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    WARNING: Stories on this site may contain mature language and situations, and may be inappropriate for readers under the age of 18.

    SWEET LIKE MAPLE SUGAR by Jeffrey DeRego
    March 24, 2009  Short stories   Tags: ,   

    1

    The morning air bites with sharp, frozen teeth even though it’s almost April. My breath hangs like a light white cloud before slowly vanishing. I’ve got to move quickly before the morning sun chases away the dawn chill. My snowshoes are almost a hindrance now as much of the snow is gone, replaced by sopping mud and heaps of decaying leaves. I still wear them. I still need them to get to The Family Trees.

    I tug my sled through the forest as fast and as quietly as possible. My goats Fluff and Gruff trot along behind. The little tin bells around their necks clank softly and mingle with the faint chirps of the few birds left after the harsh winter.

    Gruff bleats as we pass a tempting clump of fresh shoots that rise from the mud like tiny green fingers.

    I pause in the dark shadow of Camelback Hill so the goats can nibble. A clearing looms ahead, beyond that the thaw-swollen Pemigewasset River roars, like a wounded bear, against the morning. I unsnap the hip holster and double-check Grandad’s .38 revolver; it’s loaded. I slide a machete from the sled and hack down an oak sapling then strip the feeble branches to make a walking stick. “Come on kids, let’s go.” I tug the strap attaching the sled to my shoulder harness and get it and the goats moving again.

    Gruff and Fluff bleat in protest but they follow along anyway. I don’t know if the animals know how weird the world is now, if they can in any way understand what it means when life as we knew it vanished in the echo of one thunderous comet strike.

    Maybe they’re luckier than us.

    I pause again just before the first of The Family Trees and tie both Gruff and Fluff to a pair of long ropes lashed around the base of a big hickory. There’s plenty of little saplings to eat here and I won’t be too far away if anything messes with them.

    Grandad planted this sugar bush when he was just a little younger than I am now. Their trunks bear the scars of innumerable tappings over the last 50 or so years and each little circular wound is like a signature or ledger entry. I unhitch from the sled and gather the two-gallon buckets, hand drill, hammer, piers, and folding crosscut saw.

    The sun is just filtering through the woods now and casts a warm yellow glow through the trunks.

    I hammer a deck spike about two inches into the first tree, then the second, third, and fourth. Sap trickles down the rutted gray bark like clear blood.

    I drill, tap, and hang a bucket on each tree then place an empty bucket beside each trunk.

    The woods begin to awaken. Squirrels leap down into the snow to dig for buried acorns, chipmunks dart back and forth among the deadwood. I clip the sled back onto the harness, collect Fuff and Gruff, then head towards the river and town.

    2

    Linda greets me with a warm hug in the little entry to her house. “Let’s bring your friends out back.” She leads Fluff and Gruff to her stockade-fenced yard. The two goats immediately jog the perimeter fence before eating the crocuses growing in the shade of the chicken coop. “I haven’t seen you since headcount.”

    “Too cold for the walk to town.”

    “You’ve been okay?”

    “I guess. It’s a little lonely though.” I smile and notice the silhouettes of two girls in the back part of her living room. “You have company, I should go.”

    “Oh don’t be silly, sit. I’ll make tea.”

    Linda leans heavily on a cane when she walks. “Girls?”

    The two girls walk into the kitchen and I recognize them, Marjorie Simmons and Abigail Shannon. “Hi Abby. Hi Marjorie.”

    Marjorie is frighteningly skinny, dark eyed, and gloomy. She says, “Hi Henry,” but her voice is little more than a gravely whisper.

    Abigail is the opposite, curvy and bouncy, with a mop of red curls and a face covered in freckles. “Hi Goat Boy,” she says.

    “That’s no way to speak to our guest!” Linda’s voice is stern, angry.

    “It’s okay, she’s called me that since we were little kids. I don’t care.” I smile because Abby remembers me and because I remember that her nickname was Flabby. “Got eggs to trade?”

    Linda pours the tea and struggles to walk a cup over to me. “What for?”

    “Syrup. Live Dough. Goat milk.”

    “I have plenty of milk.” She eases down into her chair. “The girls are a little skittish,” she says, “don’t mind them. They’ve only been here for a few days. Figures one of them would come down with strep.” Linda dunks her teabag twice before stirring in a spoonful of honey. “What’ll you take for the syrup?”

    “I was looking for some eggs, or better, a good chicken. A raccoon got into my coop sometime in February and I’ve been without ever since.”

    “Fetch a half dozen eggs, Marjorie. I’m short of chickens, but I’ll put a chick aside from the next hatching.”

    “I’ve got the syrup in the sled. It’s the last of what I made last year, three jars. Very sweet and no mold.”

    “One jar. I figure that’s a good price for six eggs.”

    “I’ve still got friendship bread dough, but I didn’t bring it with me. Any idea if Reverend Lyons is home? I could use another bag of flour.”

    “Probably. Tell you what, sell me a second jar of syrup for six more eggs and you can bring it over to him with my compliments. He’s had a hell of a time recently and could use something sweet. Leave your friends here with me until you’re done in town if you don’t mind. We could use some new little babies if Gruff is up to it.”

    I glance out the window and Gruff is already nosing around Linda’s little flock of female goats. “Box of bullets then?”

    Linda smiles almost enough to light up the kitchen. She says, “Ever your Grandad’s boy. Deal.”

    We shake hands over the table. I finish my tea in silence as Linda goes back to ordering the girls around like soldiers.

    “I was concerned about you, Henry, being all alone outside of town,” she says. “But you’ve become a fine young man. I don’t think I’ll worry too much anymore.” Linda pushes a box of .38 caliber shells into my hand. “Come back in a couple of hours and I’ll have Gruff and Fluff all ready for you.”

    “Thanks.”

    3

    I’m halfway to the church when I hear the tick-tick-tick of bicycle gears approaching behind me. The morning has evaporated all but the worst chill buried in the breeze.

    “Hey Goat Boy, wait up.” Abby pedals up the road. She’s fitted a sawed off shotgun across her handlebars. I wait until she circles me then start to walk again.

    “Linda said I should make sure you get there and back safe and sound.”

    “How come you’re living there? Are your folks okay?” I think for a minute to when I lost Mom and Dad. They were vacationing in Texas when the comet struck. We, that is Grandad and me, got word that they were trying to get a flight or train back just after when the phone lines and stuff finally unclogged. But, by then the undead were rising faster than any one could handle. It was worse in the cities. Grandad wouldn’t let me watch the TV news, while we still had electricity, because I was only 11, but I used to hide on the stairwell anyway and listen to the panicked reporters describing hordes of zombies shambling after anything with a pulse.

    “Nah, they’re fine. I check in on them every week or so. Linda is teaching Marjorie and me how to survive and stuff. There isn’t much to it yet, fixing fence stakes mostly, and tending to the chickens and goats.” She hops off the bike and pushes it along beside me.

    “That’s cool.”

    “Sounds like you already know plenty. I don’t think I’d last a week on my own.”

    “Grandad was a good teacher.” We walk to the bridge and stop. The river screams below, rattling the cast iron stanchions and angled buttresses beneath the frame. The water races through high enough to occasionally spray over the handrails.

    Abby goes over first but freezes half way, then breaks into a clumsy run to the other side.

    I peer over before crossing. The white water churns and bellows below, and every few seconds hands, arms, the top of a head, or twisted legs, captured and consumed by the river’s flow, bash against the supports then disappear beneath the bridge.

    I close my eyes and sprint across.

    Abby shivers and can barely hold her bike upright.

    “It’s okay. Once the river gets them —” She shakes her head and I shut up.

    “I try and pretend they aren’t out there, that the worst is over. But —” she starts to sniffle and drags her flannel sleeve over her nose. “Jesus,” she says finally.

    4

    Reverend Lyons is haggard and stooped. His clothes are stained pink in spots and his arm is bandaged. He leans out of the gate and glances up both ends of the main street. “What?” His voice is cold and angry.

    “Linda bought you some maple syrup.” I push the jar into his good hand.

    He chains the door behind us and starts back up the steps to the upper part of the church where he’s made his apartment. “Don’t mind me,” he says, “I haven’t really had a chance to rest since the scavenge.” He pauses and shakes for a minute.

    Abby and I follow him up. “You okay? Has Linda looked at your arm?”

    “Just a scratch, that damn fool Whilouby grazed me. I told him to hold his fire, but, well, we were all pretty panicked.” His voice dies off. “What do you want for the syrup?”

    “It’s a gift. But I was hoping you might have a five-pounder of flour.”

    Lyons scratches his beard. His eyes twinkle still, even in the dank of the little makeshift rooms overlooking the stores in the sanctuary below. “I got flour.” He glances at Abby. “Right beside the pallets of dry milk and dry beans behind the altar.”

    Abby descends leaving the Reverend and I alone. He reaches for my pistol then withdraws. “Probably won’t be another scavenge for a while, but if you’re even half good with that thing we’ll want you to come.”

    I nod. “How bad was it?”

    “Most of the places were vacant. Trees overgrown, houses falling in mostly. It was so cold. They should have all been frozen.” He shivers. “There must’ve been survivors there, razing buildings to keep things warm.” Reverend Lyons twitches. “Most of the surrounding towns are picked clean anyway except for a few stragglers holed up, not as many as us. We couldn’t get them to come out and talk. They’ll all starve or freeze, it’s just a matter of time.”

    “When did the shooting happen?”

    “Somewhere on the way back. I don’t remember exactly. We stumbled into them, six or so, shambling around a burned out house. That must’ve thawed them out good. We didn’t expect them and they weren’t there when we passed on the way out of Pleasant Hollow. We escaped okay.” He lifts his arm and winces, “minus a few bruises.”

    Abby returns with a bag of flour and hands it to me. “You sure you don’t want to have Linda look at that? She’s got herbs and stuff.”

    “It’ll be fine in a couple of days. The bullet passed right through. I wash it out good with hydrogen peroxide every couple of hours. Tell Linda I’ll be down later in the week, okay?”

    “Sure Reverend, sure.” Abby tugs my arm and leads me to the stairs.

    He says, “Make sure you lock the gate,” as we close the church door.

    “He looks awful,” Abby whispers.

    “I didn’t even know a scavenging party had gone out. I’d have gone if someone bothered to ask me. I guess no one remembers me unless I come into town —”

    “Oh my god, you don’t know then?”

    “Know what?”

    “The Reverend and the others, they bumped into another group, organized, like Army guys or something. Linda wouldn’t say much about it, but I overheard her and Brad Henderson talking. Brother Charisma, I think that was the name. They even had trucks! Real trucks! Now Linda is worried that half the town is going to try and make contact or worse – that Brother Charisma knows about Pleasant Hollow.”

    We cross the bridge. Neither Abby nor me look over the side this time. The zombies are scary, sure, but the real danger is other survivors. People are real territorial now, even us I guess, because if one group thinks another group has more food or better defenses or whatever, they’d rather fight over them than trade.

    Grandad used to talk about that kind of stuff from when he was in Vietnam. If one village was friendly with the Americans, and another village wasn’t, that other village would sneak in at night and kill everyone and take whatever wasn’t nailed down. He told me to always be on the lookout for people eyeing the house, or the woods, or whatever, because even if they were having tea and talking about how much they miss the Red Sox, they were probably taking an accounting of what wasn’t nailed down.

    “You okay?”

    Abby’s voice draws me back to the reality of the broken street pavement just as we pass the cemetery. “Yeah, just remembering is all.”

    I stop for a second and listen. Something rustles in the brush just beside the cast iron cemetery gate. I draw my pistol as Abby pulls up her shotgun and lets the bike down. We wait a couple of minutes until a small herd of deer bound out of the bushes and cross the road just ahead of us. A coyote pack follows but neither of them gives us a second glance.

    Marjorie opens the gate to Linda’s place and we slip inside. She asks, “How was Reverend Lyons?”

    “He looks pretty banged up,” I kneel down and click my tongue until Gruff and Fluff gallop over and nuzzle me. I scratch their stiff fur and hug them.

    “Your buck is a dud,” Linda says from the porch, “mind leaving him for a couple of days to see if he takes a liking to any of my does?”

    I don’t really want to, but I’ll be near town every day for the next month or so collecting sap, one more trip into town isn’t so bad. Besides, I’ll get to see Abby again. I nod. “Fluff is going to cry all night long without him.”

    “Two days then, okay?”

    “Sure Linda.” I kiss Gruff right between where his new horns are budding. “You be a good boy and make lots of little goats.”

    Gruff bleats softly.

    I fasten Fluff to the sled by her leash and walk to the gate. “Goodbye Abby. See you in a couple of days I guess.”

    “Ok Goat Boy.” She smiles wide and swings the gate open. “Thanks for the syrup.”

    5

    Grandad and me transplanted three rings of Chokecherry trees around the garage when we converted it into a live-in sugarhouse. They make a nice wall because they grow fast and the trunks grow close together. Chokecherries are slender, tough as nails and offer a nice set of little needlelike shoots hidden among the wide green leaves.

    “See how fast they grow Henry?” he’d ask. “Like the bamboo that the Vietnamese used to hide machine guns, tunnel entrances, all sorts of stuff. Chop it down one day, and two weeks later it’s back just like it hadn’t ever been touched.”

    He designed the rings to keep everything out. If a zombie or scavenger managed to crash through one ring of the trees intact, they’d meet a whole mess of pungi stakes before hitting the next ring of trees. The first year of the end of the world we shot more than a hundred zombies who’d got themselves tangled up and the rings were only waist high.

    Now I can’t reach the tops.

    There’s a pattern to walk if you want to get through unhurt, I know it, he knew it, no one else does though; go in through the south, second tree on the outside, walk ten paces to the right and slip through to the third ring, fourteen paces to the left and through the gate. We put up waist high chain link all around the inside of the closest ring.

    He wanted to dig a tunnel, I still have the old culvert out back, between the garage floor and outside the rings but he got bit.

    I shake off thinking about him and push the sled into place beside the chain link cage surrounding the garage. Fluff glances around the yard then starts to bleat for Gruff. I let her follow me inside.

    The sugarhouse is warm even though I’ve only been burning scrap for the last week or so, and even then only at night. A good run of maple sap needs two things, freezing cold nights and mild days. The mild days keep the little shack warm too, skylights let the in the sunshine. Grandad scavenged every piece of insulation we could pull out of the house and stapled it up over everything, then covered that with sheetrock and Grandma’s collection of quilts.

    Fluff clip-clops over to the little space beneath my hammock and lies down. Her ears perk up every time I move, as if expecting Gruff to magically jump out from my shadow or something. I put the eggs in the cooler outside the door and finish off the last of the warm milk I collected yesterday. Fluff’s udders are already swollen so I’ll have plenty later.

    The flour goes into a canister on the shelf above the little stash of emergency canned goods in a cupboard on the floor.

    I sit on the rocking chair and listen to the quiet for a little while. I don’t mind being alone so much, really, but after seeing Linda and Abby and Reverend Lyons it’s a little anticlimactic knowing I’ll be here with just Fluff for a couple of days. I don’t get depressed, at least I don’t think I do, it’s just a little lonely. I pull my journal to my lap and write –

    Day 1034: Started tapping trees. Traded two jars of syrup for a dozen eggs. Left Gruff with Linda for a box of bullets.

    I don’t write much because I don’t know if can get another notebook or pen when these run out. There’s plenty of work to do anyway. I keep a woodpile outside the ring and it only takes a couple of minutes to get the sled ready to drag a couple of dozen logs through the Chokecherry maze. I’ve got a couple of cords of wood just waiting to be quartered out back.

    The pine splits easy, way easier than oak or hickory, but it burns fast so I have to chop a whole lot of it before next winter. Tackling the harder trees will be easier as I get older and stronger. Right now though all that matters is that I don’t stop chopping. I’ve split and stacked twenty-five logs by mid-afternoon and my arms buzz and burn from the work. I drag the haul inside and stack it along where the garage doors used to be. I draw two five-gallon pails of water from the well; one for washing up, the other for drinking and cooking, then gather a handful of withered carrots from the root cellar. I don’t even want to think about the garden yet. The ground is still too frozen to turn over and won’t be ready until a week or so after I make the last batch of maple syrup.

    I put a small pot of water to boil then stoke the fire.

    Fluff bleats and stands up. She walks the inside the sugarhouse then returns to her spot beneath the hammock. Her ears stay perked up and swiveling.

    I put my hand on the pistol grip and whisper, “What is it girl?”

    Fluff stares at the door but her ears are craned back.

    I pull down the escape ladder and climb to the upper part of the garage where I’ve spread planks across the joists. I crawl to the skylight, climb onto the roof. The full afternoon sun bares down on the black shingles so that it’s almost too hot to touch. That’s when I see something moving in and out of the shadows beside the road. “Probably just some more deer,” I mutter. There’s been an explosion of them lately so venison isn’t even worth trading.

    Soft guttural moans fill the afternoon air.

    Crap.

    I slide back into the sugarhouse as quietly as I can and pull the skylight closed behind me, shimmy down to the floor then fit oak slats into my three windows. I crack the door open just enough to hear.

    The moans come louder, and with them the shamble of footsteps through dead leaves.

    Fluff tucks her head beneath the blanket and shivers. I close the door and slide three two-by-fours into the frame. “Don’t worry girl, they can’t get in here.” I grab the milking stool and sit. Fluff clip-clops over and I start to squeeze little streams of milk into a stainless steel pail. She’s spent in less than five minutes, which is good because my hands are raw and swollen from chopping wood.

    We only took a few things from the house before Grandad set it ablaze. “Scorched Earth,” he said, “don’t leave places where the enemy can hide.” As we stood there and watched the farm burn, as the heat nearly cooked us like roast rabbits, he cried a little. The only time I remember him ever crying.

    We saved a few chairs, a couple of small tables, a toilet that we connected to the septic tank and screened off with a shower curtain, a hand-crank powered disaster radio, a pair of low bookshelves and all the useful books we could carry.

    I pull my elementary school yearbook off the shelf and thumb through it until I find Abby’s picture. Her smile in the picture is the same as now, and her freckles. A few pages later and I’m there with my 4H ribbons. The text beneath the picture reads: Henry Saunders, nickname, Goat Boy.

    The others poked fun at me, but my folks were proud that I was interested in 4H stuff. Besides, it was sure more fun than sitting in front of the TV. I kind of miss TV now that I think about it.

    Goat Boy.

    I glance over at Fluff still cowering on the floor and start to laugh then slide into my hammock.

    The frantic ringing of the church bell and the crackle of gunshots wakes me up two hours later. Fluff startles and I have to curl up on the floor to calm her down. We listen until the nighttime silence settles on Pleasant Hollow like a thick blanket and I drift back to sleep.

    6

    A heavy spring rain makes the walk to The Family Trees miserable. I wanted to leave Fluff behind but she wouldn’t stop scratching and bumping the door as I hitched up to the sled.

    I empty the sap pails into a five-gallon drum strapped to the back of the sled. Not a bad haul, about two gallons total, just enough to make a half pint of syrup. These holes should last a week before the sap runs dry. Can’t bleed them too much or you’ll kill the tree.

    Fluff starts to bleat and the shrill, panicked noise snaps my attention away from the syrup. I draw the pistol while running out to where I’ve tied her.

    Fluff strains at the leash but I don’t see what’s spooking her. We’d stumbled onto a tangle of ruined snares and wet tufts of rabbit hair about a quarter mile back that looked like the work of coyotes or wild dogs.

    I squat down and she nearly knocks me over. I try and calm her down but she’s good and spooked now.

    A coyote crosses just over the little hill about a hundred feet away. It doesn’t seem to be circling back.

    I watch for another minute but the thing has disappeared into the woods. “I guess we know who robbed the traps eh’ Fluff?” I squat back down and scratch her behind the ears.

    She’s still shivering and bleating and doesn’t calm down even as we leave the sled behind and head towards town. The rain falls so hard now it’s hard to see more than twenty or thirty feet in any direction. I stay close to the river just to keep my bearings.

    Downtown is empty. Smoke and steam rises from the burn pit in the town square. We walk to Linda’s house. The signs of last night’s battle are visible even in the rain; an overturned cart spattered with black sticky blood and gray reeking flesh that the rain hasn’t managed to wash away, fresh bullet holes in the post office wall, and the front of the drug store.

    I rap on Linda’s gate and wait a few minutes. Abby finally lets me inside. “Hi Goat Boy,” she says, “Good thing Linda looked out the window or we’d never have known you were here. We didn’t expect you until tomorrow.”

    The rain pounds down on us as we lock the gate. I say, “Fluff was lonely.”

    Abby laughs and leads us into the house. Linda sits in the kitchen. Her bad leg is stretched out over two chairs. She silently reads the Bible and only closes the book when I am almost on top of her. “Hello Henry,” she says softly.

    “Mind if I throw Fluff outside? She’s been awful antsy since yesterday.”

    “Sure, that’s fine.”

    I unhook Fluff’s harness and guide her to the back porch. She bolts down into the grass and nearly topples Gruff over. Fluff bleats happily before chasing Gruff around the fence braces.

    “Get those wet clothes off Henry, you’ll get a chill. Abby, throw a couple of logs into the stove and hang his coat and gloves where they can dry.”

    “Yes Linda.” I sit in the only seat left in the kitchen; a straight-backed chair pushed against the wall beneath her cast iron pans.

    “Don’t get too close to anyone, Marjorie’s strep is running wild in the house. If I was able to lay down comfortably I’d be in bed myself but this weather plays havoc with my joints.”

    Abby hands me a cup of hot goat’s milk with cinnamon sprinkled on top. I smile. “Thanks!”

    “You’ve come to trade again?” Linda stretches back and slides her Bible onto the bookshelf behind her. “I’m afraid one day isn’t enough for a hatching —”

    “No. Just visiting. Heard shots last night and the church bell —”

    “Everything’s fine Henry. You know how it gets when spring comes. It’ll get worse too, but probably not as bad as last year. We’re coming out of the worst I think. Just need to make more babies. Mothers are going to save the world. Mothers and babies.”

    I sip the milk in silence. It’s hot and sweet and delicious and for a minute the taste drags my mind away from everything that’s wrong in the world. I glance at Abby but she turns away before our eyes meet.

    “You’re tapping already?”

    “Yes Ma’am. Just starting. I only have a dozen or so taps so I start slow until the sap really starts running good. Another week maybe.” I finish the hot milk and rise to put the cup buy the sink but Abby grabs it before I reach the counter.

    “I’ll take it Henry,” she whispers.

    “You got strep too?”

    She shakes her head and dunks the cup into a pail of warm wash water.

    “You know it’s best to check the trees twice a day.” Linda eases her leg down and starts to flex her knee. She winces each time her leg bends.

    “I plan to on the way home. I can get the first batch boiling tonight if I’m not held up in town too long.”

    “Abby, do you know how to make maple syrup?”

    Abby shakes her head again.

    “Why don’t you go with Henry? He can show you the ropes.” She turns to me. “Leave Fluff here with me overnight. She’s probably more relaxed now that Gruff is nearby and Abby can help you with the collection tomorrow.”

    “A trade?” I glance at Abby.

    Linda laughs. “You are your Grandad’s boy all right. No Henry, just an extra hand for you, and maybe Gruff will be comfortable enough with Fluff here to sire some new babies for us. I got a couple in heat, he just needs to stop being timid.”

    “You can sleep in my hammock if you don’t mind Abby. It’s pretty comfortable.”

    “That’ll be fine I’m sure. Abby, go pack a spare blanket and set up a container of chicken soup to take with you.”

    “Yes Linda,” Abby whispers.

    7

    Abby keeps her shotgun ready as we walk through the rain towards The Family Trees. “Why do you get sap way the hell out here?”

    “My Grandad planted these trees when he was a kid and it’s where I learned how to make maple syrup. I always start here because he always did.”

    “That’s nice.”

    “He was a good guy.”

    “I — I wanted to apologize for calling you Goat Boy all this time.”

    I slow down as we cross the hillside stretching down to the riverbank. “It’s okay.”

    “No. It was cruel. You know, I had a mean nickname too, so I know —”

    “I remember.”

    “So joining in with the others who made fun of you made me feel better about myself I guess.”

    We reach The Family Trees and I hand each of the pails to Abby and show her how to dump them through the sieve into the five-gallon buckets. “You want to know why I never made fun of you, even when I knew what the other kids called you?”

    Abby shrugs.

    “Because you didn’t have any control over who you were and what you looked like. I got into the farm thing when other kids were surfing the Internet or collecting DVDs I was tending chickens and raising rabbits and goats. I knew it made me different, but I choose it. Calling me Goat Boy or whatever just made me feel like I stood out in a good way because of my choices.”

    She says, “I guess you were right all along.”

    This time I shrug. We walk back through the woods carefully. The sled drags heavy and we sometimes have to both tug hard on the harness to free the runners from deep sticky mud. We reach the sugarhouse about an hour later and my legs ache so bad all I want to do is lay down. The rain hasn’t let up any either so I’m soaked to the long-johns and cold even though the air is a healthy fifty-degrees or so. Abby has a rain poncho. Lucky.

    I lead her through the Chokecherry maze and she helps get the five gallons of maple sap off the sled. We get inside and I stoke the stove up good and high. It’s a big cast iron cook stove so it throws loads of heat. I put the stainless steel trough atop the stove and pour in the sap. The sugarhouse heats up very fast and soon wisps of steam rise from my jacket and pants.

    “This is nice,” Abby says. She’s drawn immediately to the crank radio. “Does this work?”

    “Yeah, but you won’t get anything on it.”

    She frowns but works the crank loose anyway and whirls it around until the little green LED light on the top begins to blink. She runs through the FM band, static all across the dial. Halfway across the AM band the sugarhouse fills with a crackly French voice. Abby nearly drops the radio to the floor. “People?” she says, “other people?”

    I take the radio gently from her hands. “It’s a recorded message. It cycles every two hours and repeats.”

    She drops into the rocking chair and stares at the red and blue Amish quilt on the east wall.

    “Grandad translated it with me two years ago.” I hand her a battered French/English dictionary. “All it says is ‘Quebec is under emergency quarantine’ then repeat calls to remain calm and stay indoors. The government is doing everything in its power to restore order. Blah blah blah. The same message they’ve run since the dead came back I think. I wish I knew how the radio station still had electricity.”

    The sugarhouse falls silent save for the rolling boil of the maple sap atop the stove. I slide the curtain around the toilet closed and get undressed. The heat inside dries me off almost instantly and I realize I haven’t carried any dry clothes behind the curtain with me. “Abby,” my voice comes out hoarse and squeaky, “can you bring me some clothes from the footlocker.”

    She doesn’t answer.

    “Abby?” I wait a minute then pull the curtain around my nakedness and peer out. “Abby, you okay?”

    “Yeah, I’m okay,” she says. She’s wrapped in a quilt from my hammock. Her red curls tousle down over her freckled shoulders. The soft curved tops of her breasts heave just above the quilt’s hem. She’s placed her neatly folded clothes on the rocking chair.

    “Why — Why don’t you have your clothes on?” Blood rushes to my cheeks, among other places.

    She blushes and looks away. “Come out Goat Boy.”

    “I don’t think I should.”

    “Come out.” She turns slowly revealing her naked back and shoulders. “Come out I won’t look.”

    “It’s not that Abby. I mean — Why are you doing this? I like you and all, but —”

    “Linda explained why she needed Gruff to make little goats. And how every little goat that gets born helps keep parts of all the goats that came before and will come after alive forever.”

    “I’m not a goat. I mean, well —”

    “There are 223 people left in Pleasant Hollow, only ten of them are women that can bear children. If we don’t, then Pleasant Hollow won’t be anything but a memory in five years. I don’t want to be a memory Henry. I want to live forever.”

    “There’s barely enough to eat for those of us left. You can’t bring a baby into this crazy world now. It’s not fair. No one should have to live in this world the way it is if they don’t have to.” I point at the footlocker. “My clothes are in there. Bring me jeans and a shirt please and let’s forget all about this. For crying out loud we’re just kids ourselves. I’m not ready to be a father. Heck, I don’t even think I could be a big brother!” I loosen the curtain to hide the fact that my body isn’t listening at all to the words coming out of my mouth.

    “Come out and get them. If you really don’t want to do this, I’ll be able to tell.”

    “That’s not fair!” I almost laugh but realize she’s completely serious.

    “There are other men in town. Linda said I could choose any of them. I didn’t have to choose you.”

    “This is insane. Not that I’m not flattered and all, but still —”

    “But I chose you. I knew the minute I saw you in Linda’s kitchen. You. Henry Goat Boy. This way, if something happens to me you can tell the baby who I was and what I was like, same as I’d do if something happens to you. They’d carry us on, and grow up smart and new to this horrible world. But it won’t be bad for them because they won’t have known any different and they’ll make it better. They’ll make it right again.”

    “That’s too much responsibility.”

    “You know what the one thing that Linda’s taught me that really sticks?”

    “What?” I start to shiver even though it’s probably ninety degrees inside the sugarhouse.

    “It’s that we don’t have the luxury of being kids anymore. We have to be like pioneers, like people colonizing a new planet. We have to be adults even if our brains haven’t fully caught up with our bodies. But our brains will catch up.”

    My Grandad and Gradma married when they were sixteen, only a year and a half older than I am now. They had my mom before they turned eighteen and Grandad went off to the Army. I remember the family album and all the black and white pictures of them. I stare at Abby. She’s shivering as much as I am. “I don’t love you.”

    “I don’t love you either. But we can learn how to be in love together.”

    She wraps the quilt with one hand and sways to the cupboard and pulls out a half-empty jar of maple syrup. Abby dips her finger in and smears it gently across her lips.

    I really don’t want to move the curtain now. A nervous tingle grips my stomach so badly I have to sit on the toilet and concentrate just on breathing to keep from falling over.

    Abby slides the curtain aside slowly and leans over me. She bends down and pushes her lips against mine. They are sweet, heavenly sweet and warm and soft and sweet.

    We brush cheeks and she whispers, “Come on out Henry. Linda didn’t send me here just to learn about boiling sap. She taught me how to watch the moon and mark the right time. It’s the right time now. She told me what to do and how to be so you’d want me.”

    She kisses me again. Her free hand reaches down and squeezes my fingers. She pulls me from behind the curtain and again presses her sweetly sticky lips into mine. She presses her soft warm body against my chest.

    I can feel her curves, her thundering heartbeat, her heat, even through the quilt. “I don’t —”

    “Make me a mother,” she whispers. “And together we’ll save the world.”

    48 Comments

    1. Outstanding

      Comment by Zorag on March 24, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    2. I liked it.

      Comment by Gunldesnapper on March 24, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

    3. Really…really great story. You have a gift. More. Please.

      Comment by BlackWolf on March 25, 2009 @ 8:02 am

    4. Every thing that you have written has been fantastic. Can’t wait for the next installment. Love your work.

      Comment by Joe from Philly on March 25, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    5. That was great!

      Comment by liz w on March 25, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    6. Great! Nicely written with a good sense of place. I would like to hear more about Pleasant Hollow.

      Comment by Pete Bevan on March 26, 2009 @ 5:53 am

    7. Pete, click my name at the top of the story and it will show all three of the Pleasant Hollow tales here. Lilies for Donald, The Marionette, and Sweet Like Maple Sugar.

      Enjoy.

      Comment by jrderego on March 26, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    8. Nicely done, Jeff-O!

      Comment by James F. Reilly on March 26, 2009 @ 10:27 am

    9. This is definitely one of the best stories in this genre I have ever read. It is fantastic within the post-apocalyptic genre alone. This the tremendous feeling of despair and at the same time survival and taking happiness from little things. Amazing.

      Comment by S. J. Lee on March 26, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    10. Jeff, awesome story! I don’t appreciate being left in the middle of it, though. I need to know how it turns out (I mean, in a general sense, not that particular scene – ha!). Let me know when you continue it! You have great characters and a good sense of slowly building suspense.

      Keep it up.

      Comment by Kristina Schram on March 29, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

    11. This was one truly excellent story. Well thought out and man did it ever grab you. Keep writing, you’ve got the gift!

      Comment by Glenn on March 31, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

    12. Great story, I thought I remembered the setting (Pleasant Hollow). Great setting for your stories, hope to see more.

      Comment by Troy on April 8, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    13. WOOOHOOOOOOOOOO! Congratulations, Jeff! Now you can buy Call of Duty 4 and I can frag your ass! ;P

      Comment by James F. Reilly on April 8, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

    14. I can definitely see why this won. What a great story. Congrats!!!

      Comment by Clitoris Rex on April 9, 2009 @ 9:24 am

    15. That was awesome,your good at this. Anymore?

      Comment by martin.b on April 16, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

    16. jeff, great story. ive always loved zombie movies and have just gotten into zombie literature. ive been tearing through all the best books in the last month or so. this is a great short story. going to check out your other 2 at the moment.

      Comment by jeff on April 17, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    17. That was fantastic! Great sense of characters, building up of the backdrop, the local language… fvcking fantastic!

      Comment by brycepunk on April 18, 2009 @ 12:38 am

    18. Amazing! Its a realistic impression on what would happen in a rural town after an infection. Please for the sake of life make more.

      Comment by Andrew on April 18, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    19. Absolutely phenomenal. Its soft and subtle nature is a refreshing change in literature, especially zombie literature. Keep them coming.

      Comment by Tyler on April 26, 2009 @ 6:03 am

    20. I was waiting for a happy ending on one of your stories. With your writing style you can’t help but love the characters.

      Comment by MrMacbeth on April 27, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

    21. Great story, I was just waiting for the zombies or survivors to come busting in at any moment to disrupt their lives in a big way, but it did go there and that was a nice change. Thanks

      Comment by Xenoix on May 25, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

    22. Well done. I’m interested in reading your other works on here.

      Comment by Molly on May 26, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

    23. I love how you keep the zombies on the edge of the story (gunshots in the night, groans and shuffling but no attack). This ramped up the claustrophobic dread, and kept me scrolling down for more. Gonna check out your other stuff right now. I think you have a new fan. Keep it coming.

      Comment by jfbranson on June 10, 2009 @ 9:56 pm

    24. You know what would suck but still keep me as a fan… if she bared his child and had the baby but something terrible happened to the small community. The virus somehow made it inside and they had to fight to keep one another safe. Soon realizing how much they did love eachother and could not stand losing another loved one. Great story, I’m sorry if I keep adding to stories but everytime I read a great story I can’t help thinking up different endings for them like I did for “Even in Death” by Max Salnikov. Inspiring Jeffrey I loved it!!!

      Comment by Emmanuel Uribe on June 23, 2009 @ 3:04 am

    25. I am a newcomer to this site, but it is stories like this one that get me coming back, again and again, for more. Well-written, interesting characters and enough background for a follow up if you decide to write one. Thanks for a great read!
      J.Roy

      Comment by J. Roy on July 5, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    26. Wow, what a beautiful story. I actually have tears in my eyes. Please continue to write, you have a gift. Loved the characters. I can’t say enough good things about this story. Thanks!

      Comment by Zoe on July 6, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    27. Excellent story, matey! I’d like to see how that kid grows up: an encore would be nice, in that regard. Maybe the at-one-point-little tyke would grow up to be some sort of zombie expert, or what’d be interesting would be if he joined the community watch with nothing more than a blade (you know, like a sword), and was sent on a mission with a few others to try and find some more food for the now-growing town. In the meantime, he finds other survivors, both good and bad, and is able to bring back new technology as well as food.

      Comment by Liam on July 6, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    28. Er….
      whats this got to do whith Zombies?
      Dont get me worng, this is brient,
      one of the best storys on the site but it has nothing to do with zombies.

      Comment by Dave gorack. on July 7, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    29. i like this story; how you managed to create a semblance of peace and hope within the world of chaos…nice one.

      Comment by Kai on July 13, 2009 @ 4:30 am

    30. Fantastic!
      I struggle to eloquently describe my feelings for an impressive piece such as this – so we’ll leave it at that. =)

      Comment by Cody on July 13, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    31. Uh, Jeff? Like Billy Crystal said in “Throw Mamma from the Train”, “A writer writes…” Where’s new stuff?
      signed, Selfish

      Comment by jfbranson on July 26, 2009 @ 12:25 am

    32. Dear selfish –

      This stuff doesn’t write itself. I am also working on other stories for other markets. Feel free, in my absence, to write your own zombie stories and submit them with all the speed you can muster.

      Signed,

      Jeff DeRego

      Comment by jrderego on July 26, 2009 @ 10:53 am

    33. That’s not funny, Jeff. You know very well I can’t read or write. And frankly, as Danny Devito said in Throw Momma, “The guy in the hat killed the other guy in the hat.”
      signed,
      Selfish
      PS- Does this mean you’re not dedicating your first collection of short stories to me?

      Comment by jfbranson on July 26, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    34. the best story I have ever read on this site and probally the best zombie story I have ever read. Very awesome. It would be awesome if this is continued if it hasn’t already been and if it has been continued where could I see more?

      Comment by Jordan on July 29, 2009 @ 8:41 pm

    35. Dear Selfish,

      Grow up man!

      Jeff,
      Great piece!
      What can I say that’s not already been said ?
      Paints a vivid picture of basic survival in this situaiton. I liked how even though this guy is only 14 he’s already having to keep in mind that people can be more dangerous to him than the zombies.
      The whole “Grow up quick, or Die” element is sometimes lost in the gore in this genre I find.
      But surely the real loss to a kid surviving is their childhood.
      Very very good story Jeff. Keep it up mate.
      Tony

      Comment by Tony on July 31, 2009 @ 5:22 am

    36. Jeff should give up his day job to write more, and let his family starve, that I be entertained with more of his zombie stories. (I’m just saying.)

      love,
      selfish

      Comment by jfbranson on August 8, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

    37. Amazing short story, I like how you took a simplistic survivors view. He was just an average, peaceful, teen. And to me that was awsome, he didn’t come out all guns blazing with a minigun. He was a rational thinker that not only survived on common sense but basic and practical routine. Keep up the great work!

      Comment by lhilshey on August 10, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    38. Hey! this is almost in the same vein as the stephen king novel, The Stand. Abseloutely awesomesauce

      Comment by Daniel on August 11, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    39. I have to say that this cat can write.Excellent characters and a true sense of description.I will keep reading for sure.Thanks.

      Comment by fred on September 7, 2009 @ 8:19 pm

    40. that was way to anticlimatic…it was very well written im not taking ANYTHING away from that it’s just I was googling zombie fanfics just to get me primed for zombieland. I kinda wanted gore. This was at least 50 trillion times better then the second place one though ill defintely say that

      Comment by Emilio Estefez on September 29, 2009 @ 2:07 am

    41. If Jeff hasn’t submitted a story that’s to be published with the contest entries I’ll cancel my subscription.

      Comment by jfbranson on September 29, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

    42. It’s coming… Here’s the opening paragraph –

      I barely smell the burlap smoke anymore, but I remember that it used to burn my throat and water my eyes. I blow into the tin fume-canister until a little flame leaps up then I slap the top closed and squelch the heat. I want the smoke, not the fire. Approximately a thousand honeybees swarm around the two white boxes I’ve placed at the edge of Old Man Orchard. I should camouflage them or put them a little deeper into the woods, but the hives need sunlight if I want the bees to survive the long winters, so it’s a tradeoff I guess.

      Comment by jrderego on October 1, 2009 @ 8:17 am

    43. Based on the quality of your short stories, you should consider writing a zombie apocalypse novel. Your stories are superior to many of those same type of novels now in print.

      Comment by d3km on February 12, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

    44. Great story.

      Comment by Bernie on October 28, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    45. i don’t understand why this is such a popular story on here. i have read a few on this site and this one is just slow and really isn’t a zombie story at all. sorry, but i just don’t get it.

      Comment by kerigrace on January 11, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

    46. This series just captures everything that’s great about post-apocalyptic lit. I love to read the ways people manage to live after the comet and despite the zombies. The word that always pops into my mind when reading your stories is – pioneers. I love the descriptions whether they encompass maple syrup, bread, or bee-keeping. Lovely fascinating stories Jeffrey.

      Comment by Annette on May 12, 2011 @ 9:33 am

    47. Incredible story! I found myself drawn into the story in a way that I usually don’t with most on this site. Big thumbs up in relating the aspect of what life would be like between encounters with the undead.

      Comment by Wes on May 27, 2011 @ 8:01 pm

    48. Great story. I discovered your Pleasant Hollow series after reading Needs. Thanks for sharing your stories with us!

      Comment by funky_muzic on November 29, 2011 @ 10:14 am

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