Chapter Six~ Drive
The jeep (with its full tank of gas) is a tight squeeze, but not altogether uncomfortable and a definite improvement from walking. Brie, Becky and I sit in the back, with Nate on Becky’s lap and Baby bear on mine. Mason is driving. It seemed only fair to let Jared ride shotgun since his legs are much longer than any of us girls.
The ride is a bumpy start, but eventually Mason manages to find what appears to be an overgrown dirt road. It doesn’t seem to have been used in some time. It’s heading west, so we take advantage of it as long as possible.
As the sun begins to set in the sky, I can see a shadow looming ahead. Mason also sees it and begins to slow down. The jeep idles approximately a football field away from the barn.
“Should we check it out?” Mason asks.
“It might be a good place to spend the night.” Jared murmurs.
I nod my agreement and turn to Brie and Becky, passing Baby bear into Brie’s lap. “You guys wait here.”
Mason looks as though he wants to argue with me, but he doesn’t. We both know that if something dangerous is in there that I’m our best line of defense. We get out and approach the barn. Mason and Jared both insist on going first. Shaking my head softly, I roll my eyes and follow them.
We find the barn blessedly empty. As I look around I realize it’s kind of perfect for us. The large doors are big enough to drive the jeep into, and the dirt floor could hold a small fire. My eyes venture to the ladder in the corner. I make my way over to it, stepping on the bottom rung, testing my weight on it.
“Maybe I should do that?” Mason says, trying to hide his concern.
“I want to see if it’s safe up there. I weigh less than both of you, so if it’s unstable it will be safer for me then you. Plus, if I fall, you can catch me.” I give him my best smile before I start up the ladder.
My head finally clears the hole in the ceiling and there’s a very large loft, complete with some leftover hay. I pull myself up and plant a tentative foot on the floor. I slowly yet carefully walk the length of the loft. The floor creaks a bit, but it feels solid. The open end even has a half of a wall built, so Becky will only have to keep a close eye on Nate if he gets close to the ladder.
“C’mon up!” I yell to Mason and Jared. I suspect Mason was already halfway up the ladder, because he’s next to me seconds later.
After Mason and Jared deem the loft safe for habitation, we get the others. Mason pulls the Jeep in, shutting the engine quickly so we don’t fill the barn with exhaust fumes. We’re all excited about our find after sleeping outside last night.
Brie puts Baby bear down and heads straight for the ladder. She lets out a small whoop when she reaches the top. “I’m going to make us some beds with this hay!” She calls down.
Becky puts Nate down and stretches. “This is great.” She says.
Mason and Jared unload some of our supplies from the Jeep. I find a flashlight and explore the dark room we found in the back of the barn. To my delight, I find a lantern and some old blankets. I drag them out while the guys bring in wood to start a fire. Jared stacks it in a pile while Mason uses an old shovel hanging on the wall to dig out a pit.
With the use of some large stones, we have a decent fire going in the makeshift pit. Brie and I lug the blankets up the ladder. She has separated the hay into four different piles: two of them a little larger than the others. We lay the blankets over them and test them out. A little itchy, but much better than anything we could have hoped for.
After we eat, Becky excuses herself and Nate. Mason helps safely climb up the ladder, and the rest of us quiet down a bit so Nate can go to sleep.
Baby bear is curled up in my lap. He drank almost half of my water and ate the scraps of our dinner. He seems content.
The four of us wait until the fire is almost out. I use the last few embers to light the lantern and hand it to Jared. It’s an interesting climb up the ladder, with Mason and me passing Baby bear back and forth. Finally we all reach the top, and I feel safer than I have in the past 48 hours.
Jared finds a piece of plywood and quietly drags it over the hole with the ladder, cutting us off from the world below. Mason drags me to one of the larger hay beds, and I curl up between him and Baby bear, finding myself much more tired than I realized and quickly drifting off to sleep.
It’s the rattling of the large barn doors that wakes me. We had secured them from the inside before going to sleep. As I sit up, Mason awakens, too. His eyes grow wide. I wiggle around a still sleeping Baby bear and go over to Brie, shaking her awake quietly. Mason wakes Jared up similarly and Brie follows suit with Becky, leaving Nate blissfully sleeping and silent.
Jared and Brie begin moving towards the ladder. I shake my head violently at them. I point from Brie, to Baby bear and Becky, and then do the same to Jared. I look at Mason for confirmation and find it. We’ll do this together—no need to risk the safety of the others.
Jared and Mason quietly remove the plywood from the ladder opening. I silently indicate for Jared to put it back when we go. Mason gives Jared the keys to the Jeep. Jared’s eyes widen, his head shaking minutely. They do one of those weird guy handshakes before Mason follows me down the ladder.
Though it’s morning and the sun is shining, the barn remains shrouded in darkness. Cracks of light seep in through loose boards on the walls, but not enough for anyone outside to distinguish anything inside.
I make my way to one of those cracks and peer out, expecting the worst. I don’t see anything, so I move to the wall on the opposite side of the massive barn doors. Mason is by my side, though I’d prefer he stay behind me. Even though I’m technically armed, Mason surely would fight me on that.
I see a moving shadow. I lean against the rough barn wall, trying to angle my head into a better position to see the shadow’s owner. I have no idea if the infection has made it this far yet, or the hysteria, for that matter. Frankly, they both scare the crap out of me.
Finally, I see an old man. He doesn’t appear to be infected or hysterical, maybe just a little pissed. I turn to Mason, put my hands up in the universal ‘I don’t know’ gesture and shrug. Then I move, so he can see for himself. His reaction is the same as mine. Maybe we can talk our way out of this one. The thought gives me hope. I really don’t feel like zapping anyone this morning.
Mason un-barricades the door and opens it. The old man steps in with something we hadn’t noticed through the crack in the wall, a shotgun. He starts by pointing it at Mason, then trailing it over to me. He finally settles it on a spot in between us. Both of our hands shoot out in front of us.
“Hey, we don’t mean any harm.” Mason says, talking calmly. “We just needed a place to spend the night.”
“You all infected?” The old man asks, suspiciously.
“No, sir.” I answer. “We made it out just before…” My voice trails off. No need to go into detail. If he knows about the infection, he doesn’t need the gory details.
He eyes me, and Mason stiffens as the shotgun follows his line of sight.
“Where are you all headed?” he asks.
“West,” Mason answers immediately. Much to my horror, the man turns his attention and his shotgun in Mason’s direction.
I focus on concentrating energy, not a lethal dose, but enough to stun the old man, should the need arise. I just hope if it comes down to it, I’m faster with the energy than he is with that shotgun.
It’s at that point Nate lets out a loud wail, and our cover is fully blown. The old man’s eyes shoot up towards the loft area, but he lowers his gun. “So, there’s more of you, huh. And children?”
I figure at this point, the truth can’t hurt. “There are five adults including us, and one child.”
He nods his head and appears to be thinking, stroking the few whiskers on his chin.
“We’ll be on our way shortly.” Mason adds.
The old man shakes his head and then takes a step forward. “Probably be better if you all came to the house, had a real meal before leaving. The wife would have my hide, what with you having a child with you and all.”
The relief is instant, and I can tell by how Mason’s shoulders drop, that his is also. “It’s alright, Jared, you can open up and come down!” I holler up to everyone.
Making my way over to the ladder, to help get everyone down safely, I don’t miss Mason keeping himself between the old man and the rest of us. He sticks his hand out to the man. “I’m Mason, sir. Pleased to meet you, and sorry about taking over your barn for the night.”
The old man shakes his hand. “Name’s Jack. Can’t say I mind that much, just got to be careful with all of these sick and crazy people running about. It’s the oddest thing though. The infection was running rampant, then it just stopped a little ways east of here. It spread out around us to the North and South, but nothing here at all.”
“We can’t thank you enough, Jack.” I say, now that everyone is safely down. “I’m Kat; this is Brie, Becky, Jared and Nate.” I shift Baby bear in my arms and Jack’s eyes bulge in disbelief.
“And that?” He motions to the furball in my arms.
“This is Baby bear. His mom was infected and attacked us. He was orphaned when, well, when we took her down.”
“Is it safe?”
“Yes, sir, it’s just a baby.” Brie answers before I’m able.
He nods. “Okay, then, follow me.”
He leads us around the back of the barn and up a trail none of us had noticed yesterday. After a short walk through the woods, a large white house comes into view. It looks a bit weathered, but it’s a glorious sight with its chimney plume of smoke and obvious electricity.
Jack’s wife, Mariette, is overjoyed to see us. She quickly begins fixing us a large breakfast, and gushes over Nate. She doesn’t even bat an eyelash at Baby bear, but sits him on a blanket in the corner of the kitchen. She places a small bowl of milk and a hunk of bread in front of him.
Their hospitality is overwhelming, but very welcome. Mariette offers for us to wash up, and the idea of a hot shower is too alluring for any of us to pass up. We let Becky and Nate go first, while Jared and Mason go grab our bags.
I’m amazed that their TV is working. When I ask Jack, he tells me they have a satellite. Nothing else would work this far out in the middle of nowhere. He’s tuned into CNN, and sure enough, they have a map up of the infection. It has spread much further than I’d hoped and has a half moon cut out around it, at our location.
I get so absorbed that I jump when Mason puts his arm around me. We watch together, until it’s my turn to use the bathroom.
The hot water is therapeutic, and my muscles relax for the first time in days. My legs and shoulders ache from hiking through the woods, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. After dressing in clean clothes, I comb out my hair and put it into a long braid. I feel better than I have since, well, you know.
I think of my mom, and pain tears through my chest. I hope she’s alright, but I’m sure she’s infected. Downtown was lost almost immediately. She never even had a chance.
I fight the tears. She’d be happy to see that I’m safe, if only momentarily. I collect my things so Mason and Jared can have their turns in the shower. I check on Baby bear, who is sleeping happily on his blanket. Then my attention returns to the TV, where Jared and Brie sit with Jack.
CNN shows two doctors arguing over the map. One insists that the small crescent is slowly, very minutely, pushing back against the infection. The other argues its impossibility, declaring there must be some magnetic field or energy anomaly that is holding the infection off.
Jared cocks his head to the side as a commercial comes on. It’s nice to see his fear of me has faded as well as my suspicions regarding him. “I wonder…”
“What?” Brie asks.
He continues to stare at me while piecing something together. “I just think it’s an odd coincidence that we happen to be in the middle of this uninfected area, and one of their theories is an energy anomaly.” He looks at me pointedly.
The wheels in Brie’s mind turning the same way as Jared’s.
“No way!” I tell them. “It couldn’t be.”
“Couldn’t it, though?” Brie says, turning to me. “Think about it, Kat. It’s totally possible. Remember Mr. Murphy’s class?”
I do remember. It’s possible, though highly unlikely. “I still don’t believe it.” I shake my head.
“Don’t believe what?” Mason asks, looking refreshed after his shower.
I sigh. “Jared and Brie think I’m the energy anomaly keeping the infection at bay.”
“Huh?” Great! Now here he goes, too.
After quietly observing us the whole time, Jack pipes up. “Why do you think she’s responsible?” He asks.
The four of us exchange a look. What the hell! This whole ‘keep it a secret’ thing hasn’t really been working out so far anyway. I tell Jack the story, and brace myself the whole time in case he freaks out, but he doesn’t.
When I’m all done, he looks at me. “It sounds to me like a theory worth testing out.”
“Yeah, but how can we do it safely?” Mason asks.
“Well, if this guy on TV is right, we should just have to hike a little ways north or south and have Kat blast it.” Jared says, “Then wait and see if it starts pushing back.”
“You are all certainly welcome to stay for a few days, so we can test it.” Jack tells us.
“If you’re staying it’ll be here at the house.” Mariette says from the kitchen doorway. “We have the room to spare.”
“What do you think?” Brie asks me.
What can I say? No, I’m not willing to try to stop those creepy nanobots from taking over the world? “Just point me where you want me.” I offer weakly.
Jack and Mariette ultimately convince us to stay for a few days. We are all absurdly grateful for their hospitality and what’s more, a sense of normalcy.
That night, Brie, Jared, Mason, Jack and I go to bed earlier than we usually would. After carefully studying some local maps with Jack, we decided to head north about a half mile, so I can do my thing and we can test everyone’s theory.
Jack insists on coming along. It’ll be probably an easier hike with someone who knows the land. Mostly, I think he just wants to see me zap something.
Mariette, Becky, Nate and Baby bear see us off early the next morning. With explicit instructions to shoot first and ask questions later, Jack leaves Mariette the shotgun. I shoot Becky a meaningful look of my own. She nods a silent promise to handle anything Mariette can’t.
We haven’t grown calloused, just cautious and wary. The infection aside, all it will take is one hysterical person to bring our safe little haven to its knees.
We go on foot. We offer the Jeep, but Jack insists the terrain will be easier on foot. It takes us about two hours before Jack declares we’ve hit the desired area. Brie, Mason and Jared stay back. Jack begins to creep forward towards me, but Brie places a hand on his shoulder and gently shakes her head. I’m grateful. The last thing I would want to do is inadvertently hurt Jack.
I feel the familiar charge run through me. It’s more powerful today. I turn back to them. “How much juice should I give it?” I ask.
Brie and Jared shrug while Jack just gapes at me. It’s Mason who replies. “Give it all you got, I guess.”
Okay, all I got. No problem. This time, it’s as though the energy can’t wait to escape. I flex my hands before facing them towards each other in front of me. The energy sphere glows a bright blue. It’s much darker than any of the ones I’ve previously tried. I call out behind me. “You guys might want to get down.”
I aim at the northern horizon and throw the brightly glowing orb as far as I can. It explodes instantly and the aftershock is immediate. It’s so strong it throws me back a few feet onto my butt.
I feel better instantly, which then leads me to worry. Do I have to throw these things every couple of days to feel better? That’s not an issue I’m ready to address. My attention to the others to distracts me as I get to my feet.
Jack’s expression is priceless. The others are still shocked, but I’m sure Jack has never seen anything like this before.
Mason comes to my side. “You alright?”
“Yeah, I feel great actually.” I tell him. He gives me a quick kiss. “That was a big one.”
“Yeah,” Brie says, “that was freaking awesome, Kat.”
Even Jared seems relaxed this time. “If that doesn’t test our theory, then I don’t know what will.”
Jack seems to finally recover. I wait to see the wariness in his eyes, but it never comes. I see some awe and perhaps some newfound respect, but no fear. “We should probably get back.”
We begin the return hike. The fluff ball known as Baby bear bombards us upon our return. The attachment to him is an unexpected surprise. There goes my original play to rehabilitate Baby bear to live a happy bear life. Although he chose me as his family, I’m honestly not upset about it.
Our little exploration group is starving, and lunch is very welcome. Mariette has the kitchen table spread out buffet style and we dig in. We bring our plates to the living room and focus on the TV.
We all watch, anticipating some reaction from our experiment this morning. Sometime mid-afternoon, I fall asleep—with my head resting on Mason’s chest and a cuddly Baby bear in my lap. It’s Mason who nudges me gently awake again. I glance out the window to see the sun hanging low in the sky, but it’s the TV that Mason is stares at. His mouth’s slightly agape.
I try to clear the fog my impromptu nap has left in my head while focusing on the screen. Brie looks at me in wonder. “Kat, you did it.”
That snaps me right out of it. I focus on the TV, watching the uninfected crescent on the map begin to bulge out to the north. Jared grabs the remote and turns the volume up:
“…as the infection spreads as far south as Georgia, and as far west as Virginia. Scientists are still baffled by the uninfected area in Eastern Upstate New York.” The face on the TV changes, “Thank you, Sam. What baffles us the most is this newer fluctuation to the north. If we can figure out what is causing this, then maybe we can stop the spread of the infection…”
I can’t listen to anymore. Shifting Baby bear into Mason’s lap, I try not to think of the implications when I leave the room and go to the front porch. Sitting on the steps and watching Mother Nature paint the sky in orange and pink, I don’t realize I’m not alone until the stair above me squeaks.
Jack stares out at the sky and sits on the opposite end of the stairway. “It must be scary, having all of this thrust onto you.”
I glance over at him. “Yeah, you could say that.”
“Overwhelming, I’d bet.” He continues. I wait for him to get to the point. “See, if it were me, I’d feel obligated to do everything I can to stop it. But as an outsider, I can also stop and ask at what price?”
“You lost me.” I tell him.
“Well, I was talking with Mason earlier, and he voiced his concerns about what could happen to you if the higher powers discover your knack for stopping these things.”
“Oh, yeah.” I don’t have a better answer for him or myself. All of this information has my brain on overload.
His voice softens. “You know you can stay here, as long as you like. Nobody else has to know if you don’t want them to.”
As his words finally steel my resolve, I know what I have to do and what choice I have to make. My eyes tear up, and my strained voice answers him. “Thanks, Jack. But I can’t just do nothing. If I’m able to stop them, then how can I possibly not try to?”
He nods and strokes his chin whiskers. “I understand. I know we haven’t known each other very long, but I’m proud of you. Too many others in your situation would be more concerned with self-preservation than trying to stop this insanity.”
I feel myself blush. “It’s the right thing to do.” I say quietly.
“Yes,” Jack agrees, “yes, it is. Now come eat. You’re going to need your strength if you’re going to save the world.”
My unscheduled nap this afternoon throws off my sleep pattern. At midnight, I give up on trying to go to sleep and wander downstairs, nearly tripping over Baby bear, asleep on the floor next to my bed.
I tread quietly down the stairs and find myself in the kitchen. I’m anxious, not really knowing what the future will hold, or the best course of action to take. It literally feels like the weight of the world is on my shoulders.
A noise from the living room draws my attention. As I go into the room, I find the TV still on and Jack in his armchair.
The volume is muted, but a familiar face is on the screen again. Dr. Julian Ford’s face looks much more tired and haggard than the last time he was on. Bet he’s just as frustrated as I am.
Something clicks in my overactive brain. I turn to Jack. “Hey, I don’t suppose you have a computer here?” I ask.
“Mariette keeps one in her little office. I couldn’t tell you how to use it though.”
I smile. “I can figure that part out. Do you guys have internet access?”
He just stares at me blankly, so I ask. “Never mind, is it alright if I use it?”
“Go for it.” He goes back to his silent TV watching.
I find the computer easily. It’s an older model, but starts up without any problems. Keeping my fingers crossed I click on the browser. It takes a few minutes, but the window loads up, much to my glee.
I go to my favorite search engine and type in BioNano. I click on the link to their website and begin searching for Dr. Ford’s email address. It takes a little while, but eventually I find it. I copy it, then load up my own email:
From: Kat Greene
To: Dr. Julian Ford
Subject: Viable Information
Dear Dr. Ford,
I’m not sure if you remember me, I was with a group of students Mr. Murphy introduced you to a couple of weeks ago.
I have some information that might help you regarding the uninfected area. I could also really use your help.
My finger lingers over the send button for a moment. Dr. Ford seemed very nice, but I don’t know him from the next guy. If I do this, it means exposing myself to the powers that be. Maybe I should discuss it with everyone first? No, Mason would fight me on it. In my heart, I know I have to do this if there’s any chance of stopping these things. I click the button and wait.
My email pings after a short while. Of course he remembers me, what information do I have, and how can he help. It’s all or nothing time. I begin by asking for his discretion for my situation. Then I dive right in, telling him the whole story. Again, I hit send and wait.
His response is what I was expecting. He’s more curious than anything and wishes he could meet me. He provides what information he can, and tells me he has much more research to do now. He promises to be in touch again soon. As I shut the computer down, I see Mason in the doorway behind me. I guess I should get this part over with, too.
He gets mad. It’s our first fight, and part of me is very angry about it. Were it not for this situation, we wouldn’t be having it. His anger only escalates when I tell him that I intend to meet with Dr. Ford. Eventually, though, he calms. He sees the rationalization of it, even if he’s not happy about it. Then he declares he’s coming with me, and I can’t do anything to stop him.
I don’t argue with him. It’s selfish of me, I know, but I don’t want to be without him. I don’t even think I can do it without him. Part of me cringes at telling Brie. Because I’m going to ask her to stay here, and I know she’s going to freak.
Mason and I talk until the early morning before he demands we get some rest. When we get upstairs he tries to release my hand, but I don’t let go. I tug him onto the bed next to me and curl up next to him before I drift off to sleep.
The sun wakes me. I don’t feel well rested, no surprise after how late I was up the night before. I just lay for a minute, so my mind can catch up to the rest of me. Baby bear finds his way onto the bed, and snuggles between Mason and me. I watch them both, and enjoy the moment, not knowing when or if I will have it again.
We need to leave today. I’m not even sure where Dr. Ford is, but I know the longer we wait the worse it all will get.
I scoop up Baby bear and place him next to Mason, so I can get moving. I grab some clean clothes and use the bathroom. When I get downstairs Mariette has breakfast cooking.
“Mariette, I hope it’s alright that I used your computer last night. I was hoping I could again quickly?” I ask.
“Sure, dear, not a problem.” She goes back to flipping sausage patties.
I fire up the monstrosity a second time. It’s still rather quick for such an old computer. When I reach my inbox there’s another email from Dr. Ford. He agrees we should meet. He has some information for me, but he’d rather tell me in person. He can only get as far east as Columbus, Ohio. His current position in BioNano’s Washington State facility is no help to us. That leaves us quite a way to go.
Once everyone is awake and has eaten, I sit everyone down except for Mason who prefers to pace about the kitchen. He’s uncomfortable with both the situation and the conversation.
Brie doesn’t take the news or my request very well. She stomps off, and I’m surprised to hear Jared begin to speak. “You guys should let Brie and I come with you.”
My eyebrows shoot up. “What?”
“We can help. And she doesn’t want to leave you.” Jared says so plainly that I go off looking for Brie.
I find her on the back porch. “I’m sorry.” I tell her.
“How can you think I’m just going to let you go off without me?” She yells.
I wince. “It’s not like that Brie. You’re safe here.”
“I’m safer with you.” She counters.
I sit next to her on the porch swing. “Brie, we have to go far through the infected area. I can keep it at bay, but if you get infected, then what if I can’t stop it? I can’t lose you, too.”
“Please, Kat.” She looks at me. Brie never begs. “I’ll go crazy here, not knowing if you’re alright. I’ll be careful. I promise.”
She knows she’s wearing me down. “Jared offered to go along, too, if you wanted to go.”
It’s her blush that gives her away. “That’s sweet of him.”
“Yeah, it kind of is.” I agree.
“So, we can come?”
I sigh. “I guess. It’s not that I don’t want you with me, Brie. I just want you safe.”
“I know.” She hugs me and hops up. “And we can stay safe together.”
It’s decided that the four of us and Baby bear will continue west. Becky and Nate will stay here with Jack and Mariette until we hopefully return. Or stop this nonsense.
I reply to Dr. Ford’s email to let him know we’ll be leaving tomorrow, but we don’t know how long it will take to get there. I print out his response. It has the address in Columbus and a series of security codes, in case we need them to get through any of the military checkpoints they’ve constructed.
Jack provides us with a full tank of gas for the Jeep. He also promises to take care of Becky and Nate. Mariette begins putting food and provisions together for us. While I have access to the internet, because I have no idea when I might again, I use satellite maps to plot as many back roads between here and Columbus as possible.
Dinner is quiet. Nobody wants to talk about what tomorrow will bring. Those of us leaving try to project a fake confidence, while those staying can’t hide their concern.
I give Becky and Nate a hug before we go to bed. I hope to see them again, and we’re leaving early. I give Mariette a hug also and thank her again for her kindness. Jack accepts my hug, but tells me to save my goodbyes for the morning. I go to bed with a heavy heart.