Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sample chapter: The Middle Of Nowhere

Here's a taste of the caliber of writing you'll be buying for yourself if you decide you want to contribute enough to reserve yourself a role as a character in the book.

Illustration by Luke Cooper


     Sean narrowed his eyes into what was almost a squint as the high thin clouds scuttled away from under the sun making the glare from the sun even brighter than it had been a moment before.   He was wearing cheap black plastic sunglasses over his prescription glasses mended at the corner with a bent and twisted staple where a tiny screw used to be.   The sunglasses were a luxury in these times when the world required one's constant attention if one wanted to live until the sun went down.   Darkening one's visual perspective with darkened lenses was dangerous, but the headache caused by eye stain from constantly squinting at the glare of the sun as it reflects off of the road and the flickering of the overgrown fields laid out as far as the horizon to either side of the road, as far as anyone could see, was also dangerous as the two-lane blacktop laid out straight into the distance until the vanishing point was always seemingly closing but never arriving like an eternally postponed tomorrow, shimmering with imaginary heat mirages that had the potential to lull a person into a trance and that was the most dangerous of all.
     Sometimes there were traps set in the road and sometimes the traps were warned of in advance with signs painted on repurposed pieces of wood affixed to lengths of pole or pieces of metal stuck into the ground and skewed by the capricious intentions of seasonal winds.   Sometimes the warnings were painted on the road itself in big block letters in whatever color of paint was most conveniently readily available at the time or in uneven spray-painted letters.   The messages usually read along the lines of "TURN AROUND", or "DEAD AHEAD", or even simple pictographs of child-like scrawlings of skulls and crossbones but the message was always the same.
     The message was always, "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."   The message was "Your final destination is ahead."   The message was "Death awaits."
     The message was always "The living need not apply." or "There's nothing for you up ahead, so you might as well save yourself the gas and time and effort and head back in the direction you came from." but usually there was nothing in the direction you came from or there was something but that something was bad or dangerous and anything and anywhere seemed better than what you had left behind anyway so you went forward anyway hoping that maybe the next stop would be better than the last and sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn't but you never know unless you go and almost anywhere is better than wherever you are except when it's not.
     The traps that were warned about in advance were usually the less dangerous.   Busses resting on their axles across the road to prevent your progress.   Boxes of metal designed to move groups of people rendered redundant since there was no reason to move people from one point to another and significantly fewer people to move even if they were of a mind to do so.   Intentionally parked across the road and left to rust, the messages were usually painted across the broad side graffiti style.   "NO MAN'S LAND AHEAD" and "TURN BACK WHILE YOU CAN".
     It was the traps that you weren't warned about in advance that were dangerous.   The bridges that had been washed out by flash floods or were unable to bear themselves up against the constant strain of gravity and the gradual disintegration by the oxidizing effect of rust which is what almost always happens when most metals are left to the merciless attentions of water and air.   The monuments made by man seemed so eternal when there were people around to see to the needs of their buildings and bridges.   But as is often said, time destroys everything and nothing is permanent.
     Sean was fine with traveling alone by daylight despite the risks because without any other people to worry about there was less to worry about overall.   Sure it would have been nice to have someone along for the ride to help to kill the seemingly endless time.   A woman or another man but preferably a woman because of the other.   Their softer voices and softer skins.   But companionship also means another mouth to feed and another life to watch over and another bladder to listen to the insistent demands of on the road.
     Worthwhile companions were in short supply since the world ended.   Hunger and fear and self-interest usually worked against the human instinct to operate as a social animal and in the absence of this instinctual drive, the worse natures of humans were brought to the fore as a constant character.
     To survive in the world that was, now that the world that used to be was over, everyone had to do the opposite of what they had always been taught to do unto each other as they would have done unto themselves.   Everyone that did not kill and steal and covet the possessions of others would be killed and stolen from by those that coveted what little they had and would not survive.
     The warning sign for this town was a green metal sign posted about a mile outside of the town.   The sign was municipal government green with a white pinstripe around the edge and it read "Welcome to ________ Pop. ___".   At least that's what it used to read.   The population number had been spray-painted over by a red zero and bolted onto the bottom of the sign was a white metal sign that read, "EVACUATED: Per order of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.   No trespassing.   Looters will be shot on sight." in efficient black sans serif font, and a big red "Biohazard" symbol stenciled behind the text.
     Anyone still moving around with intention on the planet knew that the biohazard symbol was a double-edged sword.   Either it meant that the place was legitimately dangerous and to enter into the posted area was to take your life into your hands, or it meant that someone had stenciled the symbol as a scarecrow for humans.   Either way the symbol was more often ignored than heeded and exploration of these areas was usually worth the time, effort, and risk involved.   Even if nothing worth scavenging was found, it was still something to do, and the nagging doubt that one had overlooked a hidden cache of food or weapons was like an itch you couldn't scratch in the back of your mind until the doubt became unbearable and you would turn around just to be sure and that was never a good idea since although time was a bottomless well, fuel was scarce.   You should always either be standing still or moving forward, but never going backwards.   There's nothing back there for you.   There never was.
     Sean slowed down and approached the town, although even calling it a town was a flattering exaggeration.   More of a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, where the bare necessities of goods and services could be obtained.   On one corner was a Taco Bell, the windows intact but begrimed by the dust and dirt of a decade of neglect.   On the opposite corner was a gas station, the glass door to the office open and askew on its hinges.   A sheet of plywood lashed to the column in the center of the fill-up awning read "NO GAS" in red spray-paint and the nozzles of both of the pumps laid on the ground like dead snakes.   Across the street was a post office.   Not a modern post office made of glass and steel with tasteful fluorescent lighting concealed in the ceiling, but a solid old brick and mortar building with ceiling fans that in the world that was would have been constantly lazily stirring the air, and a transom over the main entrance to be left open on fairer days.
     Across the intersection from the post office was a hardware store, another brick and mortar building with granite cornerstones and red brick walls.   The glass smashed out of the front door, scattered on the ground in the entryway mixed in with a layer of drift dirt.   The plate glass windows on either side cracked but intact, scoured frosted by the sand scratched across the surface by winsome winds.
     Sean slowed to a stop in the center of the intersection, leaving the engine idling, giving anyone who had staked a claim on this ghost town the chance to show themselves and let him know he was not welcome.   He waited in the jeep as the high sun beat straight down and heat vapors rose from the hood in an invisible wave.
     No one came out of any of the buildings and none of the shadows shifted in any of the windows or doorways, the only indication that he wasn't looking at a painted picture was the tattered sun-faded American flag barely twisting listlessly in a lazy breeze.   Sean put the jeep in gear and crept across the intersection into the drive-through driveway in front of the gas station.   He stopped in between the pumps in the shade of the awning, put the jeep in park and turned off the engine.
     Sean took the keys out of the ignition, and tucked them into his pocket.   He reached over into the passenger seat and put his hand through the shoulder strap of his M-16, and opened the door to the jeep halfway with his hand still on the handle, standing with one foot on the ground and one foot on the floor mat, half-in, half-out of the vehicle, slinging the rifle over his shoulder and placing his hand on the handle of the .45 holstered on his hip.   If anything was going to happen it would happen now.   Before he even heard the shot he'd be laying on the ground with the contents of his head sprayed across the windshield and his blood pumping out of the newest hole in his head.
     He cautiously looked around like a security camera on a pivot, taking his time to look into every shadow for the glint of a rifle barrel or a mounted scope.   The only sound was the whisper of the wind and the scrunch of the loose gravel underfoot as he pivoted on the foot that was on the asphalt.   Nothing moved.   Sean took a deep breath and sighed, shrugged, and said to himself, "Fuck it.".   He stepped the rest of the way out of the shelter of the jeep.
     Sean continued to look around across his field of vision as he walked to the rear of the vehicle.   He turned around and looked in a circle slowly before turning his back to the town and his attention to the back hatch of the jeep.   He took his keys out and unlocked the door, swinging it up on its pneumatic pumps.   He reached in and took out a bucket with a cylinder of twine attached to it and a crowbar.
     Sean closed the back hatch and locked it, then went around to the driver’s side and locked that too.   No point in leaving it unlocked when a few seconds of time and a minor amount of effort could keep someone from taking your few possessions.   Sean had modified the jeep, smashing out the windows and replacing them with half inch sheets of plexiglass lag-bolted into the frame with an inch of space to permit air to stream through the jeep.   It was inconvenient in cold weather but a blessing in warm weather and it beat having someone that was a decent shot take you out from a distance or some thief smashing your windows and dashing off with your things while you were exploring an abandoned looking building.
     Sean walked over to the raised hubs of the gas wells, grinding gravel into asphalt underfoot.   At the wells, he took a knee and used the crowbar to pry up the thick metal lid.   He slid the lid aside and laid the crowbar on the ground, putting the bucket into the black hole, unwinding the spool of twine, and lowering the bucket.   A couple minutes of time passed until a dull, echoey clank of the bucket hitting the bottom of the well drifted up from the darkness.   Sean took a deep breath and sighed.   He wound the twine back into the spool, bringing the bucket back up from the depths of the well.   He did the same routine with the diesel well with the same results.   "NO GAS".
     Sean slipped the crowbar into the straps of his backpack and clipped the handle of the bucket onto a metal clip hanging from the same pack, dropping the roll of twine into the bucket, leaving the lids off of the openings to the gas wells.   Half in the interest of conserving effort and half out of wanting to spare the next person the effort of having to learn what he already knew.   "NO GAS".
     Sean got to his feet and looked around again, fairly certain that he was alone, but old habits die hard and those without good habits died more often.   He walked towards the office and took the .45 from its holster and stepped through the opening left by the glass and metal door askew in its hinges.   Inside, the small office was empty, but not empty.   Inside all of the stickers and posters for Coca Cola and Marlboro cigarettes were still in the windows and on the walls but the racks for the cigarettes were empty, and the coolers for the beverages were also empty.   The three short aisles had been stripped of anything edible, leaving behind Bic pens and pregnancy tests and condoms whose expiration dates had long since expired.
     The impulse item racks in front of the register had been stripped of candy bars, leaving behind chewing gum and breath mints.   Sean opened an empty canvas duffel bag and dumped the gum and mints into the yawning opening of the bag.   You never knew what might come in handy for trade and a mint every now and then helped to take the taste of the dust of the road out of your mouth.   There was nothing else worth taking in the office.   Sean made his way over to the door to the garage.   He opened the door and half hid behind it waiting for the flash and roar of a firearm.   When that didn't happen he stepped into the garage and waited for his eyes to adjust to the relative darkness.
     The dust motes in the air lent a weight to the slivers of light that shone in through the cracks in the roll-up doors for the double-bay garage.   Sean let his eyes adjust to the inside of the garage then walked a short circuit around the inside.   On a rack he found a full case of oil and an open case with nine loose bottles.   Oil was always handy to have to burn or for trade.   In addition to the oil he found a couple unopened bottles of windshield washer fluid and other full or half-full bottles of lubricants and fluids that were the life blood of the machines that used to be the cogs that moved the world.
     Sean stacked the half-empty case of oil on top of the full one and put the two bottles of windshield wiper fluid into the empty case.   He holstered the .45 and bent at the knees and lifted the cases, bearing the brunt of the weight on his stomach and chest.   He knew it was a bad idea to walk out of the place without his heat in his hands but it was a fair risk and finding a dolly to carry out such a small haul would take time.   Time was an interesting problem.   There was all you could ever want and never enough.
     Sean walked back through the doorway to the office for the station and looked through the window to see if there was any kind of ambush waiting out there for him.   Maybe some hard case and a few of his friends hanging out between him and his jeep waiting for him to come out of the gas station to ask him to give them the keys to the jeep and everything else he had and maybe if he was lucky they wouldn’t kill, fuck and eat him, not necessarily in that order.   It seemed safe.   At least there wasn’t any obvious ambush laid out.
     Sean stepped through the entrance to the office into the daylight and quick-walked around the pumps to the rear of the jeep, hefting the cases up onto the roof.   He paused and looked around.   Never can be too careful these days.   He took the keys out of his pocket and unlocked the rear hatch easing it up.   He slid the cases off of the roof and slid them into the limited space in the back of the jeep, closed the hatch and locked it again.
     Sean took the .45 out of its hip holster and looked around the intersection again.
     The Taco Bell was pointless to bother trying to scavenge anything from.   Anything edible at fast food places went off once the power grid went down and the refrigerators stopped working.   Refrigerators quickly became shiny metal boxes filled with rotting food and darkness, not worth opening unless you needed a reminder that the world had changed and you weren’t likely to be able to enjoy a frozen popsicle on a hot summer’s day ever again in this lifetime.   The best you could hope to scavenge was a few sundry bits from the first aid kit, some cleaning supplies from the janitorial storage closet, maybe a few sleeves of napkins and a case or three of mild, hot, and fire sauce.   Not even worth the walk across the street.
     The post-office was almost equally useless but he figured he’d clear it out just to be thorough.   Never know what you find if you take the time to look.   He crossed the street to the left and walked up to the front door.   He reached out with his left hand and tried the pull handle for the door.   Locked.   Of course it was.   He reached behind him and took out the crowbar with his left hand, pulling out the crowbar, and bringing the angled head down into the plate glass, smashing it out with a crashing smash that echoed around the empty intersection.   “Whelp,” he thought to himself, “if there’s anyone around they definitely know I’m here now.”   He raked the crowbar around the door frame and the stubborn bits of plate glass tinkled into the newly made pile of broken plate glass at his feet.   He tucked the crowbar back into the loop of the pack reserved for it.   “A place for everything and everything in its place.” as his mother used to say.
     Sean crouched and shuffled under the metal push-bar mid-height across the door.   The inside of the post office was shadowy, but lit well enough from the light coming in from the windows that he didn’t have to take out his mag-lite to see.   The walls were lined with posters and slot-wall with pegs sticking out, stocked with packing supplies and impulse merchandise.   The posters read… _____________ and ____________ .   Sean walked over to the wall of merchandise and slid the peg full of packing tape off of the hook and into his duffel bag.   Tape was always a useful commodity.   Packing tape was more versatile and durable than scotch tape.   He walked over to the counter and pushed himself up, sliding over to the other side.   He ignored the cash registers.   After the world ended, money was reduced to being useless rectangles of colored paper again.   Books were more valuable for burning if we’re talking volume of paper compared to effort to obtain.   Why spend the time to try to crack open a register or break into a bank vault when any local library or bookstore would provide much more fuel for fire to cook your food and keep you warm at night?   Plus if you were the literary type you could always read them.
     Sean pushed open the door to the back room of the post office.   Another shadow-strewn room split with shafts of daylight from the windows suffusing the room with a gentle warm light.   Plastic bins of mail incoming and outgoing that would never be delivered were slowly going to dry rot only useful now for kindling.   Sorting racks and tables with a layer of undisturbed dust gently settled on their upmost surfaces.   A calendar on the wall from ten years ago from back when they still printed calendars for people to put on their walls so people could cross off the days.   A small break area for the employees to eat their lunches.   A coffee maker with a box of loose sugar packets and a container of powdered creamer.   Nothing worth the effort of taking.
     Sean pushed the breaker bar on a door in the back wall and squinted at the sunlight as he stepped out into the fenced in parking lot.   Two big boxy mail trucks and a white pick-up truck with “U.S. Mail” stenciled on the door panel on each side.   He made a mental note to come back and see if there was any fuel in the gas tanks of the vehicles to siphon.   He stepped back through the door and walked across the break room, through the dividing door and vaulted back over the counter, walking across the post office and ducking down to clear the push bar hanging in the air across the empty space of the front door.
     Sean stood up and looked around again surveying the intersection.   Still empty.   He looked towards where he had parked the jeep and it was still there.   So far.   So good.   So what now?
     Sean walked diagonally across the intersection to the front of the hardware store.   Someone had already smashed out the front door so that saved him the effort, which was nice, but it also meant that the store had already been scavenged which could make checking it out a waste of time.   But, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as they say, and maybe the previous looters had left behind something he could use or trade.
     Sean stepped through the empty door frame that used to contain a door-sized sheet of plate glass which had been smashed out and ground underfoot, mixed with drifted dust.   That was something you got used to seeing a lot of in the new word.   Broken glass and burned out buildings and burnt husks of cars and charred piles of bones.   Empty cans that once held food and soft drinks and cellophane sparkling in the breeze.
     Inside the hardware store, it was an unsurprising scene, the shelves of merchandise haphazardly stripped of random merchandise.   Merchandise littered the aisles and clattered down the aisle when unintentionally punted.   Someone had cleaned out the liquid adhesives.   Either to use to stick one thing to another thing, or to squirt into a plastic bag and breathe the fumes from to get high, or to trade, but for whatever reason they had cleared the section out down to the pegs.   Next to the adhesive section the tape section was still relatively intact.   He looked up and saw that there was a case of duct tape on the storage shelf over the merchandise rack and made a mental note to come back for it.   In the next aisle, he ignored most of the tools.   The whole concept of consumption and consumerism had changed now that there were more screwdrivers and ratchet sets and measuring tapes than people alive to use them.   He stopped in front of the sharp tools section and swept all of the replaceable razor blades and linoleum knife blades into his duffel bag.   You never know when you’re going to need a fresh sharp edge.   In the next aisle the gallons of house paint were mostly still in stock.   The spray paint had been pretty well scavenged but there were a few cans left over so he tucked them into his duffel bag, the ball-bearings within clanking mutedly inside the metal cylinders as he did so.
     Sean went back to the tape section and stripped the shelved and pegged rolls of duct tape into his duffel bag in singles and six packs, then holstered the .45 and perched up on the balls of his feet to ease down the case of duct tape from the overhead shelf.   The box was open, but only two rolls had been removed so that made the trip into the hardware store worth the time and effort of itself.   “If you can’t fix it, duck it.   If you can’t duck it.   Fuck it.” He said aloud and sighed.
     Sean carried the case in his arms up to the front counter and put the case down on the counter.   He looked down at the impulse item racks and, again, all of the candy bars were gone, but the gum and mints remained and he dumped the open case packs into his duffel bag more out of habit than anything else.   He looked up at the pegs sticking out from the pegboard behind the counter.   Padlocks and bike locks.   The batteries were all gone but that was no surprise.   Batteries were worth more than gold.   He peeked behind the counter to see if there was a shotgun or handgun stashed under the counter to deter any thieves or shoplifters but if there had been anything of the sort it was gone now.
     Sean left the hardware store the same way he had come in, grinding plate glass underfoot.   He squinted at the sunlight as he always did when coming out of a building and looked around.   The intersection was still empty.
     Sean walked across the intersection to the jeep and put the case of duct tape on the roof.   He took the keys out of his pocket and unlocked the rear hatch easing it up.   He slid the case off of the roof and slid it into the back of the jeep, next to the cases of oil.   He unshouldered the duffel bag dropped it on top of the opened case of duct tape to be sorted through later and closed the hatch and locked it again.
     Sean went around to the driver’s side and unlocked the door and got in, locking the door behind him, plugging the key into the ignition and started up the engine.   He pulled around to the gate to the fenced in parking lot behind the post-office.   He put the jeep in park and turned the key, killing the engine.   He opened up the door and stepped out, closing and locking the door behind him out of habit.   He went around to the back of the jeep and opened up the rear hatch.   He took out a bolt-cutter and walked over to the gate.   He lined up the blades of the bolt-cutter over the hasp of the padlock holding the chain keeping the gate closed.   He squeezed the handles of the bolt-cutter together, his forearms and biceps tightening up until the blades cut through the hasp with a snap.   He turned the padlock on the hasp, and snaked it out of the chain links it had been holding together and dropped it to the ground as the chain went slack on the fence.   He pushed the gate open wide enough for him to drive the jeep through and walked around to the back of the jeep, tossing the bolt-cutters back in and closed the hatch.   He unlocked and got into the jeep, started it up and drove it up to behind where the three postal vehicles were parked in a row facing the back wall of the post office.   He put the jeep in park and turned the engine off, opening the door and getting out and locking it behind him.   He walked around to the back of the jeep and unlocked and opened the rear hatch.   He took out a three-foot length of clear plastic hose, with what looked like a fancy bike pump attached to one end of it, and a five-gallon rectangular gas can whose contents sloshed around sounding about a quarter full.   He went to each vehicle in turn and popped the gas panel, removing the cap and sliding the hose into the hole.   The siphon pump worked with a pull and a twist and then a push back in, allowing air to be pulled out, then the handle to be pushed back until the gas crept up the clear plastic tube.   Then you put the spigot of the siphon into the mouth of the gas can and pumped the gas out of the vehicle into the can.   A few foolish scavengers forgot that no matter how cool it looks, you’re not supposed to pump gas while smoking and had succumbed to death by, if not spontaneous, then at least surprise combustion due to their cigarette ember igniting the fumes coming off of the gas they were siphoning.   Just another example of how smoking is bad for your health.     But Sean wasn’t as stupid or short-sighted as those scavengers and knew that siphoning and smoking were mutually exclusive activities.   A small amount of gas had evaporated due to heat and time and the imperfect seal of the gas caps, but he was able to siphon off enough to fill the first gas canister and half of another.   Not a bad haul.
     Sean put the second canister into the back of the jeep and shook out the hose and coiled it and put that into the back of the jeep, closing and locking the rear hatch.   He went around to the driver’s side of the jeep, unlocking the driver’s side door and getting in, locking the door and starting up the jeep.   He turned a circle and left the post office parking lot and pulled back around to the intersection taking the road headed north by northwest out of town.
     “Why the fuck am I in Texas?” he asked himself, but he knew the answer.
     It was all about a girl.   For men it usually was.
     He reached over and turned on the shortwave radio receiver he had mounted on the dash and plugged into a power adapter plugged into the dash lighter port.   The radio hissed and mumbled in between channels.   He turned the tuning knob and found the channel that was steadily transmitting the warning from the Texas State National Guard.
     “This is an announcement from the Texas Emergency Broadcast System.   Please be aware that the cities of Dallas, Austin, and Houston have been evacuated and have been over-run by the dead.   All surviving occupants have been relocated to the nearest regional relocation center and any trespassers to those cities or outlying areas will be apprehended and transported to the nearest regional relocation center.   Please keep your radio tuned to this signal for updated news and information and a list of regional relocation centers.”
     Sean rolled his eyes and sighed and turned the dial.   The message had been the same since he had crossed over into Texas coming in from the northern corner of the neck of the state.   It had been the same all the way to the regional relocation centers.   It had been the same all the way to Austin and the same all the way from Austin to Houston and the same from Houston to here wherever here was.   He turned the dial until he found a bandwidth broadcasting country and western music.   Hank Williams and Johnny Cash mostly, and mostly the gospel tunes, but even Jumped-Up Hellfire Wrathful Jesus music from either of those guys was better than the never-ending silence and if some lone lunatic with a gas-running generator and a shortwave tower wanted to spread the fear of God by way of their love for country music then that was fine by him as long as he didn’t get on the air and start proselytizing about the end of times because that’s just about the last thing that anyone needed to hear about while trying to survive in what was left of the world.
     To think that all of this was for a girl.
     It wasn’t even his first choice, but his first choice didn’t really work out that well, and he didn’t really want to talk about it.   At least not if you asked him about it.   But sometimes in his sleep he’d talk about it anyway but usually it wasn’t as much talking as it was screaming and it wasn’t very nice to hear.
     As a second choice she was still a good one.   Five foot two and eyes of blue as the song used to go back when there were songs and people were still in the mood to sing them.   Wit like a razor blade but twice as sharp.   She kissed like a bolt of lightning and fucked like a tornado and was worth the drive.   Sure she had her downfalls but so did everyone else.   She had a wandering eye and airplanes made her fall to pieces but she was good as far as girls go and there weren’t many good girls left in the world.
     Sean had started off in the northeast and driven across half the country to be where he was.   Using secondary roads to avoid the major cities which were mostly just smoking holes in the ground these days.   Tracing lines in the road atlas to figure out how to avoid bridges and blockades.   It wasn’t easy and he had to kill a few people, but it was usually in self-defense because if someone’s trying to kill you it only seems right to return the favor.   That wasn’t what bothered his conscience.   There were worse things he had done to survive this long after the end of the world and killing a few wild-eyed cannibals was a day at the amusement park in comparison.
     Sean had to double-back twice before he could find a safe point to cross the Mississippi. The first bridge was a wash-out, nothing left but pylons sticking out of the middle of the river.   The second was a blockade manned by some heavy-looking ex-military types.   Good old country boys that brought the war home with them.   Good old boys gone bad with plenty of southern discomfort and inhospitality to share.   Thankfully he had the presence of mind to scout the crossing from a distance before trying to make the cross-over.   If he had just unexpectedly pulled up on that blockade the jeep-mounted .50 cal they had probably would have ended his adventure much earlier than expected.   But he didn’t and it didn’t.
     Sean had started picking up the warning from the Texas State National Guard just before he crossed the Texas state line.   He figured the relocation center was a good enough place as any to start looking for her.   His plan was to pull in five miles away from the camp and then walk in with a minimal amount of supplies in his back-up backpack and a sidearm he could afford to give up when asked to and the plan worked about as well as he had hoped.   He walked the line down the center of the road approaching the camp when the sun had just come up over the horizon in the east so he was clearly visible, but the soldier in the sandbag bunker with the bullhorn still told him to put his hands up and approach slowly at about a hundred yards and the pockmarks in the asphalt and the .50 cal gunner in the watchtower gave him an idea of what might happen if he didn’t raise his hands high and empty and saunter in at a slow and casual pace.
     The camp was just as bad as he thought it would be.   But it was also worse.   He had expected it to be bad.   He had spent some time in one of the fortified cities in the northeast and he knew how things worked and how to get along and do what you’re told to get to live another day.   There was always the world outside of the walls and if you decided that following rules and working cooperatively wasn’t for you, you were welcome to take your chances with the dead and the cannibals.
     Sean had decided that his first choice was worth the risk, and then it wasn’t, but by then it was too late and the only direction worth moving in was forward.
     As he had expected when he voluntarily became a guest of the relocation center he had to surrender his weapon, a cheap .22 with a rusted carriage that he wouldn’t really miss.
     “If you decide to leave you’ll get this back, but until then we’ll just hold onto it for you.”
     Sure.   No problem.
     The refugees were separated into two buildings by gender to avoid the complications that sometimes develop when you mix human animals of different genders.   Not that it stopped anyone determined to find some time alone with someone else.   Even in the direst of situations love will find a way and if love can’t find a way then lust will do.   The bunk beds were lined up in rows of fifty and twenty rows wide, which is only a thousand bunks in each barrack for those of you paying attention but everyone made do.   There was a separate smaller barrack with about a hundred bunks for those few families to have survived intact so that the younger children, the few that remained, could be kept watch over by their parents.  It was easier not to have them underfoot while all of the other adults went about their daily duties and their parents were better able to tolerate it when the children woke up screaming in terror two or three times a night, wetting the bed and crying, than the other adults in the general population.   The soldiers were also bunked separately to avoid fraternization with the residents of the relocation center, but sometimes that rule was quietly secretively overlooked, especially in the case of an attractive young female refugee who wasn’t against trading some of her time for slightly better rations or a less difficult work detail.
     Although the relocation center wasn’t a concentration camp, it was, but much in the same way that concentration camp was a euphemism for death camp, relocation camp was a euphemism for concentration camp, except in this scenario the living were gathered with the intention of trying to keep them alive as a last ditch effort to keep the human experiment going as a viable option.
     The relocation camps didn’t have "Arbeit macht frei" on the gates, but the officer in command of the camp did adhere to the philosophy as originally recorded in the Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle translated as “He who does not work, will not eat.”.
     In the early times of the end of the world, when there was less food than there were people, if you were sick enough to be bedridden you might as well have just laid down in a pine box and asked someone to tuck you in by nailing the cover shut.   Everyone was much too worried about their own survival to worry about making sure sweet old aunt Agnes with diabetes and dementia remembered to take her shots on time.   When you were running for your life, you didn’t have time to help that really nice guy you dormed with in college that made being in a wheelchair actually seem kind of cool, or to pick up and carry that co-ed girl that was kind of fuckable despite the fact she had to use metal crutches with arm braces to hobble around campus.   If you couldn’t run and fight and think harder and faster than the other guy then maybe it would be you that would die from an extreme case of getting mouthfuls of yourself chewed off by the staggering dead.   The worst part of that scenario was that you didn’t die right away.   It wasn’t like someone flipped a switch and turned you off like a light bulb.   You died screaming and struggling and bleeding all over the place until your hands were all slippery with your own blood and you can’t even find a purchase to push away the clawing hands and biting teeth, and unfortunately, in this scenario, death is only the beginning.
     The relocation camp had work details based on the principle that hard work is healthy and working together, people can accomplish more than any one person working alone.   There was a farm in the camp dedicated to growing high-yield staple foods such as corn and beans.   There was a hospital where the hurt were healed and the sick were strapped down and monitored until they recovered or didn’t recover and the logical conclusion occurred.   A broken arm or leg could be splinted, but a heart attack was a terminal event regardless of whether or not it killed you all at once.   Once your heart betrayed you, there was no knowing when it would revolt again, and unexpected death was not a welcome thing in these times.   Even though a watch was posted every night in the barracks, humans are only human and sometimes they fall asleep at night even when they’re supposed to stay awake and although you may die peacefully in your sleep, you didn’t rest long and things were decidedly less peaceful when you awoke a few minutes later.   Less peaceful and more fatal, at least to anyone asleep in any of the bunks around you.
     The next morning Sean woke up early in what was called “quarantine”,  a row of two dozen old-style iron-barred cages with a tarp spread over them to keep the rain out if it’s falling straight down, but not providing much privacy or protection from the elements if the night was cold.   Privacy was a privilege in the camp, and the night in quarantine was a precaution to monitor new arrivals to determine if they were too sick or insane to be a productive member of camp society.   Sick or insane, the solution was the same.   An armed escort to the special place at the back of the camp where you were given a bullet to the back of the head as a goodbye gift, and added to the pile of people stacked like cordwood in the back of the corpse wagon as the truck that delivered the truly dead to the burial trench was somewhat affectionately called.   Sean had heard nine rifle reports echoing from the perimeter during the night but gunfire no longer awoke most survivors, instead inspiring memory-fueled nightmares that burned even more terribly than the usual ones.
     Sean was keenly watched by two armed men in desert camouflage that approached the door to his cage.   One of the soldiers, a compact wiry man with a five-day beard and a flinty stare with a name-tag that read “HUCK” stood slightly behind with a service issue .45 pointed at the center of Sean’s chest as the other soldier, a tall blonde man with ice-blue eyes and clean shaven wearing a name tag that read “GAMER” asked Sean “How are you feeling?”.
     “Alright I guess.”
     “Sleep okay?”
     “Well enough.”
     “You ready to walk over to secondary processing and get assigned to a work detail?”
     “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
     “Alright.   I’m gonna unlock this door and you move slow.   No quick movements or Huck here will put you down without a flinch.   No warning shot.   Understood.”
     Lieutenant Gamer took a keyring off of a clip on his hip and unlocked the lock to the cage and swung the door open, stepping back to make room for Sean to exit.   Gamer nodded to a sign at the end of the aisle of cages that read “SECONDARY PROCESSING” spray-paint stenciled black on a piece of white-painted wood.   Sean walked down the aisle towards the door to the right of the sign at an evenly measured pace with no sudden movements.
     Inside the doorway was a room with a plain wooden table with a linoleum blotter on top of it.   On top of the blotter was a loose-leaf binder with a sheaf of forms inside.   There was also a laptop, opened and powered on, the screen emitting a faint glow, and a coffee cup with steaming black coffee.   Sean’s mouth watered when he saw the steam rising from the coffee and tried to swallow the fresh spit subtly.   He figured that maybe the coffee was a test and he intended on passing it and didn’t like being tested anyway.   Behind the desk sitting in a straight-backed chair was a man.   The man’s uniform jacket looked like it had been freshly laundered, starched, and ironed.   On it, over the heart was a name tag that read “___________”.   On his lapels and in the center of his hat were the parallel bars of the Captain’s insignia.   Under the hat was close-cropped steel-grey hair and a face bearing an expression of bored resignation to a duty that had been done so often that it was routine.
     “Take a seat.” The Captain said, and gestured towards a straight-backed chair upholstered in industrial green linoleum identical to the one the Captain sat in.
     Sean stepped forward and around the chair and sat down.
     “Sean Chapman.”, Sean lied.
     The Captain tapped at the keys then asked, “What brings you to our little community?”
     “Tired of trying to fight it out on my own.   Looking for a friend.”
     “Aren’t we all?”
     “I’m looking for someone in particular.”
     “Who in particular are you looking for?”
     “My sister.” Sean lied again.   “Her name is Laura.”
     “Same last name?”
     Sean nodded.
     The Captain tapped at the keys again then asked, “Last known location?”
     “Austin.   Maybe Houston.   Austin was where she was living when the shit hit the fan.   Houston’s where her mother lived so maybe that’s where she would have headed but I couldn’t get ahold of her after the cell phones went down.”
     “Her mother?” the Captain asked and raised an eyebrow almost imperceptibly.
     “Step-sister.”   Sean said.   “Same father.   Different mothers.”
     The Captain didn’t totally believe the story and Sean knew it, but the Captain didn’t care enough to probe any further.
     “You planning on staying at our camp?”
     “Yeah.   I guess so.   I guess we’ll see.”
     “I guess we will.   You have any special skills?”
     Sean did have some special skills.   He had a decent singing voice.   He knew how to play every song ever written by The Ramones on an electric bass.   He could play the moonlight sonata on a piano.   Not well, but he could stumble through till the end.   He could fold an origami crane out of a square piece of paper while blindfolded.   But he didn’t think that any of those trivial facts were what the Captain was looking for so he answered, “No.   Not really.   Some landscaping.   A bit of construction.   Some industrial painting.   Some roofing here and there.”
     The Captain nodded and clacked at the keys.   “We’re going to start you off on the perimeter clean-up detail.   Lieutenant Gamer will show you where to go.”
     “What about my sister?” Sean asked.
    The Captain took a slightly deeper breath in what was his approximation of a sigh and said, “I’ll look into it.   I should be able to tell you by the end of the day if she’s been through here.   Check in with me after dinner and I’ll let you know what I find out.”
     Sean remained for a long second and the Captain met his gaze with more of his bored resignation.
     The sound of Lieutenant Gamer stepping up behind Sean broke the silence and Sean stood up and turned around, stepping around the chair.   Gamer let him go first through the doorway, followed by Private First Class Huck a few steps behind with the .45 pointing at the center of Sean’s back.
     Huck walked behind Sean, directing him to a flatbed truck.   Around the flatbed truck were loosely assembled five men in worn clothes, smoking small hand-rolled cigarettes that smelled bitter and stale from the smoke that lingered in the air.
     There were two soldiers in desert camouflage that had seen many washings and better days leaning against the truck with M-16A2s slung over their shoulders and nickel-plated standard issue .45s in hip holsters.
     “Fresh meat for the corpse train.” Huck said from behind Sean.
     The two soldiers and the four men chuckled knowingly in a way that Sean didn’t like.
     “He any good?” the taller soldier asked.
     “Fucked if I know.   He’s your problem now.” Huck said and turned on his heel, holstering his .45 and headed back in the direction they came from.
     The shorter of the two soldiers sized Sean up and hawked and spit a gob of phlegm into the dirt, looking down at the phlegm wad contemplatively.   He looked back at Sean and asked, “You squeamish?”
     “Is anybody anymore?”
     “Don’t crack wise.   Answer the man.” the taller soldier said flatly.
     Sean looked from the taller soldier to the shorter and said, “Not really.   There’s no point in bragging these days as I know everyone’s seen some heavy shit, but I was in Atlanta when the walls were breached so I guess that counts for something.”
     “Bullshit.” said a tall lean black man with his hair creeping back from his forehead in casebook male-pattern baldness in mid-retreat.   “I heard they carpet-bombed Atlanta after the dead-heads took over and that no one got out alive.”
     Sean met the stare that the black man leveled at him and said, “They did.   Fucking flattened it.   I got out before they bombed it.   You ever smell what a hundred-thousand people burning to death at the same time smells like?   Because I have.   It’s not the kind of thing that’s easy to forget.”
   The black man stared back at Sean and brought the tail end of his hand-rolled cigarette to his mouth and inhaled the last half inch, exhaling the smoke slowly, tossing the nub of a butt on the ground crushing it under the sole of his shoe.
     “Break it up and get on the truck, boys.   We’re burning sunlight.” the taller soldier said, and walked around to the driver’s side of the truck cab while the shorter soldier opened up the passenger side and stepped up into the cab closing the door behind him.
     Sean and the five other men clambered up onto the flatbed back of the truck.   The taller soldier started up the truck and headed towards the back gates of the compound.   The gates were a double-layer of fence with a watch shack on either side, concertina wire laid out in layers between the two fences to either side.   The truck pulled up to the gate and the two soldiers posted one in each shack with their rifles at the ready.   The driver leaned out and said, “Headed out for clean-up detail.”   The soldier in the shack nodded curtly and slung his rifle over his shoulder, while walking over to open the gate.   The gate slid aside and the truck drove through.   The soldier closed the gate behind the truck and unshouldered his rifle, watching the truck drive off.
     The truck drove along the perimeter until a shapeless pile that might have been a person once drew near, splayed across the row of concertina wire.
   The truck slowed down then stopped and the driver killed the engine and it died with a deep cluttery coughing that kicked up runnels of dust on either side.   The shorter soldier got out of the passenger side, slamming the door behind him and shouted, “Saddle up, hombres.   You know the drill.”
     Sean didn’t know the drill so he just watched two of the men open up a black bin bolted to the back of the cab and take out a thick black plastic bag with zippers down the sides.   They also took out four pairs of thick yellow industrial-waste handling gloves and passed them to the first guy to their right who passed them around to the other three men.   The other three men hopped off the truck and put the gloves on while ambling toward whatever was caught on the concertina wire.   One of them looked back at Sean and called, “Come on, Atlanta, you too.”   Sean hopped off the flatbed and joined the other three men standing in a loose semi-circle looking disinterestedly but somewhat apprehensively at the object on the wire.   At this distance Sean could see that the object used to be a woman.   Maybe she had been beautiful once.   Maybe she had loved and been loved and said nice things to other people and knew how to make a great grilled cheese.   But that was long ago.   It was pretty obvious she had been dead for at least a couple years.   Not dead like people used to be dead before the world changed, but dead like people got to be now.   She had been wearing a dark blue dress with white flowers but the white flowers could barely be seen due to the dirt and stains and rains that had dyed the flowers almost as dark as the rest of the dress.   If the shoes had matched the dress no one could tell because they were long gone and the soles of her feet had been worn into thick calloused slabs.   The skin of her calves and shins had been scarred by countless small nicks and a few deep ones that had healed over and her legs were coated in a covering of black hair that had been matted down by countless trickles of excrement mindlessly expelled from her excretory orifices that stained the bottom half of the dress black.   The front of her dress had been torn open unevenly and had fallen off of one of her shoulders, hanging bunched up halfway down her arm.   She hadn’t been wearing a bra, and one of her breasts was exposed but the dirt-dyed bug-bite speckled breast wasn’t the kind of thing that aroused any of the men as none of them were necrophiles and if they were they would have been kicked off of perimeter clean-up detail.   Her hair was thick and black and infested with lice that busily raced around in their home in her hair doing whatever errands that lice do when they make their homes in human hair.   There was a blank expression of sadness and a hint of surprise which was probably because of the bullet-hole in the upper left part of her forehead that had blown out the contents of her head across her right shoulder and tiny gnats and shiny blue-bottle flies were busily buzzing around the bits of brain and skull sprayed out in an arc behind her.
     The two men carrying the bag laid it out on the ground and unzipped it, flipping the top side over into the grass.   One of the three men standing in the loose semi-circle turned to look at Sean and smirked without much enthusiasm behind it and asked, “You want ankles or wrists?”
     “Why can’t I be one of the guys that works the bag?”
     “You gotta work your way up to that.   For now you get to pick ankles or wrists or take whatever’s left.   You’re low man on the totem pole and shit rolls downhill.”
     Sean and the other three men walked up to the body of the woman wordlessly lining up two on each side.   The man in front of Sean leaned over and gingerly, grabbed onto the woman’s left wrist, leaving Sean the left ankle.   The other men grabbed the other wrist and ankle.
     “Jesus Fuck!” the man that had grabbed her right wrist hissed when he leaned over to get a hold of her wrist.
     The man who had grabbed her left wrist said across her body, “If you’re going to puke, do it off to the side.   It’s bad enough dealing with this shit without having to wash your breakfast off my boots when it’s done.”
     “I know.   I’m sorry.   I just can’t get used to this shit.   Fuck!”
     “You’re not supposed to get used to it, asshole, so shut up and let’s do this, on three.   One.   Two.”   The man said “Three!” and all four men leaned back trying to pull the woman off of the concertina wire she had managed to get herself tangled up in.   The men failed to keep her limbs taut and her bloated belly hung low.   A concertina wire razor caught on the bottom edge of her stomach.   As they pulled her back from the wire the razor opened up her distended stomach like a zipper, dumping her swollen blackened entrails out and they hit the ground with a sound like a wet wad of paper towel hitting a tiled bathroom wall.
     The smell hit them all at the same time like a fist in the face.   The man holding the right wrist turned his head to the right and vomited his breakfast over his right shoulder out of his mouth and nose at the same time.   Before the smell of his bile and breakfast could hit the rest of them, Jonesy, who had grabbed the right ankle yelled, “Just get the bitch in the bag!”
     The four men staggered sideways, crab-walking the corpse over to over the body bag and they let go of their appendage of choice and the woman collapsed into the body bag with a damp slap, her arms and legs arranged at uncomfortable looking angles.
     The men on either side of the body bag arranged her arms and legs so they ran alongside her body and zipped her into the bag.   If they felt anything about doing this you couldn’t tell by looking at the expressions on their faces.   Aside from tired they didn’t look like they felt much of anything anymore.   The men grabbed the thick black handles on either side of the body bag and carried the bag back to the truck between them and tossed the bag up onto the flatbed of the truck.
     The man that had puked was using the elbows of his long-sleeved shirt to wipe the vomit from his face.   “Aw, fuck!   Now I’m going to smell like puke for the rest of the day!   Hell damn shit fuck!”
   The man who had the left wrist and warned him about not having his shoes puked on just looked at the other and said, “Well, next time just don’t puke.”
     “I can’t fucking help it!   You know that!   Don’t fuck with me!   A person’s not supposed to have to deal with this shit!   I swear to Christ one of these days I’m going to fucking fuck off and try my chances out there!”
     “No one’s stopping you, Butch.   You can leave anytime you want to, just like everybody else.” The man paused and poked a thin-hand-rolled cigarette between his lips.   “But you might want to sleep on it, son, because as bad as this might seem now it’s fucking Disneyland compared to what’s in store for you out there.”   He used a pink plastic lighter to ignite the tip of the cigarette and took a deep drag, held it, and tilted his head back exhaling the smoke in a plume, watching the smoke stolen away by the wind.
      The shorter soldier barked, “Let’s go, boys.   We’ve got more guests to welcome to the party.   Mount up.”
     The men clambered onto the back of the truck.
     The driver started the engine and it awoke like an angry rhinoceros making the cab buck like a mechanical bull but the action leveled out and the driver put it into gear and drove further along the perimeter.
     Sean reached over the side of the flatbed and picked a sheaf of the long grass and tucked it into his mouth chewing at it contemplatively.   Sean’s eyes lit up and he grinned.   Then he chuckled.
     Jonesy who was sitting diagonally across from Sean scowled at Sean.   “What’s so god-damn funny, motherfucker?”
     Sean sighed, “Nothing.”
     “Spit it out, motherfucker.”
     Sean grinned a wry grin and said, “And I thought they smelled bad on the outside.”
     At first the back of the truck was a chorus of disbelieving sideways glances.   But then one of the other men started to chuckle, then another, and soon the laughter caught like fire and everyone but Jonesy was laughing hysterically, wiping the tears from their cheeks with the shoulders of their shirts.
     The laughter died down to sighs but everyone but Jonesy seemed a little less tense and tired.
     Jonesy glared at Sean.   “That’s not funny motherfucker.”
     Sean shrugged and chewed his blade of grass.
     “I don’t think Jonesy likes you.” the squinty white boy with the deep-south accent sitting to the right of Sean said noncommittally.
     “I don’t give a fuck what Jonesy likes or doesn’t like.” Sean said and looked up to see Jonesy staring at him with his best version of a heavy stare.   Sean gave Jonesy a smile that was more smirk than smile and took the grass stem he had been chewing on and threw it over the side of the truck.   He wasn’t worried.   Sean had been relatively well-fed and well-rested before he came to the camp and was fit to fight.   Jonesy had been surviving on what they served as excuses for meals in the camp for who knows how long and had been worked like a dog every day and was half the man he could’ve been if he could have gotten regular meals and a decent piece of ass to take the edge off.   Sean wasn’t worried at all.
     The truck made eight more stops that day and Sean seemed to remember hearing rifle fire in the night, or at least dreaming that he did.
     After clearing the perimeter, the truck drove on a rough wheel-rut path towards an orange-yellow shovel truck parked next to a big pile of dirt.
     The truck stopped at the lip of a deep trench dug out of the ground like a scar.
     The two men that had handled the zipping of the bodies of the dead into the bags stood on the edge of the truck.   The other men formed a bucket brigade and handed over the body bags one at a time.   The men at the edge of the truck bed would unzip the side of the bag and the corpse would slide out of the opening and tumble down the side of the trench in impossible drunken cartwheels and somersaults, rolling down to rest among a blackened pile of vague forms that could have once been human.   Then the men at the edge of the truck would pass back the empty body bag and be passed another full bag and they would repeat, dumping the body into the air to improvise acrobatics in a practical demonstration of the effect of gravity on the dead.
     Under his breath, Sean asked the squinty-eyed man to his right, “Why do we keep the body bags?   Why don’t we just throw the bodies in still in the bags?”
     The squinty-eyed man looked at him like he was at least stupid if not retarded.   “They ain’t making these things anymore.   Can’t afford to be just throwing ‘em out like there’s no tomorrow.   We just wash ‘em out and use them again tomorrow.”
     Sean sighed and shrugged, then rubbed his forearms with his hands because he had broken out in goosebumps.   It had been a long day and now that the evening was approaching the day was starting to cool down.
     The two men at the edge of the truck got down off the edge and one of the men on the flatbed handed them down two Hudson sprayers.   The men primed the pumps and pulled the triggers spraying the bodies with whatever was in the reservoirs and the smell of gasoline or kerosene or some other kind of flammable fluid that probably rhymes with gasoline and kerosene rose up into the air.
     One of the men on the truck took a stake with an oil-soaked rag wrapped around the end of it and took a zippo lighter out of his shirt pocket and lit the torch, letting it catch, and then tossed it into the trench, igniting the fluid that had been sprayed over the freshly deposited bodies and it burned with a bright, hot yellow flame that could be felt by the men still standing up on the flatbed.
     “Why do we burn the bodies?” Sean asked no one in particular.
     The squinty-eyed man answered, “If we don’t burn them, they rot and they draw wild dogs and other carrion animals and more of the dead.   If we do burn them, it does the same thing but not for as long.   Think of it as a barbecue instead of a buffet left out all day on a hot summer day.   Which one you think is gonna draw more flies?”
     Sean nodded as much to himself as to the squinty-eyed man. 
     The truck engine roared back to life and the men all sat down so as not to fall off the back when the truck started moving.
     Back at the compound, the perimeter clean-up crew were given the chance to have a five minute cold-water shower to wash of the smell of the day and the dead.   Sean changed into a spare set of clothes he had brought with him in his back-up backpack.   He wanted to burn the clothes he had just discarded but he knew it was a bad idea.   Even though they smelled like left-over death they could be washed and re-used if he let them air out enough.   “Waste not, want not.” as his mother had always said.
     Dinner was served in the auditorium, which also served as a cafeteria and anything else that necessitated gathering everyone at the camp in the same place at the same time.
     Sean picked up a plate and waited in line and was ladled out a big pile of corn chowder, two sweet potatoes, and a cup of what looked like vegetable soup in beef broth.   There wasn’t any bread or butter or a tall cool glass of milk to drink as cows were hard to come by, but there was plenty of salt and pepper and Tabasco sauce for those that liked their food to taste like something other than what it was.
     After the events of the day, Sean wasn’t feeling very hungry so he offered his share to the men from the perimeter clean-up squad.   To their credit, they asked him if he was sure, which was kind of them because although there was enough food to go around, it had taken a long time to reach that point and many people had gone to bed with cramped and growling stomachs for many years and there still wasn’t any such thing as “seconds”, so when he said he was sure the perimeter clean-up crew gratefully divvied up the extra food except for Jonesy who turned it down out of spite preferring to be stubborn and hungry than forgiving and a bit fuller.
     Instead of eating Sean worked his way around the room asking anyone if they knew anyone from Austin or Houston.   Many people did, but their stories weren’t very encouraging.   Mostly it sounded like someone trying to describe a Hieronymus Bosch painting to a blind person.   There was lots of rape and murder and nightmares and death and fire and people eating anything they could buy borrow, beg for, or kill, including each other.
     Although Sean heard enough horror stories to fill a dozen libraries he didn’t hear anything about the one person he was looking for.   Instead all he walked away with was his stomach full of knotted millipedes and a bag full of bad dreams.
     What if Laura had been raped or killed and eaten or all of the above?
     Well, if she had he figured he’d deal with it when he was sure.
     But he had to know one way or another because she was the only reason he was in this not exactly a concentration camp but close enough for government work in this godforsaken state.   God bless America indeed.   If this was God’s idea of a blessing he’d hate to see what would happen if America somehow managed to piss the big guy off.   Maybe all those sign-waving homophobic Christian nutjobs from the time before the world ended were right.   Maybe God really did hate fags and didn’t want doctors to perform abortions.   Maybe he had a certain quota of homosexuals and abortions he was going to let us get away with and he really did speak directly to crazy Christian cultists, and he would wake them up in the middle of the night with a thunderous voice that was nowhere and everywhere at once, saying, “Hey!   You!   Yes!   You!   Don’t look around!   I’m God!   I’m everywhere and nowhere at once!   Just sit there and listen!   I hate fags and I don’t want people performing abortions anymore!   Yes, you heard me correctly, I said I hate fags and it’s not a choice, it’s a child.   What?   Why don’t I just turn all of the homosexuals into pillars of salt or just make them not gay anymore?   And if I don’t want people performing abortions why don’t I just kill all of the abortion doctors?   Listen, it’s complicated.   But watching two dudes make out gives me the running shivers and I can’t not watch because I’m everywhere at once.   And I can’t keep putting miracles into women’s wombs just to have some smart-ass scrape them out a week after the woman figures out she’s pregnant.   What’s that?   Well, yes, I know I gave you smart little monkeys free will but you’re using it wrong and you’re doing things that are against my will and if you don’t make a big sign and go downtown and stand on a street corner and yell at people and tell them how much I hate fags you’ll be sorry.   What am I going to do if men keep on falling in love with other men?   Oh, just you wait and see!”
     Maybe he just got sick of everybody taking His name in vain.
     Sean shook his head to clear it.
     This is what happens when he got overwhelmed by reality.
     His brain takes over the wheel and drives him as fast and far away as it can until he realizes what’s happening and takes control of his train of thought.
     What’s the next step?
     Move forward.   Always forward.
      Sean left the dining center/auditorium/town hall and stopped at the male barracks to grab his pack, checking inside to make sure the contents were relatively intact, then walked over to the Secondary Processing area in the darkening twilight.
     Sean walked through the doorway to the building.
     The Captain was sitting behind his plain wooden desk like he was this morning and for a second Sean imagined that the Captain never left that chair.
     The Captain was clacking away on his laptop and the green-glass shaded desk lamp was shining an oblong of warm yellow light on the green linoleum blotter.
    Sean stepped around the chair in front of the desk, unshouldered his pack, dropping it on the floor at his feet and sat in the chair.
     The Captain acknowledged him without acknowledging him and tapped out eight fast taps on the keyboard.   He ceased tapping and looked at the screen, presumably reading back what he had written in his head to make sure it came out the way he wanted it to and made the commute from his brain through his fingertips by way of the keys into the electronic brain of the computer.
     The Captain turned to Sean like a manual typewriter carriage returning to start a new paragraph.
     “How was your first day?”
     “I’ve had worse days.”
     “Didn’t like perimeter clean-up duty?”
     “Was I supposed to?”
     The Captain’s jaw tightened a bit.   “I don’t think anyone is supposed to like it, son, but it’s something that needs to be done.   If we leave them on the wire, then it will draw more of them, and pretty soon there’d be a crowd, and then a mob, and then before we knew it we’d be over-run and that’s something I can’t allow.”
     “I understand.   I’m not complaining.   You asked me if I liked it.   I didn’t.”
     “Fair enough.”   The Captain sipped his coffee to cleanse his pallet of the exchange.   “So what can we do for you tonight?”
     “You said you’d look to see if my sister had been through here.”
     The Captain’s eyes widened a bit, remembering.   “I did.   She hadn’t.   I’m sorry.”
     Sean took a second to take that in and think about what to do next.
     He got up out of the chair, shouldering his pack.   “Thank you for looking.”, he said, and turned around and walked towards the door.
     “Are you leaving us?” the Captain called as he walked away.
     Sean stopped, but did not turn.   “Yeah.”
     “Sure you want to do that?   Anyplace is better than no place, son, and this place is better than most.   We’ve got food, shelter, protection, the companionship of other people.”
     “I know.   I get it.”
     “I’m not just asking for you.   We could use some good people.   There’s not a lot of good people left in this world.   Hell, there’s not a lot of people left in general.   I could take you off of perimeter patrol and maybe find you something that suits your temperament a bit more.   How does that sound?”
     Sean turned and looked at the Captain across the distance he had walked towards the exit and said, “I have to know.   I just have to know for sure.”
     The Captain sighed, the first human thing that Sean had witnessed him do and took another sip of coffee from his coffee mug.   “I understand.”
     Sean turned to take the last few steps to the exit and as he did the Captain said his parting words to Sean, “If you ever change your mind, we’ll save a place for you here if we’re still here, God willing.”
     Sean thought, “God’s got nothing to do with it.” But didn’t think it would be wise to say.
     Sean left the building and headed towards the main gate.
     The main gate was relatively well lit with a big flood-light on either side plugged into gas-powered generators chugging steadily.
     The guards at the gate were a lot less apprehensive about his approach to the gate from the inside since everyone in the camp had been disarmed and the real danger was out there in the dark.
     Sean walked over to the right side shack where he had checked in when he arrived.
     The guard didn’t turn around, having no intention of taking his eyes away from the darkness outside of the compound.   “You heading out?”
     “Sure about that?   It’s a rough world out there.”
     “I’m sure.”
     The guard whistled a sharp thin whistle and another guard that had been sitting in the relative darkness of the corner of the shack came to life, standing up and stretching, then walked over.
     Sean told the guard his name and the guard walked over to a corrugated metal shed, unlocked the padlock to the door, opened the door, clicking the padlock onto the hasp, took out a flashlight, clicked it on and went into the shed.
     The flashlight shone around inside and a shot echoed across the compound from the other side of the compound as a sniper one-shot one-killed a walker tangled in the concertina wire.   The guard emerged with a canvas bag with a small cardboard tag tied to the handle.
     The guard walked back and opened up the bag and took out the .22 pistol.   He looked at the rust on the body of the gun and tsk’ed to himself then held it up for Sean to see.
     “This yours?”
     “That’s the one.”
     The guard handed over the pistol and dug into the bag taking out a hunting knife in a thick leather scabbard, a push-button switchblade, and a machete in a thick leather sheath with a shoulder strap, handing them over to Sean.   The guard felt around in the bag, and when he determined it was empty, he tugged the tag off and crumpled it, putting it into his pocket.
     The guard said, “Good luck” and walked back towards the shed to return the canvas bag.
     Sean put the .22 in his pocket, slung the machete over his shoulder so it hung across his back, out of the way of his arms, but the handle easy to access in case he needed it.   He unbuckled his belt and unthreaded the belt from the first loop on the right and threaded the belt through the loop sewn into the back of the knife, threading the belt back through the denim loop and buckling it.
     Sean shrugged to settle the shoulder strap of the machete and walked through the gates into the dwindling lights of the floodlights.
     Another rifle crack echoed from the south side of the camp.   Another errand for the perimeter clean-up team tomorrow.   Sean shuddered to himself remembering how the first woman’s stomach had zipped open spilling all of her insides out and he shook his head like one would do with an etch-a-sketch to try to erase the image and focus on the future while following his shadow into the night.
     Sean headed southwest towards the hills behind which he had stashed his jeep a couple miles off of the road.   Maybe the jeep had been discovered and stolen or emptied out and burned but that wasn’t worth thinking about.   It had only been a day and if it was gone or burned he’d figure out what to do.
     Sean strode up the rise of the third hill and when he made it to the top he could see the opening to the box canyon he had left the jeep in.   He went down the other side of the hill, slowing his descent by digging the heels of his boots into the loose dirt sending down little avalanches of loose dirt and rocks down the hill where they clattered at the bottom.
     The night was dark the moon was waning and hid behind a cover of clouds and the box canyon was darker still, the hills concealing the canyon from the light pollution of the camp three hills away.
    Sean took a knee and unshouldered his back-up backpack, unzipping one of the smaller pouches and fishing around until he found the smooth shape of a mini-mag in the pouch.   He stood up and zipped the pouch, shouldering the bag and turned the head of the flashlight, shining it into the canyon towards where he left the jeep.
     The jeep was still there and he let out the breath he didn’t realize he had been holding.
     A shadow crossed between the beam of the flashlight and the winking red reflection from the taillight.
     Sean turned the flashlight off and stuffed it into his pocket, grabbing the handle of the machete and pulling it out of its holster.
     “Shit!” he said to himself in a hissing whisper.
     Sean closed his eyes and listened with all of his focused attention.
     The small shuffling and rattling breaths didn’t seem to be drawing any nearer so he had time to let his eyes adjust to the darkness.
     This was going to be difficult.
     Not the hardest thing he had ever done.
     Not by a long shot.
     But, still, it was going to be difficult.
     Sean’s left hand drifted to the handle of the .22 and he almost pulled it half-instinctively, but he checked that instinct.   Too loud.   Might attract more zombies.
     Zombies.   Fuck.   He hated that word, but sometimes it slipped out.
     Sean took two deep breaths and let them out slowly then he opened his eyes.
     Closing his eyes had helped give him back his night vision and he could see four or five or six figures moving around the jeep.
     At least five, possibly six.
     Sean moved forward, slowly but steadily, putting the weight of his body on the front of his feet.   As he grew closer he could smell them.   A warm dark miasma combining all of the effusions that human beings produce when left to their own devices.   Body odor and hair grease and piss and shit and blood.
     He crept up behind what he guessed was once a woman because it looked like it might have been wearing a skirt.   He quietly raised the machete over his shoulder and brought it down with a whistling motion into the back of her head.   It made a sound like smashing a pumpkin on a manhole cover, burying itself halfway down her skull.   The thing went slack against the back right corner of the jeep and he used the body sliding down to help work the machete out of her head, planting a foot in the middle of its back and leaning back to pull it the rest of the way out.
     The sound and motion attracted the attention of the thing to his right pawing at the rear window on the right side of the jeep.   It turned towards him with what could be interpreted as a look of mild curiosity if you didn’t know that the lights were on but no one was home.   Another came around the left side of the jeep raising its arms towards him, forming its fingers into claws.
     Sean swung around, swinging the machete, spraying an arc of shiny black blood droplets from the first kill into the air aiming for the neck of the young dead man with the clawed fingers lunging towards him and the machete didn’t slacken much as it went clear through the stem of the young dead man’s neck and the thing’s head toppled off sideways bouncing off the rear of the jeep before thumping to the ground.   The body, still in motion, fell towards Sean, the freshly severed stump of the neck trickling freshets of blood.   Sean side-stepped letting the dead weight hit the ground and swung the machete at the one he decided to nickname “the startled man” and swung the machete high and down into the left side of the startled man’s head, burying it deep enough diagonally that the blade ended almost cleaving the man’s nose in half.   Sean lifted his right foot and put it into the man’s mid-section, grabbing the handle of the machete with both hands and pulling it loose as he extended his leg, pushing the body away.  The body crumpled to the ground. In a jumbled pile and two forms shambled out from in front of the truck.   One was a middle-aged woman with medium-length hair and a pair of eyeglasses askew on her face.   The other an older man, but not quite elderly, with a relatively conservative haircut matted flat to his head with years of dirt and grease not that it mattered.
     Sean grabbed the handle of the machete with both hands again, resetting his grip and brought the blade down towards the woman’s neck.   The woman crouched a bit, preparing to lunge and the blade caught her across the jawline, lodging in the middle of her mouth.   Sean saw the lights go out in her eyes, but she was heavy and he still had both hands on the blade which threw his balance off.
     He lost his footing, falling backwards, still holding the handle of the machete with both hands, the dead weight of the woman’s body landing on him and the cleft in her face dripping droplets of blood into his face.
     Sean let go of the handle of the machete and grabbed the body of the woman by the shoulders of her shirt, clenching two fistfuls of weather worn fabric and twisted, rolling the woman off of him into the dirt on his right.   The man with what was once a conservative haircut crouched and launched himself at Sean.   Sean rolled to the left, almost under the jeep, and the man landed in the dirt where Sean had been half-a-second ago hands first kicking up a cloud of dust.
     Sean turned onto his right side and pushed himself up, getting his legs underneath him and used the side of the jeep to push off of to regain his feet.
     The man in the dirt was trying to push himself up and Sean stomped on the man’s right fore-arm snapping it like a dry stick.   The man tried to snap at Sean’s leg with his teeth, but Sean was too fast and stepped back, accidentally hitting the side of the jeep.
     The man tried to push himself up out of the dirt with his left arm and the shattered useless wreck of the right but was too weak to make much of a go of it.
     Sean stepped over to the body of the woman and bent over, grabbing the handle of the machete with both hands and bracing his left foot against the cup where her neck connected her head to her body and leaned back, sliding the blade out of the pocket it had carved into her face.
     Sean took a deep breath and stepped over to the man floundering futilely in the dirt.
     Sean straddled the man’s back and raised the machete over his head with both arms and brought the blade down, burying it in the center of the back of the man’s once conservative haircut splitting the head down to the base of the skull, like an ax splitting a length of firewood.
     Sean picked up his left foot and placed it on the back of the man’s neck, grinding the man’s dead face into the dry dust which was dampening with the wetness that used to be within.   He tugged the blade out with a quick clenching of his arms and upper body.
     Sean looked around and did the math.
     Five, maybe six.
     Maybe six?
     Sean heard a shuffling from the driver’s side of the jeep and then a scrabbling sound, and then a clunking sound.
     Sean shook the blood off of the machete, holding it in his right hand and whipping it into the dirt in a dark black line, and held the blade out diagonally to his right hand side as he crept around the front of the jeep, ready to swing the blade into whatever he found.
     In what would have been the shadow of the jeep if the moon had decided to show its face, a kid was scrabbling at the door handle to the jeep, and lifting it to try to open it, its fingers slipping off and the handle snapping back down with a clunk.
     Sean squinted his eyes and could see it was a boy that had been about ten years of age at one time, his face smeared with what looked like dried chocolate syrup in the darkness.
     Sean hated killing children.   He didn’t really know why because he hated kids and never really wanted any of his own because, well, because.   In his opinion, the world was already a fucked up place even before the diarrhea hit the drapes.   If anyone ever asked him and he ever stopped and thought about it he’d probably say he hated to think about all of the wasted potential when you see a dead kid staggering around with a blank expression on their face.   But that was the way of the world and if there was a God it was part of his divine plan and Sean was just an instrument in His hands.
     Sean spread his feet shoulder-length wide and dug his boots in, putting both hands on the handle of the machete, raising it behind his right shoulder like a baseball player at home plate, and he clicked twice with his mouth to get the attention of the dead boy.
    That didn’t work, so Sean said, “Hey!   Kid!” which worked, and the dead kid turned his attention away from the door handle to Sean.   The dead kid’s lips parted in a sneering snarl and he stumbled towards Sean.   Sean waited till the kid was close enough and swung the machete, cleanly cutting of the kid’s head which spun off into the air to the right and hit the dirt as the rest of the dead kid’s body fell to its knees, then fell over to the left.
     Sean dropped the machete into the dirt and grabbed the waist of his shirt, pulling it over his head and found a relatively clean patch, using it to wipe the spots of blood off of his face and then his forearms and hands.   He picked the machete up out of the dirt and used the shirt to wipe off the blade and dropped the shirt into the dirt making a mental note to clean the machete properly later.
     Sean walked around to the back of the jeep and opened up the rear hatch.   He dragged out a duffel bag and unzipped it, pulling out a fresh t-shirt and rolled it up, poking his head through the hole for his head and shrugging into it, rolling the rest of it down over his torso.
     He zipped the duffel bag back up and put it back into its designated place.
     “A place for everything and everything in its place.” his mother used to say.
     He closed the rear hatch and locked it.   He walked over to the driver’s side door and used his keys to unlock the door and climbed into the driver’s seat with a groan which ended in a sigh.
   He slid the key into the ignition and turned the key and the engine kicked to life, settling into a comfortable rumble.   Sean reached up and pressed the switch to turn on the overhead light and reached over to the seat of the passenger side and opened up a courier bag, taking out a dog-eared road atlas.   He turned to the Texas section, indicated by a sheet of yellow legal paper he used as a bookmark and traced out a route from where he was to Austin and memorized the first three turns.   He dropped the atlas onto the courier bag and reached up and turned off the interior light.
     He put the jeep in gear, turning the wheel and making a half-circle in reverse, the bodies small speed-bumps as he did his three-point turn and drove out of the mouth of the box canyon headed towards the road.
     He headed towards Austin.
     And if he didn’t find her there he’d go to Houston.
     But that’s a story for another time.

     Sean was driving north by northwest, diagonally away from the sun setting in the rearview painting the sky in indescribable tones of violet and blue.
     The shortwave radio played the end of Hank Williams singing “Nobody’s Lonesome For Me” and started playing Johnny Cash singing “I Still Miss Someone”.
     Sean sighed and reached over and turned the knob, turning the shortwave off.   He was already way too lonesome and low to have to listen to that song while thinking about her.   Next stop was Indianapolis to try to find his third choice.   Maybe the third time’s a charm.   Isn’t that what they say?