Second Dead

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Chapter 36: One of us

“Five after four,” Theo groaned.

Penri and Mom were waking everyone up. Why so early? I walked over to the fire to warm myself. One by one, people joined me. Two pots sat on the fire. One held liquid I supposed was soup. The other contained water.

“Eat,” Penri urged. He ladled soup into cups and passed them around.

We huddled around the fire and ate -- let us call it what it was -- mush. Mom’s expression made me chuckle. Face wrinkled, she poked the food with her spoon before venturing a bite. She grimaced but continued to eat.

I moved over to her and we exchanged smirks. She rolled her eyes and motioned for me to dig in.

“Mom,” I whispered, “never, ever, let that man cook again.”

“Yeah,” she replied with a less than amused glare toward the major.

“I know it doesn’t taste like much, but it’s well balanced and should keep us on our feet for hours.” Penri appeared bemused by the faces we made.

Theo was the only person to go for seconds. “Doesn’t taste too bad.”

“Teeth,” Penri barked, after everyone finished.

“Excuse me?” Anthony mustered what politeness he could.

“Brush your teeth. Dave was quite clear on this point.” Penri glanced at his watch. “Dave wants to be gone by five o’clock sharp.”

Right. Just what I need: another mother.

“There’s warm water on the fire, more than enough for your teeth and a bath,” Penri said.

My teeth brushed and as clean as possible with one cup of water, I watched Susan comb her hair. Some things never change.

“Why don’t you cut it short?” Jane asked. She too seemed mesmerized by Susan’s morning ritual.

“Oh, I could never do that.” Susan stopped brushing and shot Jane a scandalized look.

Jane glanced at her watch. “We better reassemble or the major might make us do pushups.”

Susan and I grinned at each other.

When we approached the fire, Mom said to Susan, “Take Anthony and go upstairs to relieve your Dad and Klara.”

Chris and I exchanged smirks. Dad would put a stop to this nonsense. Last night he made it quite clear Penri was just along for the ride. Dad’s the boss.

Penri stood ramrod straight. He held onto one crutch, which he used to relieve weight from his leg. He seemed at ease, as if his assigned task complete, he awaited further instructions.

“Oh good. Food,” Dad said when he and Klara reached the fire.

They ate in silence. Well into his second cup, Dad glanced up. With a spoonful midway to his mouth, he appeared surprised to see us gathered round. He turned to the major, who sported a smug expression.

“Great. Everyone’s ready. Good job, Penri.” He turned his gaze to Theo. “Time?”

“Err, twenty-seven after four.”

Dad growled and placed his cup on the floor. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a bag of wet-wipes and tossed it to Penri.

Oh, what the fuck, Dad? I looked on in disbelief. Give him hell, show him who’s boss.

“All right, I want to be on the road as soon as possible. I asked Penri to roust you guys and get things ready. Sorry to have to wake you up so early,” Dad said between spoonfuls.

Great. Apparently, Penri followed orders much better than Dad gave them.

“Chris, Theo, go see if there’s anything you can do with Penri’s radio.” Dad ladled out another cup of mush.

“Jane.” Dad paused to bolt down a mouthful. “How’s our patients?”

“Well, Laura has a fever, which is to be expected. Her wounds are clean and there’s no inflammation. It’s too early to say, but she should heal fine.”

“Good.” Dad let out a satisfied grunt.

“I would like to keep her close to me. Just to make sure nothing develops.”

Dad looked to Mom, who did not seem pleased with the idea. She offered up no protest though, so Dad replied, “Right, that’s probably best.”

“As far as Jenny? I don’t know. If the antibiotics are working, we should see some improvement today. Before we leave, I need to change Laura and Theo’s bandages.”

“I did Theo earlier.” I blushed, and then muttered, “When I got off watch.”

“All right. Jane, take care of Laura. George, help get your sister into the car. And Jane, keep her away from Jenny,” Dad said.

“Right,” she replied. After witnessing how quick her brother turned, she no longer fought Dad on this point.

“Four forty-two, Dave,” Penri said.

“Yeah, okay,” Dad replied, not so happy now that the major rushed him.

“Klara,” Dad barked. “How are we on ammo?”

“Small caliber stuff we’re fine on. Shotgun shells, too. Rifle bullets are low. Less than a hundred rounds for Susan and me.”

“What weapons do you have?” Penri asked.

“Err…umm,” Dad stammered.

“Well, a little bit of everything.” Klara said.

Dad thought for a moment. “Give Chris a shotgun. Save the rifle ammo for you and Susan.”

“Already did.”

“Do you have 5.56mm ammunition?” Penri asked.

“Hundreds of rounds,” Klara answered.

“I have a couple of M-16’s. Can you spare some?”

“Yeah, we’ll fix you up,” Dad replied. “What else you packing, Penri?”

“One .50 cal with exactly one bullet. You were quite right.” Penri flashed a brief smile at Klara. “And my side arm, which currently is not in my possession.”

I remembered the major’s pistol tucked in my coat pocket and handed it to Klara. She grasped it by the handle and removed the clip.

“Hmm, one bullet here, too. Yeah, got lots of these.” She handed the weapon to the major.

Penri caught a glimpse of her fingers and grabbed her wrist. “My God. What happened to you?”

“Nothing really. Got trapped in my closet when your herd passed over my house. I clawed my way through a wall,” she said with no hint of recrimination. One would think by the casual tone of her voice that this was a routine occurrence.

Penri released her wrist and stared at Klara. He nodded toward the Humvee. “Think you can drive one of those?”

“Oh sure. I’ve driven them before, when Papa took us camping. One of his friends had a place and he owned a few,” Klara said. Again, like this were normal. “I can even fire the .50 cal.”

“Of course you can,” Penri said.

“Come with me, Major, and I’ll get you some ammo.”

I watched Klara help the major toward Dad’s truck. It struck me how quickly the two bonded. Klara had to know Penri was the cause of her family’s death. Penri, for his part, must realize he’d been the agent of Klara’s misfortune. Despite that, these two seemed to have found something in each other they both needed.

“Five minutes, Dave,” Penri said over his shoulder while he and Klara looked through the cache of weapons in Dad’s truck.

“Right.” Dad pulled out his map and called the major back to the fire.

Jane approached. “We cannot continue to bounce these children on the tracks.”

“I agree,” Penri said. “We’re too exposed. We need to be able to execute more than two options.”

Dad looked at the map. “Well, ten miles down, the tracks start to run alongside this highway. If it’s not closed with abandoned vehicles I guess it wouldn’t hurt to get on the road.”

Dad stared at Penri. “You think I was wrong to take the railroad, don’t you?”

“Not at all. Actually, it was well thought out, especially the wrecker. Plans, however well laid, must have an element of flexibility to them. The weather conspires against remaining on the tracks. The ground is now waterlogged and impassable, even in such formidable vehicles as we posses. On the tracks, your options were limited when you came up to the levee. You had to either reverse course, a difficult proposition, or move forward.”

Dad sighed. “We can’t afford another situation like the levee.”

“And yet, we must expect the worst at every turn,” Penri replied. “The confrontation on the levee was perhaps unnecessary and you’re lucky to be alive.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Simple. We are a target. A moving target to be sure, which gives us some advantages if we use the terrain and our mobility to our benefit. On the levee, the terrain was against you. You escalated the probability for a confrontation by presenting a soft target.”

Dad glared at Penri. “I didn’t want to look threatening.”

“Yet your mere existence threatened them. There are ways to enter into such negotiations from a position of strength and still not appear overtly hostile.”

“Negotiations?” Dad scoffed. “This isn’t some game, Penri.”

“You’re wrong, Dave. This is very much like a game, and there are unwritten rules. Those men at the levee believed they held all the cards. They had a good position and a soft target. You, it turned out, were not the easy mark you presented yourself to be. Tragically, only after the commencement of hostilities did this rather important fact became evident. If you had made your defensive capabilities apparent at the onset, it is quite likely the outcome would have been different.”

“What did you want me to do, stop?”

“Precisely. That’s the whole point of the man’s actions. Coming to a stop and some small display of force commensurate with what these men presented was the logical next step. A slow escalation affords all involved time to think. It’s a delicate situation for sure. However, when forces are well matched as yours were on the levee, given time, and a chance to weigh the consequences, things tend to not escalate any further.

“They did have the static position after all. In their mind, you trespassed on their territory. In such circumstances some sort of payment is expected. Not an unreasonable demand given the current state of affairs.”

Dad’s face turned red. “They attacked us!”

Penri sighed. “I see you still don’t understand. Winning, as you obviously did, is not the point. The goal is to get what you desire at the least cost to yourself. The preferable outcome would have involved no gunplay at all while still securing passage across the levee.”

Dad’s anger seemed to seep away. He grimaced. “What’s done is done.”

“Quite. Yet lessons were learned and next time we will be much better prepared,” Penri said with an understanding smile.

Dad still frowned minutes later when Penri said, “It’s time, Dave. One more thing, let’s dispense with the pseudo-military jargon. It’s not going to fool anyone and it’s best if we speak clearly so as to avoid confusion among ourselves.”

“Ten-four,” Dad replied.

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