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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.

    DREDGING UP MEMORIES PART XV by A.J. Brown
    December 27, 2013  Short stories   Tags: ,   

    SEQUEL TO PART XIV

    The Batesburg armory was a lost cause. There had been a battle there (if that’s really what it could be called. It was more like an attack and an attempt at defense). The dead lay scattered along the lawn, but also in piles closer to the building, as if the soldiers just shot and shot and shot until the dead stumbled over each other and got stuck outside. I pulled the truck up close to the lot, but parked in the road. I mashed the horn as hard as I could. It was a manly sound, not one of those friendly little beep beeps that was more apologetic than warning.

    ‘What are you doing?’ Humphrey asked.

    “A test.”

    ‘For what?’

    I looked at Humphrey. Her eyes were shiny glass that looked real at that moment. She looked like she had been crying, or was about to.

    “To see if any of them get up.”

    She didn’t respond.

    Nothing moved beyond our windows. I pressed the horn again, held it for several seconds. Still, nothing happened. I pulled the van into the parking lot, mindful of the bodies, though I guess I didn’t need to be. They were all dead, and if they weren’t, then they needed to be.

    I took a long swallow off that bottle of Jack Daniels I had pilfered from Fat Boy’s truck. I wiped my mouth and got out of the van, gun ready, flashlight in my back pocket, knife in its sheath on my belt. A closer look at the carnage told me they had been overran a while back. The bodies had already taken on a parchment look, and the stench wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. There were plenty of flies and rats and a few snakes, but they scattered as I walked through the corpses.

    Bodies blocked the front of the armory. I made my way to the back. The gate had been knocked down. There were no military vehicles behind the building and the back entrance was propped open by a couple of bodies. I entered the darkness, flicked on the light. My boots weren’t as quiet as I hoped, giving off hollow clops that echoed throughout the building with each step.

    There wasn’t much to the place. A few rooms along the back and what looked like a warzone in the front. There were as many dead inside as there were outside. The floor was sticky with dried blood. The clopping of my boots gave way to a sickening shwisk sound.

    To my right, someone moved. I caught the turning of his head on the outskirts of the light’s beam. I turned to see a soldier who was little more than bones with chunks of flesh still on them. One side of his face was missing, as if he had shot himself, but missed his brain. I unsheathed my knife and walked over. His teeth clattered together as he snapped at me.

    “I’m sorry,” I said and drove the blade into his skull. I took the gun lying beside him, shoved it in my waistband.

    There were other weapons, most of which still had bullets in them.  I did what I had done for what felt like my entire life at that point: I pilfered the weapons, making trips back and forth. The van was getting full and there was no real way of sorting things out. Not there, at least. The mattress was completely covered before I arrived, and I had taken to sleeping behind the wheel again. The weapons went into a helter skelter pile near the back.

    Searching for my baby brother and son was a slow process. Gathering supplies in the process took even longer. Still, I had to get everything I could use. Leave nothing behind, I told myself.

    I was worried that at any point I could turn over a body, or lift one off of another and find Bobby or Jake. I wasn’t sure what I would do if they were there and one of the dead, especially if they hadn’t already been put down.

    I found some clothes, army fatigues and boots and shirts, folded in footlockers. Not that I wanted clothes, but winter was coming, and there was no need to freeze when I could try on a few things and take them with me.

    Hours passed, and when I was done, Bobby and Jake were nowhere to be found.

    I let go of a heavy breath and made my way back to the van.

    ‘Did you find them?’ Humphrey asked in her sweet, childish voice.

    “No.”

    ‘What now?’

    “We ride.”

    I drove away, the half empty bottle of Jack between my legs, and a hole in my chest. It was then that I realized I would never see Jake or Bobby again. I took a long swallow of the whiskey, wiped my lips with the back of one arm. The beginnings of a good buzz began to kick in.

    I meant to head for the lake, for the seclusion of a body of water. Maybe I could find a boat and just float out there until I died. At that moment, dying didn’t seem such a terrible idea, as long as it was permanent.

    There were turns made, straight-aways taken, more turns. I think I was trying to get lost in a world that had been that way for several months. Why not? Everything else was gone.

    Everything.

    As daylight began to die out, I found myself along Highway 321. I was nowhere near the lake. In fact, it was just the opposite direction. Another turn and I was on Highway 78.

    I had succeeded in getting lost.

    Further down the road I saw the sign for Blackville. A mound of charred bodies lay by the road.

    “Someone’s been here.”

    ‘Who?’ Humphrey asked. There was a quiver in her voice. One I understood quite well. So far, all the living people we came across were on the wrong side of losing their minds, a by-product of the fall of civilization as we once knew it.

    “I don’t know, but…”

    ‘Can we leave?’

    “What?”

    ‘Can we leave? People scare me now.’

    I nodded. “They scare me, too.”

    I pulled onto Road 3, and stopped.

    After not seeing people for months, I had managed to run into an overzealous preacher and the remains of his congregation, and two good old boys with a hankering for dead women. Now, I came across some others, this time Native Americans.

    They were surrounded by a hoard of dead, fighting them off as well as they could.

    ‘Let’s go, Hank. Please, let’s just leave.’ A whine was in her voice.

    “We can’t leave them like this,” I said. “We can’t leave any of them like this.”

    They didn’t have guns. That was the first thing I noticed. They did have knives and spears, but that meant close quarters combat. From the looks of it, they were losing.

    I grabbed several guns, left the van and slammed the door shut. Before it closed, I heard Humphrey crying.

    I ran, getting close enough to take aim and hit the dead and not the living. One shot, two, three, four, all true. Five and six and seven. More dead fell away. Some of them turned to me. Several more shots, and I could see the Indians. Some were soaked in blood. There were a few on the ground, dead or dying, chunks of flesh ripped free from throats and stomachs and arms and faces.

    I dropped an empty gun to the ground, pulled another one from my waistband.

    It was only minutes, but they seemed to last much longer. Finally, the last of the dead dropped to the ground. He was an older man. His hair had been white when he was alive, but had become a nasty yellow color in death. He had been kneeling over a body, his jaws snapping and ripping at the flesh of the dead woman lying there. The top of his head disappeared and he slumped forward over the woman’s body.

    In the aftermath, I heard crying. I turned back to the truck, thinking I had left the door open and that I was hearing Humphrey. The door was closed. The crying came from a little girl lying on the ground. A chunk of her right bicep was missing and blood washed her skin and clothes in red.

    A woman knelt beside her, pulled the little girl’s face into her breasts. She was crying also.

    “Thank you,” one of the men said. He was older, his hair gray and pulled back into a ponytail that ran down to the small of his back. His jeans were dirty and his shirt was soaked red. There were splashes of blood on his skin. He held a wooden spear with a stone head. On his back was a book bag.

    “Did they bite you?” I asked.

    “No, not me, but others.” He looked around. Three of his people were dead, and the little girl would be soon. He drove his spear into the skull of the woman the elderly dead had been eating on. Then he turned his attention to two men, both older, maybe even close to his age. He stabbed, first one, then the other, in the skull, and then went to the woman and little girl.

    Blood dripped from his spear as he stood over them. I was looking at a man who knew what he had to do, but who was too attached to do it. I wondered if that were his granddaughter. I wondered, not for the first time, if it were Bobby, could I put him down.

    “We must hurry,” he said and took the girl in his arms.

    “What are you doing?” I called after him. “She’s going to turn. You can’t save her.”

    “There is still time.”

    “Time? She’s been bitten. Time is not on her side, and if she turns, it might not be on yours either.”

    “Thank you for your help, for saving us. But we have to go now.”

    “Where are you going?” I asked.

    “To the Healing Springs.”

    “Where?”

    “I don’t have time to talk. She is dying, and we must get her to the Healing Springs.”

    I had heard of the Healing Springs, but thought it was all a bunch of hogwash parents told their kids. It was nothing but a hoax, a place where the sick went to drink from the fountain of healing. Whatever.

    But what if it were true? What if there was a fountain or lake that could heal wounds and save those who were infected?

    “Where is this Healing Springs?”

    They turned to me—six adults with sad eyes. The older man spoke up. “Down the road a way.”

    “A way? As in miles?”

    He nodded. “We don’t have time to talk. We need to get Alaya there soon or she will…”

    I’m not sure if I was desperate for a cure or just wanted to try and help the little girl, but I spoke up. “I’ll take you,” I said. “I can’t get you all in the van—it’s kind of full, but I can take you and the girl.”

    He looked at me, then to the crying woman beside him. She nodded. So did he.

    “Thank you.”

    Before leaving the five adults behind, I gave them weapons and hoped there was enough ammunition to get them to the Healing Springs safely.

    “I hate to do this, Humphrey, but you have to move for now.” I took Humphrey out of the car seat, and then unstrapped it. The man got in, the girl cradled gently in his arms.

    She glanced at me, at the stuffed bear. “Would you like to hold her?” I asked. “Her name is Humphrey.”

    The girl reached out, her hand trembling, and took Humphrey.

    Humphrey didn’t make a sound. She just went into the child’s arm and lay still as the child took comfort in her.

    We drove.

    By foot it would have taken a couple of hours to get to Healing Springs. By vehicle it took only a few minutes—ten at the most. I learned the old man’s name was Imeko and he was almost eighty. The girl was Alaya and she was almost seven.

    Imeko directed me around a turn and into a neighborhood.

    “Just down that way,” he said.

    I rounded another curve and followed a straightaway until it turned into a wooded area. The trees made a cul de sac. There was a stream that widened, then narrowed as it went back into the trees. There were several wooden squares on the ground made of landscaping boards. In the middle of each square was a set of PVC water spigots—four spouts on each one. There was a stone picnic table that looked as if it had been there since the beginning of time.

    A blue sign with white lettering sat on wooden posts. It read:

    GOD’S ACRE

    HEALING SPRINGS

    ACCORDING TO TRADITION THE INDIANS REVERENCED THE WATER,

    FOR ITS HEALING PROPERTIES AS A GIFT FROM THE GREAT SPIRIT.

    THEY LED THE BRITISH WOUNDED TO THEIR SECRET WATERS DURING

    THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, AND THE WOUNDED WERE HEALED.

    THIS HISTORICAL PROPERTY HAS BEEN DEEDED TO GOD

    FOR PUBLIC USE. PLEASE REVERE GOD BY KEEPING IT CLEAN.

    The closer we got to it, the more the Healing Springs looked like nothing more than a swamp area. The plant life had grown wild along the edges of the trees. There was high grass in spots. The water looked like it wound its way as far to the west and east as it could go.

    I parked near the picnic table. Imeko stood from the van, Alaya in his arms and still clutching Humphrey tight. There was blood on the bear’s pajamas.

    Alaya didn’t look well. She was sweating and the whites of her eyes were a deep pink verging on red. Her mouth hung open. A moment later she threw up blood over Imeko’s shoulder.

    “Help me,” Imeko said when he reached the stone table. I held her head as he lay her down. Her skin was hot. Her body jerked, and I thought she was going to go into convulsions. I was more than concerned—I had never seen the infection take hold that quickly. It had been less than twenty minutes since she was bitten and her body was already giving up.

    “She’s not going to make it.”

    Imeko paid me no attention. Instead he went to one of the squared in spigots, turned the handle.

    The clearest water I have ever seen came out of that spigot. No rust. No sediment. Just water.

    Imeko slipped the book bag off his shoulders, unzipped it and rummaged around. He pulled small things—mostly kid’s toys—from the bag, and set them on the ground. Then he found what he was looking for, a child’s plastic cup. He filled it, stood, though it looked difficult for him to do so, and went to Alaya.

    “Lift her head.”

    I did as he said, lifting, not only her head, but also her upper body. I sat down on the table and held her against me to keep her from falling over. It reminded me of Bobby, of how when he was sick with pneumonia. Jeanette and I took turns cradling him at night. It was eleven days of trying to sleep sitting up in a kid’s bed. It was three months of constant worry. Every time he coughed we stopped what we were doing to check on him. ‘Are you okay, Bobby?’ ‘Are you sure, Bobby?’ ‘Do you need your inhaler, Bobby?’ ‘Don’t overdo it, Bobby.’

    I’m sure that got old.

    It makes me wonder, is Bobby okay? If he is, is he sure? Where is he? Is he still among the few living…or is he one of Them?

    A hint of panic rose in my chest and my breath caught in my throat. I had to fight the urge to drop Alaya to the table, and run; to get back in the van and high tail it out of there. Bobby had to be out there. He had to still be alive.

    It was the slight burning sensation in my left hand and right side of my body that brought me back, and settled me down. Alaya’s fever had grown worse. Sweat spilled from her body, and she was unresponsive.

    Imeko worked quickly, first splashing water onto the wound—a space of only about three inches in diameter. He hurried to the spigot, filled the cup and came back to the table.

    “Alaya, you must drink.”

    Her head moved, but not much. We were losing her.

    “Here,” I said, and took the cup. I tilted Alaya’s head back, then tipped the cup to her lips, letting a little of the water spill into her mouth. She licked her lips and her eyes came open a little.

    “Drink, Alaya,” I said.

    Her small hands went to the cup. They were weak, and she could barely hold them up. But she drank it all.

    “More, please.”

    Imeko retrieved another cupful. She drank all of it as well, and then she settled into a deep sleep.

    Then we waited.

    It was a little over three hours before the others arrived at the Healing Springs, but they did arrive. It was dark, and at first, I thought they were some of the dead. I raised one of my guns and took aim.

    “No,” Imeko said. “They are alive.”

    I lowered the gun, thankful to not have to shoot anymore that day.

    Alaya’s mother took over holding her. My back and legs popped when I stood. It was sweet relief.

    The hours went by slowly. A couple of the Indians slept, while the others stood watch around Imeko, Alaya and her mother.

    None of them talked to me. Instead, they gave me leery stares, as if they were suspicious of me. Maybe they were.

    The sun came up, banishing the night’s darkness. Everyone looked weary. Alaya still lay across her mother’s lap on the picnic table. I wanted to relieve her, to at least give her a moment to stretch and walk around. When I offered, she shook her head and snapped out a quick, “No.”

    Some time in the night the wound had been bandaged. After the sun came up, Imeko took it off. The bite mark had been an angry red the day before, and I expected it to be gray, verging on black. Instead, the skin around the wound was light pink, and the wound itself looked as if it were healing. What should have been dead tissue, was still living, still holding true to its color…

    …and healing.

    “How’s her fever?” Imeko asked.

    “She has none,” Alaya’s mother responded.

    In the daylight I took the time to walk around. The names of hundreds of people had been written or carved on boards and parts of trees where the bark had shed. There was a sign nailed to a piece of wood quoting Revelations. But what struck me most was the small figurine of the crucifixion attached to one of the trees with a U-nail. The figure’s head was bowed down in death. Chills ran the length of my body and…

    Imeko came up behind me.

    “I wanted to say thank you again, Mr. Walker,” he said. “My granddaughter will live now. If not for your arrival, I fear we all would have died yesterday.”

    I heard his words, but really only heard what he said about Alaya. I had seen little response from her. Though her wound was better and her fever gone, I couldn’t believe she would live, would be alive.

    “Why do you think she will live?” I asked.

    “The water will heal her.”

    “What makes this water so special?”

    He didn’t answer for a long while. I feared—and I still believe—I had offended him. When he answered, his tone was polite, if not measured.

    “My ancestors lived on this land many years in the past. They were here when the soldiers came. They were told to bury the soldiers when they died. There were two others, neither of them injured in any way. They stayed here as my ancestors bathed the wounded in the water. They watched men who should have died, live.

    This land—this water—was touched by God. It has healing powers that no other spring has. No medicine can do what the Springs can.”

    “Why didn’t you put Alaya in the water? Just bypass the need for a cup.”

    “The infection. I didn’t want it in the water.”

    “But if the water is touched by…”

    “Man has contaminated this world enough already. We are being punished for our transgressions, Mr. Walker. This is God’s Acre. This is a holy land. We will not sully it with the dead.”

    “The dead? You don’t believe this… this healing springs can save your granddaughter?”

    “I believe what will be done, will be done, and if God so wills it to be, then it shall be. I only provided her the chance.”

    I was starting to think I had run into another bunch of overly religious quacks. Bu, unlike Pastor White and his flock, this man’s belief was sincere and passionate. He believed the will of God, and he hoped that will involved his granddaughter’s survival.

    I can’t say I shared the same belief. I had lost enough of my own to question my own beliefs. I had seen enough of the new world and what the dead could do. I had witnessed answers to questions, and had those answers confirmed

    “Fair enough,” I replied, though I wasn’t so sure I believed my own words.

    I thought of leaving, of getting Humphrey and taking off the first chance I got. Then I would swear off all survivors and find somewhere to be, somewhere to live out my last days. Maybe I would find my way back to Lake Murray and…and…and I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I would do. What I was certain of was I was tired of roaming, of running from the dead, and searching for them, as well.

    Then it happened.

    Alaya woke.

    She opened her eyes, and sat up in her mother’s lap. She didn’t look sick. She didn’t look like she was dying, or even close to it.

    Her mother cried. So did the other adults.

    Imeko went to her, took the bandage off of Alaya’s arm. He touched her face, and checked her eyes. He pushed on her stomach.

    “It’s a miracle,” he said and lifted his hands to the sky. “Thank you, thank you.”

    Tears spilled from his eyes and he hugged Alaya tight.

    I walked over, the world passing far to slow for me to be moving. I saw her, saw the life in her face and movements, saw the wound on her arm. It wasn’t an infected hole and the flesh wasn’t gray or black or green. The wound itself was pink. The flesh around it was the same as the rest of her skin. The whites of her eyes were no longer red, but white.

    She was smiling.

    And she held Humphrey close. Humphrey seemed to be smiling as well. Her glass eyes appeared to sparkle, as if there were tears in them. If I didn’t know better, her short arms were hugging Alaya.

    I knew then…

    “You see,” Imeko said to me, his face radiant with joy, “the water is blessed.”

    I nodded. It was all I could do. What if I had known about this before Pop had been bitten? Or before Davey Blaylock or Lee had been bitten? Maybe they would still be alive. Maybe…

    Maybes are for people who live their lives as dreams rather than reality, and my life was no dream. It was all nightmares.

    I stayed with them another night, each one of us keeping watch. The following morning, Alaya was better still. She showed no signs of regression. She was as healthy as a little girl could be.

    “You need to move on, Mr. Walker,” Imeko said to me that morning. “You have helped us, helped Alaya, but you must move on. There is nothing here for you.”

    “What about you? What about your people? What are you going to do?”

    He nodded toward the entrance to the Healing Springs, to God’s Acre. “We will take one of the houses as our own. We will survive.”

    “Sounds like you have a plan.”

    A nod. His eyes held the steely gaze of a man who had made up his mind. I wasn’t wanted there. I didn’t belong with them.

    “Can I take a jug of that water with me?”

    “It is not mine to give, but yours to take, if you so choose.”

    I chose.

    I drank the last of the water I had in a gallon jug. Then I filled it with the water God had touched. It was my shot at redemption if I ever got bit. I marked the top with my knife with the initials HS.

    It neared noon, and the time to leave. I went to Alaya, and held my hand out to her. “I need to go now. Can I have her back?”

    She looked from me to Humphrey and back to me. With her lip poked out, she pulled Humphrey away from her chest and lifted the stuffed bear to me. I took Humphrey in both hands. Her white bunny pajamas were stained red, and was rough where Alaya’s blood had dried. If I would have looked beneath the clothes, I’m sure Humphrey’s fur would have been crusted red as well.

    “Are you ready to go, Humphrey?”

    ‘No, ‘ she whispered.

    “What?”

    ‘I don’t want to go.’

    “But, we have to. Imeko said we have to leave.”

    ‘Then leave.’

    “Humphrey…”

    ‘I’m not leaving.’

    “What are you…what are you saying, Humphrey?”

    ‘I want to stay with her. She needs me.’

    “But…”

    ‘I need her.’

    I could say nothing. For a few minutes, I didn’t move. If there had ever been life in that little bear, it was at that moment. There was a fierceness in her eyes, much like Imeko’s had been. I squatted to eye level with young Alaya, six-years-old, and who will see another day as a living person. I placed Humphrey in her hands.

    “You take good care of her, okay?” I was talking more to Humphrey than Alaya, but it was the girl who answered.

    “Yes sir. Thank you.”

    I turned, and went to the van. I didn’t look back to see if Humphrey was watching me leave. Part of me was afraid she wouldn’t be.

    Driving away, I thought I would never return to Healing Springs. As usual, I was wrong.

    14 Comments

    1. Humphreyyyyyy….!

      This tale, it has changed course. I look forward to seeing where it goes.

      Comment by Justin Dunne on December 27, 2013 @ 10:12 am

    2. What Justin said.

      Comment by Terry on December 27, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    3. What struck me most wasn’t the healing spring but whatever gear rolled in Walker’s head and made him decide subconsciously that He didn’t need Humphrey anymore.
      It seems very much Like what Happened in the movie “Lars and the Real Girl” (highly recommended movie)
      Truth is Walker makes decisions on a deeply complex level and to give Humphrey away for whatever external reason he has is a cover for something profound and life changing that is happening to Him now.
      Is it possible that Walker is now coming out of his catharsis? That he is now transforming from his dark cocoon and into what kind of creature will he become now?
      As always thanks for the fascinating character work and for a really great Christmas present.

      Comment by bong on December 27, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

    4. I am excited to read how this will turn out. Great read!

      Comment by John the Piper's Son on December 28, 2013 @ 3:36 am

    5. Yay! Another hit of Memories … but Humphrey, so sad. But lovely that a bear is loved by a little girl again.

      Comment by Jasmine DiAngelo on December 28, 2013 @ 5:05 pm

    6. You have done it again sir. I only wish that the chapters weren’t so far apart. I’m impatient and want to read it all now lol. Greatly looking forward to the next installment.

      Comment by Brett on December 29, 2013 @ 11:58 am

    7. It gets better every chapter. Why do we have to wait so long for the next. You said they were already done

      Comment by ricky campbell on December 29, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

    8. Amazing as always.

      Comment by Gunldesnapper on December 30, 2013 @ 9:12 am

    9. Wonderful! Simply wonderful.

      Comment by Kathleen on January 4, 2014 @ 5:50 pm

    10. I love this story so much! I had to tell you this once again because your writing continues to be awesome and I am eager to read your next installment!

      Comment by kitty on January 4, 2014 @ 7:16 pm

    11. I was finally able to read this. Glad I did. I like the direction it’s going. Look forward to more.

      Comment by JamesAbel on January 10, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

    12. Publish this. If people dont buy it they are nuts. This is a masterpiece.

      Comment by SciFiFan96 on March 19, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

    13. This is great! I love reading this series!
      More sequels please, dont leave us hanging from a cliff!

      Comment by Delta Foxtrot on March 25, 2014 @ 4:26 am

    14. Y’know everything that people wrote above? I second it – especially on the publishing part. It’s simply masterful.

      Comment by JohnT on March 29, 2014 @ 1:17 am

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