We had left the ruins of Edmond, just north of Oklahoma City three days ago. The air grew colder the further north we traveled. Our journey was hampered by the first heavy snowfall of the season. Traveling the highway was treacherous enough, but since plow trucks were non-existent, it made things worse. Thankfully, I had kept us on the road, what was left of it at least.
The Kansas Turnpike was mostly intact, there was enough pavement to allow one to move along at a good clip even though potholes were everywhere. The interstate was no longer patrolled by authorities, the last war had seen to that. The military had been decimated. The local police force had enough on their hands defending their cities, way-stations or whatever it was they were hired to protect. They no longer bothered with the highways; those were left to the gangs.
This stretch of Interstate was a favorite ambush site for the biker gangs who roamed the countryside. They preferred easy prey but if you showed your teeth, they tended to leave you alone. I had a couple of guns and enough ammunition to scare away most hardcore miscreants.
Our journey had been uneventful until we neared the walled city of Wichita. The gangs around this place were known to be vicious, with a take-no-prisoner mentality. Though I was prepared for trouble, I still held out hope that we'd be left alone. Wishful thinking on my part, bad luck seems to follow me wherever I go. One of the gangs had decided we were worth the hassle.
Both the gang and the city were down on their luck; a true understatement on my part. With winter here, both were becoming desperate for food, gasoline, ammunition and anything else they felt they needed. They had seem particularly interested in my traveling companion, something to do with good breeding stock or some crap like that. I had no choice but to cut short the lives of several gang members, as well as two police officers. Corruption continued to plague the local authorities, it seemed.
Sarah had hired me to take her to Ambrosia Falls, somewhere north in what was formerly Minnesota. She had paid me in advance, a hefty amount of fuel and ammunition, from a stockpile she owned. I'd given her my word that I would see her as far as I could but the winter months would prove costly at best. She refused to haggle, instead offering to pay more than my asking price. This trip must have been important to her.
I now had a problem though, a serious problem. Sarah was dying. In the ensuing gun battle, she had been hit. She hadn't screamed or yelled or called for help. She had bled out quite a bit before I realized what had happened. We both knew she wouldn't make it to Ambrosia Falls. I wasn't sure how much longer she had. I needed to find us some shelter for the night but we were surrounded by snow covered fields. Most farm houses had either been burned down years ago or were used as staging grounds for the biker gangs. A few had become fortresses in and of themselves. It was dangerous to approach them; even the gangs steered clear of those.
An old, shot up sign stood by the road, attesting to a simpler and less violent time. It spoke of a restaurant located in Topeka, what was left of it at least, 5 miles ahead. Topeka had been nuked; total annihilation of everyone and everything. It was best to avoid it if possible but again, my luck wasn't helping. Sarah had started coughing up blood.
I pulled over, scraped the ice and snow from my goggles before removing them. Windshields made of glass posed a viable danger to a vehicle's occupants, so I used a mesh screen instead. Unfolding my map, I glanced over at Sarah who was shivering. She was holding up well but for how much longer, I could only guess.
Using a small penlight that still worked, I poured over the map. I figured I could take the next exit and head north a bit. There looked to be several old warehouses that we could take shelter in, if they were still intact. Putting the car back into gear, I handed the map to Sarah.
I was relieved to find a suitable warehouse. It was missing part of its roof, but the section over the offices offered some protection. I parked my vehicle out of sight and the two of us trudged through the snow. Sarah was having some difficulty and I ended up carrying her into the building. I found an office with a window and moved us into there.
Using some boxes of paperwork, as well as some smashed pieces of desks, I went about putting together a fire to help ward off the cold. It didn't take long to get one going but keeping it going would prove to be a problem. Pressed wood burns quickly as does paper. I found nothing heavy or solid enough to keep it steadily going. Looked like I'd be feeding the fire quite often this evening. I moved Sarah closer to the fire before opening the window to vent the smoke.
Sarah coughed up more blood as she steadily grew weaker and weaker. I sat near her and held her, trying to keep her warm. I didn't want her last moments on earth to be that of a frozen hell. She deserved better, hell, we all did. As she leaned into me I could hear her singing something. I strained my ears to hear her, her voice was barely a whisper.
"…their old familiar carols play. And mild and sweet their songs repeat, of peace on earth, good will to men. And the bells are ringing, like a choir they're singing, in my heart I hear them, peace on earth, good will to men."
I recognized the song. I had heard it many times in my youth, before the war stole that from me. I watched as she struggled for a breath and I pulled her close. She let it out and continued.
"And in despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth I said, for hate is strong and mocks the song, of peace on earth, good will to men."
She stopped, staring into the fire, an occasional cough from her breaking the silence.
"Do you know what today is?" she managed to gasp.
I didn't respond, I wasn't sure, the days seemed to merge together into one ongoing nightmarish existence. I was angry at the thought of our miserable existence, I was just another cog in the wheel of this hellish place. Instead of doing something to change it, I was only helping it along. She reached up and touched the whiskers on my chin and I suddenly felt ashamed.
"It's Christmas Eve," she said.
I looked away. I could care less. One day was no better than any other, what difference would it make, I thought.
"Christmas is about hope. This song is about hope for a better day. My father used to sing it to me when I was a child."
When all hell broke loose, she couldn't have been more than five or six years old. I was surprised that she had any good memories from her childhood. Most folks her age only ever knew hunger, starvation, war, disease and death. Only the hardiest of folk survived to adulthood.
"Often, throughout my life, I thought I could hear the bells on Christmas Day. On that morning, I would sit near my window and strain to hear them. Oh, how I wish I could hear them."
Impossible, I thought, who would ring a bell and draw attention to themselves. Anyone who did was only asking for the wrong kind of attention from the dregs of our society. She broke through my thoughts as she began to sing again.
"But the bells are ringing, like a choir singing, does anybody hear them? Peace on earth, good will to men."
I listened as she continued.
"Then rang the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor doth He sleep, the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men."
She began coughing again, more and more blood came up with every heave of her chest. I could tell it wouldn't be much longer. I looked down and saw the tears streaming down her face.
"Promise…promise me…. you'll find Ambrosia Falls," she stammered, "Promise me!"
I placed my hand over hers and gave it a squeeze. She sighed and finished her song.
"Then ringing, singing on is way, the world revolved from night to day, a voice, a chime a chant sublime, of peace on earth, good will to men. And the bells they're ringing, like a choir they're singing, and with our hearts we'll hear them, peace on earth, good will to men."
She died that dawn, while I still held her.
The sky was clear and bright; it had stopped snowing sometime during the night. As I gathered my gear in the early morning sun, I realized that it was Christmas Day.
And for a moment, I thought I heard a church bell ring.