So, I took Elaine’s advice and put out that ad, and I got my first reply in minutes. The Winters, family of seven – no wacky religion or anything, they just like having kids, I guess. They had a farm in upstate New York they got forced off by one of those big raiding armies – gangs of thousands, operating in platoons of fifty or so, taking over whole counties. They reckon they’d been flagged up for a target before the flu even hit the city. Probably a bunch of those raiders died since the anti-virals ran out, but by that time the Winters’d been on the road for months and there seemed more point in going forward than back, they said. They’ve been hiding out and trying to find somewhere they can settle, and keeping an eye on the forums. Now they’re here.
When they first arrived I was just glad they weren’t a raiding party, but I’m beginning to wonder if I did the right thing. They’re pretty strict, way worse than my folks were, and there’s so many of them, bossing me around all the time. Littlest kid’s ten, oldest – Brad, my new roommate – is a little older than me, and it seems like at least three of them’s either laughing at me or yelling at me or asking me something I don’t know at all times. They can’t understand how much I didn’t get done here, and they keep going on about it until I go off and do whatever they’re asking just to get away from them. They don’t have a clue what it was like for me, and they won’t give me a break about any of it.
Except for the bit about burying my family. When I said there were some rank bodies in the house I hadn’t been able to deal with, and I started trying to explain what happened, they just nodded, like this was normal, and Joe and Ellen turned to the kids and said, “OK, Jen, Lyssa, Brad: masks, bags and shovels, you know the drill. Jess, Dan, go play.” So the littlest two dragged me off to throw baseballs for them. An hour later I smelt burning, but when I went towards the back of the house Joe blocked my way and said, “Just some old furniture you don’t want to see again on there. You come round the front, now.”
Two of the armchairs, the rug and most of the cushions were missing from the living room, and there was a stain on the floor and a smell of bleach. We sat on the couch and drank some juice – there’s been a crop of apples since I was raided – and I drew a picture of Jess and Dan playing baseball with a woodchuck, and they showed Joe, and then the others came in, Ellen wiping her hands on the Friendly Frankenstein dishcloth, and they ran to show her, too, and everybody made a fuss about how good it was and how it looked just like them until Ellen told them to go do their chores, and they all just melted out the room like ghosts.
“There’s a patch of dirt where you put the crosses,” she said. “We had to put those to one side. You should be the one to put them up again. You want some time alone?”
It was the first time anybody had asked me to say what I wanted in forever, and I didn’t know. I wanted to thank them for dealing with a shitty job I should’ve done months ago, but I couldn’t speak. I kind of shrugged and then nodded, and they said they’d keep the kids out my way a couple of hours. So I went out to the back and said goodbye to my family, and sat there till it was too cold. Then I came back in and said hi to the Winters, and thanks, and was there anything I could do to help with dinner, and Lyssa said, “Yeah, you can plant it three months ago,” and Brad said to leave me alone, and shoved me a pile of potatoes to peel that they got out of a field I didn’t even know still had potatoes in it.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Mr. Unreliable-narrator’s spinning us a yarn again, found himself a new family, everything’s rosy – yeah, sure. No, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m past all that. It was a dark time, but I’m pulling through it, mostly because my new “family” are not exactly a fairytale dream. It’s hard giving up control of the farm. I feel like it’s mine, I inherited it, I’ve suffered for it, it’s always been my home and – shit – legally, who else’s can it be? And this family are everywhere, and I didn’t even have to say “Make yourselves at home!” before they were putting dibs on the bedrooms and turning out the wardrobes. I don’t exactly want to turn the whole place over to the Winter family and become just a tenant in my own home. But I got to admit it, they know what they’re doing, and I sure as hell didn’t. I tried to do what my family would’ve wanted, but it wasn’t even possible for one person, let alone one person as lazy as me. And from the position of hiding out and starving in a summer-house, I couldn’t exactly tell them I’d hire them to manage the place but still keep title and deed to myself. What would I pay them, anyway? If this happened a year ago, they would’ve been stealing my farm. Now, they’re saving me, and they didn’t have to, and the farm wasn’t mine anyhow because I couldn’t do anything with it, and it wouldn’t have been long before somebody else took it off me and threw me out, too. Now we’re all getting it going, and any idea that I’m the boss just cause I was fucking it up on my own before they got here would make me look pretty stupid. So it’s their farm as much as mine. More, really, but I can only try and work on that.
It was true about the water-powered dynamo, by the way – it was already half built, but I finished it and got it going myself, and it provides all the power we need for light and comms. Not for heat, of course – Joe and Ellen are sorting out the fireplaces so we can burn those stupid fences I tried to put up, and they’ll at least be useful for keeping us warm.
I still spend a lot of time thinking about Mei, and thinking about my family, and other people I should’ve thought more about when I was with them instead of after they’d gone. I try to think more about the ones who are here, too. Fiona, it’s good to know people like you are out there – drop me a SkIMp if you’re ever heading down South. Ash, keep in touch – I appreciate all the advice and support you’ve tried to give me, and if you keep talking I’ll start listening. Elaine, if you’re reading this – you really pissed me off with that shit about my folks, but you were trying to make up for it, and it shook me out of a funk that could’ve killed me, so I guess we’re OK. Don’t get eaten by dingos. Not without a fight, anyhow. And Mei – thanks for coming back, even if it was only for a day. You’re not the girl I knew anymore, but it was good to know you. I never could’ve got this far without you guys; even when you weren’t doing anything, just knowing you were there – you had an influence.
Hey, speaking of my good ol’ Bad Influences, you know where the word Influenza comes from? They used to believe you got sick because of the influence of evil demons or bad stars or shit like that. Brad told me that. He’s full of interesting ideas. We’re starting up a Survivors’ Forum. We figure, there’s loads of practical communities for finding people and getting help and seeing what’s going on across the valley, but there’s not enough places for survivors to just share stories and be there, to give each other emotional support and shit. Check it out. I know you guys are busy, but your bad influence is always welcome. Hope to see you there one day.