A grizzled loner traverses a post-apocalyptic Appalachia while ignoring warnings of a terrifying fate.
Chapter One: Was This Your Home?
An old owl haunted the forgotten neighborhood, scanning the neglected lawns for movement. The moon swelled overhead, turning the dark lawns and empty houses into a monochrome landscape. For a time, the bird enjoyed a familiar silence.
Then, from the murky distance, a stranger emerged.
Long, irritating tones issued from the man while he moved in a confusing pattern, stopping only when he tripped and collapsed into a giggling heap. A deep and resounding stupor finally seized him, reducing the static from the raptor’s senses.
The man and the owl were alone together in the clear night, an ancient gaze covering the stranger until morning.
The stranger stirred as the sun rose. Cicadas whirred mightily in the background as the summer morning turned the old suburb into a humid fossil.
The insect chatter soon included another sound. The stranger eased into consciousness, that formless question mark of the unknown keeping him from drifting back off.
Something else was out here with him, but what? He didn’t believe the fairy tales that the government was spreading, so that was out. Dogs, maybe? That might not be good. He began to rouse himself, another hangover bright and clear in his temples. Unable to open his eyes just yet, he listened and tried to think of what to do.
Shadows blocked a merciless sun. Footsteps… then… voices? People? Certainly not, he thought. But at just that moment:
“Hello?” He squinted through one eye toward the young, female voice, trying to figure out why anyone else was there. This area wasn’t even considered quarantined anymore. It was simply… no longer. He rose to one elbow and tried to focus.
A young girl stepped away and absentmindedly found her mother’s safe area, eyes never leaving the bearded wreck that he had become. The mother was the first to speak.
“Do you live here?” she asked, “Was this your home?”
The stranger waved them off, or tried to, buying a moment to collect himself. He rolled to a sitting position and rubbed at his eyes. His head throbbed when he tried to think his way around the impossibility of all of these people just standing the hell around.
“Water?” he croaked. With a nod from one of the men, a skinny girl retrieved a canteen and an old Styrofoam cup from a huge saddlebag mounted on one of several old bicycles that the group was using for transport. She poured him a cupful of warm water and handed it to him carefully. He smelled it before drinking; now a common habit, and decided that it was as fresh as it could be under the circumstances. He knocked it back. He held out the cup for her to take, and began pulling himself up from the street.
“Where did you come from, sir?” one of them asked. Another in the group muttered to someone else, “Is he …drunk?” He composed himself the best that he could. He started looking around the group, making some eye contact for the first time.
“I came from Interstate 40 going east,” he began. “I, uh… I was kind of dropped off a bit early. I thought that I could kind of cut across Montgomery and just… I guess I fouled up. Unbelievable.” The group regarded him quietly. One of the men with a bicycle finally spoke.
“Can you tell us if we’re close to the highway?” he asked.
“What, don’t you know?” asked the stranger. “Aren’t you from here?”
“No,” replied the bicycle man. Others in the group shook their heads or muttered no as well. “No, we aren’t. We were holed up in Clark City through the winter until they started broadcasting new emergency announcements over the stations. We heard that there was no danger through the north in this area, that it was clear ‘till the highway. We set out about a week ago. We hike during the day and, you know, pick up supplies where we can. Then we find a decent place that we can lock up really well, and wait out the night. There hasn’t been a single bit of trouble, though. But still. Better safe than sorry. ” He paused for a moment as the stranger took it in and nodded. “Is it true about the FEMA trucks? Are they still picking people up?”
“FEMA?” spit the stranger as he scratched his head, “Well, yeah they are.” The group started chattering with relief. “But not as many now.” He added. “They move between cities like Nashville and St. Louis every couple of weeks, if that. They may stop doing that soon, though. Gas rationing and, well… there ain’t a lot of folks left that need a ride.”
“Is that what you were on?” asked the skinny water girl. “One of the FEMA trucks? Why did you get off out here? There isn’t anything out here.”
“I know that,” he hissed impatiently. “I wasn’t on a FEMA truck. It was one of the Mormon buses, that whole disaster relief thing they set up. They have gas hidden away or something. Anyway, I had a… an argument with the driver.”
He winced at the incident from two days ago. The Mormons that ran the refugee bus system frowned upon intoxication and lascivious behavior, especially when the driver’s daughter was involved.
“We decided it was best if I got out.” The group just looked at him. He changed the subject. “But so it’s clear going farther south,” he continued. “That’s good… good to hear. Can I um, get some more of that water?” The skinny girl hesitated. The bicycle man nodded to her. She poured him another cup, which he slurped down so quickly that he choked and spilled the rest of it down the front of his shirt.
The group regarded him for a long moment. The mother of the young girl spoke up.
“Sir… where are you going?” she asked.
“I’m headed toward Norristown,” he coughed, dropping the cup on the ground. “Does anyone know where that is?” There was hesitation as several exchanged puzzled glances. Finally the skinny water girl answered him.
“Norristown is about fifteen miles sort of southeast of here,” she said. He grimaced when she mentioned the distance. “It’s up in the boonies, kind of isolated. Why on earth are you going up there?”
“Dammit, fifteen miles, really?” he groused. “Jesus, I thought I was closer. I’ve been walking for like, two days.” The stranger tried to fish his tobacco from a shirt pocket, finding a soggy paper bag instead. “Aww, hell,” he crowed. “You gotta be kiddin’ me! Took forever to trade for that smoke!”
“Hey,” said the mother. She addressed him as only good mothers learn to address men, in a no-nonsense meter coupled with eye contact that made the insecure a bit nervous. “Seriously… why do you want to head up that way?”
The stranger regarded his ruined tobacco and tossed it aside. He looked at the mother to retort but momentarily forgot his attitude.
Her green eyes looked right into him. He felt that creeping instinct that used to grab him when channel surfing or thumbing through a magazine or passing a woman on the street. Sometimes he would come across a woman that just… meant something else. It was an unstoppable innate quality that caused him to look again, processing and figuring, wrapping the mind around a desire that went beyond sex or the nagging lust that plagued his life for what seemed like eons. Though the recent years had not been kind, he could see through the distress and anguish that this woman had suffered. She was stronger than he was.
“Well, if you must know,” he coughed, remembering himself, “I have learned from a… reliable source that my daughter is up there.” The group looked at him and each other, taking in what he was saying. “She was living in some kind of commune or something, no um, radios or anything. But, um,” he paused a moment, searching for the words. “But, ahh, there was word from one of the recent surveillance flights that there was still a bunch of people up there.”
“Surveillance flights?” asked the mother. “What do you mean?”
“Yeah, surveillance,” he replied. “Um, there were some National Guard missions to take pictures of populated areas and things, and I talked to one of the guys that flew some of them.” Other members of the group exchanged curious glances. Some shuffled around and talked amongst themselves as he finished. “Anyway, I’m going up there to find them and, well, tell them its okay to come out now since the government obviously won’t do it. Somebody has to, right? ” He cleared his throat and looked over towards the skinny water girl. “Sweetie, how bout some more of that agua?”
“That’s all we can give you, friend,” bicycle man said flatly. “There’s an old convenience store on the main road a few miles from here. There’s still a few things on the shelf, just head that way,” he pointed in the direction from which they came. “We should actually get on our way.” He didn’t trust this stranger at all. The man reeked of accidents and failure. It was too late in the game to help take care of someone that seemed to be alive despite himself.
Finally, the mother leveled her gaze at the stranger. “Hey listen, why don’t you just come back with us.” He realized immediately that she could sniff out his bullshit with no trouble. Her stare was that of a woman that had kept a young son alive throughout a global tragedy and was going to see them both through till they were secure. He began to realize how beautiful this woman was despite the years of sacrifice and hardship that had befallen everyone when God up and walked out on the whole deal.
“You’re going to get lost out here,” she continued. “Whatever it is that you’re actually looking for isn’t worth risking your way alone, is it?”
“Lady,” he said. “Just don’t you worry about me. Look, there’s nothing to be scared of out here! Those days are over! The quarantine thing is outdated crap; it’s just population control. This whole swath of land has been safe for months, hell its probably always been safe!”
The mother shook her head, the new look on her face beginning to gnaw at him.
“That’s not true,” she said, her voice rising. “The National Forest at the state line is still under a full quarantine, from there to the Smokies. Norristown is in the middle of the foothills. They say to stay away from that area!”
The stranger looked past them into the direction he needed to go. “Mmm-hmm,” he said, “well, I’ll tell you about what the emergency services are saying. They’re just doin’ what the government has always done. Just keeping you scared so that you won’t demand help or anything. Keep you hidin’ out until they can get around to you or when you finally pop out of your holes. How long did you say you’ve been hiding out up in Clarkson, or whatever?”
“Clark City,” shot the bicycle man. “And I told you, it was our home for a long time.”
The stranger let loose a chortle, dismissing what bicycle man was saying. “You people wasted your time,” he chided.
“Alright, that’s enough,” finished bicycle man. “Were burning daylight, everybody. This dude doesn’t care about anything but himself, let’s get moving.”
“Yeah, get moving,” bellowed the stranger. “What are you, late for work? You got places to be? There’s nothing out here!” The rest of the group gave up on him at that moment. They edged forward, resuming their march from earlier. Only the mother lingered, studying him briefly. She then motioned for her daughter to start walking with her.
“Now… Mexico? The southwest?” he yelled after the retreating group, “South America? Oh, man, now there’s a problem! That’s some old school apocalyptic shit, right there! Whooo!”
The wandering community continued down the road, mostly ignoring him. “They’ve been building a frickin’ wall!! I mean, hahaha, it is just that bad!! A wall!!” He began to dance around a bit, almost singing after them. “But here? Deserted Piggly Wigglys! Dry gas tanks! Nice goin’!!”
“Go to hell,” called the skinny canteen girl.
“Already there, baby! Hey,” he screamed, “you know what they’ve got up in Chicago, now? Restaurants!! Restaurants you morons! I mean like sit down and order a salad!! Hahaha!!! We survived the winter, indeed! Ohhohoh-ahaha!!!”
The group shrank into the distance, his temples throbbing as he watched after them. He could see the mother touch her child’s head, then place a loving hand on her shoulder. He now recognized the look on her face, having seen it many times before. Disappointment. The group eventually left him behind. They didn’t look back.
He made his way through the old neighborhood, stopping now and then to peer in the odd window, vaguely wishing to see a full liquor cabinet that needed liberating.
End of Chapter One. Click below to read:
(c)2013 Brian Edward Smith and InCtrl Press
The full story will ultimately be available for sale as part of a collection via the e-reader of your choice. Read, comment and enjoy!