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.”

Friday, December 9, 2016

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 9 -- Feast

Hello, Readers. 


I know that you aren't getting anything from me other than these posts right now, but I hope that's OK. Life is busy with family and a day job. I told a nice sized chunk of people about our little serial story this week. They were part of a mailing list that I created after a promotional opportunity in September. Saw an uptick in traffic to the blog after that, so hopefully we've picked up a few new readers. If you found us as part of that group, welcome.

Still, I'd love to see more people find our story, so, if you're enjoying reading his little tale as it unfolds, would you tell someone about it? Reading is better when it's a shared experience, so share it

OK, I think that's it for this time. Here's Part 9. 

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Welcome to the End//Part 9: Feast

We all sit in silence — like most nights at camp — and watch the fire. We listen to the wailers screech from far off somewhere. Caroline is reading a book that she found in one of the first excursions from camp. It feels like forever ago, but it wasn’t all that long.

I’d just met her and her mom. I’d just met everyone at camp. We had nothing more than what we’d brought with us, and, for me, that was almost nothing. I’d come in late at night, like J.R. I was walking down Interstate 30. The sun was setting, and I could see the fire they’d made glowing from the overpass. I braved the trip through the surrounding neighborhood to make it to their camp and the fires burning in the large drums. I said my introductions then gave myself over to exhaustion. I laid down on a bench and slept until morning.

I woke up the next day and walked the surrounding neighborhood with Caroline and her mom. We spent the day getting to know each other some and looting the local stores. One had books on a spinner rack, like something I saw in an older drug store I’d frequent with my grandparents when I’d visit them. Caroline loaded her pockets with paperbacks. Now, if she’s not off with me scavenging or arguing with her mom,  she’s got her head in a book.

“Haven’t you already read that one?” Walter asks as he walks back to our circle. He’s dressed the rabbits and put them on the spit he’s cobbled together from things he found on the fairgrounds.

“It’s good,” Caroline says, never pulling herself from the pages.

Walter gets the rabbits positioned above the fire. We take turns spinning the spit, and the meat is soon roasting. It’s smelling delicious, and we make meaningless conversation while we wait to eat better than we have in a couple of weeks.

The fire’s hot, and we are impatient so it takes less than an hour for us to get the rabbits cooked and cut up. Other than some repeated thanks to J.R. for bringing the meat, we eat in silence. Everything’s gone in just a few minutes. It’s amazing how quickly manners and decorum get tossed aside when the world falls apart around you. I look around the fire, everyone’s cheeks and chins shine with the fatty leave-behinds of a meal hastily eaten.

We are all sitting fat and happy when a wailer cries out. Then another. And another. We wait for the choir to really start singing. Get a couple of different voices talking all at once and they can all get riled up and start screaming. But it doesn’t happen. It’s quiet for another few minutes, then Maggie announces that she’s going to bed.

It feels late, but no one really knows what time it is. Maggie says: “I’ve got an early morning. She smiles like she does every night when she makes that joke. We all tell her to sleep well. Caroline dismisses herself a few minutes later. J.R. just walks away without saying anything. And since we don’t know where in camp Britt and Bethany are, it’s just me and Walter around the fire.

“The natives seem restless tonight,” I say.

He looks out into the dark. “They surely do. Wonder what has them so worked up.”

“Think they are worked up, or are things changing?”

“I hope it’s the former, but I fear it’s the latter.”

“Me too.” I nod. “Me too.”

“Go to bed,” Walter says. “I’ve got this tonight.”

“You sure? I don’t mind taking the first go.”

Walter shakes me off and pulls the shotgun that’s been sitting on the ground next to him into his lap. “Just come relieve me before morning.”

“Deal.” I stand and step behind my chair. I push. The casters squeak and a chorus of wailers call out. I leave the chair next to Walter.

“Yours for the night,” I tell him and pat the chair’s seat back with an open palm. “If you want it.”

Friday, December 2, 2016

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 8 -- J.R.

Our schedule got a little wobbly because of the holiday, but we are back at it. Here's Part 8 of our story. Hope you're still liking it. It's going fun places. Well, fun for the writer. The characters may not agree as much.

For those of you here, enjoy Part 8.

And if you need to catch up, you can do that here.

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Welcome to the End//Part 8: J.R. 


“Hello,” calls a voice from the nothing. “It’s me. J.R. Don’t shoot or anything.”

Our little square of people relaxes.

“Good evening, J.R.,” Walter says. “Come. Join us by the fire.”

J.R.’s small frame steps out of the dark, and we can see that he’s carrying three dead rabbits by the back haunches. They swing slow at his side, and Walter and I stand to greet him.

We haven’t seen J.R. in a few days. He’s not a camp regular, but he does pass by a couple times a week. He’ll sleep here overnight then leave in the morning. He has a wife and kids he’s looking for. We talk about it after he leaves. None of us think they’ve survived, but none of us have the courage to tell him that either.

He lays the rabbits on top of a plastic bucket that we’ve turned over and use as a table. Walter scoops them back up and pulls a large knife from the holder attached to his belt. He walks away from the rest of us. He’s going to dress the rabbits. We have a makeshift spit that we’ll roast them on. J.R. always brings food.

He and I walk back to the fire, and he makes a bee-line for my chair. I catch his shoulder just as he’s about to sit. He turns to me, and I shake my head a very quiet no. He pulls a folding chair up to the fire and sits. If this had been just a couple days later I would have let him sit in the chair, no problem. But it wasn’t. The chair is new, and I don’t need anyone thinking it’s already community property.

“How you been, J.R.,” Maggie asks.

“I’m alive,” he says and slips down deeper into the chair. He pushes his feet out in front of him and lets his chin fall to his chest. Alive, but barely.

“Glad you survived the other night,” Maggie continues.

J.R. nods softly. “Spent it at a camp over in Mesquite. By the big tower. They are calling the place Paris now. Never been, but assuming it’s still standing, I’m betting the French place is a little different.”

We all chuckle at his joke. It’s not great, and I don’t think any of us would argue that, but it’s nice to have a bit of levity.

A wailer screams from somewhere that’s probably nearer than any of us would like. Half a dozen others respond. Everything in camp stops for a moment or two then all of us relax.

“What’s it like out there? South?” I ask. I’ve kept myself focused on this camp and downtown. I don’t really know what to do next. I don’t know that any of us do, any of us but J.R. Are we all waiting for something? For the wailers to move on? For things to get back to normal? For the nightmare to end? Or are we all just waiting to die?

J.R. adjusts his position in his seat. He sits up straighter, pushing himself up by the elbows. “It’s different, I guess. The wailers are more aggressive. There are more of them. I don’t know if it’s confidence in numbers, or what. But you have to be on your toes now. And it’s not just in the dark that you see them. They are coming out during the dusk, before the sun is completely gone.”

I think we all knew that there were more wailers now. The volume of the responses to the initial calls had increased too much for their not to be more of them. But I hadn’t expected that they’d become bolder.  Out at dusk would become out in the afternoons would become out always. The relative safety we felt in the sunlight was about to disappear.

“When I was over at Paris,” J.R. says, “there was talk of a church in Oklahoma. One where survivors were congregating. Starting another civilization, or something. Honestly, surprised a church from here hasn’t done it first.”

“Who’s this talk from?” I ask. It’s important. If he knows this person then the info is legit. Worth considering, storing away. If this is just coming from someone who was at the camp for a night then maybe it’s not true. But even if it’s not … I don’t know. Maybe everything is worth hanging onto.

J.R. doesn’t answer my question. He’s staring into the fire, letting the tongues of flame burn themselves into his retinas. Sear his eyes. He’s lost somewhere in his own head. We all give him a couple of minutes to spend wherever it his he’s mentally wandered off to, then I break the silence.

“This church have a name?”

A beat then he responds: “Sorry. What? Oh. New Hope Fellowship. Wait. No. Tabernacle. New Hope Tabernacle.”

“Fitting,” Maggie says.

“Too fitting?” I ask, because the name seems a bit perfect.

“Just what I’ve heard.” J.R. has lost interest in the church. His mental excursion has unhinged him. We’ve lost him for the night.