Friday, June 16, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 33 -- North

This is it, our final installment. If you've been with us for all 33 parts, thanks. If you joined the party late, thanks for sticking around. I appreciate it. I hope you've liked the story. I am working to get the ebook version up by next week. Day job and dad responsibilities might get in the way of that. If they do, be patient. Like I've said a couple of different times, if you've stuck with the story and enjoyed it, I hope you'll show your appreciation by buying a copy of the ebook. It puts a little change in my pocket and can help get the story in front of others who might enjoy it.

Publishing an ebook, depending on the publishing path I choose, could mean that these installments all go away. That's the price you pay to play the Amazon game. To get in some of their programs you need to be exclusive, and having each of these parts posted violates that. But I'll let you know if they are going to go away. I'll also let you know when the ebook is ready to go.

Now, for the last time, on with our story.

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Welcome to the End//Part 33--North

“You can watch these fires,” she says. “But I’m going to sleep. I want to be up early and on the road north. If you’re coming with me you better be up.”

“Yes, mom.”

She punches me on the shoulder as she passes.

I stay up for a bit longer and continue to feed Walter’s stuff into the barrel. The flames are warm, and it’s nice. It’s like a blanket. I take over my chair and lean it far back. I try to drink in how good this feels—the soft leather, the overstuffed cushions, the warm air that’s swallowed me up. I know that this is the last time that I’ll get this feeling. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar. Tomorrow I’m going to have to fight for anything even close to this, so I let myself drift off to a satisfying sleep.

+++++

The fires have died, and it’s the chill that wakes me. The sun is coming up to my right and it’s throwing a glow on what’s left of downtown. It’s a beautiful destruction that I’m going to miss. It feels odd to think that, but, like anything, this whole existence in Fair Park has become familiar. Leaving that isn’t easy. But I also find myself excited. I’m getting the anxious butterflies that I used to get before I set out on another month away from home. New faces. New places. The excitement of the unknown.

I know that where we’re headed isn’t new. It’s far from unknown. But, we haven’t seen it since everything fell apart.

I wake Caroline with a shake to her shoulder and she rolls to her back.

“Morning already?”

“It is. And you’re getting up late.”

“Sorry, dad.”

“None of that.”

“You have us any breakfast?”

“I whipped up something over the last of the fires.”

Caroline’s face lights up for a moment. “Really?”

“No. Not really. But that was too easy.”

“I hate you.”

“Get your gear. Let’s get out of here.”

I’d spent the last hour or so getting my stuff in order, balancing everything in my pack so it sits comfortable on my back.

“Gear’s been ready since yesterday. Just give me a few minutes.” She points a thumb over her shoulder toward our little graveyard.

“Take all the time …”

She turns before I can finish. I sit back in my chair and give her whatever time she needs. I’m making a mental map in my head, laying out my route north. I’m following Caroline to McKinney. That much is for sure. I am assuming that we’ll take Central Expressway. It’s a straight shot into Oklahoma.

The roadway should be mostly clear. My only concern is what we do at night. They sunk the highway years ago for reasons that I don’t understand. But that makes us sitting ducks once the sun goes down, in a narrow cavern with high walls on either side. So we’ll need to climb out early enough to make sure we have light to find a place to camp for the evening.

That feels like a good enough plan for now, and I look back to see Caroline approaching. Her eyes are red. Her cheeks are wet. She pulls her pack up and slips it over her shoulders in one smooth motion.

“Let’s go,” she says as she passes. “I’m ready to get out of here.”

I follow her, taking a few quick steps to catch up.

We pass the barrels. They are still warm.

Friday, June 9, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 32 -- Burn it All

A longer installment this time, but there was only one place to break this chapter. We are rapidly, rapidly approaching the end of this thing. Next week's installment will probably be it. Then it's ,e asking you to buy a copy of the story if it's something you enjoyed. And I hope you have, and I hope you will.

I am plotting the second story in this series now. It's a departure, some. Feels a little smaller, but it's good. I like it a lot, but things always change some in the actual writing. Plots rarely stay exactly the same. They don't change drastically, not always. But they do.

OK. Moving on to this installment.

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Welcome to the End//Part 32--Burn it All

We each spend the next hour sorting our stuff into the things we’ll keep and the things we’ll burn. Some of the decisions are tough. There is stuff that’s going into the burn pile that I’ve had for years. It’s stuff that I always thought of as essential. That’s why it made it here. I didn’t see a way to leave it back at my apartment. But this new situation, this very long walk that I’m facing, is forcing some very tough decisions. I’m having to have some tough mental conversations.

But after the mental back and forth, I’ve got everything down to a few changes of clothes and must-have gear for eating, sleeping and survival. Plus my mask. It’s all in my pack, along with a bit of extra space so I’ll have a place to put up anything I pick up on the way.

It’s beginning to get dark and Caroline comes over. “When are we going to light this candle?”

I stand. “We should probably get started.”

I take my stack of burnable items over near the barrels in a pair of shifts.

“One or two?” I ask.

“One or two what?”

“We want to do one or two fires? One would be more spectacular but two gets us done quicker.”

“Two,” Caroline says. “I want to get this over with.” She grabs an armful of items from her stack of burnable things and carries them to the second barrel that’s about 20 feet away. She starts cramming things inside of the barrel.

“Not too tight,” I warn her. “You want some air to be able to get in there.”

She crams with less enthusiasm then comes to me when she’s finished. I’ve just poured some of the gas on the items in my barrel and hand her the bucket.

“Don’t use it all, but get your stuff good and wet.”

She does then brings the bucket back to me. I take it from her and move it around so the gas inside can slosh. “Just in case,” I say. “We may have to start these again if we’ve got a bunch of stuff that’s fire resistant.”

She nods. I pull my waterproof container of matches from my pocket. I take on out and go to light it.

“Wait,” she says and takes the container from me. “Same time.”

She runs over to the other bucket and puts the match on the rough underside of the container. I bend down to scratch mine on the ground, and she starts to count. She gets to three and we both light our matches and toss them onto our barrels.

Flames erupt, and we can feel the air rushing in to feed them. Camp is suddenly hot and bright. I take quick steps back until I get to a point where the intensity of the flames is tolerable.

Caroline joins me.

“Happy now, Mr. Fireman?”

Yes. Yes, I am.

+++++

The fires have burned for hours. Caroline fed her barrel the last of her items a while ago, but there’s still a pile in front of mine. Walter had a lot of stuff.

The flames aren’t punching up a dozen feet like they were earlier, but they are still impressive. Caroline is sitting in my chair. I was going to burn it, but I can’t bring myself to tear it down into parts that will fit in the barrel, so I’ll leave it. Plus, there’s no reason that two of us should have to sit on a plastic milk crates tonight.

We haven’t said much, just watched the fires burn.

“I love this.”

“What?” she asks.

I point at the flames jumping from the barrels.

“The fires. I love watching them.”

“Seriously? Pyro?”

“No,” I say. “Not in some weird way. Just watching the flames dance, play in and out of each other. It’s mesmerizing.”

“I guess.” She shifts onto her side, nearly laying in the seat.

“I used to do this for hours when I was traveling and writing. You’re in the back part of some mountain town and can’t speak the language so you wind up around a fire with someone who’s befriended you. And since you can’t really say anything to each other you just watch the flames.”



We sit in silence again for a moment.

“Tell me more about Europe,” Caroline says. “Since I’ll probably never get to go.”

I tell her how everything is old in all the best ways. Not old like things get old in the United States. Not old and degraded, but old and elegant. And how it’s just normal for everyone there. We go and we marvel at how everything looks so classic, so storybook. But for them, that’s life. It’s just how the world is. Not true of all of Europe of course. I tell her about the glassy and shiny parts of places like London and how when in the right space and with the right people you can feel like you’re living in tomorrow.

Then I tell her about New York City and the crackle of life that seems to exist there all the time. It can be the middle of the night, and there’s an energy to the city that keeps you awake and spurs you on.

She’s smiling.

“You’ll see,” I tell her as I finish. “You’ll go to all those places and experience them for yourself.”

“No, Mac. I won’t. Those places don’t exist anymore.”

“They’re still there. You can still go.”

“A place is its people as much as its locations. Even if every building were still standing, the people are different now. We all are.”

“Maybe. For now. But we’ll come back.”

I have to believe that. Otherwise, what’s the point of going to Oklahoma? If I’ve given up and can’t find the hope then I might as well stay here and wait for the wailers to overwhelm me.

“Plus,” I say. “I don’t think you believe that.”

“What? That we’re all irreparably broken? I absolutely do.”

“No, you don’t. You’re hurting, and it’s fine. Take as much time as you need to recover. No one can rush that. But when you do recover, you’re coming back to the girl I first met who was all smiles and rainbows.”

She shakes her head. “Gag.”

I smile because she doesn’t even realize that she’s already started her journey back.

Friday, June 2, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 31 -- Fires

Putting this one up fast today, so there won't be a lot of wind up. Enjoy Part 31.

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Welcome to the End//Part 31--Fires

The fires that we build now that there are only a couple of us are small. If we are going to burn up all of this stuff, we’ll need something roaring. A small fire is either going to be smothered by anything we throw on it, or it’s going to take so long for anything to catch that it will take all night.

I don’t want that. I want a fire that will be seen for miles. One with flames that punch up into the sky 30 and 40 feet. A fire that will scare anything, even a wailer, into staying away. I want a fire to get so big that it almost has a personality, then I want to laugh in its face.

That kind of fire needs fuel, so I’m headed back to my storage shed to see what kind of accelerants I can find. I don’t want gas. I want something that burns easy but is less combustible.

I dig around the shed, and realize that it’s probably been picked over already. Walter was resourceful. I’m sure he found anything that could start a fire the first day or two. But there is equipment here, equipment that has engines and gas.

I find a hose still coiled over in a corner and large bucket. I use a knife that’s also laying around to cut off a bit of hose as long as my arm and start siphoning the gas from those engines into the bucket. They drain quickly, and by the time I’ve hit them all the bucket is about half full. It’s not a bad amount of gas. It should make tonight’s task easier.

The fumes from the gas are overpowering, and by the time I get to camp I’m feeling a bit light headed. Caroline is reading, something I haven’t seen her do in days, and it’s comforting. It feels like she’s coming back. I put the bucket down far from us, up near the drums where we’ve been building our fires.

I say hi to Caroline. She gives me a slight wave but never pulls herself from her page.

I go to the area that’s become mine, and I start to go through everything. If I’m going to walk to Oklahoma—and I am—then I can’t do it with everything that I’ve got around me now. I’ve created a comfortable space that feels like mine. I thought this was home. Or, at leat, home for a while. Now, if I’m essentially becoming a nomad until I can walk the few hundred miles to this church then I’ve got to cull. I need to reassess everything I’ve brought here.

I take my pack and dump it out in front of me. Clothes fall into a pile. Other gear tumbles out and rolls away from me. There’s matches in a stay-dry container. There’s a couple of knives. But mostly what’s in the pack are clothes.

Then there’s the gas mask. It’s the exact kind of thing that I should leave behind. It’s impractical. It’s old. Then I remember just a few days before and Caroline’s magic moment. How if I hadn’t had this mask then I wouldn’t be here to make these decisions. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to decide to go to Oklahoma.

I put the mask in the pile of things that are coming with me. It’s a pile that’s still too big, but I stop trying to make tough decisions and pile everything that I’m not keeping into a somewhat organized stack near the barrels where we’ll later make big fire.

“What are you doing?” Caroline asks.

“Lightening my load.”

“Why?”

“Too much to carry.”

“Yeah, makes sense. But you’re going to burn it all?”

“Don’t know what else to do with it. Plus I want to see a big, big fire. I kind of feel like I need to.”

“OK, Pyro.” Caroline walks to her pile of stuff and drags a mat that she’d been laying on—not her bed, a spare mat that she’d found somewhere—and drags it over to the pile and throws it on top.


She looks at me and says “Kindling.”

Friday, May 26, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 30 -- Piles

Thirty. It's a nice round number, and that's where we are. Thirty parts. Thirty weeks of zombies and aliens and Mac and Caroline. Probably five more parts to go. So Welcome to the End is coming to an end. I am in the middle of plotting a second part, carrying on Mac and Caroline's story past this. I like where it's headed. It's different than this story, but it'll move the story along nicely.

OK, on with the story.

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Welcome to the End//Part 30 -- Piles

This life had started to feel normal. The wailers had seemed annoying but avoidable if you didn’t put yourself in situations where you were vulnerable. Living in an old fairground wasn’t a horrible thing considering the alternatives. And I had liked Maggie and Walter and Caroline. Life wasn’t anything like I’d ever expected, but it was feeling like it was becoming normal.

Then the rains come. Then the wailers stampede. Then everyone dies. Now, this fairground seems like the last place I want to be. I’ve never been to Oklahoma, but it seems as good a place as any now. Now that nothing feels normal again.

I get back behind the wheelbarrow and begin to push it back to the storage area where I’d found it. Then I stop. It doesn’t matter if it gets back to where it needs to go. No one is ever going to be here again.

I don’t know that, of course. Someone else could come here to Fair Park thinking that it’d make a good place to regroup. Maybe to call home. And I can’t say that they’d be wrong. It has been a good base to work from for the last month. Suddenly, a month doesn’t feel like all that long. Four weeks. That’s all we’ve been here. That’s nothing. It’s an inconsequential amount of time. One twelfth of a year. Just 8 percent of a 365 day cycle, give or take.

But this month, it feels eternal. That’s what happens, I guess, when the world comes down around you.

I go back to camp. Caroline is gathering her mom’s stuff--her bedroll, her clothes, everything that still says Maggie. She’s putting it all in a sloppy pile.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“Cleaning up,” she says. “I’ve already got all of Walter’s stuff together.” She points toward a similar pile a few yards away.

“Want me to get Bethany and Britt’s things?”

She doesn’t look up from her work. She’s going through a box that Maggie kept by her pillow. Caroline cracks it open. It’s pictures. She pulls them from the box and starts slowly flipping through them, studying the faces on each one. A small smile sneaks onto Caroline’s lips, and I realize that I’ve lost her. She’s dived headfirst into each of the pictures.

Britt and Bethany didn’t have much with them. I take what they did bring and toss it onto the pile of Walter’s stuff that Caroline has made.
Caroline puts the photos back into the box and puts the box in her pack. These don’t go on the pile.

“What’s the plan for all of this stuff?”

“Burn it,” Caroline says. “All of it. Tonight.”


I nod. It’s a good idea.

Friday, May 19, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 29 -- The Girls

Following up on a smaller entry, Part 29 feels a little longer than normal. So, you're welcome.

Things in the story are wrapping up. We are coming to the end of the beginning. A few more posts now, and we'll be done. Let me know if you've enjoyed the journey so far. I'd love to know if I've kept you entertained.

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Welcome to the End//Part 29 -- The Girls

I can’t leave Bethany or Britt. It just doesn’t feel right, so the next morning I get up and start digging a grave for them. Just one. It’s set a bit away from the graves for Walter and Maggie. For some reason it seems better to keep them separated, even in death. They don’t deserve the prime locations, not close to the others.


I had a horrible dream last night. It was of what happened here that night. I saw the wailers get Walter. I saw them get Maggie. I saw the two of them fight. And I saw Bethany and Britt run, and even though I know it’s a dream, it’s made me mad. I’ve sided with Caroline. I feel obliged to give these girls a burial, but I don’t feel an obligation to give them more.


I get their hole dug in a couple of hours. I do it in the early morning, as the dawn gives way to day. I want to have the whole project finished by the time that Caroline wakes, so I dig fast. I’ve pulled off the coat I’ve been wearing for what feels like months. Awake. Asleep. It hasn’t come off. But if I don’t take it off now, I’ll sweat through it.


The hole is narrow and only about four feet long once I’m done with it, but it doesn’t need to be big. With the condition the girls are in, it will do.


I lay the shovel beside the hole and the pile of removed dirt. I head out into the park to scavenge a wheelbarrow. It’ll be easier to use that and a shovel to move the girls to the grave.


It’s not until I get out into the park looking for the items on my short checklist that I begin to consider how matter of fact it all sounds. I need a wheelbarrow and a bigger shovel so I can move two bodies.


I’m moving bodies. A lot of this experience of the last month or so has been surreal. And a lot of it are things that you get used to, things I never thought I’d become accustomed to seeing or doing. Like bodies. It was remarkable how quickly I got comfortable with seeing a dead body. It’s not like they littered the streets, but they haven’t been uncommon. Going back into downtown I’d see a couple a day maybe. Prior to this, I’d only seen bodies at a funeral, when they’d been cleaned and dressed and neatly positioned. Here, these were bodies where they’d fallen, and there was something more oddly normal about that.


This job, though, moving Britt and Bethany feels different. Maybe it’s because I knew them a bit. Or maybe it’s because they are in such a condition that I feel like I need a shovel to complete the task. Maybe it’s just all of it. Everything that’s happened has accumulated to the mental levels that it all seems a bit absurd now.


Whatever it is, I instinctively smile then laugh in a way that I can’t control. I look around for Caroline. I don’t want her seeing me, to think that all of this is a joke. I’m alone, and I let myself get overcome with the feeling of absurdity.


I step through a crumpled spot in a fence that separates a back part of Fair Park from the public areas as the fit of funny passes.  I find what I’m looking for. I don’t know why we haven’t seen this before. It’s some sort of storage and staging area for the park’s grounds crew. There are beaten electric carts that can be used to haul material all over the grounds. There are rakes and shovels and wheelbarrows.


I climb behind the wheel of one of the carts and hope beyond expectation that it will somehow start. The keys have been left in the ignition, and I go to start it. I’m trying to talk to the cart, telling it that it’d be great if it could turn over. That I want it to fulfill its purpose, like it’s some animate object that has a higher duty beyond hauling lazy humans and gardening equipment across a park in Dallas.


It doesn’t start.


I try two other carts with the same results before I give up and start rummaging through a shed looking for a shovel bigger than the one I’d used to dig the three graves. I eventually find one that is comically large.


Everything I find is oversized. The tub in the front of the wheelbarrow looks like a small wading pool. The wheel in the front isn’t some plastic or rubber number. It’s a tire that requires inflation, and it’s about half flat. My arms are spread uncomfortably wide to reach the handles on the back. The large shovel I’ve tossed in the tub is sliding around as I wind my way through the park to where Britt and Bethany are. It’s taking twice as long as it should since I’m having to navigate around piles of destruction.


I pass the old football stadium. It’s half gone now. The concrete grandstands, lying in crumbled heaps. The field is getting overgrown.


I reach the girls. They look worse than the day before. Something has gotten to them, and it reaffirms my decision to leave. Whatever this was, it wasn’t small. If there are things like this roaming our park, or at least coming into our park, Caroline and I don’t need to stay.


I pull the shovel from the tub and work the front lip under the girls. It takes some pushing to get it there, and the resistance makes me gag. I try not to think about what I’m doing, but trying not to think about it only makes the thoughts about what I’m doing more clear. I’m shoveling bodies. Human bodies. Into a wheelbarrow.


I finish the job and wheel Britt and Bethany over to the grave I’ve dug for them. I tip the wheelbarrow up and let their bodies fall in. I use the shovel to even them out so they evenly fill the space then start dropping dirt back into the hole.


I pat the dirt smooth then toss the shovel out into the field.


Three graves. Four bodies.