A Passing Guest
I can’t stop staring at all the living souls around me: Josiah, his younger brother and sister, and their parents, Michael and Lisa Knect. All are bathed in the warm light spilling down from the dining room lights. Even taking a bite of the penne pasta with basil marinara Grace had cooked for us feels wrong. Privileged beyond measure, somehow.
“Rayland, you’re not hungry?”
I raise my head up to Grace, who stands in between me and Josiah. She’s maybe two inches taller than Paul, their youngest brother. When Josiah coughs at the head of the table and shoots Grace a pleading look - Don’t offer if he’s not ready yet - I jump in. “Hey, yeah,” I say to Grace, “I’m just, uh, still kinda in shock, is all.” I pick up my fork. “Thanks for cooking us dinner, Grace.”
She smiles, then pivots and heads back to the kitchen with her empty plate. A new sound registers in my head, one that was there before and I just didn’t realize it until now: an engine. Maybe more. Their low rhythmic chugging is coming from the garage. I take another bite. The marinara is just tart enough to make my tastebuds pucker.
Josiah sits back in his chair at the head of the table and chews his dinner slowly, savoring it like I wish I could. I shrug and pop one last wrinkled cherry tomato into my mouth. Whatever is giving the house power, I’m grateful for it.
My chest tightens and ripples with heat. I try to swallow and scrape my fork against the white stone plate before me. Josiah was always the pioneer type, talking about how he wanted to grow his own vegetables and become a beekeeper one day. I’m not surprised his parents are the same way.
While Paul finishes his last bite of foot and hops off his chair to follow his sister into the kitchen, I tune back in to the adult’s conversation. Their flow of energy and emotions. Across from me, Josiah’s parents drift in and out of focus. The wrinkles along Mrs. Knect’s throat flutter like gift tissue getting carried away in the breeze. She’s trying to eat, but she keeps picking up a single pita chip from her plate, then setting it back down and draping her arm across her chest. Mr. Knect reaches over and squeezes her hand.
“I’m sorry,” begins Mrs. Knect. She sits up and dabs at her watering eyes with a napkin. “We’re just both really at a loss for words.” Mr. Knect joins his wife and lets his tears run freely. Lisa Knect squeezes her eyes shut and lets out a sweeping exhale, one strong enough to rustle the place-mat beneath her plate. She must be near her mid-60s.
“We didn’t know if…if we’d ever see you again.” She stares at Josiah so hard, as if by looking long enough she might imprint her oldest son’s presence and features into her mind forever. It feels like someone is doing CPR compressions on my chest from the inside out. Mom always told me that I had no idea what it feels like for a mother to look out for her son, to fear for his life. Tonight, I’m in the presence of the kind of maternal love she was talking about.
Josiah rises and circles around to his parents. Don’t keep staring at your lap, Rayland. Look at them. Take in all their love and relief. It’s okay, it won’t break you. So I do. I look up and watch Josiah reassure his mom and dad.
“I’m here, and I’m safe,” Josiah tells his mom, his arms now draped around her shoulders. His dad sniffs and pats him on the back, then holds up his index finger.
“So. Fill us in,” Josiah says after taking his seat. “What is it that Reg and his people really want?”
Mr. Knect steps over to the computer alcove across from the kitchen’s center island. When he slips back into the light of the dining room, he rolls a heavy machine about knee high behind him. The word PREDATOR is listed on the side, as is the wattage: 4375. There’s a fuel tank within the heavy-duty steel roll cage enclosing the machine. My Adam’s apple leaps through my throat.
“A generator.” Josiah and I say it in unison. Mr. Knect tips his head and leaves the machine, which is as big as an ice cooler, in the center of the floor.
“Reg found us a week ago.” Mr. Knect kneels beside the generator and unscrews the gas cap. “Said he had more fuel and water he could share -- so long as we gave him one of these.”
“We have two more in the garage,” Mrs. Knect adds. She rises and drifts to the kitchen to help the kids wash the last of their dishes. The smell of gas pinches the inside of my nose.
I turn. Grace stands beside the generator and holds out a folded bundle of black wiring no thicker than her pinkie. She plants her other hand on her hip. “You said you were gonna teach me and Paul how to fix it. Remember?”
Paul chimes in. “Yeah! In between our lessons.” He leans against a broom taller than him and gives his dad a lopsided grin.
I wrinkle my eyebrows and look across the kitchen. In the far back, there’s a door leading to the drawing room. I picture all the books Grace and Paul must still have from their home school days. Of course. Sometimes sticking to a routine is the only way to preserve our sanity. For the Knects, it’s keeping their kids involved in learning.
Mr. Knect chuckles. “You’re right, honey,” he responds. “Tomorrow. I promise.”
Grace nods in a kind of truce, then spins around and tells Paul to make sure the sink is off. The water, as it turns out, comes from a well beneath the house. Another perk the Knects have. I swallow another warm breath and sit back in my chair. I want to slap myself to make sure this is all real.
Josiah and I exchange wan smiles. The stubble above his lips catches some of the light. Josiah leans over and, like me, studies the side of the generator where there are DC outlets and power switches. The wheel kit looks sturdy, as does the circuit breaker panel.
“Of course, you guys have been running power through these.” Josiah peeks at the dining room lights burning brightly over the table. “How’d you get three?”
Mr. Knect sighs and screws the fuel cap back on, while Paul and Grace finish washing their dishes. “When the reports about the Swarm came in, I booked it to Schuman’s Hardware store. I found three gennies still in their boxes behind a display shelf someone had knocked over in the rush. It seemed like the whole neighborhood was there, taking everything they could get their hands on.”
“And now Reg wants what we have.” Mrs. Knect’s voice, once kind and soft spoken, now drips with suspicion. She turns the sink water off with a sharp twist of her hand and begins to towel her hands off.
“How many people are in his group?” I can’t stop myself from asking. The dining room lights hum in sync with the faint rumble of the generators in the garage.
Mr. Knect looks at me and evens out his eyebrows. “Six. There are three women with Reg, Bob, and Evan.”
“Michael and I have yet to see them,” Mrs. Knect chimes in from inside the pantry. Boxes and bags rustle inside. “But I’m sure there are more of them.”
“Reg said they’ve been holding out at the fire station for the past couple of weeks,” Josiah points out, “and that his group only recently started to look for other survivors in the area.” For just a moment, Josiah and I exchange heavy looks. That man’s body, the one from inside the fire station, still haunts me.
Josiah clears his throat before his mom or dad can respond. “Well,” he concludes, “what matters is we’re all safe here.”
“There are two police officers out there too,” I murmur. Mr. Knect furrows his eyebrows. I shift in my seat and lower my bare feet to the cold floor. I finally look his way again. “Josiah and I were able to get through to two cops last night. They said they’d be waiting for us at the Argyle Fire Station. But...we couldn’t find them.”
Josiah’s dad lets out a low grunt and shares a preoccupied glance with his wife. “This is the first time we’re hearing about them.”
“What did they say?” Mrs. Knect asks. Mrs. Knect draws closer and leans her shoulder against her husband’s shoulder.
“Just to be careful,” I reply, “and that they’re trying to get other survivors together, but…”
Mr. and Mrs. Knect get my hint when I trail off. “Alright, Paul and Grace, let’s get ready for bed,” their mom says with a swift clap of her hands. Her smile is so much like Josiah’s -- warm, quick, easily broken.
After Josiah’s siblings are all tucked in for the night, Thunder staying upstairs with them, the four of us gather around the dining room table. Mrs. Knect shuts off the power for tonight to conserve fuel. We sit by lantern light. I tell them about our ride to the semi, how we had found the CB radio. I explain how we’d spoken with Officers Owens and Richards about meeting up, but that I couldn’t catch everything they said before Josiah and I had to run to escape the Swarm. Josiah chimes in to share with his parents about Reg coming out of the dark driveway to greet us -- and finally, about the shot-up side of Fire Station 513. Mrs. Knect’s hands go to her mouth. Mr. Knect lets out a huff before he stares off at the boarded-up windows behind his wife and Josiah. The clock in the living room counts time, but its ticks barely rise above the crackle of the fire.
“Reg had mentioned something about looking for other survivors too,” Mr. Knect says with restraint in his tone. He shakes his head. “But his story doesn’t hold up.”
Josiah props his hands on the edge of the table and leans over our weapon walkies. “Dad, what were you and those other guys talking about?” He jerks his head to the side. “Out there when you all were out by the garage?”
His parents share a strained glance. When the camping lantern beside Ms. Knect starts to waiver, I turn and tell them, “I got it,” then fish a slightly bent bottle of Nu-Flame out of my bag. Mrs. Knect steps aside before I put out the flame and, with my flashlight bared between my teeth, fill the lantern back up.
“Reg wants our land,” Mr. Knect says.
My hand falls away from the lantern, knocking over the now-empty bottle of ethanol. Josiah’s face hardens, as does his dad’s, who goes on. “He was kind at first, said we could maybe try and work together, keep the garden out back going as long as possible before winter sets in.” Mr. Knect folds his arms. “But then he started pushing, saying that we might not all survive against the Swarm unless we joined up.”
“They were all threats from the very beginning,” Mrs. Knect says, running her hand through her mostly gray hair. “Reg was just more polite about it when we first met him.”
“Figures,” I grumble. Josiah tightens up.
“So we stand our ground,” he says. We share a knowing look before I slip my hand back into my bag and pull out the revolver from the Cy House. Mr. Knect and Mrs. Knect study the weapon with only faint surprise.
“We can defend ourselves,” I tell them. “Do you have any other guns?”
Mrs. Knect rises and walks over to the far bookshelf. She withdraws a Winchester rifle, the .30-.30 model, from the narrow space in between the bookshelf and the corner of the dining room. Josiah and I both stare open-mouthed at his mom. She handles the rifle like a pro and, with one corner of her mouth pulled up, says, “My father passed this down to me many years ago.”
Near the head of the table, Mr. Knect runs his hand across his chin and sighs. “There’s the other we have in the guest house out back. Ruger .357.” He shakes his head. “Both are a last resort. Reg and his people have guns, too, but they’ve never threatened us with them.”
The last trace of well water in the back of my throat turns sour. Whether or not Reg and his people made any explicit threats doesn’t matter. Every message they’ve given us, from Reg’s offhanded comment about the state of the world, to the way Bob had leered at me across the dining room when he thought I wasn’t looking, tells me only one thing: they want what Josiah’s family has, and they’re not going to stop until we give in.
Mr. Knect straightens up and looks across the dining room. At almost six-and-a-half feet tall, Josiah’s dad always seems to command whatever room he’s in. I follow his lead and glance at the clock hanging on the wall above the garage door.
“We should get some sleep,” Mr. Knect says to me and Josiah. “You guys had a long day. There’ll be more work to do tomorrow.” I must look lost, because he pats my shoulder before folding his muscular arms. “We’re self-sustaining here, Rayland. We’ve got the chickens in the back-”
“They’re still alive?!” Josiah swings around to look at his dad. His parents nod together. I grin. For once, I can get to my aching feet without feeling like I have so many layers of blankets on me.
“- and we still have the garden to tend to,” Mr. Knect finishes as he wraps Josiah up in another hug and plants a kiss on his forehead. I push in my chair and lean on the backrest. Another ripple of pain from the past rips through me. Another spasm in my heart that I need to get in check and learn to control.
All pain is a little bit unique. Dad would’ve wanted me to remember that.
Mr. Knect takes the last camping lantern on the table and urges me and Josiah to get some rest. Mrs. Knect appears next to me and offers a warm smile. “The spare bedroom upstairs is yours, Rayland,” she says.
With a half-bow, I mutter, “Thank you.” I drift from the table to follow Mrs. Knect, who puts her rifle back on its mount and. With a huff, she shoves the walkie-talkie Bob had left into a kitchen drawer as if she can’t stand the sight of it.
Walking upstairs is like stepping into a new country.
I’ve been to Josiah’s house a few times, just never to the second floor. One carpeted step after another whisks me higher, my knees and thighs complaining in a distant way. I check my watch: 10:37 PM. I just want to bury my face in a bed so badly.
Mrs. Knect shows me to the guest bedroom, which is on the north side of the second floor. The space is plenty cozy. With her lantern in hand, Josiah’s mom lights up the full-sized bed and the throw rug neatly folded across the bottom half. There’s a dresser in the corner and a small handcrafted armchair beside my new bed. While my windows are mostly boarded up, I can make out the faint outlines of trees in between the slats of wood. Sleet falls without a sound.
“The bathroom’s back down the hallway and before the stairs.” Mrs. Knect steps up to me and cups her hand against my face. “I knew my son would be safe with someone like you: a good teammate and a friend.”
Something in me reaches out to her as clearly as an outstretched hand, though neither one of us can see it. I set my bag down in the armchair and reply, “Thank you, Mrs. Knect.”
She nods before excusing herself, leaving me with only the light from my headlamp and fewer layers of cold than I expected. The fireplace downstairs really does heat the whole house.
I begin to wind down for the night. All four walls move in with the silent force of some faceless sentry. The sound of Josiah’s parents fades away once they head back downstairs. A hush falls over the house. Through the crack in my door, there comes the shuffle of bare feet across the carpet, then the flash of the bathroom light before Josiah closes the door.
Hospitality. There’s so much of it flooding into me, from the family pictures on the walls to the plush comforter. I strip down to my boxer-briefs and slide into my new bed. Here I am, a stranger in a place where only people with blood ties should be allowed to go. The way Josiah’s mom had looked at me, I could tell there wasn’t an inkling of doubt or suspicion: she sees me as Josiah’s closest friend, someone from the past who can help him ride out this uncertain future.
Certainly not someone who could be gay like her oldest son.
Definitely not someone who’s had a hell of a crush on Josiah for the last year.
Neither of his parents ever found out that about me. How I’m like their son, or how I like him with so much of this willpower flooding my heart. I turn over to face the closed bedroom door. I’m a passing guest. Someone who wouldn’t have made it alive to this point without the help and support of one person: Josiah.
The bed lets me sink deeper, and I lose myself in the sheets before sleep whisks me away.