Victor opened the door to the bedroom, the first on the left at the top of the stairs. Inside the door was a small but orderly bedroom. Along one wall was a perfectly made twin bed. The blanket was tight and the sheet was folded back along the top edge. A single fluffy pillow invited Victor to lay down, but he was on a mission. He opened the closet on the wall opposite the bed. Inside he found a few pairs of pants, several shirts, and two sport coats. The clothes were old, but well kept. He pulled a pair of green heavy duty cargo work pants, a tee shirt and a khaki work shirt out of the closet and tossed them onto the bed. Next he pulled out the tweed sports jacket. It was out of fashion, with patches over the elbows and a slightly larger than modern collar, but it looked warm and it looked like it would fit.
It turns out the clothes were all about one size too large, but its not like anyone was going to be judging him. He slid the tweed jacket on, emptied his pockets out of his old pants into his new ones and laid his still slightly damp clothes out to dry. Over beside the desk he found an old beat up school-book style backpack and laid it out next to his clothes. He needed to ask the Rotelles if he could have it. Judging by the clothes, no one had been actually using this room since the early nineties. There was a Lethal Weapon 3 poster hanging just above the desk, and a Right Said Fred CD sitting on the desk next to a CD player. Victor hit the eject button on the CD player, inside was Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.
“This guy had great taste in music,” said Victor as he walked out the door and back down the steps.
When Victor stepped out into the dining room of the old mansion, Leeland stood up from the table and walked towards him. He stuck his hand out and said “Leeland Rotelle, nice to meet you young man.” Victor shook his hand.
“Victor Tookes, sir. It’s a pleasure to meet you too,” he said, looking at Mrs. Rotelle who was smiling happily. She gave no indication that anything was out of the ordinary.
“Come in, Victor deary. Supper is ready. I’m afraid it’s not much, the cook didn’t come in, and apparently he hasn’t been to the grocery in a while.” She took the lids off three different pots, one contained steamed white rice, the other stewed tomatoes and okra, and the third had something that looked like ground beef and onions. Victor wasn’t sure where they would have gotten all this fresh food, but the had to have power in the house. They weren’t using any lights, but maybe their freezer was working. There were lots of unanswered questions. Victor hadn’t heard a generator running when he was walking by. Keeping a generator running constantly for six months would have consumed a massive amount of fuel. Who was doing that work? Who was defending the house?
Victor debated asking those questions. It wasn’t really any of his business, if these two were happy and surviving, did he need to interfere with their delusion? Perhaps they were better off forgetting all the loss and death. Maybe they had it right. He sat down at the table across from the Rotelles and folded his hands in his lap.
“Leeland, would you say the blessing?” Mrs. Rotelle asked.
Leeland held his hands out. Victor took one hand; Mother Rotelle took the other, and extended her other hand to Victor who completed the circle. He’d never been a religious man, but when in Rome, as the saying went. “Kind Father, please accept these thanks for the bounty you have provided. Please keep an eye on our friends and family wherever they travel. Please be kind to those less fortunate than us. Please continue to bless this house and all those in it, in Max’s name we pray, Amen.”
Victor was stunned. He thought back to the group of survivors that had held Max a few miles from his house in Virginia. “Did you say in Max’s name?” he asked, after nearly a minute of sitting there dumbfounded.
“We had the nicest guest last week,” said Mrs. Rotelle. “He told us all about the coming of Max, and how the little boy had come to save us. He told us about how The Boy’s father had stolen him away from their loving embrace, and with that action plunged the world into darkness and despair. What was that devil’s name, Leeland? We were supposed to be on the lookout for him.”
Victor slowly moved his hand to his hip and loosened the snap on his gun quietly.
“Victor something,” said Leeland. “Jukes? Dukes? Tookes. Yea, that was it. Victor Tookes.”
Both of the Rotelles looked at Victor long and hard. “Didn’t you say your name was Victor?” asked Mother Rotelle.
“Yes Ma’am,” said Victor slowly. He slid the gun slightly out of its holster, his finger on the trigger under the table.
“What a coincidence,” she said clapping her hands together. “Would you like some rice?” She picked up the pot and passed it to Victor.
Tookes slid the gun back into its holster and sighed softly before taking the pot from her. He spooned a third of the rice out onto his plate. He had so many questions, but if either of them remembered his name and put two and two together, he would be in trouble. He didn’t want to kill them, they were mostly harmless, if slightly deranged. They were someone’s grandparents, or someone’s friends, and they were mislead by a charlatan.
“On Sunday we’re going to church,” said Mother Rotelle. “You’re welcome to come with us.”
“I appreciate your offer, but I actually need to be moving along in the morning. I appreciate all your hospitality. In the bedroom upstairs, I found an empty book bag, would it be alright if I borrowed that? I have a long way to go to get back to my son, and I’ll need a backpack to carry some food and water.”
“Oh, sure, deary. Ronald hasn’t used that backpack in years. I’d love to see it getting some use, it was an expensive bag.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Rotelle,” Said Victor spooning stewed tomatoes and okra over his rice. “And thank you for this fine meal, and the clothes. I feel like a new man.”
As they ate they talked about simple things. Victor struggled not to break their delusion, and gain as much information as he could. He learned that the man who had come to see them was a middle aged black man who wore a white robe. He was one of many prophets of Max. He was travelling the country telling anyone he could find about the coming of Max, a God-Child who would save them all from this life
“Do you two have any children?” Victor asked at one point.
Leeland frowned as he said, “We have two sons, Nick and Nathaniel. Nick works for a television show, out in California. Nathaniel left right after the Prophet; he went out to spread the gospel of Max.”
Victor ate the rest of his meal in silent contemplation. He had so much to think about. Those freaks in Reva had spread lies about him, and were holding Max up as the savior of mankind. Was this a new religion? How could he use this?
At the end of the meal, he helped carry the dishes into the kitchen and set them down beside the sink. The kitchen was spotless, as he expected.
Victor asked, “Mrs. Rotelle, what can I do to earn my keep? I don’t want to feel like a beggar, but I’m not sure what I could do for you. I don’t see anything that needs to be fixed around here.”
“If you’d be willing to run some errands for me tomorrow, I need a few things from the market. The kitchen is horribly under stocked.”
“Sure, Mrs. Rotelle, do you have a list? I may not be able to find everything, but I’ll do my best. The last time I was in a grocery store the shelves were getting pretty bare.” Victor tried not to chuckle as he said it.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be able to find what we need, deary. We have one of those mega-marts. They even have collards in January. I guess they bring them up from Mexico or something.”
“I’ll do my best ma’am. I appreciate your hospitality. Supper was delicious,” said Victor taking a plate from her and drying it. “Where does this go?”
“Second cabinet on the left,” she said, pointing to the cabinet.
Victor opened the door and sat the plate inside. He dried each dish, once again thinking about all he’d learned here. “We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one card we have, and that is our attitude,” Leeland had said to him.
He thought about Candi, and how much he wanted to change the past. He wondered if he’d done something differently if he’d have been able to save her. She was dead because he made the choice to run that road block. He wasn’t careful enough. If he’d been smarter or faster or stronger maybe she’d still be alive. If he’d killed every zombie along the way instead of running, she’d still be alive. His resolve firmed, the fire in his belly burned through the thoughts of how comfortable it was here.
When he finished drying the dishes, he took his leave of the Rotelles. If its alright with the two of you, I’m going to go up and go to sleep. It’s been a long day, and I’m exhausted.”
“Ok, sleep well deary! Tomorrow will be a better day,” said Mother Rotelle.
“Only if I kill a few zombies,” thought Victor as he climbed the steps.
“Hey, Son. Remember, all you have is your attitude.”
Victor sat down on the bed, and closed his eyes. He shifted his head to the north, as he thought “Max, are you there?”
“Hi Daddy!” replied Max.
“I’m not going to make it back to the train tonight. I ran into some trouble, and I’m staying at a very nice ladies house.”
“I know, Miss Leo stopped by the train. She took all of her stuff Dad. She said she wasn’t coming back. How come she left?”
“I said some things to her that I shouldn’t have, Buddy. I would like to apologize to her, but I can’t find her now. Tomorrow I have to find a truck and get back to the train.”
“Oh, Poppy will be so happy to see you. Uncle Marshall found him! Uncle Marshall and Poppy got back here today. We’re waiting for you at the place you said you’d meet us.”
“Holy cow! Marshall found Poppy! That’s great news! How is he? How does he look?”
“He looks like Poppy. He was sad that you weren’t here, but I gave him a kiss and told him you would be back soon.”
“I’ll meet you tomorrow. Maxmonster, can you tell Uncle Marshall something for me? Tell him I think there’s a shot that kills the bugs in that fort. He needs to get it before you leave tomorrow.”
“Daddy, my bugs said that shot didn’t work.”
“I know buddy, but it did make them sick. We’re going to need every advantage we can get.”
“Ok, I’ll tell him.” said Max. “I like your haircut.”
“You can see my hair?” Victor asked.
“Yes, I can see in your head when you saw yourself in the mirror when the grandpa was finished cutting it.“