Tree Line - Chapter Two

If you haven't already done so, please take a moment to check the Content Warning for the following. If you came across this in the middle and you're curious about what this is, you can visit this link to learn more.

Chapter Two

Stacey Croswell grimaced at the wind that blew against her face, feeling it bite like it was a swarm of tiny insects feeding on her tender flesh. She knew better than to go outside without something covering her face, but she reasoned that she'd only be out for a minute or two. Walking back to her tent in the cold, in the dark, she silently cursed herself and her stupidity, the same thing she had done the night before, and maybe even the night before that.

The wind howled and shrieked around her as she snaked between the edges of the narrow, thigh-deep path that had been carved into the snow over the last week. Stacey was a small woman, what used to be called petite when she shopped for clothes in malls and department stores, so the snow wasn't as deep for the others in the camp as it was for her, but the path she walked was narrow. She could feel its edges on either side of her as she walked, the snow stiff enough that it held up to her gentle, inadvertent bumps, but still fragile enough in other places that clumps occasionally broke free and fell into the thin trench she passed through.

The sky was clear for the first time in a week. If Stacey looked up she would have seen a display of stars that were thick enough that they could have been spread with a butter knife, bright and dense and golden, but the cold wouldn't forgive even that simple of a gesture. She knew better than to test it, so she didn't dare raise her head and expose her neck to the blowing cold that pressed against her. Instead, she kept her head down, her neck hidden under her heavy coat, her right hand squeezing her collar closed against the wind, as she traced her way back to her tent, her left hand clutching a roll of toilet paper.

Ahead, her tent glowed from within, a fat, inert firefly too tired to take flight in the high winds that roared over the mountain top. All of the tents in the camp glowed like that, camp lights burning inside of them, keeping the shadows at bay, illuminating the night for their inhabitants, their combined brightness too weak to dampen their view of the field of stars that spun and glided above them.

Most of the tents were set up in cramped burrows that had been dug as deeply as they could manage before the mountain beneath their camp became too solid, too rocky for camp shovels. With the snow settled in around their camp each shelter looked like just a tiny bump of light, little domes that hid their true size under layers of snow and rock-filled dirt, each path to their doors a short, steady decline down to their buried positions.

Stacey's arms and shoulders hurt. The snow that came in almost a week before wasn't as bad as they feared, not as bad as Dave had predicted when he went door-to-door to warn them to prepare, but the snow had been relentless. It came in steadily, piling up. It just fell, hour after hour, day after day. When the storm finally did blow over, five days later, it left behind a wind so fierce and so frigid that it seemed like more snow could come at any moment, even if the wind only snapped at them with dry teeth, nipped at their tender flesh.

Stacey and the others had spent days digging, first creating little paths between their tents, then digging gaps around each tent to keep the weight of the snow from accumulating on top of them. The camp had learned their lesson the hard way, two years before, and none of them were eager to experience a rash of tent collapses again. So, they all dug, day after day, their muscles sore from both the weight of the snow and the ceaseless need to move it as the frozen liquid filled in their trenches almost as quickly as they had emptied them.

There were six tents, five of them shining their glowing halos up towards the sky, most filled with a pair of Corona's settlers. Dave had a tent to himself. Sharing his space with Gus didn't count. Owen also had his own tent, a smaller one that he had filled with whatever CB equipment he could find and the canned goods he was able to carry up from the lower elevations, but the rest of the tents were all double-occupancy spaces. People squeezed in together with whatever else they could fit around them, all of them living like hoarders, forced to fill their spaces with whatever they might need for their long winters up above the tree line. A final, dark tent sat alone near Dave's tent, an old, Army-style canvas square they used as a supply depot for whatever didn't fit in their personal spaces, holding extra blankets, unclaimed clothes, and their communal food stores.

They had no choice. They had to live like this, on the mountain tops that towered over the rest of the world. Henry was down there, the virus that had decimated humanity, turning massive cities into silent, hollow ghost towns, taking away everyone they loved, everyone they hated, everyone they had ever known.

It had only been a few years, but Stacey could barely remember what life was like before Henry, what the general population had started calling that year's mutation of H1N1. She could barely remember what her life had been like before she fled into the relative safety of the mountains, having run away to hide from something she couldn't see, but could still kill her.

It had all started with a terrorist attack. Someone set off a bomb in Philadelphia. No one seemed to really know why. There was no political statement released to the press, no rambling manifesto posted to an extremist web site, just an explosion that tore apart a pair of apartment buildings filled with refugees who had thought they had finally found safety in suburban America.

Stacey was a college student when it happened, happy, but struggling to fill the gulf that existed between being a teenager and becoming an adult. Her introductory classes didn't inspire her, nor did the various social opportunities of campus life, so she just floated in the spaces between everything, showing up to meet her obligations, but only physically. Mentally, she was somewhere else, a place that seemed to be getting further and further away from where she was supposed to be, drifting away more every day.

The explosion happened far away, to people she didn't know, but something about the bombing rattled inside of her like aftershocks following an earthquake. She spent her days trying to avoid the images of that bombing that popped up everywhere, each photo or video too terrifying for her to wrap her mind around, to really comprehend, but she was still obsessed by it. She sought out every first-hand account she could read, every news report that offered some kind of meaning behind it, some kind of motive, coming to grips with the narratives she could find, even while dodging the camera footage uploaded online and playing endlessly on cable TV.

The next bomb went off in Germany a month later, a place so removed from Philadelphia it was literally on the other side of the world, but even as far away as it was the circumstances were eerily similar. A tiny immigrant community was targeted, and again there were no messages, no political statements beyond just the violence of it and the targets that had been chosen. Like the explosion in Philadelphia it almost seemed arbitrary, like it could have been a mistake, but it flipped a switch in Stacey. She stopped sleeping. She had started losing weight. Stacey quickly discovered that she was able to watch the videos taken at the explosion site in Germany, immersing herself in the chaos and pain that played on a loop like she was looking for clues, some deeper truth, some hidden understanding.

When the third bomb went off in Turkey, hitting a poor neighborhood in Ankara, the world was horrified, demanding action, crying out for justice. No one dared to think that the bomb in Turkey might be different than the first two explosions; no one thought to bring along Geiger counters when they searched the rubble for survivors.

The fourth bomb went off in Chicago, exactly a year after that first explosion in Philadelphia. Like the explosion in Ankara the device in Chicago had been a dirty bomb, secretly spreading radioactive material and collateral damage in equal amounts. It infected first responders and the clean-up crews who selflessly did their duty, none of them ever knowing the extent of what they were touching, what they were pulling into their lungs with every labored breath.

By that time Stacey had stopped going to classes; stopped answering emails from her advisor. It felt like the entire world was grinding to a halt, which in some ways it was, even if Stacey's hunch, her anxiety-fueled nightmares, only had access to some of the facts.

The radiation that had been sprinkled over a few city blocks in Ankara and then Chicago was dangerous, but it ended up doing something more than just giving first responders radiation poisoning. It stumbled across a conspirator, that year's flu bug, and the radiation gave that persistent virus a little push, a little ugly inspiration, promoting the tiniest change, and then everything started to fall apart.

Going into flu-season no one suspected anything was off. The symptoms were classic and boring: fever, fatigue, sore throat, and coughing. It wasn't much different than any other year, but as the virus took hold people started developing a deep, wet cough that produced green or brownish-colored phlegm. The sickest people started getting lethargic and unresponsive, almost comatose, the whites of their eyes going yellow when their livers finally failed as the infection just kept spreading throughout their bodies. Unfolding like a worsening nightmare, some terrible, cellular dream there was no way to wake from, no matter how hard the person coughed and shook and sweat, the virus just continued to unspool inside its victims.

Doctors on the news described it as a subtype of the influenza virus, just a nasty, new strain of H1N1, but it kept getting worse, kept spreading. Panic started to set in when those same doctors began referencing the Spanish Flu, started making off-handed comparisons between this new virus and bird flu, and then the body counts slowly began to rise.

By that time Stacey had become strangely calm. She had dropped out of college, following a friend to the mountains to find a little seasonal work, spending her breaks bent over her smartphone, reading up on the flu, the best ways to avoid it, never bothering to answer her phone when her college tried to reach her or when her family tried to call.

There were hundreds of rumors, little details that bred online even faster than the virus, but no matter how many empty bytes of information stacked up, there was no cure or any concrete understanding of how it did what it was doing. Scientists had been completely baffled by it and the public had been left completely defenseless and unprotected.

Stacey had been working at a ski resort in Winter Park, helping wobbling tourists get onto ski lifts, when the flu had finally reached a sort of critical mass. By the time the rumors had become completely unmoored from reality, ridiculous stories that everyone believed, clung to, no matter how strange or devoid of science. There were stories about delivery trucks purposefully being loaded with infected packages, sent out to overcrowded, urban areas to spread even more of the virus, all at the shadowy behest of secret groups. There were parent groups who organized Henry parties to infect their kids early on, a tactic that they thought would let them build up an immunity to the worst parts of it. An airplane in Texas was hijacked and ordered to fly to Cuba, an area that was rumored to be free of the virus. After a while it seemed like every piece of information that got out, shouted by radio talk show hosts or posted by anonymous commenters online, was stacked on a teetering tower of rumor, piled so high that everything became suspect, everything on the verge of collapse.

All at once the tourists stopped coming to the ski resort where Stacey worked. It was like a spigot had been twisted closed and the resort, usually overflowing with people from all over the world, was completely empty. The only people left were a collection of staff with nothing to do, standing at their posts as empty chairs rattled passed them, hour after hour, the slopes pristine and untouched.

The resort finally closed, telling their employees to go home to their families. It was what Stacey had intended to do, but with everything disintegrating around her the best she could do was hitchhike up the road to Fraser, helping out at a shelter that had been set up in the aisles of a local grocery store. The world had started unraveling all around her, disintegrating little by little with each passing hour, so Stacey started reaching out to her parents again, needing them more than ever, but her parents never answered the phone no matter how often she called them.

No one was sure if a mutated virus had been a part of the original plan or if it was just some terrible accident, but it had ended up doing more harm than any terrorist cell could have ever dreamt. Henry managed to kill millions as it spread all over the world, eventually killing billions, and stranding Stacey hundreds of miles from home.

Stacey had always heard that small towns were the safest place to be during a crisis. The people in rural communities would take care of each other, bind together in ways that cynical city dwellers wouldn't even understand, but when things started to really get dire, when people really started getting scared, nowhere was safe. Everyone, at some point or another, had the capacity to forget their better selves and go feral. When Stacey bumped into Dave, packed up and on his way out of town, it didn't take much for her to decide to go with him.

That was almost four years ago, their tiny group growing and shrinking since then, first camping out in the woods just outside of Fraser, gradually moving to higher ground in starts and stops, pushed by fear and self-preservation. They only had anecdotal evidence, the occasional rumor, but the virus didn't seem to be able to survive at high altitudes, so they just kept moving further and further up the mountain. Eventually they settled at the top of Rollins Pass, digging their camp into the ruins of a crumbled building, a stop on a rail line that had stopped receiving trains almost a century earlier. Occasionally they would brave trips back into town for supplies, but mostly they just waited for the world to become safe again, to return to something like what used to be normal.

That was the timeline that everyone who was left knew, the last chapter in the world's history that they told each other like they were cavemen circling a fire, listening to the legends of their forebears, the stories of their mute gods. It was a confusing, muddy story, weighed down with crazy theories and unsubstantiated rumors. It was incomplete and illogical, a mess that made less and less sense the longer a person concentrated on it, tried to understand which domino knocked over which other domino, but there was no one left to write a detailed, complete history. No one was left to sift through everything to find whatever facts remained in the rubble.

Stacey tried not to think about it too much, but sometimes her mind got away from her and her pulse would inexplicably quicken in her veins, her breathing getting more ragged as her anxiety came rushing back to her. She knew it was ridiculous, like wincing in anticipation for a car crash that had already happened, but understanding something and feeling it were often two very distinct things, states of being that could be separated by miles.

The tent that Stacey shared with Pat was at the far end of the camp, past the tent that held Dave and Gus and another one that Angela and the newest addition to their camp, Joelle, called home. They had carved out a path through the snow, a cleared lane on top of the stone and mortar foundation that had once been the skeleton of a posh restaurant, narrow paths spreading out to each tent from that single path like branches from a tree. As Stacey walked along that path, stopping for a moment to regain her balance as she passed over a tiny patch of ice near Angela's tent, she heard a strange crack.

Stacey froze, unsure of whether she stopped because of the sound she had heard or because of her faltering balance. She didn't move again, her ears searching for another sound, a repeating sound, listening only to her own breath carving up time like a ticking second hand, but hearing nothing else. Then, just as she was about to give up, just as she began to entertain the idea that she had just imagined the crack, there was another sound, a rustling, the familiar sound of cloth against cloth, slippery nylon hissing as it rubbed against itself.

"Fire!" croaked out from the darkness, from one of the bright domes ahead and to the right of her. It was Chase and Nate's tent, its dim, lighted dome getting brighter maybe, the light inside of it less reliable suddenly, bright and then dim, luminous and then gloomy, flickering.

Stacey leapt forward, dropping her hand from her collar, dropping the roll of toilet paper she had been holding, the tube unspooling over the snow. Her first step came easily, the second just as firm and stable, but the third hit something hidden in the snow, a patch of ice, sending her foot out and to the right, her body tumbling to her left, off the foundation and into the snow drift that filled the space between Dave and Gus' tent and the squat, backpacker tent that Owen called home.

The top layer of snow was wind-hardened, its moisture sucked away by the greedy zephyr that constantly roared over the mountain tops. When Stacey hit it, arm first, it was like falling onto packed dirt, but her weight and momentum pushed her though that hardened layer like she was breaking through an eggshell, falling into the softer snow beneath. Soft powder, still fresh under that harder, top layer, flew everywhere, dashing inside of her coat through the openings at her neck and wrists. Her left ear immediately filled with snow, her hat slipping over her greasy hair, threatening to fall off as she scrambled to get her feet under her again. She could feel her ankle start to throb, warm and wet under her many layers, even if she couldn't understand why.

"Fire!" she croaked, repeating what she had heard, what her eyes had started to confirm before her fall.

She got her feet under her, standing up, the snow coming up to her mid-thigh. She began pushing through it like it was water, fighting to get back to the foundation's raised spine with long, exaggerated steps through the piled, heavy white.

"Fire!" she yelled again, louder that time, her croak resolved, chased away by her urgency.

The camp around her suddenly became very noisy: the snake hiss of clothes and nylon pushed together, quickly discarded blankets tossed so hard they bounced off tent walls, the deeper grumble of zippers hastily yanked open, and the slap of heavy boots being thrown out into the snow to be pulled on in a panic.

"Where?" Stacey heard, Dave's deep voice coming behind her, the sound of Gus shaking his head, his collar banging against itself as the dog's head went back and forth like it was shaking off water instead of just sleepiness.

Stacey scrambled onto the foundation, her boots slipping a little, but finding traction as she pushed towards Chase and Nate's tent. She watched as one of the boys pulled open the zipper of their shared tent, light spilling out, turning the snow around them into a field of orange and yellows. Things were happening too fast, a gap growing between her eyes and her ability to understand what she was seeing, but she saw one of the brothers roll out of the tent, his fleece picking up snow like lint sticking to a roll of tape as he tumbled through the piled up drifts. Another shape moved inside, not as frenetic as Stacey expected, as frantic as she felt, moving for the door of the tent as the light inside of the domed shelter intensified behind him, a growing wall of flames.

"Where?" Dave shouted again, even as he overtook Stacey and had already moved to the opening of the tent, Gus barking behind him, leaping from the holes created by each of Dave's deep, clumsy footfalls. Dave's large hands came down on the shoulders of the first DeWitt brother, pulling him away from the tent and tossing him further behind him like he weighed nothing at all. He turned back to the fire-lit tent, the man's eyes wild as he squinted into the cramped space, his face framed by his long hair, a mane that was a maze of wrong turns, as he searched for the other DeWitt boy.

Stacey rushed to the first brother, the one tossed into the snow by the adrenaline-fueled Dave, brushing snow off of him, trying to lift him from his prone position. The DeWitt brother shook his head, confused, maybe dizzy from his tumble, but he seemed okay. The fleece coat he wore had melted patches that stretched over his left arm, the layers under it protecting him from what could have been a horrific, enduring burn.

"Get Nate," he stammered, sputtering and snorting through the snow that clung to his face, trying to raise his arm to wipe it away, but not able to move it as Stacey pulled and jerked on him to bring him to his feet.

Dave shouted, reaching into the tent, thrusting his arm inside, "Come on! Come on, damn it!"

Suddenly Angela was there too, holding up an old, dense Army blanket between her outstretched hands, skidding to a stop next to Dave. When Nate, inside of the tent, grabbed Dave's hand with his own, Dave pulled the young man outside, tossing him to the snow with a loud, labored grunt. Angela leapt on top of him with her blanket, patting, patting, suffocating any flames that might have been there, suffocating the boy trapped in the folds of the scratchy quilt as she rained slaps down on him through the blanket.

"Nate, are you okay?" Angela shouted into the covered mass. "Nate, are you hurt?"

Something inside of the tent suddenly fed the fire, the flames shooting upward through the thin ceiling, escaping from the confines of the tent. The sudden burst of flames caused Dave to stop dead, silhouetted by the fire, stunned by the hot, bright display. Even through the roar of the growing flames, the collected people outside of the tent could hear things inside of it breaking in the heat, a handful of pops like corn as the growing fire consumed everything.

Stacey, no more than an arm's length behind Dave, could feel the heat of the flames washing over her face in waves, gusts of broiled air hitting her again and again. The heat pushed so hard that she released Chase, dropping him back into the snow, lifting her arm to protect her face from the shocking, newborn heat.

"Put it out!" she shouted, rushing beside Dave, kicking snow at the building flames. "Hurry, before it sets something else on fire!"

Off to Dave's right, between the burning tent and the one that Angela called home, Joelle stood, frozen by the sight before her, flames dancing in her dark eyes and on the round lenses that covered them. She looked petrified, mouth hanging open, her dark hair whipping around her head, blowing under the power of the gusting winds, revealing the scars that puckered and bubbled over the left side of her face. She usually kept that half of her face hidden, but the hard bursts of wind blew her hair away from it, revealing the entirety of her face to everyone. It was a rare sight for the people who lived in Corona, rare enough that many of them just stopped and looked at her, then she started to scream: a single, sustained cry that threatened to shatter the lenses in her glasses, threatened to pierce and break the eardrums of anyone standing nearby.

Angela, still raining her open palms down on Nate, smothering him with her blanket and her quick, shallow blows, turned to Joelle, snapping, "Get back in our tent, now!"

Joelle didn't move. She just kept screaming, her eyes locked on the growing flames before her.

Copyright ©2021 by Robb Neumann. All rights reserved. Please feel free to share links, but no part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without the express written consent of the author, except in the case of brief excerpts or quotations in critical reviews or articles.

Do you like what you're reading? Leave a comment below or send me a couple of dollars. Anyone who donates will receive an eBook file of the entire book, in Kindle, ePub, or PDF format, once I am able to compile it. Thank you for taking the time to visit.