Chapter 41: The tree
I headed toward the setting sun. At last, we managed to pull several hundred feet ahead of the herd. We hacked our way through a thicket of thorny bushes and found ourselves on a dirt road. Still a safe distance in front of the moaners, we slowed to a walk.
Two moaners lumbered toward us.
I came to a stop, put my hands on my knees and caught my breath. “Oh, come on,” I yelled and threw up my hands. “Goddamnit.”
I charged. With less than ten feet between us, I dropped both with my pistol.
“Fucking assholes!” I placed a vicious kick to the nearest body. “Can’t -- just,” I stomped the body. “Leave -- us,” my boot struck the shoulder with each word, “the -- fuck -- alone!”
It rolled over onto its back. A teenage boy gaped at me.
Screams. My screams. A boy tumbled down a hill, blood smeared snow in his wake.
“Nooo,” I groaned.
Dead eyes stared at me, accusation on his face.
I dropped my pistol. Fell to my knees. Lifted my face to the sky and screamed.
I wept and cradled his head in my lap. Sobs wracked my body. “I didn’t mean to. I ju -- just. Why? Why did you do it?”
“Bel,” George shrieked.
I caressed his face. So young, so dead. “All we wanted to do was pass.” I sniveled and rocked its head in my arms.
George pulled at my coat crying, “Bel. Bel.”
I tried to smooth his hair into place with my tears.
A gunshot rang out.
I stared at George and blubbered. Tried to speak again and failed. Didn’t he understand?
I had to-- George fired again. I had to what? He screamed my name while he reloaded his .22. I had to? Thunder rumbled in the distance. George. I had to save George.
I jumped up and we took off down the road. Several houses came into view. It wasn’t long before the dirt turned to gravel. We passed two houses and the gravel gave way to concrete. A stop sign and the road beyond told me the highway lay ahead. We had reached the other end of the smiley face, I hoped.
Moaners ambled toward us from the deserted homes. These were oldies. They moved slow and did not pose an immediate threat. Their presence did nix any idea of sheltering here.
I reached into my pocket for my map and realized I’d left it in the wrecker. How could I have been so careless? Dad had been adamant we keep the map next to our bodies at all times. For just such a situation. I pulled out the yin yang bookmark.
My eyes darted around while I tried to recall every detail of the map. I searched for something, anything that could help me get my bearings.
I tried to think, to form some sort of a plan. George’s life was at stake. In the darkness we stood little chance of survival.
I gazed at the bookmark. What would Susan do? Go up, I realized like a clap of thunder. George and I would have to climb a tree.
I folded each corner of one end of the bookmark to make an arrow. I placed it on the pavement, grabbed George’s hand, and headed across the highway.
The trees mocked my decision by either being too big or too small. There were evergreen trees all around but an abundance of limbs close to the ground ruled these out. I didn’t know if moaners could climb and decided not to tempt fate with such easily mounted trees.
Daylight’s last gave way when we came across a suitable tree. The lowest limb hung four feet above my head and appeared thick enough to suit our needs. After three tries, I got George high enough so he could grab hold of the branch.
I turned my flashlight on and glanced around for moaners but couldn’t make out much in the dim light. I could hear them crash through the woods toward us.
I leaped and grasped the branch. Adrenaline at full pump, I pulled myself onto the tree limb. Soon I stood a good twelve feet off the ground and next to George. After a brief pause to steady my nerves, I urged him higher. I put my penlight in my mouth to give us light to climb by. George found a place to sit where he could hang his arms off another branch. Safe enough. I clutched the tree, afraid to move.
With a meal so close, these beasts would be at it all night. I harbored no illusions of escape on our own. These things would wait for us however long it took. Our only hope lay in a rescue.
I stared toward where I thought the road to be and searched for headlights. I gave it up as a lost cause; I wasn’t even sure if I faced the right direction.
“Hanging in there, George?” I mustered what cheerfulness I could.
“I’m not scared.”
I turned the light off and peered at the sky. No stars were visible and moonrise was hours away. Clouds had moved in earlier so light seemed doubtful this night. We sat in silence, our ears straining to catch noises below.
Moans wafted up to us while undead pushed against each other or the tree trunk. I tried not to obsess, but did, and shined my light to make sure none were in the tree. Seconds ticked into minutes and the minutes crept by as an hour or two, I had no way to know, passed.
How did this come to pass? I didn’t know. Had anyone been on watch?
The terrible truth washed over me. We had come to rely on Susan and Klara to step forward and take guard. Not this time. This time they took the lead in collecting ammunition from the container. This one time they, like everyone else this day, did not consider basic security. How high a price would we pay?
Had everyone escaped? Hell, did anyone escape? Would George and I be fated to sit in this tree, until overcome with exhaustion we tumbled to the horde below? Would our family even come for us, or would they assume we were dead, to be mourned then forgotten? Were they even now safe at the quarry, ready to start their new life, with no attempt to come to our rescue?
Desperate, dangerous thoughts, Dad would say. I needed to ‘realign my energy flows and expel the negative from my mind,’ Susan would say. I knew if any of my family still lived, they would search for us.
If they were alive. I shuddered. And if they knew where to look.
If all else failed, George and I would not feed the beasts below. I handed my pen light to him and crawled along my tree limb. I crossed over to his branch and sat down next to him. With my chest against the branch, I pulled my scarf out and tied us both to the tree.
Now at least we would deny the horde below a meal. Who knows, maybe they would rot away at the base of this tree.
“Try and get some sleep, George.” I put my arm around him for warmth.
The night wore on, moonless and black. I struggled against fear and exhaustion. On more than one occasion I jerked awake, startled by the sensation of falling.
Hunger gnawed at my belly and made me toy with the idea of waking George to see if he had any food. I fought to stay awake, desperate not to make another fatal error.
The aroma of Nana’s special noodle soup wafted in the air. I smiled.
I sat on the floor and giggled while Nana regaled me with one of her stories about the old country. She crouched in the way only Asian women seem to master. She laughed while she cut hot peppers into tiny slivers.
I was young, no older than George.
“It’s all about the right ingredients.” She crackled with laughter. “That, they taught me at school.” She smiled mysteriously. “The right ingredients in the right amount.”
Nana took the peppers and tipped them into a mortar. She set to work measuring other spices. With a different sized spoon for each, she tipped them into the mortar. A pungent aroma filled the kitchen with its not altogether pleasant scent. She instructed me to use the pestle and reduce everything into the hot pepper paste.
She stood and left the room and went into her large pantry. She returned with a bottle of plum wine and a small cup. Made of pink stone, it had tiny embedded crystals and was no larger than an egg.
She poured the wine into the cup and filled it to the rim without a drop spilled. She raised it to her lips and tossed her head back to take the drink in one swallow.
“I’ll show you my greatest secret,” she said with a wink. “Not even your mother knows this. Oh no. If I told her, she would not come over to eat my soup. Then I would never see my Anna again.” She giggled. “Too much. Your mother puts in too much. She doesn’t understand.”
Nana heaped a spoonful of the paste into the cup until it overflowed with the aromatic mixture. She rolled the pestle over the rim and squeezed out the excess. Afterward, she wiped the utensil and outside of the cup with her finger. She scraped the residue into a small bowl of rice.
“Do you know what this is for?” she asked, suddenly serious.
I shook my head, frightened by her change of demeanor.
“This is for the Ngạ Quỷ.” Nana saw my look of puzzlement. “Ngạ Quỷ are the hungry ghosts. Spirits trapped, unable or unwilling to move to their next life. Poor souls to be pitied, it’s best to give refreshment and let them pass. Only the wisest can help them to a new life. Someday you will be wise like that.” She smiled, stood up and placed the bowl outside her back door.
She returned, squatted down and appeared even more mysterious. “Are you ready to learn my greatest secret?”
I nodded, too awed to speak.
Nana took the stone cup and raised it seven inches. She turned it over and struck it against the board. Seven times, she thumped her cup. After the final stroke, she showed me the results.
“Do you know what this is?”
I shook my head.
“It’s called… the wanting measure.”
My eyes widened.
“Do you know why?”
I shook my head; awed by the secrecy of it all. Eager to learn this greatest of secrets Nana had not even shared with her daughter.
She burst into laughter. “Because if you waste what’s stuck to the cup you will have thrown away enough over your lifetime that you will be wanting it when you get old like me!”
Cackling, Nana licked her index finger and used it to clean out the cup. Then she swirled her finger in a bowl of vinegar and soy sauce until the paste dissolved. “This is the wanting measure. Always in proper order. Always the required amount. No more, no less. Yes, this you must do if you are to use the wanting measure.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance and Nana’s kitchen faded into darkness.
“They’re coming for you, Annabel. Be not afraid for we have prepared you well,” the sweet voice of a young woman trilled in the darkness.
Lightning flashed but smoke obscured my vision. However, as if blown away on a gentle breeze the mist cleared. I gazed upon the speaker.
“Máy Màn?” I asked surprised. For before me sat Nana, and yet not my nana. She was young, my age, and dressed in the brightest of white áo đại.
She was beautiful. Flawless, she shimmered with an inner light. In her hands she held a lamp filled with fire. The flames were of the lightest blue.
Arranged on each side of her were six more lamps. Three to her left and three on her right, all burned with a different color. Lightning rippled behind her. It seemed to me Máy Màn sat on lightning itself. Peals of thunder rumbled and threatened to shake the world apart. Máy Màn smiled at me.
“Annabel, you have grown into a beautiful woman. Soon, I will join our ancestors and shall speak with pride of you. My time is short. I have much to say, so listen well. The doom of mankind draws nigh. The hour nears when the great decider shall vet its fate.
“Know you are not alone. There will be others. Seek them out with eyes that see and ears that hear. You, my Annabel, are the cloud before the storm, the storm that even now falls upon this world. The cloud must fulfill before Lighting and Thunder can cleanse. I must leave you now; my time is nearly spent. Remember me, Annabel. When the moment is right, release me so I may move on and live in peace in the company of our ancestors.”
May Màn’s voice began to fade. “Remember what you have seen. When you attain fear of Trời all will be revealed and you will understand.”
“Don’t leave me, Nana,” I cried out. “I’m frightened.”
“Annabel, take courage. Be who you are to be, and have the compassion to allow me to become what I need to be.”
Darkness fell over my eyes and the last words May Màn spoke were, “They’re coming for you, Annabel.”