Saturday, July 4, 2015

And I'm Bound To Keep On Ridin'

Todd lay in the dark for his last night in the little turquoise RV. There was a queen size bed taking up the entire back alcove, with a narrow hallway between the mechanicals and the tiny bathroom, opening at the other end on the postage stamp kitchen, sitting and dining area. He could close a pocket door here and have a closet-sized bedroom if he wished.

He had yet to do that, though, since his tall frame barely fit the bed or the walls around it. Closing the door would only make him feel more trapped.

The ceiling back here curved up and forward, reminding him a little of the inside of a shell. His mind drifted as he stared up at it, only half seeing it.

It had taken a couple days after the loss of his parents before he'd decided to get moving, to hurry back to Minnesota and look for Eve and the children. One of the neighbors in that sprawling farmland and woodland where his parents had their little cabin had been a survivalist; he was also a Red Flu Rioter. Todd had killed him very carefully, trying to save the useful looking military jacket from bloodstains. The neighbor had been trapped in his own bomb shelter, and unfortunately, quite a mess was made.

Luckily there had been another military coat in with the supplies Todd had raided after dispatching the zombie neighbor. He also helped himself to the enormous Ford F750 and the trailer that was sturdy almost to the point of being armored. He took everything he could fit in the trailer and truck, all the food and wool blankets and first aid supplies and all the weapons and ammunition. Turned out most of the zombie's survival supplies fit pretty well in the truck and trailer, and Todd assumed that had been the point.

A day later and farther North, he'd found Marvelle Jones and Ryan Michael Crombey, sitting on her front porch, Galaxie prancing at her feet. Ryan had been her neighbor; his father had sent him to hide in her tornado shelter while he'd fought off a biter that had already destroyed Ryan's mother and sister. Later, privately, Marvie told Todd that biter had actually been Ryan's uncle, who had taken shelter with the Crombeys when the riots started.

Ryan and Marvie had stayed in the tornado shelter for days, until lack of food had sent them back into Marvie's little shack of a house. They'd taken to sitting on the porch during the brightest hours to watch for travelers in hope rescue would come.

Well, Marvie sat. Ryan free-wheeled all over the yard and porch like an overly caffeinated bird. And Todd stayed the night, then helped them get Marvie's ancient motor home running well enough to follow the F750 down the highways.

A week later, parked in some desolate little town, combing through a combination bar and gas station for supplies, Todd had noticed a wary young face watching them through a crack in a heavy bathroom door. He borrowed Galaxie to lure out the watcher and found Kirsten and her toddler brother Kolby. Marvie had scooped up the toddler and taken the children under her wing, giving them shelter in her motor home as the growing group continued their journey North.

It was with great relief when the next two survivors Todd came across were grown and healthy adults who could help defend the more vulnerable survivors he'd already gathered up. Both had simply walked up into camp on their own; Tim as evening fell about a week after Kirsten and Kolby had been found, Lewis Pontillion one morning after having been watching them since the night before. It was Lewis that had the travel trailer that he and Tim took to sleeping in, the rickety thing that Marvie pulled with her own motor home. At that point, Todd was in the habit of sleeping in the truck.

At least until he found this RV and thought how much Eve would love it. She had a powerful fondness for mid-century colors and design. “The end of the world had come to a halt, and people were so optimistic!” she said. “It is architecture of blooming and hope.”

He'd wanted her to have this piece of that optimism, but it was more important to simply find the Aubreys and make sure they were safe. She'd managed to text him a few times in the first days after the riots started, but then his phone had died, and even after he found the solar charger in the survivalist's bunker, there had been no signal. At least they'd been alive and safe last time he'd heard, so he was going to find them and bring them to the Fort and keep that little family safe.

Todd didn't remember falling asleep, but he woke up to the smell of coffee. It was hard to find sugar anymore, but coffee apparently hadn't smelled like food to the rioters. He sat up, careful not to scrape his head on the curve of the roof.

Ryan stood in the squeezed hallway, holding a cup of coffee very carefully and trying very hard and very obviously not to become un-still and drop it.

Thank you, young sir,” Todd said gratefully, and Ryan beamed at him. Todd took the cup so Ryan could go back to being Ryan, tracing the outlines of the cupboard and tapping things with some interest. The older man drank the hot, rich coffee as fortification. Young Ryan chattered and fiddled with the camper. “Hey, buddy, take this cup back to Marvie and then come help me move my stuff out of here, ok?” Todd said when he finished the cup. Ryan nodded eagerly and grabbed the cup to return it to Marvie. Todd sighed a moment later to see the boy running around the campsite trying to catch some small rodent with the cup.

“Redirect and support good behavior,” he murmured. “Never show fear. They smell fear. And donuts.” Leaning out of the RV, he caught Kirsten's attention and nodded at Ryan. The older girl ran and reminded him of where the cup belonged. Miffed, Ryan stalked back to Marvie's motor home to return the cup.

“Thanks, kid,” Todd said, when Kirsten came back to him. “Everyone up?”

“Yes, sir,” Kirsten said. “Except Kolby, but we'll let him sleep until we're on our way. Miss Marvie said to tell you she needs you when you get up. Lewis and Tim got everything squared away so we're ready to go once you have your stuff out of your camper.”

Todd handed her a battered old Jansport backpack. “This is my stuff. And I've got a box of stuff I'm keeping from the camper. Can you put this bag and the box on the dining bench into Joy Rider for me and I'll go check in with Marvie?”

Done and done!” she said smartly, clearly glad for any job that wasn't wrangling the younger children.

I'm low on my medications,” Marvie said, solemnly. “I know what I need and I know we need to keep moving, but...”

“We can't make it without you, Miss Marvie,” Todd said, affectionately. “We'll stop at the next standing pharmacy we see. Got a list?”

Of course I do, I ain't about wasting your time, young Todd.” She gave him her sweet, wide smile, her pink gums flashing in the early light. She handed him a note in neat script with three medications listed. “My blood pressure medicine, my medicine that helps with the acid from the blood pressure medicine, and my arthritis medicine.”

“Got it,” he said. “Done and done. We could use the stop to grab a lot of useful things.”

“Just leave us a good gunslinger to keep us safe while you forage, ok?”

Of course! Not that I have any doubt you could simply charm the zombies into obedience. I figure I'll take Lewis and Tim can stand guard. First decent pharmacy we see.”

Are we ready?” she asked, with that big smile.

We are always ready,” Todd said. “I'll go start up Joy Rider and off we'll go. Soon as I make sure everyone has their radio on.”

That's a big old chain pharmacy off on the left there,” Todd said into the radio, some hours later. “Still early enough in the day we can stop and grab some things, and if we park near enough, we can come back in the morning, too.”

Sounds good,” Lewis said, from the truck. “I'm thinking there's a rest stop about a mile and a half up. Good place for camp.”

ROGER,” Ryan shouted into the radio.

Got it,” Tim said a moment later, having grabbed the radio back from the boy. Tim generally drove for Marvie, who liked to sit in the dining booth and try to keep Ryan occupied with games and books. “Let's get the to the rest stop, and y'all can head back to the pharmacy.”

The rest stop was a vast, empty parking lot, an overgrown field, and a squat little building with vending machines, and two dark and cobwebbed bathrooms separated by gender. There was an old fashioned water pump outside and an RV dumping station.

Thank the Lord,” Marvie said. “It is beyond time for that.”

It all looks good around here,” Lewis said, walking back to the parked vehicles after his circuit of the rest stop. “Opened up the vending machines.”

“YES,” Ryan said, and Kirsten scooped up Kolby and they all hurried to grab snacks.

“I'll help empty the holding tanks and refill the water,” Tim said, making a bit of a face. “See you guys when you get back.”

“Keep an eye out,” Todd warned. “We'll be fast.”

“Easy peasy,” Tim said. “I'll make sure everyone's in before the light starts to fade. Don't worry about us. Worry about you guys.”

Saturday, June 27, 2015

There Is A Taste of Thyme-Sweetened Honey

I think this is what the ancients would call a score,” Todd Bolin said to himself, hands on his hips, battered military field coat crusted with crystalline snow. He could see his own shadow stretching toward the object of his quest, cast by the bright sunlight behind him through the open door of the city's utility garage. “I think I will call you Joy. Joy Rider.”

Ms Rider, Joy to her friends, sat alone in the middle of the garage, other machinery farther in the shadows or in other bays. She was bulky and powerful, taller by half again at least than Todd's own six foot four height. The plow on her front gleamed in the sunlight, beneath a light blanket of dust.

“Really? The ancients? From, like, three months ago?” Tim Walter asked, edging into the garage, keeping his eye out behind them for zombies. Some might call them biters, or rioters, or red-eyes – he called them as he saw them. “Not even gonna comment on 'Joy Rider' as a name for a municipal snow plow.”

I know, it's perfect,” Todd said. The younger man, slightly shorter but many shades darker and several measures thinner, made a sarcastic noise only half under his breath. “No, don't thank me. Thank Joy.”

Can you start her up?” Tim asked.

It's not a question I get asked often,” Todd said. “My skill is renowned. But yeah, I think Joy and I can come to a mutually beneficial agreement.”

They swept the garage with their flashlights, finding nothing. The building had been properly locked for some time before the Red Flu Riots; there were few opportunities to use a snowplow in southern Illinois in the late summer and early fall.

Tim climbed into the passenger seat and watched as Todd pretended he was going to hotwire the snowplow.  With a flourish, Todd held up the keys, which had been barely hidden beneath the seat.

"Wow," Tim said.

Todd turned the key in the ignition and the plow made several coughing, grumbling noises and started up, the engine unbearably loud in the small space. The young man instinctively locked his door.

Good call, bad neighborhood these days,” Todd said.

Can you drive it?”

Todd raised his eyebrows and stared at Tim. “Joy and I have come to a mutually beneficial arrangement,” he said firmly.

Time to get back to the others?”

We'll go slow and make sure we're not gathering attention first. Keep an eye out.” Todd pulled a small, ivory colored pendant out from beneath his shirt and kissed it, then tucked it back in and put the machine into drive.

He pictured Eve Aubrey making the face she always made when she was excited and joyful – hands clasped up beneath her beaming face, sometimes accompanied by a little dance. She was always child-like in unguarded happiness.

His hand strayed to touch his Brigit pendant beneath the double layers of tee-shirt under his sturdy coat.

They pulled the plow up just outside the tall, fenced in lot where they'd parked the motor homes. Inside the fence, a travel trailer, two motor homes, and a Ford F-750 tank of a truck hooked up to a reinforced supply trailer formed a rough circle. A sandy-haired boy no more than twelve years old came bolting pell-mell for the gate, followed quickly by a teenage girl still young enough to keep her bright red hair in stubby pigtails.

I got it, Ryan, chill out!” she hissed. “Go back to Marvie.”

“HI TODD! You're back!” Ryan shouted, grabbing the chain link with his hands with a clang. The men in the snowplow quickly looked around to make sure the boy's yelling wasn't bringing any hungry attention.

Ryan, dammit,” Tim began, rolling the window down.

Got it,” Todd said, opening the driver's door and swinging out and down to street level. “Hey, kid, good to see you again, it's been a couple hours. So, Kirsten's going to open the gate, I need you to go make sure Kolby and Galaxie are safetly contained. You know it's too big a job to ask Marvie to do it by herself, and a man's gotta look out for his people, right?”

Ryan nodded importantly and bolted back toward the circle. Kirsten gave Todd about as haggard a look as a fourteen year old could manage, clearly worn out from trying to keep Ryan and little Kolby occupied. The teenager swung the gate open while Tim, now out of the vehicle, stood watch. Todd climbed back in and pulled the plow inside the fence. The other two locked it up behind them, everyone safe inside.

Everyone” was a grand total of seven folks and one tiny dog. One Todd Bolin, traveler heading for the family he was separated from; one little old lady, Marvelle Jones and her Yorkie mix, Galaxie; one toddler, Kolby Dowling and his big sister Kirsten; one unmedicated preteen with ADHD, Ryan Michael Crombey, who made a point of introducing himself earnestly with all three of his names; two young men, both all that remained of their own folks, Tim Walter and Lewis Pentillion. All gathered up a couple at a time, except for the young men who joined the group one at a time, by Todd after he'd left his parent's farmhouse to go back to Minnesota and find – and protect – his family.

Lewis stood on top of the supply trailer, shotgun at rest over his arm. He gave the two returning men a nod, unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Though it was chilly and icy snow frosted the ground and buildings around them, Lewis wore only an AC/DC tee shirt covered by an insulated flannel shirt, grubby jeans, and cowboy boots.

Ho, the Mullet guard!” Todd saluted as he, Tim, and Kirsten passed back into the circle of recreational vehicles.

Hey, smartass,” Lewis grumbled.

That mullet has grown more majestic in the time we've been gone,” Todd said. “Any more majestic and a bald eagle's gonna land on your head.”

Fuckin' right,” Lewis said. The cigarette moved to the other side of his mouth. “All quiet here.”

I made chili,” Marvie said, poking at a kettle suspended above their campfire, set in a small hole dug into the gravel of the parking lot. The fenced in area they'd camped in for the last night had once been a storage lot of some sort; the building attached had burned some weeks ago. Enough of a wall stood yet on the fenced in side to offer enough safety that young Ryan, baby Kolby, and dainty Galaxie could be allowed some freedom to play inside the circle.

It smells heavenly,” Tim sighed. “Smells like home.”

Smells like Hoosier fucks,” Lewis said. “Smells like something that might make them wanna climb a fence and have a bowl.”

Lewis,” Marvie chided, looking over her glasses at him, small brown face disapproving. “They're not Hoosiers.” After pinning him with her most stern face, she broke into a charming, naughty grin. “They're not THAT bad. They just eat people.” She giggled, covering her mouth. Galaxie danced around at her feet, delighted by her owner's mirth.

All right, let's eat up fast and store the food for the night,” Todd said, with a nod of agreement at Lewis. “If we have it put away by the gloaming, less for the red-eyed people eaters to come looking for.”

Where's the gloaming?” Ryan asked, confused. “Is it packed away?”

For the moment, kid,” Todd said, grinning. “Just for the moment.

He just means when it starts to get dark. Gloaming is a time, not a place,” Tim said, exasperated.

Says you,” Todd said.

Boys!” Marvie said stoutly. “Let's eat, shall we? And plot out what we mean to do tomorrow? Tim, you still got that map, right?”

I do, Miss Marvelle. Of course.”

Well, set down then. Let's eat. You heard me, Ryan Micheal Crombey. Set.”

I think we'll leave my trailer behind,” Todd said, regretfully, as they pored over the map much later in Marvie's motorhome. Kirsten and Kolby were asleep on a pull out sofa against one wall and Ryan was sleeping in a full sized bunk above the driver's area.

Thank goodness,” Tim said solemnly. “It's old, hideous, and not in great shape.”

"Not all 'at different from Todd, actually," Lewis said.

Yeah,” Todd said, quietly, letting the insult pass untopped. Eve would have loved that motor home, though – turquoise, chrome and white, still fitted with the vintage turquoise appliances inside. He'd found it in a backyard as they'd driven past, him in the Ford, Marvie and the kids in her Winnebago, and Tim and Lewis in the Airstream, being pulled however improbably by the Winnebago. Todd had pulled the convoy to a halt so they could investigate, then take, the motor home. Lewis had been happy to take over driving the Ford so Todd could drive the 1964 Travco. “But the snowplow is more important. I can drive it up front, and keep the roads clear for all of us. Only gonna be more snow as we get more northerly.”

Minnefuckingsota,” Lewis grumbled.

Language,” Marvie said, absentmindedly.

Sorry, ma'am,” the rough young man said dutifully.

There's a Fort there with people in it,” Todd said. “We can be safe there. I know someone there.”

He sounded so very sure, the others had no doubts to express. And he was sure, if only because if he'd lost the little family he'd left behind the way he'd lost his parents, he was certain he'd lose his mind.

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Time To Every Purpose Under Heaven

Daria puffed her breath out, her hands pressing hard into her lower back. “Not today, baby, I ain't got our room set up right yet. You gotta stay put. Another week. You ain't supposed to be here for another week anyway.”

Baby's impatient?” Haley asked, a little wistfully. The girls were making their beds in the little bunk room that would become Haley's room when Daria went into labor and was moved into the birth room Dana was making at the northwestern end of the hospital. Haley didn't really care about having her own room; it was reassuring to wake in the night and hear Daria breathing across the room. She was wistful mostly because soon Daria would see her baby, and hold it, and be a mother. Her own due date seemed so far off in contrast some days she felt the baby might be imaginary.

Think she's gotta be a girl, she's all impatient like me,” Daria said.

That would be nice, a little girl. So cute. Like all in pink and little bows.” Haley smiled at the thought.

They brought back so many baby clothes last time,” Daria said. “I'm gonna try sorting and stacking them in the plastic bins in the storage room. You think I should do it by size and what kind of baby it is? Or should I do like a whole wardrobe for a baby, and the moms can just take a whole bin and that's their baby clothes?”

Do it by size. I'll come help. I'll organize the diapers and stuff.”

It's kind of a surprise for Ruth,” Daria said. “She was gonna do it later today when she got back from helping Ed and Ben get water. But I need to do something. What job you got today?”

I already did it. I helped Amanda and Eve clean up the bakery and move some furniture out of the barracks and down into storage until more people come.”

All while I was napping?”

Yeah. I needed something to do, too. I miss Facebook.”

Daria laughed at that; high, squeaking peals that had Haley laughing with her.

Eve and Katrin stumbled into the bathroom with the shower much later that night, covered in soot and dirt.

“I hate bakeries,” Katrin said, dramatically.

You loved Cupcake.”

I never had to clean Cupcake,” Kat said. Her mother checked their camp showers and decided the water was hot enough. The camp showers were thick black plastic bags with shower hoses on them, meant to be left in the sun to heat up. Eve had left these two in her kitchen near enough the fireplace to warm up properly and Will had brought them down to the shower only moments ago.

I have plans for the bakery.”

You have plans for everything. You used to have plans for everything AND we never had to scrub out a whole bakery,” Kat groused. “You just did the plans part in nine hundred notebooks.”

Yes, but now I am SuperEve, Mother of Multitudes, and your Glorious Leader.” Eve, half undressed in the icy bathroom, clenched her hands into fists and let her head fall back to make a good evil genius laugh.

No,” Kat said, unimpressed. She stood in the shower and Eve hooked her camp shower up over the shower rod so Katrin could get cleaned up first. Eve used a cold washrag and the bucket of clean water near the sink to try and wipe off the first layer of grime while she waited for her turn at the hot showers.

I hope you have plans for cupcakes,” Katrin muttered in the shower.

I heard that!”

I don't like it bikkiks all a time,” Val said grouchily. “I want bread you buy it from store.”

Sorry, bud. The biters ate all the bread,” Eve said sympathetically. “And most of the packets of yeast, even, or I'd make you real bread.”

My dad made real bread,” Owen said. “And he would make us cinnamon rolls with the leftover dough.”

Man, those were so good,” Aiden said. “I miss-” The older boy cut himself off, looking at his friend with a worried look.

That sounds like a very happy memory,” Eve said, gently.

It is,” Owen said, beaming. “I miss my dad but I like thinking about his cooking.”

Yeah,” Aiden said, relieved.

Samson lurched up from the spot where he'd been dozing near the kitchen fire and launched himself from the room, barking ferociously. He scrabbled his paws against the back door, growling and barking urgently.

Amanda reached him first. Eve signaled to Owen, Aiden and Katrin to stay with Val and Baby, then followed the others, taking her axe up as she passed where it rested against the kitchen threshold. Ahead of her, Amanda, Ben, Travis and Will were already armed with bows and Will's iron hoe.

Hush,” Amanda told Samson, and the dog fell immediately silent, his body tight and nearly vibrating with alertness. At Travis' raised eyebrow she said “I found that one out when we were clearing out the storage buildings.”

Ben reached around the dog and Amanda to start opening the door.

Heel,” Amanda said, and Samson took the position.

Will,” Eve said. “Go let Tammy and Haley know we have a ruckus up here, and to be alert. Quietly.” Will nodded and hurried to the front door and out toward the catwalk and the Round Tower.

Eve passed the jackets forward and they shrugged them on, then the four and Samson slipped out the back door, closing it tightly behind them. Amanda and Ben had their heavy duty flashlights out, but not on, the night was lit well enough by the moon right now and any light might actually obscure their vision and make it easier for someone or something to hide in the shadows.

Samson led them down the back stairs and then up on top of the Half Moon Battery behind the Commander's Quarters. He pointed tensely down at the trail below them.

His people crouched behind the wooden barrier and searched the shadows below them. He whined a little and scratched the flat wood platform forming the roof of the Half Moon Battery.

“There, down there,” Ben hissed in a whisper, pointing. He nocked an arrow, holding down and ready. Amanda copied his action, scooting low on her toes over to look where he was pointing. They crowded around him.

The moon lit the trails below them like a river of alabaster snow in the absence of the leaves, the bare branches black and stark against the reflected moonlight.

At first Eve couldn't tell what they were looking at, only that someone had been making tracks on the trail, a broken ripple on that river of moonlight. Then she caught motion and sucked in her breath.

A group of at least ten Red Flu rioters were scrambling through the snow below them, following the trail. The going looked tough, the ones at the front were being trampled on as the ones behind them went over them in a low, on all fours swarming movement. Slightly behind the main group, one figure walked upright, stepping in the snow they'd compacted, the chaotic trail they were leaving. They didn't seem aware of the watchers holding their breath up on the Half Moon Battery.

Who's having a party up here?” Ed called out, climbing up the steps. Travis was on him in a second, bringing him down to a crouch, holding his finger up to his mouth to silence him.

We're observing a phenomenon,” he whispered. “Do not fire that weapon.” He indicated the rifle Ed held. “We watch. Then we will go back to Eve's to discuss what to do. We're safe right now, we won't be if we get their attention.”

Scratch that,” Eve whispered back to them. “We can meet at Ed's if that's all right with Ed. Let's not have this discussion in front of the children.”

Ed nodded his agreement with an air of pleased importance. Will's head popped up high enough to see as he came up the stairs.

Get Dana and meet us at Ed's,” Travis said quietly, stopping him before he came all the way up. Will gave a disappointed nod and hurried off again.

They're out of sight,” Amanda said. “Let's go in.”

I say we hunt them down, splatter 'em against a wall,” Ed said, leaning on his fireplace mantle. The others gathered around in chairs and on a bench. Lila fussed around making sure everyone had some coffee and then sat next to Eve on the bench.

Eve gave her a smile before turning her attention back to Ed, who clearly felt that he was leading this meeting. Something about Lila reminded her of a small, yappy dog kicked too many times. Like she desperately needed some kindness, but there was a fair chance she'd bite if you offered her any.

I think we need to track them and watch them, if we can, for a bit. They were being led, did you see that?” Amanda asked.

Yea,” Ben began, but was interrupted by Ed.

By the guy at the back? That's leading?” Ed asked.

We've seen that behavior before, at Target,” Travis said. “One clear leader, who seemed able to give commands without speaking. Looked like they were on the move following someone's orders, all of them working together and not eating each other.”

Fucking weird,” Ed muttered.

Yep,” Amanda said shortly. “Which is why it would help if we can figure out what's going on with them. So we can know better how to protect ourselves from fucking feral packs of them, instead of just one at a time biters.”

Ed sighed loudly. “Yeah, ok.” The others looked to Eve.

We can start tracking them tomorrow in daylight, while they're sleeping. Find where they're holed up and observe. And from tonight we'll need an extra watch up on the Half Moon Battery. They can't attack us from back there, but we'll need to keep an eye out for them. Objections?”

Agreed,” Dana said, and the others echoed her, Ed last. “I can take this watch. We can alter the official schedule in the morning.”

I'll take after her,” Ed said. Ben volunteered for the watch after that.

That brings us to daylight,” Eve said. “We can meet at the schoolhouse after breakfast. I have to get the runts tucked in. Goodnight, folks.” She stood, stretching her back a little.

See ya in the morning,” Ben said, and she left them there, gathered in Ed's little parlor.

I need new story,” Val said grumpily, tucked into his bunk. “I tired of mouse cookies. I want Sharknado.”

No!” Katrin snapped. Both girls were tucked in with Val for the moment. Once the story was over Katrin would hurry back to the room that used to be Eve's, and her mother would carry Baby, and they'd both be tucked into the double bed in there. Then Eve would head upstairs to rest in her new bedroom, the formerly empty spare room upstairs. It was still mostly used for storage, but now Eve had a bed tucked in between the dormer windows, too.

I am going to read you Harry Potter,” Eve said. “And then you're all going to sleep and dream of being wizards.” And not, she thought, that maybe we are under siege by organized monsters.