The Fallowing – The Third, Part I
by Steppen Sawicki
Happy unseasonably warm holidays everyone!
Novel: Occult Adventure
The storm came without warning. No darker night or red morning sky had preceded its coming. It was sudden and hard and relentless, the wind driving and the snow pelting. Sam and I marched through it, our head and faces bundled so tight around our goggles not a breath of cold air hit our flesh. Still, we were exhausted, having fought against the elements for miles. But we kept on, knowing that the highway must lead to some shelter – if not a house or restaurant, then some gas station. At least we hoped we were still on the highway. It had been some time since we had seen a sign through the blinding white, and the snow blanketing the ground hid all other traces of the roads.
I spied something ahead. An exit sign. I poked at Sam, who looked up wearily. The trek through freshly-fallen snow had hit him hard. I pointed up and right. We were taking the off-ramp.
The walk uphill was even more brutal. Sam followed, barely keeping up. On reaching what I assumed was the crest of the hill I looked around. I could see only white static. There wasn’t even a road sign saying town this way or that, through it could have fallen over a long time ago had there been one. Sam sagged like he would collapse right there in the snow. I didn’t relish the thought of carrying him.
While I was deciding whether to take the left road across the bridge over the highway or the right road to who-knows-where, or to continue down the highway, the wind died down ever so slightly. In the moment of respite I saw something high above us and ahead. I couldn’t tell what it was, but there was the slightest chance that it indicated shelter. I went in the direction of it, and Sam dragged himself after me.
As we pressed on, hulking remains of semi trucks loomed out of the snowfall, some with trailers attached. Sam motioned to one, indicating we should go inside. But I shook my head and walked forward.
My perseverance was rewarded with a building. The thing I had seen above was a truck stop sign, half-broken but still signaling to us two weary travelers. The once-glass doors to the place were boarded and locked. I shrugged off my pack and fished out my ax, then hacked away enough of the wood to reach the lock inside.
We practically fell into the room, and then just stood there stunned. It was bright with the light of an array of lamps across the ceiling, and a carpet of green grass stretched from wall to wall. To our right, a cow lazily munched and lifted its head, mooing a greeting.
The surprise was fleeting. It was warm and the grass was plush-soft. We dragged our coats off our bodies and crumpled to the ground, falling fast asleep as the wind howled and raged. I remember hoping as I drifted off that the cow wouldn’t take a crap on me.
I woke with a mouth so dry I could have been dreaming of eating sand. Sam was elbowing me. I opened my eyes to a view of the barrel of a rifle.
“Oh,” I said. “Good. The owners are here.”
“I do hope,” said the voice behind the rifle, “that you’re not here to eat my cow.”
I propped myself up on my elbows, though the rifle was shoved in my face for it. I was still blinded by the lamps, so I slowly formed an image of the rifle-bearer. It was a little girl, pigtails and stubby nose and all. I noticed a milkpail laying on its side in the grass right behind her.
“If we meant to eat your cow,” Sam said from beside me, “surely we would have killed it already and been on our way.”
“Is it morning?” I asked. “God, how long did we sleep?”
I started to pull myself up and the girl backed away rapidly and waved her rifle. “Don’t move,” she said. Her voice shook slightly.
Sam tugged at my sweater, but I ignored him. “You’re not going to shoot us,” I said, “because Sam is right. You would have a dead cow and no prisoners if that’s what we wanted. But you don’t, because we just needed somewhere to crash when that storm hit.”
“You might have noticed it,” Sam said bitterly.
“We’re hungry enough though,” I continued in my sweetest voice. “I don’t suppose you have any other food available, do you? And some warm water?”
“Faye,” Sam whispered. “She’s holding a gun to your head and you’re asking for breakfast?”
But after Cassandra finished milking the cow – during when time I noticed the second younger cow that we had missed – she led us through a calm landscape of fresh snow marred only by her own steps leading to the truck stop. We walked nearly a mile to a two-story house. Ironically, there was a barn behind it.
“We’re always fixing up the barn,” Cassandra explained. “Meaning to move the cows there. But the wood’s full of rot and the truck stop is all lit and irrigated already so…”
“I’m back!” she announced, taking her boots off in the foyer. Someone called back that breakfast was ready. We were led to the kitchen, where the family sat gathered around the table. Our entrance silenced all conversation.
“They were in with the cows,” Cassandra helpfully explained. “Say they’re hungry.”
“I’ll bet they are,” a woman round with pregnancy said. “Well then, sit down.”
“Sasha,” whispered another woman, twig-thin and sickly. “I don’t think that’s wise.”
“Oh hell with it,” said a thick-bearded man jovially. “We’ve had a good week with the fishing.”
“Rick,” the skinny one hissed to the other man, a slight hen-pecked one. Rick only shrugged and went back to his breakfast.
Sasha, the mother, introduced us to the Reese clan. Her bearded husband was George, built like a horse and the best fisherman in the county – wherever the county lines lay. Her skinny sister was Kelly, and Rick Bargainer was Kelly’s skinny husband. Along with them was a six-year-old named Kyle, Cassandra’s brother.
“That was quite the storm,” George bellowed. “Good thing you found us. Or found our cows anyway.” He laughed heartily.
“We don’t get much news out here by ourselves,” Sasha said as she forked fish and potatoes onto my plate. “What’s happening out east? Any news from D.C.?”
“They say,” Kyle said, his mouth full of potatoes, “that winter won’t ever end. That true?”
“Kyle! Don’t even say that,” said Kelly, fussing with her napkin.
Sam ate slowly, almost robotically. We had spent an evening two nights prior in an abandoned Burger King. He seemed a little shocked to be sitting in a farmhouse kitchen eating a meal with a family. He regarded such turns of fortune as universally suspicious.
“Don’t worry, child,” I told Kyle. “It looks like your house won’t want for anything judging from this meal, no matter how long the winter.”
“I’m not worried,” Kyle said, offended that I had called him child. I frowned at him and Sam snorted a laugh.
“I can’t listen to this talk of winter.” Kelly threw down her napkin and shoved her chair back. “Sasha, I need to speak with you.” She exited the room with ceremony. Sasha excused herself and followed.
“If there’s a problem,” Sam said, “we’ll leave.”
I kicked him under the table.
George waved a hand at him. “Don’t bother yourself with Kelly. She always raises a fuss about everything. Just don’t expect her to take a liking to you and you’ll be fine.”
I was helping the family carry the dishes outside when I saw Sam standing out in the yard. I hadn’t noticed him leave the table, I had been so engrossed in one of George’s fishing tales where he had to drive off a bear that was after his catch.
“Why would you suggest we leave?” I confronted him. “Our first good meal in a week and you say oh just let us get out of your hair.”
Sam didn’t look at me. He was watching Sasha and Kelly scrub pots with snow, arguing at each other the whole time. “So…what? You intend to stay the night?”
“They have offered.”
“Hm.” He nodded. “I wonder sometimes if you forget what we’re doing.”
“What does that mean?”
“You wanted to keep these…monsters from interfering in anyone else’s lives. Would that not include this little family unit here?”
For a moment I was speechless. “Sam, are you saying you’re worried about them?”
He clucked his tongue, annoyed. “I only feel I should point out that these guys are still coming after me. If we stay here for any amount of time, these people will be in danger.”
I picked up the little pile of bowls I had been carrying out for washing. “I’m surprised at you.”
“I am too,” he mumbled, so that the wind nearly snatched his words away.
Not an hour later we said our goodbyes to the Reeses and Bargainer and set out in the fresh snow, bane of the traveler. I was sad to go. Even just a breakfast with a family around a kitchen table had filled my heart, but I told myself I could use that as food for the journey rather than a source of sadness.
Either way, we made it to the lake and decided to stop for one more fire in the night before we set out across it.
I hadn’t spoken to Sam all day. I was somewhat angry with him for pointing out that we had to leave the Reeses, though I knew he had been right.
We never should have even gone to their house.