Spring arrived, and with it, the spread of disease. Despite the chaos, as is human, people grouped together for love and support. Babies were born and the struggle for life continued. As predicted, thousands of people died from influenza, starvation or murder. Morticians were unable to embalm and bury the bodies fast enough to prevent the spread of bacteria. Hoards of people left the cities and water treatment centers were left unattended. Most of the citizens of Monticello and nearby towns had either left the area or died. Those that remained formed small groups and kept to themselves. During the winter Theresa developed a very close attachment to Dr. Sherman and often accompanied him to the clinic. He had set up at the old county clinic just at the end of the dirt road leading to the Carpino home as a way of providing some medical service to those that remained in Monticello. By the end of March even with the reduced population of the area, the doctor's medical supplies had become seriously depleted. "Typhoid is blooming faster than the daffodils." Dr. Sherman mumbled, as he looked into his supply cabinet and picked up a handful of the small candy pops he used to pass out to his young patients. "All that's left is a bit of candy and some cotton balls."
" I'll take a cherry sucker if there's one left." Theresa said, cheerfully. "What's typhoid?" She sat on the table holding a pencil and a clipboard, swinging her legs from time to time as she checked items and amounts on the supply sheet. The doctor grinned and tossed a red sucker over his shoulder. He heard it hit the floor and turned to see Theresa jump from the table and pick up the broken candy. Disgusted with herself, she announced that she was still having a problem with her depth perception, then popped the candy into her mouth as she resumed her position on the table. The solemn expression on her face lasted only a moment before she quickly added a smile and then looked up at him, holding her pencil ready. The doctor looked at her, amazed at her inner strength. Of course, there had been many bad times and everyone did their best to cheer her. Megan had become very adept at needle point and had made several charming eye patches for Theresa to wear. Each morning the child chose one to suit her mood. The one she wore today was solid black with the legend 'Go ahead . . make my day' in jagged white letters. Personally, he preferred the ones with lace and flowers. " Typhoid fever", Dr. Sherman explained, in response to her question, "is a highly contagious and life threatening disease caused by a bacterium, currently being contracted by drinking untreated water." He always answered Theresa's questions succinctly. She sensed sugar coating with the expertise of an ant at a picnic and was quick to search for answers on her own if unsatisfied by the response of an adult. The child's mind absorbed medical or health information like a dry sponge. Already she was quite knowledgeable in the healing properties of plants and herbs. Sometimes, he worried that her many hours of research was her method of escaping the loss of her family and may be unhealthy. However, there were no children in the area for her to play with and for the most part, she appeared to be happy and well adjusted. His inventory complete, he and Theresa trudged through the fresh spring snow back home caring a list of needed medical supplies.
That night he told Ben that he planned to walk 60 miles to Slick Rock for chlorine bleach, drugs , and whatever medical supplies he could find. He would let everyone know the next day in case they wanted to add something to his list. Ben's argument that there'd be nothing left and that he'd be wasting his time and energy, fell on deaf ears. Dr. Sherman informed them all of his decision at breakfast the next morning. "At this moment, my friends, if you were carrying an infectious bacteria, I would have no way of treating it if it began to spread. I'm a doctor without medicines. About all I can do now is try to prevent a disease; otherwise, I'm stuck with beating it to death with my medical degree." Seeing that the doctor would not be swayed and recognizing the validity of his arguments, Megan suggested they syphon any remaining gasoline from all the vehicles and put it in her old Datsun. She thought there was enough to get him within 10 miles of Slick Rock. " If there's no gas in Slick Rock, then maybe you can use the car to barter. My only condition, Doc, is that you take someone with you, I don't want you going alone, it's too dangerous."
" I agree," said Don. "and I would like to go with you." Sal also wanted to go, primarily as a relief from boredom. However, Don argued that two men being away from the house was enough and since he knew the Slick Rock area better than Sal, he should be the one to go with the doctor. Sal didn't argue the point. To everyone's surprise, Joan offered to accompany Don and Dr. Sherman on the trip to 'ride shotgun'. Don didn't know her reasons, but he knew damn well that it wasn't out of any concern for Dr. Sherman. Megan was not thrilled with the fact that the doctor accepted her offer. The trip to Slick Rock was settled. The trio would leave the next morning. Juniper and Megan spent the day making a list of things they wanted from the city. Theresa added a small list of herbs that she wanted to plant.
Throughout the day Megan came to the realization that the discomfort she felt was not only concern for a safe trip, but she was jealous over the fact that Joan was accompanying Don. That evening as Megan and Don sat in quiet conversation they skirted around the issue of the danger of the long trip, and the possibility that he may not return. When everyone retired for the night, Megan and Don reluctantly followed. Up to now, Megan had slept alone in the small guest room that Colleen had used for sewing. Don slept on a sofa in the living room. Megan sat for only a moment before making up her mind. Don was already lying down when he saw her approach carrying an oil lamp. Thinking something was wrong he started to stand, however she allayed his concern by leaning over and giving him a lingering kiss. A trace of perfume floated into Don's nostrils as, with a beckoning look, she turned and waited for him in the doorway. Don quickly got the message and followed Megan to her room. The sewing room door closed tightly on the lovers.
The cold walk to the outhouse every morning was something that Juniper would never adjust to. She had asked Ben, a number of times, to find a way to pump water into the main house so that she could at least have use of an indoor toilet. However, it never seemed to have a priority on his list of things to do. She made herself a promise that somehow, in this electric-less world, she would have indoor plumbing. The brisk walk back to the house generated a number of methods for getting 'indoor plumbing' at the top of his work list. 'Devious or direct,' she thought, 'so far direct hasn't worked, Maybe just blowing up the outhouse might catch his attention.' The thought of everyone watching the outhouse explode gave her the giggles. Walking into the house, she settled for serving Ben a plumbing wrench for breakfast.
Juniper was greeted in the kitchen by Dr. Sherman. He was fumbling with matches, trying to light the wood stove. Patiently, Juniper took them from him and before long a hot fire blazed and coffee was bubbling. "My mom, would never believe this," Juniper said, " Me, 'Ms. Business Executive', being so handy around a kitchen, let alone one so primitive."
Sal and Ben entered the kitchen, pored coffee and sat silently sipping for several moments. " Are we the first ones up?" Ben asked.
"No, while I was walking to the outhouse," Juniper said, emphasizing the last word, "Theresa was dragging Billy Jo out to the garage to look for garden tools." Everyone understood that the girl was often still fearful of leaving the safety of her home alone. All eyes turned toward the creak of Megan's door as it opened and watched without comment as the smiling couple entered the room.
"Well, I guess you two slept well last night!" Juniper teased. Joan entered the kitchen to the sound of everyone's laughter and the conversation turned to the trip to Slick Rock. As they ate, no one except Ben noticed what was on his plate. Puzzled, he set the wrench aside and helped himself to the biscuits and gravy. He paid little attention to the conversation because he was busy planting a garden in his head. Yesterday afternoon, he had checked the storage room for seed packets and wanted the doctor to pick up a few more. He looked up to the noisy entrance of Theresa and Billy Jo. "I've found everything I need." Theresa began excitedly, "I'm going to start digging right after breakfast!" Ben looked proudly at the budding gardener and said, "Well, that's wonderful. I'll come out and help you turn the ground under. I don't have anything else to do."
" What?" Juniper screamed. "When are you going to deal with the plumbing?"
"What plumbing?" Ben said, with look of genuine confusion. Joan anxious to leave, was already inside the car. Impatiently, she watched as Dr. Sherman and Don said their goodbyes. 'Finally!' she thought, as they got on the road. She tried to conceal her excitement as she said," So Doctor, tell me all about Slick Rock." Dr. Sherman explained that Slick Rock, originally a small yet wealthy tourist village serving mountain bikers and river rafters, had grown to considerable size when it became a central area for garbage recycling. Tourism was one of the first industries in the United States to feel the impact of the economic depression that began in the late 90's. In an effort to save their town from economic collapse, Slick Rock shifted from serving tourists to recycling garbage. The plan worked quite well, but greed also motivated a push by local businessmen to promote Slick Rock for garbage disposal. It was the mayor who convinced the residents of Slick Rock that developing land fills in the surrounding barren desert for Salt Lake County would be good for their economy. What he failed to mention was the vermin that would accompany the garbage.
Joan, although uncomfortable with the word 'vermin' was happy to be off that dismal little farm. Don paid no attention to Dr. Sherman's explanation. His thoughts were on the scene in the rear view mirror as he drove away. 'Your everyday average family,' he thought, 'in your everyday average world that has gone to shit.' With a shiver running up his spine he thought of Megan and what the days ahead would mean for their life together. Don was not anxious to go to Slick Rock. Privately, he thought the whole journey was merely to satisfy the doctor's obsessiveness. He wondered if the old man wasn't getting a little senile. Lately, the doctor seemed obsessed with recording air temperature. Don's thoughts were interrupted as Joan, who had been looking over Dr. Sherman's list, exclaimed, "Where in the hell do we find a porcelain filter? Christ, I don't even know what it is."
" Don't worry," answered Dr. Sherman," I'll look for that. When we get to Slick Rock, I'll assign parts of the list to all three of us." Except for a few abandoned vehicles, the road was barren. Although they were aware of the likelihood that they would run out of gasoline before they reached the town, they were all surprised when the car sputtered and jerked to a halt. Don eased it to the side of the road and added it to the collection of automobiles already decorating the highway. With resignation, they put on their packs and started walking the last ten miles. The day was cold, however, the brisk walk soon warmed them. After a few miles spent in silence, Joan wanted to investigate a farm house that had smoke coming out of the chimney, but Don's caution was stronger than her curiosity. Not satisfied with Don's refusal, Joan became insistent. Irritated by her attitude, Don snapped, "They're not expecting the Welcome Wagon! If they want company, they'll let us know!"
" Christ, don't be so testy," she replied," I was just curious. I wasn't suggesting we invade!"
" If you're not blind," growled Don," You can see they've already been invaded. Those broken windows weren't created for aesthetic accent."
" Oh for hell's sake, it was just a suggestion. If you're that god damned afraid of one farmer, how the hell are you going to walk into the city we're headed for. They're not expecting the 'Welcome Wagon' either!"
To avert anymore confrontation between his traveling companions, Dr. Sherman interrupted, "You're both right. We should try to make contact with anyone we can, however, that farm house has been hit pretty hard. Let's leave a note on the fence, telling them we'll be coming back. That way, they can decide if they want to meet with us." Not waiting for their agreement, he wrote a note on a page from his journal and impaled it on a nail that protruded from the fence surrounding the farm. In a silent prayer, he thought, 'Lord, first you turn the world upside down, you make me a doctor without medicine, and now I have Ms. Atilla the Hun for a traveling companion. What next?' The need to share supplies soon melted the hot tempers of Don and Joan. It wasn't long before the argument was forgotten and they settled for a friendly relationship of mutual kibitzing. A few miles out of the city, the air began to take on a slight acrid odor. They could see the outline of Slick Rock. Just past the city limit sign, they passed a truck stop which had burned down. There were a few trucks that were undamaged, but to her dismay, Joan found they contained no fuel. Seeing the disgruntled look on her face, Don asked," What's the matter, Joan, did your fairy godmother screw up?" By now, the reek from Slick Rock had become overpowering. Dr. Sherman knew the odor quite well. It still had that same gagging effect that he found, as a young medic, in the wasted villages of Vietnam. The smell seemed to come in waves and there was no way to escape its omnipresence. " Shit," said Joan, "This smell would make a buzzard puke!"
" Yea," Don agreed, "and it smells like a flock of them already did."
" Not buzzards," Dr. Sherman corrected," but very close relatives; magpies and crows." The doctor was quite correct in his assessment. As they entered the city, they could see flocks of crows circling the taller buildings, but it was the gruesome scene on the streets that held their attention. Half rotted bodies could be seen poking up through the last of the spring snow. The winter drifts were melting and the frozen carnage was thawing in the warmth of the sun. Entering the city, Dr. Sherman recorded a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Visual and olfactory sensations soon collided and Don and Joan began to vomit. There was nothing Dr. Sherman could do for them He knew there would eventually be some habituation to the odor and some psychological repression of the visual stimuli. As they spewed their half-digested lunch across the white blanket of snow, Dr. Sherman sat on the street curb and awaited the inevitable sensory adaptation.
When their stomachs had settled, Dr. Sherman reviewed his plans for searching the city. " We must not become separated," he warned. "When we are finished in the downtown section, we will then proceed to the city hospital. If we meet anyone, do not make any physical contact. Then he reached into his pack and pulled out three pair of surgical gloves. Handing them out, he said," and you are to wear these at all times. We'll dispose of them when we leave the city. If you tear one, get a clean pair, I have plenty. Now, if you're ready, we will begin by going to Toys R Us."
Don and Joan were obviously perplexed, so he explained, "We'll need some toy wagons to carry the supplies, it will make it a lot easier to carry our packs. Especially when we get back toward Monticello and have to climb up that long switch-back road." Amazed at the doctor's meticulous planning, Don and Joan could only nod and follow him down the middle of the street. He knew exactly where he wanted to go and within an hour they were pulling six shiny red wagons. There were a few tracks in the patches of melting snow, mostly from dogs. It wasn't until they reached the city center that Joan spotted human tracks. " Hey, look! Footprints!" she exclaimed. " No shit, we've been following those tracks for three blocks." Don quipped. Ignoring Don's comment, she asked, "How can they live with this awful smell?" Dr. Sherman was quick to answer, "They've no where else to go. Now remember, if we do happen to meet anyone, there must not be any physical contact."
" Not if," said Don, "There's a few coming toward us now." A small group of Slick Rock citizens had gathered at the end of the street. Most of them looked pale and weak. When the riots had ended, the number dead was nearly thirty percent of the population. During the winter, another thirty percent died of starvation and exposure. Now, the survivors subsisted on what remained of the food and sometimes on the rats that were slow enough for them to catch. The rats ate the carnage, and the people at the rats. A member of the group, a large black man, stepped forward and identified himself as Phil. He told Dr. Sherman that there was no food to be found, and the little that was left would not be shared. " We're not here for food," the doctor said, "All we want are some tools and chemicals. You're welcome to follow us and see for yourselves."
" We'll do just that," Phil growled," and if we even think you're taking food, we'll kill you on the spot. We've our own people to think about."
" Understood," said Dr. Sherman, "but I feel I must warn you that as the temperature rises, the bacteria growth from all these bodies will reach epidemic proportions. The city will become extremely dangerous. In fact, the whole countryside runs the risk of infestation. I'd advise you to leave and get as far from the city as possible."
" And go where?" Phil asked, "There's no food except rats and the canned food we sometimes find in basements. Most of us are half starved and too damned weak to even walk. Hell, if we lose a few to bacteria, then at least it'll mean less people trying to survive off the little we have left."
" But you don't understand," pleaded Dr. Sherman, "I'm not talking about a mild case of the flu. When this bacteria begins to spread it will cause epidemics of dysentery, plague, typhoid, cholera and a hundred other diseases that we have no vaccine for. There will be no one left here, but the rats."
With a tone of cold somberness, Phil said," No, it's you that don't understand. What in the hell difference is there between starving to death or dying of a disease? At least, with disease, some of us stand a chance. Out there, none of us will live." Accepting his lack of influence, Dr. Sherman shrugged his shoulders and began walking into the city center. There was little to be found in the stores, but they did manage to salvage about twenty gallons of chlorine bleach and twenty pounds of lye. The people of Slick Rock thought the doctor was crazy and kept asking why he wanted so much bleach. They had no use for anything that they couldn't eat or drink. Again, he explained about bacteria, but it was so remote from the reality of starvation that it sounded foolish, even to Don and Joan. While Don and Dr. Sherman loaded the wagons, Joan asked Phil if he would let her go through some of the local bars. " What the hell for?" asked Phil. "There's no booze left, and if there were, I wouldn't let you take it."
" I'm not looking for a drink." Joan told him. "I just wanted to look around and see if I could find a couple of records in the Juke Boxes. We have an old wind up record player, but no records."
" Good luck! Most of them went to CD's a long time ago!" Phil did not believe her, but he knew for a fact that there was no liquor or food in the bars. Briefly, he gave her directions and Joan darted off to the nearest bar. She was back in less than a half an hour. Surprisingly, she had come up with a few of the ancient black disks and was carefully placing them in her wagon when Don and Dr. Sherman walked out of the store with the last carton of bleach. " What are you going to do with those?" Don laughed when he saw the records. " Can't we have a little music?" she asked, demurely. " Sure." Don shrugged, wondering at the unusual tone in her voice. "But how are you going to play them without electricity?"
" Why with Colleen's antique Victrola. You know, the one in the attic." Joan replied. " Oh yea, I forgot all about grandma's old wind-up player. That's a great idea." Don knew there was no such record player, but he also understood that Joan was trying to get him to go along with her charade. He didn't know what she was up to, but he was smart enough not to question her in front of the wary citizens of Slick Rock. Dr. Sherman, oblivious to their conversation was planning his next tactic. The trio rummaged around in a few more stores before realizing the fact that there was little to be found. The shops had been looted so many times that there was nothing of value left. The only things left behind were the bodies. They left the main street and traveled toward the hospital. It looked as if it had been hit by a bomb. Apparently, the drug addicted portion of the populace took advantage of the rioting and stormed the hospital in search of drugs. There was little left that resembled a hospital. However, the doctor did find some equipment he wanted, including a porcelain filter.
The drug addicts had destroyed any drugs they didn't want before setting fire to the pharmacy. When they were finished touring the city, the people of Slick Rock followed them to the city limits. Phil warned them not to come back unless they had food to trade. Once more, the doctor tried to convince Phil of the danger of the bacteria that would soon be out of control. " If you would at least make some effort to bury the dead, it would help to control the bacteria. If you don't, this town will become one gigantic fly trap. The flies and rodents will spread the bacteria around the entire countryside.
"Well, that sounds like a problem for you country folks," sneered Phil. "When you get hungry enough, maybe you'll pray for a few flies to put you out of your misery. As long as we have these bodies, the rats will stay and feed. If we bury them, the rats will leave or come after us. Now, if you're smart, you'll get on down the road. You got what you came for and you're lucky we let you have it."
Dr. Sherman and Don both flinched at Joan's parting statement as they waked out of town. "Dumb ass nigger!" The trip back to Monticello was extremely slow. They knew they would have to ration their food and water carefully, but did not look forward to the prospect. Just thinking of possible hunger made Joan feel as if she were starving. " Shit! Here I am stuck in the middle of nowhere and all I can think of is a ton of sardines I buried over almost six months ago. Damn, what I wouldn't give for just one can of those slimy suckers."
" I doubt that we'll find any sardines," Dr. Sherman said. "But there's the farm you wanted to investigate. Let's see if they responded to our note. If they're friendly, they may give us food and a warm bed for the night. When they reached the front gate, they found Dr. Sherman's note pinned to a piece of white cloth. "I think this must be an invitation to come to the house." Don said, "What do you think, Doc?"
" I think you're right. Let's see whose home, but be careful. I'll go to the front door and you two stay back far enough to run, just in case it's a ruse. " Joan and Don lagged behind the doctor as he walked up to the front door of the farm house. After knocking a couple of times, the door was opened by a small gray haired old woman wearing a wide smile. There was a sparkle in her eyes as Dr. Sherman formally introduced himself and his two companions. "Oh, for goodness sake, don't stand out there on the porch, come inside. I was just about to make myself some supper and I'd love some company. Like my Henry used to say, 'God is good to those that's good to others.' In these times of trouble, people have to pull together. Oh, I almost forgot, my name is Rachel Bander. Please, come in an warm yourselves."
She ushered them in and sat them down at her dining room table. Keeping up a constant stream of chatter, she bustled in and out of the adjoining kitchen. Don offered to help, but Rachel was quick to scold him, reminding him that this was 'woman's work'. "Like my Henry used to say, 'God gave everyone something to do and they should do it well'." Joan pointedly remained silent and seated. She was getting ready to make a scathing comment to Rachel regarding her inference that a woman's place was in the home, but was stopped by the pleasant aroma rising from the bowl of stew that the old woman placed in front of her. Joan thought that she would first satisfy her hunger and then give Rachel an update on woman's liberation.
When everyone was served, Rachel sat down and asked the doctor to please bless the food. Being out of practice and also a coward when it came to public prayer, he politely refused by saying, "I am honored by your request, Mrs. Bander, however, I think the good Lord would accept the blessing as more sincere if it came from you."
" Why certainly, Dr. Sherman. As my Henry used to say, 'each man must judge himself'." Joan had a mouth full of stew just as Rachel arrived at the 'Amen'. It was obvious from Rachel's conversation that she was a widow and somehow she had managed to survive the past months of chaos alone. It was also obvious to Joan that Rachel was 'smitten' by her good friend 'The Doctor'. Both she and Don were quite content to fill their stomachs and let Dr. Sherman entertain their hostess with pleasant table chatter. " I can see you're alone," Dr. Sherman offered. "It must be very hard for you."
" Oh, it's not so bad now," answered Rachel, bravely, "For a time there it was rough, but as my Henry always said, 'God will provide'."
" And so He has," Dr. Sherman responded. "The stew is delicious." His arm stopped in mid air, as he reached across the table for more bread. Joan had gagged on her food, jumped up from the table and run out the front door. Don ran after her. Startled by her sudden behavior, Dr. Sherman stood up, reached over the table and picked up Joan's bowl. He turned the stew with a fork and gasped when he saw a human finger. Rachel, dismayed by her guests actions, also peered into Joan's bowl and spotting the offending finger said, "Oh, for heaven's sake. I'm just an old ninny. I thought for sure I'd gotten all the bones out. Well, if that isn't just like my Henry to be upsetting everyone's supper."
As Rachel continued to rattle on, Dr. Sherman backed out of the dining room and followed his fleeing friends. He found them at the side of the road, poking their fingers down their throats in an attempt to induce vomiting. " That's not a wise thing to do." He calmly advised them. "We still have a few days of travel ahead and very little food to do it on. If you empty your stomachs, it will only make matters worse." With a look of disgust, Don said, "How can you be so god damned cold about what we just did. Don't you understand that it was the woman's husband we just ate?"
"I don't mean to sound uncaring, but if this is the worst thing we have to do, we'll be extremely lucky. Believe me, the act of eating human flesh is nothing compared to the horrors that lie ahead. The Black Plague, which nearly eradicated the population of Europe will look like a mild case of the flu compared to what is yet to come. Back then, people survived by having natural immunities. In our modern world of antibiotics and wonder drugs, we prevented people from dying, however, the drugs inhibited the bodies natural immune system. Without those drugs, our only alternative is to prevent bacterial contact or face potential extinction. Even those of us that are immune to the major diseases may not survive a simple infection such as you sometimes get when you cut your finger. Our technology never allowed the individual to develop immunities to the simplest of infections. Each time we cut our skin, we immediately reach out for an ointment to cleanse the wound and kill the bacteria."
Standing on the edge of ruin and chaos listening to the doctors predictions of extinction was like taking a cold bath. As Don tried not to remember an article he read on 'flesh eating bacteria', Joan was completely overwhelmed and could do nothing more than plop down on the highway and contemplate which minor scratch on her body would spell her demise. Her thoughts were flooded with the innumerable times she cleaned and bandaged a minor cut, or took aspirin to reduce a fever, or cold medicines to suppress histamines and bacterial growth. When she realized that her class distinction was largely responsible for her cultural distance from dirt, she burst into laughter. The irony was inescapable. Dr. Sherman thought that Joan's laughter might be the first stages of hysteria. He was relieved by Joan's explanation. "Isn't that the shits," she said. "I spend my whole fuckin' life trying to divorce myself from the life of a ghetto nigger and now I come to find out that they may be the only people that can live through this shit!"
" Possibly," said Dr. Sherman. "However, even ghetto lifestyles have included modern medicine. My guess is that the chance of having immunities from simple infections is probably greater for those people who could not afford traditional medical treatment such as antibiotic creams and antihistamines." Don was concentrating on the old doctor's logic trying to find the flaw. He said, "But the people that died in Europe from the plague never had any modern medicines so they must have had a lot of natural immunities. How come they still died of the plague?"
" Having immunities to simple infections will not by itself ward off death from a major disease. The reason that some people probably survived the plague was not because they didn't contract it, but rather their bodies were not in a weakened condition from simple infections. If you're suffering from a low grade infection and contract the flu, chances are that the flu will have a much greater impact on you than if you were healthy to begin with."
"So who has the best chance of surviving?", asked Don.
" Well," said Dr. Sherman, "if you mean who of our group, I would guess Billy Jo has the best chance of fighting off a major disease such as Cholera. Of course, some of us may have some genetic immunities to both the minor and major infections, but there is no way to tell which of us is immune until we come in contact with the disease. Also, we're talking about a wide variety of illnesses. You may have a genetic immunity to the plague, but not one to Cholera."
" Then what you're saying," said Joan," is that we would have been better off living in filth."
" Of course not," said Dr. Sherman. "It's that kind of lifestyle which leads to major epidemics. It is the extremes which create the problem. Man just never learned to live in harmony with his environment. Control of public health, such as waste removal is a preventative measure. However, handing out antibiotics so indiscriminately was not prevention, but a quick solution for unethical doctors and pharmaceutical companies. If we wanted everyone born to survive, then we should have taken more care with genetic counseling and population control. In effect, our technology allowed great numbers to survive, which caused a progressive reproduction rate that could not be supported by the original technology." Standing up and brushing herself off Joan said," What you say makes sense, but if our need is to develop immunities and become one with nature so to speak, then why in hell are we going to use all this bleach. Doesn't that defeat the natural development of immunities?"
" You're right," said Dr. Sherman," and if we weren't under the threat of a major bacterial invasion, I would be prompting everyone to be more tolerant of minor infections. However, the only alternative to maintaining a sterile environment is complete emulsion into the bacterial stream. This is what will happen to the people left in Slick Rock. Their bet is that some will survive and go on to produce more survivors with genetic immunities. Maintaining a sterile environment is a better chance for some of us to survive, but the survivors may not produce offspring with genetic immunities. I'm doing nothing more than what has led to the problem in the past. I know this, but as a physician I'm bound to saving as many lives as possible." When Joan stood up, Don resumed his pulling of the wagons. Reflecting on Dr. Sherman's intentions he said, "I guess what you're saying is that those of us who survive because we were able to avoid bacterial contact may not have children who are any better equipped than their parents."
" Right on," said Joan. "And the brats of those assholes from Slick Rock will be tough little bastards who could literally live in pig shit."
While Dr. Sherman and Joan reflected on the possible survivor types, Don retreated into his own thoughts. The whine of the wagon wheels was hypnotic and his mind became flooded with images of Megan. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not contrive a fantasy that ended with the traditional 'and they lived happily ever after.' Every imagined scenario of his future life with Megan ended in disaster. He an Megan would be married he thought, 'but with what end? Do we make babies? Do I build a cottage for two and then wait for the plague to come? What the hell is the point? Hell, all I've got is questions that go nowhere! But we've got to do something or at least go somewhere...yea why not go somewhere...somewhere safe... or at least a place where the bacteria may not be able to get to...like a cave or someplace cool and dry!'
"That's it ," shouted Don, "we can't keep the bacteria from growing, but maybe we can find a place that it can't get to!"
"What the hell are you yelling about?" asked Joan. With a look of exasperation Don said, "What's the matter, don't you understand English. I said we should find a place to live where the bacteria can't get to or at least where we stand a chance of surviving."
" Oh sure," Joan said sarcastically," How hard can it be to find a bacteria proof hideout? Or we could just wrap ourselves in saran wrap and hold our breath for a few years." To Joan's surprise, Dr. Sherman said, "Well I'm not so sure about saran wrap, but there is one place that might help in keeping us isolated from the bacteria. At least better than we are now. And it comes highly recommended." With her usual impatience Joan said, "Do we play twenty questions or are you going to tell us where the hell it is?"
" Why of course," answered Dr. Sherman," I was just a little lost in my thoughts about our circumstances and how they seem to fit in with something I read a long time ago. However, to answer your question, we might consider taking Jerome up on his offer. Mount Wilson is about 150 miles east of here. It would be extremely difficult to get to, but it is high and dry. As I recall the mountain top is a little over fourteen thousand feet. However, if we do get to it, we would still have a major problem in growing enough food in the high altitude to stock for the winter."
" So why the hell are we screwing around here when the answer is 150 miles east?" asked Joan. " I guess I just didn't realize how bad the spread of disease would be until I saw the conditions in Slick Rock. It's a heavy risk to leave only to find the conditions there worse than they would have been in Monticello. Jerome said there were some supplies there, but it might be only enough for just one person for a short time. He didn't elaborate."
" Yea, a man of few words," Don said," but, I don't think he would have advised us to go there if the retreat would only support one person. I'm glad he seems to be on our side. Anyway, we could come back to my cousin's place if we can't survive in the mountains."
"I'm afraid not," answered Dr. Sherman. "By the time we found out, we'll have run out of time for planting crops and also unable to escape the spread of bacteria from the cities. If we decide to go, then we won't get a chance to change our minds. The first half of the journey is mostly over flat land, however, the last half is over some very rough terrain. My guess is that, under optimal conditions, it would take us at least four weeks of strenuous hiking. And that doesn't take into account the difficulty everyone would have in dragging this old man across that mountain range."
" Not to worry", laughed Joan. "I'm not about to let anything happen to the only doctor that stands between me and the plague."
" One other thing", said Don. "What did you mean when you said it came highly recommended." Sitting down, the doctor reached into his pack and drew out a rather crumpled old bible. Misunderstanding his intention, Joan said, "I don't think this is the time or place for a bible lesson."
" Oh, not a lesson", said Dr. Sherman. "In fact, I haven't opened this book since the death of my wife. I'm not even sure why I brought it on this trip. However, if you stretch your imagination a little, there is a strong resemblance between recent world events and what is foretold in the bible. But the answer is also given by someone whom we all know, at least historically. Dr. Sherman then read from Mark 13 and emphasized the words of Jesus in Mark 13:14 "But when ye shall see the Abomination of Desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not, then let them that be in Ju-dae-a flee to the mountains."
" I'm not saying that the anti-christ is standing on Mount Sinai, but fleeing to the mountains does seem like a good idea."
Abruptly, Joan snapped, "What the hell does a mountain in Israel have to do with anything?"
Somewhat surprised at Joan's irritation, he said," The bible tells us that the appearance of the anti-christ on Mount Sinai means the beginning of Armageddon. In short, the end of the world as we know it."
Uncharacteristically, Joan stood motionless and silent. Then, abruptly slumped to the ground, and stared blankly across the wind swept desert. Both men were surprised by this sudden change in Joan. They knew her as a strong willed woman who was well insulated from personal emotional issues. The change in her demeanor was so shocking that both men asked her if she were ill. " I'm sick alright. And now I know just how sick I've been." With a tear running down her cheek she added, "And your wrong Doc, he is standing on top of that mountain, and I helped put him there."
" But this is only a bible story", said Dr. Sherman. "I don't think you should take it so literally." Regaining her composure, Joan told them of her life and career. She admitted to a sense of selfishness that blinded her to the needs of others, including her own husband. However, this was only the introduction to her duplicity with evil. She then told them of her computer career with the government and her work on the micro-computer called 'the snitch' that would be used to control all citizens. The affairs of all people would be conducted only through 'the snitch.' Without it you would not be able to buy so much as a roll of toilet paper. "Put that together with what Jerome told us about the Illuminati." She finished.
In an attempt to comfort her, Dr. Sherman said," But all of us have at one time or another done something to aid our corrupt government. We did it every time we voted, knowing full well that we were supporting a government that was gradually removing all our personal freedoms. It may have been stupid, but hardly evil."
" You don't understand", she said pleadingly. "That damn thing was useless without a means of transmitting its signals to a central computer bank. It was I, who came up with the satellite design and code for transmitting the multi-trillion bits of information. The final solution was to use satellites that would pick up the signals and then have them returned, in digital code, to the central computer bank. I supervised the construction of the primary receiving dish that was placed on top of Mount Sinai, as instructed by the company that designed and developed 'the snitch'. Mr. Arimathaea, himself, personally attended to the first on-line test on Mount Sinai. That was at 0600, Universal time, on the sixth of June, this past year."
Dr. Sherman did not respond and, in fact, fell totally silent. The only sound Don could hear was the whisper of the desert spring breeze. "But that's just a satellite dish", he insisted. "Not exactly what I would call a caricature of Satan." Looking up at him Joan said, "Think about it Don, the time was 0600, on day six, of the sixth month, six..six..six." It was Dr. Sherman who added, "the number of the beast."
The five day hike back to Monticello was exhausting. Joan did not speak unless spoken to, and then only gave one word answers. She walked at the end of the wagon procession and with each step she could feel the bitter-sweet arrows of existential truth. It could not be denied, nor could she hide from its omnipresence. Her awakening was not without soul searching pain and tears of remorse. And ever so gradually, each tear was dried by the forgiving winds of grace. It was a very different Joan who returned to the Carpino home. After supper on their first night back, Joan handed Dr. Sherman a small plastic bag of seeds she had retrieved from some of the bars in Slick Rock. Looking him right in the eye she said, "This is what I wanted from the big city. I won't be needing them anymore. But, I'm sure you can find a use for them." Thankful for the gift, Dr. Sherman nodded his head and said, "It may be the only medication we'll have for pain relief."