What the Old Man Did 9

April 16, 2012

I had been afraid many times. But since that day at Oakland’s door, I had not felt deep fear until now. I realized I didn’t want this person to die. At the front of the store I heard the doors swing open. She grabbed my hand and pulled me to the pharmacy counter. She hopped over it easily. I climbed over and followed her to a door at the back. I wanted to shout for her to wait but it was too late, she was through. It was semidarkness still but I could see another door beyond that. We stood there for a moment and then opened it. There was a warehouse. Locking the door behind us, we scanned the gloom. Nothing. After a few seconds, she put her arms around me and held me for a long time. Then said, “Thanks.”

I was still hyped up. When she stepped back I started looking around. There were racks of untouched items. Food, clothes, tents and sleeping bags. It was a bonanza. Further on, I saw a very interesting sight. A car. It appeared to be untouched. There was a light on the wall next to it. A dim red light. What? I turned to Toni,

“What do you think that is?”

Not for the last time, I gave thanks for her strange knowledge.

“It a solar battery charger.”

“How do you know? And what is that?”

“It’s electricity. If the car battery isn’t dead, we might be able to start it. Depends on the fuel.”

It was actually better than this. She found that it was a vehicle that would operate on battery power alone. And I knew that could be good.

“We’ll have to stay here a while, she said simply.”

I didn’t question it though I would be uncomfortable in this place. But passing the time would not be so unpleasant. I had a source of information. A goldmine of information.

She immediately went to the car and opened the door, looking for keys I supposed. Her arm shot up. “Keys!” I smiled. She popped the hood, went to the side of the car there was small open compartment. Reaching up near the glowing light, she took something down and inserted it into the car. She walked over to me and said,

“Now we wait.”

Two days went by. I didn’t waste my time. I climbed the ladder that led to the roof and saw that the charging system as she called it, was portable. We could attach it to the top of the car. And I asked her questions.

Her name was Toni Kristine Bechtel. Kristine was her paternal grandmother’s name. She was born in Boston, but moved to Berkley, California at age 5. Her parents were professors at the university there. Father an electrical engineer, mother a doctor who taught at the medical school. She had two brothers. After the infection started (what she called it) the family at first tried to help, but one day her two brothers never came home again. A week later her mother disappeared. Her father took her from school one day and they got in their minivan and headed east for the Sierras. It was not a pleasant trip. This would have been about the time when my mother locked me in our basement shelter.

When I told Toni about this shelter, she started asking me about my parents. When she discovered that my father was in the army, she became sad. She said her mother had told them that the infection was the result of a rapid evolution of a virus created in India for war purposes. The armed forces had some advance information about things. She said my father must have been someone important. I didn’t know. Looking at me, she said, “I’m glad he was,” and looked hurriedly away.

During the trip over the Sierras, their car was wrecked by looters but they were able to find another and continued to Denver. It was becoming colder and the infection spread more slowly. Her father said that a few people were carriers who didn’t get sick, but made others sick. She talked about staying first in Denver and then in a smaller community in the mountains. Her father was a valuable person who could design and maintain systems for their small town. They had power for a long time after the big cities on the front range had gone dark. But people fleeing the spreading infection in later years eventually found them and they were gradually overcome. The virus had mutated in such a way that the infected showed no immediate symptoms and could be symptom free for many months. That was enough to create a scenario for almost instantaneous tragedy.

Toni’s father stayed, but sent her out in a car with one of his solar power systems. He was infected and knew it. It took her a year, but she finally wandered into St. Louis on foot. Her car left behind somewhere in Wyoming. She said that she had given up hope of finding anyone alive and was going through the city finding food and water wherever she could. She had run into a swarm of the things (she called them “zombies”) and ran until exhausted, taking refuge on the garbage truck where I found her. There was more, but I didn’t feel like pressing for details. Some things should be left alone I thought, thinking about that day on the street at Oakland’s house.

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