Zone Three - Part 4

By Brian Willmott

Chain Border

The first week back home I was kept confined to the house, Mom said that I wasn't strong enough to go out. After Officer Hernandez had been for my story, I heard Mom and Pop arguing downstairs when I had been put to bed. I tried not to listen, but I remember Mom shouting that I had to go out sometime. It seemed that they were afraid for me for some reason, and argued for some time.

The following morning, at breakfast, Pop was very quiet and ate his pancakes quickly before rushing off to work. Mom couldn't stop talking. She seemed to go on and on about nothing special, but she did say that I could accompany her when she went to the shops. "It's about time you got out of the house. You need some fresh air for a change."

I was pleased at this, as I was starting to go crazy with boredom. Since getting home I had done nothing but write my story and help with a few chores inside. Brooding about Art hadn't helped my mental condition either. I missed him terribly.

Once we had washed the breakfast things and taken the bedding out to the back yard to air, it was time to go out. Mom gave me my cap and made sure my shirt was properly buttoned and straight. "Ready then, Chucky?" she asked. She held my shoulders and looked down at me. There was a sort of sad expression on her face, as if she was unhappy, but it was quickly replaced by her usual infectious grin. "We won't be out long. Just a quick trip, down to the shop and straight back."

We left the house and made our way to the end of our street. Turning towards the general store, I noticed that there seemed to a lot of people around. Our village had grown up only recently to support the timber mill where Pop worked, and there were normally few people around at this time of day. Only on Sunday, or during a holiday, would so many be seen out and about. There were several carts, laden with produce, passing by; much more than I could remember having seen at one time.

"Why are there so many people about, Mom?"

"Why?" Mom looked around, as if seeing the activity for the first time. "Oh, of course you haven't seen the changes." She stopped and looked down at me. "They are here because of what you found, Chuck. I hear that there is a lot of stuff to be recovered, and because of that, there are a lot of people who have come here from the cities. They will be living here for quite a while, so they and their families need somewhere to live, more shops and other services. In the last month Timberdale has grown a lot bigger."

"Timberdale?"

"Yes, Timberdale. Our village is important enough to have a name now."

We walked to the store, which was situated halfway along the street. Beside the building there had been a vacant lot previously, but now the undergrowth had been cleared and there was the timber frame of another building taking shape. A little further down the street I could see a similar construction site on a further plot.

Just as we were about to enter the store, a woman who I recognized vaguely was leaving. I stepped to one side so that she could pass as Mom exchanged pleasantries with her. She was curt with Mom and gave me a glare, and I wondered what I had done to deserve a look like that.

I was soon to receive more hostile stares. We entered the store and I followed Mom around helping her collect the supplies we needed. Twice more women I knew to be from our village gave me a frosty reception. I felt nervous by then, and kept an eye on those who appeared to react at my presence. One of them stalked up to the woman behind the counter and spoke to her, pointing in my direction. A short argument seemed to take place before the customer resumed her shopping.

Mom didn't notice, and I began to think that maybe I was just imagining the hostility. When we got to the counter, though, the woman there voiced her feelings as Mom was paying. "Janet Walker," she said, her tone was much like the Magistrate had used in sentencing me. "I would ask you to leave HIM at home in future. I have a respectable business and don't want the likes of that boy in here."

Mom's face turned crimson and the look she gave the woman would have terrified the most hardened of soldiers. I knew that look and waited for the inevitable. "Melissa Bell," she said in a voice that seemed to come from the arctic wastes. It was soft in volume but dripped venom. "I will take Chuck wherever I like. He is my son and he has my support. His trial is over, and the Magistrate has sent him home. So who do you think you are to question the judgment? Chuck may have made a mistake, but he wasn't alone. Arthur Robinson committed the same crime, and the Lawmen recognized that he was the leader. My boy only followed him. Even so, Chuck showed a loyalty that seems sadly lacking in this village. Don't worry, though, I will not bring him in again. IF I ever cross that threshold, that is." Mom pointed at the doorway and gave everybody a withering stare before pushing me out of the store.

In the street she stopped, and crouched down in front of me. "I am sorry, Chuck, I wouldn't have brought you if I had realized they would be so nasty." She wiped my tears with her handkerchief, and kissed me before taking me home, a protective arm on my shoulders.

On the walk home I thought about what had happened. I hadn't realized my actions would have affected other people like that. The Lawmen didn't seem to be affected, and the nurses had treated me as normal. Now, though, I began to appreciate that I had done something that many didn't like. That they would take it out on my family, though, I couldn't accept. Mom had defended me back in the store, and in doing so would probably not be made welcome there in the future. As it was the only one in the village, I had caused her hardship.

"I am sorry, Mom," I said as we walked in through our front door.

"Sorry? What for?"

"For being bad, and making everybody mad at me."

Mom got angry, again. "Chuck. You have nothing to be sorry for. If I had wanted a little goody-goody, then I would have brought you up that way. We let you develop your own way, and so the responsibility is ours. You are small for your age, and needed the strength of character to protect you. We failed, not you. We should have given you more guidance, and for that I apologize. Now give me a hand to put things away, and cheer up. Oh, and let's keep what happened at the store a secret, we don't want to upset Pop as well. OK?"

I helped around the house until lunch, then Mom made me go up to bed to rest, as she said that I was looking peaky. I stayed there until late in the afternoon, sleeping at first then again thinking about the effects my actions had had on others. Art's family were uppermost in my mind. They were the ones most affected by what had happened. I decided then, that I would go and see them. I had to tell them that I was sorry.

"Mom," I said at supper, "I want to go and see the Robinsons tomorrow. I must tell them that I am sorry."

"What was that?" Pop looked up sharply. "No, Chuck. Stay away from them."

"But Pop!" I protested, "I must."

"Oh, no you mustn't. They already know that it wasn't your fault. So stay away."

I looked at Mom for support, but she shook her head, indicating that I should not push any further. I wasn't satisfied with Pop's order, though, and decided that I would go just the same. I would have liked him or Mom to go with me, but that was obviously not going to happen.

The next morning I helped around the house again, intending to slip out of my bedroom window after I was sent up to rest in the afternoon. That plan was doomed to failure, prevented by an incident just before lunch.

Mom asked me to fetch in the washing from the line in our yard, and I was taking down one of Pop's shirt when I noticed one of the boys in my class at school. He was looking over the fence at me. He walked past the end of our yard and disappeared around the corner of next door's shed. I took note of the stare he gave me but relaxed again when he vanished.

Reaching the far end of the line, I had put all of the clothes in the basket and turned to walk back to the house when I heard a sound behind me. Looking back, I saw the boy walk in our gate with a couple of his friends. I didn't need to ask what they wanted, I could see from their manner that they hadn't come to play.

Turning to run for the house, I saw two more of their mates jump over the fence between me and safety. Bewildered, I looked round for some way to escape, but they were all running at me by then. I had only time for one short scream before a blow to the stomach knocked the breath from me. Then my arms were grabbed before I could get more than one blow in my defense.

"You haven't got your pal to defend you now, Worm." One of them laughed.

"Yeah," another snarled, "you murdered him and you'll soon be dead too. You tried to steal from us all, and now we're going to get you."

I never got the chance to protest as blows rained into my unprotected face, accompanied by shouts of 'Murderer' and 'Animal.' I screamed again and kicked out, feeling the satisfying impact of my boot connecting with a sensitive region. Moments later I heard Mom's frantic shouts. I was on the ground by then, curled into a protective ball, but a couple of kicks connected with my lower back and thighs before the boys ran off.

"Chuck, Chuck!" Mom was frantic with fear as she dropped down beside me. "Are you alright? Are you hurt?"

"There were five of them, Chuck didn't stand much chance of doing that," Mom said, her arm finding my shoulders. "Even so, one of them was on the ground, in a lot of pain."

The following morning, Mom and Pop didn't mention the attack, and I was grateful for that. I was stiff where the boys had kicked me, and Mom said that I should rest. "You have to go back to Heber Springs the day after tomorrow, and the doctor will be mad at us if you are not better."

I hadn't known that I was to return, and asked them why. I thought that I had been discharged from the hospital, expecting to be referred to the village doctor if any further treatment was needed.

"The hospital doctor has to examine you again, Chuck. After that you are going to be staying in Heber Springs for a while. The Magistrate sent word that you will not be going back to school here. Which is just as well, after yesterday."

I was stunned. Why was I being taken out of school? Then I remembered what the Magistrate had said about my punishment. I was looking forward to working for him. Being a Lawman appealed to me. I would not mind the loneliness or the suspicion of other people, I was already used to that at school. Only one thought spoilt my pleasure at this news. I only had two more days to get to see the Robinsons, if I was to do it before I left again.

I sat on the couch at Mom's insistence until she said that she had to go out. "I am just running around to Rita's," she said putting on her hat. "Need to pick up my dress that she has altered. I will be about an hour. Will you be alright?"

"Yes, Mom," I answered, sounding bored.

She smiled and gave me a kiss, then walked out. I gave her a couple of minutes before I too slipped out of the house. This could be my only chance to get away. I was being watched all the time.

I was nervous of being out of the house, after what had happened the day before, and crept to our back gate, carefully looking around. Nobody was in evidence, so I quickly made for the end of the back lane. At the corner I checked again, and in this manner made my way to where Art had lived.

I stopped outside the house looking miserably at the door. Now that I was here I felt reluctant to go any further. What would I do, if I were not welcome? Did they blame me for what had happened? I had been there when Art had died, and had not saved him.

I almost turned and walked away, but I knew I had to at least say that I was sorry. Besides, I saw someone walking towards me from the far corner of the street, and was frightened.

I knocked on the door. Shaking, I waited, hearing footsteps inside. I couldn't see much out of my left eye, where it had been punched in the fight, and my right was filling with tears. The door opened and Art's Mom looked down at me in surprise.

"Chuck," she said, a look of sadness on her face.

I burst into tears. I tried but couldn't say anything. She knelt and pulled me into her arms, just holding me and rubbing my back. How long it lasted I don't know, but in the end I managed to make myself speak. "I'm sorry, " I sobbed around the words.

"Sorry," Art's Mom sounded surprised. "You've nothing to be sorry about. I am the one who should be saying sorry to you."

She led me inside, and then through to the workshop at the rear where Art's Pop was working at his trade of furniture maker. "Paul," she called to him. "Look who's here."

"Chuck," he welcomed me with a hand on my shoulder. "I am glad you have come to see us." He knelt and looked at me. Noting my battered face. "What has happened here? Who hit you?"

"The boys from school, sir, they came into our yard yesterday. They said I murdered Art, sir. I didn't really. I tried to save him!"

"We know you did, Chuck. You are a good boy and I am sorry that Art got you into trouble. It is our fault. We knew he was leading you astray, and should have put a stop to it. If only we had..."

We talked for a little while, and they told me that they had been too ashamed to go out of the house except for essential journeys. They continued to apologize for Art, despite my insistence that I was as much at fault. They had shut themselves away from everyone including my folks, were shocked at the way the villagers were treating me.

"I have heard enough, Paul. Get your hat, we are going to put things straight now," Art's Mom said.

I followed them back into the house and was shepherded out into the street. They both put their arms around my shoulders and escorted me home. We received many stares from those of the villagers who knew us, and I was glad of their protection.

I had not thought of what Mom would think, and was dismayed when, just as we turned into my street, we met her and the Lawman as they approached from the opposite direction. Mom looked surprised, then worried as she saw us.

"Janet," Art's mom said immediately. "I am sorry we haven't been to see you before. It was unpardonable of us. We should talk now, though. Young Chuck has been to see us, and we hear that people are saying the wrong things about him."

"Come in," Mom said, a look of relief on her face. As she held the door open, she gave me a look that I knew meant I would be in for a telling off later. I didn't need to ask what for. I knew I was in trouble for going out.

"Chuck, go to your room." I was told, in a tone that confirmed my fate.

I lay on my bed, dreading the encounter that would come after everyone had left. Mom didn't shout or hit me on these occasions, but simply explained calmly and quietly what I had done wrong. The effect, however, was more than enough to reduce me to tears, as I was made to understand the consequences of my actions.

After a short time, Officer Hernandez knocked on my bedroom door. "May I come in?"

"Yes, sir." I swung my legs over the side of the bed and sat up.

"I have been told what happened yesterday, Chuck. I could haul your attackers in for a stern lecture if you wish. I don't think that it will do a lot of good, though, so unless you want me to, I think it best to use a different tactic."

I looked up at him, wondering what he was going to propose. He seemed to want a response from me, so I spoke up. "What will you do then, sir?"

"I intend to post a notice on the Church notice-board, telling everyone what really happened to you and Art. It will tell them that we dropped the charge against you for his death, and state unequivocally that you are not guilty of murder. The Robinsons have said that they will add their signatures to the notice, and they will also tell everyone that they feel it was Art who was most at fault."

"There is something else, Chuck. Have you heard of the Pathfinder Department of Law Enforcement?"

"No, sir."

"Oh! There, and I thought we were famous!" he laughed. "Well, Chuck it is a division that searches for new communities and Pre-Plague sites. I am a part-time member of that group, and the reason I mentioned it is because I wanted to ask you if you would like to be part of it. If you are declared fit by the doctor on Friday, then you can start your training straight away. Then, if you are good enough, you can help me. Would you like that?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Good, then I will tell the Magistrate."

He went back downstairs, and I sat on the edge of my bed in a daze. Suddenly everything had changed. My good name was to be restored, and best of all I was to be working with a Lawman. Who knows, I might even become a Magistrate!

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