Billy had never thought of himself as lazy. He was a hard worker, or had always thought so. Sure, he had time when he sluffed off, like when his work at the shop was slow. Didn’t everybody?
Everybody except Rhonda Higgins he had learned. That woman was on go every minute of the day.
In the week since Billy had ‘found’ her, the two had made a trip into town every day. Things that Billy would have left behind or looked over, she took. Bolts of cloth, rolls of thread, sewing needles, every new pair of boots and shoes in town, the list was never ending.
And Billy had never seen a list. It was like Rhonda had the list in her head, and never forgot what was on it. She also never ran out of things for him to do.
Billy had thought of a few things too, he reminded himself proudly. Firstly, he had found two nearly new fuel tanks, each capable of holding three hundred gallons of fuel. He had refueled the truck tank every day they went into town, first taking enough gas to top off his old tank, and one of the new ones. Then, after cleaning the tank out, he had proceeded to get the old diesel tank topped off, and finally the other new tank as well.
Their second day in town, Billy had found them another truck. This one had belonged to Mister Johnson, who owned the Motor Parts store. An F-250 crew cab, with a diesel engine, duel tanks, and four wheel drive. There was also a Warn winch on the front rated for 8,000 pounds. Since they had two drivers, now, he saw no reason they couldn’t haul with two trucks. It was the work of a few minutes to appropriate another trailer, and hook it to the Ford.
This had cut down on the trips to town, for which he was grateful. His fear of the rats hadn’t diminished much. Rhonda just ignored them. All Billy could do was shake his head.
“Well, I think we got everything from the stores worth saving,” Rhonda announced, as they finally finished emptying the last trailer load. The hidden room under the barn was now absolutely full, bulging with the additional firearms and ammunition. In truth, this wasn’t the last trailer, since five more sat around the barn. There simply wasn’t anywhere to put that stuff. He’d have to see about putting up some storage buildings.
“Thank goodness,” Billy groaned. His back hurt like never before.
“Oh, stop bein’ a wuss,” Rhonda slapped him on the shoulder. “It ain’t that bad.”
“I guess not, when you ain’t the one doin’ the heavy liftin’,” Billy shot back. Rhonda was a red headed spitfire, but she was a small spitfire. At five-one, and a hundred and ten pounds, she would never tip the scales as a heavy weight. Or a light-weight either. But she was like a Banty hen. What she lacked in size, she made up for in spunk.
“That’s what men are for, sweetie,” she smiled at him. “At least that’s what my Granny Higgins taught me.”
“Taught you pretty good, then,” Billy replied.
“Tomorrow we can start going through houses,” Rhonda announced. Billy froze.
“What?” she demanded.
“I. . .I can’t. . .I ain’t goin’ through no houses, Rhonda,” he told her. “Not after Widow George.”
“Billy, there’s no tellin’ what’s in them houses,” Rhonda told him. “Including weapons and ammunition. I promise you, anyone else would do it.”
“I ain’t anyone else,” Billy shook his head. “And I ain’t doin’ it.” Rhonda studied the set look on Billy’s face, and knew she faced an uphill battle. She softened her stance a little.
“Look, Billy, I know what you must have went through,” she placed a hand on his arm. “It wasn’t all that easy for me, either,” she admitted. “But there’s things in those houses we’ll need, or that we can trade. And, trust me, there’s a whole bunch of guns and ammo in them houses. My daddy sold most of’em. Anyone o’ them gangs you heard about goes through’em, they’re gonna be might well armed.”
Billy continued to look at her, his face telling her he was flatly refusing to consider it. She tried another track.
“Billy, if we don’t do it, someone else will come along and do it anyway. Eventually, someone will, no matter what we do. Do you want to leave anything useful for them what might mean us harm?”
Billy looked away, weighing her words against his fear. He didn’t want to go through that again. And now there were the rats to consider.
“We’ll get sick,” he told her. “Bein’ round all them dead people, and them rats eatin’ on’em. We’ll get sick.”
“No, we won’t,” Rhonda shook her head. “We’ll wear protective gear, and masks. And we’ve got a little something for them rats, too,” she added, hefting a small rifle.
“This here is an air rifle. Not like one of them cheap one’s you get at Wal-Mart, neither. This here is strong enough to kill a squirrel or a rabbit at forty yards. Imagine what it’ll do to them rats. And we got pellets and bb’s aplenty. Won’t make no noise, won’t draw no attention, and we’ll make a hefty dent in the rat population. I got three of’em,” she added. He looked at the gun, then sighed.
“I don’t want to,” he repeated, “but if you think it’s needful, then we will. But not today,” he added. “Not today.” Rhonda nodded.
“Okay. Let’s just rest today, then. Get a good start in the morning.”
“Fine,” Billy nodded, and started for the house. Rhonda watched him go, wishing she could cheer him up. She knew what she was asking was ghoulish, at the very least. But she also knew it was necessary. The only reason she hadn’t already started was because she had been alone. And afraid.
Rhonda didn’t like showing fear, but she had been terrified the night Billy had broke into her place. The relief she had felt when she found out it was him was so palpable that she could have almost touched it. She wasn’t afraid of Billy. She’d known him, as she’d said, all her life, give or take. He was about the nicest person she’d ever known, outside her father and grandmother. He was kind, and gentle, almost to a fault.
He had a temper, too. She’d seen him beat a football player to a bloody pulp for pulling her hair once in school. She doubted he even remembered it, but she did. Billy had seen it, and suddenly he wasn’t the nicest guy in school anymore.
Unfortunately for Billy, the thrashing had just made everyone pick on him more. ‘Freak’ and ‘weirdo’ had been some of the nicer names. She had talked to her father about Billy more than once.
“‘Ronnie,” he’d said, “Billy Todd is a good boy, from a fine family. Raised proper, and taught his manners. But there’s something about Billy that ain’t normal. I can’t rightly put it to words, but it ain’t what people say about him, I can tell you that. That boy was born outta time. He ain’t supposed to be here, with the likes of us.’”
She’s asked what her father had meant by that.
“‘He’s a throwback to an earlier age, baby,” he father had replied. “‘I know he’s a bit slow minded, but only where certain things are concerned. When he’s in one of his ‘cycles’, as his daddy calls’em, he’s struggling to make a decision. He knows right from wrong, Bob and Robbie seen to that. But his instincts are tellin’ him somethin’ else, sometimes. And he has a hard time fightin’ them instincts.’”
Rhonda thought back to that conversation as she watched Billy trudge toward the house.
“‘Is he dangerous, daddy?’,” she’d asked her father.
“‘Only to them what do him or his wrong, baby,’” her father assured her. “Only to them what would do someone harm that can’t defend themselves. To them, he’s a man to be reckoned with. I’ve seen him shoot, and it’s as natural to him as breathin’. I’ve seen him pull a fence post outta the ground with no more than a grunt. I’d not want to be the one that hurt something or someone he loved.’”
Her father rarely spoke like that about anyone, let alone a man Billy’s age. She’s thought about that over and over for the last week. She hadn’t hesitated to go with Billy when he’d offered, in part because of her father, and in part because Billy had defended her in school.
No, she didn’t have to be afraid. And she would try to make sure Billy didn’t have so many ‘cycles’ either. She could be a good influence on him, she decided.
Her mind made up, she followed Billy to the house.
Going through the houses was gruesome.
They had been at it for almost a week. So far they had cleared sixty-nine houses. Billy had been nervous at first, and though she wouldn’t admit it, so had Rhonda. She had made sure they took extra precautions. Both were armed, and she carried a pellet rifle with her every time they entered a house.
Both had discussed the possibility of finding someone else alive. Both hoped to do so, believing that if the two of them had survived, someone else had as well.
So far, it was a wasted hope. What they had found were bodies. Horribly decomposed bodies of friends and neighbors who had died in agony. Some were in beds, some were in easy chairs, and more than a few were lying in the floor, having died where they’d fallen. Each house, it seemed, was a new nightmare, waiting to be opened.
The rats were everywhere.
They had just come from the latest house, a truly awful scene where a family of five, including a new born, were lying dead.
“That’s it, Rhonda,” Billy told her, gasping as he pulled off his mask. “I’m done with this. I can’t keep seein’ all this.” Rhonda sighed, nodding.
“I know. Here’s what we can do. We’ll get daddy’s files, see who had the weapons, and just get them. We need to round them up. Can you stick with me that long?” Billy looked at her for a long time, then nodded.
“But that’s it,” he warned, his face telling her that this time he meant it.
“We should have started sooner,” she told him. “Or waited for winter, either one. I’m like you, Billy. If I see one more baby, I think I’ll scream.” She had thought she knew how hard this would be. She hadn’t.
They went to her father’s store, now empty of anything useful, and Rhonda wasted no time in opening the transfer files. She gave some to Billy and kept the rest for herself.
“We’re only interested in the one’s that have Cedar Bend’s zip code,” she showed him where to look. “If it’s out of town, we skip it.” He nodded, and quietly began to sift through the papers. She watched Billy carefully for a few minutes. Satisfied that he was okay, she started on her own pile.
It took the better part of two hours to go through all the papers. He father had owned a popular and successful shop, and the size of his store belied the sheer volume of trade he had done. Finally, they were through the list.
“Still a lot of’em,” Billy noted. She nodded.
“I know. But these are either here in town, or just outside. We can get them, whatever ammo we find, and then call it done.”
“We’ll need to be careful,” Billy warned. “Someone still alive might shoot us with them guns we want to find.” Rhonda started, not having considered that.
“I hadn’t thought about that,” she admitted. “What can we do?”
“We can forget this, and go home,” Billy told her flatly. “That’s what we can do.”
“What if someone comes and finds all this stuff?” she asked, waving the papers.
“Then they’re welcome to them,” Billy replied. “If they want to wade through all those bodies, and rats, to get them, more power to them.”
“You were the one who said we needed to get them,” Rhonda pointed out. “That we needed to secure them so no one could use them against us.” Billy started at that one.
He had forgotten how all this had started.
Had that really only been two weeks ago? Almost two weeks, anyway. Since he’d come to town under cover of darkness to take everything from Lem Higgins’ store? He looked out the window for a moment, all this running through his head. His father’s instructions had been pretty clear. Finally he nodded, turning back to Rhonda.
“You’re right,” he told her, his voice soft. “I did. Let’s go.” Decision made, Billy was no longer hesitant. Rhonda nodded her agreement, and the two of them left the store, on their way to try and secure anything that could be used against them.
Rhonda hadn’t told Billy how bad she felt in going through homes that had once belonged to neighbors, friends, and even a few distant relatives. She felt like a grave robber. Intellectually she knew that wasn’t quite right. The rules had changed, and now their survival was more important than society’s niceties and rules. Her father had always favored a saying from the Bible, ‘Let the dead bury the dead’. She didn’t really understand what it meant, since it was obvious that dead people couldn’t bury other dead people.
But she had applied it in her own way. There was simply no way she and Billy could bury everyone. And by this time the bodies were so decomposed that not only would handling them be dangerous, it would prove difficult. Billy had told her what he had encountered when trying to bury the Widow George. Rhonda didn’t want to go through anything like that herself.
They parked in a spot where several of the addresses were easy to get to on foot, and the truck was out of the way a bit. Billy had decided that they needed to keep out of sight while they were ‘scavenging’, in case some of the raiders he had heard about happened upon Cedar Bend while they were out.
In truth he didn’t expect it, not yet. Having read his father’s books, he thought he had a better idea what to expect. This wasn’t a societal break down. Not too many people had survived. Those that had would need time to get organized. When they did, it was only natural they would head to the larger cities first, to pick them clean of anything they could find. There was simply more to be had in a city like Nashville, Memphis, or any of the other larger cities, than could be found in an out of the way map dot like Cedar Bend.
That didn’t mean that they wouldn’t make their way here, eventually. Sooner or later, they’d use up what they found, and start looting the smaller towns. And there was one other thing that his father’s notes had mentioned.
They’d likely be looking for women as well. He cast a quick glance at Rhonda at this thought. He had read that in a society like this one, women would often be considered possessions, rather than anything else. Billy had no intention of letting that happen to Rhonda, or to Mrs, Silvers and her daughter. He didn’t like Michelle Silvers, but that didn’t mean he wanted to see her treated like that.
“Maybe if we split up. . . .” Rhonda started.
“No,” Billy’s reply was flat, and final. “We stick together, or we go home. Period.”
Rhonda looked at him strangely at that, but nodded.
The two of them reached the first house, took a deep breath, and got started.
“I think that’s the last one, Billy,” Rhonda told him softly. She was looking at the 4473’s from her father’s shop, and each one had the tell tale mark she’d used to signify that they had checked the address. It was well after dark. They had hurried through the afternoon, wanting to get done and get home, for good.
Now, it seemed they could do so.
“All right,” Billy nodded, almost smiling. “Let’s get this stuff loaded, and get outta here. I always loved this town, but nowadays, it gives me the willies.”
Rhonda nodded. She had lived here for two months alone. She knew all about that feeling.
It was the work of only a few minutes to finish loading, and then Billy had the truck running, heater working full blast. It was cold, now that the sun had gone down. Rhonda huddled next to the vent, grateful for the heat.
“We’re not coming back,” Billy told her, still looking out the windshield at the ghost town they’d called home once. “Is there anything else you want? Now’s the time to get it.”
“No, Billy,” Rhonda shook her head. “I brought everything that meant anything with me when I came. I’m ready to go home.”
Home. Billy was inordinately pleased to hear her call the farm home for some reason.
Putting the truck into gear, he started them both toward home.