She stared up at Kincaid. “What happens when someone’s really, you know, shot up pretty bad?” She didn’t want to say when someone can’t be saved or when someone’s going to die.
Kincaid held her eyes a moment. “If you’re smart enough to ask that question, you already know the answer.”
She did. Chris had said it. When there was only so much to go around, you did the math. Treat the ones who were either most likely to survive or valuable in some way. The rest? You had to hope the end came fast. She wondered if Kincaid helped those people along. Given the situation, she thought he just might.
Kincaid had two other assistants, both older men in their late sixties who’d been nurses but in retirement before. There were six techs, a fancy name for people like her who did things like mop up blood, change sheets, empty bedpans, bring meals. When he saw the look on her face, Kincaid laughed. “Don’t worry. When the patrols start coming back, someone’s usually hurt. That’s where you’re gonna cut your teeth.”
True to his word, Kincaid had her assist when a farmer hobbled in a few hours later. The farmer had laid his thigh open almost to his knee: Damn saw jumped and bit me. The wound was very deep, and Kincaid kept her busy irrigating away blood as he worked. Halfway through, when the bleeding was mostly under control and he’d put in the first few stitches, he handed her the Kelly clamp and tissue forceps and said, “You been watching? Good. Now, I want you to throw a couple stitches in that muscle there. Don’t be shy; just do it.” He watched as she threw in and tied off the first stitch, and then he nodded. “That was good. You done this before?”
“My mom was a doctor.” She could hear her mother’s voice in her head: Roll your wrist, sweetie; don’t be afraid to take a big bite. “We practiced on chicken legs. She said it was closest to what sewing up people was like.”
“Jeez, remind me not to come over for dinner,” said the farmer.
She tagged after Kincaid until well past dark, and when she walked out of the building, Chris was there with Honey. Which was only a little freaky. How had he known? It wasn’t as if someone could just pick up a cell. Was he keeping tabs on her? If so, that wasn’t good.
Compared to that morning, they didn’t talk much, nothing more than hi, how are you, just peachy, that’s good. That was fine. Once they were on Jess’s street—a cul-de-sac—he dismounted, waited while she stabled Honey in the garage at the end of the block, and then walked her to Jess’s house. She said good night and thanks, he nodded and said nothing, and that was that.
Which was fine.
Chris showed up the second day, but not the third, fourth, fifth, or sixth. Instead, Greg escorted her and pumped her about Tori. Unlike Chris, Greg was both chatty and sloppy. Which was how she figured out that supplies—backpacks, food, clothes—were cached back in the village. And also, that the southwest corner was the least heavily patrolled. “We even got a couple gas depots,” Greg said. “We’ve been siphoning gas from cars and trucks and stuff. Figure to use it for the tractors, chain saws, stuff like that come spring.”
“Why not use the gas now?” she asked. “Wouldn’t some snowmobiles work?”
“Sure, and we would, in an emergency. But no one’s going to be making any more gasoline for a long, long time. Once we use up our stockpiles, that’s it. We might figure a way to pump gas up from the tanks under stations, but we need an engineer to help us with that. Even if we can get at the gas, we still have the problem of eventually running out, and it’s kind of spooky anyway, you know? The noise? Anyway, the Council’s into us being self-sufficient and simpler, like the Amish. Which we already kind of were before the … you know. That’s why so many of the houses have hand pumps and stuff for water. Without those, we’d have been completely screwed.”
With that logic, Alex thought, Peter and Chris and everyone else ought to wear deerskins, give up guns, and take up bows and arrows. Or clubs. “What about the people you turn away? You don’t just throw them out with nothing, do you?”
Greg’s forehead crinkled in alarm. “Oh no, that would be like … wrong. They get, you know, a backpack and some supplies. Couple days’ worth of food, water.”
“What about guns? They’d need those, too, won’t they?”
“Yeah, but …” Greg scrunched up his nose. “They’d probably shoot us, right?”
“Good point.” She inclined her head at his rifle. “Nice. It’s a Henry, isn’t it?”
Greg beamed. “Yeah, it’s sweet. Big Boy .44 Magnum. The scope is completely awesome. I also got me a Bushmaster M4 for patrol. We got, like, this arsenal.”
“Well, we all got a couple guns at home, but most we lock up in the village hall, down in the basement below the jail. Keep the ammo there, too. It’s about the safest place in town.”
Well, that wasn’t good. She couldn’t think of a decent excuse that would get her into the basement so she could steal some ammo—or past a locked door, for that matter. So that meant she would have to steal a weapon from someone’s house. Did Jess have a gun? No, being a girl, probably not. One of the guys then, or maybe Kincaid …
She’d figure it out. She had to.
Sunday was church. The Council sat in tall chairs ranged on the pulpit while the Rev led worship, early and mid-morning, and everyone attended one service or the other. Of course, Jess had Alex and the other girls go to both, which was a drag. The service was pretty much what she expected: a couple readings, a bunch of songs, a sermon, more songs, and then go-forth-and-be-numbered-among-the-righteous. Yeager’s was mostly brave-new-world stuff, about how much darker than darkness the world could be and how God could permit such suffering, blah, blah. Along with Revelations and gall and Star Wormwood, the Rev also seemed overly fond of brother stories: Jacob and Esau, Ishmael and Isaac, Cain and Abel. For the Rev, the Changed bore the mark of Cain, the wickedness of Ishmael, the hard primitiveness of Esau. Cain was a no-brainer, but from what she remembered, Jacob tricked his dad, and Abraham couldn’t keep his pants zipped. How any of that reflected on either Esau, who was just a hairy, hardworking farmer looking for a meal, or poor Ishmael—whose only crime seemed to have been being born—she didn’t know. Judging from the stony look Jess gave the Rev when he started in on his brother rant—the way her scent, so white and blank, swelled—there was something about brother stories that touched a nerve in her, too.
Anyway, Alex tuned out. God and religion had ceased to have much relevance for her a long time back. No one had to tell her about darker than dark. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.
It wasn’t until nearly two weeks later, on a Wednesday, that she pushed out of Jess’s house to find Chris waiting with Honey.
“Hi,” she said, genuinely surprised. “I thought Greg was going to be my escort from now on.” Too late, she realized how that sounded and added, “I mean, I thought you were busy—”
“I was,” he said, handing her Honey’s reins. The slight smile he’d worn dribbled away. Turning, he jammed on his sunglasses, then swung up onto his blood bay. He peered down at her. “Now I’m back. That okay with you?”
“It’s fine.” Her cheeks heated, but whether from anger or embarrassment, she wasn’t sure. He said nothing more as she mounted and they started off, the horses’ hooves thudding dully on fresh-fallen snow. She waited until they’d turned out of Jess’s street before trying again. “So … where were you? Out finding
“Uh … where?”
“Around.” He kept his gaze fixed on the road ahead. “Up by Oren.”
“Oh.” She cast about for something to say. “Isn’t that pretty far?”
His shoulders rose and fell in a quick hunch. “Not bad. Only a few miles north.”
She knew Oren, and it was way more than a few miles. “You couldn’t find what you wanted any closer?”
He hesitated before answering; she could almost see the wheels turning. “I remembered that Oren had this bookmobile.”
She was confused for a moment, then recalled Chris’s conversation with the principal. “You went all that way for books?”
“Well, not just books. There was other stuff.”
“Did you find the bookmobile? How many books were left?”
“Everything, as far as I could tell. It was”—Chris’s voice took on a wistful note—“kind of peaceful, actually.”
She imagined it would be: a nice, quiet, very big van filled with books. “How many books did you bring back?”
“All of them.”
“All of them? That’s a lot of wagons.”
“It wasn’t so bad. Peter was kind of pissed, but winter’s pretty long and there aren’t going to be any more books.”
“You don’t know that,” she said. “Maybe we’ll write them.”
He looked at her then. “You wanted to be a writer?”
“I hadn’t thought about the future much.” It helped that this was true. The most future she had was an expiration date.
“Doc says you’re good. Assisting, I mean.”
That didn’t sound like a question, so she said nothing.
“You ever thought of being a doctor?” he asked.
“For a while.”
“Oh, you know,” she said vaguely. “I was keeping my options open.”
They rode in silence the rest of the way. At the hospice door, Chris said, “Hang on a sec.” He reached inside his parka and pulled out a slim, rectangular black case. “I thought maybe you could use these.”
She opened the case. Inside was a pair of women’s sunglasses. The lightweight plastic frame was sage green, and the lenses were amber.
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