Vanishing Echoes

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Chapter 5

June 22, 2024

Only a few boxes of ammo remained in our supply, with resources becoming scarcer daily. We refreshed our arsenal at a ravaged gun shop, attaining extra firearms from the emaciated remnants that looters hadn’t pillaged. I wondered how long it would be before we ran out of bullets and society returned to the primitive weaponry of bows and arrows, clubs, and spears once again?

Back on the road, with Chase peering out at the desolate landscape of his grim future and Vicky crooning happily in the back, the black on yellow oeillade Wines and Spirits sign enticed me into the lot. Chase’s scrunched visage boiled with a seething reproach I doubted was purely to exercise his facial muscles. Although tolerant of my coping inebriation during the evenings following Allie’s and Heather’s abduction, and as understandable as his negative response to my prioritizing liquor was, I fantasized about slapping his face for his judgment. Instead of feeling the satisfaction that we’d properly taught him about the dangers of self-medicating, the unrelenting appendages of fastidious addiction shrouded my soul and the shame that I could even think of hitting my child for his correct excoriating response to my unrestrained and juvenile indulgence.

Ignoring that glare, I ran inside after telling him to lock the doors until my return. Thinking back on it now, he should’ve locked me out or driven away. Pungent and cloying, eye-irritating alcohol scents charged me like an abandoned pet. Shattered glass and toppled displays littered the burgundy carpet runners and hardwood floor. I bagged up pints of Southern Comfort, Jack Daniels, Bacardi, and Absolut, feverish and unthinking, nestling it under the hidden compartment where the spare tire lay in the cargo hold.

Congratulating myself on driving sober, as if that should ever be more than a foregone conclusion, I hunted for permanent shelter, realizing that I’d have to risk the threat of searching a farmhouse. Noticing very few houses on Country Road 15 that didn’t invite an invasion from desperate bandits, discouraged me, and I questioned if any place could offer sufficient protection from roving bands of opportunistic outlaws. Perhaps such a place no longer existed, the coddling life that survivors had ever grown up in disillusioned them to expect such boundless safety nets from the conditioning of our advanced society.

A wide aperture in the flanking foliage and a weathered mailbox on a slanted wooden stake caught my eye like a cheap harlot’s coquettish leg. Coasting past the waist-high hedgerow, the faint outline of a white, aristocratic Victorian house emerged around the plump bell crown of an American Sycamore. I reversed, entered through the hedge’s breach, and pulled up the rutted drive that snaked around back. My eyes marveled at the antiquated craftsmanship and handiwork of an independent carpenter prior to the times when land developers thirsted for their own profit and skimped on quality. Majestic were the wraparound veranda and domineering, white columns protecting timid, empty windows, the towering gambrel roof, prominent cornice, and second-floor repulsed dormers.

The kids waited in the running Jeep while I investigated the house, armed with my Mossberg 500. I parked the Jeep with the grille facing the street, advising my son to sit driver in case something happened to me.

I entered like a special op, low through the backdoor with my Mossberg poised ahead, swinging this way and that, my finger itching to make someone need some stitching. Before entering, while feet planted on the rear stoop, I’d thought that if the place was vacant, it could offer everything we needed for the duration of our isolated stay before we fell under siege, forced into erratic flight as the only alternative to death. Already, my mind conjured thoughts of how we could hide the house and our occupancy that would dissuade squatters from exploring its confines like a feverish witch over her cauldron.

The kitchen resembled a Norman Rockwell painting, furnished with neutral beige walls and perfunctory stainless-steel appliances: oven, refrigerator, and dishwasher, a tiny square glass-topped wooden table with white legs and chairs without cushions against the half-wall leading into the dining and living rooms. A corkboard clipped on nails above the table had a calendar—flipped to May—and scraps of grocery and To-Do Lists. Dull chrome fixtures, drawers, and cupboards with wooden handles and knobs held chipped porcelain dishes and dust-stained glassware that stocked their shelves. Dry goods stocked a closet pantry.

Why had the homeowners abandon the house?

Wooden dining table and chairs with floral cushions and a centerpiece vase of artificial flowers on a doily sat between the kitchen and spacious living room with a bay window viewing the front yard’s sycamore and a stretch of lawn and hedges down to the street. A sofa, a couple of plush leather chairs, and an impotent entertainment center of a wall-mounted flat-screen TV, shelves with a DVD player and a stereo below, and period paintings adorning the beige walls. Stairs rose to the second floor, and a hallway led into a parlor, a full bathroom with one door into the hall and another leading into the master bedroom.

Sweating from the warm interior, I spied the vast parlor that functioned as a study and home office with a critical, meticulous eye, assuring my anxiety of somebody waiting to ambush me. An ivory L-shaped chaise with Ottomans sat to the right of mullioned windows hidden by soft eggshell white curtains, two Empire armchairs with floral, vinyl padding, a square, dark cherry end table between the chairs, a standing lamp with twin gooseneck arms, and saffron bell-shaped shades. A brick fireplace with a wrought iron safety guard centered on the back wall. Two dark cherry bookcases full of dusty nineteenth and twentieth-century leather-bound first editions hinted at the intellectual prowess of the homeowners. A closet with linens that smelled of mildew separated the bookcases and a maple Executive desk by the hall archway.

Nondescript white porcelain furnished the vacant bathroom. Toothbrushes, paste, soap, mouthwash, flossing sticks, and other first-aid and hygienic stocked the basin and vanity closet.

Matching dark cherry wood furniture occupied the master bedroom—queen-sized bed, dresser, highboy—and the garments in the closet appeared the right size for Chase and me, but that was the least of my concerns. An eerie sensation tingled the short hairs on the nape of my neck, and I experienced the most intense suspicion that someone had died on that bed. Unconsciously deciding not to reenter the master, I wished there was a lock on the outside as I closed the door.

After securing the ground-floor vacancy, I climbed the stairs. Three bedrooms and a bathroom occupied the upper floor. One room faced east, furnished with drab wooden furniture and a queen-sized bed. Pink and orchid flora painted the walls in the second room, where pictures of an unfamiliar Disney cartoon princess hung. Evidence that the owners had a little girl reignited thoughts and memories of Heather, forming a glum cloud that obscured my optimism. A low white dresser held clothes sized bigger than Victoria, but would suffice.

The bathroom was cleaner and emptier save for three toothbrushes in a faux chrome holder smeared with dusty and crusted toothpaste. Washcloths and body- and hand-sized towels filled an open compartment. The last room on the west end had a full bed and a weathered chestnut dresser against a sidewall. Petite garments hung in the closet, belonging either to a teenager or young woman with a fiery metabolism. Those articles compounded my melancholic loss, sifting mental images of Allie to the surface of my memory sand dunes.

I wondered what happened to the homeowners as I returned outside. Hearing Victoria’s dulcet giggles before reaching the back stoop, brightened the vestigial melancholy that reminded me of my missing wife and daughter. Chase played Patty Cake with the baby. The strange whiff of a noxious odor passed across my consciousness like a cloud drifting in front of the sun. It vanished without a second thought, my concerns revolving around settling the kids in and establishing a modicum of structured normalcy to their lives.

Pale shadows flexed over the property as the nascent summer evening stalked the house and the insistent humidity choked the air trilling with cicadas and amphibians seeking companionship. A slight breeze of cool air soughing through the kitchen window screens allowed comfort in the June heat. No power meant no air conditioning or fans, but we’d adapted enough to the loss of such amenities.

We ate warm tuna on dry bread and drank tepid iced tea from the refrigerator. When Victoria yawned and her eyes grew dreamy afterward, I carried her up to the little girl’s bedroom upstairs and lay her down, explaining to Chase that it was best if I slept in the room closest to hers. Showing his maturity and desire for distance, Chase agreed without issue.

Under a deep purple sky, we retrieved the shotguns and two handguns, and ammo from the Jeep. I stashed a Smith and Wesson Model 3 in a cabinet above the sink and an HK P30 on the DVD player, informing Chase of each. Both loaded and hungry for action.

I took the Mossberg 500 and a box of its rounds, and a Glock 19 with three magazines we salvaged from the gun shop to stash in my bedroom while Chase carried his Mossberg 590, and a Smith and Wesson M and P with a couple of magazines for his room.

“Keep it with you at all times, and out of reach in case Victoria gets inquisitive and goes wandering in the night,” I warned, careful not to sound condescending or devalue his common sense. Prudence before a tragedy superseded the guilt following a permanent error in forethought.

I knew his nurturing of Heather transferred to Victoria the moment I witnessed their Patty Cake session and later thanked him. His shrug that it didn’t put him out—which I surmised—warmed my heart even more. His eyes softened the slightest that I could barely detect in the shadows, and I guessed he thought about Heather.

“I miss them so much,” Chase said, confirming my telepathic suspicions as we sat on lawn chairs, each with a tumbler of Southern Comfort, watching a vast indigo sky squeezing the salmon light westward between tree branches. Diamond chip starlight twinkled in the moonless conveyor belt emerging from over the house.

“I know you do. We’ll see them again.”

“Do you really believe that?”

I paused, debating the veracity of my belief, and whether I planned to lie to Chase after discovering how I felt. Knowing Chase would penetrate through any nonsense, my desire to believe my words caused me to lie anyway. “I do.”

“Why?”

“Because. It’s all I have to hold on to.”

Chase yawned and stretched as the alcohol wasted no time conquering his low tolerance.

“Go to bed. I’ll close everything up before retiring myself. We should be safe, though. That beast out front is great at hiding us.”

Chase smiled. Under normal circumstances, he’d shrug off fatigue out of machismo, but the dull mundanity of this new civilization left no alternative to sleep.

I continued drinking, and at some point, dozed. The nocturnal orchestra of trilling crickets and croaking frogs awakened me later, and without awareness sauntered into the living room and crashed on the couch.

A raucous jolted me awake. I rolled off the mattress and banged my head on the corner of the wooden nightstand. The sharp pain dissipated, replaced by an analysis of our safety. For a moment, I attributed the noise to my dreams. Soft blue light pressed against the nude window.

The turbid depths of my memory repressed any memories of climbing up to bed from the living room, starting a pattern of discomfort. I’d need to monitor it, but its presence disturbed me.

More rumbling noises assured me I hadn’t dreamt them. I focused on the open doorway, expecting a denizen of Hades to saunter past the door with glaring scarlet eyes, keen horns jutting from its grotesque head, nonchalantly twirling a pitchfork.

For several tense moments, I simply glared into the pale shadows of the hall.

I retrieved the Mossberg from the overhead closet shelf and ventured into the hallway with caution.

Although I knew I’d loaded and chambered a bullet last night after dinner, I doubled checked outside Victoria’s room after assuring she lay undisturbed, sleeping in peace, one arm curled around a stuffed tiger I presumed belonged to the little girl who’d once lived here, her other hand pressed against her mouth in comfort, sucking on her thumb. Nothing crouched in the bathroom shadows. I cracked the door at the far end of the hall to see Chase nestled under the blanket, rolling over.

Clatter! Crash! Thump!

Noises erupted from the ground-floor. I rushed to the stairs, my heart sighing before pounding in alignment with my spawning trepidation as my bare feet met thinly carpeted risers upon descent.

The squeak of a step halfway down slit through the silence; I cringed, my heart’s echoing rattle behind my ribcage accompanying my worrisome expectation that the intruders were rushing to the stairs geared to fight. Adrenaline throbbed in my ears. I whipped the gun through the archway into the parlor. The vast retreat didn’t conceal any surprises. Nor did the adjacent bath or the master bedroom.

A chuffing snort and rapid clicks rose louder as I rounded the staircase newel post and glimpsed the fussy intruder’s swaying, hairy rump dancing inside the refrigerator. After a few moments, I recognizing the posterior of a black bear. A great jubilance surrounded it while it feasted on whatever it could access.

I aimed the shotgun into the kitchen from halfway through the living room, about twenty-five feet away. My index finger itched to pull the trigger, certain the shot wouldn’t kill, but not wanting to cause pain even to a beautifully deadly carnivore. I imagined the buckshot peeling back the fur to expose the peachy-white skin beneath, tenderizing the skin, and the howl it would incite. The disturbing thought gave me pause, but I had to protect the kids more than anything else, and the choice between them—or myself—and an animal wasn’t debatable.

My brain sent the impulse to my spine, along the column and vertebrae to my arms and fingers, instructing me to pull the trigger. A fraction of a second before my finger responded a pair of tiny, glistening muzzles peeked over the concrete stoop into view through the torn and canted screen door to the backyard, followed by soft black eyes full of inexperienced wonder at the miracle of life they’d never have the intellect to ponder, yet I felt visceral that an unexplained awareness of such a treasure existed.

The intruder was a mother with cubs.

You can’t injure or worse, kill, Mama Bear or the cubs could die. Tell me something I don’t know. Shoot something else and scare it away. Stop pestering me!

The interior debate raged in a flash with no real argument in favor of shooting the mother. I shifted the barrel to the cabinets above the refrigerator, mildly concerned that raining wood splinters could slice Mama Bear, but not too worried as animal hides are more durable than human skin.

This bear was a threat to my kids.

My tension mounted, locking up my muscles. Taking a deep breath, I fired, already feeling the endorphins flood and congratulating myself at sparing the local wildlife while eliminating a great danger.

The explosive thunder echoed in the enclosed space, and two rumps bounded away from the screen door in fright.

Mama Bear paused her siege on the fridge, lifted her head in confusion, snout aimed at the ceiling, and her nose twitching for foreign scents. The loud noise earned her attention, but gunshots were ubiquitous in Virginia, and hardly an unknown sound to her. The danger posed by my presence to her cubs transcended any fear of the proximate, concussive explosions that threatened her own safety. Her head whipped around; her eyes locked on mine and filled with abhorrent rage.

I nearly defecated in the drawn-out seconds she charged me; absolute terror never experienced freezing my blood and short-circuiting brain activity.

Failing to shift the gun’s inclined aim down to the beast closing the distance in three strides with all the lethargy and sluggishness of a dream, I depressed the trigger as her snarling face hovered closer in my panicked sight than her actual proximity. The time between the recoil and her crushing weight knocking the wind from my lungs and my body to the floor was academic. The spreading buckshot glanced off her shoulder and clipped an ear, infuriating her more. Pellets deflected into the drywall, sighing white dust.

My mind ordered that I pull the trigger again, but my finger didn’t have the time to obey. As my hands locked into fists to prepare a defensive posture just before the hundred-pound bear knocked me down, I could hear the resounding blast and feel the recoil to come in my head, perhaps at my great expectations and the supposed results of those actions. I’m not sure I could’ve deciphered between a gunshot and Mama Bear’s feral roaring during the life-threatening, vengeful mauling. With the Mossberg lying horizontally as the only thing separating her claws from my heart and lungs beneath an incompetently fragile ribcage, air deserted my chest.

Her monstrous, three-inch black claws sought my eyes, carnivorous jaws snapped inches from my nose, and heavy, grunting fishy breath wafted into my red-purple face. Though a moderate lightweight at a hundred pounds, I heard cracks I assumed were ribs under pressure, and the panic of impending suffocation chuckled ominously in my mind.

My last thought before dying: I hope the bear leaves before the kids come down and find my corpse.

Ka-crack! Ka-crack!

“Oar! Oar!”

Her gnashing machination of jaws transformed into a pained rictus of surprising agony and contrition. Her maw salivated at the taste of my blood and entrails, springing on her tongue and dripped spittle in elongated strings across my face that puddled on the floor. Turning heel, she battered into the wall, her wide girth cracked the slanted screen door off its hinges. The tiny cubs, having returned and taking notes of our struggle, waddled away in her wake.

My head thumped the hardwood spawning white, lightning-bolt starbursts of pain that circulated to my head. The waltzing spots in my vision almost certainly were a by-product of oxygen deprivation. The shocking cranial blow may have elicited laughter and a grimace under other circumstances, but now my focus lay on the gulping breaths of air rushing into my lungs in relief of returning, sustained life.

“Dad? You all right?” Chase’s face hovered above me.

I nodded, blinking, too breathless and exhausted to talk. The ceiling could use a painting. A water stain darkened a corner.

After several minutes of lying supine, as my physiological systems returned to their default positions, I sat up and rested my forearms on my drawn-up knees. Salty sweat irritated my eyes.

Chase stood against the stairs, his shotgun leaning against the newel post.

“Where . . . di-ju . . . hih-tit?” I asked in three gasps.

“It’s butt.”

I laughed, coughed, doubled over on hands and knees.

“I heard a boom.”

We both looked up to find Victoria choking the stuffed tiger with her forearm and gripping a baluster like a prison inmate with a plump, white-knuckle fist.

“Oh, honey. It’s okay. Come down here.”

The baby’s meticulous and timid descent pulled at my heartstrings, and I embraced her in a cozy hug.

“It smells poo.”

Chase and I roared with laughter, then inspected the damage to our kitchen after recovering.

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