This is what happened.
If you’re still following along here then you probably saw this coming. While I’ve tried to be as faithful as possible throughout this process (by making recordings and trying to add links and all that good stuff that any real historian should be doing) you’ll just have to trust me from here on out that I’m reporting things faithfully. As Dad recently told me, history isn’t exactly objective anyway. The old Mrs. Cranston might be disappointed in me, but I doubt she’d care too much nowadays. I’m sure, if she’s still making her way through any of this, she has much bigger fish to fry, so to speak…
So I’m posting this by the thin beam of a dying flashlight in the back room of a deserted bowling alley. We’re locked in—barricaded, with a heavy metal desk in front of the only entrance. Billy and Dad are here, and Billy was shot in the shoulder. Dad says that it went through the skin, so that’s a blessing. Billy says it stings like the dickens, but he seems to be handling it okay and the bleeding is under control.
There is the unmistakable musk of a hundred moldering bowling shoes wafting on the air.
Outside, all heck is breaking loose. It would appear that the blighted don’t share our shortage of ammunition, which is a huge bummer.
But here’s the good news: we found him, and the treatments are real.
So, okay…back to it. We left the cabin four days ago, right at dusk. The truck is noisy but Dad took it slow, trying to keep it stealth. We left the lights off and slunk down those logging trails like a pack of jewel thieves, never really pushing it over 15 or 20 MPH. Outside of a sizable herd of deer grazing in a high-mountain meadow, we didn’t encounter another soul. The city loomed dark in the distance, with just a smattering of solar LEDs glowing from the exteriors of a few of the busted-up skyscrapers on the far side of the Willamette.
A dying town in a dying world, Portland is. So sad…
“I don’t expect that they’ll be rolling out the welcome mat,” Billy said. Dad chuckled, but there was no humor in it. We were all on edge. Portland is really scary, and I immediately missed the safety of the cabin. It occurred to me then that if we could just find Mom, we’d be able to make it fine there on the side of that mountain. It was an epiphany, and it felt really good to just let go of any misguided hope I had been holding onto that things would go back to the way they were. So much for school. So much for soccer practice and grocery stores and piano lessons.
None of that mattered if we could all just be together again. That’s what leaving the safety of the mountain taught me. It also taught me that people can be terrible, terrible monsters, but more on that later…
So we jounced our way down those rutted logging trails in the darkness. My brother sat shotgun, our actual shotgun in his lap. The closer you get to Gresham, the more you need to stick to the paved roads, but Dad got sneaky and cut through some alfalfa fields over by the college. It turns out that Mom used to work as an adjunct over at Mt. Hood Community College. They have an arboretum on the outskirts of campus that Dad used to take jogs in during the summer, and we found it and stuck to its dirt paths and avoided the entry onto Glisan altogether that way.
It took a few hours but we finally made it down off the mountain and, I have to be honest—it was really disorienting. After a couple of months spent looking down on everything, losing that vantage point gives a person a strange, vulnerable feeling. We rolled slowly through abandoned neighborhoods, most of them little more than ash-blackened husks.
We didn’t speak. I think we were too scared to even risk it, as if breaking the silence would somehow coax the blighted from inside of the dilapidated homes. If there were people there, they were content to let us pass. I kept expecting roadblocks and checkpoints (the blighted posting out of Denver and Jacksonville seemed to have their cities almost completely locked down), but I guess we were still too far out from the heart of the city.
“We need to get back to higher ground,” Dad finally said. “We need to get a look of the waterfront. Any thoughts?”
“How about Mt. Tabor?” I said. “We could maybe stow the truck in the park.” I loved the park there. We used to run cross country up there in the fall.
Dad gave me a 1,000-watt grin and reached back to squeeze my hand, just as the first RPG glanced off the driver-side quarter-panel of the truck. Gunfire fractured the eerie quiet and I saw muzzle flashes in the distance. Dad and Billy ducked as webs laced the windshield. Head beneath the dash, Dad instinctively spun the wheel and the truck lurched into the nearest yard, where maybe half a dozen figures on foot sprinted straight toward us. I saw it all from my perch in the crew cab, and it was horrible. Dad punched it, shooting the truck right into them and I felt it rise and fall as we plowed those jerks into the concrete. He floored it and we clobbered through a back fence and into the neighbor’s yard, catching a little air on a bit of garden bordering. “Guns, Billy! Guns!” he shouted, the truck fishtailing through flowerbeds.
My brother rolled his window down as we crossed the lawn. Staying low, he leaned a bit out the window and let the shotgun do its job. I watched a figure’s head disappear in a crimson vapor. I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman because they wore scarves over their mouths and noses, and they were dressed all in black.
“Whoooo!” Billy hollered. He fired the gun again, screaming at the top of his lungs. I joined in, and then Dad was doing it too. We hooted and hollered to beat the band, and those folks must have wondered if a trio of demons straight from the fiery depths had somehow found a service elevator and the keys to a Chevy Silverado. If they were going to try to take us down, we’d put the ever-loving fear of God in them first (that’s a Mommism, by the way; I kind of like it), that was for sure.
We screamed like wild raiders as Dad pushed the truck through a back patio post, the whole works crashing in a din behind us, and into the side yard. There were others on foot here, and Dad swerved at the last minute to plow into a little group of them huddled around a burn barrel. We’d caught that sad little bunch completely off their guard, and it hurts me a little to say that it felt good watching a few of them go down under the front of the truck.
Billy reloaded. He leaned out the window, ready to unleash heck on these jerks, but they let us go. There were a few plinking ricochets sounding off the buildings around us, but we had made it through. Dad was cutting horizontally now through yards—thumping down off the curb and across the streets before blasting through fences and crashing straight through back yards. The engine strained, the speedometer climbing.
“Everybody okay? How about a systems check?” Dad said. He patted his chest, squeezed his biceps, touched the back of his head. It was just another surreal moment for me, doing a once-over on myself after a danged gunfight.
“Good!” Billy said. “Damned good, Dad! Whoooo! We made it!”
Dad flashed him a look, then broke into a grin before reaching over and squeezing his son’s shoulder.
“Fine, Dad. Fancy driving back there.”
“Thanks, kiddo. Let’s, uh…let’s just disappear now, eh?”
He had the high beams on and he kept his foot down and, before too long, we were almost where we needed to be.
“That’s Yamhill, Dad. Make a right. Right here,” Billy said, pointing. He was still breathing hard and I could tell that, despite it all, he was energized. My big brother had just killed somebody, and he looked ready to go another twelve rounds.
Dad turned onto Yamhill. The park was dark, the shattered streetlights leading to the summit of Mt. Tabor like broken teeth in the high beams. Dad cut the lights off and we were back in utter darkness.
“There’s an old maintenance shed in the woods behind the basketball courts,” Billy said. “We could maybe leave the truck there.”
Dad nodded, and we climbed the 600 feet directly to the summit, busting into the park and angling through a labyrinth of hundred-year-old firs. The shed sat in a cluster of trees, thick brambles of blackberry vines staking a claim to the structure.
It sure looked deserted.
Dad put the truck in park. “You kids stay put. Billy—hand me the shotgun.” He stepped out into the night. “Two minutes, Son. If I’m not back in two minutes, you get behind that wheel and head straight back to the cabin. Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Billy replied. “Please, Dad…please be careful in there.”
Dad nodded. “I love you both. Be right back.”
He shut the door and we watched him run, hunched, toward the shed. He inched one of the large double doors open and slipped inside.
“Bi—” I started.
“Shhhh!” he snapped. “Not now, Allie.”
He slid into the driver’s seat, the pistol in his right hand.
I watched the digital clock embedded in the dash. 10:43.
We held our breath.
“Crap,” Billy said. He arranged his mirrors, the muscles of his jaw getting a workout.
“Not yet,” I whispered. “Not yet, Billy. You can’t leave yet.” I was crying. We’d lost Mom; we just couldn’t lose Dad.
“You heard him,” Billy said. “We’ve got to go, Allie.” He jammed the transmission down into drive and began to turn the wheel just as Dad reappeared in the doorway. He had the shotgun and he was waving at us.
“He’s there!” I screamed, tears streaming down my face. I completely lost it when I saw him. “Billy, he’s there! Go!”
Billy let his breath go in a torrent. He’d been crying too, and I saw his lower lip quivering. “Jeez, Dad!” He turned the wheel and eased up on the brakes as Dad pulled the doors open and Billy slipped into the shed. Dad closed the doors behind us and we piled out of the truck and into the best family hug I’ve ever known.
When we’d finished squeezing each other half to death, Dad whispered, “Okay, here’s the deal…we’re not alone in here. Keep your cool, Son. These people? I just don’t know yet. They seem okay, but…”
He closed the truck door and the dome light switched off, leaving us in perfect darkness. There was a swish of a match and, in the farthest corner of the cavernous shed, standing near a work bench and a row of tractors, a man lit a kerosene lamp. “Please—come on over here,” he called out to us. His voice was weak. “I promise that we mean you no harm.”
He had his family with him. Two young girls and a boy a few years younger than Billy. A tiny wife bordering on emaciation. He, too, was gaunt—a scarecrow rattling around in clothes at least two sizes too big.
“Come. Please. We mean you no harm.” He motioned at us, and Dad touched Billy’s forearm—staying his pistol.
“I’m Clifford Keane,” Dad called. “These are my children, Allison and William. We,” he dug in his pack and produced a handful of fiddlebacks, “have not contracted the blight.”
He ate one and passed a few to each of us. We followed suit as we moved across the room, and I saw that trio of children staring at us with naked hunger.
“Ah,” the man sighed, “she and I…we cannot break bread with you. Not in…not in that way, I’m afraid.”
Billy’s hand came up on instinct, the pistol trained on the man’s head, even before the last word had left his mouth.
“No, Bill! Put the gun down!” Dad said.
“They’re infected,” Billy said. “This isn’t right. I don’t see how we—”
“They’re going for treatment. Same place we’re going. They…they want to travel with us.”
Billy stopped. He stared at Dad, at the family, back at Dad. He lowered the gun and I could see the woman relax. She pulled her children close, dissolving in a flurry of sobs.
“Our children…maybe they have some sort of immunity? They haven’t been touched by all of this—at least not yet. My name is Jack Wilson; this is my wife, Penny. The little one here is Mary, her sister is Ann, and Pete is our oldest. We…we’re trying to get treatment. Just stopped in here to rest a minute.”
“But it’s been a whole day, Dad,” Pete said. There was frustration in his voice and my heart began to ache for this family. Perhaps they were too weak to go any further.
“I know, Pete. I know,” Wilson said, his smile strained. He coughed into his hand.
“How much farther is it?” Dad said.
“Farther?” Wilson replied. He wore a dreamy expression. “I’m sorry, Mr. Keane. Just…just lost concentration for a minute there. Do you…can you spare something to eat? For the children?”
Goodness, they were so hungry. I looked at the fern greens in the palm of my hand and offered them without a second thought.
“Allie, no,” Dad said. “Just…just put them there, okay?” He motioned to an overturned plastic bucket, halfway between us. I piled them there while he went into his pack and pulled out a plastic bag filled with mushrooms and greens. He looked at Wilson. “We can share. Here…send them over.”
Dad put healthy portions of food on the bucket, and we retreated while the kids came over and fell on it like carrion birds on roadkill. It was gone in seconds, and then they were back, huddling with their folks.
Smart Dad. It wouldn’t do for us to get too close.
“How much farther?” Dad repeated.
“Oh. Yes, I’m sorry. And thanks so much for the food, Mr. Keane. I’d say just three or four more miles. Can I…can I ask you something?”
“Of course,” Dad said. He put his pack back in the truck, the barrel of the shotgun still pointed at the floor. “What is it?”
Wilson looked at his wife and something very sad passed between them. “We’re at our limit. We don’t…we won’t do what our condition calls for us to do survive. If we…if we don’t make it into the Reclamation Zone, will you see that the kids get inside? We’ve been told there’s food—medicine. We just…”
His words terminated there and he wept, his thin shoulders hitching with each sob. He pulled his son close and kissed the boy’s temple, wrapping his other arm around his little girls. Criminy…
“We will, Jack. I promise you that we will. C’mon, now. Let’s get back on the road so you can bring them inside on your own, okay? Can you two make it?”
Wilson swiped the tears from his cheeks. He smiled at his wife, who simply wore a dazed expression. She couldn’t return the gesture. “We’ll try. We waited too long to come into town, I think…but we’ll try. Thank you, Mr. Keane. Thank you.”
We gathered our packs and started out for… ah, shoot! Only 6% battery left. I’ll try to get the rest of this in here when the juice is back up. Keep your heads down, if you’re reading this, and stay out of Portland.
The place is a war zone…