Dranko lay before Cooper prostrate. His breath was raspy, labored. Each breath he took made Cooper wince. The last time he had sat with someone who was in unconscious agony was with his wife, Elena. Her torment finally ended when she succumbed to the ravages of the Brushfire Plague.
This time, multiple bullet wounds threatened his dear friend. Cooper knew that internal bleeding was the likely cause of Dranko’s desperate breathing. As before, he was overcome by the fury at his impotence to aid another. His mind drifted to the horrid scene when the machinegun zeroed in on Dranko. He’d watched in shock as multiple rounds from the heavy caliber weapon shredded his friend.
Cooper shifted his position in the wooden chair where he’d been sitting for hours. The chair creaked, as if flexing its own sore muscles, too. His gaze fell upon Dranko’s pallid face, shiny from sweat. He was running a low-grade fever. If it spiked to signal rampant infection, Cooper knew that would spell the end for Dranko. His fists tightened involuntarily and his jaw clenched so hard that his teeth ground against one another.
What will I do if I lose him? The thought made his eyes mist over. He was acutely aware that if it weren’t for Dranko, he and Jake would most likely be dead. That had been proven to him many times over. Dranko had been much more than a good friend during the havoc wrought by the Brushfire Plague. He had been a protector and Cooper’s rock. Cooper knew just how valuable his survivalist-minded friend was—for equipment and knowledge.
While part of him fought the notion, he had to contemplate what they would do if Dranko didn’t make it. He started with no good ideas and the more he thought about it, the bigger the gaps loomed in just what they’d lose. The best he could manage was knowing that they would continue on as best they could without him. But, he knew their odds of survival would go down considerably. Exhaling in frustration, he rose to leave the room. He took a step toward the door when a dry croak stopped him dead in his tracks. He spun around and vaulted back to Dranko’s side.
“What’d you say?” he asked frantically, clasping his friend’s clammy hand in his own.
Dranko’s eyes fluttered, but did not open. “Stop.”
His heart leapt at hearing him speak. “Stop what?”
He coughed, and then caught his breath. “Fretting.”
Hard laughter brought tears of joy. “Hell, Dranko, you look even uglier than normal. How can I not worry?”
The left corner of his mouth upturned at an attempted smile before coughing replaced it with a painful grimace. “Don’t… make… me… laugh.”
Cooper turned serious. “Alright. You are one tough SOB, brother.”
He nodded faintly. “Damn. Straight. Jake?”
Cooper grasped Dranko’s hand firmly at the mention of his son’s name. “He’s fine. You made it possible. You saved him.”
This time, a half-smile stayed put. “Good.” Dranko fell silent as his body shuddered under erratic breathing.
“How do you feel?” Cooper asked.
“Bad… as… your… jokes sound,” he returned.
Cooper fought the urge to respond and let it lie instead. A few moments of silence passed between them. Dranko’s eyes had never opened, but Cooper felt elated that his friend had regained consciousness.
“You need anything?”
At that, his eyes fluttered open. “Need… drugs… fever… gonna… get… me.” Dranko’s eyes filled with desperate truth and his words were laced with finality. His arm fell limp to the side of the bed. His eyes drifted slowly shut.
Cooper rocked back and collapsed into his chair. “I’m on it,” he whispered
Dranko did not respond. His breath had settled into an uneasy rhythm and Cooper guessed he’d fallen asleep. He hoped that it was no worse. His hand went to Dranko’s forehead. Does it feel warmer than it did an hour ago? Cooper couldn’t know for sure. His friend’s words haunted him. While Dranko was the world’s worst cynic, he was not prone to exaggerate when it came to something like this. His uncanny words struck Cooper as being true. He shuddered to think, deadly accurate.
Cooper deposited himself in the kitchen. Weak, lukewarm tea fashioned from stale leaves and odd weeds Dranko had foraged upon their arrival in Estacada, passed his lips as he sipped. He was lost in thought, mapping out a plan to get the antibiotics that Dranko needed.
A loud yawn broke his concentration. Turning, he saw Calvin’s gaping maw as he opened his arms wide and stretched fully into the yawn. He wore red-checkered pajama bottoms and a Portland Trailblazers t-shirt.
“Morning,” Cooper said.
“Good morning,” Calvin said sleepily. “Any more of that?” he asked, pointing at Cooper’s cup.
“Definitely. I made a full pot, but I won’t vouch for its worth,” Cooper said pointing to the teapot on the counter, which he had swaddled in a blanket to keep it warm for the others. As he did so, he marveled at the ease in which he was learning new habits in the post-Brushfire Plague world: this was to conserve energy.
“Funny, is it not?”
“Remember how we would fire up the stove to heat enough water for just one cup or those one-cup coffeemakers?” Calvin’s teeth gleamed in a grin.
“The collapse of civilization has ended selfish individualism,” he said with a coy smile.
“Simple. We can no longer afford to burn propane or wood so frivolously!” Calvin chuckled at his comment.
Cooper smiled in return. “I hadn’t thought of that. But, it makes sense. Hell, we did a lot of stupid, wasteful, things, didn’t we?”
“You mean like how little most of us knew each other? How we took too much for granted? How we wasted our time and money? Shall I go on?”
“Nah, I think I get the point,” Cooper said, shaking his head. Calvin, having poured himself a cup of the hybrid tea, sat down across from him. He rubbed hard across his eyebrows, still waking up.
He scowled as he took a sip, and through wrinkled lips he muttered, “I cannot lie, I miss Stumptown. Best coffee in Portland.”
“I need your help.” Cooper’s serious tone made Calvin sit up a little straighter.
“Dranko roused himself for a moment earlier.”
Calvin beamed. “That is great!”
Cooper nodded. “It is. But, he told me that he needs antibiotics. Said the fever is going to get him if he doesn’t.”
Calvin’s eyebrows furrowed. “How does he know that? He is not a doctor.”
“I know. But, if you’d been there, you’d believe it. He just knows.” He let Calvin sit with it for a moment and took another drink of the tea.
“Alright. No use in taking a chance on it.”
“That’s what I figure, too.”
“Have you looked through all his supplies? I am sure he had some on hand.”
Cooper shook his head. “’Fraid not. I’ve looked through everything and I can’t find any.”
Calvin frowned in disbelief. “Really?”
“Really. I found an ammo box marked ‘Anti-Bs’ but it was empty. I don’t know what happened to them. Bottom line, we gotta get some more.”
“What about the doctor?”
“He gave him what he could right after the surgery.”
Calvin shook his head, and frustration crept into his voice. “So, what’s the plan?”
“I figure we need to ask the Doc where we might find some. We could also check the logical places in town. They might not have been looted because Hodges seized control so fast.”
“Where do you want to start?”
“The local Walgreens. With Hodges gone, I expect the local control could evaporate very quickly.”
Calvin nodded gravely. “Suit up?”
“Yes,” Cooper said with resignation. He had no desire to wade back into the potential of violence and bloodshed.
Cooper knocked lightly on the Airstream’s door, where Angela and Julianne were sleeping. He turned the doorknob slowly and cracked the door open.
“You guys up?” he asked softly.
Julianne’s dark mane shifted as she turned to face him. She rubbed her eyes. “I am now.”
Angela’s eyes flickered open and they immediately locked onto his. “Yup.”
“You need us?” Julianne asked.
Cooper nodded his head toward Angela. “Just her. Calvin and I are going into town to find some antibiotics for Dranko.”
Disappointment clouded Julianne’s face. “Okay. I guess I’ll sleep a bit more.” She rolled back over and pulled the pillow up to cover her head. She’s been wounded, but not enough to cloud her sleep, he mused.
Angela sat up halfway in bed. “Alright, just give me five minutes and I’ll be ready.” She sounded cheery through the tiredness.
“Great, thanks,” Cooper said, as he pulled his head out of the room and closed the door behind him.
He went back to his room so that he could gather his weapons and other gear. He tried to be as quiet as possible, but Jake awoke nonetheless.
“Arrr…,” he muttered as he stretched himself awake. “Where are you going?”
“Into town. We need to find some antibiotics for Dranko.”
“You want me to come?”
Uncertainty tore at Cooper. He didn’t want to put his son in harm’s way, but he also never wanted to leave him out of his sight again. He quickly found a balancing point. “Yes, I do. I’ll need someone to watch the car as we scout out the Walgreens.”
Jake nodded and yawned again. “Sure thing.” He rose out of bed, and began dressing.
Cooper finished before he did and left the room, rifle in hand and pistol on his hip. “See you in a few.”
As always, the weight of the pistol on his hip and the heaviness of the rifle in his hand comforted him, especially at a moment like this. He found Calvin waiting in the living room, ready to go. He checked on Dranko once more, but saw that he was still sleeping. When Angela and Jake filed into the room, he turned to Angela. “Can you tell Julianne to get up and keep an eye on Dranko? I forgot.”
“Sure thing,” she said before retreating back the way she had come.
They waited a few minutes for her return. “Princess will be out in a few. What’s our game plan?”
“It’s simple, really. We will need to get into town and assess the situation. Let’s hope we can barter for the antibiotics, but we need to be ready for action. I have no idea what’s happened since word got out that Hodges is down. We could be walking into descending chaos or it might still be relatively well ordered. Any questions?”
The group of four rolled along the country road toward town in Dranko’s Jeep. Cooper felt odd behind the wheel, missing his friend Dranko by his side. Angela and Jake kept up a soft banter in the backseat as they drove, talking about their favorite foods that they missed. Cooper opted for silence as he gripped the steering wheel. He could smell fires burning and was surprised that he still noticed them, given the constant backdrop they had become. His mind was playing with different scenarios.
“When we get into town, if I say ‘heavy,’ it means bring your rifle with you. If I say ‘light,’ it means pistols only.”
“Why would we not bring our rifles?” Calvin asked.
“It depends on the profile we want. If Hodges’ men are still keeping order, getting out with rifles might draw too much attention than they are worth.”
“What’s the signal if a situation turns bad and we are about to start shooting?” Angela asked.
The question gave Cooper a moment’s pause. “If you hear me say the word ‘badly.’ Or, if you all see something and say ‘badly,’ it means we are going to go hot.”
“And, what if we should just draw weapons, but not open fire?”
Cooper turned to look at Calvin, who had asked the question. “Just say ‘poorly.’ Like, we can say our friend needs the antibiotics ‘badly’ or that our friend is doing ‘poorly.’”
Angela and Jake both laughed.
“We ain’t from West Virginia,” Angela began.
“Or, the 1800s!” Jake added.
“…So saying ‘poorly’ will seem odd,” Angela finished.
Cooper smiled. “Okay, good point. Let’s go with ‘afraid,’ like ‘I’m afraid for him.’”
“So, it is ‘badly’ to start shooting and ‘afraid’ for draw weapons?” Calvin clarified.
Everyone nodded at Cooper.
“I hope we can remember this under stress,” Angela remarked skeptically.
The squeal of tires taking a turn too quickly caught Cooper’s ear. Good thing I drive with the window half down.
“Afraid we have heavy company,” he shouted out, louder than he’d wanted to. The others grabbed their rifles. Through his rearview mirror, Cooper spotted a pick-up truck with armed men in the back. He rounded another turn and they dropped from view. “Pick-up, full.” Instead of trying to handle his rifle while driving, he drew his pistol and laid it in his lap for easy access and then put both hands back on the steering wheel. He felt the familiar rush of adrenaline as it poured into his bloodstream. His vision grew sharper and his hearing more acute. Bile crept into his throat as his body readied itself for action.
“Everyone, take three deep breaths. It will help calm you down,” he ordered. Then he followed his own dictates. He welcomed how it made everything appear calmer. “If they try to pull alongside or pass us, I’m going to slam on the brakes to throw off their aim if they plan on firing on us. If they open fire from distance, I will be doing zig and zag,” he alerted the others.
The road opened up onto a straight path and he saw the pick-up gaining on them quickly. In his rearview mirror, he saw Angela and Jake turn around and face their weapons rearward. As they turned, the strain on their faces was revealed in deep lines and furrowed brows.
Tense seconds passed as the pick-up closed the gap. Cooper kept expecting to hear the “pop-pop” of rifle fire at any second. The pick-up moved into a passing position, drifting to his left. When they were about ten yards off his bumper, he jammed his brakes down, tires squealed, and they shot past them. In a blur, he saw four men in the bed brandishing their weapons and yelling and laughing as they passed.
“Estacada is ours!” a weathered, gray-haired man shouted at them.
Cooper sighed with relief when no shots were fired. They rounded the next bend in the road and watched the pick-up truck disappear up ahead. That corner also revealed several columns of black smoke racing skyward. Estacada was burning. I guess that burning smell wasn’t just the normal cooking or heating fire, Cooper thought. Inwardly, he chastised himself for not noticing the distinctive smell of burning buildings. He resolved to raise his situational awareness. He knew that failing to be alert and noticing the small things could get him—and others—killed.
“What do you think we will find?” Calvin asked him.
“We have to hope it’s just a few scattered buildings throwing up all that smoke,” Cooper answered with a frown.
“Then we have to hope that the drugstore is alright, too,” Calvin continued.
Cooper nodded and stroked his chin in response. Like he always did, he fiddled with his firearms to burn the stress. He only had one hand free, so he was limited to moving it from his hand to the seat and back again. Calvin watched in silence.
A corner of Cooper’s mouth downturned. “Humph.”
“I couldn’t get through my ritual of messing around with my guns before Dranko would fire some witty remark at me.” Cooper felt Calvin studying him, understanding his pensiveness. Cooper continued, “It’s a funny way to miss someone, isn’t it?”
No one answered the rhetorical question.
“You know what’s funny that I miss about mom?” Jake piped up from the backseat. He rarely spoke about Elena, so his comment took Cooper off guard and demanded his full attention.
“The way she would always lose her cell phone. At the worst possible times!” Cooper chuckled at the memory. It was one of his own pet peeves with his late wife. Invariably, this would happen just as they were leaving for something that they were already running late for. Though frustrating at the time, Cooper would do anything now for the opportunity to see her scramble in a mad flurry searching everywhere for her phone.
“Yeah, she did do that,” he said, his smile already starting to fade as he thought about his dead wife.
“What I wouldn’t give to watch her running around the house, looking for it, right now,” Jake said. His words raced toward melancholy.
Cooper reached back and squeezed his son’s knee. “I know, son.”
Angela beamed a smile and tried to change the subject. “You know what I don’t miss about cell phones?”
“What?” Calvin asked.
“How you’d be on a date with a guy and he’d do nothing but keep looking at it throughout!”
Grinning, the three males looked at each other awkwardly for a moment, but Calvin spoke first. “I think I can honestly say that not one of us knows what you are talking about!” That brought laughter into the Jeep.
“You know what I mean!” Angela exclaimed.
“Wait, I’m still trying to figure this out. A guy. Out on a date. With you. Looking at his phone and not you?” Cooper delivered the words in perfect deadpan.
“Are you trying to make fun of me or is that compliment?” Angela looked at him with a furrowed brow.
Cooper smiled back. “Whichever you prefer.”
She thumped his shoulder playfully and then sat back into her seat and returned the smile.
Cooper had to stifle a laugh when she winked at him playfully. Jake folded his arms and sat back as well. He squinted intently at his father through the mirror.
Damn, I shouldn’t have said that with him around. He’s too sensitive. So much for harmless flirting!
“You know what I don’t miss about cell phones?” Calvin intoned. “We actually pay attention to each other now. Before, people were forgetting how to talk to one another!”
“Amen, brother,” Angela remarked. “It was more than just the dates! My niece, who was like fifteen, broke up with a boyfriend over text!”
“Really?” Calvin asked in disbelief.
“Oh yeah,” she nodded emphatically. “Now that I think about it, I think they got together over text.”
Calvin shook his head. “Well, I welcome the fact that we now have to talk to one another.”
“Alright, let’s get ready,” Cooper said, ending the chitchat as he pointed into the distance with his free hand.
They were approaching the outskirts of town. The others directed their view forward and what they saw caused a collective inhale and gasps. At some point, someone in town thought it was a good idea to form a roadblock and signage with dead bodies. It looked like a family—an adult man, woman, and two young girls. The bodies were spread across the road leading into town in zigzag pattern, forcing any decent person to slow down and maneuver around the bodies. However, the smallest girl had tire marks crossing over her body.
“That was either done on purpose or the driver was blind,” Cooper commented at the macabre scene.
Two wooden-staked signs rose from the dead adults’ abdomens. Cooper scowled and his stomach tightened further.
Angela’s hand flew to her mouth and she pulled Jake’s face to her chest to shield his view. “I think I’m going to be sick,” she lamented.
The signs were handwritten in blood, presumably from the dead. Cooper read them in sequence. The first gave an explanation for the grisly scene:
Cross Bobby Red
You end up dead!
The second sign proclaimed Bobby’s ascendance to power:
I’m in charge now!
See my men at the Flea Market. NOW!
“Looks like Mr. Red might be the new Hodges,” Calvin remarked.
“I’m not so sure about that,” Cooper replied. “If it was true, he’d have armed men out here wouldn’t he?”
Calvin nodded, but then Angela spoke up. “Or, it could be true and he just doesn’t have the manpower yet to staff up roadblocks.”
“That could be,” Cooper said.
“In any event, we will know in a few minutes. Everyone needs to stay sharp,” Calvin said, ending the conversation.
As Cooper carefully steered the Jeep between the bodies, he could not keep his eyes off of the children. They looked to be about eight and ten years old. Both girls were in pajamas, which meant they must have been rounded up while sleeping and then executed. Neat entry holes in the middle of each forehead at least told him it had been a fast and painless execution. The dirty cheeks, riven with tearstains, told him that they had been terrified. He shook his head slowly as they passed. He gritted his teeth when it struck him. Two weeks ago, I would have tried shielding Jake from seeing this carnage. Now, the thought never crossed my mind. Like a tongue searching constantly for a recently lost tooth, his mind played with the notion of how this new post-Brushfire Plague world was changing him… and his son.
He focused his thoughts on the task in front of them to distract himself away from the worrying that he could do nothing about right now.
“Alright, everyone remember the drill? Let’s do this right!”