The path from Early Spring
Author's note: This is a work in progress, not yet complete, and my first attempt at a short story. Any comments, suggestions, criticisms, etc. would be much appreciated. Please note my status as a total newbie to writing (beyond the occassional, belated thank-you card for christmas gifts recieved). Thanks!
:::Early Spring, 2021 or so. Late evenin’:::
Jesus Christ. I don’t know much ‘bout history, ‘cept my own, but I’ve got hunches. Like when shit gets bad, I mean real bad, People start turnin’ to Him or away from Him. Devout followers or devout disbelievers. I wasn’t neither one. Pop once said, jus’ fore the end of it all, "It's my firm belief that it's a mistake to hold firm belief," quotin’ some author of his he really grooved to. Somethin’-somethin’ Wilson, his name was. The author’s name, not pop’s. Pop’s name was Jacob. That don’t really matter; dunno why I’m even mentionin’ it. The past is past, I guess. Suppose I jus' wanted you to know where I stood.
Where I stand, right now, metaphysics aside, was in the woods where I grew up. Eastern Shore of what Pop said was once called Maryland. (state lines don't matter these days, 'cept when lookin' at maps or a streetsign that'd escaped bein' salvaged) By the Chesapeake Bay. Bit east of it. How’d I get here is the story so far, I guess. Guess I jus’ feel like writin’ it all down, puttin’ it to paper while I’ve managed to find a space to squat, to hide away and put my thoughts down. I mean whatever: no one’ll ever read this crap. I dunno if most of the world can even read these days- literature don’t seem to matter much when measured ‘gainst the more-immediate needs of the present- but I wanna anyway. Just to leave somethin’, somewhere, for someone.
It all started with that Flu. Pop- Jacob- he quoted somethin’ else I remember. He loved quotin’. "Man’s greatest enemy ain’t bombs or bullets, its influenza." Or somethin’ like that. Forget who Pop was stealin’ it from. He loved quotin’, always knew who said whatever. I think he maybe never had an opinion of his own that someone else ain’t already said better’n him. But whatever- he, and whoever he was quotin’, was spot-on. When he was a kid everyone’d thought doomsday’d be some big manmade disaster- nukes on Manhattan an’ Paris, the icecaps meltin’ an’ floodin’ the planet, every baby born epileptic from the shit our forefathers dumped in the seas. Turns out, I guess God did us in just fine without our help.
They had a name for it. Not H1N1 or Bird Flu or whatever. I’d heard ‘bout them from Pop. He said they was nothin’ but scare tactics used by the Nations that existed then. Tryin’ to scare peeps into buyin’ more bottled water or whatever. Prob’ly lobbyin’ from Coca-Cola led to those freak-outs that didn’t amount to nothin’. Pop said that- dunno if it was a quote or not. Anyway, ancient history again. Don’ even know how I remember that… But then came some other one, some different flu. It wiped us. Big time, like a silent nuclear war. They, Capital-T They, had some name for it. I don’t remember it; I was prob’ly thirteen when it came down on us, all at once, like a storm fresh outta some clear day. But it did us in good. No lobbyist needed t’tell us to stock up on canned goods this time, to buy seed fast and learn t’garden faster even. I dunno the numbers dead, but it was most of us. It started in the schools, hospitals and nursin’ homes and just spilled out from there, travellin’ on every cough and sneeze and unwashed hand. The News stopped reportin’ pretty soon in. Everythin’ shut down pretty quick, really. Learn for yourselves, fend for you an’ yours wit’ every pointy thing y’can find or shoot.
Pop’d seen it comin’, barely. We were livin’ in Long-Fuckin’-Island of all places. AKA: the worst place in the world to be stuck when shippin’ systems shut down an’ everyone realized there’d be only a few days of ready-to-microwave macaroni an’ bagged lettuce left on the island. Where there was enough cash for people to ignore learnin’ like, say, how to grow your own food. We barely made it upstate: I was young then, but I remember them tryin’ to smash through our windows on the Cross-Bronx, Pop fightin’ ‘em off with a metal flashlight size of a forearm. I kicked an’ bit an’ clawed an’ we got out somehow. The Volvo was beaten t’shit, but whatever. There wouldn’t be no more gas soon anyway. Pop would sneak away with a plastic tube and a gas container in the middle of the night, disgusted at the necessity of taking a stranger’s lifeline to freedom, possibly their last tank of fuel.
The road here wasn’t cut an’ dry, course. Not like the old days, where a long drive south on the Jersey Turnpike resulted in no greater tragedy than unscheduled bathroom breaks, road rage, and fast food. Fast food would have been a blessing- we were livin’ off of canned goods and dried meats and fruits at this point. We’d find bodies scattered along the way and pop, a wetted scarf wrapped around his nose and mouth to hopefully ward off disease and corpse-stink, would stop the car to strip them of anything useful. Roadblocks along the way were the true hazard- like Robin Hood crossing the river into Sherwood Forest, dozens of rag-tag Little John’s would demand their tolls to pass. Some were reasonable- desperate and wanting only food or potable water. Some were not- I’d never shot a man since, and I hope never to again: they were driven by desperation, and it never occurred to them to just ask for help: we’d have given what we could’ve spare them.
We passed a final roadblock some twenty miles from our destination, this one well-armed and more than prepared for two travel and battle weary men who’d driven non-stop through adversity and tragedy over two days and four-hundred miles. We had to part with almost everything. They seemed to take sympathy on us, allowing us to take with us whatever we could carry on our backs. We walked away from enthusiastic yells as the brigands captured a running vehicle with half tank of gas and enough food and first aid to provide their community for at least several weeks. Pop said not to worry, that we were alive, and that the forests he led us to would provide more than the contents of that car ever would, except the antibiotics, of course. We stayed off the main roads then, travelling mostly through the woods and underbrush. Pop conserved our foodstuff while we walked towards our destination, and I realized my education had begun. Grasses and plants, insects and the underbark of particular trees provided us with food enough, complimented with an occasional catfish speared from the Wicomico River. In spite of the new, terrible world I was living in, I found myself closer than ever to my father, and in the way he was calmly dealing with what the world placed before him. “Fear is the mind killer,” he told me. When the mind is paralyzed, you're as good as dead.
We arrived at our destination two days later. We made it back here, somewhere ‘round what used to be called Salisbury. All the old chicken an’ corn processin’ plants had been squatted by then and the inhabitants never let us get close ‘nuff t’beg charity before taking shots at us, but Pop knew a spot. Near the old airstrip, a big chunk of forest that somehow didn’ get swallowed-up by Imminent Domain B.S., a few dozen acres of oak an’ squirrel an’ rabbit an’ hidin’ spots. He knew lots ‘bout lots. One of those people that seemed to always know what t’do in the situation’s requirin’ practicality.
He an’ I dug us an underground shelter- half-underground, really- lookin’ like a Hobbit-home from Tolkien. Pop liked Tolkien, too. So do I. We survived that first outbreak, unlike the other ninety-percent of the world that’d died from infection or been beaten to death tryin’ to find or steal food or shelter or defend it or whatever. I suppose these things happen. I ain’t known no other way.
Pop caught the sickness towards the end of the whole thing- prob’ly from one of the bird’s we’d caught an’ eaten. They was carryin’ it, just like the pigs an’ the humans. Seemed like everythin’ was a carrier then. This was, I dunno, twelve years ago. Give or take. He went into the woods to die, said he couldn’t be ‘round me. I understood when he couldn’t hug me bye. He’d gotten a cough, bad one, and set out for a couple nights to be sure before comin’ back to our spot, our Hobbit-hole, yellin’ from a way’s away, wit’ a chest full of phlegm, what the score was. I figured he’d jus’ want me to shoot him on the spot. Dyin’ from the flu in the woods ain’t a way to go: old house dogs, descendants of ‘em anyway, still wander feral in the night. Bad place t’be wit’ nothin’ but a slingshot an’ lungs full of shit, waitin’ t’go. We still had a few shells left for the rifle, for seein’ a deer or a mean dog or somethin’ where it’d justify the waste of one, but he didn’ ask an’ I didn’ need to ask why not. Might be a deer or a mean dog comin’ my way soon; might need that shell. Pop, Jacob, he was good to me. Fuck.
:::A day later:::
I guess this is shapin’ up to be my journal. Seems t’be helpin’ me keep my thoughts in words an’ not just vague feelin’s. Pop kept journals. I read them after he died, ‘bout a dozen years ‘go. Had a few years of his life in ‘em. He’d escaped the roadblocks with ‘em, along wit’ some food, couple books, that monster fuckin’ flashlight that got up all gored-up. I got why he’d writte ‘em, after death caught him: years of experimentin’ in the garden, huntin’ an’ skinnin’ and butcherin’, constructin’, all of it kept in detail in those pages. He did it for me, t’help my skinny ass get by once he finally got sick. He’d managed to save a few of them from the looters that caught us along the way.
I think he’d know it’d be comin’ for him- the Flu, I mean. He was pushin’ fifty then, an’ it was the early an’ the old that were catchin’ the brunt of it. Shit, I’m pretty much livin’ in a world habituated by twenty to thirty year-olds- the babies and the parents caught the brunt, like I said. He knew the score an’ prob’ly thought he’d beat the game, by his rules ‘least. Lasted a couple years, established this little hole of ours, got the garden movin’ and taught me every bit. How to chop an’ grow an’ dig an’ repair an’ shoot an’, most important of all, to hide. Whole revolution started up, world-wide, after the shit hit the fan. Those that wanted t’reestablish what we’d had, nations an’ all that, fightin’ ‘gainst those that’d blamed those very nations in the first place. We had some neighbors, little community or somethin’, separated by miles wit’ only a few here an’ there knowin’ exactly where the other was hidin’ out. It’s been fight to live for years now, everyone still learnin’ how to get by in a world where y’gotta, like, y’know, make your own food. The Nationals (that’s what they call ‘emselves) were the Devout. They fought for Christ, to establish order in His name or some such nonsense. I really don’t know much. Just bits an’ pieces. The others, they don’t even take a name, but Pop called ‘em Anarchists. "No Gods, No Masters," he’d said, soundin’ like he was quotin’ again, with a hint of admiration in his voice. Anyway, after the war for food started dyin’ down, after people learned how to hunt an’ gather like they’d sucked it desperately, deeply from their DNA, the War for a New World Order began. Or an absence thereof, in the case of those that fought under the Black Flag and refused to name themselves as a whole; they had names, their little cells of tight comrades. Names like World Liberation Front and Down! and a hundred-hundred others. The other side, much more tightly organized (predictably), called themselves the White Cross. Their armies fought the guerrillas of the Black Flaggers and neither side had started backing down yet, s’far as I could tell from my little cubby on the Eastern Shore of what used to be Maryland.
But that’s enough catchin’ up: if you’re readin’ this you already know all this shit.
So where’re we at now? I guess we’re at me, stuck in a few dozen acres of forest a few miles from an airstrip non-functionin’ due to lack of fuckin’ fuel. Funny- Pop used to tell me about the end of oil bein’ on the horizon when I was a teeny-bopper, durin’ the whole Iraq-Iran-Afghanistan B.S. that just sorta disappeared once everyone started gettin’ sick. There’s still oil, I’d guess, jus’ ain’t no one wit’ the time to organize its refinement into gasoline. But whatever; who knows. Back to me. I’ve spent somethin’ like twelve years here, slingshottin’ fuckin’ squirrels or anythin’ else wit’ a bit of food on ‘em, growin’ corn an’ beans an’ squash (Pop said the Native people here used to grow like that. Bean t’fix nitrogen in the soil, corn for the beans to grow up along, an’ squash to cover the ground keepin’ weeds at bay). I’m still young, but I know shit. I’ve seen an’ faced monsters both human an’ canine an’ come through it proud of my scars. I ain’t dyin’ here. I’m findin’ somethin’. Anythin’ to make lives better’n mine is now.
Pop an’ I both had our packs, but his was nicer by a fair bit. Some old military backpack the US’d hand out in old wars to old soldiers. Like Pop. He’d kept his, said it’d been through hell an’ back an’ nothin’ could happen to it that couldn’t be sewed or duct-taped back together ‘gain. Could toss the fucker outta a train. Supposedly he had, two or three times.
I was lookin’ for the Black Flags. I knew how our Leaders had responded to the Sickness that spread the surface of the Earth: underground, well-stocked bunkers, probably outfitted with everythin’ from movies to books to fuckin’ concubines to carry on their lineage. Assholes. Pop taught me all ‘bout that. Said at one point they’d be the first motherfuckers up against the wall when they failed to back their assurances to the people. Along wit’ all the drug companies that, we all heard, had immunizations for this whole thing. He was wrong about that: they all got ‘way scott-clean. That really pissed him off. Anyway, whatever. Forgettin’ that these scumfucks hadn’t probably had nothin’ t’do with the outbreak (did they? See how my head works now?), they were still the shits that assured us that calm was the only solution to the New World Crisis, like there was some weird gap between one world crisis and the next, like they weren’t just dominos ploppin’ down against each other with the occasional nudge from someone with money and influence to veer ‘em off on a different course, towards some "New Crisis."
I’ve gotten tired of sittin’ here. Tendin’ the crops. Snarin’ rabbits and birds and squirrels. Wakin’ up ten times every night because I hear the patter of feet outside. The Hobbit-Hole is hidden enough, damn-well in fact, thanks to Pop’s efforts, but desperates still roam: these days you need to be part of an army, or at least a rag-tag group of revolutionaries (from what I hear ‘bout the Black Flaggers), to stand a chance of a good night’s sleep. Y’need fuckin’ comrades, hear? And I'd die to the feral dogs before joining the damned Devout.
That’s all I want. One night of unbroken sleep where I don’t gotta keep my knife at my belt an’ my hand on my rifle all night. One fuckin’ night. Pop was like I am now. Fuck, I’d sleep sound while he was here an’ only occasionally wake up to see him crouched at the slit in the window with the tip of a rifle peekin’ out into the night. An’ then I’d pass right out: Pop was reliable. Pop had me covered. Pop was a warrior, an’ I guess I am now, too. But now it’s jus’ me an’ the corn an’ beans an’ the snares for whatever I can get stuck in ‘em. What’ve I gotta defend that I can’t fix up some elsewhere, any-fuckin’-where on this planet?
Pop went through this at my age, he told me. Took a motorcycle an’ a buddy an’ travelled from here, what used to be called Maryland, down-down-down to what used to be called Chile. Long ride. I didn’ never get many stories ‘bout it outta him- he was reserved and quiet, I guess. He told me ‘bout havin’ crashed one night in a farmer’s field an’ woken up with a barrel of buckshot fired into the ground next to his ear- said Panama’d lost its appeal after that. Anyway, he’d made it down an’ back, done exactly what he’d set to do, fore meetin’ Mom. I don’t remember her. Just forget it, okay? Maybe I’ll write ‘bout her later. Fuckin’ forget it.
Jesus, I’m scribblin’ in this book like there’s a chance in hell of anyone else ever readin’ it. I guess I just don’t feel like talkin’ ‘bout Mom right now. Forget ‘about it for now, I write to myself an’ prob’ly no one else.
:::Next afternoon, today I leave the Hobbit-Home:::
I started talkin’ ‘bout the pack. Military-issue, like I said. Pain in the ass to get into when y’needed to but it could survive dynamite wit' only a bit of stitchin’ up required. Pop said he’d killed a man wit’ it in the War. I brought along everythin I needed, figurin’ I’d get rid of excess as I went ‘long.
Revolver, .38 caliber. That went into my belt. Bowie Knife, ‘bout a eight-inch monster of a blade with those serrations towards the hilt that’ll never dull ‘less ya do somethin’ really gnarly to ‘em. Kept that at my belt, too. A .22 with a leather strap slung across my shoulder.
I’ve got jus’ enough ammo to load both the guns one an’ a half times. Gotta slingshot (I’m a deadly-fuckin’ aim- ya gotta be: can’t be wastin’ bullets on rabbits or birds) an’ a pocket of nice, round rocks. That’s the arsenal. Wish I’d a good bow, one of those composites that’ll let ya kill quietly and from a distance, but ya deal wit’ what ya got. I gotta change of clothes an’ a mess of other necessities: compass, an old US map, a flashlight that’ll power itself when ya shake it (so no batteries, see?), sewin’ kit. Y’know, the sorta things you’d bring when leavin’ an insecure home in familiar territory for an uncertain future hopefully intersectin’ wit’ a relatively-unnamed group of revolutionaries an’ ‘bout a thousand desperate folks takin’ any stranger for enemy ‘tween here an’ there.. Also a journal, this one, which I hesitate t’fuckin’ bring on ‘count of it weighin’ more’n it may be worth- assumin’ I’m the only one to ever read it. I’m gamblin’ on it bein’ worth a crap to someone, rather than jus’ slowin’ me down when I run an’ getting’ me killed.
:::A week later
I’ve made it to the edge of the Chesapeake. It was slow goin’, stickin’ mainly to the backroads and frequently travellin’ through the forests alongside them. One boy with a backpack an’ two firearms looked like somethin’ you’d find at the end of a rainbow to the desperate. I set up camp within sight of the Bay Bridge, and from here I could see guards and trucks blockin’ my way across. That didn’ make sense to me: who were they guardin’ the bridge from? Their uniforms were solid black with red armbands and I could see the polish of their boots from three-hundred yards away. They toted some serious guns: the men had pistols holstered at their sides and machine guns over their shoulders. One of the trucks had a heavy gun mounted on its roof, and the soldier manning it never left his station.
I fixed my camp silently (Pop and I were quiet as mice when we hunted) and the air was warm enough, and I was paranoid enough, to go without a fire for the night. I settled down on a mat of moss, leaning against my pack, hidden from the soldiers’ sight by a fallen tree. I snacked on grubs as the sun set and tried to figure out how to make my way west over the bridge. Stealing a boat was one option, but anyone who could manage its upkeep probably kept a close eye on it. I didn’t relish the thought of making my way along the underside of the bridge, and besides, anyone with the manpower to guard the bridge as they had would probably be keeping an eye underneath it as well. I pulled a few pine boughs over me after tonguing the remnants of my dinner from between my teeth and fell asleep with the dilemma weighing on me.
It was around midnight when the gunfire started. I had the foresight not to leap to my feet- some of those shots came from real close by. The guards were returning fire haphazardly in my direction in response to periodic shots, a single bullet at a time that never came from quite the same place. I knew, from the fact that I couldn’t pinpoint the sniper’s location or movement, that he was talented an’ knew his way through this part of the forest. I just kept my head low, just barely peeking out over my shelter to watch the rifleman’s progress. He’d started with the truck’s machine gunner and took down one foot soldier with every bullet, choosing those targets furthest away- the ones retreating- and picking his shots with care, dropping those closest last.
Finally, fourteen shots and thirteen dead soldiers later, my entrance to the bridge looked clear. I inched my way up to a ready crouch, the strap of my backpack in one hand and my revolver in the other.
“You can come out now,” a voice whispered from a few feet behind me,"Slowly, please." That took me by suprise. I crawked from beneath my apparently-inadaquate concealment (I was shocked that my new threat had seen me, recognized his talent immediately). The revolver I'd slept with in hand at my side, the side turned away from him, I turned cautiously to face him.
"You won't be needing that. Our battle is only with the Devout, not the few remaining Freemen of the land." Whether he saw my weapon or simply intuited its presence I couldn't say, but again I was struck by his bearing: having known only one or two ex-soldiers in my life, I nonetheless recognized instantly the counttenance of one in this man. I turned my armed-side towards him, taking my finger from the trigger and clicking the safety on. He nodded in satisfaction. We stood a moment, examining each other in the moonlight. I registered the weight he placed on the word 'Freeman.' He stood only a few inches taller than myself, clad in deer-skin leather that had been intentionally stained in browns and greens for camouflage. His face was scarred, richly tanned and leathered from the sun, like my own, but it was clear that he couldn't be more than a year or two older than me. His demeaner was calm and poised at the same time: he seemed to be totally aware of his surroundings, attentive to the bridge and the possibility that I may have allies nearby, all-the-while studying me with a penetrating depth. I didn't fear him, saw no reason to so far, yet he was not a man that made me want to so much as twitch the revolver in my hand.
"You are a Freeman?" he asked, looking deeply for my understanding of his words.
"I serve myself, those that deserve my aid, and those that freely offer their aid to me. Nothing more can I offer. No man places shackles on me willingly, an' he'd have to kill me before doin' so, if I had a choice in the matter." Pop's words comin' outta me. Guess I inheritated his knack for a good quote.
The camoflauged man nodded once, approvingly, relaxing his gun. He issued a shrill whistle, sounding like nothin' less than a bird in the night. Instantly, silently we were surrounded by men, women and several boys in their early teens. During the moments following the gun fight they had rushed to the edge of the bridge and stripped the fallen soldiers of their guns and ammunition. The man glanced at one of the women, and she nodded slightly. I started to speak but he raised a finger to his lips, then pointed towards the bridge.
A massive fireball erupted from the artillary vehicles, each one bursting into flame at the same moment. The bridge creaked, rocked, and finally cracked, a twenty-foot section smashing down into the water below. I hadn't even seen them plant the explosives as strip the bodies.
"We've no need for vehicles or bridges, yet the Devout rely on them. This will slow them tremendously. Resources for rebuilding are scarce, even to them." He smiled grimly. "Don't worry- you have safe passage across, and company, should you wish it."
"Damned if I even know who I'm talkin' to," I said, and immediately regretted my tone of voice among a group of well-armed, trained guerrillas.
Again the grim smile returned and he seemed not only to take no offense, but to admire the young man's response. "My name is Jacob. These are my companions. We have no leaders, and issue no orders- only suggestions to be taken on the merit of their worth or ignored for their inadaquacy. I suggest you join us, with your own best interest in my mind. You have the look of one who has spent much time away from the world's happenings- likely you found yourself a well-placed hole-in-the-wall to spend the last several years- and there is much you should need to know of what has transpired over those years. We recognize the value of having one so capable in the forest among us, whether briefly or otherwise. And you," he glanced at the gaping, flaming hole in the bridge, "have no way across without our help. This appears a bargin for both sides, in which we benefit equally. As any exchange should be."
"My name is Jared," I said, extending his hand to the guerrilla who did not claim to lead, yet spoke for the group surrounding him. "I'm needin' a few minutes to consider your offer."
Jacob, the militant who bore his father's name, nodded approvingly at Jared's response. Without needing orders, his band spread out and blended into the trees silently. Jared lost sight of them almost immediately. "You may sleep soundly tonight, Jared. Our company demands of each of its members an equal share of the work required to survive. For this evening, at least until you make your decision, you are one of us. What can you offer?"
"Wake me when ya need me for a watch. Wake me when you need to hunt, forage or scout. Don't expect me to be killin' another person 'less they shoot at me first." A final nod of sincere approval from Jacob.
:::The next morning
Near dawn, Jacob approached me as I slept, waking me without saying a word, obviously making more noise than he had to in order to avoid startling me. My hand instinctively went to my firearm. He smiled. I felt like I had passed several tests with his group in the last twelve hours.
"Mornin'," I said. He nodded.
"We head up the coast today. There we will find safe passage across the bay. Our people wait for us there to hear of the results of last night's mission. I cannot, however, allow you to know of their whereabouts. I'm inclined to trust your ability, your self-reliance, and common sense, but I do not know where your allegiance lay. That, you shall have to prove to the council. They will decide among themselves, myself included, whether or not you may stay with us or be sent on your way."
"I ain't pledged nothin' to anythin' except myself so far," I said. "Honestly, I've no fuckin' idea what's goin' on here."