Ed Johnson’s son, Ben, had been shot in the driveway taking a bullet to the chest and a second to the back of his head as he lay dying. His blood had soaked into the ochre gravel of the road staining it nearly black. Large blue-black flies were swarming over his corpse. His German shepherd dog lay dead next to him.
The farmhouse stood at the crest of the hill along the county highway overlooking the lush green fields and muddy brown pastures of the farm. The farmhouse was a simple nineteenth-century whitewashed structure with a large front porch, a gable roof with two dormers on the side for the upstairs bedrooms, and a red brick chimney. It had been built by Ed’s great-grandfather. The screen door was hanging from a single hinge and the wooden door to the farmhouse was ajar having been forced open.
They found Ed Johnson inside the house in the kitchen next to his wife. The stench of the bodies was nauseating. Erik reflexively covered his face with his sleeve. Ed was sprawled face up on the table with his arms out to his sides. He had been shot several times. His blood had spilled onto the table and had dripped down to pool on the floor. His wife was lying on the floor with her arms over her face. She had been shot in the back of the head. Ed must have gotten off a few rounds before they took him down considering how shot up the place was.
Ed’s gun had been taken along with all the ammunition, food, and fuel from the vehicles. Anything they considered valuable. They would come to be known as Reapers. They attacked rural households, killing the inhabitants efficiently without mercy and taking everything that they considered valuable. People speculated they came from city gangs, but no one really knew for sure. They weren’t organized, at least not in the beginning.
It was a double blow like a punch to the face followed by a punch to the gut, the sudden shock of the murders followed by the slow painful realization that another farm would not be producing food this year. People would be starving. The Reapers didn’t care about that. They only saw easy prey.
Erik had agreed to help with the task of digging the graves and laying the bodies to rest. It was hot work digging the trenches in the yard behind the farmhouse. Some of Ed’s relatives had come to help as well as some other community members. Townsfolk earned community service credit by helping with tasks such as this.
It took Roger Gray about two weeks to come over and help Erik connect his solar panels to his hybrid car battery. This gave Erik and Laura enough electricity to run the refrigerator and microwave. There was not enough to run the oven, but they could cook on a hotplate during the day. At night there was only enough energy to keep the refrigerator running. On cloudy days the battery only charged a little, so they wrapped the refrigerator with quilts after it shut down. Erik was beginning to worry about winter when the solar panels would produce almost no power. The power company had finally gotten some of the electricity working unfortunately, it was not being provided as far out as Erik’s home on the edge of town.
Erik and Laura rode their bikes to the community center every day to attend the community lunch. Anyone could get lunch, but you were required to either earn community service credit or prove you were disabled. Each day the lines grew longer, and the helpings shrank. Erik remembered the first time the food ran out while there were still people in line. There were many angry people sent away hungry that day. Erik tried to make sure that he and Laura arrived early enough to get food every day.
The bean vines Erik had planted had been eaten by the rabbits just as small beans began to appear on them. The peppers seemed to have some type of blight. The tomatoes were about the only crops that were doing well. The early tomatoes were delicious. The cherry tomatoes were as sweet as candy.
Erik found a fishing pole in the garage that belonged to his father. He took it with a bobber and a lure down to the river. The line became tangled with backlash with his first cast. He was finally able to untangle it. He tried again. Nothing seemed to be attracted to the plastic lure with the hook on it. A young man named Tommy was watching him and took pity on him. He showed Erik how to attach a piece of corn to his hook and where to lay it in the river. The carp almost broke his line, but Tommy helped him wrangle the big fish to shore. Erik and Laura roasted the fish over a smoky fire. They agreed it was the best fish they ever tasted.
Erik found an old live trap and set it up for the rabbits. He used bean leaves for bait and after a few days caught a small rabbit in the trap. He got his knife ready and put on leather gloves but when he took hold of the rabbit it began squeaking so loudly that he dropped it and it ran off. The next time he saw Tommy, he told him about the rabbit, and Tommy said he would show him how to dress out a rabbit if Erik let him keep some of the meat.
Erik found out the latest news from George Marcon. The major cities had banned people from entering. The smaller cities began adopting similar bans, especially in the south. It seemed people were fleeing the northern climates as winter approached, but many of the southern cities had bans against people entering. There were reports of Reapers across the country. They seemed to be getting more organized as well as more brazen. In some cases, they had wiped out entire small towns. There was still no news from the west coast. In fact, Oregon and Washington seemed to have joined California in going radio silent over the summer. There was something very strange going on out west.
One day Laura was taking longer than usual to get ready to ride to the community center. Erik grew angry and yelled at her. Eventually, they got on their bikes and rode to the center. Erik was far ahead as they came down the hill near the center. Laura’s bike hit a patch of sand and she fell skinning her knee and elbow. The food ran out while they were waiting in line that day. When they got home, Erik cleaned Laura’s wounds with alcohol. The hospital was only accepting critical patients. Laura blamed Erik for rushing her. Erik blamed himself. They shared a can of cold garbanzo beans for their meal that day with a salad made of violets, goosefoot weed, and chives.
Laura’s knee had taken more damage than they first thought. She was unable to ride her bike anymore. Erik began bringing a plastic box with him to the center, so he could take half of his lunch home to Laura.
One cool autumn morning Erik put on the heavy jacket he had not worn since the spring. He felt something in the pocket and withdrew a business card. It had a name and address on it. Daniel Bravitte. He did not remember getting a card from Daniel. He could only assume Daniel had slipped the card into his pocket the last time they talked. He began to think about the last conversation he had with Daniel and how nobody had any answers. Daniel had always seemed to have an answer for everything. He had been right about something strange going on in California. Maybe Daniel’s house held the answers to what was going on. It was a rural address located about an hour away by bicycle.
“Laura,” Erik said, “I’m going on a ride. I won’t be back for a few hours.”