Second Dead

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Chapter 32: Major Charles Penri

Anthony and Dad put Penri onto an old worktable tucked in the center of the barn. Jane cut away his pant leg and grimaced at what she saw.

“This will hurt,” Jane said. “A lot.”

“I have a medic-kit in the Humvee. Lots of morphine,” Penri gasped.

“Are you an addict?” Voice even, Jane eyed him with suspicion.

“Might be. I’ve lived on the damn stuff for weeks,” Penri groaned.

Klara and Susan ran to the Humvee to retrieve the Major’s kit. Squeals of astonishment followed. Klara exclaimed, “Sanguis.”

They returned and Klara nestled in her arms a black and gray cat with white paws and a large white patch on its chest.

This had to be some sort of a cosmic joke. What were the chances of finding a cat, any cat, much less a black and white tabby?

I was being, well, something. This cat was not really black and white. Nor could it be Winford’s feline. Gray stripes were the cat’s predominant feature. The small white chest and paws were a coincidence.

Hell, cats and people have coexisted for thousands of years. Nothing supernatural here. The cat had been hungry. He came across Penri and associated him with a source of food. No need to imagine something that wasn’t.

“Is he yours?” Susan asked.

“No. He found me,” Penri said. “So in a way I’m his human.”

“Does he have a name?” Susan asked.

“It’s Sanguis, and he’s a she.” Klara showed us its underbelly. “I found Winford’s cat, just like he asked.” She walked away to show the children.

“Father never had no damn cat,” Jane hissed.

“Yeah, well, don’t tell Klara. She--” Susan paused, watched Klara walk away and whispered, “Needs this, I think.”

Jane rummaged through the major’s medic bag and appeared pleased with the contents. She pulled out a medi-pen and injected Penri’s thigh.

She threaded a curved needle with suture string and grinned at Theo. “If I had this yesterday I could have stitched you up better. Want me to do you when I’m done here?”

“Uh, no. I’ll live with the scar.”

“An idiot and a coward,” Jane said, not unkindly.

She shooed Susan and I away and announced she needed a volunteer to help clean Penri. Dad and Anthony had the good sense to disappear.

“Over here, people,” Dad called from the fire. He said to Jane, “I’ll want to talk to him when you’re finished.”

Dad glanced from Anthony to Susan. “Listen, I need Chris and Maria down here. Susan, you and Anthony go relieve them for a while. Jane will speak for your family, son.”


“It’s raining. Just a little drizzle,” Chris reported when he and Maria arrived.

Everyone looked up at the roof and then back at Dad. He looked from person to person while he collected his thoughts.

“Originally I planned to stay here for a few hours to get some rest. Then push on after dark. But with the snow and now rain, on top of the trouble at the levee earlier, I’m not inclined to risk a night run.”

Dad unfolded his map. “We’re past the heavily populated areas. Not trying to jinx us, but if all goes well, we can reach our destination by nightfall tomorrow.”

Dad was vague as to our final destination. I guessed he did not want to let on too much until he decided what to do with the major.

“We get off the tracks at Farrar. After that, we might find the going easier. We should be able to cover the one hundred and fifty miles without much trouble. “

Dad did not sound convinced and for that matter, neither was I. Nothing had been easy so far.

“How long will it take those things to defrost?” I asked no one in particular.

Mom answered, “It takes an eight pound roast all day to defrost at room temperature. Faster, if you run warm water over it.” She looked up at the roof. The ping of the rain striking the aluminum roof continued to grow louder.

“Can’t be helped. We’re just going to have to make a run for it.” Dad sighed and looked more tired than ever.

The rip of duct tape caught my attention. Jane taped sticks of wood to the major’s leg to keep it set.

“Well, maybe this will work to our advantage. The rain might clear the roads for us.” Dad pondered, the indecision in his voice reflected on his face. “In that case, we can pick up the pace tomorrow.”

“All done,” Jane called out before she and Theo helped Penri sit up.

Klara jumped up and ran toward the back of the barn. She said over her shoulder, “Hang on, I found something that might help.” She returned with a set of crutches and an old kitchen chair.

“What the hell. Me hurt. Leg, lots of pain,” Theo exclaimed.

“Oooh, riiight. Sorry.” Klara smiled. “You’ll be okay. You have your bat, and Annabel doesn’t mind helping you.”

“Yeah, well, it’s the point, you know.”

“Well, it’s too late now.” She beamed.

Penri looked and smelled much better. Fresh fatigues gave him a more civilized appearance. He sat apart from the rest of us and gazed around. All eyes were on him as each of us tried to ascertain the measure of this man.

“I presume introductions are in order before we begin this err, tribunal.”

“Listen, Penri,” Dad growled, “I have some questions for you. Be aware your fate lies in how you answer them.”

“It’s Major Penri. Major Charles Penri of the Missouri National Guard, Eastern Command.”

“Right. Now listen, Penri. This is my show, and we ain’t running a democracy here. But we will, as a group, decide what to do with you.”

“Please call me Charles then, since you do not seem eager or in need of my military expertise.” Penri smirked.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Dad snapped.

“Mmm, Judge, Jury, and Executioner, one could imagine.” Penri smiled, inscrutable.

“You need not worry about that. If, and I emphasize if, I find you to be useful and not a threat, you’ll be allowed to join us.”

“How charming and delightful. And if I’m deemed -- unacceptable. Then what?”

Penri must have hit a nerve. Dad’s voice remained stern, but indecision crept into his tone. “Some water, a week’s worth of food and we’ll leave you behind to heal.”

“And what of my transport?”

“That’s mine now.”

“Huh. I see.” Penri again smiled. “Has it occurred to you I could have killed you anytime I wanted?” Penri nodded toward the machine gun on top of his Humvee.

“With what, water?” Klara asked.

“My .50 cal could’ve ripped this barn to pieces,” Penri replied, his eyes on my father.

“Yeah?” Klara laughed. “At best you have one round in the chamber. There’s no ammunition in the Humvee; not even an ammo can up top.”

Penri gazed at Klara. “I see I have underestimated you, young lady. Very observant.”

“Penri, I don’t think you understand the gravity of your situation.”

“Quite the contrary, Mr. -- err…”


“Well, Mr. Wallis, you seem to labor under the assumption that number one, I didn’t want you to find me, and number two I somehow pose a threat to you. First, I assure you I let you see me.

“I decided it would be better for all involved if I allowed you to capture me, rather than me driving up unannounced. After your little encounter on the levee, I was not quite sure of a positive outcome to that rather more rational course of action. Mistakes happen after all.”

“Okay, so you answered the how, but you still haven’t answered the why. Why were you following us?” Dad leaned in close, his face tense in the firelight.

Penri sat up straight. His smile gone, he thought for a moment. “I suppose after your river theatrics I decided you might be worth contacting.”

“You followed us since the bridge?” Chris asked, alarmed.

“Um, no, before that,” Penri replied. He attempted to stretch out his leg, but gave up with a grimace. “I sat up on the high ground above Safe Zone Gold.”

“Where?” I interrupted.

“The mall,” Jane answered.

“Acquainted with the place I see,” Penri said.

“Yes. I served there for a couple of days before the end, at the very end actually.” Jane paused, “Broken Arrow.”

“And yet you’re here.”

“Our kill zone was collapsed on top of us.”

“Yes, that happened a lot.” Penri stabbed at the fire. “Command wished to deny the enemy assets.”

“Like me.” Anger flashed across Jane’s face.

“And yet, as I’ve pointed out, here you are. Alive. Broken Arrows were designed to be one hundred percent effective in neutralizing a site. Sanitized; as the flyboys liked to call it.”

Jane looked far off. “My husband was stationed at Command Communications out at the airport. The cell phones still worked, so when the Broken Arrow came through he got a message out and warned me. At the time I was assigned to guard this V.I.P.’s truck.” Jane pointed toward the black SUV.

“Explains the government plates,” Penri said.

“I thought you were a medic,” Chris said.

Jane smirked. “In this war there’s not much call for medics.”

“Shit,” Theo muttered.

“Yes. Anyway, the place had fallen apart. I waited for this guy and his cameraman to return.”

“Cameraman?” Dad asked.

“Yes, they were there to do a photo-op. You know, come to the safe zones, we’ll protect you. Food, water, shelter, safety and good times for everyone. We stood a better chance against a nuclear strike than we did with those things. I knew I had to get out of there, so I stole the truck.”

“You didn’t warn anyone?” Chris asked.

“No.” Jane stared into the fire. Eyes closed, she asked the major, “Do you think it’s possible anyone survived? Got airlifted from the airport?”

“No, those bastards at Army CenCom weren’t interested in a few Guardsmen. And the civvies’ were excess baggage. It would have been quick though. Take out the buildings with precision guided ordinance, drop cluster bombs on the survivors and then lay down napalm to burn out anything left.”

“I thought napalm got banned a long time ago,” Dad said.

“Well, who’s going to complain now?”

“Me,” Mom, Chris, and I shouted.

“It’s a fast and efficient sterilizer.” Penri looked at Mom. “Vietnamese?”

Mom’s glare said it all. Jane hung her head.

“Oh good, as long as it was quick. Doesn’t matter it’s someone’s family, does it?” Dad yelled.

“You are aware, are you not, Mr. Wallis, we are engaged in a war to protect our species from extinction. In such a conflict individuals don’t matter.”

Dad exploded. “Yeah, that’s what you people always say. Acceptable collateral damage and bullshit like that. The ends justify the means, eh, Penri?”

“Does not make us wrong.”

“Meanwhile, your people are tucked away safe, somewhere far from harm.”

Penri glared at Dad. “I,” Penri said, every word measured, “was a good soldier. I,” Penri emphasized, “followed my orders to the letter. I,” Penri stressed each deliberate word, “moved my family into the airport compound as ordered. And I,” Penri’s voice fell to a whisper, “watched while the airport was sanitized.”

Penri did not look at anyone. The barn turned silent, except for the crackle of the fire and the soft patter of rain. “So, as I said. I observed a tidy little convoy travel at night headed toward S.Z. Gold. I confess myself intrigued and decided to follow.”

“How did you get past the men on the levee?” Theo asked.

“Well, they cleared out after you mauled them. All but four of them and they weren’t going to fog any mirrors.” Penri jabbed the fire with a stick.

“You called me Papa bear. If you had a radio why didn’t you contact us?”

“Ah well. My sergeant broke the handset over a moaner’s head. I can receive, but can’t transmit.”

“Where’s your sergeant?” Klara asked.

Penri stared at her. “Well. I guess he had enough. We led a horde from the city, toward the river. We were going to dump them over the bluffs. The sergeant had attached a foghorn to his Humvee. He was a crazy s.o.b. Used to drive up behind officers flagged vehicles and blow his horn, scared the hell out of them.

“Kind of got the moaners riled up, too. We made it to the cliffs, but by this time, the herd started to break apart. We were low on options; we lost the horn at S.Z. Gold. The sergeant looked at me with a grin and told me this was his stop. Said he wanted to join his wife and jumped out of the Humvee. Told me to take off, so I did. He made up his mind and had no desire to go on. It happens.

“I watched, up on higher ground, as he drew the moaners to him. He waited until they got close, and he just -- stepped off…. Best damn soldier I’ve ever met.”

“We saw you,” I whispered. My eyes were on Klara, afraid of what she might do.

“What?” Penri emerged from his memory.

“My sister saw you on the golf course.”

“Yeah, we crossed a golf course. Lost four men there. Got cut off.”

I kept my eyes on Klara. “You led them right over our house. It was terrible.”

Klara’s head jerked once. However, she stared into the fire and gave no indication she blamed Penri.

“How did you break your leg?” Theo asked.

“I slipped on an icy hill at the house I holed up at. Fell into a sinkhole. I lay there for a couple of days. Figured it was as good a place to die as any.

“That’s when, Sanguis, did you call him, came along and saved me. He -- I mean she wouldn’t leave me alone. When she finally did, she returned with a dead rat. Dropped the damn thing right by my head. Well, I figured I found something to live for, so I crawled back up the hole and made it in my vehicle. The cat jumped in after me and I’ve been in the Humvee ever since.”

Dad leaned over to Chris and whispered. Chris stood up and headed for the major’s vehicle.

“Did you eat the rat?” Klara asked.

“What? What’s this?” Penri poked at the fire. “Yeah. We ate it.”

Dad stared at the major. “Listen, my offer of food and water for a week stands. Also, I can give you ten gallons of diesel.”

“I must make you aware you are harboring and aiding a fugitive from military justice.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Failure to follow commands in a theater of war. Insubordination. And, oh yeah, threatening to kill a superior officer.”

Chris returned with a set of keys. He handed them to Dad, who tossed them to the major. “We have room for you, Penri, courts-martial or not. We’re headed for a place in the country where we should be safe enough. Once there, you can continue on if you choose. Or not.”

“You mentioned food.”

“Yeah. A week’s worth.”

“Well, if it’s all the same, I think I’ll try my luck under your command. Now about that food.”

Klara smiled at the major. “They say a soldier looks no farther ahead than his next meal.”

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