Author's Note: Daria and all of its characters are property of MTV/Viacom. This is fan fiction and no money was exchanged for this story. It is non-profit and written for fun.
For those who do not know, the character of Scarlett is commonly known as the Ankh Girl, who started at Lawndale High School the same day that Daria did. For more information on her, check out the story Scarlett by The Angst Guy or the entry on her in DariaWiki.
This is a story that takes place in the same universe as Apocalyptic Daria, but told from the point of view of Scarlett Hawkins, who happened to be home in Lawndale when the world fell apart.
Part Two: Roger and Smokey
When Scarlett opened the storage trailer's doors and drove the car outside, she calmly sped between the buildings until she reached the main gate and slowed to a stop. I took John's car keys and the storage locker keys, she thought and blinked as she stared ahead. But I didn't take his fence keys. Dammit!
She looked back towards the storage trailers. Should I go back and search him again? The thought caused her to shudder and she gripped the steering wheel tighter. She then had a brief image of John rising up and grabbing her if she went back and shuddered again. Then she laid her head on the top of the steering wheel. No.
The redhead sighed, lifted her head and backed the car up nearly thirty feet. She then put it back into drive, took a deep breath and as she moved her right foot towards the gas pedal. "I don't know if can do this," she muttered and glanced at the pushdagger on the seat beside her.
Then another very brief image came to her mind and she gasped. John Fleming sat atop her thighs, his hands tight around her throat. He released her, his expression shocked and his mouth open. Her hands hung limply from where they were bound to the bed's headboard. Both of them were naked and her eyes stared sightlessly ahead at him. Her tongue stuck out of her mouth slightly.
When the image passed from her, she looked in the rear-view mirror and saw something behind the car move for a very quick second. She quickly turned around and stared back for several seconds. Oh, no! Was it a man?
The girl looked away from the mirror, floored the gas pedal and the car sped up quickly. By the time she hit the gates and burst them open, the car was up to sixty miles per hour. When she turned on the highway, the car swerved to the right slightly and she sped away from the store and lock business lot.
After more than five minutes of speeding down the highway, Scarlett slowed the car to a stop near a cleared out lot and parked. Her body shook and she forced herself to breathe. Was that really a man, or did I imagine what I thought I saw?
She realized that she had no idea how to get anywhere familiar. She knew the Lawndale area itself and could easily remember how to get around her old hometown of Warren, Indiana, but this place was a maze of unknown roads and uncertain destinations. What she realized was that she had no idea how to get out of the maze she was now in. She didn't even know in what direction she was headed.
She finally drove on, at a slower speed.
After more than two hours of aimless driving, over both state highways and county roads, Scarlett noticed that the skies were darkening. She looked at a red split-level house up ahead and licked her upper lip nervously. "I need someplace to stay," she told herself. "I can't keep driving around like this." She looked closer at the grounds around the house. "No cars and no animals. I'm tired, alone, cold and scared." She briefly touched the ankh around her neck and then pulled into the driveway.
Once she pulled around to the back of the house, she parked the car and shut it off. For several seconds, the girl sat behind the wheel and gathered her nerves.
She stepped outside and instantly shivered from the sudden cold outside. Somewhere in the distance behind the house, it looked as if it were snowing or raining, but where she was, it was just simply gray and cold.
From the back door, a single light could be seen, but as far as the girl could tell, it was from a lamp near an unoccupied recliner. Probably an automatic on-and-off light, like Mom had for the dining room.
Scarlett knocked on the door, anyway. Then she waited for several seconds before she knocked again.
As she waited, she shifted her weight from one foot to the next and shivered. But nobody answered the door and she finally turned the doorknob slowly and carefully.
The door opened and the teen walked into a medium-sized kitchen with two stoves and a small breakfast table in the center of the room. While not hot, the house was definitely warmer than the outside. She shut and locked the door, then slowly moved through the darkened rooms.
There was no musty smell, nor was there any dust to be seen. Plus, while the kitchen seem somewhat organized and clean, a pantry had apparently been searched, as were a nearby bedroom and the bathroom. "O.K.," she said to herself, "looks like no one's home. Wonder why?"
"The nuke explosions probably scared them and they ran," a male voice said from behind her.
Scarlett screamed and turned around quickly to face a man who was several feet behind her. She pulled the pushdagger out of her pocket and held it ready for use in front of her. "Who the hell are you?" she asked quickly. "Get out!"
The man raised his hands as he looked at the girl; he looked to be either in his late twenties or early thirties. He had thick dark hair and wore a pair of blue jeans with a short-sleeved light blue button-up shirt. What caught her attention the most was the pistol in the shoulder holster over his shirt.
The shirt looked as if he had slept in it, but she couldn't tell about his jeans. He looked mostly clean-shaven, except for a day's growth of razor stubble. "I'm not going to hurt you," he said, his voice even.
She glared at him and held the strange-looking knife towards him. "You're damned right you're not!" she said. "I told you to get out!"
"I was here first," he said and stayed where he was. He slowly pulled the pistol out of the holster, then gripped its barrel and laid it on the floor in front of him. Then he backed up slightly and kept his gaze on her face as he did that. "I'm just here for a place to sleep tonight. What's your name? Mine's John. John Taylor."
She stared at him and said nothing.
"I'm pleased to meet you," he said as he stood back up, "whoever you are."
"I'm Scarlett Hawkins," she finally said and looked down briefly at the gun.
"O.K.," he said and smiled slightly. His hands were still held up, his palms towards the teen girl. "Do you live here, Scarlett? Is this your home?"
The girl shook her head.
"Well, it looks like we're trespassers here together." Her expression turned skeptical and she raised the knife a few inches. "I'm not going to hurt you, Scarlett."
The redhead snorted and gave the man a frown. "That's what my neighbor told me," she said, her voice bitter. "His name was John, too. He told me that he was going to protect me, but instead he drugged me, tied me down, kissed on me and felt me up." She held up the knife even higher and gripped it so tight, her knuckles were white. "He tried to rape me, too, but I got him first."
"That's a pushdagger, isn't it?" he asked as he motioned towards her weapon. "I saw one once years ago when I was a police officer."
The girl frowned at him. "Is that supposed to make me trust you?"
The man shrugged. "It shouldn't. There are sociopaths in all walks of life - even amongst the police."
The girl looked confused then. "Sociopaths?"
He sighed and said, "A sociopath is a person who leans towards being a criminal or acting in ways that would satisfy him or herself, but often hurt others in the process."
Scarlett blinked and nodded slowly. "Oh."
"Why don't you take my pistol?" he asked her and motioned towards his weapon. "If it will make you feel more secure, that is."
"How do I know that you don't have another one on you?" she asked quickly.
He shrugged again and gave her a small smile. "I'm only licensed for that one," he said and pointed at his pistol. "In my line of work, I don't try to flaunt the law. It's not worth it."
"Oh? What's your 'line of work'?"
His smile widened. "I'm a private investigator. I've found ten or fifteen pistols while doing my job in the last several years, and I turned in every single one of them." He shook his head. "I could have made some good money from them, too, but I didn't."
Scarlett picked up the pistol and looked at it briefly, then glanced at him again. She still held the pushdagger in front of her. "I guess that you'll be O.K. That doesn't mean that you can do anything to me, by the way."
"I understand that," he said and nodded. "No means no."
She blinked and nodded as well. "Damned right," she said. "I also cannot call you John. Too many fresh and bad memories and all."
"Call me by my middle name, then," he suggested. "I usually go by that in my family, since my dad's name was John, too."
"What's your middle name?" she asked.
He smiled at her again. "Roger," he said. "Now I have something to ask you, Scarlett. How old are you, fifteen?"
"I'm seventeen," she replied, a slight edge to her voice. The pushdagger in her hand quivered slightly and then she lowered it. "I'm a junior at Lawndale High School."
"Lawndale," he said, his expression thoughtful. "That's a suburb of Baltimore, isn't it?"
She nodded and asked, "Are you familiar with it?"
"Uh, yeah," he said and gave her a lopsided smile. "Had a bad experience there not too long ago. Where are your parents, Scarlett? How did you get caught out away from them at the wrong time?"
The redhead's face paled and her chin quivered. Tears ran from her eyes and she said, her voice a croak, "They were...they were in Philadelphia yesterday morning." Then she turned and rushed out of the room.
Roger stood there awkwardly. Finally, he said to himself, "Oh, man, that was smooth, Roger." He looked towards the living room, where the girl had run. He heard her crying and muttered, "Dammit!" He cleared his throat and said loudly, "I'm sorry, Scarlett!" He put his right hand over his eyes and shook his head. "I'm sorry," he whispered then.
Scarlett sat on a recliner and cried as she thought about her parents. She held both the pistol and the pushdagger in her hands and listened to the man as he moved around in the kitchen.
The girl suddenly realized then that she hadn't read any of Roger's thoughts during their meeting and stared ahead in shock.
"That happens sometimes, Scarlett," he dad had told her once when she was fourteen. "There will always be some people whose minds or thoughts are closed to you. You'll never be able to read them."
"Are they bad guys, Dad?" she had asked then.
"Oh, some may be," he replied. "Most, however, simply have naturally closed minds. It's a power - or better yet, a gift - much like our own. Maybe a very powerful telepath could read them, but since I've never met one, I don't know. I should warn you, though, that you might find these people difficult to deal with."
"Because mind readers such as ourselves tend to use their telepathy as if it were a crutch. I do it, and I know that you do it, too. The temptation to do so is way too strong to fight. Resistant people can be scary to deal with, because you don't control the situation." He gripped her by her upper arms. "You're a strong girl, Scarlett, so I have faith that you'll be able to deal with them."
"I hope so, Dad."
As the girl reminisced, a head popped up over the arm of a nearby couch and she jumped in fright. Then she calmed down as she realized that it was just a cat.
The feline looked at the girl, then moved slowly towards her. The cat sniffed her left leg cautiously, then backed away when the girl tried to pet it.
"I won't hurt you," Scarlett said, repeating Roger's words to her. That thought made her shake her head. She pulled a coverlet off the back of the recliner, spread it out and covered herself with it. Then she pulled out the footrest, pulled her legs up and under the coverlet and laid back. The cat watched her all the while.
"Why did your owners leave you here all alone?" the redhead asked as she tucked the covers around herself. She sniffled and wiped a tear from her left eye. "Looks like we're alone in the world here, kitty cat," she said and closed her eyes. She listened to the man as he opened a cabinet and gripped the pistol in her right hand.
In the kitchen, Roger found a large stockpot, a ten-pound bag of potatoes, several onions, three cans of Carnation creamer and then some butter in the refrigerator. "Dinnertime, it shall be," he said and gathered all the items together.
He heard the girl talk to the cat in the living room and listened briefly. "Good luck catching her," he muttered as he began to wash the potatoes.
At one point, Scarlett awoke to find the cat curled up on her lap, asleep. She absently petted the animal and smelled a pleasant aroma coming from the kitchen. I wonder what he's fixing?
Hearing Roger's voice frightened her briefly, but then she remembered him and where she was, and calmed herself. Then she smelled the food and felt a rumble in her belly.
The cat suddenly became alert, looked towards the man, then jumped to the carpeted floor and hid behind the couch.
The man walked into the living room and stopped a few feet from the recliner. "Hey, kid, food's done if you're hungry. I made enough for the both of us to enjoy."
The girl stretched and lowered the footrest. "What is it?" she asked as she uncovered herself and stood up. "It smells good."
"Potato soup," he said and smiled. "It's my 'gourmet' specialty."
The teen looked at him silently for several seconds. "Not that I'm complaining, or anything, Roger, but why are you cooking for me?"
He shrugged and glanced at her. "My folks taught me that if there wasn't enough food for everyone, then there was food for no one. I try to live by that principle now."
"Sounds decent," she said.
The man sighed and blushed slightly. "I had to have that lesson beat into me, pretty much. When I was in my teens, I would eat a bowl of ice cream in front of my cousins and not offer them any. I got in enough trouble that I stopped doing that." He shook briefly and absently rubbed his backside. Then he motioned for her to follow him into the kitchen. "Come along, now. Soup's hot and ready to eat."
As Scarlett sat down with the soup and a can of Fizzy Gulp, she watched the cat as it looked in on them from the living room. "What do you know about the cat?" she asked.
"Not much," he said and sat down himself, with his soup bowl and two cans of the same soft drink. He then served both the girl and himself a grilled cheese sandwich. "She won't let me near her. I do know that her name's Smokey, because that was what was written on her food dish. I filled that up and gave her plenty of water, though."
The girl looked at him. "How do you know that Smokey's a she?"
He shrugged again. "An educated guess. Male cats usually don't make good indoor cats."
"Are you from around here?" she asked.
Roger shook his head and opened one can of soda. "No, I live in the Leeville, Virginia area. I was in the area working on a case when everything blew up."
"How old are you, Roger?"
The girl looked at him as she took a spoonful of soup. She closed her eyes as she tasted it and swallowed, then looked back at him. "You said that you had a bad experience in Lawndale," she said. "What happened?"
"I made a mistake," Roger said and downed the soda. "A very bad mistake. I got involved with my client."
"What happened then?" Scarlett asked and ate another spoonful of soup.
The man grimaced briefly, then spoke. "Really, Rita and I were too far apart, age wise, but she was both beautiful and didn't care and I..."
"Got horny?" the redhead asked, a smirk on her face.
He stared at her briefly, his expression shocked, then frowned. "I see that subtlety is your forte, Scarlett. Who writes your material? Dracula?"
The girl laughed. She was surprised that such a question would come out of her mouth so soon after she had just met someone. I can't describe it, she thought, but I feel safe with you.
Roger smiled at her then, laughed as well and nodded. "O.K., to be honest with you, yes, I got horny, and she sunk her claws in. Did she ever sink her claws in. Rita had hired me to track down her daughter's father in order to sue him for massive back support. I found the bum and she had started proceedings against him. Part of my rewards was being with Rita." He frowned. "Then she had me do another job for her. That one nearly got me killed."
The girl got another spoonful, sniffed it slowly, smiled, then asked, "What did she have you do? Get involved with a gang, or something?" She ate the spoonful then and smiled from the taste.
He shook his head sadly. "Nope. She had me investigate her sisters."
Scarlett blinked and looked at him, and was unsure if she had heard him right. "What?"
"Rita was jealous of both of her sisters, though from what I could tell, she was the favored child of the family." He took a bite of the grilled cheese sandwich and ate quietly for a few seconds, then opened the second soda and sipped it. "Well, when I investigated her sister from Lawndale..."
I wonder if I know who this woman is? she thought and opened her own soda.
"...I got the attention of the senior partner of the law firm where she worked. He sent a man named Bruno after me."
Roger laughed. "Uh, oh, is right," he said. "Bruno wanted to demonstrate to me how invasive chiropractic could be when it's performed by a sadist."
"What happened?" she asked.
"Oh, we came to an understanding...sort of. I ran like hell, and he let me go. Then I investigated the other sister." He sighed and shook his head again. "I felt as if I had escaped from King Kong only to run up against Godzilla."
"Did they send someone like Bruno after you?" she asked.
He shook his head. "They sent someone worse. You know, the other sister was only supposed to be an art appraiser, but she has some mighty powerful guardian angels. The man who 'intercepted' me said that his name was George Williams and that he worked for the Art Institute in Chicago. However, I can recognize an extremely professional hatchet man when I see one. By extremely professional, I mean a government hatchet man."
She looked at him for several seconds as he ate two spoonfuls of soup. "Wow, you made a lot of new friends, didn't you?"
Roger snorted. "I hope they don't send me Christmas cards, you know what I mean? I'd be afraid that they'd blow up in my face."
That is so interesting, she thought and the two people then concentrated on their food.
As she ate the soup, Scarlett realized that this was the first time she had felt relaxed and...normal...since Friday evening.
She looked at the man briefly and said, "This is good soup, Roger."
"Thank you, Scarlett," he replied.
The cat moved cautiously around the two to her food and water dish and did some dining of her own.
After their meal, it was fully dark outside and Roger and Scarlett deposited the bowls in the kitchen sink. At that time, he looked out the window at the car, then looked at the redheaded girl. He asked her, "Is that your car? Or does it belong to your parents?"
She shook her head and blinked as she looked down. "It belonged to John," she said. "I took it from him when I k--, I mean, escaped from him."
The man glanced at the car again as he said, "Scarlett, if you really did kill someone who tried to rape you, I will not get you in trouble. You have nothing to worry about from me concerning that."
The redheaded teen blinked again and also looked out the window for several seconds. She finally said, "I'm just afraid that when things eventually calm down, I'll get thrown in prison." Then she closed her eyes and shivered, even though it was warm inside the house. "Or executed."
Roger snorted and briefly shook his head. "As far as I'm concerned, he got what he deserved. Just don't keep telling people that you killed someone. That will always get you negative reactions from certain people. There are idiots out there who would want you jailed for what you did - even though you defended yourself. I'm not one of those kind of people. Neither are you, right?"
Scarlett shook her head and gave him a small smile.
He returned her smile. "Good. That's a plus in my book. Now, is that all your stuff I saw earlier in the car's back seat?"
She shook her head. "Um, no. A lot of it was John's. I never took the time to dump it out. But I have quite a bit of stuff, too."
"I see." He stroked his chin as he thought for several seconds, then said, "We should bring it in and go through it - all of it."
The girl frowned and looked at him quickly. "Why? Are you going to see what stuff of mine you want?"
The man sighed and shook his head. "No, but think about this for a bit, O.K.? If that car breaks down on you, are you going to be able to carry all of your stuff? Right now, my car is a dead piece of junk about five miles from here, but all I had was a briefcase to worry about. If I find something better to carry my stuff in, then I'll switch to it, toss the briefcase aside and go on my merry way. Now, if my guess is right, you need to trim down all that stuff to just what you can carry and no more."
The teen looked at him, blushed, and said, "That's easy for you to say, Roger. I have precious items out there. Memories to protect." She looked down at the kitchen sink. "I have memories to preserve. My parents are gone, and that stuff is all I have left." She then closed her eyes and bit her lower lip as she felt the urge to cry build up inside her.
Roger looked at her and said, his voice gentle, "Scarlett, I think of all my belongings back in Virginia. But, there's no way I'm going to risk my life going after any of it." He glanced outside briefly, then looked back at her. "I've seen too many people who risked their lives to protect their 'stuff'. Some of them even died for it. Now, if I'm going to die for something, it's sure not going to be for my laundry or some photo albums. It's just not worth it."
The girl swallowed, took a deep breath and looked at him. Then she finally nodded and said, "O.K., I see your point. But I'll need help to carry it all in, please."
Roger nodded and said, "Let's go." As they walked to the door, he stopped and added, "It does hurt to lose stuff, Scarlett. I will admit that. My stamp collection is still in my home in Leeville. Twenty years of work on it and now I'll probably never see it again." He sighed and gave her a rueful smile. "I do understand, Scarlett. I really do."
She nodded and briefly rubbed her forehead above her eyes, then brushed a lock of hair away, only to have it fall back in place. "I'm sorry I accused you of wanting to take my stuff," she said. "Two days ago, the biggest worry on my mind was a test in history class on Monday. Now, I've lost my parents and my home. I was attacked by two freaks before I even got out of my home, then got attacked later on that night by my 'rescuer'." A dark look crossed her face briefly, then she gave him a weak smile. "I'm a bit touchy about things."
"You never told me about the 'other' attack," he said. "You just told me about John."
Scarlett laughed, but there was no mirth in it. "What he did...what he was going to make me do...actually drove the thoughts of the first attack out of my mind." She took a deep breath and looked straight ahead. "What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you look at me?"
Roger looked startled, as if he hadn't expected her question. "Um, that with the dark lipstick you have on and your ankh, you're a Goth girl."
She glanced at him. "Could you see me wearing bright colors? Or a crop top?"
The man blinked, then blushed. "I'm not sure that you should ask me that question. After all, you are a pretty girl and a crop top is very revealing..."
"John forced me to change into one for him. That was before he attacked me...and I killed him. Do I look snobbish to you?"
He shook his head, but his expression still showed his confusion. "You seem a bit shy and uncertain, but not snobbish. Why?"
"My first attacker thought that I was some sort of snob. It was part of the reason he and his friend attacked me."
"You're not," Roger said. "Let's go get the boxes."
Both of them walked out the kitchen door.
The boxes were spread out in the living room. Roger and Scarlett sat among them, while Smokey sniffed each one, curious about what was going on.
Scarlett looked over the box of food, while Roger opened one box of John's stuff. He looked inside for several seconds, then glanced at the teen girl. Then he sighed and shook his head.
She noticed his actions and asked, "What?"
"At any time, did you ever happen to look over any of John's stuff?"
"No." The teen shook her head and asked, "Why?"
The man pulled a paperback book out and tossed it to her. She looked at the cover and gasped. The title of it was Two Days of Terror. The book's cover art showed a stunned and partially disrobed schoolgirl, who sat on a school desk with her hands bound behind her back while a man in front of her moved her legs apart.
A disgusted expression showed up on her face. "Shit."
"This box is full of books just like that one. Let's see...The Tortured Teacher, Captive Lady Cop, Captive Bank Teller, and so on and so on. A pretty extensive collection, in fact." Then he pulled a drawing tablet out and opened it. His eyes widened and he quickly closed it. "O.K. This just went beyond weird."
Scarlett moved next to him and opened it back up. Her face went pale and her mouth dropped open. She closed it as well and exhaled loudly. Then she took the tablet from Roger's hands, sat it on the floor, and then sat on top of it. "All that time I lived beside him, he did all this stuff, and I never knew." She shook her head and groaned. "I feel so violated again."
"How long did you live beside him?" he asked.
"Two years," she said. "I was fifteen when we moved from Indiana. He was the first person we met when we arrived in Lawndale." She closed her eyes and covered her face in her hands. "The whole time we lived next to each other, I was his fantasy."
"Apparently, he was stalking you the entire two years," Roger said. "Was he married?"
The teen nodded and looked at him. "Yeah. That's what I don't get. Lisa was real beautiful, too, you know? A real pretty face, prettier than mine, in fact. She had a slim waist, nicely rounded hips and big, um...you know, breasts?" He nodded. "I don't see how I could even compare to her in his mind. She was what my dad called a 'real knockout.'"
He shrugged. "Sounds like he wasn't satisfied to me." He stood up and stretched. "Even if he had gotten you, he still wouldn't have been satisfied. People like that never are. If you'll excuse me, I'll be right back. Have to go to the bathroom." He left her alone with the boxes and the cat.
Scarlett pulled the tablet out from under her legs and opened it back up. The colored drawing showed a naked redheaded girl face up in a bed, her wrists bound to the headboard. Her eyes stared straight ahead, as if at her captor.
The girl looked exactly like Scarlett Hawkins.
She stared at the drawing and after several seconds, a tear ran from her right eye. She moved her lock of hair again and closed her eyes.
Smokey came up and rubbed against the girl's right hip. She closed the tablet, picked up the cat and hugged it.
When Roger returned to the room, he sat back down. "I have a question for you, Scarlett."
She released Smokey, who stretched on the floor beside her and strolled away. "Oh?"
"When you leave, would you mind me riding along with you? At least until we find a refugee camp?"
A small smile appeared on her face. "I'd feel better not being alone out there."
He sighed in relief and said, "Thank you."
Her smile remained. No, Roger, thank you. I can't explain it, but I feel safe around you. I like feeling safe.
In the end, Scarlett's belongings were trimmed to some photo albums, a couple changes of clothing, a blanket and her dad's pillow. She refused to part with it. She also had her apricot preserves and most of the survival foods to eat if she couldn't find or buy anything else.
Roger found a book bag for himself, though he wasn't sure he wanted to advertise for the cartoon series Transformers. In the end, he shrugged and sorted through his briefcase. He ended up dumping half of what he had and even took some of the MREs that Scarlett had brought. He also took one of her blankets.
John's stuff was put back in their boxes and placed back into the car. Roger told her that when they took the car later, they could trash it in a dumpster somewhere else.
Scarlett took the drawing pad, however. Part of her wanted to destroy the drawing inside and another part of her wanted to keep it. At least it will be a reminder of just how evil you really were, she thought. Just in case I ever feel guilty in the future.
After the sorting was finished, Scarlett and Roger found some cocoa mix and made some hot chocolate to drink.
He took the time to give her more of his background. "When I failed with Rita's assignment," he said, "she accused me of conspiring with her sisters against her. She didn't believe what I had told her about my 'encounters' with Bruno and George Williams. She was a beautiful woman, but very paranoid at the same time. I didn't want or need to deal with those kinds of issues, so I left her and went on my merry way."
He saw the teen's surprised expression and added, "I don't mean to make that sound so cavalier, Scarlett, but Rita had problems that I couldn't help her with. She had some real self-esteem issues and needed professional counseling."
The redhead smiled as she shook her head and said, "I'm not judging you, Roger. I understand what you're saying."
He returned her smile. "I have to admit that my relationship with Rita was mostly physical. Good looks are a start, but if there's nothing else to go on from there, you're just wasting your time." He cleared his throat. "Well, on Saturday, I was near Mt. Airy, following a woman on behalf of a jealous husband. He had nothing to worry about, because his wife really was visiting a sick friend."
Then the man chuckled and shook his head. "I called him up and told him the good news, only to have him chew my ass off because he didn't believe me. Then he was cut off right when there was a flash from D.C." He gave Scarlett a small smile. "Why is it that nobody believes my explanations for things? I might as well be called Cassandra. Oh, well. My client worked at the State Department and probably was there when I called him. So, he was probably dead before he even realized it."
She blinked and cleared her throat. "I was washing the dishes when it happened," she said. "Mom and Dad were...in Philadelphia to enjoy a day off together." She looked down and took a deep breath. "They loved going to Philadelphia. Dad proposed to Mom at Reading Terminal nearly twenty years ago."
Roger looked at the teen and said, "I'm sorry for your loss, Scarlett."
She wiped her eyes and looked at him. "Thank you," she said. "I loved my parents and they loved me. I just don't know what I'm going to do without them."
He thought for several seconds, then asked, "Do you have any relatives that you can go to when things calm down?"
A weak smile crossed her face and she nodded. "They're in Indiana. That's where I'm headed for when I leave here."
Roger blinked and looked at her. "That's a long way for a teenaged girl to drive by herself."
Scarlett frowned at him and narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean by that? Are you saying that I can't do it...because I'm a girl?"
"Oh, I'm certain that you can do it," he replied and looked her in the eyes. "What I'm implying is that you shouldn't do it. Scarlett, that's some five hundred miles away. A long way for a teen girl to drive alone even before what happened on Saturday. Now, I think it'll be a whole lot worse. Teen girls who are out alone will be very tempting targets. Add to that the fact that all the police forces within at least a hundred miles of a bombed city will be too busy to help you if you needed them. I say that you should count on anarchy until they sort out what's happened."
The girl looked at him silently as he stood up and stretched. What do you think I should do then? Stay here and let the authorities take care of me? No, thank you.
"Scarlett, it's almost ten o'clock," he said. "It's not that I don't like talking to you, but I think we should stop and get some sleep. There are three bedrooms in this house. Which one do you want to use?"
She blushed and bit her lower lip. I thought you were about to suggest sharing a bed. I'm glad you didn't.
He held out his right hand and she took it. Then he helped her to her feet and they walked to one bedroom.
This room had the feminine touch of a girl at least twelve or thirteen years old. While feminine, the decor didn't match Scarlett's Goth look. Despite that, she liked it, nodded and said, "I'll sleep in here."
"Are you sure?" he asked. "I'll let you sleep in the master bedroom if you'd prefer it."
"No. I'll sleep in here."
"Very well," he said and nodded. "I'll make sure the doors are locked and go to bed myself. Good night, Scarlett."
"Good night, Roger."
A couple of hours later, Scarlett opened her eyes and propped herself up on her elbows. Smokey was already up and had her head behind a curtain at the window by a small desk. She wagged her tail and it whapped the glass pane repeatedly.
"I heard something," she whispered to herself. "I know I did, and it wasn't the cat, either."
--Hope there's a couple of teenaged girls in there. I need some pussy!--
Her eyes opened widely and she gasped at the unfamiliar thought that assaulted her. Then the others joined in.
--Beer! I want beer or whiskey. Hell, I'd even drink a wine cooler if they have one.--
--...a girl wearing a dog collar. But first, a steak or some chicken.--
--...like this has some home-canned food, like some corn or peaches or even jelly.--
--Women! Maybe the farmer has a hot wife or an even hotter daughter.--
--Chocolate! I'd kill for a Snickers bar or some M&Ms right about now.--
The redheaded girl hopped out of bed, still fully dressed. Her hands shook as she grabbed the pistol and the pushdagger from a bedside table. She moved to the bedroom door, pulled away a chair that she had propped against the doorknob for security and left the room. The cat watched her as she left and turned to look back outside.
She ran down the hall to the master bedroom, opened the door and rushed inside.
Roger was asleep, huddled under a thick comforter on one side of the bed. He snored lightly. She quickly grabbed his left arm and shook him. "Roger!" she whispered, her voice panicked. "Wake up! Wake up!"
The man threw the comforter off his head and sat up. His white T-shirt stood out in the darkness. He blinked his eyes several times and groaned. "What?" he asked and looked at the girl in front of him. "Scarlett? What's wrong?"
She found herself shaking and fought to keep her voice steady. "There's a bunch of men outside!" she said, her voice fast and nervous. "At least five of them, maybe more."
He was wide awake now, sighed and got out of bed.
The teen saw his bared legs and then his underwear. She blushed as she stared, then quickly looked away as he grabbed his pants and put them on.
"Sorry about that," he muttered as he realized that what she had seen. "I can't sleep in my clothes too much. It irritates me." He held out his right hand. "My pistol?"
She handed him the weapon.
Roger smiled at her. "Stay calm, Scarlett. Don't panic. Maybe they're just after your neighbor's car."
"No!" she said and shook her head. "They want women, food and booze."
He moved towards the door and she followed him. Then he stopped and looked at her. "How do you know that?" he asked.
Scarlett blushed again and her chin quivered. "I just do, Roger! I just do!"
He looked at her for several seconds, then placed his left hand on her right shoulder. "Calm down. It'll be O.K. But now's the time for you to get your bug-out bag. Put on your backpack in case you have to run."
"What?" she asked. "What about you?"
The man smiled at her and said, "I'll hold them off so that you can get away."
He frowned at her. "Don't argue with me, kid. I can take care of myself. But it'll be a whole lot easier if they don't even know that you're here."
Tears blurred her vision and she wiped them away. "What about Smokey?"
Roger shook his head, a sad expression on his face. "She's a housecat, Scarlett. I tried to put her outside when I first got here and I couldn't even get her near the open door." He touched the girl's arm and smiled at her. "Don't worry about her. She'll hide herself. Now, get your stuff together and let's see what the deal is, huh?"
The teen put on the backpack and looked down as Roger led her through the darkened house to the kitchen. She was afraid to look out any of the windows.
Her companion did look, however, and shook his head. "They're at the car," he whispered. "Better go down to the basement. You can get outside through the cellar door and run to the woods. Once there, run some more and hide." He looked at her face and saw the tears run down her cheeks. "Oh, Scarlett..."
She sobbed and suddenly hugged him. "I'm scared! I'm scared for both you and Smokey!"
Roger returned her hug and whispered in her left ear, "I'll catch up with you if it gets bad. Smokey will hide, so please don't worry about her."
They broke the hug and moved to the basement stairs. He whispered, "Wait at the door, and be careful."
"Thank you, Roger. I'm glad I met you." I don't want you to die. Please run with me.
He smiled at her. "I'm glad that we met, too, Scarlett."
"You promise that you'll catch up with me later?" she asked. "Please?"
He nodded. "Yes, I promise. Now go downstairs and wait."
Scarlett was unable to pick up any thoughts in the basement, but she could hear their laughter as they broke several of the windows up on the first floor.
As quiet as she could, she moved to the outside door near an old Sears furnace, opened it and climbed out into the back yard.
--Someone's inside the house! Watch----
The girl had just moved around a shed as a gunshot lit up the inside of the kitchen. She looked back towards the house and whispered, "Roger?"
Three of the raiders moved away from the house itself and into the back yard. She bit her lower lip as their thoughts came at her.
--I know that there's a pussy here somewhere. I can smell her. I know it!--
--Hey, little girl? Want some candy?
--Hope we catch her real quick. I'm tired of humping boys.--
Scarlett stood still in the shed's shadows and gasped when she heard John's car start up. Oh, crap. They hotwired it.
A second gunshot inside the house made her jump and a man's voice yelled out, "There she is! Get her!"
She ran out of the yard and into the woods. She was quickly followed by several of the men.
Their laughter reached her ears and she clamped her mouth shut to keep from crying out.
"Whoo, hoo! Hey, baby, I've got something for you!"
The girl ran further into the woods and hoped that she didn't trip over any tree roots or other hidden obstructions.
She didn't look behind herself, but kept going forward, no matter how tempting it was to look back. It didn't matter, though, because she could still hear them coming.
"Why do we always have to chase them?" one man complained. "I'm tired of being tired when it's time to hump them!"
"Shut up, Everett!" another man said. "Just shut up! We've been over this shit before."
"You shut up, Joe! I hate running! I hate having to chase down boys and girls all the time!"
"That does it!"
Suddenly, a nearby gunshot made Scarlett cry out. She kept on running, though.
"Shit, Joe!" another man said. "Why'd you shoot him for?"
"I'm tired of hearing his whiny ass complain all the time!" Joe said. "Lazy bastard always wanted us to do all the hard work, then demanded that he always goes first when we did catch them! Now, he won't do that kind of crap anymore!"
"Never mind that!" a fourth man said. "She's getting away!"
Scarlett managed to get far enough away to leave her pursuers out of sight, but she could still hear them behind her.
After what seemed like an eternity, the teen came to a clearing and a darkened house that stood in the middle of it.
--Wait until we get out hands on you, little girl! We're gonna---
The redhead ran to the house and found the front door open, as if it had been kicked in. She rushed inside, shut the door behind her and stopped.
The house itself was clean - and totally empty of all furniture and belongings, except for a plastic stand left on a countertop. It contained papers describing the property that had been left there by a local real estate company.
Where do I hide? she thought and rushed through the house in a rapid search. During her search, she noted that the house's back door, in a utility room, had also been kicked in.
The master bedroom had a large closet with two wooden sliding doors. She opened one door, stepped inside, then slid the door shut behind her.
The sudden darkness and silence had a calming effect on her, and she concentrated on relaxing herself.
Then she remembered seeing a string attached to an incandescent light bulb and reached around in the darkness for it until she found it.
When she turned on the light, she was temporarily blinded. But after a couple of seconds, Scarlett saw a small alcove overhead built above the bedroom itself. Without another thought, she removed her backpack and threw it up there, then climbed up into it and laid down.
As she heard the men come into the house, she reached down and unscrewed the light bulb until she was in total darkness again. Then she removed the bulb and held it in her right hand. After a few seconds, she held the still warm light bulb to her chest and struggled to control her breathing as her pursuers entered the house and began their search for her.
--Man, she's so close, I can almost taste her right now!--
The redhead suppressed a groan and shook in the darkness. She looked past the overhang, but the closet itself was in total darkness.
"I hope there's a bed in here," one man's voice said from somewhere in the house.
"All we need is a mattress," another man said as the bedroom light came on. "Doesn't really matter, anyway. We'll use the floor if we have to. She'll be all the cushion we'll need."
The first man laughed; Scarlett bit her lower lip and waited.
"Empty," the first man said.
"Well, let's check out the closet, anyway," the second man said. "A lot of stupid little girls think they can hide behind their mommy's coats." He chuckled. "It sure is funny to see a young teen girl kick and scream when she gets drug out of her hiding place."
She listened to the closet door open; she backed away from the overhang and shivered.
"Turn on the light switch and look up."
Scarlett felt her mouth dry up as the light cord was pulled once, then several more times in succession.
"It ain't gonna turn on, no matter how many times you pulled the damned cord, idiot!" the second man said. "There ain't no light bulb in the socket. This place is empty."
--Where are you, girl? I've got an itch that needs scratching right now.--
The girl shuddered and clenched her teeth together.
"I ever tell you about the time three of us got a hold of a real estate agent just outside of Hampstead?" the first man asked as they turned from the closet and moved towards the door.
The first man laughed. "That was a fun time. She was all alone at some open house off of 30. We showed up and she gave us a tour. Man, did she start fighting when we pulled her ass out to our truck and took off with her. I tell you, I love it when they struggle like that--"
Their voices faded, but Scarlett understood enough of the story - and the man's thoughts - to wince in disgust at what she learned.
"Hey, guys!" another man's voice yelled out. "The back door's unlocked and open! She ran out back into the woods again!"
The teen listened as all the men rushed out the back door and on into the woods.
--Her adrenaline oughtta really be pumping now! She's gonna taste so sweet!--
Ew! Scarlett closed her eyes, sighed in relief and waited.
She didn't know how much time had passed as she waited. It could have been an hour - or just half that time. She just didn't know for sure.
What she did know, however, was that she could hear neither their voices nor sense their thoughts.
Suddenly, for some reason, Scarlett thought of tuna. She frowned, shook her head and sat up in the alcove.
Then thoughts of pain then came to her from somewhere outside, mingled in with curses and prayers. Briefly confused, the teen then remembered the man shot by his fellow raider. Look's like he's still alive out there.
Scarlett dropped her backpack to the floor below and waited for a couple of minutes. Then, when she still heard nothing else, she jumped down as well.
She fell onto her left side on landing, then got to her feet and looked around quickly. She grabbed the backpack, slung it over her shoulders, then moved through the house and back to the front door.
Tuna came to her mind again and she stopped on the front porch. Why do I thinking of tuna? She shook her head again, took a deep breath, then ran outside. She headed into the woods and moved back towards the other house.
As she moved, the thoughts of the injured raider became clearer and she heard a raspy groan somewhere in the darkness ahead.
--Shit! Damned assholes! I'll get them for this!--
Then a few seconds later, another thought reached her and she stopped.
--Please, guys! Come back and help me! I'll be better next time. Please!--
After a couple of minutes, the teen girl reached the raider. She stopped near his feet and looked down at him. Even in the darkness, she could see the pain in his features.
"Help me," he said, his voice weak, and his right arm up in an act of supplication.
"No," she said and ignored his outstretched arm.
"Please, help me!"
"Why should I?"
"It's the Christian thing to do."
Scarlett blinked and stared at him in astonishment. Even as he laid there and said what he did, she could sense his thoughts about her red hair, and then his memories of assaulting a redheaded woman and her boyfriend during a robbery in Hagerstown. "I'm surprised that you even know how to pronounce the word 'Christian'."
"Help me!" Then he thought, "loud" and clear to the girl, --If I could move my left arm, girlie, I'd get my gun out and shoot your snotty ass!--
She bent over and pulled a pistol out of the man's left jacket pocket. "Thank you for the pistol," she said and shoved the weapon barrel first down in the front of her jeans. "It's a pity that you can't move left hand, huh? Did you break your arm?"
"Help me!" --How did you know where my gun was? What are you?--
The girl shook her head. "Did you help that redheaded woman and her boyfriend you beat up in Hagerstown?"
The man tried to back up. "Who...what are you? How did you know..."
"What about all the children you helped to chase down and, let's see, you said 'hump'? Such a delicate word to describe such an ugly act."
"Please! I'll die out here if you don't help me!"
She snorted. "I'm counting on it. If, for nothing else, then for that poor couple in Hagerstown and all those kids."
Suddenly, tuna came to Scarlett's mind again. Oh, brother, not again. She moved away from the man. "Goodbye."
The man tried to move towards her, but he stopped and cried out in pain, then moaned. Finally, he yelled, "You can't leave me like this!"
She didn't even look back as she said, "Watch me."
The man laid there and cried.
"You deserve worse," she told him as she walked. "Be thankful I don't just shoot you, or kick you to death." Then she stopped and looked back at him once more. "Not too long ago, you were complaining about chasing me. What were you going to do when you caught me? Shake my hand...or help to gang-rape me?" She turned back around and continued on her way. "Lousy freak!"
The man cried even harder as she walked away from him.
--Tuna would be so good right now.--
Scarlett blinked, but still walked on. Why have I got tuna on the brain? With all that's happening, and my fears about Roger and Smokey, tuna should be the last thing on my mind right now.
As she closed in on the house, the teen slowed and became more alert. The first thing that she noticed was that John's car was gone. Figures, she thought and looked around slowly. Several of the windows in the house were broken and a curtain in the kitchen moved in the light breeze. At least those jerks should enjoy John's dirty book stash.
Near a rose bush, the girl stopped, closed her eyes and concentrated. The man she left behind, the one called Everett, whimpered and his thoughts turned to the cold.
It's cool, but not cold, she thought, but shivered anyway.
--Shit! It won't stop bleeding! I can't believe that he shot it off! I don't want to bleed to death. Please, God, help me!--
"O.K., that wasn't Roger," she muttered, and looked behind her. "It wasn't that other guy, either." She looked out towards the north. "You're out there, somewhere, calling to God, and you probably ignored Him every time you had the chance."
--I want tuna! I need tuna! Tuna is life!--
"This is getting a little bit insane," she said and moved towards the house.
The teen jumped and turned quickly to see Roger, who sat on the ground behind a shed. His pistol was in his right hand and his forehead was covered in blood.
"Roger! You're hurt!" She ran up to him and knelt beside him.
He smiled briefly, then winced from the pain of that. "I know that." He looked at her. "I'm glad to see that you got away from those punks. I was so worried when the bulk of them went after you."
She looked at his injury and swallowed hard. "You wait here! I'll go back in the house and get something to bandage you!"
"We have to get out of here, Scarlett," he said and looked at the pistol tucked in her pants. "They'll probably come back when they don't find you."
She stood up and said, "I'll hurry up, then." As she moved away from him, he called her name again. She turned and looked at him.
"There are two bodies in the house," he said and wiped some blood off his eyebrows with his left hand. "One's in the kitchen, and the other's in the front entryway."
"There's a third man back there in the woods," she said and motioned towards the way she had first run off. "Then, there's another one somewhere to the north of us. He's bleeding to death, cause you shot something of his off. I don't want to guess what, though."
Roger blinked and looked at her. "How do you know that?"
"I just do."
He took a deep breath as he looked at her. "Go on and hurry up then. We need to scoot before they come back."
"I'll be right back," she said and smiled at him.
--Tuna! Tuna! Tuna!--
Scarlett frowned and looked around carefully. O.K., those thought patterns don't match those of the raiders and I can't read Roger. So, whose thoughts are they?
She jogged to the kitchen door, which had been partly kicked in. A piece of blue jean material hung from the splintered wood near the door handle. She moved inside and looked around.
The first body was on its back near the refrigerator. His eyes were wide open and a bullet hole was in the middle of his forehead. "Good shot, Roger," she muttered as she winced at the sight. Then she moved around the body.
She stepped into the bathroom and opened a cabinet. After a brief search, she grabbed a handful of folded-up washcloths and a bottle of rubbing alcohol, then left for the pantry.
Inside the darkened room, she saw Smokey and stopped. The cat sat on a shelf at her chest level and batted at a can of tuna.
--I want tuna! Give me tuna!--
Scarlett sighed and asked. "Was that you? Are you wanting tuna, girl?"
--Yes! Give me tuna!--
The teen looked around and grabbed a quart bottle of water from an upper shelf. "Wait. I need to help Roger out first."
--But I need tuna.--
The redhead moved her face close to the cat's and the feline sniffed her briefly. Their noses nearly touched. "Roger is hurt and I have to help him before I feed you tuna. You wait here and I'll give you tuna. O.K.?"
--What if those men come back?--
"I don't know. I don't think they will come back. Just wait here for me."
She moved back around the dead man and went outside.
Roger watched her as she walked back up to him and knelt beside him again. She wet down on washcloth and wiped at his forehead, which made him wince. "I have a question for you, young lady."
She took another washcloth and poured some alcohol on it. "What?" she asked and wiped his forehead then. When he gasped in pain, she added, "Sorry."
"Twice tonight, you've told me things that you shouldn't know at all. I want to know how."
The girl looked at his face for several seconds, then she looked down. "Not now. I have to take care of you and Smokey, then we'll get away." She grabbed his left hand and placed it on his forehead. "Hold that there and I'll look for some gauze or a towel."
"We can't take Smokey with us."
She stood up and moved back towards the house. "I am not leaving her behind. I saw a cat carrier on the pantry floor and I'll make sure that she's calm for the trip."
To cut off any more discussion, the girl jogged back to the house. She went directly to the pantry, where Smokey waited at the tuna.
--Finally! I want tuna!--
The teen ignored the cat, grabbed the can of tuna and carried it back into the kitchen. She opened it, poured the contents on a plate and carried it back to the pantry. She sat it on the floor and gave the feline a small smile as she jumped to the floor and started eating. "Is there anything else, your Majesty?"
--My water dish would be nice. I'm afraid to go to it with that man's body in there.--
Scarlett brought in the water dish and sat it near the plate. "I'm still taking care of Roger. I will be back to take care of you, too, so just enjoy your meal."
--This is good.--
The girl walked back into the bathroom and searched the medicine cabinet for anything of use. "Nothing. Figures." She took a thin and faded yellow towel with her and went back outside towards the man.
As she walked, she concentrated and looked around. She no longer sensed Everett's thoughts and the thoughts of the man to the north consisted of terrified prayers to God begging for help.
Roger watched the girl approach him and sat in silence as she tied the towel onto his forehead.
"Have you got an idea of where we can go?" she asked him.
"Not really," he admitted. He looked down. "I kinda hoped that nobody would bother us and we'd just leave after resting the night, you know. What about you?"
Scarlett looked back up the road towards the direction she had come from. "There was a church about a mile up the road. I think maybe we should stay in the garage here tonight, then go to that church tomorrow morning." She looked at him. "How does that sound?"
He nodded. "O.K. I'll take your word for it."
She moved back towards the house. "I'll tell Smokey what we're doing and then we'll go in the garage."
He laughed briefly, then winced in pain. "She's a cat! She won't understand you."
"Yes, she will."
Scarlett found several sets of keys set up inside a small framed picture in the kitchen. The picture itself looked as if it had been made as a shop class project and reminded her of something similar that Kristy had made the year before in woodworking class. She took all the keys.
It took the girl only a minute and five tries to find the key needed to get them inside the garage. She helped the man to his feet and they walked inside together.
"You don't need to do this," he said. "I'm not an invalid."
"Shhh!" she said. "Let me help you." She saw an old love seat in a corner near a television in the corner and guided him towards it.
She sat him down on the seat and looked around. Most of the space was taken up by rummage sale items set up on tables. The love seat and the TV themselves had price tags on them. She grabbed a folded blanket, opened it up and spread it out on the man. Then she sat beside him and spread the blanket over herself as well.
Roger looked at the girl as she snuggled up beside him. "Are you sure about this?" he asked. "You were afraid of me earlier."
The teen laid her head on his upper left arm. "You risked your life tonight just to protect me," she said. "I'm sure of it."
He blinked and adjusted himself to relax. The girl adjusted herself as well. "Good night, Scarlett."
"Good night, Roger." She moved her hands to her belly and closed her eyes. "Thank you for protecting me like that. I appreciate it."
"Thank you, too, for helping me out."
When Scarlett woke up sometime after sunrise, she grimaced and suppressed a groan. Oh, man! My body is stiff!
Her sleep wasn't exactly comfortable; she wasn't used to sleeping on a couch, next to a man she had met not even twenty-four hours before.
The redhead finally opened her eyes, blinked several times and moved a lock of hair away from her eyes. She thought over the events she had been through and looked at the man who snored beside her.
His left hand rested on her right thigh.
I have no idea if this is an innocent accident, or if you're 'testing' my reaction, she thought. I'll treat it as an 'innocent' mistake - this time. She gently moved his hand off of her and fought the impulse to stretch.
When she moved off the couch, she slid to her left slightly, then stood up. However, one of her joints popped and Roger jumped in shock. Dammit, she thought, then said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you up."
He looked at the girl as she stretched, then did likewise from his sitting position. "It's O.K. I needed to wake up, anyway."
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
He gave her a small smile. "I have a headache. I need coffee, or simply the number of the truck that hit me last night."
"I have to go p...to the bathroom," she said and blushed. "I'm also going to check on Smokey and make sure she's O.K. I think she's dreaming. Do you need anything?"
"There was coffee in the pantry last night before those jackasses showed up," he said and stood up. He stretched again and yawned loudly. "I'll come up in a few minutes and, if it's still there, I'll make us a pot of it. You go ahead and take care of that fur-butt queen."
Scarlett raised her eyebrows. "Fur-butt queen?"
He smiled at her. "I grew up around cats, and every one of them acted as if they ruled the world."
"I'll be there when you get there."
"Be careful," he said and rubbed his head carefully. "The raiders could have returned."
She looked away from him and concentrated briefly, then shook her head. "No, they aren't."
Roger looked at her silently, and when she stepped outside, he sighed. "How do you know they aren't, kid?"
"We can't stay here," Roger said in the kitchen as he drank a cup of coffee and ate a cold strawberry toaster pastry. "Owners are bound to return sometime and just finding the bodies is going to make them freak out. If we happen to be here when that happens, it'll be worse."
Scarlett held a steaming cup in both of her hands and sat on the floor near Smokey as the cat ate dried cat food out of the dish. "I agree," she said. "That church down the road isn't too far. I just need to explain it to Smokey what we're all going to do."
He smiled. "Yeah, say your goodbyes to her, even though she'll forget us within a day."
The teen looked up at the man and frowned. "What do you mean, 'say your goodbyes'?"
Roger blinked and shook his head. "We can't take her with us, Scarlett. She'll be scared and be a hell of a lot more trouble than she's worth. Besides, her owners will be upset when she's not here."
"Her owners abandoned her! She could have starved to death! As far as I'm concerned, they forfeited any rights to her." She stood up and moved near him. "We are not leaving her behind."
The man backed up slightly and held up his left hand. "O.K., Scarlett," he said. "But you can carry the cat carrier. Don't blame me when she goes berserk, though."
The teen looked down at Smokey and said, "You won't go berserk, will you, girl?"
The cat ate her food and didn't look up at either human.
Roger watched in silence as Scarlett held the cat to her chest and talked to her in a soothing voice. He couldn't understand the words, but he wanted to roll his eyes.
But to his surprise, the cat didn't fight going in the carrier, nor did she protest when she was carried outside.
"I don't believe this," he said when he saw Scarlett walk up to him with a five-pound bag of cat food.
The girl looked at him with a wide-eyed and pleading look on her face. "Please carry this for me, Roger." When he said nothing, she added, "Please?"
He sighed and took the cat food from the girl. "I must be nuts to agree to this."
She smiled at him in appreciation then. "No, you're a really nice man, Roger. You like Smokey, too. I know it."
"Let's get a move on, kid. I don't want to take a chance on those freaks coming back."
They walked away from the house.
It took Roger and Scarlett (plus Smokey) more than an hour of walking to reach the church grounds. The building was set up off the curve in the road and back in the trees. A large white sign outside read, "Lindner Corner Community Church, founded 1817."
"Where's the community?" Scarlett asked and looked around. "All I see is a home down the road."
"Probably used to be one here decades ago," Roger said and squinted his eyes as he looked at the church. "We're being watched. Old man with a shotgun near the main doors. A woman with a rifle in the bell tower...I think."
"Should we stop there?" the teen asked. "I'm not so sure anymore. These people may not be comfortable with me."
"Why wouldn't they be?" he asked back.
"Look at me, Roger. I'm a Goth chick. I wear dark makeup and an ankh. They'll probably think I want to sleep with the devil, or something other idiotic thing."
The man smiled at the girl, but he raised his eyebrows at her comment. "Well, I'd like to take it easy today, just in case I do have a concussion," he said. "Let's be friendly and maybe they'll be friendly back."
As they moved towards the church's front stairway and main doors, the armed old man stepped out of the shadows and stopped in front of them. "Can I help you?" he asked. His tone was neither threatening nor inviting.
Roger stepped forward. "I was injured by raiders last night. If it's all right with you folks, we'd like to stay a night or two to make sure the injury isn't serious, then move on." When the old man said nothing, he added, "Scarlett and I can help out around here to sort of pay our way."
The woman leaned out of the bell tower and the two looked up at her. She appeared to be in her mid-forties. "Are you two married?" she asked.
"Oh, brother," Scarlett muttered and looked down.
"Shhh," he whispered, then shook his head and answered the woman. "No, ma'am. We just kind of found each other, and are sticking together for safety."
"Roger got hurt while protecting me from the raiders!" Scarlett looked up and said as she stepped up beside him. "They wanted me and he stopped them! I put a bandage on his forehead, but I'm not sure if he's totally O.K."
Roger looked at his younger friend. "Oh, really?" he asked.
The teen smiled at him. "Sorry about how that sounded."
The old man waved them up and said, "Come on in. Get off your feet and we'll look at your injury."
"What about my cat?" Scarlett asked and held up the cat carrier.
"Bring her in, too," the woman said. "House pets need protection and company, too."
The old man led them inside then.
The church consisted of eight members, ranging in age from forty-seven to ninety, led by Pastor Dean Barlow. Roger and Scarlett were introduced to them in the sanctuary while his injury was being checked out.
The woman who had been in the bell tower was the youngster of the group, and her name was Anne Huntington. She had ash-brown hair and wore a knee-length yellow dress. She looked at Scarlett for a long period of time, which made the teen uncomfortable.
--You look like a whore with that dark face paint on, girl.--
Scarlett looked at the woman quickly and suppressed a wince when the woman backed up a foot. Crap. Now, she's really going to think I'm satanic, or something. I better play it nice and polite.
"Where are your parents, Scarlett?" Anne asked.
The teen did wince then. "They're dead, ma'am," she said. "They were in Philadelphia on Saturday morning."
"Oh, dear," a nearby elderly woman said and shook her head.
Rev. Barlow held up his hands. A bald man with a gray fringe of hair, he looked more like a stereotypical college professor than he did a church pastor. He said, "We need to pray, folks. Everyone bow your heads and close your eyes."
Scarlett saw that Roger followed the leads of the church members and looked down herself. She didn't close her eyes, though.
The man prayed aloud for their new visitors, for Scarlett's comfort in her loss and for her parents in the event that they survived, and for their safe passage and general health. Finally, he finished his prayer with requests that both of them would become Christians.
I don't believe like you people do, the redhead thought and blinked. Maybe it was a mistake to come here.
She jumped as an elderly man laid one of his hands on her back and said a prayer for her as well. She could only catch a word here and there, however.
In the end, all eight prayed, one after another, until an hour passed.
Afterwards, while Scarlett busied herself with fixing up a litter box for Smokey, Roger was given two sleeping bags and led to the church basement by Rev. Barlow.
"We eat down here," the preacher told Roger as he led the visitor to one end of the large dining room. The room looked as though fifty or sixty people could dine in there at once.
"Big dining room," the younger man said and looked around.
Barlow chuckled. "In the mid-seventies, we didn't have enough room in here for church potlucks."
Roger looked at him. "What happened to everyone from then?"
The smile left the preacher's face. "Many of them were older, and they died...as their times on earth ended. Others moved out of the area in search of better jobs, and others still left over disagreements or arguments." He sighed. "Enough about that." He pointed at five twin beds set up at one end of the dining room. "It took us most of Saturday to get all of this set up," the preacher said. "But in times like this, it's better for us to be together for mutual worship, protection and company."
"It does look cozy," Roger said. He laid the sleeping bags on the floor at the foot of one bed.
"I'm sorry we don't have beds for you two," Dean said. "But to be honest, we never expected other people to come here for shelter. Most of the ones who live around here either have no church, or they have their big fancy churches elsewhere. Either way, we were little more than a curiosity to them. We haven't had a new member here in five years, at least." He chuckled again, but it sounded sad. "That's why the youngster of our church is 47 years old."
"I'm sorry we put you folks to any inconvenience," Roger said.
The gray-haired man shook his head. "Really, there's no need to apologize. Despite our low attendance, we are still a community church, and the purpose of such a church is to be there for those who need help. It's easy to forget that sometimes. Now, you do realize that your young friend is a pagan, don't you?"
Roger looked at the man and kept his expression neutral. "What do you mean by that?"
"She wears an ankh," the pastor said. "That's a symbol from ancient Egypt and their mythologies. Christians don't wear ankhs, they wear crosses." He smiled slightly. "Her dark makeup also marks her as what the young people call a 'Goth'."
"I've never talked to her about her beliefs," Roger said. "We've been more concerned with avoiding raiders and keeping safe. It's none of my business, anyway, or anyone else's, for that matter."
The pastor shook his head. "I disagree with you on that, Roger," he said. "All eight of us here are concerned, not just with your safety, but with your salvation as well. We want you to come to a saving knowledge of the grace and love of Jesus Christ."
"But it's not required for either of us to stay here, is it?" Roger asked. "Because if it is, then I'll get Scarlett and we'll leave and take our chances alone."
Barlow shook his head again and held up his hands. "No, salvation is not required for you two to stay here. But neither of you can fault us for being concerned with your souls."
Roger looked at him, then nodded slowly. "O.K., I see your point. But that's a decision that can't be rushed into," he said.
"I see." The older man looked at Roger for several seconds, disappointment evident in his features. Then he said in a quieter voice, "If you two are...romantically linked, I'd appreciate it if you didn't show it here."
The private investigator's face turned red. "This is a house of God, Reverend. I do have a certain amount of class. There are certain things that one just does not do."
"You'd be surprised at those who would do it," the preacher said. "We had a couple from Philadelphia break into our church once and use the altar as their marital bed."
Roger's expression showed his surprise. "I wish I could say that shocked me. How did you find out about it?"
"They filmed it, but left the film behind. I don't know if that was an accident or if it was deliberate. We turned the film over to the state police, who later caught them at a Lutheran church in the next county." He shook his head. "Apparently, they had a goal to 'consecrate' every church they could with their lovemaking."
"Did you prosecute them?"
Dean nodded. "Yes. For the breaking and entering. They didn't steal anything, and did no other damage. I prayed for them and it could have been a whole lot worse."
"It could have been a rape or a child molestation instead. They were simply a married couple who happened to have a certainly odd 'kick'. Now, I'm sixty-seven years old and one thing that God has taught me in my years as a pastor is that it never pays to get angry or stressed out about a lot of things. A lot of it just isn't that important."
"So, does having someone like Scarlett here bother you?"
Dean shook his head. "No. In the eighties, we had a few teens who could have been called Goths. Look, Roger, I wasn't trying to imply that you two were intimate."
"I just met her yesterday, Rev. Barlow. She's a nice kid trying to get to the rest of her family. I'm not trying to get laid, I'm just keeping her safe."
"She's also a very young and a very pretty girl. Be careful about how you treat her. She could misread any signals you give her into something that they aren't. After all, closeness can easily lead to intimacy."
Roger held in his sigh and simply nodded. "Well, thank you for your concern. We'll hopefully be out of your way in the next day or two."
A little while later, Scarlett looked at Roger as he sat down beside her on the couch. Smokey jumped up on her lap and stretched on both of their laps. "I think I stand out like a sore thumb, you know?" she said and absently rubbed on the cat.
"You're the only teenager here, kid," he said and smiled at her, "and I'm the next youngest." He chuckled. "To them, I'm just a kid, too."
"You know what I mean, Roger. Some of these people think I'm a devil worshipper. A couple of them even think that the only reason I have Smokey here is for some future sacrifice."
Roger looked around the room, then at the teen. He leaned towards her and whispered, "I think I've finally figured you out, Scarlett."
The girl tensed.
"I've thought about it ever since you knew what those raiders wanted, plus how easily you calmed Smokey down like you did."
She closed her eyes and fought to keep from shaking.
"You're a mind reader."
She said nothing.
He waited a few seconds, then continued. "At one time I would have laughed at that, but now, I don't think so. You know some things that you shouldn't."
The teen realized suddenly realized that she was holding her breath and took several breaths as her arms shivered. She looked down and bit her lower lip briefly. "Are you going to leave me here?" she asked, her voice quiet, and weak.
The man touched her left shoulder and she looked up at him. "Why don't you tell me what I'm thinking right now. You'll have your answer."
Her lips quivered and she looked away from him. "I can't."
"You mean that you won't."
She shook her head quickly. "I mean that I can't read you!" she said. "Ever since I met you, your mind, your thoughts, they're a blank slate to me. I could read those raiders and all their filthy thoughts about what they wanted to do to me. I could read most of John's perverted fantasies about me. I can read these people here and their fears about me. I can even read Smokey's thoughts, though they concern mostly tuna, freedom, rest and play. But I can't read you." He said nothing and she closed her eyes again. "Thank you for your help in protecting me, Roger. But, I'll find my own way, if that's what you'd prefer."
He squeezed her shoulder gently and said, "If you don't mind, Scarlett, I want to stick with you."
She looked at his hand on her and felt the heat in her face as she blushed. "Why?"
He looked ahead and kept his grip on her shoulder. "Several reasons. It's not right to just abandon a kid in the middle of nowhere, plus I have absolutely nothing to do. I have no family to look for, and no home to return to." He looked at her and she returned his look. "You could say that I'm simply afloat. But the main reason I want to go with you is that you're good company. I like being with you."
Her blush deepened and she cleared her throat. "The fact that I'm 'some sort of pagan' doesn't bother you?"
She shook her head and gave him a small smile. "I feel better now, Roger. I'm...thankful you want to be with me. I want to stay with you, too. Thank you."
"We'll stick around here a couple of days, help out some, then leave. How's that sound to you?"
Scarlett nodded. "I can deal with that."
"They're going to witness to us, you especially." He gave her a cryptic smile. "But then again, you already know that, don't you, 'Goth chick'?"
Her smiled widened. "I do."
The man stood up, briefly ran his hand through her hair and laughed, then walked off.
The redhead watched him as he walked, her smile fixed and in place.
A dish had been set up on the floor for Smokey, and the feline ate dried cat food near Scarlett's feet. She was content, and ate in silence as the humans inside the church ate together at the table.
The entire church company was at the meal, as were Scarlett and Roger, who sat across from each other. What a breakfast it was, too. Sausage gravy and biscuits, fried bacon, sausage and ham, cooked apricots and apples, not to mention plates full of fried eggs. Then, of course, there were pots of coffee, as well as two pitchers of juice and a pitcher of milk.
The array of choices temporarily stunned Scarlett and she watched silently as everyone else served themselves.
An elderly woman named Fiona smiled at Scarlett and said, "If you're a vegetarian, dear, then there is still plenty of food to eat. Go on and eat!"
That caused the teen to grab a few slices of bacon and put them on her plate. "I'm not a vegetarian," she replied, and smiled as well. "I'm just a bit overwhelmed by how much food you have." Then she ate part of one bacon slice.
"We believe in a hearty breakfast!" Rev. Barlow said and laughed. "With the ladies of this church, we are definitely guaranteed a very hearty breakfast." He laughed again, joined by most of the members.
"Amen, brother," one of the men said and most of them nodded.
The redhead then opened a biscuit on her plate, but instead of the sausage gravy, she grabbed the bowl of steaming apricots. She ladled a heaping serving of the hot fruit on the opened biscuit, then topped that with a slice of butter.
As the people ate, a discussion of the day's activities were planned out and discussed. Roger volunteered to fix a loose downspout on the church's northeast corner, and since he was the youngest and most fit male there, got the job.
Scarlett smiled from the taste of the hot apricots and laid her fork down on the plate. Then she stared at the napkin where her spoon and the butter knife still sat.
Her pushdagger lay beside the two pieces of silverware, and the teen's face went pale as she felt her front pocket in a panic.
The door to the stairway opened and three Asian men walked in the room. All three were dressed in uniforms of what was once called the North Vietnamese Army, and each carried an assault rifle, either of Russian or Chinese design.
"No," Scarlett muttered. Nobody else acknowledged the visitors, who approached the teen.
The redhead Goth grabbed the pushdagger, quickly fit it into her right fist and stood up to face the men. But all three faded from view and she became aware that everyone stared up at her, their faces registering shock and fear. Even Roger and Smokey seemed surprised and she blushed deeply under everyone's stares. "Uh..." she said and closed her eyes briefly.
Scarlett looked at her right fist and gasped at the blood that covered not only her hand, but also the dagger blade and her forearm.
Then she looked down at her chest and saw that she was naked from the waist up. Splatters of blood decorated her belly and breasts and she absently wiped blood off of her left cheek.
She looked at the other people, who still stared at her, then saw a man walk out of the shadows to a stop in front of her.
Her scream died in her throat as John Fleming looked at her through lifeless eyes and grabbed her right hand in both of his. Both hands were gray and felt like they were blocks of ice; she could feel the untrimmed nails dig into her skin as he gripped her.
"YOU'RE MINE!" he yelled.
Scarlett Hawkins sat up in the sleeping bag and covered her face in her hands as she gagged in her terror.
The sound of snoring men from some of the beds reached her, and she saw Roger's back as he laid on his left side in his sleeping bag.
Smokey laid near the private detective's feet and stood up as she looked at the teen. She stretched and strolled over to the girl.
Scarlett laid back down and pulled the cat up to her chest. Tears ran from her eyes and she kissed the feline's head, then closed her eyes.
At breakfast, Roger noticed his companion's pensive mood and sat down beside her. "What's up, Scarlett?" he asked, his voice low.
"I had a nightmare earlier," she said, her voice also low. "It was a bad one, and took place at breakfast."
The teen drank her fruit juice and looked at her plate. Most of her food remained untouched. "It was about John. He came here after me."
The man looked at her and gently touched her right shoulder. "I'm here with you, and nobody's going to hurt you." He squeezed her briefly and gave her a smile. "Go ahead and eat up. Keep up your strength and, maybe, you should talk it over with Rev. Barlow."
The girl looked at him quickly. "But I'm not a Christian!" she quickly whispered.
Roger sighed and nodded. "I know that, Scarlett. I know that. But sometimes, we convict ourselves for actions that really weren't wrong. Killing a rapist during an attack isn't wrong, from either a legal or moral standpoint...in my point of view. But you know that already, and still had a nightmare. Like it or not, a Christian preacher has leadership standing in a community, and in general throughout most of the United States. Maybe talking with him about it, or even getting advice, could help you to absolve any lingering guilt you might have."
Scarlett snorted and said, "I'll think about it."
He nodded again. "Good. Now, eat your breakfast before it gets cold."
She looked at his forehead and reached up to touch his bandage. "How does your head feel?" she asked.
Roger smiled and sighed in relief. "Much, much better, thank you," he said. "I no longer have any headache, while the injury itself still hurts some."
The teen looked him in the eyes and said, "I'm glad. I don't have any medical experience, and I wouldn't know what to do if you got worse."
"Well, my vision isn't blurry, my head isn't throbbing, nor is it swelling. Right now, I feel as though I whacked my head on a doorjamb or an overhang."
"When should we leave?" she asked.
The man thought and said, "Let's try for tomorrow. Today, we can help out here, to give these good folks some payback for their hospitality."
As he turned back to his meal, the teen laid her right hand on his left forearm and gripped it briefly. When he looked into her face, she smiled at him. He smiled back.
More than an hour after breakfast, Rev. Barlow caught up with Scarlett as she dusted and swept an upstairs section of the church.
He looked around and nodded in approval. "We appreciate you taking care of this up here," he said. "Since we've lost all of our younger attendees, this floor doesn't get used anymore."
The teen wiped the sweat off of her forehead and laid a dirty dusting cloth on an unused desk. "I can see that," she said.
"You look like someone with a lot on your mind," he said, getting to the subject of his visit.
The redhead looked at him, her eyes narrowed, and said nothing at first. Then, she asked, "Did Roger ask you to speak with me?"
The preacher shook his head. "Nope. But I did see you two whispering at breakfast, and you seemed somewhat disturbed by something." When he saw her start to protest, he raised his right hand. "When you deal with a congregation, you can sense certain things as they're happening. It doesn't make me psychic, by the way. It just means that I pay attention. Any good man of God should pay attention to his flock...and his visitors."
The girl looked at him for more than a minute as she decided on her course of action. Finally, she sat down on a metal chair set up on the outside of the desk and said, "Very well, then I'll tell you about it.. Something is bothering me, and I've told Roger about it. But I still feel...guilty over what happened."
The preacher unfolded another chair and sat down near her. "Go ahead," he said.
She looked at the floor and said, "The other day, a man tried to rape me, and I killed him. Roger said that I didn't do anything wrong, but I had a nightmare about this man last night. I dreamed that he came here after me."
Barlow looked at her for several seconds, then finally said, "Roger is right. You did do nothing wrong."
"I thought that one of the Ten Commandments is Thou Shalt Not Kill."
He nodded. "That's right, but in Ecclesiastes, chapter three, it is written that there is a time to kill, and a time to heal. This man who attacked you...was he someone you knew?"
The teen nodded. "My next-door neighbor. He rescued me from a bad situation and got me away from the fallout. When he got us someplace safe and secure, he made his intentions very plain to me."
"Well, I can tell you this," the preacher said. "This man, from just what you've told me, sounds as if he had planned to rape you all along. Even if the bombings had never happened, he would have tried to attack you at some time in the future. Was he married?"
"Then it's even worse. He was not only going to sin against you and your parents, but also his wife as well. In fact, even if he had succeeded, he would have probably killed you later on."
"I suspected that," she said.
Barlow nodded. "Guilt would have hit him, and your presence alone would have been enough to convict him. That is, if he had a conscience. After all, it is written in Proverbs that the wicked flee, even when nobody pursues him. To put it bluntly, your attacker got his just desserts." He reached out and took the teen by the hands. "I'm going to pray for both you and Roger."
"I...I don't believe like the rest of you do."
"I understand that, Scarlett, and I will tell you that the love of Jesus is big enough for you. He is inviting both you and Roger to believe in Him and trust in Him."
"What if I reject that? Will you curse me...or us?"
He shook his head. "That's not how true Christianity works. I will still pray for you two, because no matter how you feel towards us or the Lord, we are to love and pray for you."
The teen swallowed and said, "I've had a Christian to tell me once that God hated me because I'm a...Goth. He said that he hated me, too, and that he hoped God would kill me."
Barlow frowned. "Then, I question the state of that so-called Christian's own soul. You cannot hate your fellow man...or woman...and not become the enemy of God. That is in the Bible. If that 'Christian' read his Bible the way he should have, he would know that. Remember this, Scarlett. Christians are warned about neither judging nor cursing others. Those who judge will find themselves being judged by their own standards, and for most people, that will not be a pretty sight. Curses, however, have a tendency to backfire on the person who places the curse. Now close your eyes, and I'll pray."
Scarlett did as he said and the man took hold of her hands as he prayed for her deliverance from the bad dreams and the guilt. He also prayed for Roger's healing and that both might come to know and follow Jesus Christ.
Scarlett squirmed slightly and when the prayer was over, the man released her hands. "Thank you for your time," she said.
He smiled at her and asked, "Do you have anything else you want to talk about?"
She shook her head.
"Then I shall go check on Roger outside. We appreciate having someone of his youth and strength to help with the downspouts. Those things are very heavy." He moved to the stairway and walked down out of sight.
The teen reached up and briefly rubbed the ankh on her necklace, then grabbed the dusting cloth and moved to a set of bookshelves behind the desk.
A light snow started falling after lunch, and those who were working outside came inside the church, fearing fallout.
Scarlett shivered at one window as she watched the flakes fall and turned as Roger stopped near her. "I heard one of the men say something about radiation being in the snow," she said. "Are we in danger?"
He shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "We've undoubtedly gotten some radiation from the bombings, but it's hard to tell how much. They don't have a Geiger counter or any kind of detection device here. We'll see how it is tomorrow, but I think we should head towards Taylorsville as soon as it's safe. The radio says that there is an organized refugee camp there. Maybe we can find out the level of background radiation, at least."
One elderly man looked at the two and said, "This snow came out of the west, so unless the area south of Pittsburgh got a lot of fallout, I'd say that there's no radiation in this. I just regret not buying a Geiger counter when I had the chance." He shrugged and sighed. "Even long before the Cold War ended, a lot of us forgot just how dangerous things could get. Well, people will be living with the results of this long after every one of us are dead and gone."
Scarlett shivered again and looked back outside the window again.
Roger laid a hand on her right shoulder and she looked at him. He smiled at her, and she returned the smile.
As it was, Scarlett, Roger and Smokey stayed with the church for two more days. While the snow melted the next day, there was enough mud and standing water about that most of the men felt that it was a risk to walk out in it.
She suffered no more nightmares and became more relaxed as a result. As it was, nothing particularly outstanding happened during the two days inside the church. Cleaning continued, with the two younger visitors going after the difficult and hard to reach places. Board games, such as checkers, Trouble and Aggravation filled the time, especially after the evening meal.
Rev. Barlow even held a daily sermonette and prayer, with a song, to start the days with, and Roger and Scarlett sat in on them.
"Do we really have to do this?" Scarlett asked in a whisper as she fought to keep from fidgeting in her seat. It was Tuesday morning and they were there at Roger's insistence.
Roger looked at the preacher, but whispered back at her and said, "We don't stand out like sore thumbs when we give a token participation." He glanced at her and smiled slightly. "Consider this a part of the payment for staying here."
She looked down at the closed hymnal in her lap and rolled her eyes. He chuckled and looked back at the preacher.
The skies were still gray on the Wednesday morning as they prepared to set out from the church.
Scarlett felt a mixture of dread and relief at leaving. While nobody had said anything rude towards her (due to Rev. Barlow's influence, she had no doubt), she had still sensed some judgmental thoughts about her appearance and her possible beliefs. But from most of the members, she sensed a genuine concern, both for their safety and their souls.
Those who had feared for the cat's safety had been pleasantly surprised by how loving the girl had been towards the animal. Of course, the five-pound bag of cat food Roger carried helped in that regard.
Roger and Scarlett were fully loaded with their supplies and Smokey had been put back in the cat carrier. Each member shook their hands.
One of the elderly woman, Viola, even hugged Scarlett, to her embarrassment, and placed a Gideons New Testament in her jacket pocket. "I've placed the plan of salvation inside the back cover, dear," she told the teen. "Please, read it and don't put it off until it's too late."
The redhead could think of a number of snarky comebacks to use, but she sensed the genuine concern the woman felt for her and smiled shyly. "Thank you for your concern...and your prayers," she said politely. "Thank you especially for your hospitality. I'll never forget it."
"Take care of your cat," the woman said. "She obviously likes you."
Scarlett's smile widened and she glanced briefly at Smokey. "We're growing on each other."
The woman's expression took on a serious tone and she said, her voice nearly a whisper, "Be careful of being alone with Roger."
The teen blinked and said, "He risked his life to protect me from raiders, Viola."
The older woman nodded and looked at him. "He's still a man, dear, and men sometimes can't help themselves."
Scarlett almost smiled and thought, What if I can't help myself, huh? "He's a gallant gentleman." Then she chuckled. "That sounded so old-fashioned."
Viola smiled at her. "As well he should be. But just keep in mind that of the two of you, only you can get pregnant. No matter how good his intentions may be, the road to hell is paved with good intentions."
The girl felt the pushdagger in her pocket and said, "I will take care of myself."
Several feet away, Roger talked with Rev. Barlow and a few of the men. One man, a tall fellow who looked to be nearly ninety, said, "If you two are headed to Taylorsville, be careful about going into town from this direction."
"Why's that?" Roger asked.
"It's the nearest thing Taylorsville has to a red-light district. They have at least three bars real close together and a lot of the young hoods like to hang out there."
Rev. Barlow looked at the man and said, "From what Roger told me about their experiences before coming here, I think the young hoods are out roaming around." He glanced at Roger. "Be careful of folks you meet out there. Some of them will want to hurt you for fun. Some will really want to hurt Scarlett, especially since she is a young and pretty girl."
"That's right," one of the other men said to Roger. "I was a young punk once, and someone as pretty as your young lady friend is would have been a tempting target in times like these."
The other men looked at him in surprised and he continued, "I told you guys before that before I found Christ, I was not a nice man. I spent five years in prison back in the sixties. But all that is behind me."
The taller man patted his shoulder and said, "Amen to that, Carl." He looked at Roger then, and said, "If you two do end up going into Pennsylvania, I suggest that you avoid Hammersville altogether."
"Scarlett has family in Indiana," Roger said. "So we probably won't head that way. But, what's wrong with Hammersville?"
"My nephew lives near there and has told me all about it. If young Scarlett were to show up there, especially now, she wouldn't be safe. They're very judgmental, and a lot of them even consider us to be fallen brethren."
Carl shivered and said, "I've been there. Forgiveness isn't in their nature."
Finally, all the farewells had been said, and Rev. Barlow gathered the church's company around the two. Everyone closed their eyes and he started his prayer. "Dear Lord, we thank you the visit we had from Roger and Scarlett, and we pray for their safety as they go on their way and leave us. Keep them safe and well in the palm of Your hand. Let them not fall into evil and protect them from the radiation as well as from the criminals that are out there. May they find that Your way is the true way and be with them always. In Jesus' name we pray, amen."
"Amen," the assembled church members repeated.
For the first fifteen minutes of the trip, neither person said anything, and Smokey fell asleep in the cat carrier.
Finally, Scarlett said, "I think I'll miss those people."
Roger glanced at her. "Not as bad as you first though, huh?"
She returned his glance and gave him a short laugh. "They don't think I'm a devil worshipper anymore, but they do think that I'm misguided. A couple of them wondered what kind of parents would let me go Goth."
He watched the wind blow her hair slightly and smiled at her. "They meant well, and I'm thankful that you didn't insult them for their prayers."
They walked on around a curve. "Prayers are powerful things," she said, "when done genuinely. I have more trust in their good intentions and their prayers than I do many others."
Roger nodded. "The members of Lindner Corner Community Church are the real thing. A pity they're so small in number." He smiled and added, "I told you that they'd witness to you."
"Yeah, I know." They walked on. "Roger?"
"What'll happen to them?"
He blinked and took a deep breath. "It's better not to think about it."
"I want to know."
They walked on some more. "Very well," he said. "If order's not restored soon, I'd expect half of them to be dead within a year, eighteen months tops."
"Most of them are in their eighties, Scarlett. A couple of them in their nineties. That forty-seven-year-old woman, the one named Anne, she's going to have her hands full if they start getting sick. Plus, if they lose her...it'll be even worse."
She blinked and said, "I'm sorry I asked."
They walked on down the road.
Within an hour and fifteen minutes of starting their walk, Scarlett and Roger lost sight of the church or anyplace remotely familiar. The teen stopped briefly, looked back, then turned around and walked on ahead.
All she could see around was a part of the road itself and trees everywhere else. That made her feel more alone than she wanted and she moved slightly closer to Roger.
"Still thinking about them, huh?" he asked and smiled at her.
A small smile appeared on her face, then disappeared. "Were we right to leave them?" she asked as she looked down at the ground. "I'm not totally sure now."
He said nothing at first, then asked her, "Well, how would you have felt living there with them?"
The redhead swallowed and finally shook her head. "I don't think so. They were nice to us, you know, but I - we - didn't fit in there."
The man looked back for a second, then glanced ahead and shook his head. "I just hope things get back to normal soon," he said, "for their sake. Especially with the phone lines and the emergency services."
They walked on for several more feet, then Scarlett said, "Smokey? How are you doing, girl?"
Apparently being able to communicate with the human girl did a lot to calm the cat, for she was half asleep and yawned inside the cat carrier. --Wake me up when we get somewhere.--
"Scarlett?" Roger asked and the teen looked at him. "Not that I want to be rude or anything like that, but I don't think we should say much until we stop for rest, and then after that when we stop for the night."
She blinked and asked, "What do you mean 'for the night'? I thought that we'd be in Taylorsville by then."
"That's thirty-five miles away," he said and smiled. "I did a walkathon once back in '88. I walked twenty-three miles and was wiped out by the end of the day. And my route that day was pretty flat." He pointed ahead at the curved road, the trees and the uneven landscape. "Given the uneven lay of this land here, I'll be real happy if we make ten miles today."
The girl looked at her companion and frowned. "Where will we stay, then?" she asked.
He cringed and looked away from her face. "I...figured that we'd check on the churches between here and there."
She rolled her eyes. "Oh, lovely."
"I'm sorry, Scarlett, but the churches would be the best bet for personal safety." He glanced at her. "A large gathering of people is generally a safer place to be in a crisis. Now, the reason I think we shouldn't say much is because our voices will carry. Someone could hear us before we hear them."
"We could whisper," she suggested, looked at him and kicked a pebble. "After all, I like talking with you."
The man smiled and looked at her briefly. "Thank you," he said. "I like talking with you, too. But even a stage whisper can be heard some distance away." He shook his head. "If we were talking, there could be some bad guys ahead who hear us and set up an ambush. I know that we're both armed, but I really don't want us to get into a gunfight if we can avoid it." He pointed at the now sleeping cat. "Besides, we'd freak her out if we start shooting."
"O.K.," she said. "If I need to stop, I'll clear my throat, or something."
"I have a better idea," he said. "Touch my arm and give it a small squeeze. If I need to stop, as well, I'll do the same thing."
Scarlett reached over and touched his right forearm, then squeezed it. "Like that?" she asked and he nodded. "Good. Suppose we don't find a church by nightfall? What then?"
He smiled. "This area of the country is rather thick with small churches, Scarlett. Don't worry about that."
"What I'm worried about is coming across a group of 'believers' who would burn me at the stake," she said. "Or, more than likely, hang me. After all, some people in Lawndale believed that I was a witch, and Lawndale was a fairly modern community."
The private detective blinked as he remembered the Lindner Corner men warning him about Hammersville. "Are you a Wiccan?" he asked.
The teen shook her head. "No, I'm not anything, actually, though I do kinda lean towards the pagan lifestyle." She touched the ankh and rubbed it. "This, to me, means life and immortality...and peace. But my worries are because I know that a lot of people who claim to follow Jesus would rather act like Moses when it comes to girls like me."
"I will not put you in that situation, Scarlett. I promise you that."
She nodded and smiled briefly. "Thank you, Roger."
Then the two walked on silently.
At one point, the road went down a hill at a steep incline, crossed a culvert and then went up another hill. They stopped briefly and looked at it.
"Man, haven't they ever heard of bridges?" Scarlett frowned as she asked aloud.
Roger glanced at her. "Haven't you ever heard of taxes? This road is a chip-and-seal cheapo job and that culvert itself is cheaper than building a bridge connecting the two hills." He pointed at the other hill. "Let's get across that and take a breather off the road."
The two walked on ahead and she sighed. "I just hate walking up and down all the time like this," she complained. "I keep expecting to see Ms. Morris behind me at anytime."
"My gym teacher at Lawndale." The teen grimaced. "She was a slave driver. Plus she used to watch us when we took showers."
The teen nodded and blushed. "She claimed that she wanted to make sure we got ourselves clean," she said.
"Sounds like the girl's gym teacher my sister had in Virginia," he said. "Except she also liked to watch the boys in the shower, too. At least, that was the rumor."
Scarlett shuddered and looked at him. "I may have gotten clean, but feeling her gaze always made me feel dirty."
Roger looked at her briefly, then motioned to the side of the road. "Let's go in the woods here," he said. "We'll sit and take a break."
The two left the road, climbed over a ditch and moved into the woods.
Five minutes later, the two were about a hundred yards off the road and sitting on a somewhat flat boulder that stuck out of the ground.
Smokey was let out of the carrier, but kept in the immediate area of Scarlett and the carrier itself. --I'm scared.--
"Stay around us," the teen told the cat. "You'll be safer around us, and we'll move on later."
Roger handed Scarlett a bottle of water and opened one for himself. He watched the girl as she drank some water, then looked away and smiled.
She felt his gaze and blushed. "What?" she asked. I wish that I could read you, but I do get the feeling that you're 'interested.'
He still smiled. "Nothing," he said. "Just trying to relax."
Uh, huh. Right. Tell me another tall one. "O.K.," she said. "Sure."
"Well, it is cute watching you talk to Smokey like that. Then seeing her 'listen' to you."
The girl raised her eyebrows. "Cute?"
He looked her in the eyes and nodded. "Yes. Cute. But I'm kinda glad that you can't read my mind."
Scarlett's blush deepened and she swallowed nervously. "Roger, I have a question for you."
"Sure," he said.
"What if we do run into a gang out there? What do we do if we can't get away from them?"
He took a big drink of water and wiped his forehead off as he thought. "Be prepared to let Smokey out so that she can get away if we have to fight. That way, if we die, she'll at least have a chance to survive."
"I don't like to think about it, but I'm afraid to be unprepared, too, you know?"
Roger handed the girl a granola bar from his backpack, then opened one for himself. Then he handed her a small paper plate. "Give Smokey some cat food," he said. As he watched her do that, he continued, "Can you sense any other thoughts out there?"
She looked up at him and shook her head. "So far, just Smokey's," she said. "But since I can't sense yours, and quite a few of John's thoughts were somehow blocked, there have to others I can't read, either." She shook her head and closed her eyes. "Several days ago, all I worried about was whatever I had to deal with at school. Now, I'm afraid of dying all alone out here, and I miss my parents."
He touched her left shoulder and she looked back at him. "Why don't you tell me about your folks? I'd like to hear about them."
She poured some water in her hand and held it down for the cat to drink from. For several seconds, Smokey did drink from Scarlett's hand, then rubbed against her legs. --Thank you.--
"Anytime," the girl said and wiped the corner of her right eye. "My parents were named Conrad and Jenny Hawkins," she said. "They were married at least five years before I came along. I was born in Columbia City, Indiana. My dad had an office job in Fort Wayne, while my Mom worked part time at different jobs so that she could be there for me."
Roger nodded. "How did you end up in Maryland?"
She sighed and sat down beside him. "Dad got transferred to Baltimore a little more than two years ago." She looked at him sadly. "I really hated it at first. But then I met Kristy Barton and we became good friends. I'm glad I met her, you know, but if we had stayed in Indiana, Mom and Dad would still be alive." Tears ran freely from her eyes. "I wished that I had died with them."
"But you didn't," he said and shook his head, "and I really doubt that your folks would appreciate you saying that. Remember what I told you on Sunday night? That I'm glad that I had met you?"
"I wasn't lying. Scarlett, you're still alive and I'm going to do everything in my power to keep you that way."
"Why?" she asked. "You don't know me, not really. I really don't know you that well, either. What's to keep you from abandoning me and Smokey if things get too bad out there?"
"I'd have to live with myself," he said. "I couldn't abandon you - either of you, actually, despite my earlier misgivings about the cat. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm not a coward. I'm a man who lives up to his responsibilities, and you are my responsibility right now."
"You make me sound like a child when you say that," she said, a frown on her face.
He shook his head. "You're not, but you still are, too." He reached out and took her right hand in his left. "I wasn't lying when I said that I like having you around me."
Scarlett looked at him, her face red again. Before she could respond, Roger kissed her lips briefly.
He broke the kiss and smiled at her. "If that...bothers you, I won't do it again."
The girl's response was to return his kiss and grip his hand tightly. Then more tears ran from her eyes and she whispered, her voice whiny, "I miss my Mom and Dad!"
She started crying and the man guided her face to his right shoulder. He held her securely as she cried and patted her back gently.
Smokey moved around her legs again, then strolled back into the cat carrier.
As Scarlett's cries subsided, Roger held her gently and asked, his voice a whisper, "How are you holding up?"
The girl blinked and wiped her right eye, then her left. She looked up at his face. "Sometimes, I'm O.K. when I think about them," she whispered back. "Other times, I feel as though I want to die." She felt him tense up and she quickly added, "I'm not suicidal, Roger."
"We're new friends, Scarlett," he said and smiled at her. "I don't want to lose you just after a few days."
She sniffled and sat up, then laid her head on his shoulder. "It's just...it's just that I've lost a chunk of my life, my existence. I haven't had a chance to really mourn Mom and Dad. John didn't care. He didn't even care when we found out that Cleveland was bombed while his wife was there. All he cared about was getting to screw me, the bastard."
For nearly a minute, neither of them said anything. Then Roger kissed her left cheek and said, "The pain never really goes away, I can tell you that. It just dulls somewhat over time."
The teen pulled back from him and looked at him, surprise evident on her face. "Did you lose your parents, too?"
He looked at her, a sad expression on his face. "My dad died four years ago - complications from heart surgery. But Mom...Mom lives in Arlington." He closed his eyes. "I try not to think about it, but any nuke that hit D.C. would destroy Arlington as well. I just...hope it was fast and that she didn't suffer."
Scarlett blinked and swallowed. "No wonder you told me you were all alone in the world." She moved a lock of red hair away from her right eye. "Why didn't you tell me before now?"
He sighed and looked down. "You were pretty stressed out when we first met. So was I, actually."
The girl frowned and looked at him skeptically. "You didn't seem stressed from what I remember."
A hint of a smile appeared on his face and he stroked the left side of her head. "A policeman has to think fast and keep his or her wits about them. I hid my stress." He pulled her into another embrace. "When we get away from the dangerous areas and into someplace a bit more...normal, we're going out for a dinner date. Someplace nice and fancy."
Scarlett turned her face and lightly kissed his hand. "That may be awhile."
He smiled fully then, and she did as well. "That's O.K. I'm patient." He looked down at Smokey, who watched them from the inside the cat carrier. "You ready to move on, Scarlett? I think that Smokey is."
Scarlett pulled away from him and knelt by the cat. "Have you relieved yourself, girl?" she asked.
Roger stood to one side and removed his jacket. Then he took off the shoulder holster, then scratched his shoulders and the top of his chest. The cat watched him, then looked at the girl.
--Yes. You two can go ahead and mate. I will be fine.--
The teen blushed and found herself at a sudden loss for words. Thank God that Roger couldn't 'hear' that. "We were just talking, Smokey. Nothing else."
The cat turned her head sideways slightly as she looked at Scarlett. --Why are you humans so bothered about mating? All animals mate.--
"Uhhh, we'll talk about it later." She stood back up.
--You humans are strange. If it wasn't for cats and dogs, you wouldn't know what to do with yourselves.--
Roger gave the girl a bemused look. "So you really can communicate with her, huh?"
Her face was still red as she nodded. "Yes."
He stuffed the holster into his backpack and placed his pistol in his jacket pocket. "Obviously, whatever she 'told' you embarrassed you. What did she 'say'?"
Scarlett's face went even redder. "Nothing! Nothing at all!" She turned her back on him and put on her backpack, then picked up the cat carrier. "Let's go!"
He chuckled as he put his backpack on, too. "Sure thing, Scarlett. Sure thing."
More than a half-hour later, the three arrived a auto service garage built near a curve in the road. A house had once stood in front of three former barns. A sign identified the business as "Michaels Auto Service" and listed a phone number as well as an address.
Several wrecked or obviously damaged vehicles were parked outside the barns and an old Ultra Cola vending machine stood near what appeared to be an entrance. It's display light blinked from an apparent bad light.
Roger stopped and Scarlett stopped beside him. "Let's check it out," he said. "Since you don't want to stay in another church, we can try this place."
"It doesn't look like much," she said, an uncertain look on her face.
"It'll have an office," he said. "That'll give us some small bit of comfort."
They moved to the door next to the vending machine and he turned the knob. The door opened and the girl stopped.
"What?" he asked.
He smiled. "I would hope so."
The girl blushed. "It's just...dark."
Roger reached in and flicked a light switch. Several fluorescent lights came on and he smiled at her. "After you."
The girl walked inside slowly and looked around.
The cat stretched and sneezed twice. Scarlett looked down at the carrier and asked, "You O.K., girl?"
The feline looked up at her and blinked.
Roger walked ahead and tried one door. It opened to an office occupied by a desk, a four-foot folding table with several chairs around it and several padded chairs scattered around the room. There was a computer on the desk and two filing cabinets at one side of the room. "Here we go," he said and ushered the girl and the cat inside. "We can spend the night here and then go our way tomorrow morning."
They walked inside and Scarlett set the cat carrier on the floor. "I'll let you out in a minute, Smokey."
Roger took off his backpack and then his jacket and tossed it to the side. He stretched and said, " That feels good."
Scarlett did likewise and said, "Yeah, it does." She moved up to him and they kissed briefly.
"Aw, isn't this cute?"
She broke the kiss and they turned to see three men in the doorway. The bigger of the three had no hair and held a pistol in his right hand. "Don't let us stop you," he said. "Go ahead and kiss and do whatever else you were going to do. We'll just wait until you're done. Then we'll introduce ourselves."
The man to his right, a skinnier man with long blond hair laughed and shook his head. "You tell 'em, Ace," he said and looked at Roger. "Why don't you grab her ass and give it a good squeeze when you kiss her."
The men laughed and the man called Ace smiled. "Skinny has a good idea, there, mister. It gets kind of cold in here at night, and we can all have a party to keep warm. Kiss her again, and do what he said."
"We...didn't know anyone else was here," Roger said.
"That's O.K.," Ace said. "You two are welcome to stay here with us. Go ahead and kiss her again. Grab her ass at the same time. Then take her shirt off."
"We'll just leave, thank you," Roger said and reached for the cat carrier.
"I don't think so," the man called Ace said as he pointed the pistol at the private detective's face. "It's impolite to leave before the party has had a chance to even start."
Roger and Scarlett stood still as the three men formed a semi-circle around them. The girl clamped her jaws tight to keep her teeth from chattering in her fright.
Ace kicked the cat carrier and Smokey let out a terrified screech as the carrier landed upside down several feet away.
"NO!" Scarlett cried out and moved towards the cat.
The gunman turned and aimed the pistol at the teen's face. "Stay right where you are, girlie. The cat isn't a part of this - but you two are."
Her chin quivered briefly and she blinked several times. Why can't I read your thoughts? Why can't I even read Smokey's thoughts now? She glanced at Roger, and saw the sweat that appeared on his forehead. Why did we take our coats off - with our pistols still inside them?
Skinny looked at Roger, then at Scarlett, then at Ace. "Flip a coin again, Ace?" he asked as he put his knife in its scabbard and dropped the nightstick onto the floor.
"Yeah, let's get it started." He nodded towards the girl. "Since little red riding hood here is a piece of tail, she'll be tails."
All three laughed, while the girl swallowed in her terror and looked at the floor. This can't be happening to us!
Smokey wailed from her confinement, while Roger stared at the gunman's weapon.
Skinny pulled a quarter out of his pants pocket and flipped the coin into the air. Then he quickly caught it and slapped it on his left forearm. He moved his hand and looked at it, then laughed and turned his gaze to Roger. "Heads," he said.
The other two men looked at the girl's companion then and Ace turned his weapon on the man. "Looks like you're going to be first," he said and motioned down with his pistol. "Skin out of those jeans and take off your panties, too." When Roger hesitated, he cocked the pistol. "Now."
When Roger unbuckled his belt, the third man, the one so far unnamed, looked at Scarlett and said, "Pay attention to what we do to your lover, girlie. Cause what we do to him is what we're gonna do to you." He moved up to the girl and added, "Why don't you take off your shirt? Get ready for your turn."
Scarlett backed up and turned slightly; her right hand moved into her pocket. At the same time, the man moved up to her and grabbed her shirt near the right sleeve.
"Come back here, little whore, and let's see your goodies!" He then pulled down hard and the T-shirt material ripped down from the shoulder.
The girl's hand gripped the pushdagger handle in her pocket and she felt a flash of heat go through her the same time she felt the sudden chill of her belly and chest being bared. Then she screamed.
The three Vietnamese men were before her again and she moved to the attack. For some reason, she wore fatigues of a U.S. Army soldier, but the shirt was partly torn open. She ignored all that, however, as she fought to defend herself.
The sudden scream froze the four men, who watched as the girl yanked the pushdagger out of her pocket and swung her right arm towards her tormentor.
The man tried to move back, but the blade slashed across his chest and he cried out in pain. Then he tripped over his own feet and fell to the floor. As he fell, he hit his head on one of the chairs. He laid still on the floor.
One of the soldiers went down under her attack and she moved after the second one.
Skinny grabbed the nightstick and rushed towards Scarlett. As she turned her attention towards him, he brought the nightstick down on her right hand. The girl let out a loud grunt and dropped her weapon, and the man swung the stick into her belly. She fell backwards.
The second Vietnamese soldier kicked the weapon out of her hand and she fell back as he pressed his attack.
Roger had just opened his pants when the teen had screamed. With Ace's attention on the girl, he jumped at the man and landed a solid punch on the man's nose. At the same time, he knocked the pistol away and tackled him onto the floor.
The redhead landed on her right side and found herself facing a brick that had apparently been used as a doorstop. A growl escaped her lips as she grabbed it, jumped up to her feet and rushed towards Skinny. She held the brick tightly and used it as a bludgeon on the man.
The third soldier was being fought by one of her comrades, so she turned her full attention to the soldier who had kicked her. He backed up slightly and she smacked the side of his head with a large rock.
Roger landed two more punches before Ace yanked a knife out of a scabbard and slashed it quickly across the private detective's left arm.
The sudden pain caused Roger to cry out and back off as Ace tried to slash him again. The knife barely missed his chest and he fell to his side.
The criminal rolled to his right and grabbed his pistol. He turned towards Roger and said, "Now, you're gonna get hurt real bad."
When Skinny fell to his side, the nightstick he held skittered across the floor. Scarlett panted and turned her attention to the other two men. She saw Roger on the floor and Ace cocked the pistol. With a scream of fury, she lifted the brick and ran towards them.
The gunman turned and his face went white as he saw the teen girl jump up in front of him, the brick in both of her hands. When she slammed it into his face, he dropped the pistol and fell to the floor. She went down with him and used the brick again and again.
The final soldier fell with a cry of shock as she rammed the rock into his face again and again.
Roger watched in shock as Scarlett hit Ace repeatedly with the brick and got to his feet. His left forearm bled profusely and he clamped his right hand onto the injury. He looked at both Skinny and the man who had torn the girl's shirt. He moved up and kicked each man to check for any reaction.
Then he moved back to his jacket, groaned in frustration and pain as he released his arm and pulled his pistol out of his pocket. "Won't make that mistake again," he muttered and moved back to the two on the floor.
He cocked the pistol and aimed it at the man who had attacked Scarlett. Blood ran from the cut and dripped from his fingers. "'When in doubt, kill'" he quoted and fired a shot into the man's head.
Skinny jumped, opened his eyes and yelled, "NO! DON'T!"
Roger's second shot hit the man above his left eye. "Too damn late," he said.
Smokey's yowling protests reached him then and he looked at the upside down cat carrier.
Then he saw Scarlett. The teen was partly hunched over, the brick still in her right hand, and her knuckles white from the tight grip she held it with. What got his attention, however, was the look of fury on her face and Ace's bloody and mashed face.
He noticed that her right sleeve was still connected to her shirt by a strip of cloth about a quarter of an inch wide. Not only could he see her bra, he could see her heaving breaths as the berserker rage slowly left her. He could also see the blood that now decorated her shirt and arms.
"Scarlett?" he asked.
The teen whirled and jumped up at him and he moved back quickly. She stopped and dropped the brick. "Roger!" Then she ran up to him, wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his chest.
The man looked uncertainly at the teen as she cried into his shirt, but he then wrapped his right arm around her and held her firmly. He held the pistol away from her back and looked around warily. Then he kissed the top of her head.
Blood still dripped from the fingers of his left hand. He kissed her again.
After a couple of minutes, Scarlett's cries died down and she pulled back from him. "Oh, no!" she said when she saw his arm. She looked around quickly for something to bandage him, then glanced down at her ruined T-shirt. She pulled her right arm out of the now useless sleeve, tore the material away from her shirt and said, "We'll use this as a bandage."
"Wait!" Roger said and pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket. "This is reasonably clean. I'll put it on the cut and you use the sleeve to tie it on. It'll be a better bandage that way, and maybe stop the bleeding as well."
He set the pistol on the desk and watched as the girl nervously tied the makeshift bandage on him. Then he glanced at the three bodies around them to see if they had moved.
Smokey let out another wail and when Scarlett finished with his injury, she moved to the cat carrier and set it upright. She then sat down, opened the carrier and said, "It's O.K., girl. You're safe. They won't hurt you again."
Roger watched as the cat came out into the girl's arms and then he looked at the men's bodies again. "Scarlett."
She looked at him.
"What just happened here?"
The girl blinked, looked away, and said, "We were attacked and defended ourselves."
"No," he said as he shook his head, "it wasn't as simple as that. You went berserk on them. What I want to know is Why?"
The girl blushed and held the cat up to her face. For several seconds, she embraced Smokey and said nothing. Then she reached out and picked up the pushdagger. She released the cat, which moved cautiously around the girl and looked at the bodies on the floor.
She handed him the pushdagger and said, "There is something about this weapon that...does that to me. It's happened before."
He looked the funny-looking knife over and glanced back at her. "Oh? When?"
She looked down. "When John attacked me. I grabbed it to stop him and I suddenly saw three Asian men in front of me. I think they were from Vietnam, cause they reminded me of those Missing in Action movies that they play on cable TV. It's like they're trying to get me and I'm fighting them." She drew her knees up to her chin and closed her eyes. "The next thing I know, John's laying on the bed with multiple stab wounds and I'm all bloody."
Roger stood there and looked down at the girl. He said nothing as he looked at her.
She felt a cold chill sweep through her then, and asked, "You think I'm some sort of crazy bitch, don't you?"
In response, he held out his right hand to her and she looked at it for a few seconds before taking it in her right hand. He pulled her to her feet and then pulled her into an embrace. "I'm...shit, I'm a mass of contradictions right now, Scarlett." He pulled back slightly and looked her in the face. "I was very nearly raped, which blows my mind."
"But you're also afraid of me, too," she said.
"A little, yes," he admitted, but still held onto her. "But you saved my life, too. You saved all three of us." He released her and moved to the roll of paper towels he saw on the desk. He tore off several sheets and said, "We need to clean off the blood on you and you need to change your shirt."
Roger found an emergency eye wash station and wet the towels down from that, then washed off the girl's arms and hands.
"You need to fix your pants," she said and looked him in the face. "I can see your underwear."
"I can see your bra, Scarlett," he said and tossed the soiled paper towels in a trashcan.
A small smile appeared on her face and she said, "I guess that if it doesn't bother you, it doesn't bother me, either."
He returned her smile and said, "We need to decide what to do. If we're going to stay here, we need to get them out of here. Or we need to go somewhere else."
"I...I want to go somewhere else," she said. "Even a church. I don't think I could sleep here, anyway. Not after what's just happened to us."
Roger closed his pants, then buckled his belt around his waist. "While you change your shirt, I'll check these assholes for anything we can use."
The girl watched him silently as he searched the man who tore her shirt, then turned her back and pulled the ruined garment off. She laid it on the desk and then rummaged around inside her backpack for another top she could wear.
Nearly a minute later, the girl pulled on a clean black T-shirt and looked as her companion touched Ace's neck.
He glanced up at her. "This one's still alive," he said and stood up. He retrieved his pistol from off the desk and said, "Get Smokey and take her out of here." He cocked the pistol. "Neither of you need to see this."
Scarlett picked up the cat and said, "Time to get out of here, girl." She put the animal back into the carrier and they left the room.
--I hate the sound those things make. It scares me.--
"Sorry about that," the teen muttered and winced as the sound of a gunshot reached them. Then she heard a second shot and looked back quickly.
--I HATE that sound!--
Me, too, girl. Me, too. She turned back around and moved to the main garage.
Scarlett waited in the garage as Roger brought her both her backpack and jacket, then went back into the office.
He returned with his jacket back on, and deposited his backpack near the cat carrier. Then he walked back into the office.
When he returned again, he had displayed what he had taken off the men. "One Ruger .44-Magnum pistol, a box with twenty-three shells for that pistol, two knives, one nightstick, maybe taken from a policeman..."
"That Skinny fellow could have been a policeman," Scarlett pointed out.
Roger frowned, but nodded. "It's possible, but I'd hate to admit it. I also took two lighters and seventy-six dollars in cash from them." He looked at her. "I don't know whether or not money will be worth much after everything that's happened, but in case it is, we'll have it on us." He put on the backpack, deposited the Ruger into his jacket pocket and slapped his left shoulder. "I put back on my shoulder holster. Until we get somewhere safer, we need to be...ready to fight, at a moment's notice."
He handed her one of the knives. "Does your pushdagger have something that can be clipped onto your pants?"
She nodded and said, "It also has some sort of shoulder holster so that it can be placed between my shoulder blades, though I don't know why there of all places."
Roger looked at her, then placed his hands on the back of his head. "Suppose you have someone who's got the drop on you and has you put your hands like this. Well, with that pushdagger placed at the top of your back and just under your shirt, you can access it for instant use." He gave her a wry smile and shook his head. "Given your apparent expertise with it, I'd say that you should have no problem with it."
"Do you think I'm some sort of crazy bitch?" she asked him again.
Finally, he shook his head and moved up to her. "No. I told you back at Lindner Corner that at one time, I wouldn't have believed in such things as mind reading." He held up the weapon and looked it over. "But you can read thoughts. Plus this pushdagger apparently has some sort of energy, some psychic energy, that takes you over in times of stress." He kissed her forehead, then the tip of her nose and then her lips. "If I ever upset you, please, tell me. Don't grab the pushdagger if you're mad at me." He kissed her lips again, this time longer.
"Roger, there was something new this time," the girl said.
He blinked and said, "O.K. What?"
"I couldn't sense any of their thoughts."
He nodded. "I was going to ask you about that."
The girl backed away from him and waved her arms around briefly. "That's not all. When we were around them, I couldn't sense Smokey's thoughts, either."
The man looked at her, his expression slightly confused. "Wouldn't that be normal if the cat is resting?"
Scarlett shook her head quickly. "No. Even when Smokey has been resting, I can 'hear' her rhythm. It's subtle, but it's there. But when those men showed up, it all stopped...cold."
Roger shivered then and said, "Let's get out of here. I'll think on this as we walk and we'll discuss it when we settle down for the night."
When they stepped outside, the sun had just disappeared behind the tree tops and threw the entire area into shadows.
The man took a deep breath, nodded at the girl and they walked ahead.
By dark, the three had arrived at a darkened country church set off the road more than a hundred feet.
Roger knocked on the front door several times, while Scarlett looked around nervously. "How are you doing, girl?" she asked.
--I'm fine. I need to play some.--
"Wait until we get inside," she said.
Roger walked quietly around the church and out of their sight.
Nearly five minutes later, the front door opened from the inside and Scarlett jumped in fright. She swung around and saw Roger standing there.
"Sorry," he said. "Didn't mean to scare you. There's nobody here, but it's quite warm and we should get settled for the night."
Scarlett carried the cat carrier inside and Roger shut and locked the door behind them.
Within an hour, Scarlett looked at Roger as he laid in his sleeping bag. She calmly opened the sleeping bag and moved up behind him.
"Scarlett?" he asked and turned slightly. "What are you doing?"
The teen said nothing as she spread her opened sleeping bag over them like a thick comforter and snuggled up to his back.
He turned around and looked at her in the semi-darkness of the office. "What's wrong?"
She wrapped him in an embrace and said, "I know how I feel about what happened...but how do you feel? I don't have to be a mind reader to know that you're upset."
Roger sighed and kissed her left cheek. "I was scared...terrified. I thought that I had failed to protect you and myself...and even Smokey. I thought that I had gotten us killed." His voice choked up and he clamped his mouth shut briefly. "I'm so sorry. I thought I was a careful man and nearly got you hurt."
To Scarlett's surprise, the man broke down. She guided his head to her shoulder and held onto him as he cried. "We're safe," she whispered to him. "We're safe. We're O.K."
He wrapped his arms around her and continued to cry into her shoulder.
Author's Note: This section is comprised of parts nine through fifteen of Apocalyptic Daria: Scarlett's Tale, as it appeared on the PPMB, the SFMB and on fanfiction.net.
From the PPMB, thanks go out to undefinedlust, vlademir1, KatrinaMedina, The Angst Guy, psychotol, NightGoblyn, Brother Grimace and thatLonerchick for their comments.
From the SFMB, thanks go out to Dervish and Gum Wars for their comments.
From fanfiction.net, thanks go out to eltf177 and BlazeStryker for their comments.