10-31-09 – The Demon-Haunted World

There are bombs falling on Iowa City tonight.

We reach the city limits in good time; it’s amazing how fast one can go when there are no speed traps, no cops, no traffic at all except for the occasional detour. In some places the highway is backed up for miles, empty cars standing in neat rows with dead drivers or no drivers at all. It’s strange to see this go on for miles, hundreds of cars all waiting patiently for some unspoken signal. Every time we come upon one of these blocks I’m convinced the cars will start moving or someone will hail us for help but it never happens. There’s just the bleak feeling that whatever battle was to take place there happened long ago.

To be honest, I’m not sure if there are actual bombs falling but it sure sounds like it. The noise is deafening on certain stretches of road and there are flickers of orange light in the distance, gunfire, the muted roar of far off engines. The thunder of war ripples across Iowa City on Halloween Night and there’s not a trick-or-treater in sight, not one friendly house with the lights on, nobody home.

The old Chevy Cavalier we managed to steal has what we need to keep us going on the road but not much more. There are few amenities; the heat sputters, beginning in fits and starts, warming the car for a few minutes before dying down to a fan that blows neither hot or cold. I can’t complain – with the three of us and our body heat we manage to keep it at a decent temperature. It’s not really the time to be picky anyway; finding a car that a) worked and b) had keys and gas was a misadventure convoluted enough to make Odysseus point and laugh. I think we must have tried three dozen cars before we discovered the Cavalier parked up on the curb in front of an Ethiopian restaurant. The keys were on the ground outside the open driver’s side door. We take turns driving but Ted never wants to sit in the passenger seat; there’s a mysterious stain on the slate gray upholstery. I try not to think about the mauling that may or may not have taken place directly beneath my ass.

Dapper curls up in the backseat with Ted, his furry chin resting on Ted’s thigh. He doesn’t care when it comes to cuddling; no human is safe from the laser-guided mutt love.

The road to Iowa City down 88 is spent in long stretches of silence followed by short bursts of conversation. Renny drives like there’s a demon on our backs and maybe there is; I like when she’s behind the wheel, she’s aggressive without being stupid. At one point, near Davenport, she mows down a line of straggling floaters that have wandered into the road, nailing them right at knee level. Watching them spin up into the air, arms and lungs akimbo as they somersault into the ditch is nothing short of breathtaking.

“Your restraint is admirable,” I tell her, a little stunned.

“If you wanna make it to Colorado before Christmas I suggest you let me drive the way I like to drive.”

“I take it this is a newly-acquired habit? Or were you creaming pedestrians in your former life too?”

“Pedestrians? You’re fucking crazy. Those things aren’t pedestrians. Pedestrians have a destination in mind, they have brains; were those motherfuckers skipping across the crosswalk, heading to the drugstore for Tylenol?”

“I’ll keep score,” Ted says, chuckling from the backseat. “Ten points each.”

Renny looks at me but I keep quiet. I’ve killed my share of them, but it seems a little inhuman to treat them like bowling pins. Having the car, being inside of it, makes me feel strangely normal again and all those normal, pesky things like morality come slithering back from whatever rock they were hiding under. They look so vulnerable out there, the undead, wobbling on their mangled legs, stumbling toward us as if they had a chance. I don’t know why I care but I do and I close my eyes every time Renny tries to hit another one.

Things get boring for a while after Davenport so we start trading stories about Halloween.

“Evan and Mikey were so excited… I hope Ned managed to make them costumes,” I say.

“Out of what?” Ted asks. “Grass and scotch tape?”

“I don’t know, dick head, use your imagination. I’m going to make Dapper a moose costume at the next pee break,” I say, reaching back to ruffle the dog’s ears. He rouses long enough to lick my hand and then Ted’s pants. “Would you like that boy? You’re a great big moose, aren’t you?”

“I went as a TV one year,” Renny says. “I put on a leotard and my dad cut a hole in a box and stuck some rabbit ears on top. We got fancy with it in my house. Oh and once, once we had the interns at the office trick or treat to the other firms in the building. We made them get all dressed up like rabbits and pumpkins and ghosts and sent them around to get candy for us. ‘Do we have to?’ one asked, God he was a whiny bitch, and I said: ‘If you wanna keep your job you do.’ So we sent them out, but no one had candy, they had no idea trick-or-treaters were coming so the interns came back with Red Bulls and cough drops and Altoids!”

Renny was in advertising. There are a lot more stories like that from her and most, if not all of them, involve terrorizing the sad, gullible interns. “Tough love” she calls it, something they all had to do too when they were young and stupid and desperate to enter the professional world.

“My mom slaved over this mermaid costume for me,” I tell her, resting my heels on the dashboard. “She wasn’t much a seamstress but she really surpassed my expectations and I remember I was heartbroken because that was the year there was a fluke snowstorm right before Halloween. Waddling around in that fin in two feet of snow was… Well I looked stupid as hell. I remember she and her friend had to lift me up the stairs to the neighbor’s houses to get candy. Why the fuck do they do that?”

“Who?” Ted asks.

“Parents. It’s… The fact that she lifted me up every single one of those stairs, and just because I had chosen the dumbest possible costume… A fin… Christ… And of course it was ruined by the end of the night, absolutely soaked through from the snow. She was so cheerful, so happy for me when I got home and showed her all the candy I had gotten. I bet she was exhausted too but she never showed it, not to me.”

“This why we’re doing this? Driving to Colorado because you feel guilty for ruining your mermaid costume?” Renny asks, smirking. I know she’s prodding me so I shrug it off.

“Maybe, maybe that’s exactly why.”

“Boring!” Ted shouts from the backseat. “Next!”

“Fine, how’s this: Last year, I accidentally ordered a book about the sex trade for the store’s Halloween display; the word trick, you know, has two very different meanings,” I say. Ted cracks up, pounding his fist against my headrest to show his approval. “…One of which is not appropriate reading material for a nine-year-old in a Princess Jasmine costume. We figured it out, thank God, before any customers saw it.”

“Ted?” Renny asks, steering us around an overturned semi. The back of the truck is entirely made up of wire cages, all of which are either open, ruined or bloody. A thick trail of feathers is still pasted to the road.

“What?”

“Your turn,” Renny says.

“We don’t really have Halloween in China,” he replies, drumming his fingers on the door. “There’s Ten Chieh I guess and the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts.”

“You shitting me?” Renny asks.

“No I am not shitting you, Renny. I don’t see what’s so unbelievable about that. Sure, I didn’t have the privilege of getting dressed up in a box with rabbit ears to humiliate myself in the street, but it wasn’t so bad.”

“Ass.”

“Although,” he says, “Heh, one time… I did set my grandfather’s photograph on fire during Teng Chieh. It was an accident but man, my mom was pissed. I mean, come on, lanterns fucking everywhere… It’s bound to happen.”

“You sound real remorseful there, Ted,” I say. “Your mom must be so proud.”

“Or dead… Probably…”

“Well,” Renny says, sighing, “That tears it.”

We’re quiet again until Iowa City. I can’t help but think of what Ted said about his mom. I know that it’s a defense, being so cavalier about her death, but it’s worse somehow than if he were crying over it. Maybe he’s come to accept it, maybe he knows he’ll never see his family again. To lose a family, an entire family, and Holly too… There must be something in him, something welling up, waiting to escape, but he won’t let us see it. I think maybe he’s not the only one that’s lost everything; Renny and I have no guarantee that any of our family or friends have made it. Sure, I have the note from my mom, I know where she was headed, but part of me feels it’s impossible, just… impossible to see her again.

I open my laptop from time to time, looking for a pocket of wireless connection, some way to reach the outside, but there’s nothing. The last flicker of a connection was just before we got on the road and that was my last chance, my last opportunity to reach you all.

We reach Iowa City at dusk. It’s a war zone, worse than the barricade outside the arena, worse than any of the empty, burning towns we’ve driven through. Renny guides us onto 80 and we watch the city go by on our left, the buildings smoldering, glowing like red eyes in the veiled twilight. Ted rolls down the window an inch or two and we can hear the crackling of burning buildings and then the gun fire; Dapper gets up, sniffing the air.

“They must be trying to hold off a lot of them,” Ted murmurs, his nose pressed against the glass.

Then in front of us, stretched across the highway from railing to railing is a solid wall of stalled cars. There’s no end in sight to the blockage, no way forward, too many cars, semis, motorcycles all piled up together like a giant had gotten carried away at play time, and in a tantrum, flung his toys everywhere. So we turn back and look for an exit ramp. We get off 80 looking for a frontage road, some route to bypass the clogged highway and exit into a little commercial valley with fast food places and hardware stores.

There are lights at the bottom of the exit ramp, but not traffic lights, lamps glowing brightly in a parking lot across the street. It’s a big grocery store or department store, but it’s hard to make it out in the dusk. Renny slows down and we see that the road is blocked in on almost every side with lines of cars.

“That doesn’t look like a pile up,” I breathe, “That looks intentional.”

I get that pain in my stomach, that uneasiness and I’m trapped in that preschool all over again, feeling the dread ooze up into my throat. We ease across the blocked in intersection to a parking lot. There’s movement there, figures, shadows. It’s Halloween. I should be helping Evan and Mikey get into their costumes, putting the finishing touches on Pirate Wall-E, but instead I’m sitting here in a cold car, wringing my hands as an enormous man with a beard steps up to the window.

Renny slowly rolls it down, just a little, because we can see the gun straps draped over each of his shoulders. He’s got some kind of rough insignia embroidered onto his coat pocket and the smell of pipe tobacco wafts into the sedan as he pokes his nose right up to the glass.

“Stop, citizen, stop!” he says. The cry is taken up by a few other men, all of them circling the car. I say men, but it’s hard to tell who or what they are. I can see the glow of cigarettes, the little red cherry pulsing as they inhale and exhale.

“You’re gonna have to get out of the car, young lady,” he says, prodding the glass with the barrel of his rifle. It squeaks as the metal scrapes across the frosty glass. “I’m only gonna ask one time. The rest of you, you get out too.”

Renny looks at me. The parking lot is clear up ahead, but we might have to hit a few “pedestrians” in order to make a break for it. I nod almost imperceptibly and she begins to roll up the window.

“You can kiss my ass, cowboy,” she says. The man grabs the rifle with both hands, trying to ram the end of it against the window to break the glass. Dapper erupts, barking and growling, his tail beating out a quick tattoo against the backseat.

“Nigger bitch!” he screams as Renny stomps on the gas, the sedan leaping forward, clipping one of the other men. The window is up and I don’t hear much of his shout. Then I can see the night lighting up in the side mirror and the familiar rat-ti-clack of gunfire. The back window shatters, imploding after we’ve gone only a few yards.

“Get down!” I scream. But it’s too late, I can hear Ted moaning in the backseat, swearing and huffing and puffing.

“Oh God, where are you hit?” I shout, keeping my head low as I unbuckle my seatbelt and crawl into the back. The gunfire is relentless, peppering the back of the car, getting gradually softer and softer as we outrun them.

“Where am I going?” Renny shouts, the sedan careening wildly through the parking lot.

“Fucking anywhere, just get us out of here!”

I roll Ted onto his back and see that his shoulder is rapidly turning black, his sweatshirt soaking up the blood from his wound. I push Dapper away, who yelps, trying to nose his way beneath my arm. “Shit,” I mutter, “Shit, shit, Renny, he’s hit!”

“Hold on!”

I grab Ted around the shoulders and hold him tightly to me. The Cavalier hits a steep curb and rocks from side to side, the trunk flying open from the impact. Ted is shaking and wailing with pain into my neck and I can feel the wetness of his blood on my hands as I try to keep him still. I’m not qualified to handle this. Anything I know about treating a wound comes from bad TV and I know that’s only going to get us so far. I pull off my sweatshirt and ball it up, shoving it into Ted’s shoulder.

“Guh, fuck, what are you doing?” he pants.

“I’m… putting pressure on the wound! I’m putting pressure on the wound, okay?”

“Okay.”

Renny is driving like a maniac, swerving and laying on the gas and I’m worried the next speed bump will send Ted, Dapper and I flying through the air like a couple of drunk astronauts. He seems to have calmed down, that or he’s about to pass out…

“I think we’re okay,” she says, out of breath. There certainly are fewer bumps now. Still holding onto the sweatshirt, I pop my head up and glance out the window; we’re passing beneath I-80, the enormous concrete beams on either side of us as we speed across the grass. I hold tight to Ted as Renny crashes through a chain length fence and then drives up a shallow embankment. Through the hazy darkness I can make out a group of low buildings across the road in front of us. We’ve looped around, leaving the shopping center behind only to come upon another parking lot with some kind of mall.

“Renny,” I say, watching a cluster of lights bouncing toward us – a few are flashlight beams, a few are honest to God fire. “Renny, someone’s coming.”

She turns around in the driver’s seat and together we watch the flames getting closer and closer to the car. I roll down the window slowly and pull the pistol out of my waistband, aiming it at the closest flashlight. The torches are waving back and forth as if they’re trying to hail a plane.

“You had best be coming in peace,” I shout, tapping the butt of the gun on the edge of the glass. Dapper squishes his nose against the bottom of the glass, watching the strangers approach.

“Friends,” one of them says, a stout woman with curly red hair. “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot. We heard the gunfire, are you alright?”

“No,” I say, keeping the gun aimed at her face, “One of us is wounded.”

“You have nothing to fear from us,” she says, holding up her palms, the flashlight beam bounces off into the dark. “I take it you ran into the Territorials.”

“The who what?”

“The Territorials. They’re the militia around these parts,” she says, lowering her hands. “Look, I can tell you all about it, just please, lower your gun. We won’t hurt you.”

“Do it, Allison,” Renny says, cutting the engine.

“No, no,” the woman says, “Start up the car. Follow us back to camp.”

I put the gun away and Renny steers us around to the right, slowly following behind the group. They lead us about one hundred yards away to a cluster of makeshift tents set up between a concrete girder and a shabby, bullet-riddled brick building. It looks like some kind of maintenance shed but there are more buildings a little ways off – a gutted gas station and what might have been a Starbucks. Fires have ruined most of the distinguishing features, leaving the buildings charred and faceless.

“Should we get out?” I ask. Renny looks at me and her eyes almost glow as she stares at Ted curled up on the floor.

“Maybe they can help,” she says, shrugging, “And we can’t just keep driving, not when he’s like that.”

“Then we’re agreed: We stay here until Ted can manage and then we keep going?”

“Yeah, but why are you asking me?”

“Because, if this is a colossal fuck up, I don’t want to be the only one responsible for it.”

“I don’t think we have much of a choice,” Renny says, shrugging again. “He’s in bad shape.”

Renny gets out of the driver seat and comes around to help me with Ted. His eyelashes flutter on his cheeks as we carefully maneuver him out of the sedan. A low, pained groan streams from between his lips but he seems to have passed into unconsciousness. Dapper trots beside us, trying to lick Ted’s face, presumably to comfort him.

“Bring him over here,” the red-headed woman says, lighting our way with a flashlight. There are two others there with her, a tall man with a stained Stetson and a tall, lanky woman with a big mane of black hair. The cowboy disappears into the shadows for a second and then returns, wiping off a serious-looking hatchet on his jeans. “Sorry,” he mumbles, “The damn things just don’t quit.”

They keep the path lit up as Renny and I shoulder Ted along, trying to bump his shoulder as little as possible. I can see the stain has crawled down his shoulder and onto his elbow. I can’t think about it, I can’t think about the possibility of Ted bleeding out as we stand there watching, helpless.

The tents are crude, but sturdy enough. The woman, however, directs us into the maintenance shed where a pale, buzzing yellow light still works.

“Emergency power,” she says, whispering it like a prayer, “We just hope it holds on.”

She and the other two disappear and return with a sleeping bag and some pillows and a trash bag. They lay out the bed for Ted and cover part of it with the plastic to keep him from soiling the sleeping bag. He grunts and trembles as we put him down, his face breaking out into a hard sweat.

“Thanks,” I say, extending my hand to the red-head. She shakes it, not even flinching at the fact that there’s blood all over my fingers.

“Nanette,” she says, nodding her head. Her nose is very narrow, a little crooked, and most of her features are pinched but still friendly. She’s wearing a stained plaid shirt with heavy-duty coveralls on top.

“Allison,” I reply, “And this is Renny, the dog is Dapper, and that poor bastard is Ted.”

Nanette introduces the others, who are Dobbs (with the hat) and Maria (with the black hair).

“I’m sorry you had to run into those fiends,” Nannette says with a grimace. “They’re just… Oh they’re just unspeakable, unspeakable people. The way they bully us, the way they just take, just take what they want, whatever they want! Despicable!”

Nanette speaks the way a dachshund must think, rapid fire and with incredible nervous energy, her thoughts tripping and tumbling over each other as she speeds toward her point.

“Slow down,” I say, glancing nervously at Ted, who seems to be worsening in front of our eyes. “Who are these people?”

“The Territorials,” Dobbs says. “They think it’s their job to hold down the fort until the government gets here. But they don’t get it… The government ain’t coming. No one is coming. They just wanted what was ours.”

“Which was?” Renny asks.

“The Wal-Mart,” he replies. “We had a pretty good thing going there – defensible, lots of supplies, guns and food and all that. Then the Territorials showed up and damn near killed us all. They said it belonged to them, that it was their duty to… to appropriate it. That’s what they said. Appropriate my ass. They’re thieves, dirty, lying thieves.”

“That must be what we drove through,” Renny says.

“It’s a fortress now and they’ve got more guns than they know what to do with.”

“That sucks,” I say, “And I’m really sorry but… Look, we just need to get Ted patched up. Do any of you know a doctor? Do you have like a first-aid kit or something? There were plenty of tents out there, anyone a nurse? Anything?”

“Well,” Dobbs says, shifting his eyes to the side. “We had a doctor.”

Had?”

Fuck.

“Julian… That’s my… That’s his name. When those militia boys cleared us out they had their guns, sure, but they had explosives too, handmade shit, and Julian fell behind… They either blew him clear to hell or he’s stuck in there. I don’t think they’d kill ‘im, no, the son of a bitch is too valuable.”

Nanette puts a hand on his shoulder, stricken. Dobbs shakes her off, hiding his eyes with the brim of his hat.

“So then you don’t have a doctor and there’s nothing we can do?” Renny asks.

Dobbs and Nanette share a look, a very bad look. Even Dapper has the instinct to shrink back against my shins.

“Well…”

“No,” I say, “No way. You’re fucking crazy if you think we’re going in there to get him.”

“You have a gun,” Maria says, pointing.

“Your point being? Didn’t you say they’re armed to the teeth? This pistol will do fuck all when they’re shooting at us with rifles.”

“Maria knows that place inside and out. She could show you the way in,” Nanette suggests.

“No. Absolutely not.”

On the floor, Ted has begun to wake up, shaking from side to side, groaning…

“Allison,” Renny says, touching my elbow, “Can I talk to you for a minute? Alone?”

We go outside, standing in the harsh, ugly glow of the emergency light. Dapper sits next to me and out of habit I rest my hand on the top of his head. I can see Renny’s mouth trembling as she looks passed me, out at the highway. “We’ve got two choices. We can either leave Ted here and go on our way, or we can try and get this doctor.”

“No, three. Three choices, Renny. We could forget the doctor and try and do it ourselves.”

“Surgery? I – Us?”

“I’m not leaving him here, Ren. I can’t. He’s been with me… Since the beginning. He doesn’t deserve that.”

“Did you see his fucking shoulder? It’s a mess!”

“I’m not a good shot, Renny. If Ned was here, or Collin… Look, it’s pointless to speculate. But I know that busting in there guns blazing is just about the worst idea in the world.”

Biting down on her lower lip, Renny glances over her shoulder, lowering her voice as she turns back to me. “Dobbs looks capable. It might not be so bad. Maybe there’s a back way in.”

“Yeah I’m sure he’s Jesse fucking James or whatever, but three of us won’t cut it, you know that.”

“Then what about just one of us,” she says, meeting my eyes with a stare that, God help me, makes my spine freeze. “If that person doesn’t make it out then the other one will do what they can for Ted.”

I really should give it more thought, mull it over for an hour or so, but there’s no time to waste, not now, not with Ted moving closer and closer to that light at the end of the tunnel…

“Best of three?”

Scissor beats Paper – Fuck!

Rock beats Scissors – Huzzah!

Paper beats Rock – Double fuck.

“Happy trails,” Renny says, smirking. “I’ll take good care of Dapper.”

“Don’t look so smug. At least I won’t have to be elbow deep in Ted’s scapula.”

Renny hugs me and we stay like that for a minute, letting the relief come and then the despair. We both sense the moment when another second might trigger tears and we pull apart. “If I were into pussy, you’d be my first choice, baby.”

“You should be so lucky,” she says, punching my shoulder.

“There’s a file on my computer, a document. It should be 103109 on the desktop. Just walk around outside for a bit tonight, maybe toward the Wal-Mart, and see if you can find a signal and upload it. You’ll see the program, it’s minimized. There will be a place to upload the – ”

“I’m not a total moron, you know. I have used a computer before.”

“Good. Thanks. Now get Maria out here. Tell her we’re leaving now. She doesn’t have to go inside, just as far as the door.”

I watch Renny go back inside. Immediately, Dapper begins licking my hand, sensing, as he always does, that something is the matter. I don’t know how he does that, how all dogs manage to inherit that talent, to know exactly when things have turned from bad to worse. I scratch him behind the ears, kneeling down to his level to let him lick at my face a few times. He whines at me. He’s hungry. We all are.

“Be good, boy,” I say, touching my cold nose to his. “And take care of Ted. He’ll need some cheering up when he comes to. And say hi to my mom when you see her. I think she’ll like you just fine.”

11 Responses to “10-31-09 – The Demon-Haunted World”

  1. steveinchicago Says:

    What the hell … I knew there were people out there that wouldn’t be abkle to handle the change in lifestlye well but you seem to be finding them all. This is just another reason why I know now that for the time being we are find in our apartment complex. That and the last time we went out we lost 2 people to those god damn floaters that are so damn quiet … we needed gas apparently the floaters knew we were coming back or just happened to stop by the gas station that morning for the hell of it because we hadn’t seen any floaters for nearly 2 weeks just the occasional runner and a few groaners that really wanted to come check out a vacant apartment cause they got through the alley and sat at the door all day. We were done filling up the truck and had started to fill up the containers when they just came around the side of the building and grabbed annie and matt …by the time we turned and heard them screaming it was too late. Just by pure habit from the screaming most of turned us and shot, matt was surely gone but annie probably hadn’t been bitten yet but well never know. The hard part is trying to concentrate on things long enough to figure out what to do next while in your head you can only think did that really just happen. The three of us that are left want nothing more than just to be left the fuck alone … we don’t even want any other people around now just more to take care of or lose eventually …I just wish there was somewhere remote or closed off enough to be that I could go for a walk or change the oil in the truck and not have to have people gaurding me with guns while I do it …

    allison if you find something be sure to send me directions … best of luck steve in chicago …signs are still up but I don’t care anymore

  2. steveinchicago Says:

    Sorry for the spelling … haven’t slept in a while

  3. Greg Near Chicago Says:

    Please tell me you are still alive. We’ve been using our video game office space as our fort in the NW suburbs of Chicago.

    Early on we raided a few grocery stores and gun shops in the northern area. We are reasonably well armed and have enough food for about 2 more weeks if we eat lightly.

    There are only 6 of us left in the building. We are using a gas generator which will probably only last us another week.

    Good Luck Allison

  4. Great, now I’m all caught up, and there’s a cliffhanger.
    OH SNAP! Here come the Zombies!

  5. This marks the longest stint without an update 😦

  6. Allison or Renny, if you’re reading this, from what I’ve heard from some old friends of mine, you could backtrack east, take Hwy 38 N to Hwy 30 W, pass just south of Cedar Rapids, meet up with them there (they have a doctor, food, and vehicles,) then catch I-35 S to I-80… They don’t know what Des Moines is like, but they know that the Territorials have taken over I-380 south of Cedar Rapids, so you can’t get back to I-80 going that way….

    I’ve found some other survivors in NW Missouri and NE Kansas. We’re getting ready to head west to the mountains, since some here have said that the zombies tend to seek shelter from the cold….

  7. steveinchicago Says:

    Allison you’re really starting to worry us out here … we don’t know what were gonna do if something happened to you

  8. Allison, are there any updates coming?

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