Appalachian Trail . McAfee Knob
Thursday April 13, 2013
Kira could feel the sweat boiling under her parka. None of this made sense… these three strangers. Out of place, sickly, fearful, and carrying a newborn child. The babe’s cry still carried on the air, the sound a shrill invasion to her senses.
The gears in her mind slowly milled over the strangers arrayed before her as the tense moment passed, seemingly infinite. The round man was huffing for breath, obviously out of shape, and unused to the heights he was now climbing. The woman was obviously sick, likely severely depressed, and carrying a baby. The last, a tall, lanky man with a wiry build, carrying a stifling stench, was the only one that made sense. He was likely a guide of some sort, but to take these people out here, this time of year, in this weather… insane. She focused her attention on him, as he slowly edged his way forward, positioning himself between Kira and the other two… protecting them.
With this strange realization, Kira tempered her fear into anger, and went on the offensive. “Who the hell are you people?” she barked.
A sudden start from the three, as if speaking was the last thing they expected. The round man seemed to almost melt with relaxation, bending over to take ragged gasps. Between his labored breaths Kira could barely hear him stutter, “Thank… god… shes not… one of… them…. she’s… speaking.” The last two words he continued to repeat under his breath, like a mantra.
The tall wiry fellow, who came jogging around the corner to the shout of ‘James’, still kept up his guard… posture rigid. He seemed to force a smile, and said “Sorry about that… since the outbreak, we can’t be to careful.” Kira heard his words, which did nothing to ease her sense of confusion… but her full attention was on the minute details of his face. She could see in his eyes a look that gave her chills, and she did not know why.
“You are going to have to give me a little more than that,” Kira intoned, her anger and suspicions unabated. She was in the right here… if these people weren’t some wackos that roved the trail looking for victims then the they definitely had some explaining to do. You don’t just come up on people like that.
The look on Jame’s face seemed to relax, though the look in his eyes still bore into her. He continued, in an almost apologetic tone “You on a thru-hike?”
Knowledge of trail lingo, check, definitely a guide, Kira thought… the insight into the man gave her a sense of certainty, helped her relax the slightest bit. “Yah,” she nodded, “I planned on an alternate route though… started at Harper’s Ferry and moving south, then gonna flip to Katadhin.”
James tilted his head in thought, looking over the view from the Knob as he replied “Starting from Harper’s ferry… that puts you what? About a month into the trail?”
So the guy knows his trail, Kira thought. The two strangers behind him had taken cue to let loose their packs and settle against some rocks not to far off, taking a breather. James’ words just moments ago began to click… “outbreak” he had said. Kira felt a sudden chill, goosebumps along her arm and the back of her neck.
“That’s right,” she voiced.
“Then there are a few things you need to know-” James began.
“Well you better make it quick, there is a storm pulling in.” Kira snapped.
James glanced behind her, where, on the horizon, the storm was brewing. “You’re right, there are a few shelters not to far up the trail… we can head there and then continue this conversation.” This statement elicited a response from the couple resting off to the side… the round man begin to say something, before the sickly woman muttered something that Kira couldn’t hear.
James, following her gaze, continued “Friends of mine… harmless. The man is Patrick, an entomology professor at Old Dominion University, the woman is Jessica. She teaches there too, something with parasites I believe. I —”
“Does it look like I care,” Kira cut in. “You people wander up this trail, these two have no business being here, you all scare me witless, talk about some outbreak, and now you want me to come with you to some shelter? Do I look like some moron. I’ll tell you what. I don’t care what you three do. I’m headed down the trail, and if I see you three again, there are going to be problems.”
Anger seemed to flare in Jame’s eyes, and he took a step forward…
“Step back!” Kira shouted.
The man seemed to come back to his senses, and averted his gaze. “Sorry about that… we’ve watched people literally torn limb from limb, people devouring each other in the streets. People leaping from the roofs of buildings in futile attempts to escape mobs of insane attackers…” Kira could feel the blood draining from her face. James drew a breath, then continued, “We thought you might be one of them… the infected. After the first few isolated cases, officials said to avoid contact, that this unknown virus is highly contagious. Not long after, almost overnight, the shit hit the fan. Entire cities have become ghost towns, or worse.” He swung that creepy stare back to Kira. “The few of us left need to stick together.”
Kira started stepping back, putting some distance between herself and these people. “You’re insane.” she stuttered.
James let loose a sigh, and looked back towards the horizon as a massive thunderclap echoed through the sky. “Do what you will. We mean you no harm. I’m just trying to help. Just one more thing…”
“Make it good,” Kira grumbled. She was shaken now… the tension of the moment slipping from her knotted muscles, beads of sweat cooling in the icy wind. Her hands started to shake a bit as James seemed to let down his guard. If he was telling the truth… their presence could make sense. If not, these people were insane, and that look in his eyes, that animal stare… she needed to get away from this place.
James continued, an almost exhausted tone in his voice, “You’ve seen a lot of camp fires these last few weeks… not from the trail, but from the foothills and the southern valley?”
“Yah, what of it?”
“Those aren’t campfires…” James dipped his head, looking to the ground, “that’s the world burning.”