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High summer: Plague year one
The first quake had been minor, the last few had not. The big one was coming. The satellite links were down, but Doctor Alan Weber didn’t need to have a satellite link up to know that. He touched one hand to his head, the fingertips came away bloody. In any other circumstances he would be hurrying to get his head wound taken care of, but these were not just any circumstances. The entire world was ending and it was a miracle to him that he had made it through the complex above and down into the control room of the facility before it had been supposed to automatically lock down. His office was a shamble, but his secretary had met him in the hallway having ridden out the quakes in the supply room, between the tall rows of steel cabinets: Together they had made their way to the office.
All main-line Comm links were down, probably because of the loss of the satellite systems. Underground back-up cable Comm: Down. The facility was in bad shape, and he was not kidding himself, there was no help on the way. No hope of reaching the surface and the worst was not yet here. He was probably lucky to have made it down the six floors to his office from where he had been. There was an automatic lock-down program that would shut down the entire facility within seconds of an attack or catastrophic event, it had failed somehow.
He laughed to himself, he had, had to lock it down manually once he had made his way in or else it would still be open to the world. He had blown up the two main entrances to the facility, sealing his own fate as he sealed it off from the world above.
He had spent the last several years here in the Canadian wilderness running the chemical countermeasure unit at the base. He had worked on a top secret virus designed to prolong human life in cases of extreme deprivation: Nuclear attack, war and other unlikely scenarios. He had spent the last two weeks working up to this event from his subterranean office complex. All wreckage now. Still, he had sent operatives out from here three days ago to do what they could to seed the virus: Following his final orders sent down through some now probably non-existent chain of command. He had heard absolutely nothing since, and believed that was because there was no one left in command any longer.
The virus was so secretive that no one beyond the base knew the true nature of it. Even the politicians that passed bills for funding while looking the other way had not truly known what they were funding. A couple of well placed dollars in the pocket could buy a great deal of silence.
Several Army bases had secretly been infected and studied. The commanders of the armed forces had, had no idea that anything was being tested on their men. The troops had done well, surviving their training with little food and water much better than they usually did, but over the next week nearly every bird in the area had died. Some side effect they had not been able to ferret out.
That virus build had also been crippled. It had a built in self destruct mechanism to kill the virus after a short amount of time. In fact that same version had been kept as an antidote for the newest version which had no such mechanism and would go on reinfecting indefinitely.
The entire virus design and its capabilities were top secret. Top secret. And usually Top Secret meant dozens of people knew, but this time it had meant that it really had been Top Secret. Withheld from the public, and even those in charge for years had known nothing of the true nature of the virus.
Last week had changed it all. Last week the news had come down from the finest scientific minds that an extinction event was about to take place. Up to ninety percent of the world population would likely be killed off as events unfolded. It was not a maybe, it was an absolute.
The public knew that there was a meteor on a near collision course with the Earth. They had paid off the best scientists to assure the public it would miss by several thousand miles. A lie, but they had found that even scientists were willing to look past facts if their own personal spin put a better story in the mix. A survivable story, and so some had spun their own stories without prodding. From there the internet had picked it up and run with it. From there the conspiracy theorists, and by the end of the week the meteor was survivable. The story that the meteor would destroy the planet was now a lie made up by commanders of the rebel alliance in the Middle East to take the focus off their actions, the public believed what it wanted to believe.
The truth was that the meteor might miss, barely, a near miss, but it wouldn’t matter because it would contribute to a natural chain of events that would make a meteor impact look like small change.
The big deal, the bigger than a meteor deal, was the earthquakes that had already started and would probably continue until most of the civilized world was dead or dying. Crumbled into ruin from super earthquakes and volcanic activity that had never been seen by modern civilization. And it had been predicted several times over by more than one group and hushed up quickly when it was uncovered. The governments had known. The conspiracy theorists had known. The public should have known, but they were too caught up in world events that seemed to be dragging them ever closer to a third world war to pay attention to a few voices crying in the wilderness. The public was happier watching television series about conspiracies rather than looking at the day to day truths about real conspiracies. The fact was that this was a natural course of events. It had happened before and it would happen again in some distant future.
In the end it hadn’t mattered. In the end the factual side of the event had begun to happen. The reality, Alan Weber liked to think of it. And fact was fact. You couldn’t dispute fact. You could spin it, and that was the way of the old world, spinning it, but the bare facts were just that: The bare facts.
The bare facts were that the Yellowstone Caldera had erupted just a few hours before. The bare facts were that the earth quakes had begun all around the world, and although they were not so bad here at the northern tip of Canada, in other areas of the world, in the lower states, in foreign countries, third world countries, the bare facts of what was occurring were devastating: Millions dead, millions more would die before it was over, and this was nothing new. The government had evidence that this same event had happened many times in Earth’s history. This was nothing new at all, not even new to the human race. A similar event had killed off most of the human race some seventy-five thousand years before. The space race had been all about this knowledge. A rush to get off the planet and settle elsewhere on an older, more sedate planet before something that had already happened time and again happened once more.
The virus was an answer, help, solution, but Alan Weber was unsure how well the solution would work. It was, like everything else, a stop gap measure, and probably too little too late. And it was definitely flawed, but he had temporarily pushed that knowledge away in his mind. Even now as he sat and waited for the end, which would surely come, out in the world operatives were disbursing the virus that could save humanity.
He thought for a moment, “Or destroy humanity,” he added aloud.
There were no guarantees, and there was strong evidence to suggest the designer virus did its job a little too well. Designed to help prolong life, there were rumors that it could raise the dead. Some scientists who had worked with the virus in the now destroyed facility had nicknamed it Lazarus.
Alan had seen evidence to support the rumors that it could raise the dead, or the near dead for that matter. He had been present when a test subject that had been pronounced dead had come back. Weak, half crazy, but alive again.
As the hours and then days passed the subject had become stronger, seemed to be learning from the situation it was in. The decision had been made to kill it: Even that had been difficult to do. Even so, he knew that it was the only hope for society. There was nothing else. The military machine was dead. The American government was dead. The president, from reports he had read, assassinated by her own guards.
While most of America had tracked the meteorite that was supposed to miss earth from their living rooms, and had been side tracked by all the trouble in the Middle East, he had kept track of the real events that had even then been building beneath the Yellowstone caldera and many other places worldwide.
Yesterday the end had begun, and the end had come quickly. Satellites off line. Phone networks down. Power grids failed. Governments incommunicado or just gone. The Internet, down. The Meteorite had not missed Earth by much after all, and the gravitational pull from its mass had simply accelerated an already bad situation.
Dams burst. River flows reversed. Waters rising or dropping suddenly in many places. Huge tidal waves. Fires out of control. Whole cities suddenly gone. A river of lava flowing from Yellowstone. Civilization was not dead; not yet wiped out, but her back was broken.
In the small military base of Ostega that had rested above the defense facility near the shore of a former lake, the river waters that fed it had begun to rise: The chemical countermeasure unit, several levels below the base in the limestone cave structures that honeycombed the entire area, had begun to succumb to the rising river waters. By the time the surviving soldiers from above had splashed through the tunnels and into the underground facility, they had been walking through better than two feet of cold and muddy water. Shortly after that the pressure from the water had begun to collapse small sections of caves and tunnels below the base that fed the unit: That damage had been helped along by small after-shocks.
Alan Weber watched his monitor as a wall gave way and the main tunnel began to flood. It was only a matter of an hour at the most before the water found its way to him. He sighed and then relaxed back into his chair, reached down and pulled the lower file drawer open, and lifted out a partial bottle of scotch. He leaned forward and Bobbi Trevers cleared her throat in the silent observation room. Weber smiled and turned toward her.
“I suppose you have been watching, Bobbi?”
She only nodded.
He nodded back. “Share a drink with me?” He turned away, not waiting for her words of agreement. He heard her settle into a chair next to him as he pulled two plastic cups from the sleeve in the bottom drawer, left over from the Christmas party last year, and began to pour.
“I don’t usually agree to drinking on the job, but this is a different set of circumstances, isn’t it?” His eyes met her own as she nodded weakly.
“It’s almost over, isn’t it Doctor Weber?”
“I’m afraid so… Call me Alan, Bobbi… Is it okay that I call you Bobbi?” He finished pouring the scotch into the plastic cup. He had stopped at just an inch in the bottom, wondered why and then filled the cup half way instead.
Far above the Earth, satellites continued to orbit importantly.
The north American continent lay sleeping far below. A wide inland sea had formed in the middle, fed by a huge river that stretched from the former Hudson bay to the middle of the continent. Small in places and easily crossed, no more than a river: Wide in other places as if it truly were a sea.
The state of Alabama had been divided in two along with most of the lower half of the former state of Florida. What resulted was the loss of the lower, southern half of the state. What remained now sat nearly forty miles out in a shallow bay that was quickly turning to sea: An island, the water surrounding it growing deeper as time moved on and the gulf reclaimed the land.
The upper north eastern section of the continent had already pulled apart and begun to drift. Although it was imperceptible, the two land masses were inching away from one another, and ultimately would be separated by a new ocean. And become separate, smaller continents.
The eastern end of the former United States, was also drifting away from the northern section of Canada. The massive earthquakes had also severed the state of Michigan, turning it into a virtual island.
Toward what had been the north, the St. Lawrence river basin had widened, pushing the land masses further apart. The Thousand Islands bridge spans had toppled, and slipped into the cold waters. The other bridges that had once spanned the mighty river had also succumbed as the river basin had split and pulled apart.
The new continent had severed her ties from Nova Scotia, as she had been pulled south and slightly east, to begin her journey. Only the province of New Brunswick, and a small portion of Quebec remained with the continent. The rest of Canada was severed from them by the wide and deep river, more like a huge lake in places, that surged from ocean to ocean.
Most of the north American continent was now in a sub-tropical climate as well. The poles had been displaced by the huge force of the multiple earthquakes and volcanic blasts which were still ongoing. The old polar caps were melting, and it would be thousands of years before they would once again re-form in their new locations.
The run-off from the melting ice would eventually reach the oceans and even more land mass would be sacrificed to the waves before the polar caps would be re-formed.
There were only thirteen full states left on the small continent. The two former provinces of Canada, one of which was only a small fragment. And parts of five former states, the largest being Florida.
Before the dawn, fires could be seen burning unchecked in many major cities, pushed with the help of freak winds the flames continued in all directions, occasionally fueled by chemical, and oil facilities, as well as numerous other flammable sources they encountered. The world began its fall.
Johnny: October 29th
I am here in this farm house that Lana and I found a few weeks back. By myself. Lana is gone. I sat down here to write this story out before I am gone too. Maybe that sounds melodramatic, but it isn’t. I know exactly what my situation is.
We have been to Manhattan, outside of it, you can’t go in any longer, and we came from Los Angeles, so we know: It’s all gone, destroyed, there’s nothing left. Time to hold on to what is left for you. I had Lana… That was my something that was still left to me, but she’s gone now…
Lana… I knew they’d find out, Hell, they probably knew immediately in that slow purposeful way that things come to them. I can hear them out there ripping and tearing… They know. Yeah, they know, I know it as well as I know my name, John, Johnny Mother used to say. I… I get so goddamned distracted…. It’s working at me…
Bastards! If, only I could have… But it’s no good crying about it or wishing I had done this thing or that thing. I didn’t. I didn’t and I can’t go back and undo any of this, let alone the parts I did.
In August when the sun was so hot and the birds suddenly disappeared, and Lana came around for what was nearly the last time I hadn’t known a thing about this. Nothing. It’s late fall now and I know too much. Enough to wish it were August once again and I was living in ignorant bliss once more.
Lana: I didn’t want to do it. I told myself I would not do it and then I did it. Not bury her, that had to be done; I mean kill her. I told myself I wouldn’t kill her, and that’s a joke really. Really it is, because how do you kill something that is already dead? No, I told myself that I wouldn’t cut her head off, put her in the ground upside down, drive a stake through her dead heart. Those are the things I told myself I wouldn’t do, couldn’t do, but I did them as best I could. I pushed the other things I thought; felt compelled to do, aside and did what I could for her.
The trouble is, did I do it right? It’s not like I have a goddamn manual to tell me how to do it. Does anybody? I doubt it, but I would say that it’s a safe bet that there are dozens of people in the world right now, people who have managed to stay alive, that could write that manual. I just don’t know them… I wish I did. And it won’t matter to me anyway. It’s a little too late, but I’ll write this anyway and maybe it can be a manual for someone else… You…
So the books say take their heads off. The books also say, for Vampires, put a stake in their heart, and older legends say turn them around, upside down in the grave. Isn’t a vampire a kind of Zombie? Isn’t it? Probably not exactly, precisely, but could it hurt to have done the stake thing just in case? To be sure? To put her at rest? I don’t think so.
They can come out during the daylight, you know. I thought they wouldn’t be able to. Every goddamn movie I ever saw, starting with the Night Of The Living Dead said they couldn’t. You could get some relief. You could get some shit done. And you could if it were true, but it’s not. They rarely come out in the daylight, that’s the truth. It’s hard for them, tough somehow, but they can. It won’t kill them. They aren’t weaker than they are at night. They just don’t like the daylight. They don’t like it. And don’t you think writing that made me a little paranoid? Thinking it over once more? It did. I got up and checked the windows. Nothing I can see, but they’re out there. They’re right out there in the barn. Sleeping in the sweet hay up in the haymow. I know it, so it doesn’t matter whether I can see them. I can hear them and I know where the rest of them are. And I know they know what I did and they’ll come tonight. They’ll come tonight because I’m afraid of the night. Not them, me. And they goddamn well know it! They know it! They think. They see. Did you think they were stupid? Blind? Running on empty? Well you’re the fool then. Listen to me, they’re not. They’re not and thinking they are will get you dead quick. And what about me? How will I feel tonight? What will I think about it then?
Zombies: I thought Haiti, horror flicks…? What else is there? Dead people come back to life, or raised from the dead to be made into slaves. Those are the two things I knew and nothing else. Well, it’s wrong, completely wrong. No, I can’t tell you how they come to be Zombies initially, but I can tell you that the bite of a Zombie will make you a Zombie. The movies got that much right.
I can’t tell you why they haunt the fields across from this house. Why they have taken up residence in the old barn, but I can tell you that it might be you they come for next and if they do you goddamn well better realize that everything you thought you knew is bullshit. See, Lana didn’t believe it and look what happened to her! Lana… Lana: I know, I know I didn’t tell you about her, but I will. That’s the whole point of writing this down before they get me too.
See, in a little while I’m thinking I might just walk out the kitchen door and right out to the barn. I’ll leave this here on the kitchen table. For you, whoever you are, who happened along into this kitchen.
Goddamn Zombies. Ever lovin’ Bastards! …
I am losing control, I know I am, but…
Anyway, it was August. Hot. Hotter they said than it had been in recorded time. I was not here in this kitchen in rural New York someplace, I was in L.A., outside the city up in the hills, a little farm. There was no wind. No rain. Seemed like no air to breath. Global Warming they said. Maybe… Changes coming, they said. Oh yeah, changes were coming. Changes right there on that wind, probably…
It was on a Tuesday. I went to get the mail and there were six or seven dead crows by the box. I thought, Those goddamn Clark boys have been shooting their B.B guns again! So I resolved to call old man Clark and give him a piece of my mind, except I forgot. That happens to all of us: It’s not unusual. I remembered about four o’clock the next morning when I got up. Well, I told myself, Mail comes at ten, I’ll get that and then I’ll call up and have that talk.
I make deals like that with myself all the time. Sometimes it works out fine sometimes it doesn’t. It didn’t.
Ten came and I forgot to get the mail. I remembered at eleven thirty, cursed myself and went for my walk to the box.
I live alone. I have since Jane died. That was another hot summer when she went. I used to farm back then. I retired early a few years back. I rent out the fields. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
I walked to the mail box cursing myself as I went. When I got there I realized the Clark boys had either turned to eating crows or they had nothing to do with the dead crows in the first place. There were dozens of dead crows, barn swallows, gulls. The dirt road leading up to my place was scattered with dead birds, dark sand where the blood had seeped in. Feathers everywhere, caught in the trees, bushes and the ditches at the side of the road. There were three fat, black crows sticking out of my mailbox: Feet first; half eaten.
Some noise in the woods had made me turn, but I didn’t turn fast enough. Whatever had made the noise was gone once I got turned in that direction, but there were bare footprints in the dry roadbed next to the box. They were not clear, draggy, as though the person had, had a bad leg. He had of course, but I had yet to meet the owner.
The day’s getting away from me. My ears are playing tricks on me too. I thought I heard something upstairs, but there’s nothing. I have the bottom floor boarded up. Those Zombies may be far from stupid, but it’s goddamn hard to get dead limbs to help you climb up the side of a house and we took everything down they could hold onto…
Where was I? The mailbox. The mail never came that day. In fact the mail never came again. Already Emma Watson, our local Mail carrier, was a Zombie. I just didn’t know it.
I tried Clark, but I got no answer. Later that day I heard a few shots, but we’re rural folks. There’s Deer wandering all over the place: Coy dogs too. Wouldn’t be the first time one got shot without a tag or a proper season. Lana came later, upset, her boyfriend had run off somewhere she thought. It’ll be okay I told her. She did the cleaning, ran some groceries from town and left. She seemed in better spirits to me.
I seen him almost a week later.
Lana usually came at the end of the week to help me with shopping, bills, she’s a… She was a good girl. A good one. A good Zombie fearing girl. She was… She hadn’t come as July had turned to August and I was sitting by the stove that night and heard a scrape on the porch.
His leg was bad. Somebody had shot him, but her fella had worse things going on than that. He was dead. What was a bum leg when you were dead? Small problem. But it made him drag that leg. I’m getting ahead of myself again though.
I picked up my old shot gun where it sat next to the door, eased the door open and flicked on the porch light. He jumped back into the shadows.
“Step out into the light,” I tried not to sound as afraid as I was.
“No,” he rasped
“Step out here or I’ll shoot,” I tried again.
“Lana,” he whispered. His voice was gravelly.
That stopped me cold. I squinted, but it was too dark to make out much: Still I had the idea it might be her boyfriend. Maybe he’d got himself into something bad. I couldn’t get the name to come to me. “You Lana’s boyfriend that went missing…?”
Nothing but silence, and in that silence I got a bad feeling. Something was wrong. It came to me about the same time that he stepped into the light. There was no sound of breathing. It was dead quiet, that was what my panicked mind was trying to tell me. My own panicked breathing was the only sound until he stepped into the light dragging his leg.
My heart staggered and nearly stopped.
“Lana,” he rasped once more. He cocked his head sideways, the way a dog will when it’s not sure of something. One eye was bright, but milky white, the other was a gooey mess hanging from the socket on the left side of his face.
I found my old shot gun rising in my hands. I saw the alarm jump into his eyes and he was gone just that fast.
I stood blinking, convinced that I had somehow dreamed the whole encounter, but I knew I hadn’t. The smell of rotting flesh still hung heavy in the air. In the distance I heard the rustle of bushes and then silence. Zombies are not stupid, and they are not slow.
The next day it seemed ridiculous. What an old fool, I thought. What had I imagined? But the next few days told me a different story.
I drove into a nearby town around the middle of the week. I passed maybe two cars on the way, but neither driver would meet my eyes. That was wrong. Trash blew through the streets as I drove. The traffic lights were out on the four corners and no one was on the streets. I didn’t see a state patrol car.
The ShopMart strip mall was closed. The road into it barricaded. I found a little Mom-and-Pop place open on the way back, but there was next to nothing on the shelves. I got a jar of peanut butter that I didn’t want, a package of crackers, there was no bread, and paid with the last of my cash.
The store owner wore deep socketed eyes in a lined face. His attitude said, I will not speak to you, and he would not: After a brief attempt I gave up and went home. I never went back. By that next night I knew what the deal was when Lana showed up.
She came around noon. I heard the sound of her engine revving long before she came into sight. She took out the mailbox and crashed into the porch and that was that. We were up most of the night talking about how much the world had changed. She knew more than I did. She knew there were no more police. She knew there were roving gangs of zombies on the streets of Los Angeles. She had met a man who had come from there. L.A. was a ruin. And she had spoken to another, this time a young woman from up toward Seattle; the same story there. The zombies, it seemed, owned the world.
We stayed until eight weeks ago. I wouldn’t have been able to get out my own. That was early, before we knew they would come out into the sunlight. Andy, that was her fellas name, came for her in the daylight when we were leaving the house. If not for the bad leg he would have got her. If not for the fact that we were close to the living room door he might have got her. He might even have got her because we both froze. And when I realized I had to move she was still frozen, just looking at his ruined, rotted face.
I got the shot gun up and blew his head off. I thought she was going to kill me, then I thought he was going to manage to get back to his feet even without his head and kill me. He finally stopped and I managed to drag her inside the house and shut the door.
I had gone back out a short time later, after I got her laid down and sleeping off the shock in the back bedroom, to take a closer look at the body. There were five of them eating him where he lay up beside her car, and two watching the door: When I got out the two guarding the door were on me nearly that fast. I shot them both as fast as I could pull the trigger. My shot gun only holds four shells. Those two were gone and that had slowed them, but they were not deterred. I made it back inside, locked the door and began to wonder if my heart was going to explode.
Later, before dusk, I went back outside. Andy’s body was gone along with the other zombies. I decided that we had to try to get out, drive out and find help. She was carrying a child after all, the zombie fella’s baby, I suppose. Maybe there was a place outside of California where things were normal, okay, a zombie free zone. The problem was that I was on the wrong side of L.A., we would have to cut straight through the city to head east. There was no other way to do it.
We planned it. I got my truck, drained the gas from her car and my old tractor. That gave us a full tank in the truck and almost ten gallons in cans strapped into the back of the cab. There wasn’t much in the way of food, but we took what we had. We left early morning.
L.A.: August 13th
The trek east out of the city was harder than we had thought it would be. We had become mired down in traffic long before we had ever hit the city itself, and had been forced to give up the truck.
It was close to noon before we reached Alameda, and decided to try to find some kind of four wheel drive vehicles, at one of the many car lots that dotted it.
Once we had liberated a truck, it had still been slow going until we reached El Segundo Boulevard. The stalled traffic had been much lighter there, and we had been able to drive part of the way by cutting into the parking lots of fast food restaurants, that dotted almost the entire length of the highway. We had followed that to Willmington, and picked up another truck that had seen better days. Getting that truck had not been a problem; there were several used car lots along the road. We had used the parking lots to swing around the worst of the traffic, and that had worked well until we had intersected Compton Boulevard. It was hopelessly packed with stalled traffic. We had left the truck, which had sounded as if it was close to dying anyway, and struck out on foot again. Lana led the way as we cut cross lots through Compton Woodley Airport.
Crossing the dead airfield had been unnerving for both of us. The runways had cracked, and either lifted skyward, or tilted down into the ground. Blackened skeletons of large aircraft dotted the airfield. Most of them were so badly burned that we had been unable to tell what they had been before. I thought a couple of them may have been military aircraft, but as badly twisted as they were it was impossible to be sure.
Luggage, some burned, some untouched, was scattered across the airfield in every direction, and many of the suitcases were burst, with papers and clothing scattered everywhere along with other personal effects. There were bodies there too.
On our way through the city we had seen very few bodies. It had been unsettling for both of us. Fewer bodies meant more un-dead. We had both wondered aloud if the changing was happening that fast. Raising the dead faster as time slipped by. The bodies we had seen had not been killed by the Earthquakes. They bore head wounds, and appeared to have been dead for only a short period. Possibly only the last two or three days, we decided.
The bodies at the airport were concentrated around the terminal building. The huge glass windows were peppered with holes as if a battle had taken place for the terminal. Most of the bodies inside were concentrated behind the long rows of seats in the main lobby where they had been trying to use the seats for cover. It had apparently done no good. We had paused only briefly, wondering what had occurred before we had moved on. The overwhelming stench in the shattered terminal building drove us out. The wrecked planes, where we had expected to see bodies scattered all around, were empty.
Occasionally we had heard gunfire around us, and twice explosions from further north, behind us had startled us. We had hurried along fearing the sounds, but fearing more the possibility that the owners of the guns might find us. We walked in silence across the remainder of the shattered airfield, and we were both glad when we left it behind us and eventually came to 91. 91 was traffic packed and we had abandoned the truck, making our way across the steel roof tops once more, crossing under 91 on South Central and making our way along the sides of the road to E Del Amo Boulevard.
There, like the Martin Luther King Highway, black topped parking areas fronted all manner of fast food restaurants, store chains and shops, which bordered both sides of the strip. It wouldn’t necessarily assure a way around the stalled traffic, I had realized, but it appeared as though it would give us a much better chance of getting to 405.
I set the pencil aside and listened to the noises outside the old frame house. Some other farmer’s house, three thousand miles from my own home. Dark sounds, rustling, had to be the dead, but there was nothing for it. I picked the pencil up, flexed my fingers and began to write again…
Yesterday I found an old bottle of whiskey in a locked cabinet in the living room and resolved to leave it be. Now I have changed my mind. I have been sipping at it while I sit here and write. Maybe it will help my resolve with the part I still have to play after I write this out. Maybe it won’t, I don’t know. But I do know it is helping my head right now, and that is enough for me.
So, we had been trying to get to 405…
Leaving Los Angeles…
Johnny led them towards the rear garage area of the dealership, where they found a full size four wheel drive Chevy pickup. Johnny had worked at a dealership before, and recognized the garage area as the prep shop.
“When someone buys a new car,” Johnny said, “or truck, or whatever, they have to prep it. Take the plastic off the seats, fill the tank, wax it, sort of get it ready for the customer, you know?”
“I thought they came from the factory all ready to go?” Lana said.
“Well… they do, sort of,” Johnny agreed, “but they have plastic over the seats to protect them, and oil drips from the cars overhead on the transport trucks; dirt gets tracked into them when the guys move them around the lot. Sometimes they may have a scratch, or small dent that the body shop guys have to fix, and they get paint over-spray all over the car; dust in it, you name it. I used to have to prep cars, and it’s not much fun. Minimum wage type of job and the salesman who sold the car is usually breathing down your neck all the time you’re getting it ready. I hated it, but you do what you have to do to pay the bills. I figured if we’re going to find a truck all ready to go, this would be the first place to look. Gassed up and the whole nine yards. They even waxed it for us.” Johnny finished, trying to break the somber mood that had set in as they crossed the airfield.
His effort worked partially, Lana offered him a small smile as she spoke. “You know a lot of things don’t you?”
“Not really,” Johnny said. “I just worked at a lot of different jobs. Mainly just to keep the farm afloat, but also, I guess, because I believe you should learn as much as you possibly can. It worked for me. I grew up with a lot of guys who were constantly unemployed. Maybe they were carpenters, or roofers, or auto mechanics, farmers like me, whatever. When things would get bad, they’d get laid off, or the prices would drop for produce, it’s always something. Not that things never got slow for me, they did, but I could go to work somewhere else fairly quickly. I can practically build a house from the ground up, and do all the rough and finish, electrical, plumbing, and carpentry. The same with cars. I just learn well, I guess and it paid off. Someday I’d like to build my own house.”
“I’ve always wanted to own a house,” Lana said, the tentative smile had grown wider as she listened to Johnny talk. “I never thought I would live anywhere except that crummy apartment,” she laughed. “Manor la cucaracha,” She smiled at Johnny’s puzzled look. “Cockroach manor… My nickname for the place. If I never own a house I guess that would be fine with me, as long as I never have to live in that dump again.”
Johnny was nodding his head as she finished speaking. “I know what you mean. I had a crummy little place up in Seattle out of college. I used to take all the overtime I could get, so I wouldn’t have to go back to it too soon. I really hated it, I mean completely. I had this dream of buying some land and building my own house, when this is over that’s what I would like to do. Just find a nice place and build a house. Maybe have some cows again. I guess that sounds kind of stupid, but it really is what I want to do, and if I make it through this in one piece, I’m going to.”
“It doesn’t sound stupid to me at all,” Lana said, “in fact it sounds like a good plan, a good dream to hold on to. I’ve never really dared to dream. I guess now it’s okay to dream. You think?”
“I think so,” Johnny agreed. “I mean if you can’t dream, what’s the use, right?” she nodded her head as if to say yes before Johnny continued. “Like, I live my life, and you live your life. You believe what you want, and I’ll believe what I want. You see?”
“I do,” Lana said. “I guess I’m sort of the same way. I always tried to live without hurting people. I was getting pretty bitter though, I have to admit. I just saw too much that didn’t make any sense to me, and I could never understand why, if there was a God, he would let so much bad exist. I guess though, if people want it, it’s going to be there. People thought I was bad, but I never really dared to look at myself. I guess I was bad, to a certain extent, but what was I supposed to do?” she seemed pensive.
“I had family, but… Well, you know…. I guess I don’t want to get into that: Suffice to say I couldn’t be with them. There isn’t much for a poor Mexican girl to do to make a living here.“ She had lost her smile as she spoke, replacing it with a wistful pursing of her lips and a sadness that sat deeply within her eyes.
Johnny nodded his head and they both fell silent for a few seconds.
“Lana,” Johnny said. “It really doesn’t matter anymore. I mean that sincerely.”
Now it was her turn to nod her head. She hadn’t realized it, but his opinion mattered to her, and what he said allowed the small smile to re-surface on her face. She had told herself that she didn’t care what he thought about her, but she knew even as she told herself that, that she was wrong. It did matter. It mattered a great deal.
They walked together to the back of the garage, and pushed up the steel overhead door. It took a few minutes to move a couple of the cars out of the way, so that they could drive the pickup out of the garage and into the lot behind the dealership.
Johnny drove the truck across the grassy back lot, and stopped at the rear of a gas station convenience store to look for a state map. Lana followed him into the deserted station.
She filled a paper bag with some groceries, mostly canned goods, while Johnny opened the map and studied it on the counter at the front of the station.
“Looks like the best way out,” Johnny said, “Is still going to be 91. We passed it, we’ll have to back track to catch it. We should be able to skirt around most of the traffic, shouldn’t we?”
“Believe it or not, I don’t really know,” Lana answered. “I mean I live here, or did, but I didn’t get out of the city at all, or hardly ever, so I don’t know what its’ like.”
She paused and looked at Johnny as he bent over the map. He smiled as he spoke.
“I actually understand that,” he said. “I didn’t really know a lot about getting around L.A. Either. I guess you learn how to get to the places you need to get to, and that’s about it. No real big deal though. According to the map there are a lot of loops, sort of side roads that go around, and run parallel to 91, and hey, we’ve got four wheel drive, we can cut through the fields if we have to, right? That will get us to 10 and ten is our ticket east.”
Lana shrugged her shoulders, “I guess?”
“You know,” Johnny said as they climbed into the cab of the truck. “We should stop and pick up a couple of sleeping bags, and maybe tents too. We still need to pick up a couple more rifles.” He didn’t want to alarm her, or make her start to worry, by bringing the subject up once more, but the truth was that he was fairly worried himself. If there were armed people running around killing whoever they chose too, it would be kind of stupid, he thought, not to have better weapons. Lana had the pistol, and her rifle. Johnny had his own pistol and a rifle, but he wasn’t sure it would do a lot of good. He wasn’t a good shot. She surprised him when she not only agreed, but didn’t seem to lose her smile when she did.
“I think it would be stupid not to stock up on whatever we can, guns included,” she said, echoing Johnny’s thoughts. “You know much about them?”
“Not really,” Johnny confessed, “I’ve shot a rifle, you know, hunting,” he frowned. “It’s been years to be honest, but I think I could learn again. You know anything about them?”
“Well, now that you mention it, I do. At least a little. Not from shooting one, but more from seeing them. There are a lot of pawn shops in my neighborhood, sort of goes with the territory, I guess. That’s where I got this,” she said, holding up her small pistol, “I got the rifle from a smashed in pawn shop… There has to be a pawn shop or sporting goods shop out here somewhere.” Almost as she spoke Johnny spotted one across the crowded interstate.
“There’s one,” Johnny said as he pointed.
They left the truck beside the stalled traffic, and walked through and around the cars to the large shop. The shop was picked over, but they spent the better part of the afternoon outfitting themselves from the racks in the shop and carrying what they needed across the road to the truck. The pickup had a black vinyl bed cover. They opened it, stored the tent and the sleeping bags along with the other camping gear inside it, and then snapped the cover back into place.
“It probably won’t keep everything totally dry,” Johnny said, “if it rains, I mean. This is more for show than protection,” he said indicating the cover. “But it should still do all right.”
They had both picked up weapons in the shop. Johnny had picked out a deer rifle, a fairly impressive looking Remington. He had also picked up several boxes of the ammunition the rifle took. Lana had settled on an entirely different sort of weapon. It looked more like a machine gun of some sort to Johnny, and she also picked up several boxes of ammunition and spare clips for it. She explained to him that it really wasn’t a rifle, but a machine pistol, and that it could fire better than seventy rounds a second if it were converted to full automatic. This one wasn’t, she said, but she had seen some that were. To Johnny it still looked like a machine gun, and he joked that the sight of it alone would probably scare anyone.
By the time they had loaded the truck and gotten under way it was late afternoon. Even with the late start, and the slow going due to the stalled traffic, they managed to make it to the Colorado River in Ehrenberg Arizona just before nightfall.
I flexed my hand and looked around the kitchen in the flickering candle light. Writing about it is bringing it all back, like I’m right back there. Lana’s rifle and two spare clips lay on the table top now. I haven’t needed it yet, but the night is young. Who can tell what it will be like in a few hours from now when the light is entirely gone: When all the dead wake in the old barn across the road. My rifle is also loaded, but I have less ammunition for it and it isn’t worth a damn up close. Lana was a lot smarter about weapons than I was… Much smarter.
It’s so goddamn quiet. I hate that. That quiet. These bastards don’t breath, they don’t trip and fall, they aren’t clumsy… You would never know they are there, never know it at all. Jesus, I… Never mind. My mind wanders too much. Too goddamned much. I’ll be back…
I took a walk around. Upstairs I can still see a faint line of sunlight on the far horizon. The yard is dark. I can’t hear any more sounds. It’s unnerving. The boards are all in place, everything seems secure. I’m back at the table…
The cramping is gone from my hand. I guess in the digital age we just don’t write much, but when it’s all you got, it’s all you got. The whiskey is holding out. I’m being careful with it, don’t worry, not that it will make a bit of difference…
We had passed a sign and entered into Arizona. We made great time on the open road…
The country had been turning more arid as they drove, the river was an oasis. Off to the north giant plumes of smoke blanketed the sky, seeming to spread across the entire length of the horizon. They had both wondered what it might be. Lana had checked the map and she though it could be Yellowstone or something close to Yellowstone.
Shops, stores, and even an RV park had sprung up around the interchange. They foraged for food in the late afternoon and gassed up the truck before evening began to take the sunlight. The air had a bitter, hot smell to it, the river flowed sluggishly, the water gray, and a scum of yellow white foam and ash rode the slow current. They sat in the truck and ate quietly while the map lay open across their legs and the seat top. Their eyes would drop to the map and then jump back up to scan the area. It had seemed too quiet, and there were no bodies anywhere. No sign of life either, and the stores and shops had not been looted. Some were still locked up. Empty RV’s in the park when they rolled slowly through it. Neither liked the feeling, the whole place felt wrong.
“Johnny,” Lana waited until his eyes left the map and met her own. He lifted them to follow her own gaze. “The silver building over to the right. The door just opened and then closed.”
Johnny frowned. “Not something the dead would do, is it?”
“We didn’t think they would come out in the daylight,” Lana said.
As Johnny watched he saw the door edge open slightly and then close just as slowly. “Saw it… I don’t like it. Dead or alive they know we’re here and they’re checking us out.” He dropped his eyes back to the map.
“Okay,” he said after a few moments. “Let’s get off the road, run a ways out… Follow the highway. That takes us away from civilization to a degree, but eventually that will bring us into Phoenix.” He waited for her to nod her understanding. “There’s a lot of desolation between here and there, at least on the map.”
“Desolation is fine as long as the dead aren’t there.” Lana said quietly.
“Less likely to be,” Johnny agreed.
A few minutes later they were running through the desert that ran alongside I 10. There were not a great many cars or trucks there, but in several places there had been wrecks that closed lanes down. With no one to clear them they would have ended up in the desert anyway. And there seemed to be a dirt road that ran beside I 10 for as far as they could see.
The landscape in the distance had been changing as they drove the day away, but with the sun setting a few hours after they set out once more it was hard to tell what the surrounding countryside was like. Johnny dropped speed and flicked the trucks high beams on. A short while later Lana was sleeping, her head heavy against his arm. He drove through the night and into the early morning before she woke again.
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