Level Zero: Part One

Seven day started as any other day for Prince Cashmier Flourence Pentington Arnold Song, regardless of it being end-day for the rest of the city. He woke late, lounged in a hot bath while watching the tellie, ate brunch alone, and waited for the doctor to come.

The programming on the TV was full of the same inane shows as any other day – happy and beautiful people prattling on about happy and beautiful things. Except, of course, the news stations. They continually covered the high threat level for terrorism, missing persons, and progress of the war. It was all terribly boring.

What Prince Cashmier Flourence Pentington Arnold Song wanted was something different, something exciting, something improper to amuse him. So it was that Doctor Hemsfield and his team found the prince without attire when they arrived for the prince’s third medical screening of the week.

“My word, Your Highness,” Dr. Hemsfield blushed so that his ruddy complexion resembled a lychee, “this is completely inappropriate! Very uncouth, what would the king say of such behavior?”

The prince shrugged and looked down at his sculpted body. “I imagine my father would approve of such efficiency. After all, am I not to be examined as usual?”

“Of course you are, Your Highness, however there is a time and a place for such.” Dr. Hemsfield stated as he lead his six assistants across the opulent high-rise loft apartment to a door that’s seams were barely visable among a mosaic map of the Seven Cities. The door opened with a press of a button on the remote he carried in the pocket of his pristine white coat. Shaking his head, the doctor lead in his team to began prepping the state-of-the-art medical facility that comprised the bulk of the one hundred and seventh floor of the Seventh Kingdom’s Palace.

Soon the room was bright and filled with an assortment of hums and beeps. Doctor Hemsfield gestured for the prince to enter the scanner.

“You see, good doctor, at how efficient this is. I don’t have to disrobe. We saved at least thirty seconds.” The prince smiled as he settled into the egg-shaped pod. As the device’s white oval lid descended, the prince continued to talk nervously.

Hemsfield ignored the prince and tapped a few nodes on a plasma display. He nodded when the capsule hummed to life. Shortly, a thick, pink, and dense fluid began to fill the pod. The doctor hit a stud on his counsel, “Don’t fight the fluid your grace, breath normally and you will be fine.”

“Really, Doctor? As opposed to panicking because we haven’t done this a thou…” The doctor cut off the prince’s flippant remark.

After verifying the display, he ordered a petite technician, “Begin the neural analysis. Check the memory blockers and see if the behavior inhibitors are functioning properly. I don’t like how he’s changing his attitude. This display of childish behavior is disconcerting.”

“Yes, Doctor,” she replied and moved across the room to a different station.

The other five technicians busied themselves as the pod filled with fluid and the readings poured data across the displays. Doctor Hemsfield pulled up a stool and peered into the opaque window of the pod and gestured at the figure inside, “I still find it amusing that they buy into the royalty script.”

“That’s the hubris of humans, Sir. They all want to believe that they are special. I must admit that this scenario works very well.” Volunteered one of the male techs.

The doctor nodded and mused, “They are so mailable when they believe that these are health screenings. The programmers outdid themselves with this one. It makes our job a lot easier when they follow the script and we can change the fluid in their incubation chambers without a fight. I heard that we have an eighty percent survival rate now.”

“We have the results of the neural scan,” announced another tech. “They show some higher neural activity than normal.”

“I wonder why?” The doctor pondered aloud.

Another tech piqued in a high voice, “The damping field is only functioning at sixty-nine percent. That may explain why we are seeing an increase in off-script behavior.”

“Boost the output and send a drone down to the unit to inspect it. What is the location?”

“Beta three, thirty charlie, omega nine seven four,” the squeaky voice answered the doctor’s question.

“Thank you very much,” stated the petite technician that had crossed the room. She had a malicious smile and an object in her hand. With a flick of her wrist, the gas grenade clinked on the shining floor. “Vivat humanitas!” She cried as she donned a small gas mask.

The granade exploded, releasing a cloud of static which disconnected the other six white-clad figures. Within a minute the cloud dispersed and the petite technician removed the mask. She quickly crossed the room and pushed the lifeless body of one of the techs off of the station. “Wakey, wakey, prince of the pod.”


Celebrating “We Had Stars Once”

Things have been hectic as of late. I went back to school to study Integrated Leadership Studies at Central Michigan University, and have been busy with work and family. As you can see by the lack of fresh material, something had to give. But, special things have happened. I have been published again in an anthology called, We Had Stars Once. The experience has been wonderful. It has reignited my passion for story telling and I will be working on a few new stories very soon.

If you are interested in checking out WHSO, click this link.

Cheers,

Chad

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Hell (Original Version)

What has the world come to?” I asked myself for at least the hundredth time as I trod east along the once busy interstate, constantly scanning the pink-stained horizon for threats.

“It all went down so fast,” I mumbled to the mangy dog of indistinguishable breed that padded along beside me. I had picked him up as I traveled through the harrowing streets of Lansing. It was there that I told myself I would try to avoid cities. People were just getting too unpredictable.

#

It had only been eighteen months since the world went to shit. No one knows what really happened. We all woke up one morning to scattered reports that nuclear bombs had blown up overseas. One country after another just quit sending news. Even the internet went quiet.

Remarkably, the U.S. wasn’t bombed. I don’t know if it was due to the diligence of Homeland Security, or what? Unfortunately, America’s infrastructure fell apart once panic set in and fuel and food became sparse. People had no income as the jobs went away. Then we didn’t know how to act once we were stuck in one place with limited food, supplies, and information. It was if a reset button had taken us back a hundred years.

I used to have a family. I used to be an average Joe with a blue-collar job. I used to have a life. But the fall-out and dust from all the bombs started a mini ice age. Fodder and daily materials began to disappear. People started acting funny. The local governments were ineffective at preventing looting and in-home violence became rampant. Your neighbors were no longer friends.

#

I walked in a daze as I remembered how I lost my family. It happened on a Sunday – God’s day. I had awakened early in our house that had transformed from a modern home to a hoarder’s den. The power and gas had been cut off and we had resorted to candles and a makeshift stove for heat and light. I had decided to make my wife breakfast in bed. Most of our food was gone, but we had a little coffee, rice and sugar. I remember how hollow the cabinets sounded as I tossed about their limited contents, wishing we had some cinnamon when I felt a presence behind me. I barely had time to turn before I was knocked unconscious.

When I came to, groggy and dazed, I panicked and ran up the stairs.

I had never lost anyone close to me. The only time I had ever seen a dead body was when a friend’s father had died.. People used to say that violence on television and video games had desensitized America, but I was not prepared for what I saw.

My two year old daughter, who had snuck into our bed in the middle of the night, had been casually tossed against the wall. Her sweet face was oblivious to the odd angle of her twisted body. A moan of pure agony was ripped from my throat as I fell to my knees. My life’s light felt as if it had been extinguished. I could not think. I could not breathe.

A sound, like the last bit of water circling a drain, caught my attention. I ran to the bed and found my wife clutching her throat. Fresh, hot blood seeped from her between her fingers as she desperately tried to move her head to see if her precious child was safe.

“Oh Baby…” I said as I pushed aside the crumpled, tangled mass that had been the bed covers. My eyes widened in surprise when there was also blood flowing from the place only I had been in many years.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” was all I could say as my shaking hand soothed her sweaty brown hair.

The coppery smell of blood saturated the room as the color drained from her face. She struggled to see behind me, trying to see her daughter. Her lips formed our child’s name and a terrible gurgle issued from her bluing lips.

“She’s fine,” I stated.

My world was ending.

“She’s still sleeping,” I soothed as tears fell from my reddened eyes. “She’ll be just fine, you kept her safe,” I lied.

But it worked and she stopped struggling and became more restive.

“I…I…I louph uge,” she managed as her eye lids became increasingly heavy.

“I love you too,” I managed to moan, before numbly adding, “I get her, and we’ll take a nap together.”

I don’t know how many days I lay there. I remember being weak and dehydrated when I collected my camping gear. My hands felt like lead as I packed a down sleeping bag, portable stove, warm clothing, hunting knives, my shot-gun, ammo, and a family portrait. There wasn’t much food, but I gathered that as well.

#

Numbness settled into my core as I walked away from the conflagration that had been my home. I simply walked south, clutching the lighter in a white knuckle grip as the ugly glare of orange tainted the pewter skies of predawn.

It took me all day to walk the ten miles to Ithaca. I had to tell my in-laws that I had failed to protect their daughter and grand-baby. I don’t have a clear recollection of how that went. There was a lot of crying, some foul language, and I left feeling worse than before.

I had no purpose anymore, I was living in Hell. And so it was Hell that I decided to go – Hell, Michigan. Hell was a tiny little town just Northwest of Detroit. Its unofficial population was two hundred and twenty six, and I figured it would be the perfect place for me to evolve into the demon that seemed to possess me.

I made my way south following the highway that bisected the state. Under wintry clouds, it took me almost a week of one foot in front of the other in an eerily gray and silent world, before I made the thirty mile journey to St. Johns. I decided to pop over to my friend Anthony’s house for a visit. At least that was the story I had told myself. I really just needed a friendly face and familiar atmosphere to keep me from going mad.

“Chunks?” he asked, using the nickname he had dubbed me in college, “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, just doing a little back-packing,” I replied jovially.

“Where’s June and Libby?” He asked haltingly as a growing look of concern spread across his kind face as he took in my ragged appearance.

“Home,” I flatly stated.

“Are they okay?”

“They are now.”

“What do you mean… now?”

“Do you have some water? I could really use some water,” I changed the subject.

“Yeah, come on in. But leave your shotgun in the laundry room. I don’t want to scare the wife and kids.”

I slowly walked to the laundry room to stow my gear, remembering how I had helped install the tile floors. I hoped I had made a wise decision in coming to see my old college buddy. People were getting weird…

I could hear Tony’s wife giving him the third degree as I took off my dusty boots. I almost broke down as I waited for them to sort it out.
Tony walked up to me holding a bottle of beer, “You look like you need this more than water.”

He was right.

“Thanks… listen if this is not a good idea I can take off,” I said as I nodded my head in Carla’s direction.

“Oh that’s nothing. She’s just concerned that’s all.”

“Concerned for me, or concerned that there’s not much to go around?”

He looked at me for several moments. He could tell that something had happened. I was no longer the slightly immature, always looking to cross the line kind of guy he had known. There was hollowness to my countenance that concerned and alarmed him.

“Both.”

“Alright man, I don’t want to intrude. I’ll leave. Just tell her I stopped by for a visit.”

“No, I don’t know what happened, but you are not leaving until you’ve at least eaten something. Your half the man you were.”

He was right. In college and beyond he had always known me at around three hundred pounds. In my current state I probably only weighed two hundred. Months of rationing supplies and a hell of a lot of walking had changed me.

I cleaned up, ate a small dinner with them, shared small talk, and played with the boys under the watchful eyes of a scared and possessive mother. It was very hard not to cry as I played with their toddler.

As dusk settled upon the land, like the fabled Technicolor Cloak, Tony let Carla put the kids to bed and ushered me out the sliding glass door to the deck I had promised to help him refinish. He produced two fat cigars from his canvas jacket and gave me a look that meant I had better fess up.

“I failed, Tony. I…”

“Are they dead?” he interrupted.

I couldn’t admit it, but the look on my face must have told the horrifying details. He looked as if he wanted to hug me, but instead produced a bottle of scotch and silently poured two generous glasses that seemed to have appeared out of no-where. We sipped old scotch and smoked pungent cigars in silence, marveling at the painted horizon. Our relationship had always thrived on minimal speech, almost as if we had always possessed an intuitive understanding of each other.

They were kind enough to let me stay the night on the sofa. Tony was also kind enough to leave a box of 12-gauge slugs on the table for me as I quietly left at 4:30 in the morning. I left him a note saying, “I’ve always valued your friendship. Thank you.”

#

My visit was felicitous, mostly from the shower and from contact with other people. I progressed south toward Lansing, in slightly higher spirits. I figured it was on the way toward my goal, and that if there any form of government left in the state, it would be there.

I passed countless cars abandoned on the roadside as they ran out of fuel. There were remarkably few people traveling the highways. Perhaps it was because of the unnaturally cold weather, or the fact that people strayed away from a tall, manic looking man sporting an unruly beard and pump-action shotgun. The twenty five miles progressed quickly as I camped out under vivid stars and cooked what was left of small game over an open flame. At times I was almost able to forget my recent past, lost in the tranquility of silence and solitude. But it always came crashing back to me, in my dreams of crimson pools of blood and shadowy figures.

The funny thing about having a family was that you never thought only of yourself. You always interjected the family’s goals over your own. Everything from shopping to entertainment was determined by what was appropriate and affordable for the family. I believe that those first few weeks after that horrible day were the loneliest I’ve ever felt.

#

The capitol city of Lansing was a shadow of its former self. It was akin to a bad B-movie about post-apocalyptic America. Except in the version I was living there were no vampires or mutants, just loneliness, dramatic sunsets and human monsters. I developed a theory about people was amazed that human civilization had lasted as long as it had. People were not inherently good. Mankind was a feral beast by nature, and only maintained civility as long as there were goals and comforts available. If comforts were taken away and hopelessness gained a foothold into the soul, then Darwin’s worst nightmare happened. People were funny creatures.

Lansing never was known as a gang town. But just as most large cities in North America there is a gang presence. I didn’t recall Lansing as being out of control. However, given an opportunity to thrive, a monster would always become stronger. Before the power was cut and television still worked, there had been reports of small bands of armed gangs that had begun taking over portions of the city. What had happened to the world just over a year ago was happening to cities across the country. Prejudices and territorial disputes engulfed the urban landscapes. In some cases entire cities were razed and left in charred ruins because the inhabitants had reached a point of no return. Lansing wasn’t there yet, but it was close.

I saw my first corpse on the west-bound on-ramp that lead to the heart of the city. His head was half blown off and carrion eaters were feasting upon him. I didn’t bother to bury him because I figured he wouldn’t be the last body I’d see.

There were fires burning all over the city, casting a dirty glow and acerbic ambiance, as I approached. Random reports of gunfire and occasional wails could be heard from miles away.

I almost headed east then, and in some respects I wish I had. However, I had another social call to make. My friend Dustin and his family lived almost in the center of town. My curiosity for their safety overrode my sense of self preservation. Every step was cautious as I traveled into the powerless city.

Evening was engulfing the metropolis in inky darkness as I snuck up to the small cottage-style house. It relieved me to see that both of the familiar vehicles were gone. I told myself that they went to Portland to stay with Dustin’s parents. Whatever the case, they were not home and the door was still locked.

I proceeded to the rear of the house, my intent to make a stealthy entrance, stay the night and take my leave of the dying city as soon as possible. That was when a poodle sized canine with muddied, matted, blondish course hair nearly scared me out of my skin. The animal was in a terrible state. Thin, thirsty and just as scared as I was, he stood quivering by the large window of the sunroom making slight whimpering sounds.

“Hey there little buddy,” I said in as soothing a voice as I could, yet to me it sounded like the rattling of a tool box.

He cowered even more as I knelt down to pat his head and my knees gave loud cracking noises.
“Sorry,” I apologized, “I’m getting older. How ’bout we go inside and try to get warm?”

I used one of my knives to cut the screen and pry open the sliding window. I had to grab the dog quickly before he could run away and tossed him in through the shadowy square. I then hoisted by shrunken body through the window.

The interior of the home was as I remembered it, with the exception of refinished hardwood floors instead of worn carpet. Everything looked in order, which relieved me greatly. I felt pangs of regret knowing that it had been too long since I had seen my friend. I stood, swaying in the shadows, momentarily consumed by grief, knowing I would never see him again.

I rummaged through the cupboards looking for food in the pale light offered by a gibbous moon. There wasn’t much, but I was able to collect a can of condensed milk, a can of corn, and some canned meat. I still had a package of dehydrated noodles in my pack. Deciding that the dog was worse off than me, I cut off a generous portion of the gray meat and laid it on a plate for him, assuming he would come out of hiding for food. I then bent to the task of preparing a stew with my ingredients.
The dog, which I had aptly named Mutt didn’t let me down and soon joined me in my feast. We familiarized ourselves and bonded shortly thereafter.

Dustin’s wife was an avid reader and had several bookcases full of paperbacks. They had been telling me for years that I should read C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower. Therefore, I stuffed the books in my backpack after having removed my array of soiled clothes.

There was enough water in a 5 gallon jug to fill the bathtub so I could wash myself, my clothes and finally the dog. I also raided Dustin’s dresser for any remaining shirts, sweaters, and small-clothes I could find. He was a smaller man than I, and his pants wouldn’t fit even in my slimmer state.

I slept next to a content dog in my friend’s bed, hoping that they wouldn’t mind. I had to assume they were alive and well, it kept me from having bad dreams.
In the morning as I prepared to leave, I checked, on a hunch, the top of the book case in the living room. I remembered that Dustin had told me he kept a loaded forty-five up there in the event of a break-in. The long shot paid off, and I now had another weapon at my disposal along with a half empty box of ammunition.

#

The first person I ever killed was a man as I made my way out of Lansing. I tried to keep mostly to the shadows, away from people and hopefully away from harm. I had made it to the south-east side of town before I was approached by a man with greasy hair and smelling of acid. The stranger sauntered toward me confidently showing a broken smile and yellow teeth.

“Looking for any entertainment?” he asked. His voice reminded me of oil laden gravel pressed under car tires.

“No thanks,” I replied cautiously. He made the hairs on the back of my neck stand. I didn’t like the way he looked, or smelled.

“Looks to me like your pretty lonely,” he oozed. “I bet I have just the thing you need.” He winked a jaundiced eye.

“No really, I’m fine,” I insisted.

“Come on man,” he said. “I got it all. Young ladies, boys, mature, even got a cripple if that does it for you.”

“No,” I replied flatly. “I just want to be on my way.”

“Where you headed?” he asked, eying me suspiciously.

“Out of town. Back out to the country,” I said as I started to walk away.

“Which direction?”

“North,” I lied. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Cold up north, sure you don’t want a little company first?” He persisted.

“No that that’s my final answer,” I practically shouted.

“What’s the matter, don’t like people? Got it for your little dog there?” He spat.

“Go to Hell!” I returned. “I told you I’m not interested. Leave me alone!” I turned to walk away quaking in anger and frustration. Weeks of pent up emotions were suddenly boiling up with the force of a mega-culdera.

“Go to Hell? Screw you, you bastard. I’m just a business man trying to make a living. What’s your problem? Don’t know how to do it? Got a little dick do ya? ‘Fraid my toys will laugh at you, huh? They’ll do whatever I tell them too. They’d even screw their mothers if I told them to. What do you know, you limp dick? I gave you a chance to get your rocks off before I did you in, now I’m just gonna kill you fer fun,” he raved.
I turned back to him as I felt my shotgun being jerk off of my shoulder. In one fluid motion I instinctively reached between my backpack and my lower back where I had secured Dustin’s pistol. He was leveling my own shotgun at me, screaming, “BASTARD!” when I shot him in the thigh.

The bullet tore into his flesh, exiting out his groin in a horrific fist sized hole. He fell to the ground in agony screaming, “My dick, you blew off my dick.”

I was willing to walk away then, but he pressed me further by adding, “I’ll just have to take yours, since you don’t want to use it.”

“No, I don’t think so,” I said evenly, even though my heart was in my throat and my hands were shaking violently. All I could think about was that this depraved soul was the one who had raped and murdered my wife. My vision turned red in a heartbeat as I unloaded six more slugs into the bleeding ingrate.

I don’t know how long I stood there absently pulling the trigger of the emptied pistol, but the sound of my growling dog shook me back to reality.

Several pre-teen boys and girls, along with an old woman and a one legged man who hobbled on crutches, were approaching with terrified looks on their faces.

“Daddy Pickels?” A chocolate face girl of around eleven cried. She was clearly not the dead man’s progeny.

“You killed him,” one of the boys said in an agitated and squeaky voice.

“Now what are we supposed to do?” asked another.

“Get ‘im,” raged the old woman.

The group descended on corpse with a rage only told in the Bible. This was a vengeance, only believable in myth and legend, being visited upon the holed body of a twisted individual. I swept up my shotgun and ran as fast and as far as my emaciated body would let me.

#

I moved quickly through Owosso and soon found myself in Perry within a few days. I was reluctant to go to my Grandparent’s house, but I was in a state of shock and in need of a good night of rest. The weather was continually getting colder and my supplies were running low again.

My Grandparents were not home, and I was worried. The tiny house had been ransacked and there was evidence of a struggle. Guiltily, I was just too tired to search for them. I figured they were long gone in the bramble of terrible events unfolding around me.

I huddled in the basement for three days. My grandfather kept a small bedroom full of yard-sale musical instruments, old clocks and cameras; decade’s worth of salvaged treasures of a kind old man. It was there among the treasures that I finally broke to the pressure that had been building inside. I cried almost constantly at all the world had lost, all that I had lost.

It was there that I found my peace with God. Among the old cassette tapes of hymns and stacks of old cook books. I read the Holy Bible for the first time and argued with a deity I had never embraced. I called him a son-of-a-bitch and wanted to hear, “I forgive you”. I screamed, “I hate you!” But I wanted to hear, “I love you.” I rallied and raved and finally relented before telling Him, “I choose to ignore you.” I desperately wanted to hear, “Ignore me if you want, but I’m still here.” The truth was that I heard no voice, no music, nor Herald, only the emptiness of the human condition.

I emerged a changed man. I think that releasing the grief that I had been repressing allowed me to assume a new role: the role of a survivor. I was in control of my life because I was willing to accept what fate blew at me. I would adapt, change, and anneal myself to reality. I would become the aggressor and not the victim. I had killed, I had somewhat enjoyed it because it was justice on some degree. I would be willing to do it again to preserve myself. I didn’t have to like it, but I would do it.

As I approach my chosen destination, I reflected on the life that made me happy. I would relive those memories of my former life, not because they haunted me, but because they strengthened me. They will keep me grounded to the person I was, while I developed into the person I had to be. After all, people were funny. I would remember looking into the blue seas of love that were the eyes of my wife as I said, “I do”. I would remember the first time I held my daughter and the tears that mingled with her first cries of life. I would remember the simple things, like eating dinner as a family or watching silly cartoons because they were all we could do to stop an angry toddler from crying. I would remember life, even though the path I followed may take me to death.

I could see it. A green sign, five foot long and covered with icicles in September. Hell had frozen over…


Hell (Version 2)

           What has the world come to?” I asked myself for at least the hundredth time as I trod east along the once busy interstate, constantly scanning the pink-stained horizon for threats.

“It all went down so fast,” I mumbled to the mangy dog of indistinguishable breed that padded along beside me. I had picked him up as I traveled through the harrowing streets of Lansing. It was there that I told myself I would try to avoid cities. People were just getting too unpredictable.

#

           It had only been eighteen months since the world went to shit. No one knows what really happened. We all woke up one morning to scattered reports that nuclear bombs had blown up overseas. One country after another just quit sending news. Even the internet went quiet.

Remarkably, the U.S. wasn’t bombed. I don’t know if it was due to the diligence of Homeland Security, or what? Unfortunately, America’s infrastructure fell apart once panic set in and fuel and food became sparse. People had no income as the jobs went away. Then we didn’t know how to act once we were stuck in one place with limited food, supplies, and information. It was if a reset button had taken us back a hundred years.

I used to have a family. I used to be an average Joe with a blue-collar job. I used to have a life. But the fall-out and dust from all the bombs started a mini ice age. Fodder and daily materials began to disappear. People started acting funny. The local governments were ineffective at preventing looting and in-home violence became rampant. Your neighbors were no longer friends.

 

#

I walked in a daze as I remembered how I lost my family. It happened on a Sunday – God’s day. I had awakened early in our house that had transformed from a modern home to a hoarder’s den. The power and gas had been cut off and we had resorted to candles and a makeshift stove for heat and light. I had risen before the sun to forage through abandoned houses and to check some traps I had set in the woods. My efforts were futile, but by mid-morning, I had found a few cans of vegetables and had snared a stunted rabbit.

Upon my return through the quiet streets of our small town, I panicked when I saw the front door of my modest two story house ajar . I drew my belt knife and ran up the stairs.

I had never lost anyone close to me. The only time I had ever seen a dead body was when a friend’s father had died.. People used to say that violence on television and video games had desensitized America, but I was not prepared for what I saw.

My two year old son, who had snuck into our bed in the middle of the night, had been casually tossed against the wall. His sweet face was oblivious to the odd angle of his neck against his tiny twisted body. A moan of pure agony was ripped from my throat as I fell to my knees. My life’s light felt as if it had been extinguished. I could not think. I could not breathe.

A sound, like the last bit of water circling a drain, caught my attention. I ran to the bed and found my wife clutching her throat. Fresh, hot blood seeped from her between her fingers as she desperately tried hold together the ragged slash and move her head to see if her precious child was safe.

“Oh Baby…” I said as I pushed aside the crumpled, tangled mass that had been the bed covers. My eyes widened in surprise when there was also blood flowing from the place only I had been in many years.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” was all I could say as my shaking hand soothed her sweaty brown hair.

The coppery smell of blood saturated the dim room as the color drained from her face. She struggled to see behind me, trying to see her son. Her lips formed our child’s name and a terrible gurgle issued from her bluing lips.

“He’s fine,” I stated.

My world was ending.

“He’s still sleeping,” I soothed her as tears fell from my reddened eyes. “He’ll be just fine, you kept him safe,” I lied.

But it worked and she stopped struggling and became more restive.

“I…I…I louph uge,” she managed as her eyelids became increasingly heavy.

“I love you too,” I managed to moan, before numbly adding, “I get him, and we’ll take a nap together.”

I don’t know how many days I lay there. I remember being weak and dehydrated when I collected my camping gear. My hands felt like lead as I packed a down sleeping bag, portable stove, warm clothing, hunting knives, my shotgun, ammo, and a family portrait. There wasn’t much food, but I gathered that as well.

 

#

 

Numbness settled into my core as I walked away from the conflagration that had been my home. I simply walked south, clutching the lighter in a white knuckle grip as the ugly glare of orange tainted the pewter skies of predawn.

It took me all day to walk the ten miles to St. Louis. I had to tell my in-laws that I had failed to protect their daughter and grand-baby. I don’t have a clear recollection of how that went. There was a lot of crying, some foul language, and I left feeling worse than before.

I had no purpose anymore. Guilt and anger were consuming me so much that I felt I was living in Hell. And so it was Hell that I decided to go – Hell, Michigan. Hell was a tiny little town just northwest of Detroit where I figured would be a suitable place for me to evolve into the demon that seemed to possess me.

I made my way south following the highway that bisected the state. Under early wintry clouds, it took me almost a week of one foot in front of the other in an eerily gray and silent world, before I made the thirty mile journey to St. Johns. I decided to pop over to my friend Anthony’s house for a visit. At least that was the story I had told myself. I really just needed a friendly face and familiar atmosphere to keep me from going mad.

“Chunks?” he asked, using the nickname he had dubbed me in college, “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, just doing a little back-packing,” I replied jovially.

“Where’s June and Libby?” He asked haltingly as a growing look of concern spread across his kind face as he took in my ragged appearance.

“Home,” I flatly stated.

“Are they okay?”

“They are now.”

“What do you mean… now?”

“Do you have some water? I could really use some water,” I changed the subject.

“Yeah, come on in. But leave your shotgun in the laundry room. I don’t want to scare the wife and kids.”

I slowly walked to the laundry room to stow my gear, remembering how I had helped install the tile floors. I hoped I had made a wise decision in coming to see my old college buddy. People were getting weird…

I could hear Tony’s wife giving him the third degree as I took off my dusty boots. I almost broke down as I waited for them to sort it out.

Tony walked up to me holding a bottle of beer, “You look like you need this more than water.”

He was right.

“Thanks… listen if this is not a good idea I can take off,” I said as I nodded my head in Carla’s direction.

“Oh that’s nothing. She’s just concerned that’s all.”

“Concerned for me, or concerned that there’s not much to go around?”

He looked at me for several moments. He could tell that something had happened. I was no longer the slightly immature, always looking to cross the line kind of guy he had known. There was hollowness to my countenance that concerned and alarmed him.

“Both.”

“Alright man, I don’t want to intrude. I’ll leave. Just tell her I stopped by for a visit.”

“No, I don’t know what happened, but you are not leaving until you’ve at least eaten something,”  Tony eyed my filth covered sagging pants, billowed coat, and gaunt visage. “You’re half the man you used to be.”

He was right. In college and beyond he had always known me at around three hundred pounds. In my current state I probably only weighed two hundred. Months of rationing supplies and a hell of a lot of walking had changed me.

I cleaned up, ate a small dinner with them, shared small talk, and played with the boys under the watchful eyes of a scared and possessive mother. It was very hard not to cry as I played with their toddler.

As dusk settled upon the land, like the fabled Technicolor Cloak, Tony let Carla put the kids to bed and ushered me out the sliding glass door to the deck I had promised to help him refinish. He produced two fat cigars from his canvas jacket and gave me a look that meant I had better fess up.

“I failed, Tony. I…”

“Are they dead?” He interrupted.

I couldn’t admit it, but the look on my face must have told the horrifying details. He looked as if he wanted to hug me, but instead produced a bottle of scotch and silently poured two generous glasses that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. We sipped old scotch and smoked pungent cigars in silence, marveling at the painted horizon. Our relationship had always thrived on minimal speech, almost as if we had always possessed an intuitive understanding of each other.

They were kind enough to let me stay the night on the sofa. Tony was also kind enough to leave a box of 12-gauge slugs on the table for me as I quietly left at 4:30 in the morning. I left him a note saying, “I’ve always valued your friendship. Thank you.”

 

#

           My visit was felicitous, mostly from the shower and from contact with other people. I progressed south toward Lansing, in slightly higher spirits. I figured it was on the way toward my goal, and that if there any form of government left in the state, it would be there.

I passed countless cars abandoned on the roadside as they ran out of fuel. There were remarkably few people traveling the highways. Perhaps it was because of the unnaturally cold weather, or the fact that people strayed away from a tall, manic looking man sporting an unruly beard and pump-action shotgun. The twenty five miles progressed quickly as I camped out under vivid stars and cooked what was left of small game over an open flame. At times I was almost able to forget my recent past, lost in the tranquility of silence and solitude. But it always came crashing back to me in my dreams of crimson pools of blood, broken bodies of children, and shadowy figures sharing haunting laughter as I raged against chains that held me just out of reach.

The funny thing about having a family was that you never thought only of yourself. You always interjected the family’s goals over your own. Everything from shopping to entertainment was determined by what was appropriate and affordable for the family. It was a mentality that was hard to shake as each night I would pick a campsite thinking of the needs of my family, only to realize, again, that they were gone. I believe that those first few weeks after that horrible day were the loneliest I’ve ever felt.

 

#

           The capital city of Lansing was a shadow of its former self. It was akin to a bad B-movie about post-apocalyptic America. Except in the version I was living there were no vampires or mutants, just loneliness, dramatic sunsets and human monsters. I developed a theory about people and was amazed that human civilization had lasted as long as it had. People were not inherently good. Mankind was a feral beast by nature, and only maintained civility as long as there were goals and comforts available. If comforts were taken away and hopelessness gained a foothold into the soul, then Darwin’s worst nightmare happened. People were funny creatures.

Lansing never was known as a gang town. But just as most large cities in North America there is a gang presence. I didn’t recall Lansing as being out of control. However, given an opportunity to thrive, a monster would always become stronger. Before the power was cut and television still worked, there had been reports of small bands of armed gangs that had begun taking over portions of the city. What had happened to the world just over a year ago was happening to cities across the country. Prejudices and territorial disputes engulfed the urban landscapes. In some cases entire cities were razed and left in charred ruins because the inhabitants had reached a point of no return. Lansing wasn’t there yet, but it was close.

I saw my first evidence of violence when I stumbled upon a corpse on the westbound on-ramp that lead to the heart of the city. His head was half blown off and carrion eaters were feasting upon him. I didn’t bother to bury him because I figured he wouldn’t be the last body I’d see.

There were fires burning all over the city, casting a dirty glow and acerbic ambiance as I approached. Random reports of gunfire and occasional wails could be heard from miles away.

I almost headed east then, and in some respects I wish I had. Call it loyalty or a death wish, but I had another social call to make. My friend Dustin and his family lived almost in the center of town. My curiosity for their safety overrode my sense of self preservation. Every step was cautious as I traveled into the powerless city.

Evening was engulfing the metropolis in inky darkness as I snuck up to the small cottage-style house. It relieved me to see that both of the familiar vehicles were gone. I told myself that they went to Grand Ledge to stay with Dustin’s parents. Whatever the case, they were not home and the door was locked.

I proceeded to the rear of the house, my intent to make a stealthy entrance, stay the night and take my leave of the dying city as soon as possible. That was when a poodle sized canine with muddied, matted, blondish course hair nearly scared me out of my skin. The animal was in a terrible state. Thin, thirsty and just as scared as I was, he stood quivering by the large window of the sunroom making slight whimpering sounds.

“Hey there little buddy,” I said in as soothing a voice as I could, yet to me it sounded like the rattling of a tool box.

He cowered even more as I knelt down to pat his head and my knees gave loud cracking noises.

“Sorry,” I apologized, “I’m getting older. How ’bout we go inside and try to get warm?”

I used one of my knives to cut the screen and pry open the sliding window. I had to grab the dog quickly before he could run away and tossed him through the shadowy square. I then hoisted by shrunken body through the window.

The interior of the home was as I remembered it, with the exception of refinished hardwood floors instead of worn carpet. Everything looked in order, which relieved me greatly. I felt pangs of regret knowing that it had been too long since I had seen my friend. I stood, swaying in the shadows, momentarily consumed by grief, knowing that I would never see him again.

I rummaged through the cupboards looking for food in the pale light offered by a gibbous moon. There wasn’t much, but I was able to collect a can of condensed milk, a can of corn, and some canned meat. I still had a package of dehydrated noodles in my pack. Deciding that the dog was worse off than I was, so I cut off a generous portion of the gray meat and laid it on a plate for him, assuming he would come out of hiding for food. I then bent to the task of preparing a stew with my ingredients.

The dog, which I aptly named Mutt didn’t let me down and soon joined me in my feast. We familiarized ourselves and bonded shortly thereafter.

Dustin’s wife was an avid reader and had several bookcases full of paperbacks. They had been telling me for years that I should read several series. Therefore, I stuffed some books in my backpack after having removed my array of soiled clothes.

There was enough water in a rain catch to fill the bathtub so I could wash myself, my clothes and finally the dog. I also raided Dustin’s dresser for any remaining shirts, sweaters, and small-clothes I could find. He was a smaller man than I and his pants wouldn’t fit even in my slimmer state.

I slept next to a content dog in my friend’s bed, hoping that they wouldn’t mind. I had to assume they were alive and well. It kept me from having bad dreams.

In the morning as I prepared to leave, I checked, on a hunch, the top of the bookcase in the living room. I remembered that Dustin had told me he kept a loaded forty-five up there in the event of a break-in. The long shot paid off, and I now had another weapon at my disposal along with a half empty box of ammunition. I also had a sense of dread because not knowing why he’d left the weapon.

 

#

           I became a killer as I made my way out of Lansing, even though I tried to keep mostly to the shadows, away from people and hopefully away from harm. I had made it to the southeast side of town before I was approached by a man with greasy hair and smelling of battery acid. The stranger sauntered toward me confidently showing a broken smile and yellow teeth.

“Looking for any entertainment?” He asked in a voice that reminded me of oil laden gravel pressed under car tires and frightened Mutt enough that he dashed away with his tail between his legs.

“No thanks,” I replied cautiously. He made the hairs on the back of my neck stand. I didn’t like the way he looked, or smelled.

“Looks to me like your pretty lonely,” he oozed. “I bet I have just the thing you need,” he added and winked a jaundiced eye.

“No really, I’m fine,” I insisted.

“Come on man,” he said. “I got it all. Young ladies, boys, mature, even got a cripple if that does it for you.”

“No,” I replied flatly. “I just want to be on my way.”

“Where you headed?” he asked, eying me suspiciously.

“Out of town. Back out to the country,” I said as I started to walk away.

“Which direction?”

“North,” I lied. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Cold up north, sure you don’t want a little company first?” He persisted.

“No that that’s my final answer,” I practically shouted.

“What’s the matter, don’t like people? Got it for your little dog there?” He spat.

“Go to Hell!” I barked. “I told you I’m not interested. Leave me alone!” I turned to walk away quaking in anger and frustration. Weeks of pent up emotions were suddenly boiling up with the force of a mega-caldera.

“Go to Hell?” He chuckled before his ugly face reddened and he ranted, “Screw you, you bastard. I’m just a businessman trying to make a living. What’s your problem? Don’t know how to do it? Got a little dick do ya? ‘Fraid my toys will laugh at you, huh? Well, they’ll do whatever I tell them too. They’d even screw their own mothers if I told them to. What do you know, you limp dick? I gave you a chance to get your rocks off before I did you in, now I’m just gonna kill you fer fun.”

I turned back to him as I felt my shotgun being jerk off of my shoulder. In one fluid motion I instinctively reached between my backpack and my lower back where I had secured Dustin’s pistol. He was leveling my own shotgun at me, screaming, “BASTARD!” when I shot him in the thigh.

The bullet tore into his flesh, exiting out his groin in a horrific fist sized hole. He fell to the ground in agony screaming, “My dick, you blew off my dick.”

I was willing to walk away then, but he pressed me further by adding, “I’ll just have to take yours, since you don’t want to use it.”

“No, I don’t think so,” I said evenly, even though my heart was in my throat and my hands were shaking violently. All I could think about was that this depraved soul was the one who had raped and murdered my wife. My vision turned red in a heartbeat as I unloaded five more slugs into the bleeding ingrate.

I don’t know how long I stood there absently pulling the trigger of the emptied pistol, but the sound of my growling dog shook me back to reality.

Several pre-teen boys and girls, along with an old woman and a one legged man who hobbled on crutches, were approaching with terrified looks on their faces.

“Daddy Pickels?” A chocolate face girl of around eleven cried. She was clearly not the dead man’s progeny.

“You killed him,” one of the boys said in an agitated and squeaky voice.

“Now what are we supposed to do?” asked another.

“Get ‘im,” raged the old woman.

The group descended on corpse with a rage only told in the Bible. This was a vengeance, only believable in myth and legend, being visited upon the holed body of a twisted individual. I swept up my shotgun and ran as fast and as far as my emaciated body would let me.

 

#

           I moved quickly through Okemos and soon found myself in Webberville within a few days. I was reluctant to go to my Grandparent’s house, but I was in a state of shock and in need of a good night of rest. The weather was continually getting colder and my supplies were running low again.

My Grandparents were not home, and I was worried. The tiny house had been ransacked and there was evidence of a struggle. Guiltily, I was just too tired to search for them. I figured they were long gone in the bramble of terrible events unfolding around me.

I huddled in the basement for three days. My grandfather kept a small bedroom full of yard-sale musical instruments, old clocks and cameras; decade’s worth of salvaged treasures of a kind old man. It was there among the treasures that I finally broke to the pressure that had been building inside. I cried almost constantly at all the world had lost, all that I had lost.

It was there that I found my peace with God, among the old cassette tapes of hymns and stacks of old cookbooks. I read the Holy Bible for the first time and argued with a deity I had never embraced. I called him a son-of-a-bitch and wanted to hear, “I forgive you”. I screamed, “I hate you!” But I wanted to hear, “I love you.” I rallied and raved and finally relented before telling Him, “I choose to ignore you.” I desperately wanted to hear, “Ignore me if you want, but I’m still here.” The truth was that I heard no voice, no music, nor Herald, only the emptiness of the human condition.

I emerged a changed man. I think that releasing the grief that I had been repressing allowed me to assume a new role: the role of a survivor. I was in control of my life because I was willing to accept what fate blew at me. I would adapt, change, and anneal myself to reality. I would become the aggressor and not the victim. I had killed, I had somewhat enjoyed it because it was justice on some degree. I would be willing to do it again to preserve myself. I didn’t have to like it, but I would do it.

As I approach my chosen destination, I reflected on the life that made me happy. I would relive those memories of my former life, not because they haunted me, but because they strengthened me. They will keep me grounded to the person I was, while I developed into the person I had to be. After all, people were funny. I would remember looking into the blue seas of love that were the eyes of my wife as I said, “I do”. I would remember the first time I held my son and the tears that mingled with his first cries of life. I would remember the simple things, like eating dinner as a family or watching silly cartoons because they were all we could do to stop an angry toddler from crying. I would remember life, even though the path I followed may take me to death.

I could see it, the road sign with four white letters. My mangy dog was lifting his leg on the green sign, five foot long and covered with icicles in September. Hell had frozen over…

 


Hell (Version 3)

What has the world come to? I asked my gaunt reflection in the filth covered mirror. The wild bearded man on the other side of the glass didn’t answer. Instead he stared back at me with a glare that accused me of all the failures I had committed over the last year.

“Go to Hell!” I screamed as I crashed my fist through the thin pane and into the drywall. Hot blood sprayed across the shards and the dog that had followed me since Chesaning darted into the toilet stall of the abandoned gas station restroom.

With a heaving chest, I ground the mirror shards with my heel as I wrapped a stained handkerchief around my bleeding hand. Then sighing, I hefted my heavy pack, slung my shotgun over my shoulder, and adjusted the clumsy brace of knives around my belt. “C’mon, Mutt!” I barked as I kicked open the door and stepped out into the bright autumn morning.

<>

Eighteen months ago, the world woke up to a story on the news. A new virus was spreading across the world. Its official name was some combination of capital letters salted with numbers, but everyone ended up calling it the Shakes. The Shakes was an airborne virus that caused victims to run an extremely high fever and shiver uncontrollably. There weren’t any liquefied organs or open lesions that turned people into bedridden nightmares. It simply struck and cooked a person’s brain, killing them outright, or striking them dumb. Before the TVs went blank, I think I heard them say that the mortality rate was near eighty percent.

It was amazing at how fast everything crumbled. Within weeks America’s infrastructure collapsed. Gas stations ran out of fuel, food disappeared, and soon after the utilities had cut out. I quickly learned that I couldn’t be the mild mannered father I used to be – especially after the Shakes took my little girl. I never fully appreciated that my wife and son and I had survived.

Hunt, scavenge, fortify became my mantra. While I was out my wife and son changed our little house from a modern home into to a packed hoarder’s den. They worked hard while I picked through the homes of our dead neighbors or hunted for anything bigger than a squirrel. Mostly I walked around our small town of Breckenridge, Michigan in a dazed stupor.

Sometime around Easter, I had risen early to cycle over to Saint Louis in hopes of catching some fish in the river. As my heavy legs pushed my bike through the center of town, the sweet smell of spring carried the acerbic tinged odor of something rotting. I thought little of it in my grogginess and continued on. The Pine River was high with spring melt and my efforts were fruitful and I was in even better spirits over finding an unopened box of wine in one of the remote houses on the river’s edge. I had hoped that Sarah would be as thrilled as I was over an intimate dinner of carp and wine. My legs felt less heavy as I pumped the pedals and a warm breeze pushed me home.

Central Michigan is mostly flat and open farmland dotted with wind turbines, so I could see the smoke as soon as I headed east out of Saint Louis. The tall stack of black ugliness against the brilliant blue of sky instantly stole my breath. Once panic set in the few miles between the towns only took a few minutes, yet it seemed like an eternity.

“No, no, no…” I had panted between ragged breaths.

My worst fears crashed through any illusions I had managed to throw up in my head. The whole of Breckenridge seemed to be on fire. Rotten corn in one of the silos at the mill had exploded and ignited the surrounding buildings. There was a wall of fire between me and my home. I couldn’t reach my family.

<>

               My hand throbbed as I rounded the corner of the gas station. One look at the blood-soaked kerchief let me know that I needed to find a decent bandage. I used a chunck of parking block to bust out the display window of the station. A cursory glance of the inside told me that I was not the first one to raid it. In fact, the door hadn’t even been locked. I shook my head. Violent behavior sometimes just felt good.

There wasn’t much left on the shelves. A few nonessentials that the morons before me had knocked on the floor; canned cat food, roach killer, and paper towels. I used the towels to soak up more blood on my hand as I looked behind the counter. Whoever had been here before me had been thorough.

Truth be told, I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. Since the fire that had eliminated Breckenridge, I had wandered aimlessly. I was a mess. Everything I knew had collapsed, beginning with the world and ending with my family. I needed a purpose again.

There was a map on the wall, a blue and white mitten with a red “X” that marked my current location.

“Westphalia?” I laughed. I’d never even heard of the town, but I now knew I was northwest of Lansing and that was a start. But where would I go from there?

Below the map was a table full of brochures of travel destinations. I picked up a handful and rifled through them to see if anything piqued my interest.  I threw the ones that didn’t appeal to me on the floor; Grand Ledge, Holland, Clare, Bay City, Mackinaw City. In frustration I cast the lot aside, except for the one that stuck to my blood soaked bandage. It read: Go to Hell, Stay for the BBQ.

Hell instantly grabbed my attention. I felt I was already living there.

“Whaddya say, Mutt? Wanna go to Hell with me?” I asked the tan shadow that always followed me.

Hell was a tiny little town just northwest of Detroit.  It would be a suitable place for me to evolve into the demon that seemed to possess me. Under early wintry clouds, it took me almost a week of one foot in front of the other in an eerily gray and silent world.

<>

I progressed southeast toward Lansing, in slightly higher spirits. Lansing was on the way toward my goal and if there was any form of government left in the state, it would be there.

I passed countless cars abandoned on the roadside as they ran out of fuel. There were remarkably few people traveling the highways. Perhaps it was because of the cooling weather, or the fact that people strayed away from a tall, manic looking man sporting an unruly beard and shotgun. The twenty five miles progressed quickly as I camped out under vivid stars and shared what was left of small game with my tan shadow. At times I was almost able to forget my recent past, lost in the tranquility of silence and solitude. But it always came crashing back to me in my dreams of people shaking apart, burning bodies of children, and shadowy figures sharing haunting laughter as I raged against chains that held me just out of reach.

<>

I became a killer in Lansing. I had made it through the once bustling Capital to the southeast side of town before I was approached by a man with greasy hair and the sulfuric smell of battery acid. The stranger sauntered toward me confidently showing a broken smile and yellow teeth.

“Looking for any entertainment?” He asked in a voice that reminded me of oil laden gravel pressed under car tires.

“No thanks,” I replied cautiously. Everything about him made my hackles stand on end. I don’t know if his seedy appearance or the fact that I hadn’t seen a stranger in months.

“Looks to me like you’re pretty lonely,” he oozed. “I bet I have just the thing you need,” he added and winked a jaundiced eye.

“No, really, I’m fine,” I insisted.

“Come on man,” he said. “I got it all. Young ladies, boys, mature, even got a cripple if that does it for you.”

“No,” I replied flatly. “I just want to be on my way.”

“Where you headed?” he asked, eying me suspiciously.

“Out of town. Back out to the country,” I said as I started to walk away.

“Which direction?”

“North,” I lied. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Cold up north, sure you don’t want a little company first?” He persisted.

“No and that’s my final answer,” I practically shouted.

“What’s the matter, don’t like people? Got it for your little dog there?” He spat.

“Go to hell!” I barked. “I told you I’m not interested. Leave me alone!” I turned to walk away quaking in anger and frustration. Months of pent up emotions were suddenly boiling up with the force of a mega-caldera.

“Go to hell?” He chuckled before his ugly face reddened and he ranted, “I’m just a businessman trying to make a living. What’s your problem? Don’t know how to do it? Got a little dick do ya? ‘Fraid my toys will laugh at you, huh? Well, they’ll do whatever I tell them to. They’d even screw their own mothers if I told them to. What do you know, you limp dick? I gave you a chance to get your rocks off before I did you in, now I’m just gonna kill you fer fun.”

He tried to wrestle my shotgun from my shoulder and my anger flared. How dare he try to use my own gun to kill me? I twisted it out of his hands and shoved him onto the ground.  He scrambled backwards on his rear, his hands flailing in front of him.

“Hey, man, it was just a joke. I wasn’t really going to kill you. Just give you a scare, make you want to enjoy life a little so you’ll give me some business.”

“This is the only business you’ll be getting from me,” I said evenly as I leveled my shotgun at him. All I could think about was that this depraved soul was the one who had started the fire in Breckenridge. My vision turned red in a heartbeat as my finger pulled the trigger. He jerked and fell to his back, red spreading out over his threadbare shirt and into the ground.

I don’t know how long I stood there absently pulling the trigger of the emptied shotgun before the cry of a young girl broke my concentration.  But the sound of my growling dog shook me back to reality.

“Daddy Pickels?” The chocolate faced girl was around eleven. She was clearly not the dead man’s progeny.

Several pre-teen boys and girls, along with an old woman and a one legged man who hobbled on crutches, were approaching with terrified looks on their faces.

“You killed him,” one of the boys said in an agitated and squeaky voice.

“Now what are we supposed to do?” asked another.

“Get ‘im,” raged the old woman.

The group descended on the corpse with a rage only told in the Bible. This was a vengeance, only believable in myth and legend, being visited upon the holed body of a twisted individual. I swept up my shotgun and ran as fast and as far as my emaciated body would let me.

<>

           I moved quickly through Okemos and soon found myself in Webberville within a few days. I was reluctant to go to my grandparent’s house, but I was in a state of shock and in need of a good night of rest. The weather was continually getting colder and my supplies were running low again.

My grandparents were in their bedroom, victims of the Shakes. I left them lying next to each other. They were dead and just one more piece in the bramble of terrible events unfolding around me.

I huddled in the basement for three days. My grandfather kept a small bedroom full of yard-sale musical instruments, old clocks and cameras; a decade’s worth of salvaged treasures of a kind old man. It was there among the treasures that I finally broke to the pressure that had been building inside. I cried almost constantly at all the world had lost, all that I had lost.

It was there that I found my peace with God, among the old cassette tapes of hymns and stacks of old cookbooks. I read the Holy Bible for the first time and argued with a deity I had never embraced. I called him a son-of-a-bitch and wanted to hear, “I forgive you”. I screamed, “I hate you!” But I wanted to hear, “I love you.” I rallied and raved and finally relented before telling Him, “I choose to ignore you.” I desperately wanted to hear, “Ignore me if you want, but I’m still here.” The truth was that I heard no voice, no music, nor Herald, only the emptiness of the human condition.

I emerged a changed man. I think that releasing the grief that I had been repressing allowed me to assume a new role: the role of a survivor. I was in control of my life because I was willing to accept what fate blew at me. I would adapt, change, and anneal myself to reality. I would become the aggressor and not the victim. I had killed, I had somewhat enjoyed it because it was justice on some degree. I would be willing to do it again to preserve myself. I didn’t have to like it, but I would do it.

As I approach my chosen destination, I reflected on the life that made me happy. I would relive those memories of my former life, not because they haunted me, but because they strengthened me. They will keep me grounded to the person I was, while I developed into the person I had to be. I would remember looking into the blue seas of love that were the eyes of my wife as I said, “I do”. I would remember the first time I held my son and the tears that mingled with his first cries of life. I would remember the simple things, like eating dinner as a family or watching silly cartoons because they were all we could do to stop an angry toddler from crying. I would remember life, even though the path I followed may take me to death.

I could see it, the road sign with four white letters. My mangy dog was lifting his leg on the green sign, five foot long and covered with the icicles of winter’s first storm. Hell had frozen over…


Immortally Insane (Redux)

A wind should be buffeting me, should be threatening to push or pull me off of the precipice to a grisly death far below. My heart should be racing, I should be feeling some quickening, some fleeting glimpses of my life…lives. But that does not apply to me, not to one of my unique qualities.

Instead, I stand on the brim of this tower, surrounded by an abyss, a dark and heartless void on a world that is not my own. Should I be grateful? Wouldn’t anyone else be happy to have survived?

“Ha!” My laugh is bitter, acerbic on an intimate level, as harsh a laugh as any human has laughed…yet not sour enough.

“BASTARDS!…God-damned logical bastards!” My words fall away into the distance, heard by many but listened to by no one.

Oh, how I long for a breeze. A burst of sunlight to brush my cheek in the manner God intended. I could do it. I could simply remember. I could use my gift, my perfect memory. But that is what they want, what they desperately need me to do. It is why I was chosen, why I was taken after Death failed to take me to Hell.

In a flash of light they took me away from my wife and my kids. Took me to be the record of a planet full of new life. Bitter, loving, precarious life. My perfect memory, my unbiased, flawless memory. Stupid bastards, they don’t have a clue. They failed when they took me away from my heart, my soul…my family. Now they all they have is a broken computer, a brain that has lost its capacity to care. Now all I do is calculate how to end my existence. I’ve turned their record keeper into a traveler of a suicide train. One bloody death after another, each one more creative than the next.

I woke up once, before they were ready. I give them credit, they might have anticipated my reactions. There was a cavernous room filled with racks of ‘me’. A contingency for every scenario. I might be immortal…a chilling thought.

I wonder if this time it will hurt?

I hear the wind now…

***

I wake up on the cold slab in a room that is no longer terrifying with its organic machinery. Wisps of cold steam rise from my naked torso, and the pain of sudden impact is still jolting my senses. It is an odd feeling, the sharp pain of broken bones juxtaposed with brand new flesh. My keepers watch me constantly and transfer my consciousness, within seconds, to a new body.

This isn’t how it was supposed to be. I died a long time ago. Cancer had claimed me in a hospital room with my wife by my side. I remember the feeling of my body contorting in agony in an eternal moment. A moment was all it should have been. That was what the red-haired woman said when she came to me as I was locked in that infinite moment of agony. “We’re sorry, Clancy. So very, very sorry. He should have been here to release you the moment you passed from the realm of the living. But he’s gone and there is no one to take you to the other side. Death has died and I’m so sorry that you have to stay this way until his replacement can be found. Every soul is in limbo until then. There may be a way to release you from this pain, but there will be a cost. Are you willing to pay it?”

I couldn’t answer through my agony, other than to shake my head. Leaving my family behind was a far worse pain being locked in a moment of excruciating physical pain.

“Oh!” The red-haired woman exclaimed. “Well then, you are not going to like us very much because the call has already been made. They are coming to get you now. You will be taken to a place where you will do good. They are trying to rebuild their world and they need someone with your unique abilities. A perfect memory is a rare and precious thing. So, we guess we’re not really sorry that you’ll hate us. You will be providing a service and our conscious will be clear because you won’t be in pain.”

I managed to choke out a response. “You have created a whole new world of pain. How do you feel about that?”

There was a brief look of despair on her creamy white face. Then she nodded and said, “We’re certain that there will be many repercussions for this day.” Then her expression softened and she took my hand. “When the new Death comes for you, don’t be cross with him. Whoever it will be, he will be in as much personal anguish as you are.”

“Pick me then,” I croaked.

“We cannot. You are not the right person. We encourage you to be the man you wanted to be when you get there. They are coming. Farewell, Clancy, We hope you can find it in your heart to forgive us.

In a flash of light I was taken from the hospital room and released from the torture of being locked in time. I awoke on a table in a different kind of hospital. There were small grey beings watching me. All they ever do is watch me. Watch me and fix me when I break myself. And I break myself a lot. As much as I hate them, I can’t bring myself to harm them. I simply take out my aggression and my pain on myself. It was a huge mistake to pick me. If they want a world based off of my memories, then whatever physical damage I could do is no comparison to the emotional Hell they’ll be creating. If they even have the capacity to understand what they are building. Until then, I will keep killing myself and being reborn. The cycle will not end until a stranger on a pale horse comes to collect me. Until then, I will be immortally insane.


Unrequited Lovers

Lexi organized her desk one last time in an attempt to settle her nerves. With a sigh that made her corset creak, she popped a doughnut hole into her mouth and logged in to her latest online obsession. At precisely seven o’clock in the evening her nimble, mocha-colored fingers danced across the keyboard as she logged onto http://www.unrequited_lovers.com. She was pleased as the black and red header materialized on monitor. The image was of broken hearts, held by demonic hands, and connected by a rusty chain. She took a moment to detach her calico cat from her lap.

Thirty seconds passed before the private chat room she created pinged her. GW1878 was right on time.

A thick coat of cherry-red lipstick made her lips tacky and part unevenly when she smiled broadly. Lexi adjusted her chair so that only her face was in the tiny box in the corner of the screen. Even though he said he appreciated her girth, she hated anyone else to see it.

VexiLexi: GOOD EVENING!

GW1878: hello beautiful, you look ravishing. is that a new lip paint?

VexiLexi: Yes it is. I knew you’d notice. Do you like it?

GW1878: indubitably. yet my favorite is still the tangerine. it makes your lips positively divine.

VexiLexi: Even after two years you can make me feel like a schoolgirl. It’s not fair, you know. I can’t see you. I’m beginning to suspect you are in prison, lol.

GW1878: sorry, darlin. i regret that i don’t have an orthoscopic device.

VexiLexi: ???

GW1878: a camera. my apologies.

VexiLexi: You make me laugh. I just googled “orthoscope” because I didn’t know what it was. Where did you come up with that? Sometimes you sound like you’re from a different time.

GW1878: still. your lip paint is striking.

VexiLexi: Thank you!

GW1878: it reminds me of the sun striking the red rocks of denver city.

VexiLexi: I’ve never been to Denver. I hear it is beautiful. I’d love to see the mountains. We don’t have any mountains in Nebraska, we don’t have much of anything. Corn! We have corn, lol.

GW1878: i recommend a trip then. hook up the oxen and mosey on out west.

VexiLexi: That is an odd way to put it :/

GW1878: what is so odd about that?

VexiLexi: Well, for starters, there are no oxen around 😛 Also, I can’t just mosey because I have a job and I can’t leave.

GW1878: take a holiday.

VexiLexi: I can’t just take a vacation.

GW1878: why not?

VexiLexi: The same reason I joined this site! You just don’t understand.

GW1878: i must admit that i am perplexed.

VexiLexi: *sigh*

GW1878: did i offend you?

VexiLexi: Nevermind, I have to go. Talk to you tomorrow.

She logged out, picked up the over-fat cat from her feet to absently pet him as she regarded her tiny cluttered one bedroom apartment. Wouldn’t it be something to be able to travel out west? It’d be a thrill to ride into the sunset with her online cowboy. The way GW spoke the her online made her feel like a starlet in an old western. Her lips peeled apart with a grin when she leaned back in the swivel chair and sighed. The second-hand office chair squealed in protest as her bulk tested its construction.The worn air cylinder jerked suddenly, and Jangles the cat meowed in surprise, digging his claws into Lexi’s ample bosom. In turn, Lexi cried out in pain and tried to pull the agitated cat from her chest. The chair shuttered once more before it canted backward.

Lexi threw out her legs in hopes of righting their center of gravity, but the effort was futile. Everything seemed to slow down. The computer monitor slowly receded from her line of sight, only to be replaced by the shadowy corner of where the pink wall met the white ceiling. Then everything was orange as Jangle’s round belly passed over her face when he launched himself to safety. Lexi could almost count the stripes on her cat’s tail as time slowed.

Then, suddenly, as the light fixture on the ceiling fan filled her view, an unpleasant sensation crawled up her throat. It felt as if her six egg omelet was lodged in her throat. Once past the apex of the arc, everything that had slowed down seemed to snap back upon her. In a blink of the eye she was slammed onto her back. Her head crashed into something unforgiving.

A flash of light painted the inside of Lexi’s eyelids orange and caused her to moan. The light seemed to be playing a game. Shine just enough to be annoying, but disappear before she could decide to do anything about it. It felt like sunlight by the way it warmed her cheeks. But the way her apartment was situated, the only time it got direct sunlight was just after dawn. There was no way that it was dawn. Seven thirty in the evening at the latest.

Ding…

The familiar, if faint, sound roused Lexi from oblivion. Someone was pinging her on the computer.

She tried to move, but couldn’t seem to find the will. It was if she were immersed in a warm mud bath. Lexi felt as if she was on the cusp of a dream. Capable of lucid thoughts and still partially paralyzed by sleep.

Ding…

Whoever was pinging her must have thought something was important. Lexi struggled with thoughts of getting off of the floor and the calm she felt as the light continued to play across her face.

Click.

The new sound made her heart race. Lexi knew that sound as the lock on the door. Who would have a key?

Creeeeeaaaaak.

Lexi released a tiny moan of fear. Someone was entering her apartment. She should do something, and do it now. Yet, the calming light held her in place, immobile and sluggish.

Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding-ding-ding-ding…

Lexi managed to furrow her brow. Her computer had never done that before. She should see what was so important. No, she should be worried about the stranger in the apartment. Why was the computer her priority? Did she love it that much, or was it someone on it? Was GW the one? Did he steal her heart?

Thump, rattle, thump, rattle…

Another moan escaped Lexi. Whoever was in the apartment was coming closer. A faint, musty odor tickled her nostrils eliciting an image of a gaunt hooded figure shrouded in a fog of swirling mists. She should do something! But the dappled light kept her eyes closed and her body glued to the floor. It felt like a nightmare.

If this was a nightmare, it was unlike any she’d ever had before. If only her online cowboy were there to save her. Lexi tried to imagine GW crashing through the door, clad in dusty chaps, buckskin vest, and a sweat-stained wide brimmed hat. He’d swagger up to the stranger with legs bowed by long days in a saddle, draw his six-shooter, and use his deep, gravelly voice to ward off the trespasser with an elaborate threat before dispatching the mysterious hooded villain. He’d then sooth Lexi’s cheek with his sun bronzed, calloused hands and offer to take her west. “To the mountains,” he’d say as his strong arms picked her up to place her on the dead man’s pale white horse.

D-d-d-d-d-i-n-g…. crash… thump… muffled voices…….. BANG!

The warm light was suddenly extinguished. A cold wave passed over Lexi and pinned her to the floor like a giant slab of ice. The cold was so strong that it threatened to slow down her thoughts. Lexi would have cried out if she’d been able to draw a breath.

The cold kept pressing down on her, but then there was a spark of warmth on her cheek. It spread across her being and filled her with a feeling of lightness. Lexi was finally able to open her eyes and found herself staring into the pair of bright green eyes she’d been imagining for two years. “GW?” She asked.

“Yes ma’am,” he answered with a twinkle in those gorgeous eyes. “Gordon White, at your service. But you know me better as Ghost-Writer 1878.”

“Ghost writer?”

“Yes, ma’am, being on the account that I’m a ghost.” He responded with a subtle drawl.

“I don’t understand. A ghost? What happened?”

“Well, darlin, you had an accident. It appears that you fell and gone done cracked your neck. Old Bones was commin to collect you, but I had…other plans for you, for us, I’m hoping.”

“I cracked my neck? Am I dead?” She asked, mortified. “Old Bones? Do you mean Death?”

“Afraid so, Lexi. I imagine there will be some repercussions for it too, but I couldn’t let you be whisked away before I got to spend some time with you. These last couple of years have been wonderful. You can’t imagine what a relief it was to meet you after a hunnert years of wanderin the world. Dem computers are something else.”

His smile was magnetic, his eyes so green, and his craggy face so handsome that Lexi was having a hard time focusing on what he was trying to tell her. Half of her mind was still convinced that she was dreaming, the other half didn’t care. GW was there, touching her, saving her. Beyond the now no longer mattered. She was in love and nothing else mattered. “Shut up, cowboy, and kiss me. Then take me to the mountains.”

“To the mountains, eh? Good thing I know where there’s a horse,” he chuckled. “That beast should allow us to keep a lead on those that’ll be coming after me.”

“Us,” she said. Then wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him into a kiss that she had been waiting for, for far too long.