Nothing to Fear

“Nothing to Fear” is an episode inspired by The Rule of Three, the opening novel in Eric Walter’s trilogy of the same name about the terrifying challenges faced by an ordinary suburban kid, his family, and his neighbors, in the first days and weeks and months after a viral catastrophe causes the world to go dark. Sixteen-year-old Adam Daley is taking his girlfriend, Lori, on a picnic in his homemade ultralight aircraft—one of the few computer-free machines that still works. He wants to celebrate a surprise anniversary only he knows about (the first time he saw her at a junior high basketball game). But soon, this attempt at a normal date away from the fortified safety of their neighborhood feels increasingly risky. As their gripping misadventure unfolds, it is a reminder for Adam and Lori that there is nothing in particular for them to be afraid of, because in their world there is everything to fear.

This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by MacKids editor Wes Adams.

My eyes opened. It was still dark but not so dark that there weren’t some faint glimmers of light coming in under the edges of the blinds on my windows. Instinctively, I rolled over and reached for my phone and then stopped myself. There was no point. No messages, no texts, no reception, no screen, no power. No point. My phone was nothing more than a paperweight and nothing less than a reminder of what my world had devolved to.

Instead I reached for my gun. It was right beside the phone. It was cool and clean and felt as natural in my hand now as the phone once had back then. Both made a statement. Both were used as a form of communication. Different messages for different times.

I made sure the safety was on—it was. Funny—it being called the safety. Sometimes the only way I was truly safe was when it was off. Safety involved the ability to shoot if you needed to. Really it was the un-safety.

It was off, or on, or whatever, but at least the pistol wouldn’t accidently fire in this position. We’d had more than enough incidents of somebody accidently discharging one of their weapons. So far nobody had shot themselves or anybody else, but it always caused the alarm to be raised. Was somebody trying to get over the walls of our neighborhood? Were we being attacked? Now I always waited for the second shot before reacting.

I climbed out of bed. I was already dressed. That was as much part of the routine as having a pistol. It was important to always be ready. I held the gun out in front of me and aimed it at the wall, at an invisible, imaginary adversary. I didn’t need much imagination to picture what that could be. Just outside our walls were people—thousands and thousands of people—hungry and desperate and armed. People who not only wanted but needed what we had inside the walls of our neighborhood. I’d seen the terrible things desperation could drive people to do to try to get those things. I’d also been part of terrible things we’d done to keep what was ours.

I looked at the gun once more. This pistol in my hand, and the weapons in the hands of the guards on our walls, were the only things stopping the chaos that ruled out there from flooding over our walls and drowning us in that same desperation.

So many thoughts, so many images, so many memories were all crowded inside my head. I couldn’t let them win today. This wasn’t the time. Today wasn’t about any of that. It was about happiness and trying to pretend that everything was normal. At least as much normal and pretend as I could summon up.

I put the pistol into the shoulder harness. I had things to do.

Quietly I opened my bedroom door. There was enough light coming in through the skylight at the top of the stairs for me to navigate. All the other bedroom doors were closed. My brother and sister and mother were all still asleep. I started down the stairs, moving as silently as possible to not wake them. Let them sleep. It was an escape—well, most of the time.

I heard a noise and stopped midstep. Somebody was downstairs. It could be my mother, who might have gotten up early to get ready for a patrol, even though I knew she wasn’t normally on duty until this afternoon. Definitely had to be her. But maybe not. I pulled my gun out of its holster and in the same motion my thumb flicked off the un-safety. I held the weapon down by my side. From there I could easily swing it up. It would take a split second longer but that was the time I’d need to think and not just react if it turned out to be a false alarm. The only thing I could think of that was worse than having one of us shot was one of us doing it.

I edged down the stairs, staying close to the side carefully avoiding the fifth and third steps which both creaked noisily. I’d thought about trying to fix them so they wouldn’t cry out but then I’d realized that I actually liked having them announce anybody coming up the stairs.

The kitchen windows faced the east and the rising sun. Coming down the hall I was in darkness moving into light. I was almost invisible.

Slowly, slowly I inched forward, pressed against the wall. And then I heard my mother’s voice. She was softly singing. I couldn’t make out the words or the tune—she was such a terrible singer—but it sounded so good in my ears.

Quickly I holstered my gun and then deliberately made a loud coughing sound. I wanted to announce my entrance. I wasn’t the only one carrying a gun.

“Good morning,” my mother said as I entered the room.

“Morning. You’re up early.”

“Actually I’ve been up since two. There was some trouble on the walls.”

“What sort of trouble?” I asked anxiously.

“Nothing serious. Some suspected suspicious activity in the darkness, but nothing came of it.”

“And they couldn’t just handle it by themselves?” I asked.

“It’s better to react to a false situation than not react to a real situation.”

“I guess you’re right,” I admitted.

“Speaking of situations, are you still planning on going out?”

“That’s why I’m up.” I knew she was worried. “We’ll be fine, Mom.”

“I just wish you’d be willing to take an away party with you.”

“Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I figure that having eight or nine armed guards along just might spoil the magic of my date with Lori,” I joked.

“Could you at least take Herb along?”

“Again, a senior citizen coming with us isn’t quite the way I’d pictured this happening. Besides, it’s a two-seater so unless I leave Lori behind there’s no room for Herb.”

“You could take your car,” she said.

“That would be more dangerous than having Herb along . . . you know that.”

Slowly she nodded her head. “Parents worry. It’s part of our job. Especially now.” She came over and gave me a big hug. I was too old to be chaperoned but not too old to like being hugged.

“We’ll be fine. I checked out the spot from above and Herb sent an away party there yesterday to sweep the area,” I said.

“I should have known Herb would take care of that. Still, you aren’t going out on your date without protection, right?”

For a split second my mind went in a completely different direction before it snapped back to where it should be. “I have my pistol and we have a rifle and shotgun. Lori is a better shot than I am.”

“Farm girl,” my mother said, in explanation.

“We also will be wearing body armor and we’re within walkie-talkie range. Besides, I won’t touch down if I see anything that even remotely worries me. I won’t take chances. That’s part of the reason we’re leaving so early.”

“It is early, but I’d better get to bed and get some sleep before the day begins.”

She gave my hand a squeeze and left. It was time for me to leave, too. Quickly I slipped on my shoes and then my body armor. I grabbed the bag from the kitchen counter. I’d packed it the night before. I stopped and took a rifle and a shotgun out of the stand behind the door. I remembered when all the stand used to hold was umbrellas and an occasional baseball bat that had found its way into the house. I unlocked the door and stepped out, closing and securing it behind me.

The air was fresh and cool. The sky was clear and the wind calm. Perfect weather for what we were going to do. I hurried around the corner of the house and—

“About time you showed up.”

I jumped backward in shock.

It was Lori.

“Jeez!” I said, trying to recover some level of residual coolness.

“Nice hang time on that jump,” she said with a smile. “But I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m just glad you’re here and ready,” I said.

“You told me to be here at dawn. Besides, I’ve been up for an hour already milking the cows.”

That’s right, I’d forgotten about the cows. It was much easier to forget them than the chickens—that rooster woke me up at least every second morning.

It was still strange to think about all the farm animals now being raised in our neighborhood. As strange as it was to have crops growing in all the front and backyards, the playground, the school yard, and the park. I don’t know what we would have done if Lori’s family hadn’t agreed to move off the farm and join us. There still was barely enough food, but without them, hunger would have been starvation.

Lori was wearing a white T-shirt, a pair of jeans, sneakers, and body armor. She was the only person I knew who could make body armor look good. She could make practically anything look good.

“Here, let me help you,” Lori said as she took the shotgun and rifle from me. She tried to take the bag as well.

“Sorry, that you can’t have . . . at least for a while.” I paused. “It’s a surprise.”

She smiled again. “I love surprises.”

“I love some surprises.” There were a whole bunch of surprises I didn’t want to have happen today.

“Put the weapons in the rack while I go through the preflight checklist,” I said.

I tied the bundle in place between the seats. I double-checked my knots. I didn’t want to lose what was inside. Next I unhooked the harnesses and cords tethering my little ultralight to the ground. As I got ready, I couldn’t help but smile. It was like opening a cage and letting a bird fly free.

Maybe it was more like I was releasing myself from a cage. Staying within the walls of the neighborhood felt safe but claustrophobic. Most of the residents hardly ever left and even then only for short trips. My plane allowed me to travel far and wide into the world that surrounded us. The sky was mine. Alone above the chaos. Safe. Well, at least safer.

I mentally went through the checklist in my head. I told myself I didn’t need to check the fuel level because I’d filled it from a can in the garage last night. But then I checked it anyway. Never again would I risk almost running out of fuel. My first flight had almost been my last and I wouldn’t be repeating that mistake. There were so many possible new mistakes that we couldn’t afford to make the old ones again.

I checked the struts and wires and manually worked the flaps. All good. Next I inspected the nuts and bolts holding the wings on and the engine in place. All snug.

It felt good to know that nothing had been shaken loose by the vibration of the engine and propeller or the jolts of the landings or stresses of the turns. The tires looked good but I gave them all a kick just to make sure. A blown tire on either a takeoff or a landing would be nothing short of a disaster.

My plane was in good shape. We were ready.

“It’s all fine,” I said as I pulled the blocks out from in front of the wheels.

Lori climbed into the passenger seat and I climbed in behind the stick. I clicked my harness and then reached over and gave her harness a little tug just to make sure she was tightly secured. She leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek and I felt myself melt.

“What was that for?” I asked.

“Maybe it was because you checked my harness, or maybe it was because you were so sweet to prepare this little surprise . . . whatever it is . . . or maybe just because. Do I need a reason to kiss my boyfriend?”

“Not really.”

“Good.” She leaned over again and gave me a full kiss and the rest of the world seemed to dissolve and all I could think of was her, the girl I’d dreamed about for so long. When so much in the world had changed this was the constant. When there was so much that was uncertain and dangerous and scary, she was certain and safe.

Still, it was a little scary to be so in love with her. As we both put on our helmets and headsets so we could talk, I let that thought bounce around inside my head and my heart. I knew that’s how I felt about her but I’d never said anything. She’d never said anything either. But that was how she felt about me, too . . . wasn’t it?

“What’s wrong?” Lori asked. “You’re sitting there staring into space. Why aren’t you starting the engine?”

“Um . . . just going through my checklist one more time,” I lied. “Better safe than sorry.” It definitely would be safer just to not use that word.

I flipped the ignition switch, fed in the fuel, and pushed the starter. The engine caught immediately. I powered up the propeller and we rolled forward and bumped out of my driveway and into the road. There was virtually no wind so it didn’t matter which way I choose for takeoff. I applied the left brake and we swung around in that direction and then we taxied up the street. Reaching the end, I hit the left brake again and spun us completely around so that I was facing back down the street, the whole runway ahead of me, my neighbors’ houses lining both sides of the road.

I revved the engine and then released both brakes. We started along the street and I opened up the fuel completely and we quickly picked up speed. The tires rumbled and rumbled, shaking us harder and harder until suddenly all the vibrations stopped as our wheels lifted off the pavement. I pulled back on the stick hard and we zoomed upward, easily clearing the houses at the end of the street. Soaring over the rooftops we could see the strange patchwork of fields—lush and full and almost ready for harvest—and then in seconds we came up to the wall. The guards waved at us and Lori waved back.

I banked hard to the left so that I was on the inside. I’d made a habit of always doing a circuit around the whole neighborhood before going any farther. It was smart to do a shakedown of the equipment while I was close enough to do an emergency landing if I needed to, but also I just liked to look down at our home.

The walls surrounded the entire neighborhood. We’d started building them in the days and weeks after the power went off and all hell had broken loose all across the town, the state, the country. Over the last couple months we’d made them stronger and higher, and on all sides the bushes and trees and any obstructions had been cleared away to create open space. Herb called it a kill zone. I hated him calling it that, but of course that’s what it was. Within the wall were close to sixteen hundred people. Swimming pools were full—filled with rain runoff that had been carefully collected from the rooftops of houses. Lush green crops filled every open piece of land that wasn’t paved over, including front and back yards of every house. Light reflected off the dozens of greenhouses that had been built from scavenged windows of houses and apartments and car windshields. Beneath the glass more crops were springing up.

“It’s really something, isn’t it?” Lori said.

“It always impresses me.”

“So where are we going?” she asked.

“Again, it’s not a surprise if I tell you. Just wait.”

I broke off the bank, hit the flaps, and went almost due south. That wasn’t the direction we were going to be heading but I wanted to keep our real location a surprise as long as possible.

Within seconds the view beneath us changed. Order was replaced by disorder. The blackened remains of burned houses stood out as smudges on the ground. Abandoned cars, most likely stripped and vandalized, littered the roadways. We’d done some of the stripping ourselves. Our away teams had taken windshields for greenhouses and drained gas tanks of their fuel.

“There’s the high school,” Lori said.

It was coming up quickly, just off to her side of the ultralight. From this height it all looked normal. You couldn’t tell that windows had been smashed and the packed parking lot was filled with more immobilized vehicles.

“That’s where it all started,” Lori said.

For a second I thought she meant the two of us before I realized she meant the computer virus. We’d been at school when it’d hit.

“Yup. That’s where we were when the world changed.”

And it had been the world. In an instant every computer in the world had been corrupted and destroyed and everything that had computers or was controlled by computers or was somehow related to computers—cars and trucks and planes and ships, telecommunication systems, electrical grids, water supplies, and everything related to them—had all stopped working. In one microsecond the world was set back a hundred years.

I started banking to the west, curving around and leaving the school and my mother’s old police station behind, using Dundas Street as my guide. Below, people were starting to emerge. People on foot and some on bikes.

“I’m always amazed at how few people I can see from up here,” Lori said.

“It’s early. Most are still asleep, inside buildings.”

“There’s a moving truck and a car up ahead on Dundas,” Lori said, pointing in their direction.

“More vehicles now than there were before,” I said. “People are going into junkyards and fixing up old wrecks, precomputer vehicles.”

I pulled up on the stick. I wanted more height. Down below was nothing that I wanted to see. Besides, the greater the height the safer we were.

“Since we’re heading in this direction do you think we could take a pass over my old house?” Lori asked.

“I think we could do that.” Actually that was part of the surprise.

She reached out and put a hand on my leg and I felt a rush go through my entire body.

We passed by a burned-out apartment building and little suburban streets dotted with houses. Scattered through the entire area were clusters of houses that had tried to band together the way our neighborhood had. Some had already been abandoned and now broken fences and walls, destroyed buildings, were all that remained. They had either been abandoned or overwhelmed. There were lots of bad people out there. A wall—unless it was strong enough and well guarded to repel outside force—was nothing more than a magnet. It told people there was something behind it that was worth taking, something worth risking lives and worth taking lives for.

We crossed over the curve of Highway 403 and were out of the suburbs and into the city. I felt a sense of relief. Not only were we closer to our destination, but we were getting farther away from people. People were trouble.

It wasn’t long before Lori’s farm was underneath us. Since my last flyover the main building had been badly damaged.

“Oh” was all she said.

I sensed the pang of sadness that she was feeling. I pushed forward on the stick and reduced the fuel to slow us down. Making her sad today was the last thing I’d wanted to do. But the least I could do now was to let her get a good look at her old home, even if it did make her sad. I plotted a slow, low circuit around the main house.

Windows were broken, the front door was smashed open and hanging on an angle, and, most telling, a large chunk of the roof had caved in as if the supporting structure beneath had been knocked down, which maybe it had. I didn’t know if the place would ever be habitable—even if things changed for the better and her family could return.

“I’ve seen enough,” she said.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Thanks for bringing me here.” She paused. “So where are we going to?”

“Not far.”

I pulled slightly up on the stick and broke off the bank. We really weren’t going far. We passed over a line of trees that divided two of their fields. Up ahead was a path, a thin dirt strip between the fields. Today it was going to be a landing strip. I brought us around so we were aimed right for it.

“Hold on, we’re going to land,” I said.

“Here, on the farm?”

“That’s where we were always heading to. Hang on. This could be a little rough.”

I pushed forward on the stick and let off the throttle to reduce speed. The strip was long enough, but only just, so I had to touch down just above stall speed. For an instant I had second thoughts about how smart this was, but I drove them away. The stupidest thing to do was to let my mind focus on anything other than the task at hand.

Working the pedals, I aimed us straight down the middle of the strip. It was wide enough. I slowly took us lower with just a little extra cushion of speed built in to keep us from stalling out. We touched down on the ground and bounced slightly back into the air before settling down again. We bumped along the path. It was a lot rougher than what I’d expected and it felt like it was going to shake something loose. I held firmly on to the stick to stop us from going off course and gently applied the brakes equally so as not to skid us off the strip. The bumpiness actually was working in our favor to help slow us down. We came to rest and I turned off the engine. It chortled for a few seconds and then the prop stopped turning and there was silence.

“Welcome home,” I said as I pulled off my helmet and unclipped the harness. Lori did the same.

“This is the surprise?”

“The first part.” I untied the bag and climbed out of the plane, circled around, and offered her my hand. I led her a few feet away and then stopped. “Hang on.”

I returned to the plane and grabbed the tail, lifted it up, and aimed it back up the runway so it was ready to take off quickly if needed. Next I grabbed the rifle and shotgun from the rack. It was better to be safe than sorry. Returning to Lori, I handed her the rifle. She took it in one hand and then took my free hand in hers.

“Walking hand and hand,” she said. “Me, you, a shotgun, and a rifle.”

“And my pistol and our body armor.”

Lori looked all around. “Are you sure we’re safe?”

“Herb had a whole patrol here yesterday and he said it was clear,” I said. “And I was watching as we came in. Besides, we’re not going far . . . just to that big tree,” I said, pointing to a big maple tree at the edge of the field.

She laughed. “That’s a very special tree.”

“Do you mean because your grandfather planted it?”

“How did you know that?” she asked.

“You mentioned it once when we were here to move you to the neighborhood. You pointed it out to me in the distance. You told me how much you used to like climbing it when you were a kid.”

We stopped in the shade of the tree. She let go of my hand and placed the rifle carefully on the ground. She went right to the base of the tree and reached to the lowest branch and hauled herself up. I watched as she scampered from branch to branch making her way to the top.

I put down the shotgun and the bag I’d been carrying. I opened the bag, reached in, and pulled out a blanket and spread it on the ground. Next I removed a thermos and some sandwiches and put them out on the blanket. I took two apples and a chocolate bar—possibly the last chocolate bar in the entire neighborhood. Finally I took the present—wrapped in Christmas paper because it was all I could find in our house—and put it down as well.

“I can see the farmhouse from here!” Lori called down.

“That’s great!” I called back—but softly. I didn’t want to attract any more attention to us than necessary. “Come on down . . . I have something for you.”

She started down easily as she had up. She stopped partway and looked at me. “You made us a picnic!” She hurried the rest of the way, hanging down from the lowest branch, jumping to the ground, and then practically knocking me over with a hug.

“You are a wonderful boyfriend,” she said.

“Hopefully the best you’ve ever had. Sit, have a sandwich.”

We sat on the blanket. I unwrapped one of sandwiches and handed it to her.

“This is peanut butter!” she said.

“Your favorite.”

“But we’re out of peanut butter. The whole neighborhood is out of peanut butter.”

“Almost out.” I reached in and grabbed a jumbo jar. “I’ve been saving this one for you.”

She squealed and gave me an amazing, sticky, peanut-buttery kiss.

After she went back to her sandwich and I recovered, I handed her the present. “Happy anniversary.”

“Anniversary? What anniversary?”

“Two years,” I said.

“I know it seems like ten years since this all happened but it’s been less than a few months since you first came out to the farm.”

“No, it’s two years, almost exactly to the day. I remember because our team won the championship.”

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

“Open it,” I said.

She ripped off the paper and held the gift up. It was a silver trophy, with a basketball player at the top who looked like he was going for a layup.

“That junior high basketball championship. I played for Homelands and we beat Hillside. We whooped you guys pretty bad.”

“I remember the game, Mr. Bigshot.”

“And I remember the date because I got that MVP trophy. It’s been on a shelf in my room ever since, and it has the date.”

“So we’re celebrating the anniversary of you winning an eighth-grade basketball championship?” She sounded incredulous.

“No, we’re celebrating the first time I saw you in the stands.”

“What?” Now she sounded even more incredulous. “You remember seeing me in the stands?”

“You sort of stood out. The best looking girl in the gym and—”

She reached out and punched me on the arm—hard.

“What was that for?” I demanded.

“You’re an idiot.”

“I thought you’d think it was sweet.”

“It is sweet,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that you’re still not an idiot. You knew me from then but you waited almost two years to do anything about it? You waited until the whole world crashed down before you asked me out?” she demanded.

“I guess I could have done something about it sooner.” I took a deep breath to steady myself. I wasn’t going to wait any longer for what I wanted to say. “Look, Lori, I really wanted to tell you that—”

Just then, I heard something in the bushes. Lori heard it, too. We dropped our sandwiches and she grabbed the rifle while I picked up the shotgun.

“You stay here,” I whispered. “Use the tree for protection . . . I’m going to go wide and come around.”

“I know what to do . . . Be careful.”

She crawled forward and took cover behind the trunk of the tree. I started off, staying low to the ground, moving on an angle away from the bushes. I stumbled over the uneven ground and with my free hand pulled up the zipper on my body armor. No point wearing it unless it covered up as much as possible.

I heard more movement in the bushes. I dropped flat to the ground, slipping into a furrow in the field that gave me partial cover. I felt such a rush of adrenaline, and now my heart was pounding and I struggled to get my breath. It had nothing to do with my scramble from our picnic blanket. I had to calm myself down.

I focused on my breathing. Slowly, silently I took in long, deep lungfuls. I looked and listened and waited. There was nothing. Maybe it had just been branches blowing, or an animal, or nothing at all but my imagination or—

There were voices. They were quiet but unmistakable. We weren’t alone.

There were three choices. Lori and I could both stay put and just see what happened. Or I could quietly and quickly retreat and move us to the ultralight and try to get us out of there. Or I could charge forward.

Waiting might allow whoever it was time to leave—or time for more of them to come. I didn’t like those fifty-fifty odds.

Trying to get to the plane meant crossing open ground and then being completely exposed as we got the plane going, taxied down the strip, and took to the air. We’d be an easy target for anybody with even a slingshot, not to mention a gun.

There was only one choice.

I looked over at Lori and made eye contact. I pointed at myself and then at the bushes. She looked scared. I nodded and she nodded back.

After a moment I jumped to my feet, shotgun leading the way, and crashed around the edge of the bushes.

It was a mother and three small children!

“Please don’t hurt us!” the mother screamed. “Please!”

The littlest child—a girl no more than five—turned and buried her face into the mother’s side and the other two—maybe ten or eleven—tried to shield themselves behind her.

I struggled to say something, but the words were trapped inside of me, my throat swollen with fear.

“It’s okay . . . I won’t hurt you,” I stammered.

I realized I still had the shotgun aimed squarely at them and my finger on the trigger was twitching. I lowered the gun and offered them a nervous smile. The woman still looked shocked and afraid. The children looked terrified, the one little girl’s face still buried in the material of her mother’s top.

“It’s all right,” I said. “I’m not going to hurt you.” I had to say more. “We’re having a picnic. Have you eaten?”

“What?” the mother asked, as if she didn’t understand what I was saying or, more likely, what I was offering.

“My girlfriend and I are just having a picnic. We don’t have much but we have enough to share. Would you like a sandwich and some lemonade?”

“Really?” she asked.

“Really.” I turned around. “Lori!” I yelled. “It’s okay. I’m going to bring out some new friends. Everything is all right!”

“Come on.” I turned and started away and then looked back. They weren’t following. “It’s okay if you don’t want to come. I understand being afraid, but you have nothing to fear from us.”

I started walking again and I could hear them walking after me. Coming around the bushes, I caught sight of Lori, now standing by the tree, still holding the rifle. As I got closer to her, the family came out. They were hesitant, but whatever fear they were feeling was overpowered by the offer of food. Finally they stopped at the edge of the blanket.

“I’m Adam and this is Lori,” I said.

“My name is Danita and these are my children.”

Lori offered the woman her hand and then bent down and introduced herself to the children. The older two were Devon and Dana, but the third refused to unbury her face.

“We don’t have much, but you’re welcome to share it,” Lori said. She took the halves of the sandwiches and gave each one of them. The littlest girl took some encouragement from her mother and reached for the sandwich. All of them—including the mother—wolfed them down.

“It’s been forever since we had peanut butter,” Danita said.

“Or even bread,” Devon added.

“We have a bakery,” Lori said. “Well, at least there’s one in our neighborhood.”

“Where do you live?” the woman asked.

“It’s not that close,” I said quickly. “We flew here.” I motioned to the ultralight.

“I know. We saw you land. That’s why we came,” she said.

“Where do you live?” I asked.

She hesitated like she didn’t want to answer, but then did. “We live with my husband and a few other people in a building at the edge of a field, over that way, past those trees.”

“That’s our old drive shed,” Lori said. “This is my farm . . . my parents’ farm . . . where we used to live.”

“We don’t mean to be trespassing or—”

“It’s all right,” Lori said. “I didn’t mean anything . . . please. Everybody has to live someplace.”

“It’s the only place we have. There’s water and we’ve planted a little garden and there are berries and some game.”

Suddenly I was feeling exposed. If they saw us land, what about the rest of the people with them? Where were they?

I moved to my feet. “I think we better get going,” I said.

Somehow I expected Lori to argue. She didn’t. She got to her feet, too.

“Could you use an extra blanket?” Lori asked the woman.

“That would be wonderful.”

“And you can have the rest of our meal,” Lori said. “All of it, including the jar of peanut butter. It’s for you.”

“We couldn’t take all of it,” the woman said.

“Yes, you can. I insist. Just enjoy.”

The woman reached out and grabbed Lori’s hand. “God bless you . . . both of you.”

“You, too,” Lori said. “But this I’m going to bring with us.” She reached down and took the present.

Quickly we closed the distance to the plane. Out in the open I felt very exposed. I checked all around, glancing backward, scanning with the shotgun, finger on the trigger, as we rushed forward. We finally got to the ultralight.

“Keep the rifle in your hands,” I said as I put the shotgun into the rack.

We climbed in, snapped on the harnesses, and put on our helmets. I opened the fuel line and then pushed the start button. Instantly the engine caught and roared to life. Releasing the brakes and revving the engine, I started us bumping along the runway. I opened the throttle up full and the plane bounced along the choppy surface. It was a jarring ride but soon enough we hit the speed we needed. Pulling back on the stick, I got us up into the air. Using the rudders, I banked and brought us back around. I saw the tree and could still make out the little figures sitting beneath it on the red blanket. They waved and Lori waved back.

“You really are a sweetheart,” Lori said.

“I thought I was an idiot for waiting two years.”

“That, too.”

“I just wish you got to taste more than one bite of the peanut butter,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s the thought that mattered and you were so thoughtful.” She paused. “I guess I could wait another two years for you to say something, but I don’t want to.” She paused again. And then she said the words I’d been afraid of saying myself.

We quickly gained altitude and distance and I felt a rush of wind and relief. I looked at her and said the same words to her. Then I released one hand from the control and took hold of her hand that gripped the butt of the rifle, interlacing my fingers with hers.

There really wasn’t anything to be afraid of now.

 

“Nothing to Fear” copyright © 2014 by Eric Walters

Art copyright © 2014 by Thom Tenery

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