Refuge

The temperature was dropping fast and the snow was coming down harder, pebbly and rough against unprotected skin. It wouldn’t be long before it would be deep enough to slow the little group past any hope of reaching shelter before someone just gave up, too exhausted to keep walking. Kenny had kept his face turned away from Jodie ever since they left the camp. It had been his panic that had driven them out of the camp into what might be their death, and it would be on his conscience if any of them died. Jodie knew him well enough to read the slumped shoulders. Guilt was already eating him up.

Frieda’s baby was the most vulnerable of them, even bundled inside his mother’s sweaters and coat, basking in her body heat. That would protect him only as long as Frieda had heat to give. How long would that be, driven by a wind that sucked the warmth from any living thing that lacked shelter?

Jodie was shivering, not just once in a while when the wind took a particularly hard swipe at them, but almost continuously now. She was the skinny one, the one that could never put much meat on her slender frame. She’d been that way as a child and had learned to take the teasing about it as a given part of her life. It made summer heat more bearable than it was for those who were well-padded, but in winter,  there was too little insulation wrapped around her bones. She and the baby would be the first to succumb. Please let me be first. I don’t have the strength to face Frieda’s grief.

The whispered arguments about whether or not to leave the camp had hinged as much on the possible distance to shelter as on the dangers of the new men who had come out of the darkness to join them. Kenny was sure the men meant no good, and Jodie was inclined to agree with him. But no one knew how far they might have to travel if they struck out on their own.

Perry had objected to leaving. “Maybe they got kicked out of their town, same as we did.”

Jodie seriously doubted it. The men looked strong and healthy. Why would a community drive out anyone who was useful? No. Those three had an air about them that said they weren’t the kind to play by the rules. Their needs would come first and they wouldn’t hesitate to take what they wanted, by violence, if necessary. And they’d kept to themselves in spite of Kenny’s initial attempts to be friendly. Even folks who floated from one camp to another preserved that last little bit of civilization. Jodie didn’t like the way they looked at the women, either. Not that any of us are particularly attractive. Who could really tell, anyway, with everyone bundled up to the teeth against the cold?

What would happen to the half dozen other wanderers they’d joined up with if the strangers were really dangerous? If Jodie’s group abandoned them, they likely wouldn’t survive. The tiny group wouldn’t be any match for predators, even if the strangers weren’t armed, as they might well be. There’d been no sign that they were carrying guns, but it was safest to assume that they were. She hadn’t wanted the deaths of six helpless people on her conscience, but she had been outvoted. They had to be left behind. Two more women, an old man, and three small children would be an extra drag that they couldn’t afford. It was too late now to feel guilty that she had been relieved of the burden of decision. All she could do was add them to the long list of people left to find their own fate.

Practicality. Survival. Those were the only criteria now. But hadn’t they always been? Perry was big for his age, but not big enough or strong enough to fight three grown men. Kenny? Well, Jodie didn’t consider him a coward as so many in the town had, but he wouldn’t add much to the group’s defense. How could anyone remain a confirmed pacifist these days? Either you ran or you fought, if you wanted to survive. Kenny had persuaded them to run. Maybe he would fight if he really had his back to the wall, but she couldn’t count on it. It had been a hard lesson, that you couldn’t really count on anybody except yourself. Having a whole town turn against them, vote to throw them out to survive or die, had shattered the last remnants of trust in her. A single person could kill you for what you had. A town could kill you for what you didn’t have.

She had thought the committee would let Frieda stay, at least. They needed children, and little William was healthy, a rarity these days. But they couldn’t keep him and throw her out; there were no other nursing women to make up for Frieda’s milk, no one who could foster the baby. Casting them both out was a death sentence for the child. Without adequate nourishment, her milk would dry up soon.

But William would have been another mouth to feed once he was weaned, along with his mother. Food was already being rationed, and Frieda hadn’t been much use to the community, Jodie had to admit. She was slow in body and mind, fit only for drudgery and the least pleasant tasks. Little William was her first real contribution, but it came at the wrong time. Maybe if he’d been born in the late spring when their shrunken food supply would be replenished with hunting and gardening… Just bad luck, was all it was.

Bad luck for all of them, the drought that cut the harvest to half of what the town needed to get through the winter. Jodie understood as well as anyone the concept of triage. The food had to go to the strongest, to those who were most useful in the fight for survival. They’d all got by one winter on short rations, but it was different this time. Trying to feed everyone meant that some would die anyway, and those that made it through to spring would be in sorry shape to plow and get seed in the ground.

Meat had been rare since ammunition for the rifles had run out. A family of raccoons had gotten into the hen house and killed off most of the hens and their only two roosters. With the four of them standing in front of him, still stunned from hearing what was probably a death sentence, Jeff Ransom had had the nerve to suggest that the outcasts might come across people who would be willing to trade.

“Bring back news of a rooster, or ammunition, and you could earn your way back in.”

Jodie would have spit in his face, but that would have given him an excuse to cut the three days of rations he’d promised them to two. Three days worth of food that they’d stretched out to four days now, by going hungry. But that was about over. There wasn’t enough left for all of them to have another meal.

News of a rooster! It echoed in her head. Time and again, the committee members had voted down a suggestion for small groups to take off in different directions — three or four days out, and try to find other settlements.

“Too dangerous.”

“You never know what kind of crazies you might run into these days.”

“You can’t go out there without ammunition.”

And Jeff thought any of them would come back if they found food and shelter and people who would take them in? Who was the crazy one?

It seemed like bad luck was going to follow them everywhere. It was late autumn and they should have had at least a month before the weather became a factor in their survival. When they slipped out of the camp after everyone else was asleep, it had been cold, but not dangerously so. Stars were sparkling in a cloudless sky. They had plenty of time to reach some kind of shelter, even if they had no idea where that would be. They still had two days rations then, and the next day was mild.

They had made good time, but nowhere had they seen any signs that might indicate a town or settlement ahead. They agreed to take a few hours rest and then keep going as long as they could. Only a few hours out, the mild breeze picked up and the sky, which should have been showing the first signs of coming dawn, had darkened. There was no need to say anything. They picked up their speed, heading blindly along a broken road that had to lead somewhere. But maybe it doesn’t lead anywhere that will help us. Jodie buried the thought as she buried her face deeper into her scarf.

Head down against the driving snow, blowing directly in their faces now, Jodie saw nothing but her feet, which seemed to be sinking deeper and deeper with every step. The snow couldn’t be coming down that fast, could it? Despair seized her and pushed her exhaustion to a new level. It wouldn’t be long now. Her body’s demand to stop and rest a while was quickly overpowering her desire to live.

If she just sat down and refused to go any further, would they make her stand up, and force her to continue one painful step after another? Or would they leave her, maybe reluctantly, but still valuing their own lives too much to let her drag them down? She didn’t know which one she wished for and wasn’t quite ready to find out. She closed her eyes to slits against the snow, and kept moving. She had to ignore everything but the next step, and the next, and the belief that each one took them closer to shelter. Ignore the spasms of shivering that shook her body. Ignore  the ache in her jaw from trying to keep her teeth from chattering. Ignore. Ignore.

An exclamation from out of the cold aroused her. Kenny? What was he saying? He’d seen something through the curtain of whirling snow. Straight lines. A darkness that didn’t belong to the trees alongside the road. Don’t hope. We mustn’t hope. It was then that she realized she hadn’t even been looking. Had given up hope or any reason for continuing to push forward any longer.

Then there were Kenny and Perry’s voices, back and forth. “It’s a town !”

“I don’t see anything but that one building.”

“Even if it’s just one house, that’s better than being out here. We can’t go much further.”

“And what if it’s a house with someone living there? You think they’re gonna open up to a bunch of strangers?”

Frieda’s soft voice: “They gotta help us. They gotta take us in, don’t they?”

The voices murmured and mingled, fragmented assurances that yes, whoever lived there would have to take them in. Jodie found a small hidden reservoir of strength even as she prepared herself for disappointment. She slowed her steps and trailed behind the others even as Kenny rushed forward, stumbling, falling, and picking himself up again in his eagerness to reach… Reach what?

“It’s a library!” came out of the swirling snow.

“Well, that’s no damned help.” It was Kenny, as usual, never missing a chance to start an argument with his brother.

“If there’s a library, there’s bound to be houses somewhere nearby. I’m gonna go a little further and see if I can’t find us something better. You can all come with me, or stay there.”

Jodie looked into the swirling snow that was coming down faster every minute, it seemed. “No, Perry! It isn’t worth it. You don’t know how far you’ll have to go and you’ll never find your way back. Look! Our footsteps are filling up already.”

She and Frieda had stumbled ahead, trying to follow Kenny’s prints in the snow. They were out of time, out of luck. With the snow coming down the way it was, the library might as well be the last building in the universe. If it was locked against them, they would all be dead soon. Like her feet, which she couldn’t feel anymore.

But the shout came. “Come on. It’s open! Don’t you even think about going any further, Perry. I don’t intend to lose you too.”

Kenny kept shouting, giving them something to follow, and they were finally close enough to see the solid bulk of the building, and Kenny holding the door open against the wind that wanted to snatch it out of his hand. And then they were all inside, away from the wind. Snow had blown in while Kenny held the door open, and little piles had already collected in the corners where another door stood in front of them.

If it’s locked, this is as far as we can go, Jodie thought. At least we won’t die buried in the snow. What a stupid thought! But her mind was too sluggish to give it any more attention. What did it matter if they died in this little vestibule or out there? All she wanted to do was sit down and go to sleep.
But someone was shaking her, had grabbed her arm and was pulling at her.

“Jodie! Come on. Get your butt inside. You can’t give up now.”

It was Kenny. He was holding a flashlight and he guided her inside, sweeping the little beam of light from side to side. Where did he get a flashlight? She wanted to ask, but she couldn’t get her mouth to work. The light reminded her of heat. They needed heat. Books could burn. Books. She had to tell Kenny. But the words faded away. She tried to get them back. Something about books. Then it was gone and Kenny was pushing her down on the floor next to Frieda. Perry was there, too. but Perry was outside looking for a house, wasn’t he? For someone to give them shelter?

When she woke up, it was to find herself in pitch dark, jammed between two people. Frieda and Kenny, she thought after fumbling around, trying to identify them by touch. That must be Perry lying against Frieda’s back, his arm over her as if he was protecting her from something. Jodie was cold, but her teeth weren’t chattering anymore, and spasms of pain were shooting through her feet. She couldn’t hear anything except breathing and the little noises that people make in their sleep. It took a minute of hard thinking to recall the last few minutes of being out in the driving snow and what happened after that.

She sat up abruptly. Why was it so dark? Was the storm over? She made an attempt to get to her feet and failed, the effort reminding her how much energy she must have expended just to keep walking. A hand touched her, and she jerked away.

“It’s me,” Kenny whispered.

“Why is it so dark? I don’t hear anything. Is the storm over?

“I shut the door to try and keep our warmth in. We’re in kind of a lounge or something. I saw a food machine in the corner. But it’s probably empty. I’ll go see what’s happening out there.”

“Kenny? The books. I hate to think about it, but we can burn books for warmth if we have to.”

“Yeah, we might have to do something like that.”

Jodie heard him rustling around, ready to get up. “I want to go with you.”

“Okay. Damn! I wish we had another flashlight. We could both check around and see what’s what.” He switched the flashlight on, and when he saw her struggling to get up, he pulled her to her feet. “Are you okay?”

“I think so. Just exhausted.”

“You sure you don’t want to rest up some more?”

“I’m sure. Now that I’m awake I don’t want to just lie here in the dark, doing nothing.”

The light coming through the library’s windows was gray and subdued, but at least it was light. Kenny turned the flashlight off. “Better save the batteries.”
Snow was still falling, but Jodie could see trees in the distance, and the snow was coming straight down instead of blowing almost horizontally.

“If the snow stops, someone could go out and see if there’s anyone around. Or at least houses where there might be some food.”

“I’ll do that,” Kenny said, “but I wouldn’t count on finding anything better than this. Hell, we don’t even know where we are. We could have been walking in circles for the last few hours.”

The light was growing slowly as they walked around the library, and what it showed destroyed Jodie’s last hope that they could survive, unless Kenny found someplace warm, someplace with food. Hunger pangs tore at her stomach, reminding her that her last meal had been too long ago and too inadequate to keep her going much longer. And there was nothing here that would keep them warm.

Two tables held computers, many with their screens smashed, most knocked over, as if someone in a rage had decided to destroy them all. And there were no books. No books at all. There weren’t even any shelves to indicate where books might once have been.

“What happened to the books? Where are the books, Kenny?” It was a despairing whisper.

“There!” He pointed to the dead computers. “There’s your damned books. Why don’t you try burning one.” His laughter had a crazy edge that made Jodie take a step away from him. “This is a modern library. No fooling with paper. Takes up too much room and all.”

She heard a noise and the door to the room where they had slept opened. Frieda stepped out, rubbing her eyes. Perry was right behind her and Jodie saw him give his head a quick shake.

“Jodie.” It was almost a wail, in Frieda’s hoarse voice. “Thomas is cold, Jodie. He’s cold and he won’t open his eyes.”

Jodie didn’t want to look at the pathetic little face that came into view as Frieda came toward her, pulling the blanket away.

“He’s cold, Jodie. Make him warm, please.”

“We can’t make him warm right now, Frieda. Just keep him bundled up for now.” It was Perry, surprisingly. He put his arm around the distraught woman and led her to a chair.

“What are we going to do?” Jodie asked Kenny. She lowered her voice.

“William must have died in the night.” Kenny kept his voice down, but she could see that he was struggling with his anger.

She tried to remember the last time she had heard any sound at all from the infant, but couldn’t. He might have died yesterday, for all she knew. “Does Frieda even understand death?”

“Don’t know whether she does or doesn’t. It isn’t going to make much difference either way, if we’re stuck here.” He glanced toward the windows.

“Looks like the snow’s slowing down. I might as well get out there and see what I can see.”

Jodie went to the vestibule with him. The snow had piled up against the outer door, and it took both of them pushing and straining to open it far enough for him to squeeze out. She waited there, watched him take two or three slow steps and stop to scan the landscape. When he finally started moving, she wondered how he’d picked a direction. Had he seen a building? She decided to wait there in case he needed her. But how would she know? And what could she do? She dreaded going out into the bitter cold again, but if Kenny could stand it, she had to. She would wait outside for him, and if necessary, follow in the path he had broken.
. . . .

Kenny came back staggering with fatigue, his clothes weighed down with snow nearly up to his waist. Jodie held the door open for him and followed him back inside.

“Nothing,” was his sullen one-word answer to the questions that met him.

“Nothing at all? There has to be something out there,” Perry protested.

“Houses,” Kenny growled as he tried to brush some of the snow away where it clung to him. Frieda tried to help until he pushed her away. “Go sit down, Frieda. You need to be taking care of the baby.

“There’s houses. Some of them burnt down. Close enough one must have caught and it spread to the others. Rest are empty. Not a damned thing left that would be any use. Didn’t see any direction to go in, so I came back. No point trying again. Not likely to be anything else close enough to get to before we freeze to death. Or starve.”

“How about that snack machine in there? If we could get into it, at least we’d have more to eat. I’m starving now,” Perry said, “and we’re about out of food.”

“Well, go look for something you can pry it open with, or break the glass,” Kenny suggested. “Likely as not, it’s empty,” he muttered, “even if he can get it open. But it’ll keep him busy for a while.”

Jodie tried to ignore the noise from the room, where cussing alternated with banging. She wandered around to the back of the service desk and rummaged through the shelves underneath. A box of tissues. A little girl’s purse, a single mitten, and a forgotten library card. And a book. It was an old paperback novel by someone she’d never heard of. There was a picture of a man and a woman on the cover, They looked as if they were meant to be lovers. She stuck it in her pocket and went to see whether Perry was making any progress. Just before she got to the door, she turned back and asked Kenny for the flashlight.

“Just for a minute. I want to check something.”

The room was dark but not too dark to see that Perry had attacked the machine with a chair. Without any success. She switched the flashlight on and played it over the face of the machine. “There. You see where there’s supposed to be whatever the picture is? Nothing’s in there. You might as well give it up, Perry. Whoever was the last person in here probably emptied it all out.”

“No!” It came out as more of a whine than a real protest. “We gotta have some food!”

“Perry. Just give it up. Even if the thing was stuffed, how long do you think it would last? Anyway, it wouldn’t do a thing to keep us from freezing.” She left him there and went to see if she could give Frieda some comfort, avoiding the little pools of slush on the floor where Kenny had brushed the snow off himself. She was caught by the sight. Would they melt or freeze? One could mean survival; the other would mean death.

The day passed slowly. There was little talk and an air of acceptance that bothered Jodie even while she let it soak into her. They shared the last of the food, which didn’t even begin to fill their stomachs. For once, Perry didn’t complain. He sat with his back against the service desk, with his head resting against it and his face turned up to the ceiling. Jodie wondered what he saw up there. Kenny wandered around the library, peering into the rooms, then sitting down on the floor, where he seemed to sleep for a while, before getting up and wandering about again. Every so often, he would set one of the computers upright, aligning it with another. Jodie wondered if he would have them all neatly arranged before it became too dark to do anything but sit and wait for the end.

Frieda seldom moved from the chair Kenny had put her in. She went through spells of rocking her body back and forth, murmuring to the dead child. Jodie wondered what was going through the woman’s head. Did she know he was dead? Did she think little William was just sleeping very soundly? Remembering the book in her pocket, Jodie pulled it out. It would help pass the time. She pulled a chair over next to Frieda, sat down, and turned to the first page.

“Tell us a story?”

“I don’t know any stories,” she started to say, looking into Frieda’s eyes, and wanting to tell her how sorry she was about the little boy. Frieda smiled and pointed to the book.

Well, why not? Did it matter whether she understood it? They could share the words, the very last thing that was left to share between them. Jodie shifted her chair so that the light from the windows fell on the pages, and began. Her throat was getting sore, and it was almost too dark to read anymore when Kenny tapped her on the shoulder.

“You can’t read like that. You’ll ruin your eyes.” There were little crinkles at the corner of his eyes, and she knew he meant it as a joke. She managed to smile.

“I think we should all scrunch up together over there in the corner. There’s a little more light, and we can keep each other warm while we listen to the story.”

Frieda was stiff with the cold and sitting so long, and Jodie had to help her up and over to where Kenny had hauled his brother. She tried to avoid seeing the little bundle that pushed out the front of Frieda’s coat. The dark closed in too soon and Jodie had to stop reading, no longer able to decipher the black marks on the page. Kenny turned the flashlight on and handed it to her. “Go on. We’re listening.”

She read the trite words of a trite plot as the narrow beam of light turned yellowish and slowly faded away. A great silence fell. Jodie let herself drift back to the day they’d been told they would have to leave the settlement. John Chambers was the only committee member missing, and she wondered now as she had wondered then, whether it was necessity that kept him away, or cowardice. Or something else.

Frieda had never said who the father of her child was. It was possible she didn’t even know how she’d become pregnant. In the last moments before she fell asleep, Jodie became convinced that William was John’s child. It let her think better of him, that he wouldn’t have wanted to be responsible for condemning his own child to possible death.

The four people slept. The little piles of snowy slush turned to ice.

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