Chapter 1: The Farmhouse
There was something about the time of day before the dawn arrived. The stillness in the air spoke volumes about the prospect of the new day. There was still a part of me that looked forward to this ungodly hour as if it might deliver something new. I looked out the window on to the two-story farmhouse, betting it was more the location and the memories it brought than anything else. I shook my head, reaching across to the passenger’s seat for the crossbow that rested there. As soon as I felt the hard base of the weapon in my hand, any hint of nostalgia left my mind. There was no room for it today or any day. Not anymore. Such thoughts could get me killed, and I was not ready to die yet.
I eased out from behind the driver’s seat and stood in the old dirt driveway and listened. Once upon a time, the sounds of the farm would have drifted back to me. The animals would stir in the barn, chickens would cluck as they pecked in the yard, and the old hound dog and the toothless, gray cat would chase each other. But there was none of that anymore, only the eerie silence of the pre-dawn morning. There were worse sounds, so I was grateful.
Securing the crossbow for a quicker draw if needed, my eyes darted across the open space as I left the relative safety of the car for the house. My boots made little noise on the grass, but there was a slight creak of the old boards on the porch steps, which caused me to jump. I gripped the crossbow for a moment as if the action would aid in calming me. Between that and the deep breath I took, both effects soothed the beating of my heart, the racing of my pulse… if only for a bit.
The screen door was wide open, yet the wooden door remained closed. Weapon gripped, I took the door handle with my free hand and pushed open. I was ready for anything that might come spilling from within, yet the only thing that greeted me was more silence. I was allowing the ghosts of this place to spook me worse than what was out here. With a grumble at myself and a shake of my head, I entered the house. There was an automatic reaction to flip the switch that would have flooded the front room with light. The only thing I got now was a click as it shifted positions. How many times had I completed that action during my lifetime? Far too many to count. Despite the lack of light, I knew my way around the room. I made my way into the kitchen, my nose wrinkling at the scent of stale water and rotting food left in the garbage can.
Pulling a small flashlight from my pocket, I used it to shine inside the pantry. There was a squeak from a rat as it scurried out of the light’s path. At first glance, I saw that those furry bastards had gotten to the boxes and packages. Holes were in most of them and the food spilled across the shelves and floor. With a shrug of my shoulders, I pushed items out of the way to see if there was anything I could salvage. The efforts weren’t in vain. I had several canned goods and a box of crackers that had made it unscathed sitting on the kitchen table. I rummaged through some other shelves and drawers to see what else I could find. While I had done my best not to think about it since entering the house, my thoughts turned to the fact they had done the same thing before leaving, and I felt as if I might hurl. Laying my hands, palms down, against the counter to steady myself, I knew coming back here was a bad idea, but I needed the supplies. When I felt the prickle of hot tears stinging, I drew my hands into fists and pounded the counter.
“No! No!” I would not do this. Not there. Not now.
Swinging around, I left the kitchen. I needed to get out of here, but the food was only one part of what I had come back for. Allowing my sorrow to turn into anger, I crossed to the stairs, moving up to the second floor. It was darker up here. All the doors were closed. Wait, all the doors should be closed. I had shut them before I left, but the door at the far end of the hall was halfway open. That was my parents’ bedroom. Tensing for a moment, I pulled the crossbow around, cocking my head to listen. There was nothing out of the ordinary, yet the silence of the house was almost deafening. Step-by-step, I drew closer. Debating for a moment whether I should pull the flashlight again, I decided against it. All my senses were honing in on my destination: the door.
Through the crack, I could see the outline of my parents’ bed, and I stopped, holding my breath and listened. Kicking out with my foot, I pushed the door the rest of the way open. It crashed against the wall. I jerked the crossbow into position. It was ready to shoot anything that moved; my heart was in my throat.
Nothing. Nothing stumbled out. Nothing reached for me. I let loose a nervous cackle. Grumbling to myself, “Good God, woman! You will give yourself a heart attack before you can get out of here.” I relaxed the weapon and entered my parents’ bedroom. There was no helping the flood of emotion as I stepped inside. I saw the place as it used to be — one of love, light, and laughter. I did not want the dark, dank room with the overturned draws and ransacked appearance to greet me. I pushed the strewn pillows and blankets out of my way, making my way to the other side of the bed. A necklace with a key dangled from inside my shirt while feeling along the floor with my other hand until I felt the indentation of where the fake board was. Without care, I pulled it away and tossed it on top of the bed, revealing the lockbox hidden there. Using the key, I opened it.
On top, I could make out a photograph I could not afford to look at right now. Instead, I shoved it into my back pocket. The next layer was several hundred-dollar bills I pushed aside. Money has no meaning anymore. Two shotguns dragged out of the hole and laid on the bed, and I wondered for a moment if they had had these that night would things have turned out different. Like so many other overwhelming thoughts since coming back here, I had to push it away lest it gets the better of me. I was dragging up the few boxes of ammo when a sound from the bathroom stopped me cold.
Attention jerked towards the closed door, and adrenaline pumped through my veins. I was jumpy, but someone… or something… was in there. My breathing slowed down, and every sense zeroed in on that door. Could one of them have gotten into the house and somehow trapped itself in the bathroom? I got up to my feet and brought the crossbow back around to the ready and crept toward the door. I could have choked with the way my heart was in my mouth and pounding in my ears. For as scared as I was, I was also angry that one of those bastards would be in my parents’ house. Had not enough happened here without one of those damn things defiling the place? My mind was racing with what to do. The door was thin enough. I knew I could kick it in without an issue. Would I be quick enough? Kill or be killed? You bet your sweet ass I could. I drew a breath, and as I pushed it out, my boot crashed the door open. A terror-filled scream cried out to me. “PLEASE, DON’T HURT ME!”
I jerked my arm upwards in time for the arrow to plunk into the wall above the head of a wide-eyed young girl, I spat out, “Who the hell?”
“Please… I was here for shelter.”
I turned away from the splintered bathroom door and the girl inside. I was seething. Snatching the shotguns and ammo up off the bed, I wasted no more time in heading back downstairs. My mind was racing with thousands of thoughts, but the main one was that I needed to get the hell out of here. I knew better! Damn it; I knew better! I almost left the food I had gathered, but in a few hours, I would curse myself for leaving it when I got hungry. Laying the guns down, I rummaged around for a box or bag or something to carry my loot. An old canning crate caught my eye, and I swept it up, tossing the food into it. I had thrown the last of it when I knew I was not alone again. Hand on my crossbow, I saw the girl from upstairs peeking around the door frame.
“I could have shot you.”
My words were hot and laced with the annoyance I felt. She said nothing in return. Not that I expect her too, I guess. Angry more at myself than her, I laid the guns on top of the crate and picked it up. Walking past her, I crossed the living room and left through the front door.
The sun had come up and bathed the farm in its golden light. I did not take the time to appreciate it. Loading the things I had taken from the house and about to load myself, I saw the girl standing at the bottom steps of the front porch. Could she not be much older than 16 or 17? She was pale as new snow. Her hair was long and the way the new morning light hit it, it reminded me of the fields of golden wheat that used to line our property. She stared at me with large eyes with dark circles under them. It was not an uncommon look. Sleep was challenging to come by these days. I shook my head, pulling the car door open as she called out to me.
“Let me come with you. I won’t get in your way.”
I got into the car, refusing to look at her, refusing to allow me to think about how Rebecca would have been about her age — denying myself the guilt of leaving her here. But as I began to drive off, something in the distance caught my attention. Across the now empty field, I made out two slow-moving figures. It was only two. She would be okay. She would be all right. Even as I thought it, I swore I felt their attention shift. Was it the idle of the car? The smell? My imagination? Regardless, I gripped the steering wheel and put on the breaks.
“Damn it!” I muttered and slammed my fists against the steering wheel. I pushed the electric window down and craning my head out. “C’mon! Now!”
I do not know if she saw them too, but she ran for the car as if they were after her. I moved the crossbow to the back where I could still reach it if needed as she got in the car. Those wide eyes looked at me, to which I grumbled again as I put the car back into gear and getting us the hell out of dodge.