the wooden frame and she gave a hoarse scream for her husband, “Jason!”
“Oh, Patty, Patty Patty,” Blake sneered as she struggled against his grip, “You and I both know he isn’t here. He and that loose-lipped little boy of yours went out this morning packed for a long trip.”
“Mom!” Dale shouted from his room, and they could hear him struggling to get out of the bed.
“Stay there Dale!” Patty shouted.
“What’s going on out there?!”
“Just stay there!” Patty trembled with fear and anger, “there’s a wasp in the house.”
“Oh, is that a little code?” Blake asked mockingly, “What good will it do you now? You should have followed those silly little rules you and your husband made Patricia,” Blake growled menacingly. All the warmth of his smile had cooled into a hollow menacing stare. He pointed the pistol directly at her face, and ordered her to cooperate. Over his shoulder, Patty watched three other men emerge from the tree line carrying assault rifles, and loaded down with packs. Blake noticed Patricia looking past him, and turned to see what she was looking at.
“Those are my boys, Shawn and Daniel, you remember them right?” he said with a new, sinister smile, and the other is my brother-in-law Samuel.” The men were crossing the field and closing on the house. Patricia stared coldly into the eyes of their former friend, and cursed herself for not playing it safe. What are we going to do? She thought, we’re outnumbered and outgunned, oh I’m sorry Jason, I’m sorry. She felt the her heart breaking as the years of prepping and hard work they’d put in suddenly slipped from her grips in an instant.
Longhauser grabbed a handful of her hair and shoved her in through the open front door when a gunshot rang out causing everyone to freeze. Dale, what have you done? Patty thought. Both she and Blake, who was still holding her by the crop of hair bunched in his fist, looked towards Dale’s room where the shot came from, and then out to the field. The three men who were walking, had stopped, and both Shawn and Daniel hand dropped to their knees in the tall grass, alert and sweeping their rifles left to right. Samuel, however, remained standing in place, wavering slightly, and then, as if unsure of what to do, collapsed to his knees, clutchin his abdomen and dropping his gun to the ground.
“Sam!” Blake shouted, and then turned back to Patricia with a new menace in his eyes.
“I’m gonna kill that boy of yours,” he seethed, and before Patty could respond, Blake brought the butt of his pistol down hard against her temple.
Patty hit the floor and everything seemed to come from a distance, the shouting, the heavy footsteps pounding down the hall towards Dale’s room, the sound of Blake’s boys shouting and dragging in Samuel, who screamed and gurgled in pain, all of it seemed so very far away. All she could do was mouth the word “No” meekly in the haze of her head blow. I’m sorry Jason, I failed you sweetie, I’m sorry my love, these were her last thoughts before consciousness slipped away from her completely.
Jason and Jim were at the edge of Delmar’s property now, and had watched from a distance for almost an hour.
Jim asked his father, “Why can’t we just go in Dad, I mean, he’s your friend, right?” He was growing impatient and the growing torment of lying to his father was getting worse as they sat there staring at the small shack.
“Delmar is…” Jason paused, “very careful, for lack of a better way of putting it.” Jason was watching the shack and the area around it through his field goggles. “And friend is a bit of a stretch,” he continued, “we worked together for years, and I knew him well enough to know about this place, but I don’t think Delmar really keeps too many… friends as it were.” Jason looked down at his son, and gave a half-smile.
“Well, we should do something,” Jim protested, “I wanna get back to the family.”
“I agree,” Jason said, “Let’s get on with it.”
The men stood, and Jason took a white handkerchief from his pocket and tied it securely at the end of his rifle.
“Stay behind me, and a few feet back,” Jason instructed his son, “and no sudden movements.” Jim hadn’t realized the danger they might be in, and felt his insides tense up.
“We should be fine,” Jason said trying to comfort his son, “but like I said, Delmar is a very… careful, kinda guy.” The small chuckle Jason gave did little to ease his son’s mounting worry.
They emerged from the tree line where they were hidden and down the long dirt drive that lead to Delmar’s shack. Jason held the white flag up high in front of him as they moved cautiously forward. Nothing moved in or around the little shack as they approached. Jason began to worry, maybe he’s not home, or worse, maybe he is and doesn’t recognize me, or worse yet, maybe he does recognize me and doesn’t care. This wasn’t the first time Jason had to advance into a situation where he felt like a sitting duck. This time, he thought, I don’t have a squad of marines to back me up. Just keep walking buddy, just keep walking.
They reached the heavy, windowless front door of the shack without incident. Jason and his son stood side by side on the small, uncovered porch, and Jason wrapped twice on the door. Nothing. He knocked again, and looked around but the windows were all covered, and there was no way of seeing inside the place. Sweat was rolling down Jim’s back, and he gripped his rifle tightly.
“Delmar!” Jason shouted, “It’s Jason Jones… from Buildmore Logistics…” Jason felt silly standing there with his bug-out bag and rifle talking about his business, but guys like Delmar often needed reminders like that.
“Delmar!” Jason shouted again. Nothing.
“Dad, look!” Jim whispered.
A cold sweat came over Jason, as he saw the broken latch on the front door.
“We need to get out of here,” Jason said.
Jason pulled his son behind him, and began backing away, his rifle pointed at the house. Who knows who could be in there, or around here, he thought. The one thing he knew is that whoever it was had bested Delmar, which was not an easy thing to do. He’d never leave his door unlatched, he thought, how the hell did anyone else even find this place?
While thoughts fired through his brain, a familiar and out-of-place sound came buzzing into his consciousness. Wait, is that…
“A car!” Jim cried.
They looked at each other and then down the long drive as the sound grew rapidly closer. It was almost too much for Jason to process.
“Quick, into the house!” Jason pushed his son through the open door and they closed it quickly behind them just as the vehicle rounded the bend and came into view.
“Stay Down!” Jason whispered, and pulled the white handkerchief off the muzzle of his rifle.
Any guesses who’s in the car? Find out next
week in the next installment of Aftermath!