Not much had changed for Grace Sherwood.
Sure, she used candlelight, brought water in with a bucket, and heated with firewood now, but she’d often done that in the past. When she first moved to the old cottage in the mountains with her husband all those years ago when he returned from Vietnam, it took months before they were able to afford to hook up the power and water, so they simply used the things that had been in place for the almost two centuries the small house had been standing. At the time, they were young and thought it was ridiculously romantic.
There was an outhouse set back from the house, and if outhouses could be adorable, this one was. It was a little stone outbuilding with the classic crescent moon carved into the faded, blue-painted door. A handpump stood in the mossy sideyard, and a few minutes of pumping brought forth fresh, sweet well water.
Inside the cozy cottage, there was the one thing that Grace had demanded: a wood stove with a flat top on which she could cook. The little home was made of stone, and James had said that it had been standing for a couple hundred years before them and would probably be standing for a couple hundred years after they died. The cottage was like something from a fairy tale, and it blended in so well with the beautiful mountain setting that it almost appeared to have evolved naturally in the forest instead of being built there. A winding gravel path with one lane led you to the house if you knew it was there, but Grace had purposely allowed the entrance to the driveway to become obscured and overgrown when things began to go sideways.
For Grace, while things were not quite as easy as they were during The Before, she was still content in the home she had loved for more than 50 years.
Back when her television antenna could still pick up the news, she heard talk of a massive event that had rocked the United States, creating what Grace called The After. It didn’t really matter what the event was. It was difficult to believe that it was as it was presented, anyway. The news wasn’t known for its honesty and credibility. It hadn’t been since the days when Walter Cronkite had signed off with, “And that’s the way it was.” And sometimes Grace wondered if it had been then.
From what she had seen, people in the cities were rioting, starving, and pleading for help. She felt sorry for them, especially the children who had no choice but to abide by the decisions of their parents, whether for better or for worse. She included her fervent good wishes for those involved each night as she lit candles in her little cottage to break the unrelenting darkness that blanketed the forest.
Grace hadn’t been one for going into the city since she was young, back when her sense of adventure was far more acute. She had even lived in the Big Apple before it became rotten to the core with crime and violence. She’d had all kinds of excitement back in the day, but now, all she wanted was to tend her garden, do some needlepoint, and read some books. Being alone didn’t really bother her anymore. She had lived by herself since her husband James had died ten years ago, and while she missed him desperately, she was otherwise content with the quiet life of plants, crafting, and reading books.
Since her telephone no longer worked, people didn’t call her for help with delivering babies or herbal remedies anymore. She had delivered half the babies in the area and helped people with health matters from itchy rashes to arthritis to things that were far more serious.
But now, Grace was so far up the mountain and so hidden in the trees that it seemed like the world had forgotten all about her. Nobody had shown up in months to the cheekily named home that she and James had called Sherwood Forest, an ode to the legend of Robin Hood. And from what Grace had seen before the television and power went out, that was probably for the best.
On this particular evening, the sky had been threatening, dark clouds seeming to boil in the dusky light. After she locked her chickens securely in their coop, Grace went inside and made herself a cup of tea using chamomile from her garden and sweetened with rich, thick forest honey from her hives. She kicked off her boots and settled into the handmade pillows cushioning the rocking chair on her front porch. She was all set to watch the storm.
Mother Nature was putting on quite a show before the rain began falling, with thunder rolling and lightning crackling across the sky. “Better than anything on television,” Grace said to her one companion, her cat, Nightshade. He was a dark gray feline that she had found as a kitten. He’d somehow gotten into the part of the garden that she kept fenced off behind a sturdy locked gate that was meant to protect animals with two legs and four from the plants within. The scraggly little kitten had been just fine in there with the plants that could cure or kill, depending on the dose, which was why she opted to name him after one of them.
The clouds burst open, and the downpour began. The sound of the rain pounding the tin roof of the porch almost drowned out the sound of the thunder. Lightning illuminated her gardens and the trees beyond it to a brief brightness that rivaled a moment of daylight.
And it was the lightning that showed her someone – she had no idea who – was out there in the forest surrounding her home.
Grace wasn’t afraid, per se, but she was unsettled. It had been months since she’d seen anybody, and she was concerned that it was a person up to no good. Perhaps it was someone from the city who had made his or her way out to her little wooded oasis in search of food and shelter. That could go either way – hunger caused a kind of existential desperation that made nearly any person untrustworthy.
Grace studiously looked away from where she had seen the person and sipped her tea. She discreetly patted the pocket of her voluminous apron to reassure herself that her ever-present Glock was indeed nestled in her pocket. She was a skilled seamstress and had sewn a little holster into the pockets of all her aprons to keep her firearm secure. She was generally a good neighbor to the animals of the forest, but living out here alone, it was only common sense to be armed, just in case one of the creatures chose to violate their unspoken peace treaty.
The next flash of lightning illuminated a young girl who appeared in front of her steps as if by magic. The thin girl was soaked to the skin and shivering in the rain. Her face was pale, and her dark hair was plastered to it. Her big brown eyes were wide with fright. Grace assumed that she was afraid of the storm, and her heart melted.
That was Grace’s first mistake.
“Hello,” she greeted the girl warmly. “Would you like to come in out of the rain?”
The girl’s eyes widened even more if such a thing was possible, and she froze in place, getting pelted by the rain. She looked like she’d been turned to stone.
Grace padded down the three steps in her bare feet. “Come on, my girl, let’s get you dried off and warm.”
The girl began to shake her head frantically in silent warning.
“We’d love to get warm,” said a male voice.
Grace suddenly found herself outnumbered. She willed herself not to touch the gun in her pocket and give away her advantage. Two men and a woman joined the girl. “I’m Christopher, and this is Beth and my brother Luke,” he introduced himself and gestured toward the two adults. “The girl is Lexie.”
The man who spoke was tall and very good-looking. He smiled at Grace wryly in an attempt to be disarming, but she had always been a woman of quick discernment. And she did not like this man, not one bit. She noted that the girl had begun to tremble even harder when she was joined by the trio, and she suspected that her fear had nothing to do with the storm.
The man whistled sharply, and two more men appeared at the edge of the yard, one supporting the other. The woman quickly joined them to help, and Grace could see that the one being supported was younger, perhaps in his late teens, and his shirt was soaked in blood.
She couldn’t fight all of them. She knew she had no option but to play along and let them into her haven if she wanted to stay alive.
“Come in,” she said with a cordiality that belied her instant mistrust. “I have some medical training. I can help your friend.”
Hunger is a powerful motivator, but fear is more powerful still. When bad things happen to you, sometimes all you can do is play along and try not to make things worse. Sometimes, you have to retreat into the only safe place you have: silence.
Lexie White was 15 years old, and she hadn’t said a word in 6 months. Her voice was the only thing she could control, and the only stubborn streak of rebellion she had left was her refusal to speak.
Things had gone bad when the country began to devolve into chaos caused by a complete breakdown of the way things were. She didn’t completely understand what had caused things to go upside-down, but she knew that there were no longer food deliveries made because there was no food to be had. If you didn’t already possess supplies, you were out of luck.
Lexie’s family was fortunate in that they had been preparing for a long time. The unfortunate part came when the neighbors discovered that they had supplies.
Her father, the kindest man she’d ever known, had always disliked the Hill brothers. That was saying a lot because he found the good in everyone. Nonetheless, when they came to him for help, he offered them a hot meal and some supplies.
And that was when everything had gone horribly wrong.
Christopher Hill, the oldest brother, had not been satisfied with the generous gift. Oh, he had pretended and acted ingratiatingly grateful, but Lexie saw the meanness behind his handsome smile. Lots of women had tried to capture the heart of the good-looking man with dark hair and vivid blue eyes. But before, when there were laws and cops, he couldn’t get away with being who he was deep down inside. He wasn’t in it for love and romance. He wanted power and control. He wanted victims.
She tried to tell her father. She told her mother she was uncomfortable with how Christopher looked at her, how he made her skin crawl by staring just a little too long. But she was just a girl, and her parents were fine people who couldn’t imagine how dark people could really be. They thought it was her imagination, a creation of her bookworm brain.
Christopher and his brothers, Luke, Rick, and Jon, had killed her family with sadistic glee. She wished fervently that they had killed her, too, because the things that Christopher made her do were worse than death.
The Hill brothers got increasingly plainer, like a printer that had less ink with each copy, creating a more faded likeness each time. Jon, the youngest brother, was the plainest of all. His hair was merely brown, not a swoop of raven. His eyes were so pale blue that they seemed faded. He wasn’t as overtly brutal as the others. Lexie figured that maybe the meanness faded right along with the looks.
They went through the supplies that Mr. White had carefully stored in no time at all, and they all left in the family’s van until they could no longer siphon gas out of other abandoned vehicles. Then, they set off on foot in search of other people with food and water. They were like a horde of locusts, except locusts just acted on instinct to eat, and the Hills enjoyed the pain and fear they inflicted on their victimes.
Luke’s girlfriend, Beth, despised Lexie and treated her like a slave. She woke most mornings to a sharp kick to her ribs from Beth’s pointed boot, only to spend the day walking, cooking, gathering wood, and carrying water. Beth was lovely, if you didn’t notice the cruelty in her narrowed eyes. She had vivid red hair, pale, flawless skin, and a perfect smile. But if you looked into her eyes, you could see the darkness there.
After a month, Lexie had cried so much that no more tears would come. It was like she’d only been allotted a certain number of tears for her lifetime, and she’d sobbed all of them out during her first four weeks in Hell. That was her calendar, her measuring point. Before Hell and in Hell.
The only rebellion she had left was refusing to speak. It irked Christopher, causing him to do upsetting things just to try and make her beg him to stop. She quickly learned not to let her emotions show on her face, extending her silence to her expression. It enraged Beth, who was Luke’s girlfriend, but inexplicably strove to impress Christopher.
It was Lexie’s sixth month in Hell when they picked the wrong farmhouse to attack. They always forced her to go to the door first, by herself, acting like she needed help. She refused to speak to the homeowners, too, and hated her part in this. Without fail, people felt sorry for the pale, thin girl and wanted to help her.
When they opened the door, the Hill brothers and Beth rushed the homeowners, killing the men. Sometimes they raped the women, sometimes they killed them because they put up too much of a fight. Lexie regularly regretted that she had not put up more of a fight so that they’d have killed her, too.
They were making their way up the narrow mountain road, using up supplies at one home, then moving on to the next cabin. All the houses here were isolated, which meant that people had let their guards down. It also meant nobody could hear the screaming as the families were brutally attacked. Nobody could help.
But the last house had defenses that the brothers had not expected. There were a couple of hidden family members who were guarding the house. When the gang tried to push their way in, they came under heavy fire. Rick had taken a bullet to the side, and there was no choice but to retreat. Lexie resisted then. She scratched and clawed and kicked, struggling to get away. She wanted to stay with the family who had successfully fought off the Hill brothers. The last thing she remembered was a sharp pain in her jaw and darkness.
When Lexie came to, her jaw hurt so much she wasn’t sure if she could eat. Christopher had punched her and thrown her over his shoulder as they fled. He wasn’t willing to lose his prize.
Rick was asleep on the ground beside her, blood soaking his formerly gray tee shirt. A makeshift bandage had been created from an extra shirt, wrapped around his torso but doing little to stop the seeping from the wound. She knew from the first aid class she’d taken to be a babysitter that direct pressure was needed to stop the bleeding, but she wasn’t about to volunteer that information. If he died, that was one less Hill brother to make her life miserable.
Jon returned to the camp, jubilant. “I found us another place, and it’s just an old lady. There’s food and a garden and chickens,” he informed them, filled with self-importance. “We could stay there a long time.”
Lexie quietly made her way around the camp, gathering fallen sticks for the fire. She didn’t talk, but she certainly listened. She willed herself to be invisible, wishing many times each day that she actually possessed the magical power to disappear.
The plan was to wait until it was dark, then send Lexie to the door yet again. She wished she could help the people that they were raiding. But she had no options whatsoever. Any fight she put up would lead to things that were unspeakable, things so depraved she never in her wildest nightmares could have thought such acts existed. She had realized after just a few days with Christopher that the devil was not an ugly, horned creature. He was a tall, dark-haired, handsome man with twinkling blue eyes and dimples encircling a charming smile.
As night began to fall, the sky began to roil with clouds. Thunder and lightning created an atmosphere as spooky as any book Lexie had ever read.
And when she approached the front porch silently in the rain, she realized that if demons existed in human form, perhaps angels did too.
The lady sitting on her rocking chair held a cup that sparkled in the flickering light. She had long silver braids that gleamed when lightning danced across the sky. If it weren’t for the color of her hair, she could have been any age. Her tan skin appeared unlined, and her long, flowy dress stopped just above her ankles and bare feet when she stood. Lexie could see kindness in her the same way she saw meanness in the Hills and Beth. Her cat, startled, vanished off the porch into the forest in a streak of gray.
She stopped short of the porch, trying to wordlessly convey with her eyes that the lovely older woman was in danger. She couldn’t make herself take that another step if it meant putting that woman in danger. She shook her head frantically to warn her, but it was too late.
Christopher stepped up beside her, that sickeningly charming smile pasted on his face. He put his arm loosely over Lexie’s shoulders, and she forced herself not to flinch away.
In a moment of communication that felt almost telepathic, she realized that the beautiful old woman saw everything with clarity, too. It filled her with a wild burst of hope, quickly followed by dread. She had seen the Hills in action.
What chance could an old lady possibly stand against that kind of evil? Even if that old lady was an angel in human form.
More fiction from Daisy Luther: Good Citizens and Three Miles
This little story is a work in progress that I started a while back and just recently picked up again. I wanted to create a very different kind of hero. Your feedback is welcome!