To me, the word sanctuary evokes green gardens with a smattering of colourful flowers, clear water running in stream and cleanliness. This sanctuary had none of the hallmarks I wanted to see. We entered through a gap situated between two buses guarded by 4 soldiers and walked into a crowd of civilians and more soldiers. At first glance I guessed that there were probably about 100-150 people crammed into a space the size of a football field with what looked like military field tents lined up in tidy rows. Most of the civilians wandered around looking uncertain and scared by their situation, while the soldiers appeared to be trying to look busy and not unnerved by the apocalypse but there was also fear in them. The soldiers led us through the crowds, skirting piles of garbage and moving quickly past the pungent odour of the port-a-potties. We headed to a trailer like one you would find on a construction site and I figured this is where the man in charge would be situated.
“This is like the slums in some post-apocalyptic movie or game.” Parker whispered in my ear vocalizing my own thoughts.
This place could offer safety but it definitely seemed to be lacking comfort. Looking at my companions I saw disappointment and uncertainty blooming as they took in their surroundings. This was not what they had expected either. I also took note that people were giving Heidi a wide berth making me worry all over again about infection but there was nothing I could do right now other than hope no one cried zombie. We stopped in front of the trailer and the soldier who had spoken earlier, the only one to actually do so thus far, looked us over one by one. I figured he was trying to decide who should go in and address his superior. He told us all to wait and headed in first, emerging a couple of minutes later to tell us we all could enter.
The trailer wasn’t big but it had been separated successfully into 3 rooms: an office facing the entrance, what appeared to be a bedroom behind some hanging sheets and a spot off to the left in the corner with a love seat and small table holding a coffee maker and an induction element; the kitchen/living room. We entered the ‘office’ stopping before a simple desk with two standard office chairs in front of it. I looked around the trailer before directing my gaze to the man behind the desk whom I had purposely avoided looking at as I surveyed the room.
He definitely appeared to be a superior officer from his demeanor and when he spoke his words were commanding. He looked to be in his late 50’s, fit and well-kept, wearing his gray camo fatigues with casual authority. While his face was hard I saw sympathy etched in the crow’s feet and worry lines of his face as he looked over our small group. His gaze finally fell to me and without thinking about it I snapped to attention and saluted him.
“At ease soldier. That isn’t necessary.” His voice was kind, gentler than I would have expected from such a formidable man. “We no longer need to stand on such ceremony. Please have a seat. I’m Colonel Richard Martens or now that the world is falling apart, Dr. Martens will suffice.” He paused and smiled at the confusion over his title. “I’ve been a military doctor for 35 years and a Colonel for 15 but now, I’m just a doctor even though most of the soldiers see me as their commanding officer, which if rank still counted, I would be. I play the part but prefer Doctor over Colonel.”
Marla, Heidi, Parker and the kids went to the couch looking comfortable cramped together while Cal and I took the chairs in front of the Dr. Martens. I offered the introductions for the group less surnames for everyone since I didn’t know or couldn’t recall them and Parker was always just Parker to me anyway. It felt unimportant regardless.
“And I’m Private Louis Henning.” I don’t know why I included my rank. Reflex likely.
There was a flicker, a flash from Martens as I told him my platoon number but he didn’t offer any verbal acknowledgment. Then he asked me directly to tell him what had happened to me since the beginning of the crisis. I told him all the awful truths from the village, to the destruction of the base camp; Holly and the that small town; the Sheriff and Langley and everything after about how we had all come together and gotten through it to this point. I spilled the truth of it all and I felt the others willing me not to let all the horrible things be known. But I wouldn’t, couldn’t lie or hide from the facts. I had to face the truth of what had happened. The tale took about an hour to relay and after saying it all, it felt like the events had occurred over months, not days.
“We didn’t know what to expect when we got here.” I was trying to move past the confession. “But all I want is safety for my friends and the kids.”
Dr. Martens gave me a thoughtful nod before ordering our escort to take Heidi to the emergency tent to get proper treatment and antibiotics for her wounds that I had told him about; he showed mild concern about her condition but not enough for me to worry about her safety. Marco wouldn’t let go of her hand and Cal wasn’t about to let her go anywhere alone. Martens didn’t object and told the soldier to make sure we were set up in Tent 16 after getting Heidi treated. He asked Marla, Hunter and Parker to go with our friends. Even though they didn’t stand on ceremony, I knew that I was not dismissed yet; Martens wasn’t done with me. Parker stopped at the door, then came and sat defiantly next to me.
Martens gave Parker a long thoughtful look then glanced at me with a silent question as to whether or not he should allow this civilian to be present during what was clearly meant to be a private conversation. I nodded affirmative and Martens raised a curious eyebrow before simply shrugging and not questioning my relationship with Parker.
“I know about the village and the fire that burned down your base camp killing all or I guess what I had believed to be all the soldiers there.”
“Were there other survivors?” I shifted uncomfortably knowing what I had done was wrong; running away was not only cowardly but it was appalling to leave any other person alone to suffer in those circumstances.
“We can’t be sure. Between the fire, the attacks and the people that turned into those….things, there is no way to tell how many were actually there. Besides, the team that went to try to figure out what was happening could only give a cursory look. The creatures were everywhere, some burned black but still moving well enough to attack. We lost half a dozen men.” Martens looked me in the eyes, all compassion gone now.
Fuck. I knew it was a mistake to come here, at least for me. As kindly as Martens had been in front of the others, I knew that was for their benefit and I was not included in his kindness. I was in danger here. Sweat beaded on my skin as I tried to keep my face neutral. I wagered a glance at Parker and saw alarmed confusion plain on his face. He wasn’t completely certain about what was happening but he understood enough to know that what I feared would happen, was happening. And now, like me, he was struggling to figure out how we were going to get the hell out of here and out of the shit we had knowingly stepped in.
© 2016, Denise Pasutti