Chapter Eight~ Knowledge
Once we cross the line into what was formerly infected territory, just a few hours ago, my anxiety is through the roof. We talk about stopping, but ultimately decide against it. Mason and Jared drive in shifts. We cover as much ground as we can as quickly as possible.
Thanks to our previous scary stop, we have not only a full tank of gas, but a full gas can, too. Even with the windows down the smell is kind of giving me a headache. It’s nice to know we don’t have to stop for a while though, especially after last time…
After a few hours, I make Mason stop. We’re on top of a large hill and I figure it’s time to send out another energy sphere. I aim southwest, and let one fly, even though I don’t see any evidence of the infection. I want to play it safe.
Since we’ve stuck to the back roads, we haven’t run into anyone else. This is more than fine by me. Brie and Jared go back and forth in a debate over what is happening to those who were infected once I zap them. Brie thinks that they’re cured. Jared argues instead that they fall back. I try not to think about it.
I wish there was some way that we could communicate with Jack, Mariette and Becky, but all of our cell phones are still not working. If we ever find a land line, we can give them a call. So far, we haven’t come across any. It sure would help to know where the infected area begins now, though.
We have another issue coming up though. We’ll have to cross the Hudson River to continue on our way. This means a bridge, and even worse, main roads—unless some sort of miracle happens.
As we make our way to the eastern banks of the Hudson, I study the map and try to find the safest possible way across. It’s not looking very good. I direct Mason towards the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. It seems the most obscured. Unfortunately though, there are still some major roadways to contend with. We travel north along the back roads of the river until Mason suddenly turns, veering off course.
“Where are you going?” I ask, confused.
“Look,” he points.
I see a marina come into view. A beautiful marina filled with boats of all varieties. And I see one that might just get us across the river. Mason sees it too and pulls up right next to it.
In the mayhem of the infection spreading, some wonderful person left a barge and tugboat docked at the small marina. We all get out of the car to assess the situation.
“Huh.” Brie says. I’m with her.
“The barge would be extremely useful. Not only could we get across, we could even take it down river partway, save some miles.” Jared comments.
“Yeah, have to get off well before the big cities though.” Mason agrees.
I eye the small dock suspiciously. “Um, guys? Not to be the pessimist here, but I don’t think that dock is going to support the Jeep.”
Mason and Jared look at each other, and I have a feeling they will find a way.
Fifteen minutes later we clear the barge and tugboat. Brie and I watch from the edge of the barge with Baby bear. Mason and Jared use some steel beams they found to get the Jeep from the dock to the barge. I insist all of our supplies board with Brie and me just in case. It’d be bad enough to lose the Jeep, but all of our food, too? That’d be catastrophic.
I almost squeeze my eyes shut as Mason closes the last few feet and the Jeep boards the barge. Jared lets out a whoop. Brie and I rush to help him and the beams onto our new mode of transportation.
I have to admit there are worse ways to travel. I’m officially sold on river travel. The barge moves slowly, and as we pass by some more urban areas, I’ll admit that I get nervous. I throw an energy ball into the river just to be safe, and watch from the front of the barge as we pass by one abandoned waterfront after another.
Almost too soon, Mason and Jared call from the tugboat. It’s a shame we can’t risk taking the river down further. I pass Baby bear to Brie, and begin helping the guys lug the steel beams.
“Ready to switch, Mason?” Jared asks.
“Sounds good. I’m tired anyway.” He climbs into the back with me.
I feel rather than see him looking at me as we drive off again. Staring out at the window, I try to lose myself in the scenery but it’s not really working.
Mason squeezes my hand gently. “How are you doing?” He asks.
My attention turns to him. His concern causes a brow to furrow and frown to mar his handsome face. “I’m feeling better.” I tell him, trying to comfort him.
“I know that you’re feeling better,” he whispers, “and I also know that you’re stressing out over what happened back there.”
I stare at my hands. “Yeah, I am.” There’s no use in lying to him. Apparently I’m not as good at hiding my emotions as I thought.
“You had no other choice, Kat.” He turns my face to his, so I have no choice but to look him in the eye. “You know that, right?”
“Most of me does.” I tell him.
He pulls me into him, wrapping his arms around me. It helps as we continue driving and night starts to fall.
I’m not sure when I fell asleep. The sky is brightening, and when I look behind me I see the soft light of dawn over the horizon. Mason and Brie are both still sleeping. Brie’s softly snoring and (I notice) covered with Jared’s jacket. I shift in my seat, adjust Baby bear in my lap, and try to get some blood flowing in my sleeping right leg.
I catch Jared’s eyes in the rearview mirror when I’m settled. “Any idea where we are?” I ask him quietly.
He shakes his head. “I was going to stop soon. I don’t want to go too far in the wrong direction.”
I see a hill in the distance. “Stop up there,” I tell him, “At the top.”
Jared pulls over. I dig out the map, handing it to him along with the compass. I tell him I’ll be right back. I take advantage of a well-placed bush before going to the top of the hill to look around. All to the north and west of us seems clear, but I’m able to make out the metallic fog towards the south. I go back to the Jeep to warn the other’s before I throw another sphere. No need to scare them by waking them up with the aftershock.
I clear my throat when I reach the Jeep. Brie is awake; she and Jared interlocked from mouth to thigh. They jump apart—Brie blushing and Jared grinning idiotically. I smile, feeling happy for Brie and hoping I didn’t interrupt their first kiss. “Sorry.” I tell them.
“Not your fault,” Brie says. She glances at me and I wink at her. I don’t miss the huge smile she throws my way before she composes herself.
I wake up Mason. He bounces right up. He’s a morning person, even after sleeping in a Jeep. We let Baby bear out to do his business. I wait for everyone to get back into the Jeep before climbing back to the top of the hill. I turn to the freaky metallic fog and focus my energy. I try not to use quite as much as yesterday, just in case. Now that I know I can run out of energy, I need to be careful.
Since I’m getting used to the aftershock, I brace myself for it and manage to remain on my feet. I crouch down and watch the effect the energy explosion has on the metallic fog. I see the edges of the fog left after the explosion retreat, waver and then disappear altogether. I’m not sure if this supports Brie’s theory, Jared’s, or neither.
Regardless, the fog is barely visible now, so it’s safe for us to continue on. Mason notices my tiredness when climbing into the front seat next to him. Brie suggests we stop when we find some place with electricity. I don’t argue with her.
I make a big effort to improve my mood, or at least my outer appearance. Both Brie and Mason’s concern seems to be growing by the minute. If they’re worrying about me, then they’re not paying as much attention to covering their asses as they should be.
We stop for lunch when we cross the border into Pennsylvania. I figure we’re about halfway to Columbus now. It’s hard to be certain though. Just because the first half of the trip was mostly uneventful, doesn’t mean we will bode as well for the rest of the trip. All things considered, we’ve been lucky so far. It makes me wonder when our luck is going to run out.
Baby bear eats most of my lunch. I’m not really hungry, and after forfeiting my sandwich I nibble on a blueberry muffin Mariette packed. Bless that woman and her kitchen.
“We’re going to have to make another gas-stop soon or abandon the Jeep.” Jared breaks the bad news.
We all look at each other. We all remember too well the last time we stopped for gas. As I look at each of them, I realize that they are all looking at me. Oh. “I don’t know. What do you guys think?” I don’t want this to be my decision.
“We’re making great time with the Jeep. It’d be a shame to lose it.” Mason points out.
“But is it worth the risk?” Brie asks quietly.
“I don’t know.” I murmur. They’re all still looking at me. “I guess we can try, but the first sign of trouble and we’re out of there.” They nod. “And this time, we do it my way.” I can’t help but add.
Mason shoots me a look, but I hold firm. I get the overprotective boyfriend bit. Really, I do. However, if I’m the one who has to bear the brunt of my actions, I’d feel better if it’s my decisions that get us there. He must see something in my expression, because he doesn’t push it any further…for now, anyway.
I pull out the map and try to figure out not only where we are, but also the safest possible town to stop in. “We need to find a place that’s not too big.” I say.
“What about this place?” Mason points to the map. “I don’t think that we’re too far from it.”
“It can’t be too big,” Brie pipes in. “It’s hardly a dot on the map.”
Jared shrugs, “Looks good to me.”
Just like that a unanimous decision is made. The fact that the decision was not left solely up to me gives me great relief. It doesn’t take very long for the anxiety to kick in though. By the time we reach the last crest in the dirt road before the town, my heart is pounding in my chest. “Pull over up here, Jared.” Even my voice betrays me, wavering as I speak.
Jared pulls over and we all get out. “Hey,” Mason pulls me aside. “We’ll do this your way. Forget about before. Tell us what to do.”
What I’d really like to tell him is to stay here (where it’s safe) with Brie, Jared and Baby bear, where it’s and let me go check out the town to see if it’s there’s any trouble. I doubt Mason would agree to this. In fact, I’m pretty sure it would be a surefire way to piss him off. I pull him around the back of the Jeep, towards Brie and Jared. Baby bear stretches in the backseat before rolling over, not concerned with our stopping.
I look at all of them, already eyeing me expectantly. “Brie, Jared, you guys to stay here. We’re going to leave you the gun and everything but the gas can to look after. Mason and I will go ahead and check things out.”
Nobody complains or voices any objections to my plan.
“Jared, see if you can’t get the Jeep a little more out of sight.” He nods. I grab two bottles of water out of the back of the Jeep and toss one to Mason. From the look of the sky, it’s still early in the afternoon, and we should be able to get back before dark. “You ready?” I look at Mason.
“Let’s hit it.” He replies.
I figure that it’s maybe an hour long hike to the town from where we left the Jeep, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. I double check the map and compass frequently and lead us through the dense forest towards the edge of the town. As we finally see a break in the trees, I motion to Mason to be quiet and stay down. I see him readjust the tire iron he brought in his hands.
I peer from between the trees. It’s a typical one road small town with all of the businesses lining the main drag. We have a good vantage point, but there’s no one on the street below. “It looks clear.” I whisper to Mason. “Stay close, and try not to make any noise.”
He nods. We make a good team. Mason stays right behind me, matching each of my neurotic moves. We make our way to the gas station without incident, but part of me still waits for someone to jump out with guns blazing.
“Where the hell is everybody?” Mason asks, when it’s very clear that we’re all alone.
“I’m not sure.” I tell him. This bothers me. Now that I really think about it, we haven’t come across anyone from an infected area. I thought maybe we’ve been lucky, sticking to back roads, but now I’m beginning to think it must be something more. “Let’s fill the can and get back to the Jeep. We can drive here to fill up. I’d like to be well past here when night falls.” This whole ghost town thing is getting creepier by the minute.
We move quickly. I can tell Mason is freaked out too—his eyes constantly looking around us for signs of trouble. By the time we reach the Jeep, the lack of survivors around disturbs me. What good is my ability to push back the infection if there’s no one left to save?
By the time darkness falls, we’ve left the ghost town far behind. I wish I could say the same about my concerns. To make matters worse, I’m starting to feel kind of drained. This is something I’m trying very hard to keep to myself. Every time I start to feel a little better it’s time to throw another energy sphere. Not that I really have a perfect formula for it. I prefer throw too many than too few, my own personal welfare be damned.
I’d rather not endanger everyone by admitting I need to stop again. I really don’t want to worry Mason because he insisted recharging at the gas station. I’m sure he’ll notice how quickly that charge has run out. Add in traveling for the past however many hours and lack of a decent night’s sleep for a couple days, I’m practically dead on my feet.
Mason is driving. In the backseat, Brie, Jared and Baby bear curl up and snore softly. We can’t get any stations to come through over the radio, but the Jeep came fully equipped with a 6 disc changer. I have to admit it’s an eclectic mix, though I settle on Mumford and Sons to quietly play as we drive through the night.
Eventually the music lulls me to sleep that I desperately need. This sleep provides no rest, though. Instead, there are dreams from my subconscious that I refuse to process while I’m awake. Swirling images of fallen men and empty towns fill my mind until I escape out by someone shaking my shoulder.
“Kat, Kat, wake up.” Mason whispers. I open my eyes and realize I have tears streaming down my face. “You’re having a nightmare.”
I wipe at my face and feel my cheeks redden. I’m happy it’s hard to see with just the dim lights on the dashboard. “Sorry.” I mutter sheepishly.
Mason glances at me quickly before returning his attention to the road. “There’s nothing to be sorry about, Kat.” He says softly, soothingly. “You don’t always have to be tough, you know, especially with me. That’s kind of my job.”
I soften. Maybe it’s because of sleep deprivation I can’t help but answer truthfully. “If I stop being tough Mason, I think I may just fall apart.”
He reaches over and squeezes my hand. “Well, I’ll be here to put you back together if you do.” He says this with so much ferocity that I have no choice but to believe him, and I do.
I smile my first real smile in days, and Mason rewards me with one too. Was it really just such a short time ago that this was normal? Sure, our horrific adventure has brought us closer, but what I wouldn’t give for a carefree afternoon where the two of us had nothing better to do than sit around and laugh. Maybe one day we’ll be able to do that again. This thought gives me a tiny iota of hope as I drift back off to sleep.
The sound of hushed whispers from Mason, Brie and Jared wake me up. I stretch, and it takes me a moment to hear the anxiety in their tone. Mason pulls the Jeep over and tucks most of it out of sight into the brush.
“What’s going on?” I ask, confused.
“People,” Mason answers softly. “The first people we’ve seen, since…”
“Oh,” I frown, seeing the dilemma. “What do you guys want to do?”
I see Brie’s eyes widen. Jared notices, too. “We can stay here.” He tells her reassuringly.
I nod. “That okay with you?” I ask Mason.
“Yeah,” Mason agrees. “Should we bring the gun this time?”
“No, leave it here. I don’t want to make it seem like we’re looking for trouble.”
Mason hands the gun to Jared, who climbs into the front seat with Brie as soon as we get out. Brie squeezes my hand before I walk away. “Be careful.” She whispers.
“Always,” I promise her.
“So, I take it we’re not going stealth this time?” Mason asks as we walk.
“I don’t know. I want to see what’s going on, but I don’t want to freak anybody out, you know, if things are normal here.”
“Let’s just walk up. If we have to get out of there, well, we’ll figure it out then.”
I nod, but I know what he means. If they are all nuts, then I have to zap them. I’m not crazy about this option, although I suppose it’s better than any alternatives. Is it too much to hope that maybe these could be nice, normal people?
Mason and I walk hand in hand down the dirt lane. We round the corner and I finally see them. For all intents and purposes, they appear to be perfectly normal. It looks like a family, an older couple and their teenage daughter. Their backs are to us, so they don’t notice us yet. I look at Mason and shrug.
“Hello?” I call out to them. They go from normal to aggressive in about one second. When they turn we notice the father aiming a shotgun at us.
Mason and I raise our hands automatically. “We don’t mean any trouble. We’re just passing through.”
The father steps in front of his wife and daughter. “We haven’t seen any people come from that way in days. How do I know you’re not infected?”
“Well sir, as I understand it, I’d have a nasty rash and high fever—neither of us do.”
Mason seems to have this situation under control, so I keep my mouth shut. I focus on the wife and daughter.
“You could be looters.” I can hear in the father’s voice that he’s running out of accusations.
“We’re just trying to get to Columbus. We’ve been running ahead of the infection for days now.”
The man grunts. “What’s in Columbus?”
“We have to meet a scientist there and give him information and samples so we can try to stop this.” I explain, glad to join in the conversation.
Finally, the man lowers his gun. We take a few cautious steps closer. I still have my eye on the mother and daughter. The closer we get, the more I realize that the daughter doesn’t look very well.
“Is she alright?” I ask, trying to keep the fear from my voice.
“She’s fine.” The mom snaps, “Just fine.”
“Don’t mind her, she gets defensive easily.” The father says. “I’m John; this is Lisa and our daughter, Rachel.”
“I’m Mason, and this is Kat.” I see him look at me, and I know his silent question. I shake my head minutely. I don’t want to bring Brie or Jared into this yet.
“You might as well come along, I suppose. Our house is just around the next bend.” John says.
“Thanks,” Mason takes my hand again, and we follow them down the lane.
We are almost to their front door when Rachel’s hair shifts from her neck to over her shoulder. I remain silent as fear freezes my blood. Her neck is covered in a rash. She’s in the first stages of infection.
I nudge Mason with my elbow. One look at his face tells me he’s seen it too. We go inside, and Lisa immediately takes Rachel upstairs. John motions for us to follow him into the kitchen.
“So like I said, you’re the first people we’ve seen come from the east. Hell, up until yesterday I thought we were going to have to evacuate ourselves. Then the fog started pushing back just before it reached us. It was amazing to watch.” John settles in a chair.
I can’t help but notice that they have power at their house. It probably wouldn’t hurt to recharge while I have the chance. I ask to use the bathroom in hopes that there’s an outlet I can use. John directs me down the hall.
It doesn’t take me long before I return to the kitchen. Lisa is back now, too. She’s visibly upset. I can’t imagine what she must be feeling. If only I could be sure of not hurting Rachel, I’d offer to try to help. But it’s also not exactly something I can come right out with. ‘Oh, hey, I happen to be able to zap the nanobots out of things. I can’t control it very well yet, but I could try to zap your daughter and hopefully not kill her.’ Um, no.
I notice Lisa go down the hallway, and I follow her. Very softly, I ask, “Is there anything I can do to help you?”
She seems to immediately understand the double meaning to my question. Her eyes tear up and she looks at the floor. “I doubt it, but thank you.”
I nod. Again, my mind toys with the idea. Do I dare? What choice could possibly be the right one? The more rational part of my brain screams at me to take Mason and run before we can get infected. I take my internal debate back into the kitchen with me.
“We have a couple more people with us and a Jeep. You’ll hear us drive by shortly after we leave.” Mason explains, “I don’t want you to get freaked out when you hear it.”
“Thanks for the warning.” John smiles, “I’d feel bad if I shot you for no reason. Listen, it seems kind of important that you get where you’re going. I have a can of gas out in the garage if it will help your cause.”
“It certainly would, thank you.” Mason answers. I’m still arguing with myself.
“How long do you think it will take, if they find a cure I mean?” My gaze flies to John’s face as he asks.
“We don’t know.” Mason says glumly.
I just can’t stand it anymore. “If there was…something we could do, something that might work, would you want to try it, even if it could be potentially dangerous?” I keep my voice low.
I know that Mason’s staring at me. Maybe it’s not the smartest idea I’ve had. Perhaps it’s the guilt I feel for killing those men. If I do nothing for Rachel, that would make me a monster, too.
John’s gaze locks on mine. “If there was something we could do, I suppose I’d want to try it. It has to be better than the alternative.”
We are all silent for a moment while considering this. It’s Lisa (who none of us noticed come back into the room) that breaks the silence. “If you can help her, please do it. We’ve seen what happens, on TV.” Unable to continue her thoughts, her voice breaks.
Finally, I look at Mason and see the understanding in his eyes. “I can’t make any guarantees.” I tell the couple.
“We understand.” John says and stands. He leads us upstairs to Rachel’s room. I turn in the hall before her doorway.
“I think I should do this alone.” I tell Mason. I don’t know if it will work, and I don’t want him that close to the infection.
He moves back to the top of the stairs and sits down. “I’ll be right here.” I can read the anxiety on his face.
John opens the door and stands back next to Lisa in the hall. I enter the room slowly. Rachel is on her bed, and she appears to be sleeping. As I get closer, I can see her sweat drenched hair and the redness of her skin. The fever must be getting worse.
I sit next to her bed on a chair and try to focus. My plan is to start with the lowest shock possible and slowly work my way up. What makes me nervous is overshooting my stopping point. I’ve already seen the results of that.
I take a shaky breath and touch my palm to her arm. She jumps slightly but I see no further reaction. I sigh and turn it up a notch when I do it again. By my fifth time, Rachel’s entire body convulses, and she shoots into a sitting position. “What the hell?” She screams at me.
A relieved grin bursts across my face. I feel moisture on my cheeks—I can’t believe it worked! Her skin is already returning to its normal color, and the rash on her neck is disappearing before my eyes.
Lisa, John and Mason crowd the door. It takes Lisa no more than a second to reach Rachel’s side.
“Oh, thank heavens!” Lisa cries. She turns to me. “How can I ever thank you enough?”
“No need,” I tell her. “No need at all.”
Mason looks at me: first in awe, then with concern. Weak by the recently expelled energy, my legs give out when I try to stand. I catch myself on the back of the chair. Mason pulls me out of the room and back downstairs, John following shortly after us.
“Is there something I can get you?” John asks me.
I look at Mason. “I think she just needs a few minutes to collect herself.” He answers for me and then looks at me. “Do you think you need the bathroom again? You know, while you have the chance?”
I nod. I’m too tired for talking. Mason gives up on supporting me while I try to walk and carries me into the bathroom. He sits me gently on the floor and goes back to shut the door. After he locks it, he scoops me back up again and leans me against the sink.
“You better get back.” I warn him.
It only takes him a second to comply. When he’s safely by the door I reach my hand to the outlet, and recharge for the second time in less than a half hour. I try not to think of the possible ramifications of this. I keep going until I feel the energy course through me. Maybe if I charge more, I’ll need less? I have no idea.
We manage to make it out of there with few questions. They’re so grateful; I think they’re not asking how I did it out of sheer gratitude. John insists we take all the spare gas he has while Lisa insists we take some food and water. We hike back to the Jeep and continue on our way. Jared drives, and I hug Baby bear close while sitting in the back seat with Mason.
We eat the food Lisa gave us as we drive. I give half of my sandwich to Baby bear and fill up his small bowl with water. He’s really been an incredibly easy travel companion. How long I’ll be able to keep him around is uncertain, but it’ll be at least until he can handle being on his own.
“How close are we, do you think?” Brie asks, breaking me out of my Baby bear thoughts.
I toss the map to Mason. He unfolds it and looks at us. “Maybe one more day?” He tells us.
“At least we have the gas now.” Jared says.
“Yeah, I was worried when you guys took so long.” Brie told us.
We explain what holds us up. Brie beams with excitement, and Jared still regards me with an awe I don’t feel I deserve.
Ignoring their reactions is much easier than it normally would be. Too many questions bounce around in my mind. How was Rachel so obviously infected while the infection wasn’t here? Does that mean I’m not really driving it back like originally predicted? And if it’s so dang contagious, then why weren’t all instantly infected?
What the hell is going on?
All I can hope is that Dr. Ford has some answers for me and for us. I don’t know if these questions are on anybody else’s minds, but I’m sure not going to bring them up for discussion.
Thanks to the new map that Mason acquires from John, we have an update of the local terrain and back roads. We’ll be crossing the border into Ohio any time now. If we keep going at this rate, we might reach Columbus by tomorrow morning.