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Chapter 11 - Clarksburg

“What do you think, Lieutenant?” George Willard asked with his usual soothing baritone voice that had a way of disarming people immediately.

Lieutenant Amy Hammersmith continued to look through her binoculars down at what was left of the small town of Clarksburg, West Virginia as she answered the councilor, “Well, I definitely see what looks like some recently cut trees and cleared brush. The streets look passable. It appears someone has been cleaning up down there, but I don’t see any people.”

“So, we at least know someone has been busy in the town since the Awakening. Is it possible they’re hiding?” George theorized.

“That or they’ve all been killed by bandits. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen a slaughter like that,” she responded morbidly.

“I guess we won’t know until we go down there,” George concluded.

“Agreed, but I think it’s best if you stay up here with Parker until we can scout out the town. We have to assume that they have already heard those damn lies about us. So, it’s very possible we won’t get the nicest welcoming party,” Amy warned.

George shook his head, “All the more reason I need to be there when we first encounter them. It’s my responsibility to convince these folks of our good intentions.”

“OK then,” she said, resigned to the situation. “Let’s go.” Amy pulled the reins and directed her horse back onto the dilapidated road and toward the town. “Keep your eyes open, but no one fire unless I give the order.”

The small team slowly made their way into the town, making no efforts to conceal their approach. It was clear that someone had taken great pains to clear the debris from the main streets and there was even evidence of repairs to some of the buildings, but no one revealed themselves. The town had either been abandoned, or its inhabitants were going to great lengths to stay hidden from the intruders.

As they cautiously made their way downtown, George motioned for them to stop.

“What is it?” Amy practically whispered. The eerie silence of the town had her senses on high alert and even her soft, feminine voice echoed between the squat, crumbling buildings of the town’s center.

George carefully dismounted and stared at the large, rundown, grey brick building. “There,” he said, pointing to the entrance.

Amy looked and almost didn’t notice what he was pointing at, but once she saw it, George’s interest became clear. A sign above the large doors had recently been cleaned. It read Harrison County Court House, but that wasn’t what had caught George’s attention. A crisp American flag flapped in the breeze. It was obvious that the flag was a new addition as no fabric would have lasted thirty years in the elements, much less look brand new.

“My name is George Willard,” George shouted clearly to the seemingly abandoned streets. “We are not here to hurt anyone or take anything from you. We only want to talk with you. We might be able to help each other.”

Only the distant squawk of an angry crow who had been disturbed by the load noise could be heard in reply.

Ray Parker shrugged, “I guess they don’t wanna talk to ya, Professor.”

“Or there really isn’t anyone here,” Amy countered. “Of course, that flag over there says otherwise.”

Undeterred, George tied his horse to a tree that had long ago sprouted directly in the middle of the once busy street, then slowly approached the courthouse with his hands raised.

“The rest of our people will be coming through here soon. If there really is no one here, then it won’t matter and I look idiotic for talking to myself out here. If you are here, then we need to talk to make sure we don’t have any misunderstandings.”

A thunderous crack followed by splinters of concrete pelting George were his first indications that he had successfully made contact. It took his mind a second to realize that he had just been shot at and that the pebbles hitting him were from the impact of the rifle bullet with the crumbling concrete curb just ahead of him. He heard the Regulators hurriedly dismounting and rushing into action behind him.

“Hold your fire!” George ordered franticly, trying to keep the situation from deteriorating further. He had a feeling that the first shot was only a warning, but he was pretty sure that if there was a second, it would be aimed squarely at his head.

“We will defend ourselves!” came a booming male voice. The echo of the buildings made locating the exact source of the voice difficult. “We don’t want you here!”

George stole a look back at the Regulators who had escorted him. They were all in a very exposed area. The troopers were in crouched positions, wearing tense, nervous expressions as they scanned the mostly broken windows of the nearby buildings for threats with their rifles. If there were more than two armed men in those windows, George knew that it would be very unlikely that his team would be able to successfully fight their way out of the kill zone.

“We just want to talk,” George reiterated. “We may be able to help you.”

“We don’t want your help,” replied the voice with a nervous quiver. “We don’t care how big of an army of fanatics you have. This is still America and we will defend our home. We will never submit to being your slaves!”

“Please listen to me,” George begged, his hands still raised, “You have been misinformed. We’re not some fanatical army bent on conquest. We are just a simple group of people who are heading east and trying to find their families.”

“They look like soldiers to me,” argued the voice defensively.

“Yes, we have soldiers with us, but we also have teachers, farmers, doctors, and every other profession. We are just like you, trying to defend ourselves in a strange and dangerous world. Can we just talk like normal people? I can’t take all this yelling. I’m old and going to lose my voice.”

There was a brief moment of silence before the door of the courthouse opened and a short, stocky, red-haired woman in her mid-fifties flanked by two armed men exited the building and cautiously approached George.

George smiled and slowly extended a handshake to the serious looking woman as she advanced, however, she was either oblivious to the offered hand or intentionally ignoring it. She was a full head shorter than George but she showed absolutely no signs of being intimidated by his size.

“You said you had doctors with you?” she asked briskly.

George was a bit flustered by the very direct question but recovered quickly, “Yes. Do you have someone injured?”

“Something like that,” she responded flatly and George could detect a faint New England accent.

“Maybe we can help. Again, we aren’t here to hurt anyone. My name is George Willard,” he said, once again offering his hand.

The woman scowled at the offered hand as if it were some sort of insult. “Yeah, I heard ya the first time,” she said while still refusing to shake George’s hand. “What kind of doctor is he?”

Disappointed, George lowered his hand, “We actually have three at last count and that doesn’t include the two veterinarians. I know one is an oncologist, but I’m not sure of the other’s specialties. I do know that all three have been practicing general medicine very well since the Awakening.”

The woman’s face screwed up in confusion, “What’s an oncologist do?”

“Pediatric oncologist, actually. That’s a doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer. A pretty noble, if not depressing career, but for better or worse there obviously isn’t much call right now for that particular branch of medicine.”

The mention of the word “children” seemed to brighten her expression to a small degree, “So, he works with children?”

“He did,” George answered, curious where this line of questioning was leading. “Can I ask your name?”

She eyed him suspiciously. “We’re not gonna join your cult, you know? So, you can stop trying to be all nice and stuff,” she said, ignoring his question. “But we might be willing to make a deal.”

“First off, we’ve heard some of the same stupid rumors and I can assure you that they are completely untrue. Secondly, I don’t know about you, but I like to know who I’m dealing with. Again, who are you?” George asked a bit more forcefully. He sensed that Clarksburg needed more from the Reclaimers than the Reclaimers needed from Clarksburg, so he decided to play the negotiations with a slightly harder edge.

She looked hesitantly at George before finally answering, “I’m Sonya MacMurphy, but everyone here just calls me Mac.”

“How many are there of you?” George inquired.

“Fuck that,” she spat out. “I’m not here to give you information about us. I don’t trust you and I would just as assume shoot you all and be done with it, but we need a doctor.”

George raised an eyebrow at the outburst, “With an attitude like that, I’m not sure why we should help you at all.”

“Maybe we should just take you all hostage and force your people to send the doctor!” yelled one of the men flanking Mac while snapping his hunting rifle into a firing position and pointing it directly at George’s head.

Amy and the Regulators instantly had their own weapons pointed at the aggressor, “You really don’t want to do that, sir,” strongly suggested the Lieutenant from behind the sights of her assault rifle.

“Frank, shut up and put that damn thing away,” barked Mac while wiping a bead of sweat off her upper lip.

The man, apparently named Frank, immediately lowered his weapon and sulked like a scolded child. The Regulators returned the gesture and lowered their rifles as well, bringing the tension back down to just barely tolerable.

“OK, how about we start over here. What do we get if we let you see our doctor?” George said.

“Safe passage through the town. No stopping, just straight on through.”

“We’re also looking to barter for food,” George said, testing the waters.

Sonya shook her head emphatically, “No way. We barely have enough for ourselves to see us through winter.”

“So, you get our medical resources and we get ... what? The freedom to go around you? You’ll forgive me, but I think we already have that ability without you granting it to us.”

The red-head twisted her lips as she considered her response, “What if I could give you the location of one of those floating building things? You seen them? You know what I’m talking about?”

George was immediately interested, “Yes, we call them hover towers,” he answered cautiously.

Sonya smiled, “Yeah, whatever. Would that be worth something to you?”

“What condition is it in?” asked Amy excitedly, but with a healthy dose of suspicion in her voice.

“It’s crashed, but still operational last we heard. A lot of the folks here woke up on the damn thing as it was going down. Everyone’s scared of it. No one wants to go back there, but I’ll bet there are plenty of supplies onboard if you’re willing to go get them.”

“How far is the crash site?” George asked.

“Not too far, but don’t be getting any funny ideas. You’ll never find it in these mountains without a guide,” Mac warned.

George nodded, “I think we can work with that. What kind of medical issue are we dealing with? I hope it’s not some sort of trauma because we can’t have the doctor back here until tomorrow at the earliest.”

Mac frowned and shook her head, “Don’t worry about that. We’ll meet you at the edge of town tomorrow. We’ll get your doctor for a day or two and you’ll get our guide.”

Intrigued, George continued, “Agreed, provided the doctor is willing. We won’t force him, but I know the man and I’m pretty sure he’ll want to help any way he can.”

Mac grunted and waved her two escorts back toward the building as she turned to leave herself.

George called after her, “I need to give him some idea of what he’ll be dealing with. He’ll need to know what supplies to bring.”

“Pregnancy,” was all Sonya said as she entered the building and disappeared.

The next day, a large group of Reclaimers waited anxiously outside the small town. Jason had decided to come personally along with many others who were excited at the possibility of getting inside a hover tower. He had rationalized his short absence from the main group as a good test for when he made the run to Chantilly in the coming days, but if he was honest with himself, he was really hoping to get a ride in one of those crazy things. The thought then dawned on him that his body had probably ridden in the towers hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the past thirty years, but of course, his conscience mind had no recollection of those events.

If the tower was truly intact, then the amount of resources onboard could be staggering. He just couldn’t believe that the people of Clarksburg had never returned to the tower to pillage whatever supplies they could find. However, he could understand that waking up on one of those things as it was careening to the ground could definitely plant a superstitious fear in anyone.

A possible pregnancy was also very exciting and had caused quite the joyous stir among those who had heard the news. Jason wasn’t quite sure exactly what they wanted from Charles since the baby couldn’t be anywhere near ready for birth. He suspected that they just wanted confirmation and a check that everything was proceeding well. He had no idea what they would do in a few months when the woman went into labor, but of course, women had been having babies for millions of years before doctors had been around to supervise and give permission. On the other hand, due to Beth’s experience, Jason knew firsthand how dangerous childbirth really was under the best of circumstances, much less when the woman was twenty years past her prime and there was no modern medical care available.

“I don’t like this. What’s keeping them?” grumbled Gerald Farmer from the back of his feeble looking mare. Gerald had practically jumped at the chance to inspect the inside of a hover tower, despite the fact that he hadn’t actually been invited. However, observance of such social niceties had long ago drained away from him, having been replaced by more useful survival skills. For that same reason, Jason had hoped to keep the gruff Freeman away from the skittish population of Clarksburg for fear of sparking an unrecoverable incident thanks to Gerald’s notoriously frank, and often disrespectful nature. But, Jason knew the only way to keep the man away from the crash would have been to physically restrain him, and that certainly would have had repercussions of its own. Ever since the other Freemen, Sid, had left the Reclaimers to continue with his original mission, camp life had held even less interest for Gerald, so his decision to join the party seem unavoidable.

“They’ll be here,” assured George confidently.

“There,” announced Carlo, pointing toward the edge of town. “Here they come.”

“About damned time,” grumbled Gerald loudly enough to be heard by everyone.

Jason watched the small procession slowly emerge from the overgrown town and make their way down what remained of the cracked asphalt of Route 50. They had no horses, which probably shouldn’t have been too surprising as the natural mountainous landscape had most likely driven away any feral horse populations long ago.

“The one in front is Sonya MacMurphy,” George said. “She definitely seemed to be the one in charge yesterday.”

Jason tried to size up the small, squat woman approaching him and he found that he had a hard time imagining her as the leader of a hardscrabble group of survivors. She looked to be in her mid-fifties, but her thick, tangled, red hair had stubbornly refused to grey which should have given her the appearance of a younger woman, however, the hobbled way she moved along the road gave away her body’s true age. Jason recognized the effects of failing knees and found himself rubbing his own aching knee sympathetically.

In contrast to the Reclaimer’s large party of twenty-two people, Clarksburg had chosen to only send five to the prearranged meeting. Besides Sonya, the group contained two men armed with hunting rifles, a very tall, thin woman and one of the youngest looking “men” Jason had seen since the Awakening. The blond-haired man couldn’t have been much over thirty and wore the unmistakable expression of a very frightened child. The tall woman was holding his hand, guiding him along the road and appeared to be continually reassuring him as they went. He was obviously an outgrown on the more extreme side of the spectrum and Jason was confused as to why they felt the need to subject him to this potentially stressful event. Jason had everyone dismount in an effort to appear less intimidating to the young boy and the Clarksburg group in general.

“Hello again,” George called out in a friendly voice as the Clarksburg party finally neared within comfortable earshot.

“Sweet Jesus, what the hell are all these people here for? Are you trying to scare us? Because it won’t work,” barked Sonya in a winded voiced.

Jason stepped forward before George could respond, “I assure you that wasn’t our intention. We just have a lot of people who are very excited to see this hover tower of yours.”

Sonya glared at Jason, unimpressed, “I’m getting a little sick and tired of being ’assured’ by you people. And it’s not our hover tower, or whatever the hell it is you people call them.”

Unfazed, Jason attempted to continue, “I’m Jason Rawlings, and I just wanted ….”

“Well good for you,” interrupted Mac sharply before turning to George. “I hope to hell one of these assholes is the doctor you promised us.”

“Sonya,” George began patiently. “This is Jason Rawlings. He is the chairman of the Reclaimer’s governing council… our leader.”

Sonya moved her eyes to Jason. “Well La Dee Da,” she said mockingly while performing a sarcastic curtsy. “It’s been less than four months since the world ended and you super sophisticated types have already reinvented a bullshit bureaucracy. Congratulations. Have you built a DMV where I can stand in line too?” she said bitingly. “Now where’s the damn doctor?”

George looked to Jason sheepishly and gave a slight shrug. Jason could clearly hear Gerald Farmer trying unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh behind him. “A match made in hell,” thought Jason as the vision of Gerald and Sonya as a couple flashed through his mind.

“I’m Doctor Charles Patel,” Charles said breaking the tension as he stepped out of the crowd. “I believe I’m who you are looking for.”

Sonya looked a bit hesitant. “You’re a foreigner?” she stated, unashamed of her exposed prejudice.

“I’m a Mumbai refugee,” Charles confirmed.

“That terrorist A-bomb thing?” Sonya asked in a shocked tone. “You were there for that?”

“No, I was actually completing my residency here in the states when it happened. Unfortunately, my home and family were there at the time. I lost everything that day,” he reported sadly. “I, of course, went back to offer my services as a doctor. The radiation aftermath was horrific. Among many other things, it caused a massive spike in childhood cancers. It is why I ended up specializing in pediatric oncology.”

Jason was ashamed of himself. He had never known any of these things about Charles. He had never even thought to ask. He felt he understood the man a bit better. Jason now knew why Charles had seemed to handle their strange situation so well. He had already lost everything in his life once before and had come back with renewed purpose. He probably figured he could do it again.

Sonya chewed on her lower lip for a few seconds while considering. “OK, he’ll do. You come with us,” she ordered, pointing at Patel. “Gail and Grayson here will go with you folks and show you the wreck,” she said jerking her thumb over her shoulder at the tall, frail woman and the blond outgrown.

“You don’t need to send the outgrown. There’s no need to put him through this,” said Tammy Jenkins softly from the back of the group. She had been asked to come along to help catalog and organize any resources they found at the tower.

Sonya’s face screwed up in confusion, “Outgrown?” Her face then relaxed in understanding. “Oh, you mean Grayson. Well aren’t you guys just the clever ones, coming up with fancy names for everything. We’ve just been calling them kids, since that’s what they are,” she said patronizingly.

“Fine, you don’t need to send the kid then,” Tammy corrected herself. She was a bit miffed that Sonya had completely avoided the point of her comment just for the sake of dealing yet another verbal jab at the Reclaimers.

Sonya snorted in amusement as she brushed an unwieldy piece of red hair out of her face, “Well Gail won’t do you much good by herself. She’s just going along to keep Grayson calm and on task.”

“What?” asked Jason, confused.

Sonya looked exasperated at the entire group, “Don’t you get it? Grayson is your guide. He knows the way to the tower.”

“He’s just a little shy right now. He’ll open up once he gets to know you a bit,” assured the woman named Gail in a wispy, lilting tone.

“I’m sure Grayson here is a fine young man, but we want an adult guide,” insisted Jason in a much firmer tone then he had thus far used.

“Well too fucking bad, your grace,” Mac said sarcastically.

“Sonya, language, please!” begged Gail while quickly clasping her hands over Grayson’s ears. It was a ridiculous gesture on the body of a grown man.

Sonya rolled her eyes, “We can’t give you an adult guide, because we don’t have one. Almost everyone that came from that tower were kids, or outgrowns, if you like that term better.”

“No adults survived the crash?” asked George incredulously.

“A few did. They managed to get the kids to the town, but they have all died of their injuries since. Grayson wasn’t the oldest to make it here, but we discovered something pretty cool about him. He’s got a …”, she scratched her chin, searching for the correct phrase, “… what’s it called when you can remember everything?”

“Eidetic memory, sometimes incorrectly referred to as photographic memory,” answered Charles clinically.

Sonya snapped her fingers, “That’s it. You see, unlike all the other kids, Grayson here remembers exactly how to get back to the tower. So, take him or leave him, I don’t care. But, I held up my part.”

Jason examined the nervous 35ish year old man in front of him. He was standing very close to Gail and slightly behind her, as if seeking her protection from the strangers despite his much bulkier frame. His shoulders were slumped forward and his oily hair was neatly parted and combed to the side just like a parent might do to their child before going to church or other formal occasion.

Unlike Tammy, who had made it her business to make sure all the Reclaimer’s outgrowns were cared for, Jason had intentionally avoided them whenever he could. He had always felt awkward around the overgrown toddlers because his mind could not decide how to interact with them. He, like many others, had settled on thinking of them like mentally retarded adults, which, by definition, they actually were. No one yet knew whether the minds of these poor creatures would continue to mature in their adult bodies or if they were now permanently stunted at their current mental development. Many feared that it was too late for the outgrowns. The adult brain that their consciousness now resided in was too hardwired for the complex plasticity required for the growth of a human mind. Jason only knew that people were preprogramed to see small children with hope and potential but adults with the same mental capacity merely as burdensome and worthy of only pity.

For the second time in as many minutes, Jason felt a wave of guilt wash over him. Regardless of what his eyes told him, this was a child in front of him. More importantly, he was a human being who was obviously scared. He forced a softer expression onto his face and smiled.

“Hello Grayson. My name is Jason,” he said gently.

The boy looked at Jason but said nothing. He only tried futilely to hide further behind the thin body of Gail.

Jason decided to try a different tack. “Grayson, have you ever ridden a horse?” he asked raising one eyebrow invitingly.

The man-child’s entire being appeared to instantly relax and perk up at the same time. “One time my sister got to ride a horse at camp. She told me about it. She said it was soft and she said it was fun to ride and she said she gave him a carrot and he ate it right out of her hand. She said that it got spit all over her hand too. Yuck!” he blurted out excitedly, beaming a smile which showed a mouth full of rotting, yellow teeth.

It was as if a dam had bust and a torrent of words was now washing Jason away. He could only stand there, slack jawed, as Grayson continued his verbal assault.

“She said the horse’s name was Mr. Bobo. That’s a funny name. Is your horse a mean horse or a nice horse ’cause my sister told me that some horses are mean and I don’t want to be on a mean horse. What’s your horse’s name?” Grayson said, finally pausing long enough to let Jason speak.

“This horse’s name is Brownie and he’s a nice horse.”

Grayson smiled and looked to Gail. “Can I ride him? Can I please?”

“That’ll be up to Mr. Rawlings here,” said Gail meekly.

Jason nodded warmly, “Of course he can. You can ride him right to where the tower is. You do know the way back there, right Grayson?”

The boy’s expression darkened. “You mean the black building I woke up in?”

“That’s correct. You can lead us there, right? My friends and I would very much like to see it,” Jason answered.

“That’s a really really scary place,” Grayson whispered while slowly shaking his head, “You don’t wanna go there. I don’t want to go back there again.”

Jason’s eyes fixed on Sonya who was looking very impatient and irritated, “Are you expecting us to force this boy to go?” he asked coldly.

Sonya rolled her eyes, “I can see you’ve never dealt with kids before. He’ll be fine. Gail knows how to handle him.”

Tammy approached Grayson and spoke very softly, “How old are you Grayson?”

“Six and a half,” he announced proudly before his eyes sunk and his tone lowered. “I think. That might not be right anymore.”

“Close enough,” Tammy said smiling. “My son is just about your age too.”

“What’s his name? Can I meet him?”

Tammy shook her head sadly, “He’s not here. We are looking for him and I can’t wait to be with him again. His name is Jonathan.”

“I don’t know where my mommy is,” Grayson admitted almost guiltily.

“I know, sweetie. Maybe someday she’ll be able to find you too. I’m sure she’s out there looking for you just like I’m looking for Jonathon.”

“Yeah,” Grayson said with a half-smile

“Do you know what Jonathon used to love to do more than anything?” Tammy asked with a much lighter tone.

“What?” Grayson asked with the wonder that only a child could muster.

“Adventures,” Tammy answered excitedly. “He loved to explore and pretend he was the hero going on a quest.”

“I like to do that too,” insisted Grayson.

“I’m sure you do. Well we are going on a great quest and only you can help us complete it. We need you to be our hero. Can you do that, Grayson? Can you be the hero in our adventure?”

“Does it mean I have to go back to the black building?” he asked nervously.

“All great adventures have a challenge for the hero to overcome. I understand that you’re afraid, but you’ll have all of us …,” Tammy waved her hand and motioned to the whole party, “… to protect you. You won’t even have to get close to the black building. Besides, you’ll get to ride Brownie here. Will you help us?”

Grayson’s posture straightened and he even puffed out his chest at Tammy’s words, “Yes!” he said excitedly. “I’ll help you.”

“Thank you,” said Tammy, smiling at the boy.

“Great,” Sonya said flatly, “Now that that has been settled, let’s go Doc,” she said, gesturing to Patel. “We’ll meet back here in two days.”

Charles unloaded his pack from the horse and fell into line behind Sonya as she began her hobbling walk back into town with the two armed men flanking her. Amy Hammersmith gave her gear one last check then followed the doctor toward the town as well.

“Whoa there, Sunshine. Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Mac asked, whirling on Amy as soon as she noticed her following them.

“The Lieutenant has been assigned to escort the doctor,” answered Carlo Olvera in his precise commanding voice.

“It’s nonnegotiable,” Jason said, addressing Sonya’s objection before she could even make it.

Sonya eyed Amy up and down as if sizing her up. “Fine,” she finally grumbled before turning back to the town and continuing the painful walk on her failing knees.

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