The Hole — Chapter 6
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She must have been waiting for their return or heard the men coming down the hill, because Evajean was standing where the slope leveled out and the daily life of the town had packed down the grass. She waved as he drew near enough to see her in the moon’s faint light, and then he was next to her and hugging her and asking how she was, was she okay, had she been hurt? And she told him she was fine, just fine, and wanted to know the same about him.
“It must have been horrible,” she said. “They told me you were captured and they were going after you, to rescue you.”
“It was the crazies?” she asked.
“A lot of them. Not like the ones on the road or at Walmart. These talked. They communicated. They weren’t,” he said, hating to admit it out loud, “actually crazy.”
She looked at him like he was, though. Then she said, “They gave us a cabin, a tiny place but it’s got beds. And there’s food. You should sleep now, Elliot, and, really, I want to do the same.”
“Sure,” he said. “Sure, okay.”
“That dog’s there, too. He snores. Bad. But I was so tired when I found this place and I thought maybe I had a concussion, but they told me no, that I was fine, and so I slept. I don’t know how long. How long has it been?”
Elliot said, “Less than a day, I think. I lost track.”
She nodded. “It must’ve been awful,” she said. “Are you hungry?”
She led him through Nahom, past small houses painted white, past a large garden turned brown from the cold. Elliot sniffed the air. Rot — or mildew — hid behind the scents of lamp oil and baking bread. The people watched them pass. Some smiled. Most just stared, and their looks fit more the odors of rot than bread. Something felt strange about these villagers, something beyond the cautious reaction Elliot might have to any mountain folk he encountered in the Appalachians.
At the edge of town, they walked along a short path by a small field, grown high with corn. Beyond was a little ranch house, light flickering from two of the front windows. “They said the woman who lived here died,” Evajean told him. “Of old age, not the plague. Nobody’s moved in, so it’s ours until we decide to leave.”
Elliot hoped that was soon. He didn’t want to stay. He didn’t want to become one of these people. If Nahom still lived, if its residents hadn’t succumbed to illness or madness, then there were other places. Places without that smell, without the corruption it seemed to represent. He watched a crow fly overhead, swooping in a lazy circuit above the town. He watched an old man come out of the corn, holding a lantern, look at the two of them, and vanish back into the stalks. The man’s expression had been … what? Hungry? Mean? Elliot couldn’t be sure, but he knew he wouldn’t stay here. Not longer than he absolutely needed to. Nahom oozed bad and wrong, dirty with a slick of unseen crude, its residents contaminated and contaminating.
He shook these thoughts away. The house looked welcoming. He’d eat and then he’d sleep. He wouldn’t worry about anything else.
That was a plan he could manage, even in his less than perfect state. Evajean pushed the rough, wood door open and the dog barked at him, defending the house. It sat on a ragged couch pushed against one wall of the tiny living room. He walked over to the puppy, the need for sleep hitting even harder now, and scratched between its ears. They still hadn’t come up with a name, but that too could wait for morning.
From a cabinet in the small kitchen, Evajean took out bread and hard cheese. Elliot ate ravenously, washing it down with tea from a pitcher. When he’d finished, Evajean showed him to his bed.
“I’m this way,” Evajean said, pointing to the left. “You’re over there,” and she directed him to the right, through another handmade door. “You gotta go outside if you need to pee. There’s an outhouse around the back.” He stumbled through to where she had sent him. The dog followed. A bed took up nearly all the space, the only other furniture was an armoire, the wood dark with polish, the pattern carved in the doors sinuous and twisted, like muscle fiber or worms. He fell into the bed, not worrying about his clothes. The puppy hopped up next to him, sniffed around, and burrowed under the blankets. They both slept. Elliot dreamed.
In the morning, his dream faded quickly, lost in thoughts of breakfast and the warmth of the dog against his leg. But during the night, Elliot’s mind played with what he knew and what he suspected. Overwhelmed by excitement and grief, by confusion and mystery, his subconscious wandered. His mind processed. The dream worked out secrets.
He sat in his home, at the same kitchen table where Evajean proposed they leave Charlottesville. A radio in the front room played a song too low to hear and Callie giggled out on the deck. He smiled, glad for the sound. She was finally at an age when it was okay for her to be out there by herself, finding her own amusement, without the fear that she might eat the wrong thing or wander into the street. Her blessed independence made his job as a parent that much easier and he needed it, after years of vigilance, his attention never fully focused on anything because part of it, a great deal of it, had to be mindful of Callie.
So he let her giggle at some unknown activity. He pushed the papers around on the table. Clarine wanted him to get another business going because she knew that’s what he wanted. He had a sales job for an insurance company and it paid their minimal bills, but the landscaping venture had put the entrepreneur bug in him. It buzzed now, louder with each month and year. “You could sell these policies on your own, couldn’t you?” she’d asked. He didn’t want that. Insurance didn’t settle his mind the way landscaping did — the way having his hands in the dirt brought him peace. Yet the market in Charlottesville was flooded. Nobody needed another company of guys with trucks and lawnmowers. Elliot would try his hand at something else entirely, as soon as he figured out what that was.
Callie shouted to him from the backyard. “Daddy!” she called. “Look what I found!”
He stood, happy to push the piles of research to the side, and walked through the door at the back of the kitchen, out onto the deck. Callie sat, leaning forward with her legs wide, in the middle of the yard. She had been digging, but now the garden trowel lay discarded on the grass. Elliot inhaled to yell, because they’d been so stern with her about tearing up the lawn, told her time and again there were places to dig if that was what she wanted to do, that green grass he’d spent so much time on wasn’t one of those places. But his breath caught when he saw what she held in her tiny right hand, rubbing it with her left.
The stone was four inches across and nearly round. The sunlight of early fall broke through the canopy of trees, throwing warm dapples of light and cooler patches of shadow on its surface. It shimmered a deep jade. In the quiet afternoon, from somewhere close, he heard a low humming.
“Look at it, Daddy,” Callie called.
“What is it, Callie?” he asked softly, gently.
She held the stone up to him. “I don’t know what it is. Do you know what it is?”
He didn’t. He walked the rest of the way over to her. It could be jade, but the green was too much, too intense, like injection-molded plastic. It glowed.
“You get that from the hole you dug, honey?” he said, and his daughter nodded enthusiastically.
“Right there, Daddy,” she said, pointing at the wound she’d torn in the yard. “I know I’m not supposed to do that but I was out here and I was gonna dig in the corner like you and mommy said I could but then I had to dig here. I had to.” She stared at the ground. “I just had to. Don’t be mad at me, okay?”
“Okay,” he said, “Okay, Callie. Can I see what you found?” He reached out, but Callie pulled the stone away.
“I can find more,” she said, smiling. “It tells me where.”
“What does, honey?”
“This,” and she waved the stone at him.
“Callie — ”
“Look, Daddy, there’s another one over there!” She stood, still holding the stone, and ran to the back corner of the yard. Halfway there, she remembered she’d forgotten the trowel. She came back for it, shaking her head in embarrassment. Finally, equipped to dig, Callie found the spot and began scraping away the grass.
“Callie!” Elliot called, his anger at her bad behavior coming back, but she ignored him. She hacked at the ground with great wide strokes, faster as Elliot drew close.
With one last plunge, she broke through and golden light burst from the pit, fierce and almost angry. Callie cried out and fell backward. Elliot grabbed her, snatching her away from the terrible fountain of energy climbing from the ground to the sky, screaming as it went. Elliot heard voices in it, shrieking and cursing his daughter for what she’d done. Callie looked up at him, terrified, her face slack, her eyes huge and glassy. Her mouth opened and what came forth was not that cheerful pixie voice but words he couldn’t understand, words that tumbled over each other in a mad soup of phonetic chaos. Elliot dropped her, fear taking his strength, and his daughter crawled at him, lips pulled back, teeth snapping together, again and again, loud enough for the sound to carry through the cacophony.
He ran back toward the house. He needed to put the door between him and that thing scrambling across the lawn, that thing that wasn’t his daughter anymore — that he knew was no longer Callie but was something else.
Then Evajean was shaking him, leaning over him as he lay on the rough floor. He blinked and tasted blood in his mouth. The dog barked from the edge of the bed. Elliot’s cheeks were wet with tears.
They ate breakfast that morning at a long table parallel to the front of Nahom’s church, tightly packed with stools and folding chairs, each occupied by one of the town’s residents. Evajean and Elliot were not made to feel like outsiders, nor were they heartily welcomed. The food, oatmeal and applesauce, with fat rolls of whole grain bread, was hot and satisfying.
Elliot sat with Evajean to his left and a pudgy woman in her sixties to his right. She’d been introduced as Mrs. Reed but said, “You can call me Cecilia.” Cecilia asked him a few questions about where they were from, where they were headed, and pressed for information on how awful it must have been to be in the woods alone. She had heard about the night before and, as is always the case in such a small community, she knew the men who’d died. “It was sad,” she said, “but they gave their lives to save another, and that was as good a death as one can hope for. It’s the most God can ask, too.”
Elliot nodded along in encouragement and offered innocuous facts about the last couple of days. But he kept their plans, if it could be said they really had plans, to himself. The bad vibe still lingered, the sense that Nahom wasn’t right and they should be leaving, getting the hell out of here, now if possible, soon if not. He hadn’t discussed it with Evajean and didn’t know if she’d picked up on it too. But he had, he knew he had.
He couldn’t let go of the feeling.
“This is delicious,” Evajean said to Cecilia, mopping up the last of her oatmeal with a roll.
“You’re too kind to say so, honey.” The rotund little woman blushed. “It’s not what it ought to be, what with supplies being scarce. I keep telling the men one of ’em should take the truck into town, see what they can gather. But Uncle Jeffry, he says what supplies there were are sure to be gone now, and that anyway, it’s too dangerous with them things out there in the woods.” She sighed. “But you know that.” She turned to Elliot. “You especially, you know what them things can do. Oh, I am so sorry about the men that died. We need all of our men, our good men.” She rubbed her eyes and shook her head. “But you don’t want to listen to me, not after what you been through. I just thought you should know why it is the breakfast’s so plain.”
“No, this is perfect,” Elliot said. And, regarding the food, he meant it. His stomach had felt as hard and small as a golf ball when he had awakened that morning. The meal, while bland, remedied that. Evajean had let him sleep for another couple of hours after the nightmare and then she had shaken him awake, telling him they were setting up for the morning meal and if he wanted any, he’d better get out of bed. She set out a change of clothes donated by one of the families of the dead. The clothes fit well enough, though he didn’t much care for the rustic farmer look. The townsfolk were well into their meal by the time he walked into the square before the church. They had left room for the two of them and set aside a few scraps of dried meat for the dog. The puppy was under the table, gnawing at a thick piece with his baby teeth, growling occasionally in satisfaction or frustration.
A man, belly and chest bulging around the edges of his overalls, reached across Elliot to grab the large clay bowl of applesauce. “‘Excuse me,” he grunted.
“Sure,” Elliot said and leaned back to give the man room. He heard Evajean laugh quietly next to him.
“Lot of men died,” the fat man said.
Elliot, pretty sure he was the one being spoken to, said, “Last night?”
“Lot of good men.” The fat man wasn’t looking at Elliot but, rather, into his bowl of mixed oatmeal and fruit.
“I’m sorry,” Elliot said.
“Yeah,” the fat man said, “yeah, I bet you are.” He stood, and took his food to the far end of the table.
“Don’t you mind him.” This from Cecilia, resting her hand gently on Elliot’s arm. “William can be a genuine grump when he sets his mind to it. Almost never smiles. Sometimes I think he doesn’t know how.”
“You know him well?” Evajean asked.
“Of course, honey. I’m married to him.” Cecilia laughed, a sound hearty and deep.
“I am sorry,” Elliot looked at his plate. He spoke quietly and seriously. “For the men who were killed.”
“Honey,” Cecilia said, setting down her spoon and turning to give him her full attention, “I am, too, but those men died because the Lord felt it was their time. I’m just happy, we’re all happy, that they did it not by falling prey to the drink or catching something from whoring in the city, but serving the greater good of fighting those things what have been making life so miserable for us. What better way to lose your life, I have to say, than saving the life of another?” She picked up the spoon and resumed eating.
Elliot nodded and gave Evajean a troubled and confused look. She shrugged and smiled back at him. She wasn’t worried. He was.
Elliot watched the rest of them eat. They looked normal, like a postcard of Amish country, but every now and then he’d catch a resident of Nahom looking at him and Evajean with an expression of anger — or hunger. He couldn’t blame them for the former — friends and family had died saving him from the crazies — but the hunger scared him. They want us for something, he thought. Our arrival wasn’t a coincidence. Suddenly he knew this was the case, but he couldn’t say how. He knew it was.
They couldn’t go back to their truck. Even if they could make it without getting caught by the crazies, there wouldn’t be a way to flip it over and get it up the hill to the road. But Cecilia had mentioned Nahom had at least one truck of its own.
Farther down the table, laughter broke out and spread in their direction. Elliot had no idea what it was about, but he chuckled politely and poured more applesauce into his bowl. He wanted to get up and away from here, take Evajean somewhere private and discuss getting their journey back on the rails.
He leaned over to Evajean and whispered in her ear. “We should leave. I want to go.”
She looked at him, shrugging her shoulders, asking him why. “Because,” he said, not liking this clandestine conversation at a table where so many might hear. “I want to go. I don’t like it here.”
When she responded, whispering back, Elliot saw that they were drawing attention. Several the townsfolk stopped eating and now watched them.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “These people are nice. They’ve been nice to us. They saved both of our lives and it would be rude to take off right after breakfast. Without even cleaning up the cabin. We’ll go soon. Okay?”
“Okay,” he said, but it wasn’t. He broke from their parley, continued eating, and nudged the dog with his foot. Breakfast had to end soon.
“Soon” turned out to be half an hour, a crawling period of more eating, more empty conversation and loaded smiles. He felt a great sense of pressure on his chest and in his ears, weight from whatever it was about this place that just didn’t feel right. At several points during those eternal thirty minutes he almost stood up and walked away from the table, just to get some air. But those looks from the townsfolk kept him seated. Even if he walked away from the table, they’d follow him. They’d have someone keep watch.
Near the end of the meal, Evajean put her hand on his knee and squeezed, trying to comfort him. It was the same squeeze Clarine had given him so many times, in the so many awkward and stressful moments in their marriage. And, like in the cave, he didn’t want to drag his wife’s memory into this place. Nahom made him ill.
Finally, it was done. Everyone carried their bowls and utensils to a large bin in a corner of the town square and dumped them in, submerging the dishes in soapy water. Children began washing them while the adults, with bellies full and bodies strong, got ready to start the day. They mingled and exchanged pleasantries, then broke into groups and dispersed. In the hubbub, Evajean was willing to talk.
“What’s gotten into you?” she said as they walked back to the small house. Elliot carried the dog under his arm, its head in his palm. The animal yipped at a family of squirrels in a nearby tree.
He started to answer but she cut him off. “You’re bad vibing,” she said. “You’ve been bad vibing all through breakfast. What’s wrong?”
“Evajean — ”
“No,” she said again. She was angry. He didn’t know why. He felt off, nervous, on edge. He felt sick. “You want to get out of here, right? Where are we going to go if we do? We wanted to find people. We did. Now you want to leave?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t need to.”
Elliot fell quiet, embarrassed. How could he make her understand what this place was doing to him without it sounding crazy? They walked without talking the rest of the walk to the house. At the front door, he turned to her, hand on the knob, and said, “There’s something wrong here. I guess you don’t feel it like I do, but I’m not kidding about it, Evajean. There’s something wrong in this town.”
She rolled her eyes and he almost slapped her. What the hell was wrong with this woman? Why was she treating him like a goddamn child? Elliot exhaled slowly, forcing his mind to clear. He set the dog down and opened the door. They entered without speaking to each other. Elliot went into his room and sat on the bed. The dog hopped up to join him.
Later, when she hadn’t come to get him, he gave up and went to her. Evajean sat on the couch in the living room, reading a fat, clothbound blue book. “It’s the Bible,” she said when he glanced at it. “All they have is this stuff.” She pointed at a little shelf against the wall, where a coffee can propped up a half-dozen books.
The dog padded in from the bedroom, yawned, and lay down on the rug.
“You should take him outside,” she said.
“You should do it now. He might have to go.”
“Tell me what happened to you. How they found you. Did they do something to you?” he said. “Run me through it and then I’ll take the dog out to piss.”
She looked at him sharply. “You’re still being this way?”
“I’m not ‘being’ like anything,” he said, and lifted the book out of her hands. “You’re really reading this?”
“What else is there?” she said.
He shrugged. “So was I out when you woke up? Or did you never pass out?”
“You mean during the accident?”
She leaned back into the cushions and gazed at the ceiling. “I didn’t hit my head. What I remember — and you have to know it happened so quickly — but what I remember is there was a boy in the road and you swerved. Then there was a big bump, which I guess was us going over the curb…”
She gave him an oh God look. She said, “And then it was all chaos. I thought I was going to die, Elliot.”
“You probably almost did,” he said.
Evajean swallowed. “And then it was like I was in this tunnel, being spun around and banged into things. You were screaming and the dog was barking, and I just pressed my hands into the dashboard because I guess I thought I might fly out. And then it stopped. The truck stopped falling and I could tell that we were upside down. Your eyes were closed and your mouth was open. You’d been knocked out. I could see you breathing, but you were out.”
“Yeah,” Elliot said.
“And so I got out of the car and I could see how bad it was and I just started yelling for help, panicking, I guess. And then, this is the weird part, I got this feeling like I knew which direction help was. I knew where I needed to go to be safe and get you safe. So I took the dog and I left. I hated leaving you but I didn’t want to move you because you might’ve been hurt. They say you’re not supposed to move someone who might be hurt.”
“And then you ended up here?”
“No,” she said. “I actually didn’t think I’d done the right thing after a while, because I’d walked for, I don’t know, a couple of hours and hadn’t found anything. I kept shouting for someone but I didn’t think anybody heard me. And I was afraid I’d got lost, because I didn’t go up to the road. That feeling, it said to go into the forest, that into the forest was the way to help.”
“They found me. I’d given up at that point and was ready to just go to sleep and see what happened in the morning. And then I heard some people talking and laughing and then these guys came out of the woods. Funny thing was, they were dressed all strange in these big robes and carrying weird stuff like a table, but I knew they weren’t any danger. I told them what happened and they sent me back here with one of them. I guess he got them to go out and look for you.”
“Were they grey robes? With blue?”
“Yeah,” she said. “You saw them?”
“I think so. Right before I was attacked the second time.”
She looked at him, confused. “Second — ”
“The crazies attacked me once, tried to grab me, but I managed to get away. That’s when I came across those men, and while I was watching them, the crazies came and took me to some cave. That’s where the men showed up to rescue me. Did the guys in the robes tell you what they were doing?”
“No,” she said, “and I didn’t ask.”
“I don’t like it,” he said.
“Right, you already said that. But what don’t you like, Elliot? They’re nice and friendly and — ”
“When I saw them, they were doing some kind of ritual. Something with a hat, looking into it, and a cave. Treasure hunting, I think, but it was weird. And, anyway, around here, don’t you feel it? Like there’s something we’re not seeing, something under how nice and friendly they are? Evajean, it’s like there’s a sickness here and I just haven’t found the source yet.”
“That’s crazy. I’m sure they had a good reason to be doing whatever they were doing. Maybe there is treasure around here. And I didn’t see a hat or anything when they found me.”
“Maybe they didn’t have it,” Elliot said. “Or maybe they hid it. But what’s crazy? Seeing the crazies? The boy we ran over? Those crazy fucks who kidnapped me, took me to that cave? The whole world’s crazy and it’s been crazy for, goddamn, for a long time.” He grabbed her shoulders. He was pissed now. Livid. He couldn’t explain why, couldn’t explain how it’d gotten this bad. He felt irrational but knew if he could only think about it a while longer, he’d figure out he wasn’t being irrational at all. “They were doing a ritual, Evajean. What do you think they do here, in Nahom, with their church and their shelves of Bibles? It’s a cult. That’s why they’re so happy. Everyone in cults always seems so happy.”
“Until they kill themselves or put poison gas in the subways. Shit, the one I talked to after they rescued me, he called what they did to the crazies in the cave — and you should’ve seen what they did except you don’t really want to, trust me — he said it was ‘blood atonement.’ What do they need to atone for? It must be bad if they need blood to do it! How friendly and helpful is that?”
“I’m sure you heard it wrong.”
“They killed people with shovels, Evajean.”
She sighed, loud and annoyed. “For you! To save you! What did you want them to do?” she said. “Leave you there in that — was it a cave? In that cave?”
Elliot stood and inspected the books on the shelf. The Pearl of Great Price. The Doctrine and Covenants. “Look at this,” he said, taking one and holding it out to her.
“So they’re Mormons,” she said. “So what? There are a lot of them. They’re like Presbyterians.”
“I don’t like it,” he said again. He dropped the Book of Mormon onto the couch and sat back down. “Aren’t those the polygamists?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “They don’t do that anymore.”
The dog nuzzled against his thigh and whined. “You need to take him out,” Evajean told him. “No matter what these people are into, I don’t think they’ll appreciate our dog pooping on their floor.”
Elliot lifted the dog and carried it out to the front garden. He let it roam while he looked over the town, examining his anger. He didn’t care about the Mormon thing, not really. He did care about the creepiness, though, and the sense of dread. He did care about the violence these people had displayed. It reminded him too much of his own violence inside the Walmart. Of what he’d been capable of.
From his vantage point in the garden he could see some of the townspeople walking around Nahom, carrying baskets or armfuls of firewood. The town was like an Amish place he’d visited with his parents when he was a teenager. From appearances, it was just a very small town, the kind you expect in the mountains of Virginia.
The dog barked at something and ran. Elliot started after it but quit after a few steps, knowing it would come back eventually. He stood, watching Nahom’s bustle, thinking maybe he could convince himself Evajean was right. Maybe they should stay for a week or two, let the normality of the situation do some good for his exhausted mind and body. Hell, his exhaustion could be playing tricks on his mind anyway, making him paranoid. Maybe he was even seeing things. He did bang his head in the accident, after all. He started to resign himself to staying, telling himself that as long as these folks didn’t try to convert him to anything, he could manage. If that was the best thing for Evajean, if that would settle her down and make her content before they started their drive (he hoped it was a drive and not a long walk), then the creepiness might be worth it.
He heard the door open and looked back to see Evajean standing on the front step of the house. The dog bounced out from behind a low shrub, preceded by a darting and terrified chipmunk. Evajean laughed.
“We still need to name him,” she said. “He’s been through a lot to be nameless.”
“You said you had an idea,” Elliot replied, glad the subject had changed, but weary of his own relief.
“Yeah,” she said, “I do…I did. But it sounds kind of cheesy now.”
“What was it?” The dog gave up on the chipmunk and took a position by Evajean’s foot, scratching his chin with a hind leg.
She bent down and scratched his head. “Hope,” she said. “Like for good luck.” She looked up at Elliot. “There was this story, a myth, my mom read me when I was a kid and I always remembered it. Pandora’s Box. A woman’s given a box and is told not to open it but she does and all the bad stuff in the world, like hunger and fear and disease, comes out. And all that’s left in the box, down in the bottom, is hope. So the world is no longer perfect and is a kind of miserable place, but we still have hope to keep us going.”
“Why’s it left?” he asked.
Evajean tilted her head. “What do you mean?”
“If all the bad stuff wasn’t in the world because it was in the box and now it’s in the world, why is hope still in the box? How can hope be in the world, too, if it hasn’t been set free, like hunger and disease?”
Evajean picked up the dog. He barked once, surprised, and then settled against her. “I don’t know, Elliot. It’s just a story, one I liked. And because you had to go and try and ruin it, that’s the name I’m giving the dog. Hope. To remind us of what we have.”
“Hope,” he said, and reached out to pet the puppy. The dog turned its face up to his. “Hi, Hope,” he said. “You may not make a lot of sense, but there you are.” He turned his gaze to Evajean, looking for a hint of her feelings and asked, “So what are we supposed to do now?”
“What do you mean?” she said.
“Since we’re staying, on your say so, I thought you might have a plan for what to do besides stand in front of our little house with Hope. You were here before I was. Did they tell you anything?”
“No,” she said, “I mostly slept. All they said was they were going to find you and that I should stay here and they’d make sure you were safe.”
“Fine,” he said, “then I’m going to see what I can figure out. There has to be someone around here who can tell me what’s going on. They seem to have more experience with the crazies than we do, maybe they know more about them, too. Can’t hurt to ask.”
“I’ll stay here,” she said, bouncing the dog in her arms. “You’re going to pick a fight and I don’t want to be there.”
Elliot said, “I can behave.”
She looked at him, unconvinced.
“Really,” he said.
“Okay,” she said, “but I’m still going to stay here. Let me know what you unearth.”
Evajean took the dog inside and Elliot walked out, closing the small gate behind him. He greeted several of Nahom’s residents on his way to the town square and church, sharing pleasantries but not quizzing them for information. For interrogation, he wanted a leader of some sort and his best guess was that he’d be in or near the church.
Nahom was a couple dozen homes and not much else. Deep in a valley, the town had a picture postcard look, with quaint architecture, happy children dressed for Sunday school, and husbands and wives helping each other with rustic chores. Elliot noticed far more of the fairer sex as he explored, the women easily outnumbering the men by three or more to one. Livestock milled in a pen just beyond the outer ring of houses. Elliot saw cows and goats. Chickens ran unconfined.
From what he could tell, these people spent their time farming, maybe hunting, and attending church at the largest building they had. His impression, as he waved and smiled at people, nodding greetings and once helping a group of men right an overturned plow, was of the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. Hobbits made him think of Clarine. They had gone to see the movie years ago, after his wife told him those were her favorite books in high school. Memories of her often came unexpected.
Nahom was laid out in rough concentric circles, with a tight band of houses in a ring around a small square, the church at one end. Outside of that first circle sat more houses, still in loops, but of irregular spacing, with gardens and livestock stables placed between. The dirt road swept into the center of town, stopping near the front of the church. A brook bisected Nahom at a point between the square and church. The brook bustled with children, fishing and catching crayfish. Nahom was, in the end, nauseatingly idyllic. The city boy in Elliot thought Charlottesville was bad, but a week in this place would drive him mad. He couldn’t imagine why anyone chose to live this way. The bad vibe maintained throughout his tour, a sort of background radiation that made him want to bathe.
He was right about this clan having a leader. Asking around and following directions eventually led him to the small office of Jeffry Lester — Uncle Jeffry — located within a back corner of the church.
Uncle Jeffry stood from behind a modest oak desk, covered with books and papers, and held out his hand as Elliot walked into the room. “Elliot,” he said, in a big, preacher’s voice. “Is it Bishop?”
“Elliot Bishop,” Elliot said, shaking Jeffry’s hand.
After both men sat down, Jeffry said, “I want to welcome you to Nahom. Terrible circumstances, I know, but nonetheless it is good to have you and Ms. Rhodes as our guests.”
“Thank you,” Elliot said. “Especially what you did last night with the…”
“Oh, thank you, but please don’t mention it. Good men do good for others and we in Nahom like to think of ourselves as good men. Call it a point of pride.”
Jeffry asked him about what had come before, about his life prior to the plague and the deaths. Elliot told him, answering the man’s questions truthfully, and only eventually realizing he was doing so. Something about Jeffry seemed to illicit honesty, even in the midst of Elliot’s suspicions. Perhaps his eyes, how calm they were, without malice. Or perhaps it was a sense that this man would know if Elliot were lying — and Elliot needed information from him as much as Jeffry seemed to desire information from Elliot.
“And where are you headed now?” Jeffry said.
“I don’t know. West. We were looking for people.”
“You appear to have found them,” Jeffry said.
Elliot shrugged. “I don’t think we’ll stay. We talked and it’s not what we want to do.”
“I am sorry to hear that.” Jeffry leaned back in his chair. “If there is anything I can do to make you change your mind.”
Elliot said, “Were you people hit by the plague, too? I mean, did many of you get sick?”
“A few. Blessedly a very few. I like to think our faith protected us. From what little I’ve heard, the same cannot be said for the world beyond our valley.”
Elliot shook his head. “No, it can’t.”
“How many are dead?” Jeffry said.
“Most of them. I thought all of them except us, but then we found out that wasn’t true.”
“You’re speaking of those savages? Those animals who attacked you?”
“I didn’t think they could live like that. Angry and violent. We’ve all seen it, the way they get before the end, but it never lasted. They get sick, they go mad, and they die. None of them ever got up and walked around like that. None of them ever killed anyone.”
“I’m sure you can see now how inaccurate that assessment was,” Jeffry said. “We have been fighting those creatures off for months. They’ve killed dozens of us. We’ve killed countless of them. But still they come. Still they try to destroy our life here.” He paused. “But that’s not what you came to talk to me about. What was your intention for this visit? Would you like something to drink? It is getting hot already. I can offer you water or milk.”
“Water,” Elliot said, “thank you.”
Jeffry pushed back his chair and walked over to a large shelf against the office’s back wall. He took down a silver tray, heavy with crystal glasses and a decanter of water. The setup was exactly the kind Elliot had wanted in their living room in Charlottesville, elegant and classy, the sort of display you craved showing off to guests. The effect certainly worked here, even if the clear liquid pouring smoothly into the heavy glasses was only water and not triple distilled vodka or Dutch gin.
Elliot took the offered glass. Jeffry carried his back to the desk and resumed his spot behind it, leaning toward Elliot and saying, “Returning to my question, why did you take this opportunity to come see me? I imagine these last days have not been terribly pleasant for you and your traveling companion.”
Elliot shook his head. “They’ve been a mess,” he said, “and I was hoping you and your people could help us get back on the road. I don’t know if Evajean told you, but our truck is back up by the main road. It slid down the hill and flipped over. If you have some men who could help get it righted and maybe back up that hill, that’d be more than enough.”
“Probably,” Jeffry said, looking up at the ceiling. “A dozen strong men we have, as well as ropes. How big is this car?”
“It’s a pickup,” Elliot said.
Jeffry nodded. “Is that all you’ll need?”
“If you can get our truck back up on the road, that’ll be plenty,” Elliot said. “If it still works.”
“We don’t have any mechanics, I’m afraid,” Jeffry said. “And the world beyond Nahom’s borders looks to be such that you’re unlikely to find one elsewhere.”
“Probably right about that,” Elliot said. “Help me get that trucked turned over and I’ll be grateful enough.”
“Where is it you’re going, exactly?” Jeffry said, leaning forward over the papers and books. “Clearly the roads aren’t safe and you have no idea how bad it will turn out to be beyond Virginia’s borders.”
Suspicion dragged at Elliot and he knew telling this man anything was a bad idea. Yet he had the sense that Uncle Jeffry was the kind of guy who could read falsity with ease. Elliot opted for vague. “West,” he said. “There’s nothing for us, for either of us, in Virginia anymore. Maybe there’s nothing west but we didn’t want to stay where we were. Too many memories back home.”
“You can stay here,” Jeffry offered again. “Nahom has plenty of room for good people and you already have a house.” He smiled.
Elliot shook his head. “Thanks, but no. It’s appreciated but the drive is part of the appeal for us. Seeing the country. Out west, maybe there’s something.”
“Are you lovers?” Jeffry’s face was blank.
Elliot was taken aback by the abruptness of the question and didn’t immediately answer. Why did Jeffry care? “Does that matter?” Elliot said, setting his glass down on the desk.
“You’re not married.”
“No, we’re not. And we’re not lovers, either. Just…traveling companions. Which is what we want to get back to, really. Can you help us?”
The grin came back and Jeffry was friendly again. “Of course. Though not today, I’m sorry to admit. Today my people are preparing for the funerals of the men killed during your rescue. There will be mourning and celebration and they will be ready to help you turn over your truck by tomorrow or the day after that at the latest. You can be our guests until then. Does that agree with you?”
“It’ll have to,” Elliot said.
“Wonderful,” Uncle Jeffry said, standing up. He again offered his hand to Elliot. “Then I will send someone over to make sure you and Evajean have everything that you need and I will expect the two of you at our service tonight. Whether you are a man of Jehovah or not, I assume you are not averse to attending a funeral performed in his name?”
Elliot shook Jeffry’s hand and said, “Not at all. We’ll be there. It’s the least we can do considering what they did for me.”
Jeffry nodded. “Then, Mr. Bishop, I’ll see you there. If there’s anything you need between now and then, anyone in Nahom will be happy to help you. Lunch, like breakfast, is communal and we eat it at noon.”
“Thank you,” Elliot said and he left Jeffry in the small office, behind the desk, consumed with the administration of his congregation.