John got volunteered to help me dispose of the bodies. The show I had put on for the people seem to crystallize things for them and everyone was more or less willing to accept Stephen as their leader. The group he had invited had already taken up residence at his homestead. I heard from most of them that they didn’t really have anything at their houses worth bringing.
Stephen suggested that they send armed patrols to each persons house to get personal belongings, clothes or whatever else could be scraped together the next day.
John and I stayed on until evening and ate a final meal with the group. I kept the goodbyes limited, speaking mostly to Stephen.
“I gotta tell you kid you were born for this. You had these people in line long before I dropped the hammer on those two lightbulbs.” I gestured over to the two small graves John and I had dug.
I stuck out my hand and Stephen took it, grasping it with surprising strength “Thanks, Finn. Y’know…if you ever need a place to stay I’d be okay with you hanging out here.”
I put my hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eye. I saw a younger predator looking back at me with the same steely glint in his eyes I had been carrying for years. “Nah, I think you’re better off without me around.”
Stephen knew it too, though his offer had been genuine. We finished our goodbyes and I promised that if I ever headed back this way I’d stop in and see how things were going at Stephentopia as some people were starting to jokingly call it.
John had decided to take his chances on making it to Canada and thus following me. As we said our final goodbyes and turned, Stephen called out to us “Wait, I forgot somethin’!” He disappeared into his house for a few minutes and came back out with a backpack and handed it to John.
John hefted the pack with a slight grunt “What’d you put in here, a brick?” Stephen just smiled and said “It’s a gift for, Finn.” For a moment the budding leader was gone and in his place was the child I had seen but briefly when we went out to hunt.
We waved goodbye again and started walking. Soon the little farm was no longer visible and I reckoned it had to be closing in on 7 ‘o clock. We stayed near the road walking mostly on the soft shoulder prepared to jump if we saw anything or anyone else.
John was walking behind me by several yards when I suddenly stopped. I heard John ready his shotgun by clicking off the safety. He called out quietly “What’s up?”
“Dunno” was all I could say. Something for sure had my attention but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The sky was dark enough I could see the stars starting to pop up and even without the moon I could see pretty well. I stood as still as I could once more trying to will my senses to be superpowered if only for a second or two.
“No lights!” John jumped as I exclaimed this.
“What?” he hadn’t noticed it yet.
“There’s no lights, John. Look around.” I pointed to the northeast. We had been walking along U.S. 31/I-196 looking for Blue Star Highway near South Haven. I didn’t see any lights shining up into the sky which would indicate there was a town nearby.
“Son of a bitch. . . you’re right. I’ve driven this road plenty of times and I know there’s a couple of little truck stops that could pass for a town with all their lights on around here.” John scanned the area and pointed almost east “there’s something.”
I waved him down into the ditch and unslung my rifle. I could see light, but it wasn’t the usual steady glow of flourescents lighting the sky. “Fire.” I said and handed John the rifle.
“How can you tell?” he asked peering intently through the scope.
“Watch the way the light wavers and flickers. You only get that from fire” John handed me back the rifle “I’ll take your word for it.’
“Rule one, John? It also means ‘I’m always right’ “I heard him laugh but I continued to watch the fire for a moment. I stood up and picked off the bits of gravel that had become embedded in my arm. “With that fire, anyone over there can’t see us. Let’s get going.”
John walked a little closer so he could talk. “So what’s up with the lights then?”
“Power must be off. Could be anything. Someone could have taken out a transformer or there could have been a storm.” I offered these explanations and thought they sounded reasonable, but I had a feeling that wasn’t the truth of it.
As night wore on and the further we walked it remained dark all over. If I had to guess, I’d say the grid had gone down here for some reason. All I knew was I didn’t really feel like approaching any of the darkened towns and asking questions so we kept moving.
We walked on for the rest of the night making our slow and steady progress. When the sky began to turn lighter I started looking for a place to hole up. I saw a house not too far off and thought we’d try there. I had my monocular strapped to my wrist again since we had been walking and I lifted it up to scope out the place. The house looked deserted, but still pretty well intact.
As we approached the house I didn’t see any signs of recent habitation. Either the former owners had cleaned up pretty well before they split or the squatters had decided this place was too far out to trouble with. That was fine by me so I began looking around for a place to enter the house.
All the windows were intact and I didn’t want to break one in case anyone was keeping an eye on the place and give away that we were there. The house was old. I noticed a coal delivery chute on one side and tried to open it. I couldn’t even budge the thing. “Finn, come here!” I had my revolvers in hand and went around the corner prepared to shoot. John was standing at the back door which was open.
“It was unlocked.” He smiled at me as I holstered my revolvers and walked in past him. My instincts about the place were right as it turned out. The house was pretty well spotless and empty but showed signs of furniture having been moved recently. The place smelled of antiseptic and I wondered if a realtor had come out and cleaned the house up desperate to try to sell it.
We went through all the cabinets and closets downstairs and found nothing. I set my ruck on a counter and pulled out my tactical L.E.D. flashlight and clicked it on using all 350 lumens to explore the basement.
There were boxes in the basement, but they contained nothing useful, being filled mostly with dishcloth’s and other kitchen items. Satisfied with my exploration I went up the stairs and put my ruck back on. John had been standing watch in the kitchen where we had entered and I jerked my head toward the stairs “Come on.”
“Finn?” Fuck. I didn’t like that tone.
John was pointing out the window so I moved up beside him. I couldn’t see what he was looking at so he moved and I stood where he had been. I saw a patch of gray that looked weird. It got weirder seconds later when the gray patch resolved into a man. I raised the monocular and looked out.
“What’s going on?’ John hissed.
I stood there looking until my brain found a working gear. “Well I’ll be…”
“You’ll be what? Hanged? Arrested? Dipped in shit?”
I picked up my rifle and adjusted the eyepiece to maximum magnification. “It’s a scout. . .”
“A scout? A boy scout?” I dropped the monocular prepared to smack some sense into John but I saw he was being serious.
“Not a boy scout. MVDF if I’m not mistaken” I could see that didn’t mean anything to him, so I explained “Michigan Volunteer Defense Force. Sort of like the National Guard but just for Michigan.”
I moved to the living room and its larger window and watched the scout for a while. Eventually he disappeared. I kept scanning the wooded areas near the house looking for his mate but I couldn’t see anything out-of-place. I don’t know how long I waited but I eventually gave it up.
“Okay, John, go on upstairs and get some sleep. I’ll take the first watch.” I could see he was tired and I didn’t mind being awake right now. Why one scout? Where was the other one? Or for that matter where was the unit he was scouting for?
I kept watch until about 1400 and went up to wake John. “while you’re on watch if you see anything–even if it’s animals running–anything that doesn’t look right, get upstairs and wake me.” He nodded “Oh and try not to silhouette yourself.”
“That a gay joke, ’cause I don’t get it?”
“Don’t stand in front of the windows if you can help it. Definitely don’t stand in an open door.” I yawned “just try not to make yourself a target to anyone with a rifle and decent eyesight.”
I headed upstairs and closed my eyes, but my thoughts kept turning over. Maybe the scout had gotten separated from his mates. Maybe he wasn’t a scout at all, just someone lost and trying to get to a fortified position. As I pondered the situation I actually managed to fall asleep.
A short time later John was kneeling beside me, shaking me by the shoulder. “Get up!” he said in a stage whisper.
My eyes were open and I was instantly awake. “What’s happening?” I asked as I stifled a yawn.
“He’s back!” John pointed at the window.
“Who? The scout?” I doubted it was the same person, but the fact that there was another one was enough to pique my interest.
“I saw him a few minutes ago, but I couldn’t tell what was happening. It’s that one from earlier, coming back this way.”
I let John lead the way downstairs and Ito the window he’d been standing at. It took me a few moments to spot him even with the gray BDU’s he was wearing.
“The fuck?” I said to no one in particular. John thought it was directed at him.
“I know! He’s been sitting there for a while” As soon as John stopped speaking I heard it. The sound was as familiar to me as it was to John. A diesel engine changing gears. John looked at me wide eyed.
The typical reactions in this situation are fight,flight or freeze. Maybe add freak out in some cases. I saw the vehicle, a gray painted APC of some sort. I wasn’t really up-to-date on my military vehicles and this one didn’t look American. I started having a flashback to Red Dawn. Russians? But if it were Russians why would they be wearing the MVDF insignia?
“Fuck it.” I took out my S&W .500 and made sure it was fully loaded and did the same for my .357. I was going to add a new category to fight-flight-or-freeze.Confront like a man. “Gimme the shotgun, John.”
John looped the shotgun on over my extended arm and stepped back. “I’m going to go out there and talk to them. If I don’t signal you after a bit, get out the window and hide yourself. I’ll keep them busy for a second or two.” John nodded and gathered up all his supplies and stood ready. “I’m leaving my ruck here. Carry it down to the basement and hide it as best you can. If you hear shooting wait for a few hours and come back. If you can do it safely, you can have my ruck.”
I stepped out the door and headed off to meet the scout and his friends.