Chapter Two: Gathering and Searching and Finding Others

Well, hello there again, X-NET! We’ve gone almost a week without the juice. I could have logged on with the battery but, as you’ll learn a little bit later in this post, I used most of my battery power in making an audio recording.
I’ve always enjoyed plugging in and logging on, by the way. It’s like pulling up a digital crab pot—you never know what you might find (hey, maybe Dad’s on to something about that technical birthright stuff)...
But darn it, still no connection to others! I have faith, though, that there are others out there, and that some are maybe even reading what I write here.
Where does that faith come from, you might ask?
Well, we just met another group of survivors. It’s been more than a month since I’ve even seen another soul, and a few weeks since Dad has, but we finally had a real, in-the-flesh encounter!
This happened back in Sandy, four days ago. We’d cleared most of the western end of town, with Dad marking each building off on a checklist he’d been keeping, and we were making our way through what we thought was pretty much an abandoned Elks Lodge. We’d found some stale instant coffee and half a bag of hard cinnamon candy that Billy and I were pretty much salivating over, but that Dad was holding onto for safe keeping.
It was a big place—big enough to have an auditorium that had basketball hoops and racks of metal folding chairs. There was even a stage, and that’s where we found them. They had drawn the curtains, hoping to remain hidden, but it’s pretty much impossible to hide a baby’s cry.
What we found was a young couple (John and Carrie) and their newborn baby and Carrie’s brother, Ben. The baby’s name is Marianne.
Pretty neat, huh?
When the baby started bawling, John immediately stepped out from behind the curtain. He had two pistols, and Dad knelt down slowly and put his shotgun on the ground and his hands in the air. Billy put his revolver down, too, and we did like Dad and raised our hands.
“Are you infected?” John called down at us. “Do you have the blight? Be honest now, or I will cut you down where you stand!”
It wasn’t the usual test, but this wasn’t the usual encounter. John had to keep his distance, and asking us to eat isn’t exactly the first thing on anyone’s mind when the hammers are cocked, if you know what I mean.
“No,” Dad replied. He shook his head slowly from side to side. “We’re clean—I promise. We’ve been drinking from a well and wearing gloves.”
I wiggled my fingers in support of his point; they were sheathed in plastic. We’d been lucky in that regard. Mom had had six boxes of disposables at home—an occupational necessity with some of the labs that she taught—and we wore them whenever we went into Sandy.
John lowered the pistols, and that’s when Ben drew the curtain and we saw poor Carrie and her tiny daughter. Marianne couldn’t have been much more than a few weeks old. Carrie had tears on her cheeks. I can’t imagine how scared she must have been, holding her child like that and never knowing if we were blighted—or if we had come to take her baby girl away.
And that’s how we stumbled across another group of survivors. I don’t mind mentioning it here that we discovered each other at the Elks Lodge, because they’re long gone now. We all walked out of that place together. They were heading east (or were they? ha, ha!), where Carrie thought she might still have some family.
But before they departed, we shared a meal together. Ben’s a bow-hunter, you see, and he had managed to kill a pair of seagulls just a few hours before we showed up. We built a little fire out behind the lodge, too overcome with hunger to care much about whether the blighted might notice the smoke.
Besides, it was nice just being with others for a change. Having a cookout felt—I don’t know, it just felt like the right thing to do. Maybe it was dangerous, but it was pretty clear to me that we all needed it.
And we had weapons. If the blighted came, we would deal with it.
So we roasted the gulls, and Dad shared around the crumbled remains of the last three protein bars that he’d been holding onto for a special occasion. We ate the candy too. My stomach has shrunk over these last few months and, even though I only had a couple of ounces of food, I can’t remember the last time I felt that full.
It was sooo nice, let me tell you. We sat near the fire, warming our hands in the drizzle, and we ate and we talked.
Billy and me put the fire out when we were finished and we helped them get their things together. That’s when the talk turned to the blighted.
“They actually have a market now up in Seattle,” John said, the disgust plain in his voice. He had a little tin of tobacco—Lord only knows where he managed to get that, what with all of the grocery stores and gas stations as empty as they are—and he put a pinch in his cheek. He offered some to Dad and Billy, but Dad refused. Billy looked like he wanted some, but one look from Dad changed those plans pretty quickly.
“I’m serious,” John continued. “They’re…they’re selling it right out there in the open.”
Carrie never looked up from her infant daughter while her husband spoke. The rest of us looked elsewhere—overcome with revulsion by what he’d said.
A market? Holy sheesh. That meant they were processing it…
“It’s true,” Ben added. “I was there just a few months back. Heck, I barely made it out of Olympia alive. The blighted were going door to door. They were processing whole groups of survivors. I caught a ride with some carrot munchers down to Vancouver, but I walked the rest of the way to Salem to meet up with Carrie and John. I’ve seen a total of four vehicles on the road since, but I haven’t had the guts to put a thumb in the air. Heck, I hide every time.”
Dad nodded. “We had to leave too. We had a house in Portland—up near the zoo—but we’ve been on the mountain here since April.”
“It seems quiet,” John said. He spat on the smoldering coals. John has a slight build, but he looks pretty tough to me. Things weren’t going to end well for any blighted trying to get to his little girl—I can tell you that. “You folks…are you actually safe here?”
Dad shrugged. “We’ve managed, so far at least. You’re the first person I’ve spoken with in about three weeks, John. The last one was an old man I met in a hardware store. He was binding a nasty puncture wound in his foot with electrical tape.
“Sandy’s been pretty much picked over, but we’ve had some luck around Eagle Creek. Allie, you want to show him what we found?”
I pulled out the laptop, smiling as I gave my confession. “I hope you don’t mind,” I told him, “but I’ve been recording all of this—at least everything since you let my Dad and brother pick up their guns. I’m…well, I’m keeping a record.”
John grinned at me. “A record? What do you mean?”
I explained it to him, and I told him about the X-NET. He just shook his head in amazement while I spoke. “Be careful,” he warned me, eyes wide. “You just be careful about how you use that thing, Allie. If the grid comes back on to stay, then you can be pretty certain of just who got it up and running. There are just so many more of them then there are of us right now. And I hate the thought of that thing leading them straight to your doorstep.”
I nodded. “I’m careful. It’s encrypted, and I never log on from the cabin. Can I…can I please take your picture, John? I mean, for the journal?”
“Nah, I’m sorry, kid,” John said. “We’d rather not. We want to stay under the radar—as far under it as we can. In fact, I’ll be honest with you folks. This situation that we’re in? I’m thinking it’s pretty much permanent. There was some talk of medical testing, supposedly coming out of Bethesda or the Pentagon or someplace back east. These were medical trials coming out of the military—some kind of vaccine that was supposed to stop the blight dead in its tracks. But I can’t be sure. Nobody can. It’s all a bunch of hearsay now, folks. Just whispers on the wind, and most of it probably wrong to boot.”
We helped Ben and John shrug into their packs. Carrie, who hadn’t said much of anything to us at all, had the baby secured in a sling against her chest, bundled beneath a waterproof jacket. We were walking with them, heading east, when we heard the roar of the convoy.
“Go!” Dad hissed at Billy and me—pointing to the fire-blackened shell of an old pop-up camper. “Get behind that camper—now, kids! Go!”
We did as we were told, and Ben and Carrie came with us. I peeked out from beneath the camper’s wheels and caught sight of them. Dad and John knelt behind a thick juniper shrub. Just twenty feet beyond their position, a series of military vehicles rumbled right down the center of the Mt. Hood Highway. Trucks and hummers. They were decked out in tan camouflage, but each bore an odd insignia on its side—sprayed there with red paint.
If the power holds up, I might try my hand at drawing it and posting it here later on.
I got down on my tummy and counted tires. Nine vehicles later, the convoy had passed.
Dad and John met up with us behind the camper. “We’ve got to get straight home, kids,” he said to us. There was fear in his voice, and it kicked my pulse up another notch.
Carrie and John shared a glance. It was heartbreaking. I could tell she wanted to come with us. But John…I’m not sure what it was I saw in his face. Pride, maybe? Anger? Willfulness?
I’d like to think that Dad would help them, but I’m glad that they never asked. I know it sounds selfish, but we were barely holding on as it was. How could we take on a baby? The cabin already feels cramped, and what would happen when Mom comes home?
“No, honey,” John said. He reached over and tucked a wisp of Carrie’s hair behind her ear. “No. We need to stick to the plan. Let’s just get out to your dad’s place and see how things look from there, okay?”
Carrie was crying again, and John pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her. He let her cry for a long moment before whispering something in her ear. She stiffened, nodded her head, and wiped her eyes—her resolve replenished.
I’m pretty hopeful for these folks.
Dad pressed the tattered copy of our only map into their hands. It had notes all over it, and it was coming apart along the seams, but still—it was a danged map.
“Thank you,” John said. He shook Dad’s hand and tucked it into his jacket. “God be with you and your family, Clifford. You take good care of these kids.”
“Will do,” Dad said. “Be safe.”
We watched them go, and then we came home and spent the last three days munching on salmonberries, ferns, and the last of our canned goods. The battery died—drained by my recording—and we were too scared to do anything much more than sit around and read and play scrabble and gin rummy. Dad went out for firewood a few times, but the pickings are slim with all of this wet weather.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that it’s rained every day. A lot.
And so now you know what we know which, having typed all this out here, really doesn’t feel like an awful lot.
But still—something seems to be happening here. There are others out there, and they’re on the move. They have vehicles, and they seem organized.
I guess the real question is, whose side are they on?

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