By Mark McCann
June felt weak.
It’d been two days beneath the sink, drinking rainwater and eating the seeds she’d been collecting in her pocket. She’d managed to piss through a crack in the woodwork, so as not to be soiled amidst her muscle ache and general discomfort. She was restless, anxious, hungry and wary – of her reality. Another day or two and she wouldn’t have the energy to move. She’d die here, starved and claustrophobic beneath a sink in the burbs. Or what was left of them. While a blight convoy of bastards laughed and fucked and killed just on the other side of the wood panelling.
They’d showed up as a blip of smoke on the horizon while she was pulling apart cupboards and storage bolters in a section of neighbourhood she hadn’t foraged. She’d felt cocky she could get done in time that they wouldn’t see her. In and out – back to her people in the state park five miles south. They still had freshwater stream and some game. She came into town mostly for parts they could use and sometimes they’d be treated to canned goods or a preppers larder. Fat Mike had a van down by the stream with all his tools in it, and they’d made do with tents and basic huts at the start of it. When the cities had been too dangerous – a death sentence in fact. Now they had tree dwellings, a water pump and even some basic plumbing for a commode.
The town had emptied in the wake of riots that didn’t seem to want to end. Those left either had nothing to lose or everything to lose. Business owners and their families entrenched – all the work they’d put in, in some cases over decades, they were reluctant to abandon. It was like a bank account. They’d accrued too much interest. The feral’s were them with fuck all to lose, no way out and nowhere to go. They made for a power grab. Some base communist manifesto was in there somewhere, but they felt owed, and they came for what was there’s.
Now you had three tribes running the town, always fighting over the same shit. The country on a whole must’a looked something like this, not that we’d know. June was one’a them had to stay. Her folks died young. Granny raised her. She couldn’t make the move, so stayed with. Old girl died anyway. Quick, mercifully. When the national guard pulled back and the pharmacies along with any other viable business in the town were gutted, she couldn’t get her pills. She went in her sleep thank god. Not the way I seen some go. Bad ways that you read about in history books and thought was beyond us.
Them diabolic’s had come down from north where the fighting was worst – dregs tired of the fight. Wanting to take something for themselves before there weren’t fuck all left. The mid-west had plenty of space. Small towns and easy pickings if you hit the right spot and weren’t dealing with localised militias. June had seen them coming one way but hadn’t spotted scouts coming in from the other. The far side of the suburb she was rummaging. A’fore she knew it, they were pulled up outside. She made a run for an adjacent building, got as far as the side door and saw the main convoy pulling in.
A chain of vicious bastards in trucks and on bikes. Survivalists. Soldiers. Motherfuckers. Leftovers from the before. They lined up to piss in the house June had slid inside, and afore she knew it they were coming inside. She squeezed beneath a sink in a utility closet and had been there two days coming on three. They cased the houses on her row and the properties opposite, and two big motherfuckers with a dog had set up camp right outside where she was.
The dog had barked and whinnied and wouldn’t shut the fuck up. She was sure they was onto her, but then it caught the scent of feral’s streest over. Shouting and hollering. Gun fire. She heard the dying slurs of one’a the two (she presumed) feral’s or snarlies as we locals sometimes call em. Some garbled shit before they slit him. All laughing. Big men and some women. Not many. Just a few, and they were rough bitches to boot. The had to be to survive in this shit.
They skinned the snarlies and barbequed them. She heard the dog gnawing the bones metres away from her cupboard, and June thought for sure she was dying in there. They’d find her out. Rip her loose of her hiding spot and cook her for the tribe. Same dog would be chewing her femur if given half a goddamn chance. No, she had to get out. It had to be that night.
Once the laughing and chewing subsided into burps and small talk then eventual silence, the diabolic’s paired off. House per pair. Safety play, I reckon. The two big bastards in hers stayed for a while by the fire. Talking low. Eventually she thought she heard them fuck. Grunting and moaning. Asses getting slapped. Then they bedded down. The dog whinnied for a while, but even that subsided once it’d finished with yon dead snarlies bits.
Moonless night. June snuck out that cupboard and crept through the kitchen. Her adrenaline must’a been off the charts. The dog was out back but coming into the living area she seen the lovers from earlier. Curled together on an old mattress under a sleeping bag. They sounded like big men and they were that. Long haired, bushel beards and fuck knows the last time they washed. The smell off’a them was fierce. One snored lightly. The other breathed heavily, air catching under all that weight.
Thumbing the screwdriver she kept in her belt as standard, June felt sick now. It wasn’t the first time she’d had to kill, but she hadn’t took to it. Them times haunted her and would until she died. She didn’t want to kill anyone if she could avoid it and for a moment she wondered should she kill both men while they slept? Just to be sure. It was a practical thing. Then, if they decided on retribution who knew if they could track her all the way back to the park. With dogs it was likely.
She got as far as the door handle on the opposite side of the room when a snort turned her round, terrified. One’a the lovers dead-eyed her; he was little spoon under the duvet. Her screwdriver was in his eye in a frenzied fear response before it occurred that he might just have been ticking in his sleep. He made a low moan as she twisted the steel nose, hearing it grind off the back interior of the big boys head. It was enough to wake sleeping beauty behind him. He woke with a start, moving fast.
The driver was hardly out’a the dead man’s head when his partner was on June like a goddamn grizzly. We all watched films in the before. A sixty-pound woman throwing around a two-hundred-pound guy didn’t seem far-fetched at all in them pictures. It was almost sexist to presume otherwise. In real life, June had no chance in a physical confrontation with this man. She’d clocked him at 6’1. Maybe a little less. At least a hundred-thirty pounds. A grizzled, hardened fucking killer. We’d all done awful shit to survive in these times, but some a’them enjoyed it. He might a been one such.
At 5’5, June was a goddamn pixie and that monster was on her like a sandbag. He didn’t say nothing. All there was between them was hard breathing of a struggle. She couldn’t catch air once he’d locked on. Drove a hard left, smashing her temple, while he throttled her with his right. Her face swelled up over one eye. Dizzy as shit. Another hit and she was dead. Crushed larynx. No fight left in her. More of a spasmodic impulse than any instinct saw her jam the driver into his bare knee. Entered behind the patella, and she pushed on the butt of it. Must have hurt. Near popped his goddamn knee out. He just stood up and got off her long enough that she scurried backwards to the door.
The dog went apeshit in the back and lights were coming on across the way. The man pressed a finger to his knee, swore and lunged right for June. She flung the door to her rear outward and he stubbed his bare feet onto the point of it. June came up jabbing the driver. The soft underside of his midsection and up. She didn’t puncture anything until she hit his neck. Then he stumbled back and held his jugular. Bled from it and coughed a little.
‘Gon come for you,’ he said, sat on his ass in the darkness. Palm pressed to the gushing wound.
June whimpered. Made through the door and on out the downstairs commode window as men came through the back of the house. She was gone, into the rows of the next suburb over by the time she heard the shouting. Then the dogs. Loose now, she could hear them in the periphery. Glum light cut through old lamps in the darkness behind.
She ran on. Adrenaline and fear, energy
spent, she ran on will itself. A desire not to die. But how far did she need to
go to outrun them. How far would be enough?
The cool night air cut her lungs. Vision foggy, one eye swelled over and running on instinct. June wasn’t built for running or for the night. She’d acclimatised somewhat in the years since the states fell, but there was some things you never got good at. Just weren’t meant to.
A short sprint. Climbing and hiding. Hiking. Sure, all of them things were part of Junes repertoire, but she wasn’t built for a marathon and the dogs sounded close. She was sweating and exhausted and everything was cramped as shit from two something days wedged under a sink.
If she kept going, she was going to gas out and she knew it. They come up on her and that’d be it. No, she had to misdirect them and change course. Getting her was one thing, but if they got back to the park, they could take everyone there. Weren’t many. It was a small tree-based commune with one communal shitter. Maybe two dozen people at best, but there were families and kids there. The diabolic’s, if they held true to the rumours, would kill the adults, quick if they were lucky. Engage in varying degrees of torture and sadism if not. They’d rape the women, including June and slave the kids.
No, ‘slave’ wasn’t the right word. They’d indoctrinate them. Turn them into pack animals. Force them out to hunt and commit all manner of evil fucking atrocity in the name of building em up. It was grim to think about.
Pablo and Stefanie Manners lived next to June in the park, and their kids Jose and Louisa were nice kids. Good kids. They hadn’t been tainted by the world yet, because maybe they were too young. The point was, June didn’t want to lead these evil bastards back to camp, because if she did, she’d have to watch those kids get taken. Maybe while she was raped and killed, or taken herself. Slaved.
She couldn’t imagine such a life, though had once met a vagabond who having spent time in the north during the occupation, had told her in detail. The woman was heading further west. Into the dunes. She was a harrowed, burnt out ghost, and June noticed how easily she disappeared into the background. This was necessary, she’d explained quietly, just once, in order to physically survive, and also mentally endure. You had to check out. Hope no one noticed. And that was it.
Coming out the back of the burbs there was a freeway that cut through some farmland and a busted drainage pipe June used to cut beneath the route and into the fields. Old storage sheds and some dead machinery littered the fields. June used some of it as markers when she’d begun her treks into town for parts. On the top of the freeway some ancient cars were pushed aside in the layby. Abandoned for one reason or another. She was going to have to use what she had here to throw off her pursuers. The alternative wasn’t worth thinking about.
A hundred metres left she caught light. Her busted eye hadn’t seen it, but she turned fully and noticed the blur. Further on down the freeway a fire was going. Someone was camped there. Passers-through. Feral’s? Hard to speculate. It could be anybody. The basics of a plan were coming together as she’d come over the concrete lip onto the main stretch. Strip off her body warmer, soaked with sweat. Check beneath the cars for grease or oil to mask her scent.
A new idea formed now. It was a terrible gambit, but she had no choice. In this world it’s you or them. It sure as shits brown wasn’t going to be her. She thought of the Manners kids. That’s how she’d live with it. Squatting down, June removed her bodywarmer, crawled beneath a line of cars shunted to the side of the freeway and dragged through the dirt beneath them. She pulled at their undercarriage for oil and filth and rubbed it on her T-Shirt and Khakis. Her face and her bare arms.
Her bodywarmer hooked on her sneaker, she crept further along the line until she hit paydirt – a pan of gas, diluted with rainwater water lay beneath the second last car. The collector never came back for it. She liberally sifter it over herself until it soaked through her clothing. That feint smell of gas filled her nostrils. Creeping from beneath the end car she moved towards the glow of the fading fire. A family wagon sat side on across the lane. The fire was visible from beneath. Itblocked her view of who sat there, operating as a windbreaker. There was no noise. Whoever was there, if anyone, was either sleeping or resting. Possibly alone. She couldn’t think about that. Peeking beneath the wagon June saw sleeping bags. Small movement. She pulled back. Grimaced. Didn’t want to think about it.
She slipped her bodywarmer under the car, choked back raw emotion into her gut and steeled herself. If her plan worked, the mob on her heels would find these people instead. The dogs would follow her bodywarmers scent. She prayed to Jesus they deserved it, crouched low and doubled back to the drainage pipe that split under the freeway. She dropped over the far side as the dogs hit the freeway. She heard noise coming from the camp further up. Turned her back and moved fast into the long grasses of the fields beyond. Three something miles and she’d be back at the park, but she couldn’t risk that yet.
The dogs and the shouts converged. Commotion came from the camp on the bridge. Men’s voices. Demanding. The dogs were going apeshit. A woman screamed. Clanking off concrete and the sounds of a fight. Things breaking. People breaking. The low snarls of dogs attached to limbs. Gurgling. Low voices. They faded off as June cut through the grasses. A fresh path, using the storehouse sat high a quarter mile on as the marker.
She didn’t think
of what had happened behind her. For a moment she tried to delude herself that
it might have happened anyway. It wasn’t true. She’d done it. But, enough
introspection. She could try and live with that later, if she lived at all. Now
she had to get away while she still had the advantage of knowing the territory.
She hoped the dogs had lost her scent. Looking back she saw the lights coming
low over the side of the freeway. Over the lip. Down the bank. Into the fields
Kyle Tucker, ‘Tuck’ for short, came down from North following the conflict. Five survivors of his unit and some dozen refugees they’d aligned with on the road. Their number had grown as they’d went. Desperate people, they were harsh on the vetting. In an ideal world you could help everybody, but in this one you took those you thought could make it. Wouldn’t slow you down, or worse, cut you up in the night or lead you into an ambush.
They’d made that mistake once already with a woman they’d found half dead on the road to North Carolina, her kid in tow. She’d been bait and the rest of her pack had shortened two off their number and depleted the last of their ammunition. From that point it had been extreme caution. All they had was knives and bats for melee. Nothing fancy. If it came to it, they were fighting face to face with shit numbers, so no more chances.
Tucks squad consisted of Captain John Taylor, unit commander, Corporal Karl Henderson, Privates Dominic Gates and Anthony Gittes and Lt. Ronald Charleston. Captain John had lost his edge when word came back his family was dead in a crash headed West. He looked like a man and moved like a man, but John died back there somewhere in the cities. He was just series of instincts plastered into the shell of a once good man. Karl Henderson was part-time militia. An older man, he’d been a vet retired on medical grounds. He’d volunteered anyway, when the conscriptions started. His daughter and her family had headed west, and Karl figured he’d either help restore what they’d lost or buy his girl and the grandkids time to get far enough west they’d be removed from the conflict.
Dom Gates and Tony Gittes were two first class pieces of shit. Gates was from money. He’d fallen in with a shit crowd and they’d set him up for a fall in a drug bust. He’d done three years in a minimum-security pen before they gave him the option for conscription. It wasn’t an option. The alternative was worse – the compact – combined prison populations. That was in the states that didn’t just straight up release theirs when the shit hit the fan.
Gittes was a domestic abuser with a habit. Maybe it was the other way around. His last bust was for dealing, but it got ramped up when the junkie he was beating the shit out of when five o arrived pressed charges. Taylor had been fair with them. Tuck saw them as cannon fodder. And Ron, he was going to kill them sooner or later. When the time was right.
Ron Charleston was an academic, mostly. A quiet man with the disposition of someone who was canning a great degree of anger. He’d been a militiaman in his youth. Black militant. A radical. Somewhere in between he’d found Jesus. Raised a family. Then the militias again. This time, the twenty-nine-state collective. He’d conscripted during the riots as an active suppressor. He never thought he’d be on the opposite end of the ideals he held when he was a kid, but there it was. Ron maintained that his morality hadn’t changed, the world had. Hard to say. One thing for sure was Ron was good at killing. A natural. And he felt righteous about it. Scary thing to witness once he got going.
The rest were dregs. A family. Two parents and their grown daughter, mid-twenties. Tuck couldn’t remember their names. He hadn’t talked with them much. A few survivalists. A half dozen football players who survived a bus crash in Kentucky. Young guys mostly, no family left. They’d been bussing it for Nebraska when they got run off-road by Southern raiders. Nearly everyone was either injured or killed. The survivors made for the woods while the raiders took their bus apart. Divided up their shit.
Tuck had heard it all from Cameron. One’a the lucky ones. Twenty-two, Cam was three years Tucks Junior. They’d got talking when Cam had shared some meat he’d boosted from a food-chain freezer, still running off an old Genny. He’d been saving it but knew it wouldn’t last. Sharing it with Tuck after his group had taken them in on a back road outside Illinois, the pair had made small talk. Sports. College. Tuck had felt obliged initially, on account of the kindness. Even though he and his had taken in Cameron. That was just the way he thought.
While Tuck had joined up pre-conscription to get an engineering degree through the corps, Cam had been accepted to Kentucky U, Lexington on a sports scholarship. It never went through. With everything that happened, he’d joined the militias, policing state jurisdictions and rooting out defectors. Spies and traitors to the Twenty-Nine collective. When the war kicked off it had happened so fast. It had been brewing and all of a sudden it hit the boil. He’d tried to get back to his family, only to find they were gone on without him. No notes. Nothing.
Cam had hooked up with his old coach, who was taking them left behind and heading West. He had wanted to find his family, still did for that matter. But that dream had been knocked at the ass end of Kentucky. The last he saw of his coach was the man mouthing something to him as he made into the small wood off the road they were on, before a trio of mean looking fucks stomped his head into pulp before rooting through his jacket. The scene had haunted him, but there had been nothing he could do.
Over campfires Cam and Tuck had shared trivia. Stories. Tragedies, then eventually each other. It had been so long that Tuck wasn’t sure he could feel anything for anyone anymore. He burnt out all those emotions doing shit that made him feel sick a long time ago. He knew he had ptsd, but there weren’t no counsellors in the fall. No magic pills. No one to take his hand and tell him it was all okay. So, he did what generations of men had done for centuries before we became so goddamn soft and tamped it down. Down into the base of himself, where on a bad day he might skim the surface of it, but on most he was barely aware it was there. That’s how you survived now. By not thinking about it. The casual fucking horror that perpetuated the days.
It was in no small way that Cam had changed all of that. Over the long journey west Tucks walls started to come down. He cried in front of him, reliving an old trauma, and Cam had held him. From there the demeanour and the bullshit had crumbled. It was necessary to continue just existing, when that was your options. All it took was a little bit of humanity for Tuck to want something more. They’d brushed against local militia remnants foraging a suburb in Kansas. Lost one of the survivalists and one of Cam’s bus-mates. It had come down to hand to hand, and even though the militiamen had two guns, Captain John had come down on them. They’d formed up, sent Gittes and two of the survivalists at them while Ron and Karl had swooped in from the side. Four conscripts living feral on the verge of a burnt-out community. Got the impression they’d defected or some such. Carved out their own outpost on the fringe. We’d left one alive to get the lay of the land. Ron had stayed with him after we’d gone, and that was the last of it.
Skirmishes were irregular, but when they happened, they always cost big. People died. Tuck had become protective of Cam in those situations. To lose that rare thing at a time like this, became unthinkable. He’d a new vocation in Cam. It wasn’t just about him anymore. The rest of the group knew, he was sure. Even though he never spoke about it. Gittes had made an offhand comment one time. ‘Faggot’ or something to that effect under his breath. Tuck had let it go, but it had told him what he had with Cam was common knowledge, and for the most part the group had respected that it was their own thing.
They’d acquired up a road bike from a dead man coming on Colorado and switched the truck they were using for a camper and family wagon they found in a parking lot and at a gas station just further upstate. The truck was dying and the new vehicles had considerably more life in them. That made them a convoy of two four wheelers and three bikes, with Paul McGrave, one of the survivalists, on his low-rider and Eddie Thomas, one of Cam’s bus-mates on the off-road Honda left by Paul’s friend Anson, when he’d bought the farm back in Kansas.
Most towns started to look the same. Empty, survivors either hidden or gone. The remnants of some carnage. A firefight. Sometimes a pitched battle. Some states were still pristine. Held together like nothing was wrong. Their residents in state mandated denial about what was coming once the North got its shit together. The group came through Vernal as they hit Utah. The dinosaur city of the American West. Huge garish dinosaur sculptures littered the area. Some were burnt down to the wire, others looked untouched by time. Vehicles blocked off main street and they had to find a way around. They came back on foot to forage and spent two nights in the state park. There was game, and they heard other groups in there. They stayed low and there was no confrontation, but it was obvious they were being watched.
This was the way as they moved on. Small towns were fair game if you played it safe. Sometimes you come across feral’s or survivalists, though neither were a problem if you kept to yourself. They’d watch the group and the group would watch back. Soon as it was clear they weren’t staying everyone relaxed a bit. The worst was finding young ferals. Kids left behind for some reason or another. Surviving doing whatever was necessary, mostly. Some real Lord of the Flies shit.
To be Continued…