Monday, November 3, 2014

Jokers To The Right

Eve had a bound journal in front of her as she stood at the teacher's desk in the schoolhouse in the Fort. Amanda stood near her, the other residents of the Fort sat in the benches facing her. A fire muttered and sparked in the fireplace behind her, lending a decent amount of warmth to the room, and lanterns set on the window sills gave plenty of light despite the weight of the winter darkness outside.

The children were in the back, and Val was amusing Baby by having her settled on his lap in the rocking chair Amanda had set up for him and sharing a picture book together. The other children were valiantly trying to be grown up enough to be at the meeting.

So we have a number of new people, so let's all stand one by one and introduce ourselves,” Eve said. “Obviously I am Eve Aubrey. I'm over in the Commander's house.”

Ed Bender sneered again, and Lila looked around nervously to see if anyone noticed. She saw only the short Native midwife even glance at them.

Eve pointed to Amanda, and the young woman introduced herself, then pointed at Travis, who was sitting closest to them, and the introductions went around the room in a fairly orderly fashion. Val and Baby both ignored their cues, so Eve introduced them.

Ok, so I'll act as the meeting manager, almost like this is one big IEP,” Eve said, and chuckled, then looked abashed when no one else but Amanda seemed to get the joke. “An IEP is an educational plan for special needs kids,” she explained, lamely. Ben smiled encouragingly. “So, we are going to have a meeting like this every third night for now,” she said. “And all the adults need to be here -”

So you're not gonna have all these noisy kids here next time?” Ed said loudly.

Ben turned to shoot him a dirty glance. “Do not interrupt our Glorious Leader.”

I don't see how she-” Ed began, and Amanda slammed a yardstick down on the teacher's desk. Eve jumped back, startled, and Ed fell silent.

In the interest of orderliness, Eve is managing this meeting,” Travis said, mildly. “She's been here longest, and Gary appointed her the leader.”

Eve cleared her throat. “Ok. I need to stop saying ok. First, Travis and Ben have compiled a list of jobs that need to be done daily, and I've made a calender for the next three days on the blackboard behind me here. When we get everyone assigned, I'll draw it all up properly and hang it up on this bulletin board over there between the windows. There's twelve main jobs, some of which need several people. And then there's patrolling. There's ten of us who could probably patrol if we include Will and Haley.”

Will winced to be considered the same ability level as the slightly younger pregnant girl.

Um!” Ben's hand shot up.

Ben?” Eve said, patiently, pointing to him to acknowledge his need to speak.

He stood up. “I'm going to suggest we keep Dana and Haley off the patrol list. Haley's going to need more rest right now and Dana is our medic. We need her alert if someone is injured.”

I'm a midwife, actually,” Dana said, standing up.

Travis turned to her. “We need you to stay seated and raise your hand,” he said, firmly. She sat down quickly and raised her hand.

Eve gestured to Ben to sit back down, then pointed at Dana. “Dana.”

Dana stood up again. “Actually, I am a midwife, not necessarily a medic.”

This is ridiculous!” Ed snapped, and Travis turned to him.

It's not your turn.”

Ed muttered under his breath.

Closest we got right now,” Eve said. “And you do know your stuff. You keep patching the young people up.”

Ben's hand shot up again, and he wiggled a little in his spot. Amanda glared at him, but it didn't slow him down any. Dana glanced at Ben, up at Eve, gave a short nod of agreement, and sat back down.

Eve turned back to Ben, pointed at him, and said his name. He shot up. “That's what I mean. She's the midwife, she's got two pregnant girls to take care of, and we need her alert enough to also patch us all up. So I think those two should be exempt from the patrol.” He sat back down, finally relaxed. Behind him Haley's hand shot up.


The teenager gave Ben a mutinous look as she stood. “I can patrol.” She sat down and crossed her arms over the small mound of her belly.

Dana raised her hand again.


She would be fine for about two more months yet, I think,” she said. “I wouldn't want her up on the Round Tower or anything – your balance changes as your pregnancy progresses. But she could patrol other places.”

Ok,” Eve said. “So here's the tentative plan. We'll do patrols of three hours each. First patrol will always include Haley, and she'll sit up on the catwalk. Whoever is drawn with her will take the Round Tower. After three hours the next two will come on, and we'll draw groups, and one of each group will take the catwalk and the other the Round Tower. If that sounds fair, raise your hand.”

Wait, who gets to vote?” Ed asked loudly. Dana, Ben, and Travis turned to him. “I know it's not my turn,” he snapped. “But everyone's gonna be raising their hand to vote in a moment and no one would have seen I was trying to ask a question.”

It's fine,” Eve said. “Sixteen and up.”

Yes!” Will said under his breath.

Aw...” Kat muttered.

Daria raised her hand tentatively. Eve recognized her and Daria levered herself awkwardly to her feet, on hand supporting her enormous belly.

Miss Eve, I'm fifteen.”

That's too bad,” Ed said, still seated. “Fifteen and pregnant. Bad enough. She don't need to vote.”

Dana whipped around to bare her teeth at Ed. “Everything we discuss affects her and her baby.”

Lila piped up. “No, Ed's right, she's too young and she clearly makes bad choices anyway.”

The people on the benches began to argue amongst themselves until Amanda shouted. “ENOUGH.”

Thank you,” Eve said to Amanda. “Do we need to do a secret ballot? What age should be the cut off?” The others nodded to each other, murmuring assent. Eve passed out paper and pencils, and Amanda collected the votes in a basket, adding her own before she collected the others.

Eve tallied the votes on the chalk board, showing each ballot to the group.

That's one each for the cut off age being twenty one, six, eighteen, eleven, and ten. That's two for fifteen. That's six for sixteen and two abstaining, Baby and Val.”

Wait, the retard gets a vote?” Ed interrupted. Eve turned to look at him, her face red.

Yeah, you sure do, Ed,” Amanda said, raising her voice. Ed stood up, his face turning nearly as red as Eve's.

Travis and Ben stood up and turned to face him down.

You are here by Eve's choice,” Travis said, his voice again so calm Amanda knew he was furious. “I'd suggest you use respectful language when talking about her children.”

Lila stood up beside Ed. “He didn't mean anything bad by it. Ed is good to the retarded kids. He donates in the jar at the corner store all the time and give his quarters to-”

EVERYBODY SIT DOWN,” Eve thundered. Travis and Ben waited until Ed and Lila obeyed before doing the same.

You,” Eve said, pointing at Ed. “My son is not 'the retard”. His name is Valiant James Aubrey and you may call him Val, but you will not again refer to him the way you just did.”

Fucking sensitive,” Ed muttered. Lila laughed nervously.

This is a safe place and we all need to live here in cooperation and peace,” Eve snarled. “The voting age is sixteen. Now everyone who thinks the patrol plan is fair RAISE YOUR DOGGONE HANDS. Thank you. Passed. Now on to the rest of the agenda.” She took a deep breath and visibly released all of her pent up upset.

Hate dat guy,” Val whispered to Baby.

Book!” Baby yelled.

Val carefully kissed Baby's head, and opened her book to share with her.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Cain's Blood

This is the main bathroom we use,” Ben told Tammy, giving her the tour. She'd arrived just before dawn and had been waiting patiently just outside the front gate, knocking every now and then. Ben had found her, since Travis was nowhere to be found, not even already at Eve's mooching breakfast in that chaotic, welcoming kitchen. He'd figured out who she was pretty quickly; when she went by another name, she'd been mentioned enough by Gary, though Ben had never met her.

So now Ben was showing her around. She'd stowed her things in one of the barrack rooms, the one closest to the little Fort store.

This is the grey water barrel. We flush the toilet from it and we fill it from the shower water or wash water, et cetera. There's the shower, it's usable, we fill the camp shower with the hand pump. You can heat the camp shower up near your fire or in the window so it gets sun. Just... watch it if you put it near the fire. Eve's melted two now.”

Got it,” Tammy said. “Don't melt the camp showers. Don't bathe in the grey water. Don't flush the clean water.”

Well, that was simpler. I should make a sign,” Ben said, and grinned at Tammy. “Ok, come back to the commissary and I'll get you a camp shower and some food. Eve generally feeds people, too, but then you have to give her some of your food to refill her pantry.”

Eve was here first?”

No, a man named Joe Raymond was here first. He was killed. Not by Eve,” Ben added hastily. “Eve is our Glorious Leader.”

She's... kind of quiet for that, isn't she?”

She didn't assign herself that name. Gary appointed her. Travis, Amanda and I are her right hands. So she's like an octopus of some sort.”

I'm not trying to take her job,” Tammy said, her smoker's voice wry. “Just usually the Mad Max leaders tend to be way louder and way crazier.”

It's ok. Gary trusted her, we trusted Gary, so she's the boss until she says she's not.”

Trusted?” Tammy said, sharply.

Ben's usually grinning face fell. “Yeah. Gary's here, but he's passed.”

What do you mean, here?”

Gary lay in a large wooden box, far bigger than a regular coffin, on the bottom floor of the Hexagonal Tower, several floors below ground level for the Fort. There were arrow-slit windows here, as the Fort was built along a cliff, and this tower clung to the side of that cliff. Gary was tucked between two of the slits.

He's in here,” Ben said, unnecessarily. Tammy took a lighter out of her narrow-strapped purse and lit the candles set over the top of the box, solemnly.

Why...” she gestured at the whole setup when she finished.

Ground's frozen. Can't put him in the river – we don't know where the body will end up and we need the water. Didn't want to take him out of the Fort and risk him being eaten or us being attacked. So Travis and Eve – who has a creepy knowledge of body handling, by the way – figured this out. Gary's wrapped in a white sheet, then we put him in a barrel in the fetal position. The smell was not so nice by then. We filled the barrel with lime – Eve says it may preserve the body more than dissolving it. As I said, creepy. But he's in the lime, then we wrapped the barrel in plastic bags and duct tape, several times over, then surrounded the barrel in this box with more lime. Come spring we'll bury the barrel out by the chapel.”

Across that little bridge outside the Fort?”


Tammy lit a cigarette. Ben instinctively waved his hand at the smoke and she smirked a little. “These things will kill ya,” she said. “Don't pick the habit up.” She took a long drag.

No worries,” Ben said. Tammy looked around, noted the materials for more grave boxes stacked along a back wall. In carefully organized piles were wood, barrels, and bags of lime. Small coffins were stacked beside the barrels, Tammy could see at a glance they were too small to have fit tall, stocky Gary. There was a wood box filled with other materials as well, Tammy could see some plastic sheeting sticking up a little, and a long table in front of all of it. She glanced back at Ben.

You're prepared,” she said.

We're working on it. We weren't set up to handle dead,” he said, and she could see the pull of grief for Gary in his eyes. “All right, let's go to the commissary and see if Travis is around so we can get you some supplies.”

Travis ran to the front gate, yanking his jacket on as he went. Some idiot on the other side was blaring an air horn. He whipped the door open, Amanda on his heels, and glared out at the noise-making duo on the other side. Amanda had her pistol leveled at them even as Travis had the door opening.

The man on the other side of the door raised his hands, taking his finger off the air horn's trigger. The petite woman behind him followed his example. Both were completely obscured by their snowmobile gear, the visors of their helmets down and covering their faces.

Travis reached through the door and jerked them both inside, closing and locking the front gate as quickly as he could. “Who are you?” he asked, his voice so calm that Amanda felt a little shiver at the back of her neck. He was furious, she could tell.

Who the FUCK are you and your fucking air horns in the middle of the fucking zombie apocalypse, is what he means,” Amanda said, sharply. She lowered her pistol, but didn't tuck it away.

The man slowly lowered his hands, putting his air horn into the front pocket of his snowmobile suit, half sticking out. He slid up his visor, and the woman did the same. With a big pleasant smile that nonetheless caused a gut feeling of revulsion for Amanda, the man stuck his left hand out to Travis.

Edmund Bender. But you can call me Ed. And this here is Lila, my wife.” Lila raised a hand in greeting. She looked more than a little terrified.

Travis Green, and this is Amanda Johnson.” He shook Ed's hand briskly. Amanda settled her pistol into the holster and held her hand out to shake. Ed only seemed to notice her outstretched hand when Travis pointedly looked at it. Amanda made certain to shake Lila's hand as well.

First rule if you want to stay here,” Amanda said firmly to the couple, “no air horns anywhere inside or near the entrance of the Fort. The biters are drawn to noise.”

Oh, come on, they're all frozen by now,” Ed said, with a big blustery smile, and Amanda fiercely resisted the urge to punch him in his red, jerk face. She glanced at Travis and saw that he did not appear to be reacting at all.

They are not, for some reason,” Travis said. “But we can talk about that more at the evening meeting. Come on, I'll take you to meet Eve.”

You got this?” Amanda said, quietly, to Travis.

His face softened as he looked at her. “I got this.”

Ok,” she said. “I'm gonna go work on the school some more, then.” She leaned up the barest amount and kissed him on the mouth. He was still grinning from ear to ear when he turned back to Benders.

This way.”

The Benders settled in to the officer's quarters nearest Eve's house, the same quarters the trio had used when they'd first arrived. Travis found Ben waiting for him in the quartermaster's quarters when he led the Benders down that way for supplies.

One of those, eh,” Ed said derisively half beneath his breath when he saw Tammy, before Tammy and Ben stood and introductions could be made.

Lila hoped miserably that no one had heard Ed. She hoped they could stay here at least a little while without trouble, but considering the looks Ed had given Eve and his comment - “Nice place you took for yourself here” - to the younger woman as he'd looked around Eve's house, she had a sick feeling things were going to get uncomfortable and it wasn't going to take as long as it usually did.

Oh, Ed,” she whispered, and he gave her a sharp warning glare.

Travis went to the quartermaster's desk and pulled out his notebooks. “I'll get some supplies together for you guys and bring them over. Ben, wanna do the tour?”

I can do that,” Ben said. “Again. Ben, the tour MASTER. Ben was a ranger, manly and alone in the wild, rugged and unshaven, but now Ben is a tour guide.”

Dammit, Ben,” Travis began.

This way, fair maiden and Ed,” Ben said, dramatically. He led them out of the quartermaster's quarters, closing the door behind them with a flourish.

He was never rugged and manly,” Travis said, pained. “Or alone.”

I wasn't thinking he was,” Tammy said, with a half smile. “So Ben tells me you are the Master of Stuff.”

I'm sort of the de facto quartermaster, yes,” Travis said.

I have some ideas about how to help,” Tammy said. “And we can put the store to use.”

Travis perked up visibly, and Tammy grinned.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Muskrat Love

Travis never slept well, so he usually got up, walked around the walls of the Fort looking for problems, checked the front gate by going up into the walkway over it, then went to to the Round Tower and used his binoculars to survey as far as he could see. Some nights he would stay up on the tower for a few hours star-gazing, until he was so cold he had to go in and get warm near the remnants of the evening fire in his and Ben's quarters.

Tonight, for the first time, Amanda was up on the Round Tower. He hadn't seen her from the ground because she'd made herself a bed from her camping mats and was laying there, fully bundled up and covered with more blankets, watching the sky in peace.

Oh, I'm sorry,” he said reflexively. “I didn't mean to interrupt.”

She sat up and scooted over some, patting the mat next to her. “Come on. I brought cocoa.” She picked up a thermos in her mittened hand to show him.

I have binoculars,” he said. “If you didn't bring yours.” He sat carefully next to her, close enough to be on the mat with her, far enough so he would only be in contact if she chose it. She gave him a look through her lashes, decidedly un-Amanda-like, then reached around him to tuck the blankets up around his waist and hers, and tucked her body closer to his, snugging up against his side with her head against his shoulder.

He stiffened in surprise, holding his breath, then very carefully managed his breathing to make sure he sounded normal, and forced himself to relax.

It's cold,” she offered in explanation, and he nodded. That made sense to him. He didn't want her to get cold, so he slipped his arm around her to share his heat. She smiled up at him and he felt all of his insides clench and turn slippery. In the moonlight her eyes were pale as the moon itself; he knew they were blue as a cold spring morning in the daylight but in all their years of friendship he had never actually seen her this close in the darkness.

He blushed, and held his tongue, knowing no matter what he tried to say right now he'd sound like an idiot. He yanked his hat off with his free hand to try to cool his head off.

Cocoa?” she asked sweetly, and he realized she was needling him, and wasn't sure about what.

He gave the most nonchalant nod he could manage and saw her suppress a grin. She poured their drinks in silence, handing him his tin cup filled with steaming hot cocoa without a word.

He took a quick drink and swallowed too hastily, making a strange, strangled noise. “Oh,” he gasped when he finished getting the sip down. “That's a lot of vodka in there.”

She grinned sideways up at him. “Maybe I'm trying to get you drunk.”

He stared at her, stuck, trying to figure out if she was teasing, in which case he should laugh in some easy fashion, or if she was serious, in which case laughing in her face would probably be insulting.

Travis settled for a short nod, his red, unruly curls sharply waving.

How long have you been up here?” he asked, after a couple more sips, after his body relaxed a little more, allowing her to melt a little closer against him. She wasn't a small woman; she was tall and strong and was more likely to be able to drop Travis than he could probably drop her, but she fit very sweetly against him.  While she was apparently paying no attention to him, staring up at the sky and sipping her cocoa despite how close she was, he allowed himself to simply breathe in and enjoy her closeness.

Maybe an hour.”

You probably shouldn't be up here drinking in the cold alone,” he said, worried.

She put her mittened hand on his knee and he fell silent again.

I'm not alone,” she said, reasonably. “I was waiting for you.”

Ben-” he began, meaning to explain if she'd expected both of them, Ben rarely woke up with him.

I know,” she said, patting his knee, and let her hand lay there.

Amanda,” he said, his voice sounding both stern and nervous to his own ear. He took a moment to make sure he had the next words right.

Yes?” she asked, sipping, staring up at him through her lashes again, her face suspiciously innocent, her eyes bright and amused. He wasn't usually good at discerning intent in these moments but he felt sure she wasn't laughing at him, regardless of what was amusing her about him.

Do you want... are you... do you... want a cuddle?” he finally said, veering off from what he'd actually intended to ask. “Human beings require touch,” he added hastily in case she thought he didn't understand why she'd want a cuddle.

She set her cup very carefully down next to her thermos then turned her attention back to him. “A cuddle?” she asked, and this time he could tell she was laughing.

I mean...” he began, but couldn't get his words together.

Travis, are you attracted to me?” she asked. He felt his whole body move in an instinctive motion that felt like a bowstring being released.

No,” he said before he could consider.

She leaned back to look up at him better, pulling her hand off of his knee as if she hadn't expected that answer. He quickly grabbed her hand, released it in case she didn't want him to hold her hand, then took it again. This time she gripped his hand, perhaps to keep him from releasing it again.

He met her eyes, deciding to toss himself right over some sort of cliff that he could feel as clearly as if it were a physical reality. “I am not just attracted to you,” he said, quickly, before he could frighten himself off with fears of losing her friendship. This was Amanda, after all, fiercely loyal to her friends – she might not feel the same way, but she wouldn't tear her friendship away from him.

Ok,” she said, clearly a little confused. “Wait, are you attracted to me AND someone else, or are you MORE than attracted to me?”

I love you, he thought. I love you more than language works to discuss. I love you like there are atoms of loving you that I need to breathe in to live. “I am not attracted to someone else,” he said.

Ok,” she said again. She relaxed against him again. “So you like-like me,” she said, grinning. “You big dork.”

He grinned back in relief. He thanked the universe he hadn't somehow catastrophically screwed this all up. She wriggled around a little until she was straddling him, facing him. Her mittened hands, cold and wet in spots from the snow, framed his face and she smiled at him from her new vantage point. He blushed again, harder, knowing she could feel his body's response to her. “You wanna go out some time?” she whispered.

He gave a short bark of laughter. “No.” She gave a gasp of faux-outrage and he grabbed her hands to hold her in place. “It's cold out,” he said in explanation.

Are you saying you want to go in?” she said, primly, her eyes wicked. His mouth opened but he couldn't make words work, again. She leaned forward and kissed him very gently, her lips soft and cold against his, her mouth warm and tasting of cocoa and vodka. He wrapped his arms around her, half in fear he was dreaming.

She broke their kiss to take a shaking breath. “Oh, Travis, you are in such trouble,” she whispered.

Sure,” he said, agreeing to whatever trouble she had for him.

With that she dumped a handful of icy snow down his back and stood when he froze in shock. She ran over to the stairs of the tower and turned back, her face alive with the trouble-making she loved so much, waiting.

Well, ya big lug, your move,” she said, her smile flashing in the darkness. He was on his feet and after her in the space of a heartbeat, her squeal of joy streaming behind them as he chased her down the stairs.

He caught her at the base of the tower and swung her into his arms, silencing her whoop of laughter with another kiss. This time she wrapped her arms around him as tightly as he'd held her. He didn't dare speak, in case one of them woke up and left the other bereft in this space.

So take me to bed, and we'll talk over breakfast,” she said.

I don't want to talk,” he said, before he could censor himself. “I mean, I suck at talking.”

Shhh, that's talking,” she said.

He took her hand and hurried to do as she'd asked.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Eye Of The Tiger

Ruth bandaged Travis again. Haley, who was interested in becoming a nurse, watched closely and assisted by handing Ruth supplies as she asked for them. “Try not to tick off more zombie raccoons,” Ruth said, dryly. “And then try not to keep reopening your wounds because you have to stack everything.”

My other arrangement wasn't really efficient for supplies, and we're going out again today to Target to bring more in.” Travis held his arm up to look at his new bandage, covering several previously ragged but now partly healed tears where the rioter raccoons had bitten him when the trio had been busily killing off the little monsters trying to get to Gary.

Bring feminine hygiene products. And anything you can get from the pharmacy. And diapers and baby supplies – but especially cloth diapers if they have them. Just because disposables are going to be a disposal issue.”

Anything else you might need for the... ah, new arrivals we'll be expecting? And when, is the thing, I guess.”

Bassinets and baby clothes would be nice,” Haley said softly. “Maybe a baby bathtub and lotion and baby soap.”

Actually, I have a list, if you think it will help,” Ruth said.

I like lists,” Travis said solemnly. “Amanda has one too, since she's setting up the schoolhouse.”

All right. Go get 'em, kid. And remember, no new wounds, no opening these, no zombie raccoons.”

Val was in the kitchen, listening to Robbie Rocket, while helping Eve hang washed socks on a wooden rack in front of the fireplace.  She hadn't had much opportunity to do much washing of laundry, but kept socks, underthings, and long johns as clean as possible by washing them in the same tubs she used to bath the children. Now with more children, there were socks and underpants to wash every day, especially for Baby.

Baby kept trying to climb onto Eve's lap, then growing bored with the laundry and trying to climb into the plastic tub to have a play. Eve would set her down and shoo her away from the laundry, and five minutes later she'd be back, climbing up Eve's legs onto her lap.

Finally, clear as a bell, she said “I need dat!” while reaching for the water. Eve stopped what she was doing, startled. These were the first words Baby had spoken in the nearly a week the children had been here. She set Baby down next to the tub and let the child slosh her arms up past the elbows into the laundry.

That was very good, using your words,” she told the toddler.

Baby is smart,” Val said, approvingly.

You are smart, Baby,” Eve agreed.

Baby have a name?” Val asked.

Eve watched the toddler for a moment. “What's your name, Baby?” she asked, hopefully, but the toddler just shrieked with laughter and slammed her small hands down into the laundry.

She does have a name,” Eve told Val. “But it might be a while before she tells us, and she might not remember it. She's very little still.”

Not memba name?” Val said, incredulous. “She have a new name.”

Let's give her a couple more weeks,” Eve said. “Then we can talk about giving her a new name.”

The front door cracked open and Kat trundled into the kitchen, snow slumping off of her wet winter things as she walked. On the trip to Target after they'd plowed their way over there a couple days ago, the scavengers had brought home winter clothes for the Aubreys and other survivors and a stockpile set aside for anyone who might yet come. “Katrin Aubrey!” Eve scolded. “You clean that up. And hang your stuff up to dry.”

Kat groaned but moved to obey.

Kat need new name too,” Val said, a devil's sparkle in his eye. “Kat is now Puppy.”

I don't know why you can't just behave, Val,” Eve said, hiding an amused look.

Robbie Rocket say I not have to.”

Travis, Will, Amanda and Ben swept the Target and Home Depot, looking for rioters, every time they came back in case the strange group of creatures had returned.

They must have found new digs,” Ben said, meeting the others at the front of Target. “So what's our plan today?”

Travis handed Will Ruth's list. “This is stuff Ruth needs for the new mothers,” he said. “Get it all, if you can.”

Olive oil?” Will said, snickering. “We gonna have fresh cooked baby for dinner next week?”

Amanda gave him a flick on the back of his head. “Laugh it up, Bones. Now hop to.” She turned to Travis. “Commander Amanda reporting for duty, SIR.”

Commander?” Ben snorted behind her. “Bit of a reach, isn't it?”

Come help me wrestle some wood stoves up into the back of the truck. Safer heat, more convenient and more efficient for heating and cooking.  Home Depot has several. And we'll grab any wood we find-” Travis paused to give Ben a stern look, barely quelling the other's laughter. “Will, meet us there to gather up burning fuel when you're done with the list. Put your things into the minivan.”

Private Parts reporting for duty, SIR,” Ben said, mimicking Amanda's salute.

You are a pain in my ass,” Travis told him.

I know.”

You're in the back, digging for any more food back there. In the storage area. And foam pads, and bedding.”

Affirmative, General Nonsense,” Ben said, and dodged Amanda's kick.

Tammy waited until the sun was near its zenith and flipped on the radio. Robbie Rocket was playing what he considered ass-kickers, starting with Eye Of the Tiger. Good enough boogie music, and it was time to boogie. She hadn't heard from Gary in at least 4 days, though sometimes time was a little weirder now.

She pulled on tall boots, flat-soled but up over the knee, and adjusted her warm clothing. Before she went out, she checked herself out in the mirror. Even these days, it was good to make sure a body was ready to be seen.

There was nothing she could do about her Adam's apple, nor the lines on her neck and face. In truth, she was not pretty; her face showed decades of hard living. She hadn't been much of a drinker or user, but she'd been known to throw the first punch when a situation called for it. Despite the rugged face and the previously broken nose, her cat's eye eyeliner was perfect, her lip beyond reproach.

I am a bad ass bitch,” she told the mirror, sliding her sunglasses on. In the time before, she'd been too worried of nothing she could name anymore to live in the clothes, the makeup, the life she had wanted to choose; but she'd taken the opportunity of a new world being born through smoke and blood to choose the life without fear she wished she had chosen long ago.

Last thing she heard from Gary was that Fort Snelling had survivors. He'd intended to tell her to come once he'd gotten there. She could only assume something had happened to him and she was on her own.

This is going to suck some balls,” she told the mirror-woman whose eyes were hidden behind the slick black lenses. No more time to waste, though.

Ed and Lila Bender finished packing their snowmobiles. Lila had a sledge attached to her snowmobile stacked with their own supplies; a change of clothes and boot liners, food, warm bedding, standard camping things. Ed had released Champ the terrier a week ago to go find his own fortune; Lila believed he had done exactly as he had said because believing Ed had probably broken Champ's neck was too painful.

He's just trying to look out for us, she told herself. He's trying to take care of me.

Keep up with me, Lila,” he warned, standing astride his machine, holding his helmet in his hands. “I can't be coming back for you all the time. I won't be able to do much if you get too far behind and get swamped with zombies.”

Are we going to check on George?” she asked, worried about her grown son from a marriage before her marriage to Ed.

I told you, no. I'll go back out and check after we get you to the Fort safely. There's people there – there's smoke from the chimneys.”

All right, Ed,” she said, keeping her voice reasonable and demure.

He rolled his eyes. She was so dumb, she read in his face. “I'm not gonna keep explaining this, honey, daylight's a-wasting.” He put his helmet on and strapped it in place. Lila did the same, starting up her machine just after he started his.

I will follow him, she heard in her head, as she had the first night she'd met him, when she knew she would do exactly that. I will follow him wherever he may go.

Into hell itself, she thought, and ignored the idea that hell was where she'd lived since not too long after that first night. To the Fort, and to safety, today.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Up Where We Belong

It's gonna be ok, the kids are on their way, buddy,” Gary said to Benjamin the Asshole Cat. Benjamin was flattened against the back of his cat carrier on the floor beside Gary's slumping body. Benjamin did not answer; he seemed to understand his silence was important. The radio slid out of Gary's hand and bumped down on the floor. Probably best to have it off anyway right now. Travis knew where he was.

He'd found his way into an unlocked apartment, but it was locked now. He could hear scrabbling on the other side of the door and the kids weren't going to be able to come until morning. For now he had Benjamin and himself covered against the cold with many blankets from inside the apartment; inside the nest of blankets that covered him and insulated Benjamin he was snapping packets of hand warmers now and then to lend more heat.

There was some blood, but he'd managed to bandage himself mostly with towels and other things. His leg was almost certainly broken, but that wasn't the worst injury. At this moment, though, he felt no real pain; he felt even a little euphoric and distant from himself.

They don't even have a snowmobile,” he whispered regretfully to Benjamin. Benjamin hissed a little and Gary leaned over more to look at his cat, still bunched up at the back of his carrier, occasionally hissing toward the apartment door.

They can't get in. Can't do anything about the deadbolt,” he said, trying to reassure Benjamin, but Benjamin wasn't very savvy about deadbolts either. “And we're up high enough they can't climb in windows. And this place is locked up tight now. Even the windows.”

Without the snowstorm obscuring the sky, the moon was bright enough to light this apartment's living room. The previous occupants had probably not been here for long; there was still a box labeled “Shit For Kitch” on the counter just visible inside the kitchen door. The art that appeared to be earmarked for the walls was standing, framed, against the walls instead. Their taste ran to 80s style drawings of women eating popsicles, not Gary's personal choice.

I do like popsicles, though,” he told Benjamin. Benjamin growled at the apartment door. On the other side of the door, the scratching continued, and their opponents hissed back. “I'm just glad it's not a dropped ceiling. That's a design mistake.”

Benjamin growled again.

Just my opinion, you fart. I'm not an expert or anything. That was Jan's job.”

Gary didn't know if he was cold, or if what he was feeling was the wetness of more blood. He didn't want to check yet. Instead he popped another hand warmer and stuffed it down by his feet, bumping his broken leg and sending shrapneled blasts of pain along his nerves.

Fuck this,” he gasped. “And fuck hanging ceilings, you know what, Benjamin, just fuck, fuck, fuck them.”

In the back of his mind he could hear his mother's voice from decades ago, long before he'd ever met the kids since his mother died when was barely a man himself. “Gary Stuart, do you think you've sworn enough?”

I meant fudge, Ma.”

He couldn't tell at first if the enraged howl was from Benjamin or the opponents on the other side of the door.

And fudge them too. Ridiculous. Swear to god, ridiculous. Think I'm pretty hurt, Ma. And one of those fuck- I mean – fudging bas... bakers bit me. Fucking fudgers.”

He could feel his mother's affection and disapproval across time and for a moment, in his mind's eye, he could see her as clearly as if she was across the breakfast table again. It had been years since he'd clearly seen her face, and longer still since her cheeks had been full and pink like now. Or then. Whatever time he was seeing her now.

You'd have liked Jan,” he told her. “Right, Benjamin? Jan? You'd have liked him too. But he passed so fast, not even a decade after Ma. I mean she'd have liked Jan if he was a girl. Or something.”

Benjamin settled down, coming to the front of the cat carrier to be nearer Gary, and Gary realized the hissing and scrabbling and howling on the other side of the door had stopped.

Gave up or went to bed, you think?”

He dug in his backpack to count how many hand warmers he had left. He lost count, started over, dropped them, picked them up, lost count; so many times he couldn't even keep count of how many counts he'd done.

Enough,” he said, and knew his voice was slurred a bit. “Enough for the night. We'll be warm,” he assured Benjamin. “One more right now.”

He woke up with a start. The scrabbling at the door was back; he had no idea how long he'd dozed for. His head felt muzzy and strange and weirdly clear of distractions or the world itself.

Benjamin. Benji, you here?”

He heard Benjamin meow at him, felt the rough tongue brushing his fingers and realized he'd stuck his fingers in through the grate of the cat carrier.

You are a good boy and I love you,” Gary said. He wasn't sure if his eyes were open or not. “Don't let anyone tell you different, you little asshole. You are perfect.”

He felt around, his vision clearing or his eyes opening – he wasn't certain, and popped on another hand warmer for his feet and one for beneath Benjamin's cage, tucking another up against his own chest.

Shouldn't sleep. Bleeding, still, I think.”

He dreamed of Jan. Jan died nearly twenty years ago now, and while Gary had found occasional companionship, he'd never wanted to replace Jan.

Shoulda done more right by you,” he told Jan over breakfast in their sunlit breakfast nook. Their apartment was so tiny at that time there was no dining room. Jan answered, his face kind, but Gary could not catch what he was saying. He remembered this day. This was the first day after they learned Jan was sick. This was the first day they'd woken up knowing Jan would die.

They were in the living room now. This room ran the width of the entire apartment and had windows on two sides. Jan had painted a Japanese-influenced version of a Fellowship of the Ring book cover on the wall without windows, they had a chrome and plush sofa beneath the mural.

Ben thinks this couch is hilarious. He grins every time he sees this picture of us.” And the living room shifted just a little, so that it was that picture, Gary and Jan in shorts and tube socks, running shoes and ringer shirts, mustaches and long hair, arms along the back of the couch, beers in hand. Jan had just begun to become so terribly thin and tired in that picture, but they were happy that day. Jan wore neon green sunglasses that reminded Gary of miniblinds. “I told the kids you were my room mate. I did, at first.”

He could feel himself cry even in the dream.

You deserved better from me.”

He could feel Jan squeezing his hand, and was struck by the realness of that presence; Jan's warmth, Jan's scent, his closeness, his touch.

That little apartment was tucked, in this dream, into his mother's house. The breakfast nook jutted out over the back yard. His mother was here somewhere, sorting through her fabric scraps to make the patterned little bears she made from her leftover quilting fabrics.

It was a sweet, sweet memory of a thing that never was, his happiest grown up home and his childhood haven all together.

He heard Ben calling his name.

Just bring it in and put it on the table,” he said about the grocery shopping Ben was holding in his mind.

He's hurt really bad,” Amanda said. “Gary, wake up.”

There's a lot of blood,” Ben said.

Let's get him bandaged.”

Look in the bag,” Gary said drowsily.

Ben and Amanda looked at each other.

For the bandages.”

Gary, you don't have any bandages in your bag,” Ben said.

With the groceries. You brought them in.” Gary woke up as he finished the sentence. “Ben! Amanda! Where's Travis?”

He's throwing those raccoons outside the building in case any of their buddies come looking for you,” Amanda said, briskly. She was wrapping more towels around the tear in his side, strapping them down with ace bandages from this apartment's bathroom.


He's right here, Gary, we've got him.” Ben held up the carrier with his namesake cat inside.

Broke my leg in the crash. Hit something under the snow, a wire or something. It dragged my skis. Threw me. Got cut up.”

Yeah, I can see that,” Amanda said. She was bracing his leg with pieces of broken chair and wrapping it, too. He could tell it probably hurt.

The raccoons – they bite you?” Ben asked.

Couple times. Think I killed one slamming the door on it.”

Yeah, there's a half eaten one out there. Freakin' Red Flu raccoons, I never thought...” Ben said, trailing off.

Travis came in then, and he and Amanda bundled Gary up in the blankets tightly and lifted him between them. Ben walked in front of them carrying Benjamin's carrier in one hand and an axe in the other.

Ben,” Gary said as they lifted him in to a minivan sitting in the snowless wake of a snowplow. Ben set Benjamin beside him and leaned in.

I'm here, Gary.”

Amanda nodded to Ben, indicating he could ride in the back with Gary. They'd removed the seats and placed a mattress back here for him; Ruth had instructed them to make sure his head was higher than his feet, so part of the mattress was propped up on another rolled up mattress. Amanda took the driver's seat in the van while Travis headed back to the plow to make sure their path back was clear.

Ben,” Gary said. “I loved Jan.”

I know you did. I know you do,” Ben said. He squeezed Gary's hand and for a moment, Gary was reminded of Jan, in the dream, doing the same.

Jan would have loved you kids.”

Gary's eyes drifted shut, his face exhausted.

Ruth, Eve, and Will were waiting for them when they returned to the Fort. Travis parked their new snowplow, gathered from the transit center near the Fort, in the parking lot with the minivan, the truck, and Ruth's car. Eve stayed to cover the vehicles with the tarps and to grab Benjamin's carrier to bring him into the Fort.

The rest of them somberly carried Gary's body down to rest, for the moment, in the bottom of the South Battery.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

All Along The Watchtower

Amanda and the young men shoveled quickly, despite the ongoing storm. They had plenty of cold weather gear and bundled up well, working in the early morning dark to get to Eve's house before breakfast. Ben took a detour past the hospital to dig Ruth and her charges out.

I hate shoveling in a storm,” Amanda shouted at Travis.

It'll be worse later if we don't.”

She muttered something he couldn't hear and kicked the snowbank they were building.

They reached Eve's door just as Katrin and Will came bumbling sleepily out, shovels in hand. The kids were in mismatched winter things – layers of wool socks and large boots from the mercantile within the fort, wool coats and cloaks, layers of modern clothes and re-enactor clothes, military looking hats tugged down on their heads and itchy looking mittens on their hands. They and Amanda quickly cleared a path to the bathroom, and then up through the porches toward the hospital again, making a connected route with Ben's trail, so the women could reach the bathrooms too. They all trundled back to Eve's, except Ben, who stopped and checked in with Ruth, since her quarters were now lit with lanterns.

“We're fine,” Ruth said, pulling Ben in and shutting the door behind him to keep the cold air from whipping in through the partially open door. “Girls aren't even awake yet, and we have food you gave us. But swing by after breakfast when you need more help shoveling, Haley and I can both help.”

Want me to check the fireplaces?” Ben asked. “And do you have wood?”

I can light a fire,” Ruth said, staring up at Ben, her dark face bland. She wore her hair short and it was spiked on one side from sleep; she was wearing Grumpy Bear pajamas. “And we have enough wood for today.” Ben felt a bit intimidated and wasn't sure why.

“It's no trouble, ma'am,” he said.

Have at it, then. I'll take care of this one, but the girls' fire, the main room, and the end room could be done. If you don't need me today, Daria and I will probably see if we can't make the first room at the far end into a birthing room.”

“If you need anything, we'll do what we can. We can haul furniture, scrub, anything you need.”

“I get it, kid,” she said, with a wry smile. “I'll keep you posted. You're like an eager puppy, you know that?”

It's not news,” he agreed with affability that only underscored her own statement.

At Eve's house, crowded into the kitchen with a horde of children and a toddler, the adults and semi-adults worked out a plan for the day. Eve passed around pancakes, syrup, and apple cinnamon tea; she was nearly out of herbal tea.

Food's a problem,” she said. “Or will be, soon. And the storm's not over. We'll need the entrances kept clear and the top of the Round Tower, at least. And furniture will need shifting around here, and sounds like at the hospital too.”

Food, furniture, weather,” Travis agreed. “And safety. I'm afraid all the work we did with the razor wire is useless unless we bare the wire again. I suspect there's a plow in one of the outbuildings, though, which will help with that.”

And wood. We'll need wood soon,” Ben said.

I brought my snowshoes,” Amanda said. “I'll search the outbuildings. Maybe we'll get lucky and there's a chainsaw or something so we can cut some trees down if we have to.”

There's plows up near the train station,” Ben said. “Remember? We saw them coming in past the Mall last year.”

I remember,” Amanda said, pulling a face. “You nerded out like a toddler. No offense,” she added to Baby.

Ben thought of slugging her arm, but decided not to, since so many children were watching.

Owen and Aiden are old enough to help with the shoveling here in the fort,” Eve said. “And they have winter clothes.”

“I shoveled my parents' walk all the time,” Aiden said solemnly. The boy, thin, freckled, his dark hair permanently mussed, seemed terribly serious most of the time. Eve had yet to hear him laugh, though to be fair it had only been a few hours since they'd arrived. She wiped Baby's mouth off with a hanky and let the wriggling toddler down, Baby's white blonde fuzzy hair swaying enthusiastically with her every movement. Baby bolted off for the parlor and Samson followed her directly. Val looked up from his second plate of pancakes, looked after the toddler and the dog, then pulled himself upright with his walker and followed them out of the kitchen.

“All right,” Ben said, cheerfully. “The boys, Kat, and Will are in charge of shoveling. Travis and I will hump furniture around -” he stopped, interrupted by Kat's burst of laughter. He groaned. “Ok, Travis and I will schlepp furniture around as needed by Mother Eve and Medic Ruth. And Amanda will check out the outbuildings. After that, Will, Amanda, Travis and I will clear space around the Fort and clear the razor wire.”

Samson will go with you,” Owen told Amanda, with a big gab-toothed smile. “He stays close by. He can help you stay safe. He can smell the zombies.”

Thank you, Owen,” Amanda said. “And I just realized, we're gonna need a school. After we are done clearing snow, we'll have to have a look at the schoolhouse.”

If there's a plow, we should see if we can make a path to the spring. We'll need water,” Will said. “Joe has a hand pump we can use.”

We'll need to do that soon, yes. And if we can get to the big plows by the train station, we can plow a path to Home Depot again,” Travis said.

I'll look after Val and Baby, move furniture around, and start dinner so we can all have hot food. And I'll go check in with Ruth and see what she needs that I can do,” Eve said.

There's canned dog food down in the commissary. Not much, but enough to get Samson through a few days,” Travis said, nodding toward the plate near the hearth where Samson had wolfed down his pancakes. “If you want, we can head down there now and you can see what you need in the supplies I have organized down there.”

You'll need to go with him so he can update his lists,” Ben said. “Travis will become physically ill if he doesn't have an updated list of what we have and what we need.”

Or if you move his arranged supplies around,” Amanda said, affectionately.

Or if question his system and then don't pay attention to his reasons,” Ben said.

Or if you do pay attention but try to talk him out of some of them,” Amanda said.

He's a control freak, we're saying,” Ben said.

Come on, guys,” Travis said, sighing at last. “You guys want to organize this stuff?”

Ignore them,” Eve said, laughing. “Bundle up, kids. Kat, Will, help Aiden and Owen get ready, then go shovel – all the paths, and routes around the Fort, to the Round Tower, down to storage, to the woodpiles, you get it. I'll check on Baby and Val, and we'll go do supplies, ok, Travis?”

Amanda stood up too, and whistled for Samson, who came running back to the kitchen. “Oh, you're a good boy, you are!” she said, ruffling his fur along his head and ruff. “Wanna come look for a plow with Aunty Amanda?” Samson wagged his tail at her tone.

Kat cleared her throat and stood. “Come on, guys, the thing.” The group gathered in a circle, Owen and Aiden joining curiously. “Go team Aubrey!” she said happily, and they all pushed their fists together.

Go team Aubrey!”

After an early dinner, the Fort plowed and shoveled out, the snow dwindling to single flakes occasionally sputtering down, furniture moved and other chores tended to, the Aubreys and the new children and Ben gathered in the Aubrey's parlor. Travis had gone off to patrol the Fort and gather any further supplies he could find to drag down to the commissary. Amanda, exhausted, had checked in with The Preggers and their minder, as she called them, her little school set up as best she could, and then gone off to her quarters to sleep.

The battery-powered lanterns were in full force; Ben had given the Aubreys a solar battery charger that Eve kept in the parlor window, facing south as best she could arrange it, since the windows there faced west. Owen was building with Lincoln Logs with Val and Baby, who was chewing a Lincoln Log happily and knocking down as many as she managed to stack. Will, Aiden and Kat were playing go fish at the little table tucked under the window on the northern side of the room. Robbie Rocket was on the radio on the mantle, playing 60s music interspersed with updates about the Cities and the storm and the survivors. Eve and Ben were playing cribbage on a little parlor table between their two chairs and singing along with the radio.

It's so peaceful tonight I almost can't believe it's the end of the world,” Eve said to Ben, raising an eyebrow.

Never fear,” Ben said, making a show of adjusting his belted jeans. “I'll protect you, pretty lady.” His spaghetti Western accent was exaggerated and bad.

Ben,” she said softly, smiling up at him through her lashes.

Yes, ma'am,” he said, feeling like he should blush without being sure if he was or not.

I am old enough to be your mother,” she said sternly, her hazel eyes sharp. “And immune to the charms of wayward youths.”

Aw, I wasn't serious,” he muttered.

Just making sure,” she said sweetly, laying her cards down and moving her pegs. “Amanda is your own age,” she observed, rearranging the cards in her hand.

Yeah,” he said, smiling. “But I got a hunch -”

Just a hunch?” Eve asked, eyebrow quirking. “Travis?”


She doesn't have that hunch yet,” Eve said. “Travis is going to need to make his feelings clear, or she's never going to realize he's interested.”

I know!” Ben said. “I'm trying to figure out something.”

They were interrupted by an urgent knock on the door.

I hope that's not more children,” Ben said, standing with Eve as they heard the person come in and stomp the snow off just inside Eve's door.

Oh, lord,” Eve said.

They met Travis at the door to the parlor.

Gary's in trouble,” Travis said, deeply upset and in a hurry. “We need to go help him right now. He's hurt and halfway here, trapped inside an apartment building at 46th and Minnehaha. He just managed to get me on the radio. He's bleeding and he has Benjamin with him. We gotta go help him.”