#SampleSunday – After The Virus, Chapter 4:
Over the next 12 weeks I will be sharing a chapter of my novel After The Virus each sunday. Warning: for coarse language and brutal content. This is a post-apocalyptic love story. I hope you enjoy getting a peek. Feedback is welcomed and appreciated. If you are so inclined, purchase links can be found on the side bar. Oh, and not to play favourites, but this is one of my all time favourite chapters – that I have even written. – Meghan
The crinkle of wrappers drew his attention. He guessed she was about nine; huddled in an aisle at the Drug Mart and inhaling chocolate bars. The absolute terror in her eyes made his stomach knot. This was what the world had become: a girl, mortally terrified, when she saw any man. He couldn’t think what the hell to say or do that wouldn’t be a threat — keep holding the rifle or put it down? Are you alone? Are you okay?
He was pretty sure that was blood caked underneath her ragged fingernails.
He finally settled for, “Hey, sorry to sneak up on you. I was just gathering some supplies. I live the next town over. My name is Will.”
She didn’t answer, but her grip on the snickers bar eased. He continued, “Don’t mind me. I’m just going to pick up some shampoo and stuff.”
He eased back and crossed into the next aisle to stare at the still stocked shelves. He didn’t need shampoo, but he added it to his box anyway. He could hear her gathering chocolate bars into the sack she wore slung across her shoulders, then silence. He sidestepped to the soap.
Aware of her tracking him, he slowly moved around the store. He fought the urge to grab, feed, and scrub her clean of the blood and bruises.
He briefly contemplated the barrettes and, after he turned the corner, he heard plastic torn and wondered if she’d picked the pink ones. He was amazed she’d survived alone all these months, and then realized she probably hadn’t been on her own all this time. Was this her home? Were her parents and siblings now stinking, bloated corpses in a nearby house? Did she still return to them at night? Who’d been feeding her? Or what had happened to her caretakers to force them to abandon her here? Or, even more sickeningly, whose clutches had she escaped?
He didn’t think he was up for this. There’d been a few children in the survivor groups he’d drifted, but he hadn’t taken any responsibility.
He paused in the magazine section and, briefly, wondered if the actress on the Vanity Fair cover still had eyes that blue even in death.
The girl’s eyes were dark like her matted hair. He felt like a pedophile as he placed a coloring book and crayons in his now full box.
She was waiting for him by the entrance, and he briefly wondered how she had gotten in when he’d struggled to prop open the automatic door. He smiled, and she didn’t return the gesture. She was clutching another snickers bar and heavily weighing her options; trying to figure him.
“That’s my truck,” he gestured with the box towards his Ford and then stepped by her to load the box and the other supplies in the back.
He closed the tailgate just as he heard the passenger door slam. She buckled up, then sat, clutching her sack and staring straight ahead. He might vomit. He wasn’t sure if it was the fear of hurting her further, or the trust she’d so readily placed in him, that made him ill.
He ripped open a box of granola bars and climbed into the truck. He placed the bars on the seat beside him and shifted the truck into gear.
“Might be stale,” he warned, then he ate one anyway.
She reached a tentative hand, caked in dirt and blood, to press play on the stereo. He’d been listening to this on the drive over, but now, the third verse of Paul Simon’s “Call Me Al” hit him in the gut. He finally got it. He clenched his jaw to quell the rising emotion. The girl bobbed her head along with the bass line. He’d never had an epiphany before.
In this moment, he chose to become the man he’d always wanted his father to be.
It had taken one day and three snickers bars to coax the girl out of the truck, then four more days to convince her that an upstairs bedroom was just as safe as the front hall closet. He wasn’t too sure when she began, finally, to sleep a full night in the bed, but he didn’t manage to get her in the bath until he remembered he’d found some animals soaps in the grocery. He’d also offered her a choice between Star Wars and Barbie sheets – she’d picked Star Wars and he wondered if she’d ever seen the movies.
He really didn’t know what he was doing and the people who’d built this home hadn’t exactly left self-help child rearing books lying around, but he figured she would need to feel safe alone before she would allow him to be her protector. So, to that end, he put together a backpack under her watchful eye.
He, pleased that he’d collected extras, carefully placed all the survival supplies he had on hand on the old farm-style kitchen table. A mini first aid kit, solar blanket, batteryless flashlight, waterproof matches, water packs, and granola bars.
He talked about each item in terms of function and safety as he tucked it away in the backpack. She watched his hands more than his face, but as he zipped the pack and crossed around the table to hand it to her, she slipped off her stool and turned her back so he could slip it over her too-slim-for-such-a-burden arms. She patted his knee and later added her crayons and coloring book to the empty outside pocket.
Then he taught her how to shoot a gun.