This is a holiday short story (about 2,500 words) set in the dystopian future of Sudden Mission, and after the sequel, Nasty Leftovers. Just a gift. It portends some events in the third installment (which is a completed first draft, Dec. 2016). But no spoilers. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!
Paul Shannon gazed at the small gold ring in the little box as he walked along. He’d found it in the remains of a small store in one of the ruined villages he passed through a few days earlier. There was a nice diamond in the middle of two lines of tiny diamonds surrounding it. It would fit Amy Grossman. He was pretty sure because he put it up to the second knuckle on his little finger. He had tested a little friendship ring she wore on his finger before.
He smiled to himself. The plan was to give it to her for Christmas. I’ll back in time.
Then he smelled wood smoke. That wasn’t unusual, but he was far from the community on a foraging mission into western North Carolina. It was unusual to find other people out this far, especially after a heavy snow and in the deep of winter. He stopped, crouched down among the trees, shoved the small box back in a pocket, and listened. He wore an off-white poncho that covered him and his pack and helped him blend into the snowy terrain. The slight breeze came from the west and it carried the smoke and the smell of cooking meat.
His stomach grumbled and his mouth watered. He’d been out several days living light and eating dried fruit and meats. I hope you don’t give me away, he thought to his stomach.
Quiet as he could, he crept toward the smell of wood smoke. He used his staff to leverage branches aside and help maintain his balance.
The last thing he wanted was to face roving raiders or gangsters from one of the larger cities like Richmond or Columbus. Those weren’t the names the gangsters called them now, but they were the names he knew.
His current mission had him deep into western North Carolina, almost to the mountains. He’d found a few stashes of food and fuel in some small, decaying, abandoned towns and recorded the locations on his map. He was actually planning to turn around and head back today. Until he smelled wood smoke.
The ground rose slightly, then dropped away. Over the top of the rise, Paul saw a wisp of smoke rising from a copse of trees just off an old roadbed. He paused where he could see the area and listened again.
Nothing moved below. He checked his back trail, just in case.
He unslung his pack, pulled out a pair of binocular, and got a better view of the area around the copse of trees. Tracks in the snow came down the road from the west and turned into the trees. A set of tracks went to an old burnt out gas station a few hundred yards northeast.
It looked to Paul like whoever made the tracks to the old station went there and followed their trail back. There was no way Paul could approach the copse directly from his position without being exposed. If he stayed in the woods on his side of the old roadbed and went west, then crossed the roadbed about a ways up, and came back–he could keep to the cover of trees and scrub until he got close to the copse.
He returned the binoculars to the pack, got it slung on his back and moved out.
Paul tried not to think of Amy Grossman too much while he made his way to the place he chose to cross the roadbed. Thoughts of her often made their way into his head as he was trying to concentrate and stay alert. He stopped and crouched down a moment. He checked his surroundings and his back trail, then he buried his face in his hands a moment. After a few deep breaths, he prayed.
Father God, please help me keep my focus.
When he looked up, he checked his back trail and surroundings again. Nothing moved. Nothing changed. He quietly moved on.
He knew he was in love with Amy and he knew his emotions ran deep when it came to her. He hadn’t told her how he felt yet, but it was getting pretty obvious. Paul’s mom was always giving him these strange, penetrating looks. And Dad was almost worse. He would just look at Paul, smile, and nod. Paul wasn’t sure he was ready for marriage and family yet. What he did want was to survive this mission and get back to Amy. They could sort things out then.
He was at the place he planned to cross the open roadbed. He took a deep breath and let it out. It came out like steam from a pipe. He looked west and east and the area was clear. He quickly moved across the roadbed and what he saw stopped him at the trail left by whoever was in the copse. Footprints, yes. But there was also a blood trail. Most of it mixed in with the footprints. It was just one small set of prints.
Paul hunted with his father and knew what a blood trail looked like. Someone in that copse could be hurt. He had plenty of first aid materials in his pack because you never knew what you’d come across on these missions. He might be able to help.
He finished crossing the road and turned east when he got into the trees again.
After a few minutes, he could smell the wood smoke again, even up wind. It also carried the smell of cooking meat. His mouth watered, his stomach growled, and he swallowed a few times. When he thought he had his impulses under control, he quietly approached until he could see through the trees to a campsite under the copse.
A female dressed in buckskin shirt and pants crouched at the small fire, cooking strips of meat hanging from sticks. She had tied long black hair into a pony tail and that hung down her back. A hide–what looked to Paul like a deer hide– lay stretched out on the snow on the far side. The carcass of the deer hung from a branch of a tree. A shelter made from blue tarp stood on the other side of the camp from the hide and carcass. The female was humming.
The blood trail, Paul realized then, was probably from the deer. Relief washed over him. He scanned the campsite further, but didn’t see a shotgun or rifle. He was about to stand and approach when the person at the fire turned her head.
“You can come over to the fire,” she said and stood, facing toward Paul. “You are welcome here.”
Paul froze in shock. She knew he was there. He slowly stood and walked out of the trees.
“Come over,” she said, waving Paul closer. “Are you hungry?”
She looked attractive to Paul with large, dark eyes, and she looked about his age. He noted the large knife on her left hip. It was about half as long as the sword Paul used to have. Then he saw the bow and quiver against the tree near the hanging carcass.
“I’m Paul,” he said holding out his right hand.
“I’d call you noisy,” the young woman smiled and accepted the handshake. “I’m Lucillle. Call me Lucy.”
“You’re pretty welcoming for someone alone out in this country,” Paul said. He pulled his hood back and brushed at his curly black hair.
“I’m not too afraid of what might be down here. The gangs don’t come out this time of year,” Lucy said. She chewed on a piece of venison. “But, things are getting bad in the mountains. I decided to go east.”
Paul’s stomach growled loudly.
“Here,” she said. She handed Paul a stick with cooked venison. “How long have you been away from home?”
“About a week, ten days,” Paul said, then took a large bite of the meat. He pulled off the poncho and dropped his pack and staff. The tender, juicy meat filled his mouth with wonderful flavors. Paul figured Lucille had some good spices.
She studied Paul for a moment. “Home for you must be around Raleigh?”
“Yeah, just east of there. Raleigh is still kind of a mess, I doubt we’ll move into the city. We have a nice comfortable community.”
Paul bit off more of the meat. Then he dug into his pack and pulled out some of his dried fruit and offered it to her.
“I know it isn’t much,” he said, “but it helps balance against the meat. And it is sweet. Mom dried them.”
Lucy took some of the apricots and smiled. “Thank you,” she said.
“To be honest, I’m getting a little tired of them,” Paul said and laughed.
“Life is getting hard in the mountains,” Lucy said later as she and Paul sat in the shelter and sipped on tea. “People go hunting and never come back. There is a group down near Asheville that has been having a running battle with someone or something. Sometimes, you can hear the gunfire up near Boone. I’ve seen some of the Asheville soldiers out in the mountains near Boone a few times. They get into some fight or other, then nothing for weeks. We avoid going into areas where there was fighting. Folks have been leaving little by little. Boone is almost completely empty.”
“We had family in the Boone area,” Paul said. “Mom’s side. One of her cousins and her kids came to us after the Troubles. We haven’t heard much more from Boone since then.”
“Do you take refugees?” Lucy sipped at her tea and looked at Paul over the cup rim.
“Sure. There’s room and plenty of work to do. And we have plenty to eat. No one goes hungry.”
“I’ve heard some places shoot refugees,” Lucy said.
“I’ve heard similar,” Paul said. “We’re not like that, though. We have enough and we have a great system to keep things working.”
“Is it a Christian community?” Lucy asked.
“Yes,” Paul said. “We’re Christian. Not any particular denomination though. Kind of all mixed together. What Elder Franklin calls natural Christians.”
“Lucille, I’m heading back home tomorrow. Do you want to travel together?”
She looked up smiling. “Call me Lucy. Yeah, that would be good.”
Paul looked at the little gold ring in the small box as he and Lucy rested on the trail. They were about an hour from the community. Over the last several days, Paul learned a lot about Lucy. She lost her parents during the Troubles and survived with relatives in the Boone area. But as people left, she decided to strike out on her own.
“So, this Amy you talk about,” Lucy looked over his shoulder, “is that for her?”
“Yeah. I’m planning to give it to her for Christmas. It’s pretty. I don’t know if it’s real diamonds or anything. Or if it’s real gold for that matter. I think she’d like it.”
“Oh, I think she’ll like it. But I think she’ll think this is more than just a gift.”
“Yeah. That’s the kind of ring someone gives in a wedding, Paul. Are you planning to ask her to marry you?”
Paul was stunned. “Huh?”
“You’re what, seventeen? Eighteen? You’re old enough. Heck, if you weren’t so moonstruck over this Amy girl, I’d be after you.”
Paul felt himself blushing. “I … uh …”
“Don’t tell me you haven’t been thinking about this a lot.” Lucy poked his shoulder and laughed.
“I have. I’m just not sure I’m ready.”
“My aunties always said, ‘If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll never get it done.'”
Paul slipped the small box back into a pocket and got up.
“I’ll think on that some,” he said. “Let’s go. We’re almost there.”
Elder Franklin and James Carson were waiting in the road as Paul and Lucy approached the community. Paul saw Amy’s tell-tale auburn hair and staff behind them. He smiled as he approached.
Amy pushed past Franklin and Carson and ran into Paul’s arms. She kissed him, then quickly pulled back, her nose wrinkled up.
“You need a shower,” she said. “I missed you!”
Amy looked at Lucy. “Who’s this!” If Amy could shoot flames from her eyes, Paul thought Lucy would now be a pile of ashes on the road.
“I found her out north of Shelby just before I turned back,” Paul said. He introduced Lucy around, then handed Carson his trip notebook. “The pickings are getting slim, James. I secured a few caches of useable food and tagged some fuel stores. Not much else.”
“Thanks, Paul,” Carson said.
“Are you thinking of joining our community?” the white-haired Elder Franklin asked Lucy.
“I’d like to,” she answered.
As they walked into the community, Lucy told them of the happenings in the mountains and why she left. All the while, Amy kept a strong grip on Paul’s arm.
“You have nothing to worry about,” Paul told her in a whisper.
“I’m not worried,” Amy whispered back. “She should.”
Later, freshly bathed, shaved and in clean clothes, Paul wrote a note, folded it carefully, and placed it inside the small box with the gold ring. He wrapped the box in some pretty Christmas wrap, then put bow and a small tag on it. “To Amy, From Paul,” read the tag. He placed that under the tree in the living room.
Tomorrow was Christmas. He’d made it back in time.
Father, he prayed silently, thank You for Your blessings and grace and getting me home safely. Thank You for Amy. Help me be a good man and honor You and Your son. In His name, amen.
Paul sat on the floor in front of the fireplace and looked at the tree, just enjoying the quiet. Roger and Sarah were already in bed. Mom and Dad were in the kitchen making some cocoa. The world–life–is so different now, he thought. In a way it was sad, all the destruction and loss of life. But his community survived.
Amy walked into the room and sat beside him.
“I don’t have a penny,” she said. She gently brushed her hand through his hair, then cuddled close.
“Oh, no need. Nothing specific going on in here right now.” He tapped his head with his finger. “Just glad I’m home and relaxing.”
He looked at the tree, then under it, then smiled at Amy.
“Oh, look. I think I see something new there.”
Amy’s grey eyes brightened and she reached for the small package. “What did you do?”
Just then, Mom and Dad came in with a tray full of cups of cocoa.
Amy held the small package and looked at Paul. “Can I open it now?”
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