They’re Afraid of Fire: Part Five

Ma and Pa settled on the farm long after the plague began. Neither of them was from Oregon, but from the “big city” – though different ones. They met on the trail. They fell in love. Then they settled on the farm. That’s what Pa said. Ma saved Pa’s life from at least a dozen Bleeders (that’s what she called them), then, because she was young and stupid, let him tag along to Lincoln City. That’s what Ma said. Ma became pregnant with me on the trail to Lincoln City. Horses would’ve been a faster mode of transportation (and easier on Ma’s condition), but unfortunately, the plague wiped out a lot of animals, including horses. Also, dogs, cats, and many others. The Rattlers wiped out even more. They weren’t too picky about what they ate. But only the people turned. Animals got sick. They bled from the eyes, mouths, and ears – then they died. I don’t know why. Ma and Pa didn’t either. Our cow most likely got bit by an infected animal. Saliva and blood. That’s how it spreads.

Pa once told me that Lincoln had the highest walls in the world around one side, the ocean on the other. He said it was called the last safe place in the world. I, of course, asked why we didn’t live there.

“Sure,” he said, “they have giant walls – probably guards. Lots of guns too. But believing you’re safe doesn’t mean you are. It only makes you complacent. And complacency gets you killed.”

I’m not sure that was an appropriate answer to my question. But Pa was right about the complacency part. He became complacent. And my whole family paid the price for it. Standing in the middle of the campsite, an unlit torch in my hand, I looked around at the scattered corpses, then at the smoldering ash in the fire-pit. They let the fire get too low, I thought. They became complacent. Now they’re dead.  I made a promise to myself then and there never to get too comfortable.

I went to the log, picked up my sack, rummaged around inside it, feeling around for anything that felt like the matchbox. It was at the bottom of the sack, of course. I pulled it out, careful to not let the food jars in the bag clank together. Then I put the sack down, opened the match box, closed it again. My make-shift torch would probably only buy me a minute to escape a bad situation, maybe two. I decided to save it until I really needed it. I’d just have to rely on my senses to warn me of danger and, unfortunately, walk slow and quiet. I slid the match box into my pocket. Then I scanned the ground, found a small, flat stone, slipped it into my other pocket. When I bent to pick up my burlap bag again, from the corner of my eye, I saw a dark green backpack leaning against a tree not far from where the fat one was laying face up, entrails out, in the dirt. After another scan of the clearing, I crept over to it, sidestepping the fat one, and picked it up. Then I threw it over my shoulder. There’d be time to look inside it later. It was time to go.

The trail that led into the clearing picked up again, just on the other side. Right when I stepped onto it, I heard a low rattling coming from a nearby cluster of bushes. But It wasn’t the high pitched, quick rattle that I was accustomed to hearing. Against my better judgement, I snuck up to the cluster, as close as I dared. I peered between them through a small area where two of the bushes didn’t quite meet. It was Timmy, sleeping in the fetal position, hugging a small, furry, massacred animal as if it were some kind of horrific teddy bear. Yep, it was time to go.

One can only walk so quietly in a forest, even if one is walking on a trail. And, of course, since I was trying to be quiet, every twig accidently stepped on sounded like a tree cracking in half. Every rock accidently kicked sounded like a boulder crashing down the side of a mountain. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. I consider myself extremely fortunate that not only did Timmy not jump out of the woods and eat me, but no other Rattlers were encountered for the next three hours I tip-toed along the path. It seemed they liked to sleep mid-day. Even still, after those three hours, the sun was hanging on the wrong side of the sky. I didn’t want to run into any problems while setting up a campsite and not be able to get a good fire going. I began to keep an eye out for a decent location. After another half hour or so, I found one. It was a small clearing, just to the side of the trail. And (lucky me!) it already had a fire pit.

Twenty or so minutes later, after collecting the necessary materials, I got a small fire going. Once it was going strong, I added larger chunks of wood. Only after the flames were half as tall as me, did I put down my burlap bag, remove the backpack, and began to dig through it. In all, the pack contained four soiled shirts, a pair of severely soiled trousers, a pocketknife, an old photograph of a baby, a lamp (why?), and the grand prize, a small can of oil. There was no food, but that was okay. I didn’t eat much at that age. But the oil. Oh man – the oil just might be a lifesaver for me. I had the stuff needed to make a proper torch. Maybe even a few of them. I shook the oil can. It was a little over half full. I knew I’d have to make it last. So, when I poured the oil around on the tip of my torch, I was careful to leave about a third of the can. The oil soaked through the shirt well. About an hour before nightfall, I used a sharp branch to dig a small, deep hole close to where I’d be sleeping. Once it figured it was deep enough, I slid the handle of the torch down into it. The torch leaned a bit, but that was fine. I lit the tip, then sat between the torch and my wonderful, roaring fire, and dug back inside my bag. A second or two later, I pulled out a jar of Ma’s preserves, squinted to read the handwritten label. Peach. My favorite.

I heard them before I’d finished even half of the peaches. They were lurking behind the trees, their throat rattles vibrating in excitement. I could almost feel them wishing for the flames to go out. Then it would be their time to feast. I think my heart rattled more than the creatures’ throats, but I did my best to restrain my fear. After all – I had the fire. And the fire was big and bright, and it would save my life. I dipped my two fingers back into the jar and ate another mouthful. Then I dropped the jar. A Rattler must’ve gotten really angry seeing me eating, because as soon as the peaches touched my tongue, it let loose the loudest vibrating screech I’d ever heard. And it was close too – awfully close. I jumped to my feet, grabbed the torch, and pointed it in the direction the sounds came from. There it was, in all its horrifying glory. The thing was huge (really huge); the thing was bent; the thing was around five feet from me. And, the thing was really, really mad. It hunched down, ready to strike, its elongated fingers digging into the earth. I waved my torch at it.

“Go away, freak!” I yelled. I waved the torch a few more times. “Just go away!”

In response to my question, the beast leaned forward, rattle-roared (it’s the only way I can describe it), and then lurched at me. That’s when a smaller creature, one that could’ve only been Timmy attacked it from the side, knocking it to the ground. The larger Rattler roared again. It seemed even more angry if that was possible. It quickly flipped itself over, pinned Timmy beneath it. Timmy lashed out, clawing at its face, biting at its arms. The bulging ball in his throat vibrating like a rattlesnake’s tail. The larger Rattler didn’t even seem to notice. One clawed hand still pinning Timmy to the ground, the beast turned back towards me, sniffed the air. Then, it looked back down at Timmy, sniffed his face. I’m not sure why, but that was the end of it. The Large Rattler jumped off Timmy and ran off back into the woods. The other Rattlers followed behind it. I didn’t dare let my guard down, though. Timmy was still there.

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