Jeremiah Dinsmore sat behind his desk looking over Smiths Grove’s most recent inventory invoices. His worn, weathered hands turned the pages and his eyes scanned the copy, squinting through thick glasses that were two prescriptions too old. Next to the pages sat a cup of tea, still piping hot and steaming. The clock on the wall ticked away, reading 2:17 PM.
He frowned, his face contorting in a wrinkled mess of lines and dimples that sunk deep into his skin. Last week there were five hundred cases of bottled water collected from the spring on the north side of the community. This week there were only four hundred. There’s no way that Smiths Grove’s forty-three residents went through that much in a week. Someone was filching them from storage.
Jeremiah hated to think whom it might be. For all the good Smiths Grove had done folks in these tumultuous times, he just couldn’t fathom that someone would repay its kindness like this. By stealing. The more things change, the more they stay the same, he thought, and he had seen a lot of changes in his time.
He would make a note to ask Carl about it. He was supposed to be in charge of storage along with his brother, Eli, so it only seemed right that they were the first to be questioned. He took out his small notepad and dabbed the tip of a pen in some ink until it was well lubricated, and then wrote: CARL. WATER. Jeremiah waited until it dried then closed the pad and put it back in the front pocket of his shirt. He made a lot of notes these days, shorthand, and his biggest fear was that one day he’d wake up and forget what they all meant. It was bound to happen sooner or later. At sixty-three he couldn’t expect to go on much longer the way he was. Age catches up with you, no matter what kind of world you live in.
Satisfied that everything else was in order, he placed the stack of invoices in a file folder and put that in his filing cabinet. The old girl was dented and the paint was chipping but she still held up to her part of the bargain, keeping everything organized for him the way a good cabinet should. He shut the drawer and gave it a pat, the ring on his finger clanking against the metal.
Jeremiah winced at the sound.
He walked to the window that overlooked the main street of Smiths Grove, one of only three that ran through the community, and delicately twirled the ring on his finger absentmindedly, thinking of different times. Times when that ring still meant something and wasn’t just a keepsake. Sometimes, just sometimes, he could still feel Norma slipping it on him in front of the Justice of the Peace while their best friends, Herman Sheffield and his wife, Darla, witnessed them tie the knot. Afterwards they had all gone out for pizza and beer to celebrate, after which Jeremiah and Norma returned to his one room flat about Piney’s Grocers to consummate their new union. They didn’t have a lot back then, but they were happy and made it work. That was just the way it was during those days. Days when he could still walk without his knees catching fire and his back hurting so bad he had to hunch over to alleviate the pain.
God, she was beautiful.
He tucked the memory away, not wanting to take it any further. It was for another day, possibly when he was alone in his bed at night and could cry himself to sleep. Far away from the prying eyes of the residents of Smiths Grove.
Jeremiah cleared his throat and was thinking what to do next when out of the corner of his eye he saw his son, Harold, running into view. He was headed toward the sough entrance, one hand on his hip to keep his gun from bouncing up and down and out of its holster. His shirttail was untucked from his khakis and his hair was a greasy mess that stuck up in the back like rooster feathers. His badge sparkled though, just like it always did. No matter how messy things got, Harold always made sure that damn thing was spit-shined and squeaky clean, just so that everyone around knew who he was: the sheriff.
The old man shook his head, wondering what had got his son all in a tuff, when the office door opened and Helen barged in with a look of concern on her face, closing it behind her. Her wrinkled, yellow dress hung low to her ankles and Jeremiah had time to think that she looked like a stale Twinkie before her high-pitched voice assaulted his ears. He winced as he sat down, masking his true feelings under the guise of old age.
“Sir, there’s a situation at the south entrance. I think you better get over there.”
“I’m busy,” he grumped.
These days most situations turned out to be nothing more than a couple of those things wandering by, which were easily taken care of by Harold or one of the guards. That’s all. Nothing earth shattering, and certainly nothing that would ever threaten the safety of Smiths Grove. Helen was just overreacting, like she always did. She was a good secretary, but a little high strung.
“But, sir. I really think—”
“I said I’m busy,” he interrupted. “Now unless it’s the Virgin Mary or Christ Himself come to take me home, I think Harold can handle it just fine.”
Helen stood there, fidgeting. Shifting from one foot to the other like she had to pee. The look on her face didn’t change. In fact, it grew worse. Like she was going to cry if she didn’t get a chance to tell him what was wrong. Jeremiah stared back at her, not indulging her delusions of grandeur over a couple of useless creatures, but rather wondering how a woman like that could have survived with so few brain cells? He cleared his throat after a minute, realizing that if she didn’t speak she’d never leave.
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Helen. What is it?”
“Thank you, sir,” she said, stepping forward a couple of feet. “I just thought you should know that they’ve found some live ones at the south entrance. Stumbled onto the road and fell over. A man and his child. Everyone’s gathering there now to figure out what to do with them.”
When he was a boy Jeremiah skipped the occasional day of school to go to the arcade and play video games with his best friend, David. His favorite was always Pac-Man. He loved luring those ghosts around and around until he gobbled up that one special pellet that would turn the tables on them and make him the hunter instead of the hunted. He had such fond memories of those days but that’s not what he was remembering now. No, he was remembering the first time he had been caught skipping school. He didn’t think anyone knew about it, but that day of his demise he had sauntered through the front door to his house like everything was hunky-dory, pretending like he had spent the day learning instead of frying his brain on those damn vidya games, as his mother liked to call them, so it was quite a shock when she had tanned his hide so bad that he had to sleep on his stomach for a few days to let the swelling go down. Jeremiah never did find out how she discovered his secret, but he remembered the look on his face when she did.
It was the same look he was sporting now. A look of complete surprise that caused his heart to race and his palms to go as sweaty as a bear at the beach.
Live ones? On the road? There hadn’t been a sign of human life in over five years, and definitely not a child. He was beginning to think that whatever had happened to the word, the people of Smiths Grove were the only ones left in it now. Obviously that wasn’t the case. But a man and his son? On the road? Where had they come from, and perhaps more importantly, where were they going?
Jeremiah shook his head. He hated questions. Especially when they didn’t have answers.
“My God,” he whispered, staring past Helen and to the glass on the office door, where on it he read the stenciled-on title given to him by the community. It was reversed and in his head he said each letter aloud.
“That’s what I said.”
He blinked and looked at Helen. Her thinning, blonde hair was cropped short and kept close to her skull, accentuating her thin jaw line and delicate cheekbones. Had she said something?
Jeremiah raised himself up and grabbed his suit jacket from the back of his chair. Despite his abhorrence of his secretary (who had hired her, anyway?), he winked at the woman and grinned like a mischievous child.
“Let’s go see what we can find out,” he said.
She followed behind him, making sure that the door was locked when they left.
* * * * *
Harold Dinsmore clapped Daniel on the shoulder and smiled. “Good work,” he said.
Chester immediately came between them and huffed, his tall, burly frame blocking the smaller, thinner one of his friend.
“Good work? Shit, he didn’t do nothing. Just froze up when he saw those two. I’m the one that called it in.”
Harold didn’t stop smiling. His pearly whites sparkled as clean as his badge in the sun and he ran a hand through his hair, doing more harm than good if he was trying to look presentable.
“Well, good work to both of you then,” he said. “Now let’s see what we got here.”
Chester scoffed and shook his head while Harold turned and faced Sherman Oaks, who was seated in the guard station beside the entrance. The older, fragile man awaited orders and when Harold told him to “open ‘er up,” he beamed with pride as he maneuvered the pulley system he had created that operated the north and south entrances of Smiths Grove.
Slowly, methodically, the two sheets of metal protecting the community from the outside world began to separate in the middle, and when there was enough room to slip between them, the sheriff was the first one out of the gates.
Harold didn’t remember the last time his feet touched the road that led into Smiths Grove. Perhaps it hadn’t been since the day he and his father first came there twenty years ago. Then again, maybe it was no more than five years past. He couldn’t say for sure. His mind wasn’t as good as it once was. Lately he had been getting a lot of headaches, a fact he had kept secret from not only his dad, but from Sarah Manners, Smiths Grove’s resident physician. It’s not like she could have done anything for him anyway. What was she going to do? Make him chew some ginger root and send him on his merry way? He’d rather suffer through the headaches than munch on that rancid stuff. Still, it bugged him from time to time, when the pain got so bad that he had to lie down with all the curtains closed to block out any sort of light that might be privy to his pain.
He took careful steps toward the two newcomers Chester and Daniel had discovered, his boots crunching on tiny pebbles like they were dried teeth. He knew it wouldn’t be long before his father got wind of them and he wanted to assess the situation before the old man got there to undermine his authority. He may have been the Sheriff, but the mayor’s word was final on matters such as these. Maybe if he could determine that they were a threat, he wouldn’t have to let them in. Two less mouths to feed, he thought.
They looked so peaceful; lying there together all huddled up close like they were trying to stay warm. Maybe they were dead? No, the man’s eyeballs were moving rapidly back and forth beneath his closed lids. Dreaming? Maybe. He had sores on his face the size of quarters but no visible bite marks that Harold could see. He tapped him with the toe of his boot and when the man didn’t respond, he moved on to the child.
The boy was small and thin, making it hard to tell his age. If he had to surmise a guess though, Harold would’ve said that he was no more than twelve, fourteen at the most. Unlike his father, he had no sores to speak of. No marks of any kind, in fact. Strange. Most folks out in the wilderness have at least some scratches to show for their efforts. Not that Harold had seen a lot of folks from the wilderness. He just remembered what Eli Spencer had looked like when he came to Smiths Grove many moons ago. Tired and worn, with a face cracked like glass and so much dirt under his fingernails you’d have thought he had clawed his way up through the earth like a groundhog. Not this kid, though. He was shiny and new, like he had just been born.
“What do you think?” Daniel asked him, startling Harold from his thoughts.
He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Well, where’d they come from? I mean, they had to have started some place. What if they—”
“I don’t know,” he said coldly, this time turning to acknowledge the other man’s presence.
Daniel shied away from him, recoiling like a frightened puppy.
“Shit,” Harold said, looking over Daniel’s shoulder at his father and Helen approaching. Sarah Manners was following close behind with her bag of tricks.
“What do we have here, son?” the mayor asked.
The good doctor brushed past them and went straight to the man, who seemed to be the worse of the two. She felt his forehead with the back of her hand and touched his face with the palm of her other.
“He’s burning up,” she said matter-of-factly. “We have to get him inside.”
Harold scoffed at her forwardness. He didn’t like being told what to do, especially by a woman. He kept one hand on the butt of his pistol and pointed at her with a thin finger.
“Now wait just a damn minute. I don’t think—”
“Harold!” his father bellowed.
The sheriff reeled around on the balls of his feet and faced the old man, shooting daggers into him with his gaze. The mayor didn’t flinch, but rather he stood ramrod straight, matching his son’s gaze; refusing to back down no matter how old he was. Harold shook his head in disbelief. What the hell was the point in having a sheriff if he didn’t get to make any decisions? For too long he and his father had butted heads over and over, and he was sick of it. It was getting to the point where he was seriously considering leaving Smiths Grove and taking his chances in the wilderness. At least there he’d get to fire his gun from time to time.
He glanced back around at the doctor, who was still hunched over the man and boy. Her long, black hair spilled down over her shoulders and Harold chanced a look at the small of her back which was exposed thanks to her shirt lifting up a few inches when she bent down. He sucked in a sharp breath of air at the sight of her smooth, flawless skin and closed his eyes tight. Another headache. Maybe after she was done tending to the man she could come over to his place and tend to him?
“Harold?” he heard his father call. “Harold what’s wrong?”
As quickly as it came, the pounding in his brain left, and he spat at the mayor’s feet.
“Do what you want,” he whispered, leaving them all behind.
“Harold,” Jeremiah called after him, but it was no use.
“Help me with him,” Sarah said to Daniel, and together they hoisted up the man to bring him inside the walls of Smiths Grove.
“What about the boy?” Jeremiah asked, looking down at the small, fragile frame.
“I got him,” Chester said. He picked up the child like he was a bag of air and threw him over his shoulder. Together he and the mayor walked side-by-side back into the community. Jeremiah nodded at Sherman and the gates were closed tight, metal scraping against metal as the two pieces collided.
“God help us all,” he whispered, and beside him the boy moaned.