©2022 Michael Raven
Ben was hacking up another “lung cookie” when Winter pushed aside the flaps of the tent. Although their supply of cigs was rapidly diminishing, Ben acted as if everything was like it was before the Storm, as if you could make a cigarette run to the local superette on whim.
She was thankful for Jill’s continuous guilt trips before the shit hit the fan that made Winter finally give up the habit over a year ago. Except for the occasional craving, she was mostly over her nicotine addiction. Ben… well, he still smoked two or three packs a day.
Winter planned to sign up for forage duties when Ben was forced to go cold turkey. Three or four months of it.
“What the hell were you thinking, going out without waiting on backup? She could have been a creeper.”
The shouting was implied, although his volume stayed low.
Almost everyone called the people outside Ghouls or The Lost. Not Ben. He insisted on calling them Creepers. He prided himself in being ornery about such things.
“Lucky for you.”
“My body, my call,” she said, using his favorite phrase.
“Go to hell.”
“Seems I found it already.”
“Hardy har har,” he replied in monotone. “Point is, people expect me to protect them here and with hopping out with the Creepers, our guard went down. With our guard down, mistakes can be made. What if she hadn’t been alone? What if Creepers were right behind her in pursuit? They would have caught us with our trousers around our knees and might have breached the defenses. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
Ben like to quote random lyrics that meant something to him, but made no sense at all to Winter.
She started to say something, but he raised a finger to silence her. He had a coughing fit and lit another cigarette before continuing.
“Better,” he said. “Or worse… or worse! She could have been a Trojan. Might still be a Trojan, for all we know, and we might have been attacked by an different group for our supplies.”
“Or our womenfolk! Don’t forget the womenfolk, children and smokes!”
Ben snarled and turned away. “Fuck you,” he said in the preternaturally calm voice he liked to use, which somehow made it worse.
“It’d almost be worth it to see the regret on their faces when they took you,” he muttered.
Winter decided to throw the old man a bone. “Fine. I’m sorry, Ben. I’ll think for a second or two if it ever comes up again, okay? You done with your bellyaching?”
“Oh Jesus, Ben. I apologized for god’s sake. Aside from today, I’ve been a model citizen in this community. Cut me some slack, willya?”
Ben slammed his fist on the makeshift desk in his tent, a solid core door supported by concrete cinder blocks.
“Goddamn it!” he shouted.
Winter took a step back. Ben had a temper, but he’d never acted out like this before.
“This wasn’t a matter of having sticky fingers attached to a can of chili, Winter! You endangered each of us today with your actions. You didn’t frickin’ think before you acted, dammit.”
Winter raised her hands in surrender.
“Okay, yeah, I screwed the pooch, Ben. Next time I see a little girl wandering in the snow and collapse, I’ll think before I act. Jesus. Screw it if she might have needed immediate medical attention. Would that make you happy, Ben?”
“You’ll get plenty of time to think before the next wayward waif stumbles outside our gate.”
He waited for her to ask. Ben was predictable that way.
“Okay, Ben. I’ll bite. What’s that supposed to mean? In the brig with me? At least I don’t have to freeze my ass off.”
He laughed as he stubbed out the cigarette he’d forgotten during their argument. It was an unstable cylinder of grey ash.
“Wrong on both counts, sweetheart. No brig and and you are going to freeze your tushy until it slides right off while you walk.”
“Shaddup. That girl can’t have made it very far alone, between Creepers and the elements.”
Now that things had calmed down and he was in control, he lit another cig and actually smoked it.
“First,” he said, “You’re gonna interview Little Miss Redcoat to see what she can tell you.”
“Then, no matter if she gives up anything useful or not… then, you are gonna haul ass all over the area for a five-mile radius until you find whoever she’s with. If you don’t find anyone, you’ll hoof it for a ten-mile radius. Ad nauseum. Until I decide you can be done.”
Winter stumbled back in shock.
“That’s a bit harsh, Ben.”
“It’s meant to be, Winter. Folks are already talking about exile for what you did. ‘She needs to be sent beyond the pale,’ I already heard someone say. I need to make it look good, and you need to be made an example.”
“Don’t I know it. You can resupply every couple of days and have every seventh day to recover. I’m not a tyrant, Winter, but you put the whole community at risk today. We have safety protocols for a reason, and you broke most of them this afternoon.”
She felt like that balloon she saw in a movie once, wrinkled and deflated, barely hovering over the concrete. It had been a bright red like the girl’s scarf and coat.
Winter wondered if there was a connection in that.
“Now, git. I want you marching by dawn, Winter. You need to talk to Red. If you’re lucky, she’ll tell you right where to find her people and you can be back by dinner tomorrow night. Shortest ranger duty ever.”
Winter got up and stumbled to the door in shock.
“Winter? I’m sorry.”
She flipped him off without looking back.