Chapter 26: The jetty
“Why? What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Your face,” Theo said with concern. In the end, he couldn’t help but grin anyway.
“What about my face?” I shot back, unable to believe he could still be such a jackass.
“That’s not what I meant. You’re wind burnt, or maybe it’s frostbite.”
I put my hand to my face. I couldn’t feel my cheeks.
“Come on.” He grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the bridge.
At one of the concrete piers supporting the bridge, we paused to catch our breath, grateful for the massive slab blocking the wind. Theo, all business now, scanned the terrain for signs of trouble.
He pointed to the river. “What’s that doing in there?”
I turned to where Theo stared but couldn’t spot anything out of the ordinary, just bits of ice and tree limbs.
“It’s a johnboat,” I finally said.
“Yeah, but what’s it doing out there?” Theo asked. “Oh shit. There’s people in it.”
“Looks like three of them.” I screamed into the walkie-talkie, “Papa bear, we have company, upriver, over.”
“Get down.” Theo pulled me to the other side of the pier.
“I can’t see them,” Dad said.
Theo took the radio, “They’re a half mile up on the left, close to the bank. A boat’s about to pass by the biggest outcrops.”
“Got it,” Dad replied. “Hold on. What? Shit….”
The airwaves went dead. We waited for further instructions.
“Listen. Susan says there are two kids in the boat,” Dad said. “Two kids and two adults.”
Theo and I exchanged looks. We waited, silence all the radio offered.
“Fuck it. I’m tired of watching people die,” Theo exclaimed and took off down the hill.
Idiot. I hesitated but a moment before I followed.
“Stop. Damn it, stop,” Dad yelled.
“Chris, get down there and help your sister,” were the last words from the radio before I jammed it into my pocket.
Theo ran toward the water, yelled upstream, and waved his hands in the air. At the water’s edge, I too swept my arms over my head, desperate to get their attention. The poor souls in the boat could not hear our shouts over the wind. I took off my coat and swung it back and forth.
One of the adults stood up and raised a paddle over their head. Thinking we’d been spotted, I stopped and looked on. The person slammed it down onto the side of the boat. Something fell into the water.
“They’re under attack,” I shouted.
I looked on in horror while the person brought the paddle down again and knocked another swimmer off the boat. Theo pulled out his pistol and fumbled as he cocked the weapon. He raised it in the air, pulled the trigger and -- nothing.
“Safety,” I yelled.
Theo flicked the safety off and fired three shots into the air while I waved the red coat.
“Safety,” I yelled again when he made to put his pistol away.
Both adults stood up and searched for the source of the gunfire. The shorter of the two spotted us and pointed our way. Theo yelled instructions and we tried to get them to head for shore.
The taller person kicked out at another swimmer. They both sat down and paddled toward the riverbank. They weren’t going to reach shore but would hit a berm. We ran toward the rocky outcrop.
Chris, Jane, and Dad ran toward the river. On the bridge, Klara had her rifle out and aimed toward the johnboat.
Chris made it to the berm first. They picked their way across the pilings. Theo and I reached the jetty right behind them. Theo pulled ahead; he recklessly leaped from boulder to windswept boulder. He dashed past Dad, who struggled to maintain his balance.
With a loud crash, the boat sliced through the ice and slammed into the rocks. Thrust sideways by the strong current, the vessel was in real danger of capsizing. The occupants were no longer in control anyway.
Grimy hands reached into the vessel. The two adults attempted to fend off the swimmers. Unarmed except for paddles, the boat people were seconds from being overwhelmed. For each swimmer shoved back into the water, two more took their place.
Even worse, several swimmers crawled onto the berm itself. I took aim but couldn’t fix onto a target. Too many of our group stood between the swimmers and me. Before I could line up a target, several gunshots rang out. Four moaners fell into the water. Up on the bridge Susan and Klara searched for new targets.
The man on the boat threw an anchor to Chris. With an awful screech, the johnboat floundered on the rocks, dangerously close to the end of the berm. Chris grabbed the line and threw the anchor to Dad, who with Jane’s help, managed to halt the boat’s slide out into the current.
Several swimmers grabbed the man’s leg and pulled him over the side and into the muddy water. The woman screamed, “Michael.” In no position to assist, she fought off clammy hands.
Michael emerged from under the water. He gasped for breath, tried to find his footing and reach the rocks. Unseen hands pulled him under. The water where he disappeared turned red, soon followed by air bubbles. The crimson waves swept against the boulders and made its way out into the current.
Chris reached the boat first. Recklessly, he jumped into the craft. He stumbled, almost lost his balance and nearly fell into the swimmer-infested water. Balance regained, he used his spear to thrust at any moaner he could reach.
Another gunshot rang out and something fell into the water behind me. I turned. Several moaners crawled out of the water and up the rocky berm. With a clear line of fire, I wasted no time offing the moaners which threatened our retreat. Perfect head shots all; I took out five of the vile beasts. Susan and Klara offed the other three. With gunfire again behind me, I whirled around. Jane had brought down two more.
Theo leaped in the boat with Chris. Dad, guarded by Jane, helped the children onto the rocky berm. I watched our escape route and took out two more swimmers in the water. I looked back. Theo helped the woman off the boat and into Dad’s hands.
Theo remained the only person in the boat. He jumped. One of the swimmers lashed out at his ankle and tripped him.
I screamed. Theo tumbled face first onto the jagged rocks. Blood splattered from his mouth. Two swimmers grabbed his leg before he could crawl up the rocks. One bit into his calf and began to gnaw through his jeans. He slipped into the river as the swimmers pulled him down.
Chris jabbed his spear into the water and managed to off the swimmer clamped to Theo’s leg. Jane shot the other moaner. Her first bullet shattered its jaw. She fired again and landed a direct brain shot. Chris ended another with a one-handed jab of his spear while he grabbed Theo by his collar. Chris and Dad pulled Theo onto the berm. I stood rooted in place, terrified by the blood-red tint of the water.
We headed back up the berm toward the shore. Klara and Susan cleared our way as they downed swimmers from their positions up on the bridge. Theo limped bad, his pant leg soaked red. Dad helped him walk. Blood poured from Theo’s mouth.
Anthony and Phillip ran toward us. When we reached shore, they met us and helped get the children off the rocks. Swimmers gathered on the boulders. Several managed to stand and stumble toward us.
We walked as fast as possible toward the levee. Chris carried one of the children over his shoulder. The mysterious woman assisted the other child. Dad helped Theo limp inland while Jane kept up the rear guard.
The moaners on the berm found the passage beyond their limited motor skills. None managed more than a few paces before they tumbled down on the treacherous rocks.
Dad and Theo made it to the base of the hill. A safe distance from the water, Theo pushed him away and screamed, “Stay away. Stay away from me.”
Theo hopped several feet from the rest of us and fell onto the soft snow. He sat up, kicked off a boot and removed his sock. He howled in agony. I fought back my tears. My father held me tight. Every cry, every syllable from Theo spurred me to fight and break free.
Theo rolled up his pant leg and screamed between cries, “Shit, shit, shit.” He groaned and lay back in the snow. “Ah hell.” He covered his face with his hands.
I broke free and ran to him. A large gash on his shin disappeared under his shredded jeans. The cut did not end until more than halfway up his leg. I shivered at the sight of his exposed shinbone. Behind the gash, a huge bruise swelled on his calf where the moaner bit into his pants.
“Get away,” Theo screamed and pushed me back. “I’m one of them now.”
“Shut up,” I yelled.
“Help me,” I pleaded. Anthony and Dad rushed over to restrain Theo so I could get a look at the bite.
I checked the bruise on his calf and could not see any place where teeth penetrated the flesh. My hand shook while I traced two fingers across the bite mark. No blood showed on my fingers.
Theo remained one of us. “You’ll live, you big baby,” I sobbed.
Theo started to cough and spit up blood. He bent over and retched in the snow. Jane knelt down and inspected his wounds. She used her scarf and wrapped his shin to staunch the flow of blood.
“There’s not much else I can do for him here,” Jane said. She stood up and brushed the snow from her knees.
Dad helped me get Theo onto his feet. He found it difficult to stay upright, much less walk. We assisted him toward the levee. Theo held his sock against the gash on his face.
Dad glanced back at the moaners stumbling toward us. “We’ll have to take care of those.”
“Dad, they’ll never make it up the hill,” I said. “It takes less than an hour for them to freeze to the point where they can hardly move. An hour and a half and they can’t move at all.”
Sure enough, ten minutes out of the water and the moaners had difficulty with their balance. Several were already reduced to a crawl.
“Still, I don’t want to chance it. We’ll have to finish them off, just for the peace of mind.”
“Got it,” Theo rasped through his swollen mouth. He bent over to spit and sputter as he attempted to clear his mouth.
“Shut up. You idiot,” I yelled, wanting very much to either hit or hug him. So I hit him.
Dad looked at Jane and said, “I need you up there. See if there’s anything you can do for the little girl, she doesn’t look too good.”
Jane gave a curt nod and left. She moved fast in the heavy snow as she made her way up the slope.
“Anna, me and Chris have to take care of this. Klara’s still up on the bridge if we get into trouble. Think you can handle Theo?”
“Yeah, Dad, I got him.” I slipped my arm under Theo’s shoulder.
Theo struggled more with each step. Susan and Anthony met us halfway up the steep embankment. Anthony took Theo’s other arm, and together we crested the hill.
I looked at Theo with the intent to offer up some words of encouragement. When I caught sight of his pale, swollen, and bloody face, I stopped, at a loss for words. Anthony and Theo stopped because I did.
Theo stared at me. “Whap?”
I couldn’t help myself; it was not what I intended to say. “Your face.”
Anthony broke out in laughter; even Theo managed a painful grin.
“I bebt you been waiting a wong time for dat one,” Theo said, his grin evident despite the swelling.
At last, we reached the trucks. Jane waved us to her vehicle. I helped Theo sit down on tailgate. One of the little girls lay in the back of the SUV behind Theo, covered in blankets.
“We’re going to have to get you out of these,” Jane said, tugging at Theo’s soaked pants. I helped her remove his boots and sock.
“Hey,” Theo whispered, begging me with his eyes.
“Sure.” I smiled. “I’ll go get you some dry clothes.”
Jane looked Theo’s face over. “I pegged you for a real idiot. Jumping in the boat like that.” She grimaced while she poked at his face. “I guess I was wrong. You’re all right. Still an idiot.”
Mother would not let me return to Theo with his dry clothes. Instead, she sent George and Anthony. She made me sit in her warm SUV. A little while later, she returned with something kind of like soup. Some of her Vietnamese herbal medicine. I sighed. It was warm, so I gratefully accepted the cup.
Mom got into the vehicle and fussed over my raw face. My skin was red and cracked. My face started to burn. Dad and Chris eventually returned from the river. Both of them got into the truck.
“We have to warm up a little, and then Chris and I will take care of the last car,” Dad said while he rubbed his hands together.
I sipped on my hot soup and didn’t really listen to the conversation. I worried about Theo, much more than I let on. I wanted nothing more than to go and comfort him.
Sleepiness crept over me. Two of the vehicles towed earlier contained several gallons of diesel. All the regular gasoline siphoned. Going to camp on the bridge tonight. Late. Collect some firewood. An early start in the morning. I lay back in the seat and closed my eyes to rest them for only a minute.