Richard tried to stand but his leg hurt far too bad for that. He sat up and his head spun.
There was a woman speaking to him, bending over him, and before he could ask any question or think about what had happened his vision went black. He couldn’t hear either. This was a dream, Richard supposed, or maybe it was a dream, but the pain…
Richard felt the cool fingers of a woman’s hand on his chest. The woman wrote very slowly, “REST” one letter at a time, and Richard was calmed by this. There was nothing he could do anyway but rest. His dreams were disjointed and surreal, but it a dream-like sense, not in the sense he was hallucinating again, if that was what had happened. He awoke in perfect darkness, but he smelled the familiar smells of his own cave. The pain was less. Richard breathed deeply and for the first time since…since when? How long had this been going on? He felt slightly feverish and terribly thirsty. He reached for his canteen and it was there, as it always had been, and it was full. The water felt cool, and it was incredible. But the lethargy that was wrapped around him like a blanket took him back from the world of the awake, and Richard once again slept.
“Richard?” It was a woman’s voice. Richard sat up slowly and there was a woman sitting beside where he slept. She looked to be in her early forties, a slight woman with dark eyes and dark hair. “My name is Zone Blanchard”
“You’ve been taking care of me.” Richard said, and he realized his throat still hurt. “Thank you.”
“Most reactions to the bite of the Green aren’t quite this spectacular.” The woman smiled and looked around as if she had just arrived. “Looks like page one twenty-two from your manual.”
“How did you find me?” Richard asked suddenly. “The light in the desert that was you?”
“Yes, that was me.” Zoe said. “We’ve met, I mean, online, you know me as “Wild Flour” the woman in Clipper with the natural food store. I was a big fan of your online discussion group, the one that sold all the camping gear, you know, at twice the retail price?”
“And you hunted me down for a refund?” Richard almost laughed, but any movement was painful. “What in the hell happened to me? This isn’t typical of snakebite.”
“I have no idea.” Zoe said. “But you went down twice. Your CPR courses came in handy. Good thing they were free.”
“But how did you…”
“Richard, you were right.” Zoe said firmly. “It was every bit as bad as you said it was going to be, and in some place, it was a whole lot worse. Your handbooks are all that kept a lot of people alive. I got separated from my commune and I lived for six months off of nothing but what I could find in the desert. I lived in one of your half bins that I had made just a week earlier. The damn fresh paint made my head hurt.” Zoe laughed bitterly. “I’ll never eat another lizard for as long as I live, isn’t that what Scarlett was really saying? But after six months things got less worse. I was able to find a couple of more people, and then a few more, and at one point there was nearly twenty of us. Now we’re back down to a dozen. So a guy named Mark Adams..”
“Greasy Adams?” exclaimed Richard. “The inventor of the engine that ran off leaves and grass clippings?”
“The one and only, well” Zone smiled. “He and I went through ever article you had ever written about going out into the desert and as many places as you described as the perfect place to be, the one place to never mentioned was Hickory, the obvious choice. We broke into your old apartment, found the receipts for the transponders, knew they all have a common code, and then we read page two hundred and three, where you advise to put the half bins in a straight line on a true compass bearing. We hoped you wouldn’t do more than ten miles a night, took enough stuff out with us to do twice that, and got lucky our third trip in. The second and third weren’t bad at all, and four through eight were a breeze. Took another month to find nine, and finding ten was a bitch. The cave itself was easy when you put that light on.”
“Where’s Mark?” Richard tried to stand, and made it. “I really like his inventions. Damn, if could have motorized my windmill…”
“Mark was killed.” Zoe said. “It’s still not safe out there.”
“Then why on earth didn’t he stay with you, Zoe?” Richard asked. “You both would have been welcome here. I have enough stuff here to last forever!”
“We wanted to bring you back, Richard.” Zone explained. “We need you, people need you, what you know is needed back there.” You helped people survive what has happened, and it is still plenty damn bad but who picks up the pieces? Who makes sure people like Mark are safe and people like me can find people like you? Yeah, the vast majority of people were truly caught up in their own little wide screen worlds and too far gone to help stop what happened, but how are you any different? Sure, you helped a lot of people in a lot of ways but when the going got rough you went and hid. No one blames you for this, and I won’t, but you have to see that you’re needed. You have to come back with me. If the world you want to live in until you die has a population of one in it, you’re just as bad as the people who killed Mark for his shoes. You once wrote, and I think this is a direct quote, ‘In the end, the best preparation you can make is make sure others are prepared.’” Zoe was crying. “Please come back with me.”
“I can’t” Richard said.