Friday, January 13, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 13 -- Rain

Hi, everyone.

We'll get to the story in a minute, but first I need to tell you about something else. I'm part of a promotion that you might be interested in. Here are the highlights. Seventy books from 70 authors, each for less than a dollar. They are all scifi and fantasy, so if you're a speculative fiction fan (and if you're here I assume you are) then this is perfect for you. Restock your Kindle on the cheap. Honestly, some of these books look great, and, if I had the money in the budget, I'd go grab them all. So check it out here.

Now, onto Part 13 of our serial story. Part 13 being posted on Friday the 13th. Just a lucky coincidence. We are still getting decent readership, but I'd always love more. If you're enjoying the story then send others over here so they can enjoy it.

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Welcome to the End//Part 13--Rain

The fat kind of rain patters against the window sounding like someone tapping the glass with their fingers. The drops get heavier and the rain falls harder as Caroline and I watch. The rain is a light tan because it’s not really rain. It’s mixing with the dust and dirt that’s been hanging in the air. It’s raining a mud puddle. Long brown streaks down the window obscure everything outside. We hear water start to drip through the broken cracks and smack the mirror in what was my bathroom.


Caroline turns from the window and looks back toward the closet.


“You don’t have a couple of umbrellas in there do you?”


The building groans and shifts. It may look solid, but it’s not as stable as we think.


“Unfortunately, no.” I grab the hood on the back of her coat and give it a shake. “But we do have these.”


The building groans again. The suddenly wet soil under the foundation has made the footing unstable. Everything shifts slightly, and I turn to Caroline.


“We should go.”


Her shoulders slump. “Ugh, fine.” She tucks her ponytail into the hood as she pulls it over her head.


“Where’s the stupid stove?” she asks and scans the room. I point to the red box leaning against the wall near the closet. She lets out a sigh.


I swing the now-loaded pack on my back and twist my shoulders to shift it to a spot that’s comfortable.


I open the door and Caroline heads out first, hugging the stove to her chest. The rain is roaring now, coming down in dark brown sheets.


I take one last look inside the apartment and see all of my stuff, my life. This is it. It’s literally closing the door on what life was. This is me saying that we can’t go back. Acknowledgement that life is basically a dystopian wasteland. I hesitate for a moment, taking all of it in, then pull the door tight behind me and lock it.


+++++


Mud rain stings. It’s falling harder and heavier than regular, clear rain, and every drop hitting you is like a tiny little fist. And with the rate this mud rain is falling we are getting pummeled.


Caroline pushes her shoulders up to her ears. She holds the stove above her head and, with the rain, it sounds like an out of tune steel drum.


I pull my pack up higher on my back. It’s bulging top keeps my neck protected, but I can feel the rain pelting my arms. I imagine them polka-dotted with bruises when we get back to camp.


After a block Caroline veers right and finds cover under a bit of wall that has fallen off an older building but hasn’t broken. It’s created a bit of a lean-to. And as long as the wind doesn’t pick up and start the rain blowing sideways, we’ll be covered.


“I’d had enough of that,” Caroline says as she puts the stove on the ground.


“Me too,” I say. “Smart call.”


We look out into the gloom. It’s getting hard to see across the intersection in front of us. Caroline sits down and leans against the bit of building that hasn’t fallen. At this rate, we will be here a while.


“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she says.


“No one has.”


“It’s weird, being in a world that’s new to everyone. I’m a kid. I’m supposed to have someone to look to for guidance, someone who has experience with all to this who can say ‘Here …” she pauses to hold out her hand. She looks to her palm, like she can see whatever imaginary object is sitting there. “... this was helpful for me when I was going through that.’ ”


She pulls her hand back and slips it into her jacket pocket. Along with the rain, the wind is starting to pick up. Coming from behind us, thankfully. Our bit of fallen brick should keep us mostly dry. It won’t keep us warm and whatever front that triggered this storm has brought cold air with it. I feel the wind lick at my ankles.


Caroline continues.


“Now …” She pauses again, staring once more at something that I can’t see. I’m sure it’s some mental picture of how her life was supposed to have unfolded. “Now, there’s no one who knows what to do. No one has been through this. We are all just making it up as we go. You, Mack. You I trust. I feel like you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, but even you don’t know what to do. You make your best guess. You use your experience …”


Caroline starts to cry. The tough girl is cracking. The rain is wearing away her hard candy shell, and what’s inside isn’t as sweet anymore. Someone who was ripe with confidence just a few minutes ago is starting to turn. I can’t let her core go rotten.


“Don’t say that,” I tell her. “It’s tough, sure. And it’s scary. But we’re smart. We’re adaptable. We’ll figure this out, and probably sooner rather than later.”


It’s not much of a pep talk. I recognize that as I say it. But it’s something. It’s an attempt. I just don’t need her thinking hopeless thoughts and giving up.


“I know you’re right,” she says. “It’s about determination. Are we going to let this beat us or aren’t we? But this rain. The dark skies that are quickly coming. The wailers …”


And as if on cue, one of them cries.

Friday, January 6, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 12 -- Resupply

So, apparently we were taking a break for the new year. It wasn't intentional, but I didn't publish an installment between Christmas and New Years. Somehow that week got away from me. So, apologies. We are back at it, though, so don't expect anymore breaks until this thing ends. And I hope that when it does end you'll buy a copy of the final version when it goes up for sale. In the meantime, if you are enjoying the story, let me know in the comments. Or if you have any thoughts on what you've read so far, good or bad, let me know that too.

Now, on with our story.
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Welcome to the End//Part 12--Resupply

“He’s the one I feel sorry for,” Caroline says. “I’m not old, but at least I had a childhood.”

She thinks for a moment more. “The kind of life I’d expected? Normal. I’d go to college. Get a job. Married. Kids. I don’t know that I’d put many details around any of it, but that’s sort of what I expected.”

“It’s what I wanted too,” I tell her and start fishing around in my pocket for keys. “I wasn’t going to get it unless I quit living the freelancer life. Settle down. Hopefully meet someone else who was settled and our journey would begin.”

I point to a building a few blocks up: “That one’s mine.”

I pull the keys from my pocket and hang the ring off a finger. The metal rattles and Caroline smiles.

“Oh, please tell me that, as the world was collapsing around you, you took a moment to lock up.”

“Shut up,” I say. “It’s habit.”

“You’re such a Boy Scout.”

My complex is in rough shape. Some buildings are gone completely. Others are half of what they were. Mine was lucky. It was hit by whatever it was that fell that night, but it survived mostly intact. There are a couple of small holes in the roof of my place. And one large chunk of roof is missing over what was the bathroom, but the stuff care about -- the stuff I came for -- is mostly protected still.

We take the steps up to the fourth floor. These are the steps I used to unload the truck with all of my stuff when it finally arrived, cursing my choice of the top floor in the complex after just 30 minutes of going up and down and up and down the stairs.

Caroline stood behind me while I unlocked the apartment door.

“Boy Scout,” she said again quietly.

The air inside was stale and everything looked a little different. It’d been weeks since I’d seen the place, and when I had gone back it was only for a few minutes. Wailer activity was still hot through this part of downtown, and I didn’t want to dawdle. Now, it all seems like a monument of some kind. I don’t remember what I was doing the night it all fell apart, but, whatever it was, everything is still where I left it. The apartment is a living snapshot of a moment in time.

There’s a stink from the food rotting in the fridge, and Caroline brings her shirt to her nose.

“We’ll just be a couple of minutes,” I tell her and head to the closet in the hall.

I start pulling items from the top shelf and tossing them toward the couch.

Caroline is looking through my collection of DVDs.

“Interesting choices,” she says, her voice muffled by her shirt.

“It’s eclectic,” I say.

“It’s something.”

She flops hard into the chair that’s behind her. I see her relax. She sinks into the cushions. “Let’s not go back,” she says. “They’re all grown ups back at camp. They can take care of themselves. Or maybe you carry this one back too.”

I smile at her suggestion. “You’re welcome to carry back whatever you want to take.”

“You’ve already got me carrying a stove.” Her head is tipped back onto the cushion behind her. She has her eyes closed.

“Well, we can always come back. But stay there for a few minutes. I’ve got a few more things I want to go through. If you’re comfortable there I can go do that.”

She waves me away with a lazy hand. “Take your time. Take your time.”

I move to the bedroom and want to fall onto the bed. Instead, I sit at the foot and start going through the bookshelf that sits against the wall. This place was nice -- new when I moved in, but they didn’t waste any of their money by building extra space. The apartment is tiny. MOst of my stuff ended up in a storage unit across the highway. I’m sure it’s all beaten to hell by now considering what happened to the overpasses nearer Fair Park.

I start pulling titles off the shelves and flip through the pages. I don’t know what I’m looking for. Money? Bookmarks? Reminders of what life was?

I toss a couple of so-called classics behind me, wondering again, as I did when I read them, who made that distinction. Was it just one of those lies that, if repeated enough, become true. These books were a lot of things -- heavy, verbose, confusing -- but they were far from good. But that’s me and my weird tastes. I like something smaller.

I move to the second shelf and grab a couple real classics. My favorites. Both books found on a discount shelf that won’t be taught in any college classroom, but found me at just the right moment. I’d been absorbed into those pages, becoming the main character. Living those stories. I sit the books on the bed next to me and grab one last volume. The Bible that my grandmother had given me. It was tattered and dog-eared from summers spent at camps and weekends in services, but it hadn’t been used near enough recently. But it too often takes moments like we’d been living for the last months to make you realize that. I add it to the top of my pile and move to the closet. Besides, If JR is right, I don’t want to be the only member of the congregation without my own copy of the good book.

There are a couple of pictures of my folks on the bookshelf too, and I grab those.

At the closet, I start throwing clothes into a pile on the bed.

“Wow. Fashion plate.” Caroline is in the doorway.

“We aren’t taking it all.”

“I’d hope not.” She steps to the bed and starts pulling shirts off the pile and holds them up.”

“You know,” she says. “You actually have good taste.”

“You’re surprised.”

“Well the beaten Army jacket is nice, but what can you tell from one jacket?”

“I clean up nice,” I say and toss three more shirts onto the pile.

I start sorting the shirts, anything that buttons up the front goes into one stack. Anything I can pull over into another. Caroline starts to help.

“Anything with buttons stays here,” I tell her. “I’ll grab a few of the others to wear. We’ll use the rest for emergencies.”

She keeps sorting and I go through the pants still hanging in the closet. I’ve told myself that I’ll reserve half my pack for clothes. That should mean about three pairs of pants. I grab the three best pairs of jeans I can find and grab a fistful of the t-shirts. I carry them to the living room to load them in my pack. I grab a plastic trash bag from under the kitchen sink and Caroline shoves the rest of the shirts inside.

I start to load the camping gear that I’ve thrown onto the couch -- mostly cooking gear, travel pots and pans and silverware. That’s when I hear something I haven’t heard since the attack. Caroline hears it too, and we both look toward each other then move to the window. I pull the blinds, and that’s when we see it. Rain.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Goals for 2017: Go for it

It's a new year. Time for new goals. I've done these posts in the past and they've always been very specific. I'll write this. I'll finish that. Very ambitious. Very foolhardy. Not this year. This year I'm resolving to have a new attitude.

It comes from two things. The first, I was watching The Wall the other night. It was on. I was ironing. Quick setup for the game. You answer questions. If you get them right you drop a ball down a Plinko-style board. There are slots at the bottom of the board that represent dollar amounts. Wherever the ball lands, you win that amount. Get the question wrong, drop the ball and lose whatever amount it lands in.

The contestant I was watching at the time had earned $1.34 million in winnings so far. He gets to the last question. He decides to drop three balls on the next question. get it right and he could add $3 million to his total. Get it wrong and he loses, but what are the chances of losing it all? Slim, right?

You can likely see where this is going. He gets it wrong. He drops three balls. They land in $1 million; $300,000; and $50,000. Total: $1.35 million.

He lost it all.

There's more to the game, and he still had a chance to win $100,000 or something, but I had to attend to something else. I don't know if he walked away a winner. But, seeing him lose all of the money, literally a million dollars, on one question was heartbreaking. I laughed that awkward laugh that comes out when you don't really know how to react to something. I felt awful for him.

But then the next day or so, I thought about him more. And what I thought was "Good for him." No, he didn't win the big money. But he didn't lose it either. It was never his. It was just numbers on a screen. But that attitude, the one that says "Go for it," is one that I admire. And it's one that I want to adopt for my writing life in 2017. It's one I should also adopt in the non-writing part of my life too.

This attitude shift came from not just seeing the show, but something else helped cement the idea for me. I am reading through the Book of Luke every morning. The other day I got to the verses where Jesus feeds the 5,000, and something kind of clicked for me. It wasn't just in my writing life either, but throughout everything. God can take whatever we have, no matter how small, and make it great. He takes a few loaves and a few fish and feeds thousands. If he can do that then he can take what I have, no matter what it is, and turn it into something. So, if that's the case, then why am I holding back in my writing life? Why am I not being like the guy on the game show and just going for it? Why am I not writing more and publishing more? Why am I not giving my writing and my ideas around publishing to God and just going for it. Trusting that he can take whatever I give him and make something with it.

So, for 2017, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to go for it, and trust that if I bring God something—anything—he'll be able to make something with it.

There you go. Publicly stated goals. Can't take them back now.

Took a bit of a break from the serial story over new years, but that'll be back Friday. And if you need to catch up, you can do that here. Until then, see you soon.

Friday, December 23, 2016

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 11 -- Downtown Again

We are coming quickly to Christmas, and the excitement around my house is palpable. I've always loved Christmas, always got excited for the holiday. Even as an adult. But you add a 4 year old and 1 year old to the mix and it's all just ramped up higher. My oldest starts school next year, and I have a feeling that's going to change things. She'll have school parties and school plays that we'll get to go to. A winter break is going to concentrate our traditions. But I'm looking forward to it.

Now to what we've been doing every Friday for the last few months -- the next part of our story. Mack and Caroline continue to head into downtown. Hope you are enjoying getting to know them. But if you're thinking, "C'mon. Where's the action?" Hold tight. It's coming. And lots of it.


Enough jabbering. Here's the story.

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Welcome to the End//Part 11 -- Downtown Again

Fair Park is a mile behind us. The Texas Star just a small spot in the distance. We get to what should be highway and overpasses, but it’s all rubble and ruin now -- piles high that are difficult to negotiate.


I give Caroline a hand up onto the broken concrete. Rebar pokes up like weeds that have forced their way through the sidewalk. She takes cautious steps up and over the fallen overpasses. Her movements are deliberate. Purposeful. I follow just behind.


I’m reminded for a moment of Europe. Not if I look up and across this beaten landscape, of course. Then I’m back in the middle of a tattered Dallas trying to make sense of a world that’s suddenly confusing. But if I keep my head down and concentrate on where I’ll put my next step, I’m back in Romania hiking through the mountains and making mental notes about the storm clouds overhead that threaten to pull us from our adventure.


Caroline is getting more confident. These piles are sturdy. They fell hard. The boulders of poured concrete planted themselves on top of each other with such force that they aren’t moving anywhere. She’s bouncing up the piles now. Jumping down the opposite sides, and her confidence has her in the mood to talk. She repeats the question that I was hoping she’d forgotten.


“So, mister writer, how would you describe me?”


I hesitate before answering. I slow my steps, faking a lack of certainty about where to move next. Step right. Pause. Step left. She calls me on it.


“Come on, chicken. Just answer. You aren’t going to hurt my feelings.”


I jump from the top of a pile and land hard, flat footed next to her. The smack of my boots hitting the ground echoes through our little canyon.


“She’s a plain girl, but plain in all the best ways. Quietly confident. Smart. Funny. Capable. She moves around unaware of the spell she casts. She pulls people to her like a magnet, but they stay in her orbit by choice.”


I keep going, but she stops me.


“Jeezo, Mack. You don’t have to lie.”


“It’s not a lie. You asked.”


We traverse two more piles in silence. Watching Caroline in this apocalyptic playground reminds me just how young she really is. She’s like a little kid here. She’s relaxed. She’s having fun.


Meanwhile, my age is showing. I’m cautious, and, with all this climbing, I’m sore. This isn’t fun, but it’s necessary. There are things at my apartment that I wish I hadn’t left behind. I’d always planned on going to get them sometime. But with our little adventure the other night and with the activity that J.R. described, sometime needed to be sooner rather than later.


Most of what I want is camping gear. It could all make life back at camp easier. Some of it, though, is personal. I’d love a fresh shirt or underwear, obviously. There are a few pictures that I want for purely sentimental reasons. And knick knacks from my travels that I need to see again. Bring them back to with me and place them around my bedroll. Personalize the space. Make it home, as much as I can.


Caroline is a few dozen feet ahead of me. She turns and shouts: “Your writing life sounds pretty great. Why would you leave that to come to a place like Dallas?”


She stops walking, and I quickly catch up. We pass the final couple stacks of rubble and step out into an open area that used to the Farmers Market. A beaten and broken skyline stretches in front of us. I swing my arms out in front of me like some game show hostess presenting a car and say: “You mean why’d I give up a life on the road for all of this?”


“Yes, Vanna.”


The eerie silence of a dead downtown has returned. It’s the afternoon now. The sun should be directly above us. Instead it’s just a bright spot in the inky-smudge sky. The buildings here on the edges of downtown are low, the foothills before you get to the skyscraper mountains.


“I was tired,” I say. “Tired of not having a life here. I don’t have a lot of friends because how can you when you’re never home. The travel was fun, but the pay wasn’t great. I was tired of eating noodles and sandwiches. I was tired of living life out of a backpack. Which, now …”


I don’t finish my thought. Caroline doesn’t let me.


“What kind of life were you hoping for?”


I turn the question back to her. “What kind of life are you hoping for?”


“Now or before?”


“Before, I guess.”


“I don’t know that I’d thought about it. I was going to be a senior next school year. I was kind of keeping the big life decisions until then.”


Something rattles in a parking garage to our left -- metal hitting concrete. There’s a moan that follows. Caroline and I practically snap our necks turning to look for the sudden commotion, and a child appears at the edge of the garage three floors up. He waves down to us. Caroline waves back. Something gruff is shouted from somewhere inside the parking garage and the kid disappears.

People. I hadn’t expected that.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 10 -- Back Out

A couple of days late with the next part of our story. Sorry about that. Life, you know. We are starting what I've been mentally considering the second part of the overall tale. Hopefully you get to learn a but more about Mac and a bit more about Caroline. As always, if you're enjoying the story, tell others about it. Share the tweets. Share the links. Also, if you have any thoughts, let me know in the comments.

OK, now to the story.

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Welcome to the End//Part 10:Back Out


Caroline approaches me as I’m putting stuff into my pack. The wailers stayed mostly quiet last night. I was up before dawn to relieve Walter only to find him sleeping hard in the chair.

The sun is up now, but the clouds are only letting a bit of its light break through. These clouds aren’t really clouds at all. They’re dust kicked into the atmosphere when the rocks made their impact. We all keep waiting for them to dissipate, for it all to fall back to Earth in a storm of rock and gravel and dirt. It hasn’t yet, but it will. First good rain, I’ve predicted, will kick start it.

“Where you headed?” Caroline asks. I’m finishing packing my pack, dropping a flashlight onto the top in case my trip takes longer than expected.

“To my apartment,” I say as I cinch the top of the bag closed.

“Need company?”

“You want to walk all that way?”

“It’s something to do.”

“That bored?”

“Well,” she says, “I’ve ridden all the rides here. I’ve won all the games.”

“Shut up,” I tell her. “If your mom is OK with it and you can get your pack together in time, you’re welcome to come. But it’s not going to be much more exciting than staying here.”

I’ve grown tired of the clothes I’ve got on. I’ve been back to my apartment one other time since the collapse. I grabbed a handful of things — a few shirts, some pants, a couple personal things. But I need more. Everything is starting to stink. Plus I have other gear that I want to grab, that could be useful. Travel writers, at least the kind I was, have lots of camping equipment. Why I didn’t think to get it sooner is a little puzzling to me. I don’t think I ever thought I need to set up house with it, but here we are.

Caroline’s eyes light up. “Don’t. Leave.”

I make no promises and give her five minutes before I slowly start walking to the entrance to Fair Park that we all are using, one that makes the Texas Star the focal point of the whole grounds. Now, with all of the trees torn apart and knocked over and the museum buildings nearer the entrance all destroyed, the Ferris wheel is spotlighted even more.

My walk to the exit is slow and methodical. The truth is, I wouldn’t mind the company, and Caroline is pretty good company. Quick footsteps approach from behind me.

“Mac Attack! Wait up!” she calls out. I turn, and she’s trying to shrug her pack more securely onto her shoulders. Her machete is in her right hand.

“Really?” I gesture to the machete.

“What? I’m being careful.” She drops into a squat position and puts the machete out in front of her. Her eyes squint as she struggles to find a look of intimidation.

“Let’s go, ninja warrior.” I pick up my pace. “Put that in your pack. Let’s pray we don’t need to get it out again.”

We head down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. It’s a six lane street with a grass median dividing the middle. We are staying on the grass. One thing you learn quickly is keep to the middle. Keep a nice cushion of open space on either side of you when you can. Easier to see things coming. Sure, it’s daytime now. Wailers aren’t going to be out. In theory, but better safe than sorry.

“What are going back for?” Caroline asks.

“Stuff.”

“No kidding? Because I thought maybe it was for things.”

“I’ve got some more clothes that I want to grab. And there’s some camping gear I want. You’re carrying the stove.”

“I am, am I?”

“You can go back.”

“I guess I’m carrying a stove.”

Caroline picks a rock up off the street and flings it far out in front of us. She has a good arm. The rock skips across the road and bounces into a mailbox. The ping of metal rings, and we wait for something else. Wailers? Maybe. I don’t know. But nothing comes.

“You have camping gear? Stuff worth going back for? Like a tent? A sleeping bag?”

“Well,” I tell her, “there’s a stove.”

“Yeah, yeah. But besides that.”

“The usual. A tent. Some compact gear that can be stowed in a pack.”

Caroline drops off the curb and walks down the middle of Martin Luther King. “Why do you have it all? You some kind of outdoorsman?”

“Something like that.” Most of the buildings lining the side of the street have been taken out. “I was a travel writer for a bit.”

She’s treating the divider lines as a balance beam, placing heel to toe with her arms shot out straight from her sides. “For magazines and stuff?”

“Mostly, yeah.”

Caroline jogs back to the median and takes a spot walking next to me, although her attention is elsewhere. She keeps looking off into the neighborhood. She senses something, and I’m trying to tune into her channel.

“Where’d you go?” she asks. “They ever send you any place fun?”

“Europe. South America. Wherever someone paid me to go I went. I’d backpack around and write about my trip. The people I’d find. The things I’d see.”

“The people?”

“People are fascinating.”

“I guess,” she says then pauses. “What would you write about me?”

“Oh, I don’t want to play that game.”

“Come on. I won’t get my feelings hurt. I’m big enough to handle it.”