Friday, April 28, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 26 -- South

Part 26. We're flashing back again. A little more background. A little more foundation building. Hope you like it. If not, we'll be back to real time soon enough.

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Welcome to the End//Part 26:South

I walked past that small park again the day after everything crumbled apart. It was even more crowded than when I’d left. There was a din of voices, all of them slightly raised. A general sense of worry pulsed from the place in waves. I heard tears.

I looked into the crowd. The small bunches from the night before were gone. It was now one big mass of people, an impotent little mob with nowhere to go. I did have somewhere to go, though. I was going home to gather things and to figure out next steps.

The air had taken on it’s now familiar brown haze, everything bathed in a light khaki. The amount of destruction was still shocking, and around every corner was another gasp—a familiar building or site left in a pile. All of this was stuff I missed in the dark and confusion of the night before. People were still on the streets, all of us looking at what had become of our city. Well, their city. Dallas was still too new to be my city. This still wasn’t home. It was getting there. I had started to find my spots. There was a pizza place a few minutes east of downtown that made this rectangular, cracker-crust pizza that it served on plastic lunch trays. It was an old place, family-owned spot that had been around forever. Delicious.

The coffee spot that was a block or so from my apartment. It was just a hole in the wall little place with a counter, a few two-seat tables. The lady who worked the counter in the mornings was cute, and she’d finally learned my order. I’d show up, get in line, and my drink would be ready by the time I got to the register to pay.

So I’d started to set my paths. I’d begun to find the routines that make life feel comfortable and familiar, those things that you miss when you’re away from home for too long.

The walk to my apartment took the better part of that day, but I hadn’t hurried. My path there was a little bit wandering. My curiosity had gotten the better of me more times than I should probably admit. I let myself go off course more than a few times to investigate what had happened to this location that I knew, or to see where a noise was coming from.

People were out sitting on curbs. They were head-in-hands crying. That or they were still a bit stunned, still in shock and not sure what to do next. Something down in me thought I should offer them some kind of comfort, but I didn’t know what I’d say. I couldn’t tell them that it’d be OK. That everything would get better. I didn’t believe it, especially then. I don’t know that I believe it now.

So instead of saying anything I kept walking and got to my apartment as the sun was about to set. I dug in a linen closet for candles I’d bought for a date. I was going for romance, but she wasn’t interested. But it was OK. Now I had light.

I placed the candles on the coffee table and lit them. The room glowed and I sat on the couch in an eerie silence. It was that quiet you get, the deep stuff, when you remove all ambient noise. I listened for neighbors, but didn’t hear any. Most doors were open in the halls, I noticed climbing the steps to my place.

The room got warm, and I got sleepy. I spun my legs up onto the couch and let myself drift off. I crashed fast and hard. It was the last good night of sleep I’d had until the scavenging run with Caroline to the doctor’s office.

I woke to chatter out in the stairwell. I went out expecting to find neighbors, but didn’t. It was two guys, late 20s. They had bulging black trash bags over their shoulders, each close to overflowing with things that clearly weren’t theirs.

I closed my apartment door and locked it. Looters.

I grabbed a loaf of bread from the pantry and half-eaten jar of peanut butter. I made a quick sandwich and waited.

A couple of moment later the door knob jiggled, then: WHAM.

I’m assuming it was a boot into the door near the lock. Trying to kick it in so they could rummage through my stuff.

“Occupied!” I shouted.

A muted “Sorry” from the other side, and that was it.

I finished my sandwich then started to gather what I needed. It was an unorganized scavenger hunt that I rushed through, spooked both by the silence and the looters. I grabbed too much of some things and not enough of some others, all necessitating a couple of trips back.

I stuffed my pack of full of everything I thought I’d need then headed back out, locking my door behind me.

I’d gone north and ran into a bunch of people interested in talking about the whys of everything and how it happened. Not enough of them were interested in how we moved forward. I needed people in the latter camp. Of course, I wanted to talk about the whys and what nows. But, more than anything, I needed people who were thinking about how we get to those why and what now conversations. If they weren’t north, then I’d try south.

Friday, April 21, 2017

FREE FRIDAY FICTION : Welcome to the End : Part 25 -- Burials

Part 25. That means we are into month six of this project. This is the somber part of the story, but for the larger tale, this is where motivations are cemented. At least for me, the person that knows how all of this culminates, these moments are those first steps toward the next chapters and the ultimate end. I know that probably doesn't make a lot of sense from where you're sitting, but it does to me.

Looking at how much story we have left, I'm guessing we will get to 30 parts before all is said and done. So, we should be finished by the end of May.

Hope you enjoy this installment. On with the story.

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Welcome to the End//Part 25:Burials

I hold my stone out in front of me and assess my creation. I’m happy. Caroline is still concentrating on the rock in her lap. I take mine over to the hole I dug for Walter and situate it at the top, adjusting it so it’s centered square. I wait a moment before heading back over to Caroline. I am trying to give her space. I don’t know if it’s what she needs or wants, but I haven’t asked. I don’t know how. I know her emotions are raw. I see that she’s been crying. And why not? Her entire world is now different. And that’s on top of it all going end over end with the attacks. She’s alone. Part of me, I suppose, is frustrated that I can’t predict her reactions anymore. Not like I could a day or two ago. She was feisty and bored. I could tell you with some certainty what she was going to say to my questions or how she’d respond to my remark. It wasn’t so hard to put myself back in that teenage headspace and predict what she’d do. Mostly because it’s what I would have done or said. But now, after the wailer attack and her mom dying, I didn’t know what she’d say or what she’d do because I couldn’t imagine, even in my wildest thoughts, being her. She was dealing with things that I would have never been able to handle at that age.

I go back to camp, and Caroline has finished with her rock.

“It’s nice,” I say. “She would have liked it.”

Caroline doesn’t stop looking at her creation. “I hope so.” She pauses. “I think so.”

“I’m going to transition Walter over. Spend a few more minutes with your mom. We’ll move her over after I get back.”

She nods then looks up to me. “Let me help.”

I tell her no, to stay here, and she doesn’t insist.

We’ve wrapped Walter in a blanket that we found over at the empty horse stables. Bundled like this he’s easier to carry, but still heavy. I take slow steps over to the grave. I lay him on the edge then jump in. I pull him into the hole with me. It’s only a few feet deep, but not so shallow that it should be disturbed. The bottom isn’t finished smooth, and he lays in there awkwardly, sort of half on his side. I adjust him so he’s flat as possible then jump out and start throwing dirt into his grave.

The dirt lays in a round mound on top of him, just like some fresh grave you see in a cartoon. It’s an oddly familiar site. Thanks, pop culture and your casual references to death.  I go back to where Caroline is and can see that she’s already wrapped Maggie in another blanket. It was one that Caroline picked specifically. It’s a Native American pattern of some sort, very angular and geometric. It’s all golds and oranges and reds. Caroline spent some time pulling the old hay and other debris from its weave, and it’s clear that she took some time getting Maggie wrapped. Extra fabric is tucked neatly away. She looks like a young, sleeping child bundled tight in its blanket.

Maggie’s head isn’t yet covered, and I can hear Caroline talking to her. I slow my steps, but she hears something crunch under my feet and turns. She wipes a tear then stands.

“I’m ready,” she says.

“There’s no hurry.”

“We have to do it at some point. I’ve said my goodbyes.”

I nod and bend to pick up Maggie. I grab the fabric that’s laying near her head and start to pull it over her face. Caroline puts a hand on my shoulder, and I stop. She bends down and kisses her mother’s forehead.

For the first time, I cry. Big tears wet my cheeks, and I can feel my chest wanting to turn this to sobs. I fight the wave of emotions back as I finish wrapping Maggie. I pick her up, and my tears fall into wet spots on her blanket as I carry her over to the grave I’ve dug. I go through the same procedure with her as I did with Walter. She lays flatter.

I climb from the grave and begin piling dirt back into the hole. Caroline places the stone she created earlier at the head of the grave then begins to sing.

“Amazing grace. How sweet the sound …” Her voice is a bit thin, and it’s understandably unsteady. But it’s pleasant. She continues to sing a variety of old church songs that I recognize until we can’t see Maggie anymore. That’s when she leaves.

I finish the job then step back and look at our small graveyard. Just two plots, but that’s a third of the population of our camp. And it should be bigger, but Caroline never told me where Britt and Bethany were. Once I get graves for them dug it’ll double our number of dead.

Friday, April 14, 2017

FREE FICTION FRIDAY : Welcome to the End : Part 24 -- Survivors

We had a rhythm. One that was very nice. For about 3 months, maybe more, I'd posted one of these every Friday. Go on vacation, forget to do it once, and all of that rhythm is shot. But we're back with Part 24. We are starting to deal with the ramifications of what happened in the last episode.

This is where the story changed for me in the writing. The character of Caroline suddenly felt a lot deeper and more important. She suddenly became whole to me. Hopefully she will for you too as you read on, not only in this episode but the episodes to come.

This is also the point in the story that I made some pretty big changes to the overall outline of the story. I thought I knew where it was going to go, what story I was going to tell. Right about the time I was writing his part, when characters seemed to shift on me like they sometimes do, I also shifted. The story that needed to be told became different. We will still end up in the same spot ultimately, but the path to get there is different now. Good different. It'll be a stronger story, so I'm not upset.

Enough rambling. On with the story.

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Welcome to the End//Part 24--Survivors

Caroline is up early and scouting Fair Park for an open space to bury her mom. I have been out looking for something to dig with. I’ll do the heavy lifting today, as it were.

The wailers have done us a favor. They’ve broken into just about everything, and that includes maintenance rooms. It took some hunting, but I was able to find a shovel. It’s not much, smaller than I would have liked, but it will work for our purposes.

I am back at camp. I’ve also found a few packets of instant coffee. I’m boiling water, and Caroline comes around the corner.

“I walked this entire park, and I can’t find a better spot than the one I thought about last night. It’s just around the corner. Come on. I’ll show you.”

“Coffee first?” I hold out a mug for her.

She takes it and sits.

“How you doing?” I ask.

She shrugs and looks over at Maggie.

“I found a shovel. The ground should still be wet enough that the digging will be easy.

She nods.

We finish our coffee in silence. Caroline sets her empty mug on the ground then gestures with her head like “follow me.”

“It’s this way,” she says.

We walk a few hundred feet west of where we’ve camped to an open spot that has a few picnic tables and a couple of tall, thick trees that somehow survived the initial assault.

“She’d like it,” Caroline says. “I figure we can bury her this way.” She uses her hand to indicate a position that’s perpendicular to the concrete path.

“That way,” she continues, “She can look to her right and see the Ferris wheel and to her left she can see Dallas.”

I’m just following orders and begin to dig, but Caroline stops me. She steps out to the middle of the open area and surveys the view.

“Do it here,” she says, so I do.

It takes me close to an hour to dig a hole deep enough. I don’t want to put Maggie or Walter into a shallow grave that’s going to be disturbed by whatever animals take over this place once we are all gone. There are already menacing packs of dogs wandering around.

Caroline comes back to check on me. I wipe sweat from my forehead with the back of my arm and tell her that I’m ready whenever she is. Then I start digging a hole for Walter. I don’t do it near Maggie’s plot. Somehow it just doesn’t feel like I should. The two were friends out of necessity, not choice. I don’t think they disliked each other, but burying them side by side feels like too much.

It takes me a little longer to dig a spot for Walter, but Caroline hasn’t returned. I head back to our spot and see her crying again. Deep sobs, bent over her mother’s chest. I turn and walk a loop around the park.

It’s crumbling more, like the wailers have accelerated the timeline on when all of this was going to come down. And I’m under no impressions that it wasn’t going to come down. Everything will, eventually, either by nature or by force. There was a lagoon area that is now filled with debris and floating trash. That stuff—plastic bags, bottles and cans—always seems to find the water.

I turn right and get a good look at the food court. There used to be tall and narrow towers that went up the front of the building and extended beyond the roof. Those are gone. Torn down, somehow, by wailers. The blue awnings that covered the Midway, at least those that had been still intact, are shreds now. For our purposes, this place has lost some of its practical value. And emotionally, after finding Maggie, all of my connection to Fair Park is gone. I don’t want to stay. I can’t stay. I have to leave, but I can’t abandon Caroline. Not now.

I come back to camp and see Caroline. She has her back to me and is working on something that’s in her lap. Her hands are busy. Magic, I’m thinking. But I get closer and see, no, she’s creating a marker. Some sort of headstone for her mom.

“Do you want to make one for Walter?” she asks.

I wouldn’t even know where to begin the process, I tell her. I didn’t know Walter other than from here. I’d let him sit in my chair, but that’s about the nicest thing I’d done for him.

“That’s fine,” she says. “But he should have something. He can’t just go into a hole in the ground. I’ll make it.”

“If it’s just going to be something simple then I can put it together.” I sit. “What do I have to work with?”

“Whatever you can find.” She has a wide, flat stone in her lap and has painted something on the front. It’s an abstract of colors in a looping swirl. It looks vaguely magical.

“Pretty,” I say as I stand. I’m about to dig in the bushes that line our path to find a rock of my own when I remember that the wailers have done most of my excavation for me.

“Thanks.” Her cheeks are still damp. She’s been quietly crying.

I go to the nearest pile of rubble and find something that looks as little like broken concrete as possible then come back to sit next to Caroline.

I push small tins of paint around looking for black.

“Where’d you find this stuff?”

“Over there.” She points to a spot on the Midway and a face painting stand. The door had been bent and broken to disengage the lock then left open after the contents were looted.

“You do that?”

“I needed in.”

I pick up a brush and dip it into the black paint. I letter “Walter” at the top of my hunk of concrete. I don’t know his age or his last name, so below that I just write the year: 2016.

I think for a moment then write one more thing in the space under the date: Survivor.