Tree Line - Chapter Seventeen
Pat walked slowly through the darkened hallway, a bundle of blankets pulled flat inside of the gap between his outstretched arms and his chest, the flashlight in his hand absentmindedly shooting light at the intersection of the wall and ceiling as he walked. The last time he had walked as many miles was during their last supply run just a couple of months before, but today he had pushed himself, in both snow shoes and on foot, and he was starting to get tired.
The lack of food didn’t help. He felt shaky, like only his legs had the energy the rest of his body lacked, like his hands had come undone and might just float away from him, but he knew he’d be okay. He had made this trip before and each time he had managed to get back to the camp without much trouble. He’d just need to persevere, push though his exhaustion, manage his shakes, and he’d be okay.
Behind him, Owen carried a backpack filled with a mix of cans and some boxes of cereal and pasta, the load distributed as evenly as possible across the bags they had brought down with them. Owen usually talked so much, about how he was feeling, about the various ailments he suspected he had, feared, maybe sometimes desired if Pat’s theories about him were right, but he had gone quiet almost a half an hour ago. That, and the expression on his face, let Pat know that Owen must have felt the same way he did: drained, hungry, weighed down by the realization that one of their own might be sick, might be infected.
Angela had been on his mind since they had found her in the hallway without her surgical mask, his thoughts persisting while he checked Chase’s shoulder and eyes, continuing as he and Owen wandered down to the first floor to find Dave. He had been thinking about what little bit of medical training he received, years ago, and about how his fellow EMTs rarely bothered to put on masks during their pick-ups. Infectious diseases were infectious, hence their name, but Pat had gotten through it all just by wearing thin, latex gloves. If someone wanted to get sick, all they had to do was stop washing their hands. If a person really wanted to get sick, they would touch things out in the world, and then adjust their glasses, scratch the tip of their nose, or pick a little bit of lunch out from between their teeth with a germ-filled fingernail. That was what it took, wasn’t it? Something reckless. Something thoughtless. It was never as easy as simply pulling in a breath.
Pat’s mind was racing, jumping from one topic to the next. He thought about the medical masks they all wore whenever they traveled down below the tree line, or when they couldn’t find medical masks, the painter’s masks that they used instead. Doctors dealt with sick people all the time, all day long, and never wore masks. They just washed their hands, soaping up whenever they came into an examination room, doing the same again whenever they finished inspecting someone, donning gloves only occasionally. That was enough, wasn’t it? That was all it took to stay healthy.
Pat could feel that he was getting irritated, unsure whether it was the lack of food or the lack of answers that was making his mood so dark. He kept coming back to the idea that unless Angela had gone around the building, licking all of the doorknobs, she should be okay. It would take more than a few breaths of unfiltered air to infect her, so she should be fine. The question was, how sure was he? Was he willing to bet his life on “should be?” Was he willing to bet the lives of the other people in Camp Corona on a hunch?
“Hold on,” Dave called out. He had been walking behind Owen, carrying another one of their heavy backpacks on his shoulders, a couple of loose blankets tucked under his arms. “I think I forgot something.”
Dave opened his arms, letting the blankets fall to the floor, then he lowered his heavy bag to the thin, worn carpet, setting the backpack down gently on top of the dropped bedding he had been carrying. Then, following the path lit by his own flashlight, he started back into the depths of the hallway they had been walking, on his way back to the condo unit where Owen and Pat had found him. Even in the darkness, the unreliable light of their flashlights, it looked to Pat like Dave was moving slowly, just as slowly as he was, Dave’s body worn down from the day and the lack of any sustenance.
“So, even the mighty Dave gets tired,” Pat thought to himself, watching him head back into the deeper potions of the building.
Owen kept shambling forward, passing Pat, looking like he was lost in some sort of daze as he shuffled his boots across the carpet. So, Pat reached out, catching the younger man’s shoulder as he passed. The contact made Owen’s eyes find his own, brightening when they met, the young man more himself for a moment, his exhaustion fading under the glare from his head lamp.
“I’ll be right back, okay?” Pat told him, bending slightly at the waist as he dropped his own blankets into a pile at the side of the hallway. Then, he started after Dave, trying to move quicker, quickly enough at least to catch up to him, his sore knee turning his march into just a fast hobble.
“Dave?” he asked, following after the large man. “Dave? Do you have a minute?”
There was no answer, but Pat was eventually able to catch up with him, following the younger man into one of the units. His flashlight fell on Dave crouched in the condo where they had tracked him down earlier in the day. Dave was kneeling in front of the coat closet, a large, black nylon case unzipped in front of him. He pulled a rifle out from inside of the bag.
“Jesus,” Pat offered, inadvertently.
“I know,” Dave said, looking up. He held the weapon carefully, away from his body. His eyes falling back down to the gun, he mumbled, “I think it could help us.”
Pat didn’t say anything, just watched the man who crouched in the darkness before him, watched the man’s face harden like he was trying to negotiate with something that Pat couldn’t see.
“If I can shoot a deer or an elk,” Dave started, “it should go a long way to fix some of our worries about food. Hell, if I can get us two animals in the next few months, we’ll eat like kings.”
Pat nodded, following Dave’s logic, then tried a joke, saying, “I can’t remember many kings from history that ate off of camp plates.”
Neither of them laughed. Maybe they were too tired.
Pat crossed his arms and leaned against the door frame, tilted his head so that it also rested against the cheap, wooden molding. He wanted to close his eyes, to rest them for a moment, but fought the urge.
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Angela,” Pat offered, changing the subject.
“So have I,” Dave said. He set the gun down and started to dig through the bag, looking for bullets. The weapon would be useless without them.
“Okay,” Pat said. “You go first. What’s on your mind?”
Dave pulled a handful of small shells from a zippered pocket on the outside of the bag, loose and noisy like Gus’s collar. There had to be more. He kept looking, checking the floor inside of the closet where he had found the gun. He checked the dark, cluttered corners, then climbed up from his crouched position to look on the shelf that hung over the bar that crossed the closet, the bar where he had found a few extra coats dangling from brittle, plastic hangers.
“Well,” Dave started, his thoughts divided between looking for ammunition and finding the best way to put his thoughts into words. Pat expected Dave to be direct and he eventually was, saying, “As cruel as it sounds, I don’t know if we can risk bringing Angela back to camp with us.”
“You can’t be serious,” Pat sighed, his brow turning wrinkled on his forehead. “Just like that, we’re going to abandon her?”
A few seconds passed between them as both men just looked at each other, then Dave took in a deep breath and let it out almost as quickly as he pulled it in. He looked as tired as Pat felt, leaving his arms to rest on the edge of the shelf he was searching. So far, with his gloved hands working under piles of light scarves, logo-emblazoned trucker hats, and boxes of light bulbs, he had found nothing.
“I honestly don’t think we have much of a choice,” he explained. “I know she’s been with us for a long time, but if it turns out that she is infected, we’ll all end up getting sick. We’ve seen how contagious Henry can be. We’ve heard about it taking out entire cities. Hell, we all saw on television what happened on the east coast. I don’t think there’s any reason to assume that the virus has gotten any less potent since those early outbreaks. If we bring her back to the camp…”
“I don’t think she’s infected,” Pat said, interrupting. “None of us are doctors or nurses. All we really know about Henry is what we’ve heard second-hand. All of the information we’ve been relying on is just a collection of rumors and hunches. We don’t know that the virus is actually airborne. Hell, we don’t even know if it’s down here in Fraser!”
“Exactly,” Dave argued. He pushed back, dropping his arms from the shelf in the closet, turning to face Pat. “We don’t really know anything. So, we’ve taken every precaution we can to protect ourselves. For the last four years those precautions have kept us alive. If we start bending on those, start ignoring our own rules, we know how we’re going to end up. We’ve already seen it, right here in this building, people dying alone in the dark, because they made stupid mistakes.”
“The flu isn’t an airborne disease,” Pat argued. Their conversation gave him a jolt of adrenaline, a burst of energy that shook off the tiredness he had been fighting. He lifted his head from the door frame and leaned towards Dave, explaining, “Henry is the nastiest, most brutal virus mankind has ever faced, but it’s still just a flu virus, and the flu has never been an airborne disease.”
“What if you’re wrong?” Dave asked. The two men stared at each other, the beams of their flashlights crossing in the dark, quiet, neither one of them looking like they would waver from their convictions. It was Dave, unexpectedly, that finally caved, explaining, “Listen, I want you to be right. I don’t want to leave Angela down here, but think about it. Really think about it. What if you’re wrong? What if you’re wrong and Angela is infected? She can be a royal pain in the ass sometimes, but I like Angela. This isn’t easy, Pat, but I just don’t see another way.”
Pat nodded, even if he didn’t agree, even as his mind still searched frantically for a solution, for some kind of fix.
“Maybe you’re right,” he offered, weakly, not believing it, not feeling it. He shook his head. “It was a simple mistake. It could have happened to any of us.”
Dave grunted like he didn’t agree. Pat wasn’t so tired that he couldn’t pick up on that.
“So, who is going to tell her?” Pat finally asked. He was back to leaning his head against the doorjamb, the adrenaline already fading, just a blip, a passing thing. He let his eyes fall to the thinning carpet, the same spot where the light from his flashlight had pooled. He added, “I can talk to her. It should be a friend.”
“We’re all her friends,” Dave said.
Pat laughed, genuinely laughed, and Dave chuckled a little as well.
“I’ll talk to her,” Dave said. He lowered his voice, but not his eyes, looking right at Pat as he spoke, saying, “It should be me. This is my decision, so I should be the one to talk to her.”
Pat nodded, not envying him, lifting his head to meet Dave’s eyes again. Pat could see a sadness there, but more so, there was determination. Pat had known Dave a long time, but even as long as he had known him, as well as he thought he understood the man standing before him, he didn’t think he could even try to guess what could ultimately break him. Dave didn’t give up. He wouldn’t give up.
“I don’t want to send her out on her own,” he explained. “We’ll need to divide up our supplies. We’ll send her out with as much as we can to give her a fighting chance.”
“We’re already one tent short,” Pat argued. “It’s why we’re down here.”
“Well, if we manage to find one, it’s hers. She’ll need shelter if she’s going to survive, so we’ll give her whatever we find. Maybe we can move Owen in with me and Joelle can move into Owen’s tent. That’ll leave Angela’s bigger tent for the boys. I don’t know. We’ll work it all out later.”
Pat nodded. It wasn’t much, but it sounded like a chance, like an opportunity for survival. It made him feel better about telling Angela she couldn’t come back with them, even if they were still exiling her, banishing her from the camp she helped build and maintain.
“I’m going to check the closet in the bedroom,” Dave announced. “Maybe our hunter friend was a responsible gun owner and kept his ammunition separate from his gun.”
Not thinking, the motion coming to him strictly by absent-minded reflex, Dave bounced the brass and lead he was already holding in his hand into the air, letting it fall back into his palm again, forcing a dull, heavy chime to ring out into the silent room. Over and over again the bullets careened and collided as he shook them. Dave looked down at the slugs, maybe considered smiling at his assessment of the gun’s previous owner, then pushed his closed fist beneath his heavy coat, lifting the bottom edge of his down-filled jacket to find his pants pocket and leaving the bullets there.
Pat watched Dave move into the bedroom, but then he heard shouting behind him. Dave must have heard it too, because he froze in his tracks. Neither of them could make out any words, but they recognized the tones. It was Owen, and a second, softer voice, one they both recognized as Chase.
Dave took off in a sprint, turning sideways to get past Pat who was still in the doorway, but knocking into him anyway, throwing himself down the hallway and nearly pushing Pat to the ground. Pat, more nimble than even he expected, teetered on his feet for a moment, but managed to stay upright, then he turned and followed, rushing behind Dave.
Rounding a curve in the hallway, Pat moved past a large, but empty game room, then continued past a smaller room that had the white and red striped pole of a barber shop outside of its entrance. It was there that Pat could see Owen and Chase, Dave nearly on top of them.
“I told her not to go!” Chase shouted, his voice already hoarse from yelling, strained by his volume and the force he put behind his words. “I told her not to leave!”
Owen had Chase by the arms, one hand wrapped around each arm at the elbow, shaking him.
“Where is she?” he shouted back at Chase, shaking him hard, his fingers digging into Chase’s thick winter coat, but somehow missing the young man inside of it, his fists filled with just the skin of Chase’s jacket.
“She left,” Chase answered. “She said she had to go. I told her to stay, but she went out into the cold to die!”
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