Chapter 5: Upstairs
We satisfied ourselves there were no moaners in the basement. Dad walked over to a window and moved the curtain. He peeled the plastic back and stood on his toes to peek out.
“Well, I don’t see anything.” He re-taped the plastic into place. “Anna, get Susan. I have a job for her.”
I followed Susan out of the safe room and without waiting for Dad, she said, “I’ll take Anna with me.”
Dad started to protest, but Susan stopped him, “Mom needs her sleep. Anna’s as quiet as I am, and you know it. If ever we need a quiet search, it’s now.” Susan playfully punched me on the arm and quipped, “Yeah, quite graceful now. Like a cat.”
With gentle touch, I pushed Susan. She feigned falling down.
“Stop it,” Dad hissed, “This is serious.” His face, stern and anxious, lacked the smile that I had come to miss so much. “All right, do it.”
“After you, sis, “I said, wiping my sweaty hands against my jacket.
“No, no, age before beauty,” she replied, a little too high pitched.
Fine. I headed up the stairs. My head cleared the couch situated against the banister. The room was moaner free. I motioned for Susan to follow.
“Don’t open any doors unless I tell you to,” she whispered before we left the stairs.
After searching the house, we backtracked to the kitchen. “Okay, we have to look through the peepholes. Remember everything you see,” she said.
I peered out each window and made mental notes of what I saw. When finished, we met up at the breakfast bar. Susan pointed to the steps and walked toward them.
We descended the stairs to the relief of those below. Dad and Chris put their pistols back on safety and we all sat down. I trembled so bad I couldn’t put my knife away. I had never done a post herd search before.
Mom was awake and fussing over the twins. The door to the safe room stood open and she would hear everything we reported. Not a damn thing escaped her ears. This had saved us more than once.
“Well?” Dad asked.
I went first and asked, “When did you stretch wrap it to the tree?”
“Right before the moaners arrived. Me and Chris went out and did it when we checked the house. I didn’t want him attracting attention.”
“Oh, okay. It didn’t work. The wrap got all shredded. Cal-- the thing’s pretty bad. Still moving though.”
“That’s all I need.”
“Anyway,” I continued. “There aren’t any moaners in the front yard, and the fence is still reasonably intact. The side yard is a different story.”
Mom came out of the safe room and closed the door. “They’re practicing their writing,” she said. She walked past and sat on the steps. She turned to face us while we talked in the room below.
I collected my thoughts for a moment. “So, Dad, the fence is down along part of the road, and up by Beanie’s house. There’re some moaners around Chris’s truck. I don’t think they can find their way out.”
“How many?” Chris asked.
“Several, maybe a dozen,” I replied. Theo shook his head at me in disappointment.
“What about the churchyard?” Dad asked.
“Hmm, a lot.” Damn, I should have counted, “About thirty.”
Dad opened his eyes and gazed at me. “Anything else?”
I tried to remember every detail. “Let’s see. Well, the firehouse fence is still up, but everything else is trashed. The hill’s all mud now. Oh yeah, Brian’s fence is gone.”
“Yeah well, it wouldn’t take much to push that over,” Dad said.
“Hey,” Chris exclaimed, “Me and Chet--” He froze and glanced toward our mother.
I knew what Chris had been about to say. Chet and Chris had built the fence for Brian.
I glanced at Mother but she betrayed no emotion. Yeah, emotion’s for the weak. Everybody blamed me. I knew it, and why not? It was my fault. Oh sure, they hid their accusations behind kind words, insisting I was blameless. Still, I could see it in their eyes; hear it in their voices each time someone mentioned Chet’s name.
Mom’s venom stung the worst. She didn’t even try to hide her resentment toward me. She hated me now and I struggled to accept the fact. However, like poison seeping through the veins I had come to despise her for it.
“Well, that’s about it.” I paused and tried to remember anything else of importance. “One more thing. The moaners didn’t seem to be walking away, just kind of wandering around in different directions.” I waited to see if this meant anything to Dad.
“Yeah, I noticed the same thing,” Susan said.
Dad stared at nothing, lost in thought.
“It sounds like the herd broke up,” Chris said.
“Let’s hope not too soon,” Theo said while he played with a crumpled pack of cigarettes. He had one smoke left. He had been down to one for weeks. I guess he’d quit. However, any chance he could, he pulled the pack from under the couch and played with it.
“Susan, what do you have?” Dad leaned back in his chair, eyes again closed.
Susan ticked off her observations with well-practiced precision. I listened, impressed and disappointed with my presentation in comparison. She was an old pro at this. Usually she and Mom searched the house after a scare.
Dad didn’t respond, but sat with his eyes closed. Minutes passed. The only sound came from the rain beating against the house. Mom stood up from the steps and walked over to sit on the arm of his chair.
He opened his eyes, smiled and patted her on the knee. “What do you think?”
“We’ll stay put until tomorrow. That should give the Sống chết time to leave.” Mom leaned down and kissed Dad.
“Okay,” he said. “This rain gives us good noise cover so we can get some things done.”
I sighed. Noise cover meant work. Maybe it’ll still be raining tomorrow and we would be able to get a shower in. After taking care of business of course. My eyes met Susan’s and I could tell she shared my thoughts.
“Right then, let’s get to it,” Dad said in a comically bad British accent.
Dad pointed at me. “You and Theo take first watch.”
“But, Dad, can’t I--”
Great, three hours with-- him. All I wanted to do was spend time with Susan. It had been so long since we just hung out and talked. Everyone stood up and Theo and I headed upstairs.
“What time is it?” I asked when we reached the top.
Theo held out his wrist so I could see the time, two o’clock in the afternoon.
“Almost two days,” he said.
“Shit.” That’s the longest we ever had to lay low.
Theo’s watch was important to him. The timepiece was old. You had to wind it up and everything. Large, and to my eyes rather ugly, it had a cracked and faded leather wristband along with a much-scratched crystal, yellowed with age. A family treasure I guess. The watch belonged to his father who had died young.
“You take the front, and I’ll do the back,” Theo said.
I walked into the kitchen and leaned against the sink. My elbows on the counter, I cupped my chin and listened. I lifted the peephole flap and peered outside.
So it went, creeping from room to room. After an hour, the rain tapered off and settled down to a steady drizzle. Before long, the rain stopped altogether. The afternoon sun peeked past the clouds to give a much better view of the devastation. I walked into the living room, now bright from daylight streaming in from the skylights. Theo stood by the boarded up French doors and peered out the curtains.
“Anything?” I asked.
“No.” He let the curtain fall back into place.
“Less than two hours so far,” he replied.
Theo could be about as much fun as a lump of coal for Christmas. All business while on watch, he was good to have around, but not so much to be around.
Theo had been hanging around our house since I could remember. Dad had a soft spot for him. He saw some potential in Theo, which just baffled the rest of us. Short, muscular, and with black, wire brush hair covering his entire body, Theo had maybe an inch on me, if that.
A sudden noise made Theo tense up. Susan’s head popped up past the couch. She bounded up the stairs and into the room. Theo relaxed and pulled his hand away from his machete.
“Mom wants you.”
“What’s it about?” I asked, curious why Mother would pull me away from guard duty.
“I don’t know,” she replied. A smile crept across her face.
I looked at her in the daylight. She had changed. She was growing up fast and she was-- clean. Bathed and in fresh clothes, Susan’s long black hair, brushed to perfection, glistened with dampness.
“How? How?” I rushed over, tugged her hair and brought it to my nose. I inhaled. Strawberry.
“You better start explaining, sister.”
She giggled. “It was Chris. You know how he can push Mom’s buttons. He kept on about the smell and the hygiene. It took half an hour of bitching before she caved.”
I stared in disbelief, afraid this might be another dream.
“Well?” Susan asked.
She rolled her eyes. “Mom wants you.”
I smiled; grinned from ear to ear actually. I was going to take a freaking bath. I skipped past Susan and headed for the stairs. Theo made to follow, but Susan pushed him to a stop.
“Not you, bucko. Dad said he would cut off your-- you know-- if he found you anywhere near the basement.”
“Sounds about right,” he muttered.
When I made it downstairs, I found the far wall lined with yellow five-gallon buckets of water. Dad, settled in his chair, rubbed his head with a towel. He glanced up and jabbed his thumb toward the safe room.
I entered the room where my mother poured a stockpot full of boiling water into another five-gallon bucket.
“Give me a hand, Annabel.” She took the pot and placed it next to another yellow bucket of water. We poured the water into the pot.
She walked to the sump pump well, minus the pump. The twins sat cross-legged and scooped water from the hole.
“Enough. Let your sister take a bath.” She shooed the twins from the room.
“Mom,” I started to say, but she stopped me.
We walked to each other and embraced. Mom sobbed against my shoulder; her whole body shook with emotion. She pulled away and we wiped tears from each other’s cheeks.
“All right, Bel, it’s all yours.” She walked from the room and pulled the door closed behind her.
Alone, I started to cry again. I wasn’t Annabel anymore, but I wasn’t Bel dear again either.