Archive for June, 2009

10-31-09 – The Demon-Haunted World

Posted in Uncategorized on June 29, 2009 by allisonhewitt

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.”

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10-28-09 – Housekeeping

Posted in Uncategorized on June 24, 2009 by allisonhewitt

I hate being sneaky. I hate keeping things from people that have stood by me, defended me, fought with me – but what choice do I have? Sure, I could stay and debate the best course of action and sit around picking my ass while Collin and Finn argue about where to go… But honestly? I’m sick of it. Sick to death of it, of sharing, of caring, of holding hands and hugging and pretending things are going to turn out fine.

They aren’t fine. They never were, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to pretend that watching Lydia fawn all over her prize doesn’t make me want to gouge my own eyeballs out. It’s time. It’s been a long time coming and now I need to just suck it up and face the lonely road ahead.

Ted and Renny are fast asleep when I get up. Dapper is too, but he doesn’t protest much when I nudge him to get out of the tent. It’s early, only a few hours after going back to bed, and I haven’t slept much at all. We sleep in our clothes, in our shoes, in our coats. I don’t have much to take with me and it doesn’t seem right to take their food or their supplies so I just take my ax and my laptop bag and a few granola bars. There will be places to ransack, to pilfer, I tell myself, and they won’t suffer much without me, not when they have Captain Commando and Ned I-Can-Hit-A-Splintered-Toothpick-At-Thirty-Yards Stockton; I’m injured, and a lousy shot anyway.

I stretch and do a few jumping jacks on the crunchy, frosty ground. I’m getting used to the feeling of being cold all the time and of living with that little twisted pit of hunger in my stomach; I’ve taken on the life of just about every Dickens character I can think of. Dapper sits and scratches his ear, unperturbed by my morning calisthenics and unaware that soon, very soon, he won’t get to steal food out of Evan’s little hand or clean Ted’s palms after he’s eaten a bag of cheese puffs.

I try not to think about those things. I try to forget that in a matter of minutes, as soon as I dip down below the hill and make it behind a building or two, there will be no more Ted, no more Collin and no more ankle biters. It’s sad, sure, but sadness and hunger are hard to tease apart this early in the morning. The grass is stiff and loud as I take a deep breath and set off down the hill. I think, judging by the sunrise, I’m heading vaguely east. There are no zebras in the mist this morning, no lions or giraffes, and no humans to stop me.

There’s a zip-crack in the distance; Finn’s sniper rifle. I know it’s him because he’s in love with that gun and Collin generally uses an assault rifle that sounds more like rat-ki-tat. Finn must have switched guard duty with Collin sometime in the night. I pick up the pace, trotting down the hill and toward a cluster of trees at the base of the hill. If Finn mistakes me for one of the undead then my little adventure will be very short-lived. I make it to the trees, my heart pounding, my lungs practically breaking with the soreness of my ribs. I keep hoping that there’s nothing really wrong with me, that the sprain or break will heal on its own, that I’m not quietly, secretly bleeding to death of some horrible internal injury.

Dapper stays close, his nose more or less glued to the back of my knee as I slow down and head toward the street. It’s real now. I’ve put distance between me and the camp and going back would mean an extra awkward conversation with the group. I won’t go back, I won’t.

I don’t know if they’ll guess where I’ve gone, but it doesn’t matter; no one knows how to get there. I cross what must be Wingra Street and turn south toward Erin Street. For now I’ll just have to guess, because most of the distinguishing features of the neighborhood have been destroyed by fires. The buildings and brownstones are nothing but charred, hollowed out skeletons with the broken windows empty, staring down at the forlorn street, standing watch over the fallen mailboxes and stopped cars.

The roads are quiet until I get to Orchard, where a group of groaners move up the right lane toward me. There’s three of them and they’ve got that disjointed, desperate speed that tells me they’re hungry, starving. Luckily it also means they’re weak and clumsy and too distracted by their own driving hunger to be much of a threat. And it doesn’t bother me. Not anymore. I can’t even imagine what a psychologist would have to say about that; I can look at a decomposing human, a person reduced to meat, to flesh and bone and their raw, brittle parts and feel only the faintest pang of revulsion. Ned put it best: You’re doing them a favor. Don’t think of it as the shot of a gun or the swipe of an ax, but a consoling gesture, a lover’s touch.

Luckily, whatever part of Dapper is German Shepherd makes him a natural at commands; I’ve taught him sit and stay and he does, his tail twitching with excitement and frustration as I take the ax to the three groaners. He wants to help, to defend me, but if he bites even one of them I’ll be short a good dog and a loyal companion.

I’m out of breath after that, the ax hanging limply in my right hand. Without sleep, without enough food, I’m not much use against the undead. It hurts to pull a full breath into my lungs and the pain has made my arms weak. I make a promise to treat myself better, to eat more and exercise and regain the strength that I’ve lost. There’s no room for mistakes now, no one to pick up the slack for me if I stumble or hesitate.

Taking a rest, I kneel down and carefully clean the ax on one of the groaner’s torn windbreakers. I’m worried Dapper will try to lick it and get himself sick.

It takes us another thirty minutes to get to Lowell and every time we encounter one of the wandering undead it gets harder and harder to swing the ax. Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe I should have waited until I was stronger, healed, before striking out on my own. Who will keep watch while I sleep? Dapper? Suddenly, martyrdom seems significantly less glamorous and a lot more like a slow, creeping death.

It’s quiet on Lowell Street, which is simultaneously encouraging and a little alarming; there’s not a normal human being to be found, no wondering dogs, nothing to indicate that life remains. I’m not used to seeing the neighborhood like this – still, silent, filled up with wind and the eerie sense that time passes here with no one to mark its movement. I had seen it like this a few times before; whenever the St. Patrick’s Day Parade or Easter Hat Parade rolled around, the houses would empty out early in the morning and no one would return until lunch time. But at least then there was the promise of return, the feeling that soon the neighbors would walk up the drive, tired or sunburned but pleasantly so.

Like every other neighborhood we’ve slogged through, there’s signs of a hasty retreat: front doors hang open, windows have been smashed and never replaced, SUVs and sedans clutter up the yards where escapes failed or the driver simply abandoned the car. The grass has grown long, tickling the top fenders of the SUVs, growing up and out as if to swallow the cars or turn them into ancient, tattered monuments to What Once Was.

The Hewitt residence is more than halfway down the block on the right side. It’s not a big house but I’ve always loved it. Just big enough to feel spacious but cozy enough to feel personal and loved and lived-in. There are no groaners here and no floaters, just the sound of morning moving forward and a few birds greeting the sun as it winks at the city and then moves behind a bank of clouds. It’s an old brick two-story house with a sharply slanted roof and a porch with white, wooden railings. We always had plans to make it a screened-in porch to keep the mosquitoes out during the summer. We talked about getting the New Yorker and some mint juleps and reading aloud to each other on the muggy July nights when there was nothing to do but sit and bask in the wet, dizzy heat.

Idle plans. Idle plans that were never to be executed. Idle plans that now, at a distance, seem childish and sweet, like a starry-eyed kid idolizing a fireman, not realizing that he’s just a man, a man just doing a job that he gets paid to do.

There’s a flag still hanging outside our house, a big white flag with a green peace sign. My mom was always a serious hippy and I could never convince her to get rid of that stupid flag. It seems vulgar now, swinging there, blaring a message of peace that means nothing at all anymore.

The car is gone, the garage door shut. I tell myself this is a good sign. I look for all kinds of signs, clues, hints that will tell me where she is, if she’s alive or not. And like all signs, like all palm-readers and self-styled mystics, I’m grasping in the dark. But it’s an earnest grasping and I can’t seem to stop. The mailbox is empty and most of the windows are still okay. When I get onto the porch there are brown stains on the wood floor but that doesn’t necessarily mean something bad happened. It could be anything. Anything.

I have to kick the door down. That makes me smile. What a tender touch, Mom, locking the door when Armageddon is coming for you. Inside it stinks, but it’s a human kind of stink, a stench I recognize by now. There’s food somewhere that’s spoiled and the dirty dishes in the sink have begun a new and exciting mold colony. Tiny untold worlds have sprung-up all over the house – cobwebs, mold, a trail of leaves leading to a broken window… But there’s no sign of my mother, just a sense that things were left in a hurry.

There’s a line of shoes against the wall of the mudroom but her gardening work boots are missing. Our matching flip flops are there, reminding me again of the way we relished summer, the way we made it our own and squeezed every last warm, lazy day out of it. But maybe not enough… Maybe we should have enjoyed it even more, taken every possible moment to dream up ways of having a pleasant time, of making fond memories. Because now… Now?

Now there’s the smell of rotten milk and it doesn’t matter that the refrigerator door is closed because the decay, the rot, is everywhere. The spiders have made good use of the kitchen, constructing webs in every corner, stringing their houses from faucet to knob, from cookbook to fruit bowl. There are two black, caved-in apples in that bowl and a folded card next to it.

Remember us again next year! The Landry Family Apple Orchard

The card is trimmed in gold and red and a fragile little ribbon wound through a puncture at the top. I pick up the card, wipe the thin film of dust off of it, and tuck it into my back pocket. Dapper is busy sniffing every possible source of food and I keep a sharp eye on him, concerned that he’ll decide a decidedly rotten piece of fruit is edible. His doggy curiosity does not include a matured sense of taste.

I explore the living room, the breakfast nook, the back porch. The upstairs is empty too but my mother’s closet is still open, a trail of socks and underwear leading to the bed. There’s an impression on the mattress, a little square dent where maybe a suitcase sat. She got out, I think, forcing back a sickening wave of disappointment, she left. I don’t know why I want her to be there, what I was expecting. If she stayed she would be dead. Leaving, of course, was her only option.

I take some soap, shampoo, toothpaste and floss and go into my old bedroom. The windows are grimy and covered with the wispy patterns of cobwebs. I pack up some spare clothes in an old My Little Pony rucksack, the only thing in my closet with decent capacity. My grown up things are at my apartment, but that’s too close to the thick of things, to whatever managed to survive the arena blaze. The clothes I choose will probably be on the snug side since they’re from high school, but it’s better than nothing. I try to find things of value to bring with me, things that might be worth trading for food or medicine. I find a box of old condoms underneath the mattress in my room; they’re passed the expiration date but I know from the arena that they’re just as valuable as cigarettes. There’s a pack of those under my mattress too, stale and crappy but maybe worth a can of green beans.

Before leaving, I go back downstairs and check near the phone. The phone is off the cradle, lying on a cluttered desk where my mom kept the mail and bills. It’s an antique, something from my grandmother’s attic and it still smells like sour books after all these years. The answer machine is there but without electricity it’s useless. There is , however, a post-it note near the machine, folded and faded but stuck in a prominent position. I pick it up, carefully smoothing down the edges.

Allie –
Don’t know if you will make it here. I hope you’re safe. Aunt Tammy called, she said they’re setting up a camp in Fort Morgan. Take 39 down to 88, then to 80. Just follow 80 until you hit 76. It’s a long way, sweetie, and I don’t know if we’ll make it. I’m leaving with the Andersons from next door. I love you so much, Allie.

And then at the bottom, underlined:

See you soon in Liberty Village!

Fort Morgan. Fort Morgan, Colorado. I’ve been there a few times to see Aunt Tammy and her family. They’re good people, outdoorsy types, hunters, fishers, kayakers… But that’s many states away, many hundreds and hundreds of miles away from here. I don’t know why but the way it sits there on the scrap of paper, the way she’s underlined it, the way the exclamation point jumps off the page… It sounds too good to be true. It sounds like Utopia and I, more than anything, want to be there with her.

I go back upstairs, feeling a strange heaviness in my hands, and go into my mother’s bedroom. She’s left her perfume behind. I always loved the way she smelled, and that she never ever changed the perfume she wore. The scent has breathed into everything in that room and Anna Sui’s name might be on the bottle but it’s my mom’s scent. I take the perfume bottle and hold it up to the light. Through the purple glass I can see there’s just a quarter of an inch left in the bottle. I shove it into my backpack and turn to go.

But there’s a sound downstairs, footsteps on the porch. There’s a stumble and a crack and my ax is up and ready to swing. I whisper to Dapper, who begrudgingly sits behind me, staring up at me with those wounded brown eyes. I know you want to help, boy, but it’s for your own good.

The footsteps come up the stairs, scraping across the wood, elbows or arms bumping against the wall. I can feel a little burst of energy come to me, a tenacity, a will to defend what’s mine. They won’t come in my house, they won’t get me, not here and not now.

See you soon in Liberty Village!

I move a few steps closer to the open door. I need to get the drop on them because I have no idea how many they are. It could be just one but it sounds more like two or three. Tiptoeing, I command my heart to slow down, to give me a rest so I can concentrate, but the adrenaline is coming too fast and making my hands shake…

There’s a peak of skin at the door, a hand maybe, and I wind up and let out a shout as I aim the blade at neck level.

Whud!

“Gah – I – Jesus!”

“Fuck!”

“Oh Jesus, Jesus Christ, Allison!”

It’s Ted and, thank Christ, his neck is still attached. The ax is buried two inches in the door frame but Ted is on the floor, his hands over his head. Renny stands in the doorway, clutching her chest with fright, her mouth a big wide O.

“Ted! Fuck! I could’ve fucking killed you!” I scream, jumping back and nearly tripping over Dapper.

“You could’ve fucking beheaded me,” Ted corrects, his shriek just about reaching the same panicked pitch.

Too excited by the commotion to stay sitting, the dog runs to Ted, licking his face and hands. If my heart was pounding before then it’s jackhammering a hole through my chest now. Ted looks at me from the ground, thunderclouds gathering in his eyes.

“Oh,” I say, straightening up as my pulse finally starts to regulate itself. Ted gets to his feet, placating Dapper with a few head scratches. “Funny meeting you here.”

“We followed you,” Ted says.

“Yeah I can see that.”

“My idea,” Renny boasts, yanking the ax out of the door fame. “He said you’d be mad but I didn’t expect this.” She nods toward the mangled wooden frame.

“I thought you were… Whatever… What are you doing here?” I ask, taking the ax back from her. A little shower of splinters falls on Dapper’s head.

“We asked Ned. I think he wanted to come but Evan and Mikey could use a change of pace, you know, some time to rest,” Ted replies.

“That doesn’t answer my question,” I say, shaking my head.

“You can’t make it on your own. It’s… It’s a stupid idea, Allison, and I think you know that,” he says.

“And I wasn’t going to let you pawn me off on a bunch of strangers,” Renny adds, glaring at me.

“You know Ned,” I tell her, “and the kids.”

“No I don’t. I don’t even know you but I’d rather be stuck with you all. Less chance of getting shot.”

“Collin and Finn know what they’re doing,” I say.

“Yeah? Then why’d you leave?”

“Oh I don’t know, things were getting a little exhausting ever since my life turned into a fucking Mariah Carey song.”

“Lydia’s just… She’s just one person, you know? We could’ve figured it out. But I guess that doesn’t matter now. Not really, because we’re coming with you,” Ted says, peering at me from the long black fringe over his eyes. “There’s no point in arguing because we’ll just follow you.”

“Ted…”

“No, listen to me, please. I know I’m wrong sometimes but not always and I think you and me… We owe it to each other. We’ve been together from the start of this mess and we’ve managed to stay alive. That means something, doesn’t it? Doesn’t that matter to you?”

“Sure it matters, but… I don’t know… I just thought it was time for a change,” I say, avoiding his eyes. “It’s nothing against you, or you Renny… I thought maybe it’d be better somehow.”

“Well it’s not,” Renny says, throwing up her hands, “It’s a dumb ass idea and you could’ve gotten yourself killed. Here.” She hands me a gun, a narrow little pistol. “Ned said to take this. He gave all of us a few things. He said to wish you luck and to give you this.” And here she takes my hand and shakes it, hard, like one professional to another.

“Fuck,” I say, feeling like she socked me in the stomach instead. I want to see Ned again and I want to see his kids. But this is the cost…

“So where to?” Ted asks, brightening up considerably.

“I found this,” I say, handing them the post-it in my pocket. I’m glad they have something to look at so I can quickly dab my eyes with the backs of my fingers. I don’t say to them “I’m so glad you’re here” or “I could really use the help” but I’m thinking it. The relief of having them there – of having them inadvertently correct my enormous blunder – makes my legs syrupy and weak.

“Liberty Village? What the fuck kind of joke is that?” Renny asks, chuckling.

“It’s not a joke,” I say, snatching the post-it out of her hands. “This is where my mom went and it’s where I’m going too. Where we’re going, if you two insist on following me.”

“Liberty Village it is then,” Ted chirps. “Watch out… Uh… Where is that exactly?”

“Colorado.”

“Oh. Right! Watch out, Colorado, here we come!”

“Stirring,” I say, tucking the pistol into the back of my waistband. “Come on, let’s get downstairs and see if there are any canned rations left.”

My Little Pony, eh?” Renny asks, patting the big pink insignia on my backpack.

“Yeah. You know how I roll.”

10-27-09 – Into the Wild

Posted in Uncategorized on June 22, 2009 by allisonhewitt

I update now when I can, where I can, in the little moments between the long stretches of panic and fear. I apologize if I worried some of you; without the arena, without generators, without a steady connection to the outside world, my resources become more and more limited and I update as soon as we come across a weak wireless signal, a momentary flickering.

But once again this becomes more than just a run down of events, a laundry list of troubles and thoughts, it becomes a way for me to work out what exactly I need to do. It was not an easy decision and in a way I know for certain that I’m being selfish. But this is what I need. This is what must happen in order to guarantee my sanity and, just maybe, my safety.

This decision came after the shock of discovering our home, our HQ, had been destroyed. We didn’t even bother trying to get close. It was clear from a distance that surviving an inferno and a seething mass of undead was extremely unlikely. And so we turned around, went back, drove aimlessly until a vehicle approached, rumbling out of the smoke and ash that has become our every day atmosphere. This is no longer a city but one giant oven churning out black plumes of smoke and the smell of decay.

They came at us and for a moment I didn’t believe my eyes; I recognized the vehicle and I remembered with perfect clarity the first time I saw that truck. I was relieved to see it then and I was relieved to find it again; a gutted truck and a uniformed driver behind the wheel. We rendezvoused in a park, or what was once a park, a big open space to keep an eye on any encroaching undead. The lake is nearby; I can smell the faintly salty, sandy scent of the water. There’s a pavilion in the distance and a charming bridge with white railings. The park feels familiar, but most of the street signs are gone, mowed down by cars or mangled by a falling traffic light.

Even there, in the park among grass and trees and little brightly-painted benches, the stench of death and suffering persists. All of us tumbled out of the van and I, without thinking, ran straight to Collin.

It didn’t enter my mind that, technically, I had lost the right to care for him. He hugged me, hard, and picked me up off the ground. Maybe he forgot too.

The truck emptied out: Ted, Finn and, yes, Lydia too.

It’s not that I hoped she wouldn’t survive the blaze in the arena, I just had stopped thinking of her altogether. To find her there, her spine rigid, her cool eyes distant and staring, it filled me with sudden anger. Sudden and stupid anger. She survived too, as I did, and she has every right to demand respect for that. No one’s knack for survival is better or more impressive, but that doesn’t mean I was happy to see her. And so I backed away from Collin, acknowledging his wife’s stony watch, conceding silently.

“You have no idea,” Ned was saying, shaking Ted by the shoulders, “You have no idea, man, how glad I am to see you guys again.”

“Let me guess,” Ted replied, “The Wives?”

“With a vengeance,” I answered, pulling Renny toward them by her bicep. “This is Renny. She’s a keeper.”

A quick round of introductions and we were moving on, planning, scheming. It turns out the Wives that stayed behind at the arena caused just enough trouble, just enough confusion to distract the people keeping watch on the entrance. Unsurprisingly, this allowed one, just one infected person to slip by. That was all it took; the violence, the death rippled through the arena before Collin and Finn could find the infected person and quarantine them. The Black Earth Wives panicked, tried to set the undead on fire and ended up torching the entire arena and everyone inside, which – sadly enough – was actually the best thing that could happen. What had once been a sanctuary, a refugee camp, had become a death trap, an infected bellows belching out the undead into the city. Collin and Finn did their best to keep the fire and the undead contained but some, they admit, probably escaped.

And while they’re explaining this to us, retelling their story after we retell ours, I can’t help but stare up at the trees around us. Everything is scary now, anything could be a source of trouble, of injury or death. But there are just a few birds up there, scattered among the bare branches, their feathers ruffled up about their heads to keep out the cold. I wonder if maybe they forgot to migrate, if all hell breaking loose on the human side of things meant they just plain forgot. Maybe the eco-system is fucked forever. Maybe these birds will be the last of their species, letting the hours pass by, letting humanity tear itself apart under their quiet watch. I think of undergrad, of Biology 101…

Yet, second only to habitat loss, the introduction of non-native or “exotic” species is a major threat to biodiversity. These species are often invasive creatures that adversely affect the habitats they enter ecologically, environmentally, or economically…

“Something up there?” Ned whispers, leaning over. Finn is going on about the gun, about how many they lost, how many had to be left behind.

“G-God?” I stammer. “Is that you?”

“Ha. Ha. What do you see?”

“A robin maybe, maybe two or three,” I say, “I can’t tell.”

“American robin. The state bird,” he replies. He’s weary. I can hear it in his voice. I can still smell the smoke from the fires in the preschool cafeteria and the underlying bitterness of burnt human hair and flesh. He needs a bath, badly.

“Yeah?” I ask.

“Yup,” he replies, then nods discretely toward Lydia. “Do I need to worry or are you gonna be okay?”

“What? Oh, you mean the state bitch? Yeah, I’ll manage.”

“Allison.”

“I’m over it.”

“We managed to save a few tents,” Collin says. I begin to pay attention, knowing that the birds have a better chance of making it through this than we do. They’ll manage. “We should find a safe place for tonight and then think about where we want to go.”

I hang back with Renny, Ned and his kids while Collin and Finn take the truck to scout for a good place to pitch the tents. Everyone is slumped, exhausted, and I have a feeling we won’t be going far, not tonight. Evan and Mikey are quiet, too quiet for little kids. I can tell they’re wondering through a fog, lost without their mother but transfixed by the terror they only just escaped from. Ted comes to stand by me, leaving Lydia alone, like some ancient CEO facing down a boardroom of strangers. Ted takes my hand and squeezes it, flipping his hair out of his face as he takes a good long look at me. I can see him noting the blood on my clothes, on my hands and in my nails.

He pulls me into a hug and I wince.

“You get hurt?” he asks in a low tone.

“I’ll be okay, just a scuffle,” I reply.

“A bloody scuffle?”

“You could say that.”

“Hey, you don’t have to talk about it. Not if you don’t want to,” Ted murmurs. I can tell he’s hurt by my silence; he kicks at the dirt with the toe of his Chuck Taylor.

“I’ll tell you later,” I tell him gently, “I don’t want to think about it right now.”

It’s freezing out and we huddle together. With a little grimace of satisfaction that Lydia is cold too but no one invites her to join us. As we stand together shivering I can’t escape the feeling that I’ve been to this park before. It makes me wonder if I’m close to my house, if my mom is close by, holding out in our basement with a crowbar and some canned food.

Collin and Finn return in ten minutes, cutting the engine with a big, dramatic swivel of the truck. They hop out and flick their heads in the direction of the hill behind us. It’s not terribly steep but it’s clearer at the top. An October fog is beginning to roll in, carrying with it a mist that digs down right into your bones. I can’t wait to lie down, to rest, to cuddle up with Dapper and catch whatever sleep I can. No one questions Collin and Finn’s decision; it seems like a sound judgment call and none of us have the energy to argue. My ribs are killing me and I can feel the fatigue dripping down into my legs, my knees, my toenails.

We pile into the van and Ned drives us up the hill. Renny plays Rock, Paper, Scissors with the boys and, after a minute or two, they seem to be returning to their old selves. From over their shoulders I give Renny a thumbs up.

We leave behind the fog but it follows, creeping up the hill inexorably, swallowing up the trees and happy-colored benches. It obliterates any sign of the road, of the way we came.

There are three tents and I push aside my pain long enough to help get them set up. Lydia, Collin and Finn take one, Ned and his kids take another and Ted, Renny and I take the third. They’re not huge but the three of us manage to arrange ourselves comfortably. It’s snug and Dapper doesn’t help the situation, but we’re all glad for an avid foot warmer, even if he does smell a bit like corn chips.

Just as Dapper begins to snore gently something hard taps against my knee. Sitting up, I see a smooth, bright handle resting against my leg. Ted smiles crookedly at me, his blush hidden by the chilly darkness. It’s hidden, sure, but I know it’s there.

“What’s this?” I ask, leaning to grab it with an ache shooting through my side.

“Just an old friend. I thought you might like to have it.”

It’s my ax, a bit singed but otherwise whole.

“Ted… I… But you didn’t know I would – ”

“Of course I knew,” he says, chuckling. “I knew it’d take more than a few cranky housewives to take you out.”

“I’m flattered.”

“It’s nothing.”

“No, really, it means a lot.”

He lays back down, still smiling, and I turn onto my side but it hurts. Everything hurts. I finally settle on my back, punching the sweatshirt I have for a pillow into a little square. I shove it under my neck for support but it’s useless. Sleep doesn’t come, doesn’t even whisper at me from afar… I wait a while, wait until I’m certain Ted and Renny are asleep. When I get up and stumble over the dog Ted mumbles in his sleep. “I just have to pee,” I whisper and he goes quiet again.

Outside it’s freezing and I take the sweater-pillow and pull it on. Autumn is slipping away from us and now it’s cold in earnest. It was bound to happen and now I can’t help but feel even more helpless against the constant march of danger that comes toward us, inch by terrible inch. If we aren’t ripped apart by monsters or murdered by our own kind then we’ll die of the cold, or of hunger, or of some disease that will steal our strength, our lives and, in the end, our dignity.

No wonder I can’t fucking sleep.

I walk to the top-most point of the hill, the point where it begins to slope back down toward, what? A pool? Some fences? The fog has let itself out and now it’s just a sparkling, silvery mist below us. The moon is bright and the sky is almost clear, just a few smudgy clouds gliding across the stars. There are the very last remnants of crickets and it seems amazing they haven’t died off yet. How can their little cricket bodies go on? How can they stand the cold?

The hill spreads itself out at my feet, the grass shining and wet and glittering with hundreds of tiny ice crystals. We’ll wake up under a frost with our breaths painting milky shadows across the tent walls… But sleep… I don’t know if I can manage it. Even if my chest stopped aching, even if my body felt fine, I don’t think my thoughts would allow me to rest.

There are footsteps behind me, soft sounds coming across the crunchy grass. I know it’s not one of the undead. Their footsteps are never even, there’s always a limp or a drag or a stutter to the cadence. I know, in fact, exactly who it is, but I don’t want to turn around to face him.

“Can’t sleep?”

“Too crowded in the tent,” I say, shivering.

“You don’t have to lie to me,” Collin says, standing very close. The same familiar scent, and an unfamiliar, unwelcome jolt of desire. “Just because… Things are different, it doesn’t mean you have to lie.”

“Okay.”

“You’re hurt. I saw when we were putting up the tents… You could’ve just rested, you know.”

“I know.”

“Is it bad?”

“I don’t know,” I say honestly. I wish he would leave. I wish he would take his warmth, and his concern and his god damn accent somewhere else. Somewhere far away. Somewhere not so tempting. “Probably just a cracked rib or something.”

“You and Ned were a bit vague about the particulars… I had a feeling it was intentional. You don’t have to elaborate if you don’t – ”

“I killed someone,” I say.

“The guard, yes. He mentioned you… er… knocking her out.”

“I didn’t knock her out, Collin. Fuck. I strangled her with my computer cord. I strangled her until the cord bit into her neck, sliced her open, until her blood was all over my hands. She was suffocating me, crushing me against the wall. It was her or me, her or me. And it was almost me.”

“Christ. Maybe I didn’t want to know that.”

“Easier to love your wife? Yeah. Easier not to love a murderer.”

“You know I don’t think that,” he says, laughing bitterly. “You have no idea what I did in the air force. Not a clue. I’m the last person to judge.”

“Let’s keep it that way,” I tell him. “Let’s just… I don’t know… Let’s just keep some distance.”

This shuts him up, but he doesn’t go away. We stand together in the stark, shattering cold, neither of us wanting to break, to bend, to talk. This is why I want to leave, I say to him in my mind, because I can’t be around you; I can’t be around you and not want you to myself.

I hear his breath catch and I think maybe he’s spotted a wandering groaner. But then I see it, at the bottom of the hill, bright and strange and completely out of place. It’s so unexpected that for a moment I don’t believe that it’s really there. Maybe it’s an illusion, a shared hallucination, just a vision in the mist…

“God,” he says, “It’s so beautiful.”

And then I remember where we are, the paths, the benches, the mangled street signs and why the park looked familiar. It’s Henry Vilas Park. My mom took me here twice when I was a little kid, and just next door, butting right up against the park with its jungle gyms and picnic tables and pretty benches is the Henry Vilas Park Zoo.

As it trots to the base of the hill, the zebra seems to sense us up on the hill watching it. It stops, turning a complete circle, its hooves muffled on the cold, hard ground, and then stares at us. The long, striped nose is lowered and then tipped to the side as it regards us, the black eyes closing and opening with that disturbing, equine sensitivity. I know, it seems to say, I’m lost too.

I wonder how many of the animals have survived, if there are tigers and elephants and giraffes waiting in the mist too. The thought doesn’t last for long; Collin takes my hand and holds it, not pressing, just cradling. It’s a tiny glimmer of warmth in an otherwise frozen night.

“Do you hate me?” he whispers.

“No. No, it isn’t your fault.”

Maybe it’s the cold. Maybe it’s the chill mist hovering at the bottom of the hill. Or maybe it’s the beast watching us, the stranger, the thing that doesn’t belong, the thing so far away from its home and so totally out of place. Whatever it is, we’re kissing and the pain in my chest is there again but this time it’s different and it’s not my ribs.

I must be exhausted because my reaction time is terrible. There are voices, angry, shouting voices, but I’m not going anywhere, as if I’ve suddenly been submerged in a murky pool of water. The voices are muted, contorted, but I don’t want to let go… Not now… Not this minute…

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

It’s Lydia, she screaming and waving her arms and pushing me. I don’t hit back. I want to hit back. I look down the hill and watch the zebra disappear back into the mist, startled back into hiding, startled into reality.

“Calm down, Lydia. Just calm down.”

They’re fighting, sighing, rolling their eyes at each other. I stand off to the side and watch, alarmed by how fed up I feel, how detached and sad I’ve become. It isn’t the right moment for a revelation like that but it doesn’t matter. I turn away, let them continue the argument. Lydia says something like “Come back here, don’t you dare walk away from me.” But I go back to the tent and quietly take a piece of paper out of my laptop bag. I take a pen and, squinting into the darkness, draw a line down the center and, at the top, write: PROS & CONS

A few minutes later it looks something like this:

PROS
—–
I like Ted.
I like Ned.
I like Evan and Mikey.
I like Renny.
Collin and Finn have weapons and knowledge.
Strength in numbers
Vehicles

CONS
—–
Lydia.
More mouths to feed
More people, more noise
Lydia.
Bickering and dissent
Attachment
Pandering
Lydia.

I didn’t even need to make the list. Just thinking about it all, just writing this has convinced me that I know what I want to do. It isn’t an easy decision and I know it won’t be a popular one, but it’s my life, my survival and I’m determined to be proactive even in the face of so many… complications.

Tomorrow I’ll tell the others. I’ll stand in front of them, take a deep breath and say: I’ve decided to go it alone. Thank you for your help, thank you for being my friends but it’s time for me to go.

Then I’ll take Dapper, and my laptop bag and my ax and I’ll find my mom’s house. I’ll find her because there’s nothing else to do. I’ll find her because it’s time.

But for now I need to rest, friends, and so do all of you. Stay safe, stay alert and stay in touch. I’ll write again soon when I’ve reached another safe place, another stop on the way forward.

10-26-09 – The Fires of Heaven

Posted in Uncategorized on June 17, 2009 by allisonhewitt

That I’m a murderer does not particularly bother me… That Ned had to see that, that I frightened him… If there were time for thought, for pause, then I know I would crack. From the moment we leave our prisons behind I can feel him closing in on me, staying close, hovering over me like I’m still in danger of dropping dead. He senses, as I do, a disturbance in the Force. This is a bad place, a very bad place, and we’re only now going to discover the thick of it.

“Tell me it’s going to be okay.”

“It’s going to be okay.”

“Now tell me we’re going to get our asses out of here alive.”

“Allison, I’m getting your ass out of here alive.”

We have the flashlight but I’m afraid to use it. I know we don’t have long. Soon someone will realize that Helga hasn’t returned. Her blood is still caked beneath my fingertips, ground into the cracks on my palms as we move as quietly as we can through the murky darkness of the basement. Without a an ax or a gun I feel naked, but the baseball bats we find are covered in foam and nothing can be fashioned into a respectable weapon.

I trip over a step and find the stairwell leading up and out of the basement. There’s a door at the top of the stairwell faintly glowing from a crack of light. At the bottom of the door I see the shape of feet moving slowly back and forth, back and forth. We take a moment, huddling just on the other side of the door; if she’s facing away we might have a chance to get the upper hand, but if she’s watching the door then chances are we’re screwed.

Holding my breath, I slowly reach out and nudge the door open. By some miracle, the hinges are silent and the door opens a few inches. She’s facing the other direction, a soda can dangling from her left hand and a pistol tucked into the back of her high-waisted jeans. I recognize the pistol; it’s the kind we’ve been using for target practice at the arena. It makes me wonder how long they’ve been planning this exodus, how long they’ve been stealing supplies and scheming. At what point did they decide that just holding prayer circles wasn’t enough? On what day did they decide to abandon faith and brotherly love for zealotry?

I yank the pistol out of her waistband. She gives a startled, helpless little yelp but when she spins and finds the pistol aimed at her face she gets quiet real quick. I can’t even imagine what I must look like to her: my hair matted with sweat and blood, a laptop bag strapped across my chest, my hands and face streaked with the last gasping life of another human being. I can already feel the deep, aching bruises forming on my back and chest. I’m more or less sure that one of my ribs is cracked because the pain there is constant, radiating upward toward my throat in red hot waves.

“Where’s my dog?” I ask. She opens and closes her mouth a few times. She’s wearing a silver chain around her neck with a cross and a few little people made out of pewter. There are three little people charms, one for each child maybe. I take the pistol and grasp it by the cold barrel and let it fly. The grip hits her right across the cheekbone.

God I’ve always wanted to do that…

She flinches but Ned is silent and still at my side. I can feel his focus, his attention directed entirely at her, at our objective.

“I’ll ask you one more time,” I whisper, pulling the slide back on the gun, just to illustrate a point really. “Where’s my dog?”

“H-he’s in the cafeteria at the end of the hall.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes, one hundred percent.”

“And his kids?” I ask, nodding toward Ned. Her gray eyes slowly shift toward him and a tremor starts in her chin as if suddenly afraid. I raise the gun barrel, making sure it’s level with her nose. “Answer me or I’m sure you’ll regret it. One hundred percent sure.”

“D-down the hall, east wing,” she says, pointing to our right.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Molly, Molly Albertson.”

“Sorry about this, Molly.” I hit her again, much harder this time and she crumples against the wall. Ned let’s out a long, loud breath and I do too. I didn’t realize I had been holding it in. He puts a hand on my shoulder and I find that my whole body is one singing loop of tension.

“You any good with that thing?” he asks.

“No,” I reply, “Not really. Give me a good solid ax any day of the week.”

“Then give me that, you big baby.”

Ned takes the pistol, and just from the way his fingers wrap around the grip I know it’s best that he has it. He checks the magazine and frowns.

“Full clip,” he says, “I doubt she even knew how to fire it.”

“We can boo hoo about that later. Kids first, dog second, conscience a distant third.”

It’s eerie, this place that should be a sanctuary, this graveyard of a building that should be filled with laughter and learning. It’s a relief that the halls aren’t crawling with more people like Molly, but at the same time I can’t help but wonder where everyone is. The feeling of wrong, pure, bone-chilling wrong returns and I clench my fists to keep a shudder from rocking through my spine. We crouch as we slink along the walls; why do we crouch? If they see us they see us but for some reason this makes me feel stealthier. We pass classrooms, open doors, closed doors, and each room is painted in a different color theme – red, blue, green, indigo, daisies, roses, clouds… But everywhere there’s evidence of struggle, of death. There should never be blood on the floor of a preschool but here it’s on the walls, the floor, the ceiling, sprayed in every direction as if Jackson Pollock had a massive, day-long seizure.

I let Ned go first since he’s got the gun. Every time we pass a classroom I experience a sickening jolt of fear, expecting anything and everything to burst out from behind the toppled desks and piles of miniature chairs. But no one comes for us. There’s nothing in the hall to focus on, but far ahead, at the end of the hall, I can hear a bizarre sound like a drum.

“Kumbaya Hour at the loony bin,” Ned mutters, shaking his head. We’ve almost gotten to the end of this corridor and so we begin checking every room carefully, searching for any small sign of Mikey and Evan. I want badly to believe that they’re fine but the empty halls and the strange, pulsing drums further on are giving me an inescapable feeling of dread.

“You okay?” Ned asks.

“Me? Yeah, fine. Why?”

“You’re just… Breathing awfully heavy, that’s all.”

“Sorry. Lungs hurt.”

“You are one lucky son-of-a-bitch.”

Daughter.”

“My point stands…”

We reach a fork, with two hallways going in opposite directions. Something smells like burning, not the pleasant wood-smoke you smell outside in the fall but bitter, acrid, like burning plastic or singed hair. It’s coming from down one of the halls and a pair of big, steel doors that look like they lead to a cafeteria or gymnasium. The distant, echoing beat and emptiness of the hall is making me nervous, panicky, and I can’t help but glance in every direction as we try silently to decide which way to go.

“Look, let’s just go that way, if we get to the doors and there’s no sign of your kids then we can turn back,” I say. Ned is sweating, a dark ring forming around the collar of his tee shirt.

I don’t know what it is about preschools but they’re bizarre, especially when you can feel the weird unrest of angry souls flickering around you. Why are little kids so scary? They’re just children. Maybe it’s our expectation that they’ll be innocent and pure; corrupt that expectation and adults squirm like they’ve sat on a pile of snakes. There are no devil children here but there’s the indelible presence of eyes, many eyes pressing and watching.

We keep checking doors, our movements becoming quicker, sloppier as we become desperate to find Evan and Mikey. I can feel Ned getting more and more nervous, and I know he’s wondering if Molly fed us a bunch of BS. The smoke and the smell is nauseating, the air thickening with a dark, ashy fog. We check room after empty room, coat closets and maintenance lockers and then finally, at last, we find Evan and Mikey in a teacher’s lounge just a few feet away from the big steel doors that are shut, the smell and the smoke belching out from the cracks along the floor and ceiling.

“Daddy!”

It’s a heavenly sound, so simple but filled with enough relief and excitement to make your heart spin. The boys give me a hug after they wrestle out of their father’s arms. Ned’s face is wet and he turns away to wipe the tears off his cheeks. The boys are a little dirty and scraped up but otherwise healthy.

“Are you two okay?” I ask.

“Mommy said we had to stay here,” Mikey informs us. He says it with so much guilt, so much doubt that Ned nearly turns away again.

“It’s okay, we’re going to get you guys out of here,” I tell them, ruffling Evan’s hair. “Your dad gave us permission.”

“But Mom will be so mad,” Evan protests, both arms locked around his father’s knee.

“True. But not nearly as mad as I’m going to be.”

It was bound to happen eventually.

I recognize her at once. It’s like Hitler or Genghis Khan or Emperor Palpatine… You take one look at them and know they’re the one in charge. She was one of the outspoken ones, one of the women determined to oust Collin in favor of a new regime. I think her name is Sadie or Sally, I can’t remember, I just know I’ve seen her cold, calculating eyes before and her bedraggled perm. She’s not much taller than I am and thin, with an unpleasant hollowness in her cheeks where there was once jolly plumpness. I can see Corie standing behind her, lingering in the doorway. The tragedy of her life, of her mistake, is written plainly on her sad, pretty face.

She has a sawed-off shot gun, undoubtedly another gem stolen from Collin. It’s pointed directly at little Evan.

I think of Collin, of Ted, of Dapper, of how close we came to getting out and finding a way back to them.

“Put the gun down,” she says, staring at Ned. He looks to me and then at his children. I don’t want him to drop it but I know deep down that he has to, that he will.

Ned slowly kneels, placing the gun on the floor and then standing back up with his palms open and flat. Sadie or Sally smiles and begins to back out. She motions for us to follow, the gun still pointed at Evan. I know she’s probably not all that strong, but I’m weak, I know it, I can still feel Helga’s shoulder blades crushing my lungs. If I just had a little more strength…

“Easy now, easy,” she says.

When we get out into the hallway the steel doors are open and a dense cloud of black ash hits me right in the face. I can’t help but cough; the stench is overwhelming. Sadie or Sally flicks the gun at us and Ned and I walk into the room, which I see now is the old cafeteria. The long, gray tables have been pushed to the side. The seats, attached to the lunch tables, are alternating blue and pale green. Gradually, figures stamp themselves into the scenery, blooming out of the wall of smoke. They’re too distant to recognize but they form a sort of wall, their backs to us.

My eyes follow the rolling of the smoke to the back part of the cafeteria where they’ve fashioned a makeshift fire pit. A few tables are on their sides, forming the walls of the pit where old desks and cabinets are piled and burning. My vision begins to adjust and I see Renny standing near the wall of Wives, a gun aimed between her shoulders.

“Bring her here!”

Corie drags Evan and Mikey away, ignoring their protests, turning them away from us. That’s not a good sign.

Renny joins us, her lips a firm line of disgust.

“What’d you all do?” she asks me, smirking.

“Long story.”

“Shut up,” Sadie or Sally says, waving the shot gun around like it’s a scepter. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see that she doesn’t know what she’s doing with the gun, but fortunately for her the blast radius on that thing means a blind monkey could take you down. At this range, there’s no hope for us.

Renny, Ned and I shoulder up together. Sadie or Sally paces in front of us, the gun clutched tightly in her knobby hands. She looks trigger happy, ready to explode. The heat is incredible, rolling off of the fire pit in thick, clotted waves. I can’t pin exactly what the smell is, but it’s definitely not barbecue. The drumming is coming from in front of the line of Wives, where a few women sit cross-legged, beating on the bottoms of buckets. Nearby there are a handful of women dancing, throwing their hands in the air and jumping as if in religious ecstasy. There are, strangely enough, no men to be found, not even a bound and coerced one.

“Change of plans?” I ask, noting the distinct lack of an Adam.

“He was… Uncooperative.”

“Good boy,” Ned whispers.

“I take it he’s the charming odor we’re experiencing now? L’air de Infidel?”

“He is indeed,” she replies, smacking the barrel of the shotgun gleefully with the flat of her palm. “A warning to you all, a hint of what’s to come if you don’t repent and kneel to us now. And you,” she hisses, rounding on Ned, “Will rethink your position.”

He laughs, bitterly, his lips quirking to the side. “You crazy broads just don’t get it, do you?”

She raises the butt of the gun, apparently to strike him, so I jump in to spare him the inconvenience. “Look, bitch, just toss us on the bonfire already before it dies down. And throw some kerosene on that shit because it’s going to take more than a pansy-ass flicker like that to shut us up.”

“You fools, you… you unworthy, irredeemable sinners!” Sadie or Sally says, sighing and rolling her eyes, “You don’t know what you’re passing up. You could remake the world with us, reform this imperfect, immoral world and create a place of wonder, a paradise. God has given us a chance. He has seen our greed, our lust, our corrupt hearts and He has sent a scourge to destroy the disbelievers. It is a test, a divine test, a test to seek out those who would be Warriors of God and the protectors of His new and holy children.”

“Answer’s still no, bitch,” Renny says, crossing her arms across her chest.

“Isn’t this cozy? Now I know just how Han felt before being pushed into the Sarlacc Pit,” I say, “So, you know, check that one off the To Do Before I Die list.”

“I think the smell is actually worse here,” Ned adds. For all his bluster he’s still sweating, I can feel his shoulder getting damp as it rests against mine. But then again, he could just be perspiring from the inferno up ahead. Behind us, I can hear Evan throwing a tantrum and Corie trying to shush him.

“Could I get a dash of garlic powder before the main event?” I ask, hoping that Sadie or Sally will get distracted and get close to us or get frazzled enough to drop the gun. It just takes one distraction, one well-aimed dart…

“Oh,” she says, laughing, her bosoms shaking beneath her stained Tommy Hilfiger sweater. “Oh you aren’t going in the fire. No, that death is too quick, too easy for filth such as you. The time has come. Let the damned eat the damned. Let them free!”

Now, I half-expected a herd of angry mothers to come storming out to tar and feather us, but I have to admit, Sadie or Sally surprised me, truly, genuinely shocked the hell out of me. There’s twisted, and then there’s just god damn fucked.

“Jesus.”

I can barely hear Ned above the ramming of my own heart. From a side door there’s a sound, a lurching like enormous metal gears grinding together in protest. I squint through the smoke and see a lunch table being dragged forward, letting the doors it was barring swing open. And swing open they do, letting in a tremendous flood of zombies. There are groaners alright, but they’re so weak, so starved for flesh that they look like little more than skeletons with bits of skin and entrails sticking to their frames. They immediately head toward us, limping across the linoleum, grunting and shrieking, their bony feet making awful scraping noises on the floor. I see that there a few people sitting near the doors, their hands bound; they must be like us, nonbelievers, sinners. Ned goes completely still, his shoulders clenching so tightly that I can actually feel his muscles contract into one solid knot of fear. I have no idea how Sadie or Sally plans to swing this and save herself but she’s got that gun trained on us and a look on her face like she’s just cracked a home run out of the park.

Then I see that the Wives have been busy making a little fence, like a gate used for herding pigs or cattle, so the undead are headed just for us, for Ned, Renny and me. Now I know Ned is sweating for real because I can smell his perspiration.

“Fuck,” Renny whispers, “Fucking shit.”

They’re quick with the tables and now I can see that there are more Wives congregating at our side, hemming us in with the tables. They’re making a coral, a coral winding around and leading us back toward the fire. A few of the undead have toppled over the barrier and into the bonfire, roaring as their scalps ignite. I know I should be thinking, coming up with some way out of this, but my mind is racing uselessly, the wheels in my brain spin in the mud. And all I can focus on is Ned and his reeky arm pits and the eyes of the prisoners being torn apart, their white, staring eyes and ravaged bodies. The undead aren’t slowing down, they just roll over whatever is in their path, consuming, tearing, surging forward. I try to shrug away, I don’t want to watch, but all there is to see are the Wives building their coral of doom and us shuffling away as slowly as we can to avoid provoking Sadie or Sally.

I just keep staring at this one woman, this woman with a blank face and mean, twisted hands and the way she holds the table like it’s her sworn duty. And I can smell Ned and hear Renny swearing under her breath and see this stupid woman with her ugly, stupid flannel shirt and it makes me think of Matt… Of all people, at the moment of my death, I didn’t think it would be Matt, the assistant manager, the nerd with his conspiracy theories and his flannel shirts…

Matt.

And it hits me. So simple, so stupidly simple…

“You!” I shout, pointing at Sadie or Sally, “Tell me, are those the damned?”

“Yes, the damned, of course they are. The damned!” she screams.

“And if you were to be one of them, would you then be damned too?”

“You can’t save yourself, girl. Judgment is now.”

“Really? Well, good job. You win at the judgment game I guess.”

“Win? This is the wrath of God Himself, not a game!”

I stumble a few feet toward her, hoping and hoping for one last chance… It’s a long shot, but anything is worth a try with bonfire looming and a flood of undead monsters bearing down on you and your friends…

“You’ve killed us all,” I say, throwing up my hands, I point at the edge of the bonfire where a few undead are still smoldering. “The ash.”

“What? What ash?”

Their ash, you moron. The damned. Don’t you know even the first fucking thing about… about anything? Just breathing it in, getting their tissue in your lungs is enough. You haven’t just damned us, you’ve damned yourself.”

It takes a moment, but the idea dawns on her and her face, her once-smiling face, falls.

“I don’t believe you,” she says, raising an eyebrow. The gun is leveled at my face and I can feel the sweat falling down my temples in fat, splashing beads. Ned is close, so close…

“Ouch!” he shouts. To be fair, I did stomp on his foot. But then he smartens up, catches my meaning, and stays doubled over. Then he begins to moan, clutching his head, covering his ears and then lurching forward, spitting up on the floor. He’s not half-bad at it. Renny joins in, bless her, and clutches her throat, her eyes rolling back, showing the whites as she grunts and spasms.

“Look!” I bellow, letting the fear shake my limbs, “Look what you’ve done!”

“No!” she screams, her eyes wild as she gapes at Ned, who has gone so far as to scratch at his own face, writhing on the floor. I make a mental note to alert the Academy. “It can’t be! It can’t! Oh Jesus, oh Lord, how could you abandon me, how?”

She’s begun to cry, to sob, and I know that now is my chance if ever there was one.

“No,” I say, taking a step toward her. “You abandoned him.”

The shot gun is in my hands and it feels good. All the lessons, all the target practices comes flooding back in one racing, heated rush of adrenaline. My fingers know what to do, they know how to cradle the weapon, how to aim and squeeze the trigger and brace for the recoil. It kicks like a god damned stallion on steroids but I stay steady; my chest is so sore and achy that it’s tempting to drop the gun. The noise is amazing, like a rocket ship firing directly out of my ear…

Her face is gone, most of it anyway, but the look of surprise and horror stays on what’s left of it.

Ned is fast, smart, and takes the gun out of my hands and begins to fire, not randomly, but carefully, taking out the closest undead and then firing warning shots at any Wives that get too close. Their aim is terrible and the smoke is so thick that they can’t get a decent shot off anyway. Renny and I vault over the tables and run for Evan and Mikey, sweeping them into our arms without a thought. The doors are already open and we run into the hall, gasping for cleaner air. I turn, looking for Ned and see that he’s trying to drag Corie away from the undead, away from the gunfire and the smoke. But she won’t go, she’s dug her heels into the floor. I see it in her face, in her posture…

She’s made her decision.

A lot of the rest is fuzzy, a blur. I know we ran, I know we could hear the undead on our heels, chasing us, following us through the halls. I know the pure rush of relief carried me through, keeping me from collapsing from exhaustion and pain. And I know Renny took the lap top bag for me, wore it and kept it safe, unburdening me as we ran through the school. We found Dapper in an art classroom on the other side of the building, hungry, scared but ready with a wagging tail for us.

And I know that when we got outside we went immediately to the stolen van. I remember lying down on the back seat, Dapper licking my hands and face, Mikey and Evan sitting in silent shock in the seats nearby. And finally, I remember the sound, the cry of anguish as Ned rounded the corner that would take us home, to the arena, to Collin and Ted and Finn. It made me sit up, that sound, it made me forget the pain for a moment.

We looked together, no one saying a word, we looked at the campus, at the arena, in flames.

10-26-09 – Possession Pt. III

Posted in Uncategorized on June 11, 2009 by allisonhewitt

Baby steps are no longer adequate.

Ned and I have a new friend. Her name is Renny and she is living in my cell now. We are cellmates. She’s a spitfire – loud, opinionated and destined to share in our gruesome fate (I’m not totally convinced they want to kill us but Ned insists). Renny had the piss-poor luck of wandering into the Black Earth Wives’ compound (I call it a compound because I like to think of them as super villains in some kind of horrible, low-budget horror film. I keep telling Ned we need to cut off the head of the snake but, biblical allusions aside, he is not amused). When Renny refused to partake in their “prayer service” she was tossed down here with the rest of the garbage. She is an invaluable resource.

“Fucking bitches.”

Those are her first words to me and they hint at a deep and meaningful friendship to come. She has a smooth, dark complexion, high forehead and sharp cheekbones. Her nails are chipped but were once painted fluorescent orange and yellow. Her reddish-black hair is a mess of tight corkscrews that stick out in every single direction, held back by a wide headband. I pat the space next to me and she comes to have a seat.

“What did you see up there?” I ask.

“Other than some crazy bitches? They asked me to pray with them, fine, whatever, I’ll pray if you’re gonna give me a sandwich. They took me to the boiler room and they had cranked up the heat to like a million degrees and made me kneel with them to ‘purify’ me. Alright, weird, but whatever. Then it got weird, seriously fucking weird, ya know? They told me I had to fuck some guy and carry his child and continue the legacy of Adam and a bunch of loony shit like that. No thanks, I don’t care if that sandwich is two feet tall, I’m not doin’ that.”

“He not your type?”

“Nu-uh.”

“Pious?”

“Male.”

Renny shares Ned’s opinion that getting my laptop back is nothing to celebrate. They lack imagination. We pass the time trading stories. Renny was captain of the basketball team and beginning her senior year this year. She was at home when the undead came and she and most of her family made it out alive. Over the coming days they would get separated and she would wander from house to house, scavenging and using whatever she found to defend herself. She confirms Ned’s story; we’re being held in the basement of a preschool. “Daisies and all that shit on the walls. Something just plain wrong about it.”

Two days pass. Renny is good company, but Ned is growing more and more distant. I know he’s worried about his kids, about what might be happening to them. No one has come to talk to me about my possible conversion and I think maybe they know I’m a lost cause. But after two days something happens, something that demands action. They come for Renny.

I haven’t known her long but I know she’s a friend worth hanging on to. She has a fighter’s soul, a glint in her eye that can’t be worn down no matter what the circumstance, but they take her. They take her kicking and screaming; it takes three women to yank her out of the cell: one to keep a gun pointed at me and two to handle Renny and her sharp jabs. “You fucking cunts, I will fucking ruin you, just try me, just try and fight me fair!”

She has an imaginative, salty mouth. I can’t let them take someone like her.

“This is it,” I tell Ned as Renny’s voice fades, the last of the echoes reaching us in a quiet, vibrating murmur. “Our time is up.”

“Allison,” he says, but he stops there.

“You know, Ned,” I say, “Of all the ways to kill yourself I really think self-immolation is the way to go.”

Allison.”

“No, seriously. I mean, to me it really says: Hey man, I’m dying… With feeling.”

“I know you don’t want them to take you but even if you did want to kill yourself there’s no way to do it in here,” he says, sighing in the darkness.

“You’re just not thinking outside the box.”

“I guess you could always hang yourself with the computer cord. It’s useless anyway.”

Ned. Ned you god damn bloody genius.

“That’s it.”

“What? What’s it? No, don’t even think about it.”

“I don’t mean me, idiot,” I say, “but I promised you we’d get out of here and help your kids and that’s what we’re going to do.”

“What do you mean? With your computer cord? You’ve lost it for good this time.”

“What were you training me for? What were all those hours in the gym about if not this? I’m getting us out of here one way or a-fucking-nother.”

Ned is huffing and puffing, trying to talk me down. I’m grateful for his concern but Renny is in danger now too and I have a feeling that every moment we waste lessens her chance for survival. And besides, I’m sick of this place, bored to tears, about ready to rip my hair out just for the fun of it. There are only so many games of “I Spy” I can play, especially in the dark.

Ned quiets down after a while, probably convinced that I’ve let the idea go. But I haven’t, not one bit. That surge of anger, of hate, has come at last and I know in my gut exactly what needs to happen. It could go down a few ways but no matter what it will put an end to all this terrible waiting. Helga comes an hour later to bring us food and I’m ready for her, sitting close to the door with my laptop opened. I train my eyes intently on the screen, typing away, muttering and giggling to myself. She sees this and stops just before shoving the plate underneath the door.

“What is that? What are you doing?” she asks, drenching me in the flashlight’s beam. I don’t respond, giggling even more as I pretend to type. She rattles the door, shouting at me.

“You! I told you! No funny business!” she screams, pounding on the door. Next door I can hear Ned shuffling over to the wall. “What are you doing?”

“Funny business.”

A growl starts deep in her throat and builds until she’s floundering for her eyes, muttering to herself and at me, cursing me, threatening me. She finally finds the right key and unlocks the padlock, flinging the door open. I scoot back a few feet, shielding the screen from her. I need her to come in close, real close, or it won’t work. She follows, taking the bait, and tries to see the screen. I keep giggling like a maniac and it only makes her madder. For a religious whacko she certainly does have a startling command of inappropriate and colorful language.

She’s right on me now so first things first. I check for a gun but don’t see one, not in her pocket or tucked into her waistband. She’s an intimidating fortress of a woman so they must not have armed her. This is going to be worse, much worse than I thought. When she’s bent over I spring into action, snatching the power cord from behind my back and throwing it around her neck. She straightens up in surprise, staggering backward a few steps. But I’m ready for her, I have been for the last hour, and I jump to my feet, faster, more agile. I grab the other end of the cord and pull, hard, tightening the plastic around her neck. She reels backward, shouting in surprise and anger. I hear Ned’s hands hit the wall, his fingers tightening around the chains.

The laptop is open, the screen pointed at us, the pale, stark light falling on our struggle. Helga has almost a foot on me and when she bends over it lifts me right off my feet. My grip is good and strong and I tighten it again, the cord meeting the hard knot of her throat. This looks so much easier in the movies. She decides she won’t throw me off her back that way so she slams herself backward against the concrete wall.

This is an unfortunate and unexpected turn of events.

My spine shudders as she tries to crush me against the wall, sandwiching me between her sweaty back and the concrete. But I won’t let go and I realize now that who lives and who dies depends on which of us can stick to our guns.

“Allison! Allison, no!”

I can hear Ned screaming wildly, shaking the chains of the wall. He’s voice is starting to fade though as I feel my lungs giving way from Helga grinding me against the wall. My vision is getting bad, blurry and it’s getting harder and harder to breathe. But I imagine Ned’s shouts turning into one of our gym sessions, his screams urging me on.

Don’t give up, ten more, five more, push it!

My hands are slipping on the hard plastic cord but it’s not from my sweat. There’s something slippery on the cord, seeping in around my fingers. I can’t let go, can’t let my grip go for even a second. I pull harder, the last air in my lungs coming out in one long scream as I feel my fingernails digging deep into my palms. Helga is making this terrible noise, gargling and grunting and flailing back against me. She’s covered in sweat and I can feel the front of my shirt getting soaking wet. It hurts and hurts, my chest aching like I’ve just gone round after round in a boxing ring. My heart and lungs are going to explode any minute, if I can’t get one more gasp of air, just one, I’ll be dead. Ned’s voice is rising higher and higher and the chains are rattling and rattling…

If only the cord weren’t so damn slippery, if only I could breathe, if only my eyes would hold on for one more second…

Then it all goes slack and dark and I’m pitching forward. I don’t know if I’m dead or alive, if Helga has won or finally given up. I hit the floor hard, my elbow screaming with a hundred pinpricks as it hits the concrete. Maybe my arm is broken, maybe I’ve finally run out of air…

When I wake up my arm is aching and my head feels like it’s been split open again. I can hear someone crying softly, sobbing.

“Ugh.”

“Fuck!” Ned practically screams, “Fuck! God damnit, you’re alive! Damn it, Allison, don’t fucking… God… I thought you were dead.”

“How long was I out?”

“Two minutes maybe.”

I slowly sit up, maneuvering the laptop until I can see what’s all over my hands. It’s blood, tons of it. Helga is on the floor a few inches away, face down with the computer cord still looped around her neck. I roll her over with my foot and see that the plastic had started to chew into her skin. I wipe my hands off on her sweaty shirt and take a moment to steady myself. My chest still aches but air is getting to my lungs and my pulse is starting to regulate itself.

“I can’t believe it.”

“No shit,” I say, getting shakily to my feet. We need to get going fast before someone comes to check on Helga. I pack up the laptop and wipe the cord off on her jeans. I take the keys and let myself out and then unlock Ned’s padlock. My hands won’t stop shaking.

Ned picks me up and we hug for a long minute, relieved, terrified.

“Let’s go get your kids,” I whisper and together we skulk away into the shadows, Helga’s flashlight in one hand and the ring of heavy keys in the other.

[To be continued…]

10-26-09 – Possession Pt. II

Posted in Uncategorized on June 11, 2009 by allisonhewitt

I approached the problem in steps.

The first step was to get my laptop back, to go for little victories and see just what I could get out of our jailer. The next time she came to give us food I was waiting at the door.

“Can I have my laptop?” I asked, using my most polite voice. She laughed, shaking her head shoving the plate underneath the door so hard that most of the oatmeal spilled out. “Please?”

“No.”

The next time she came I tried the same thing. “Can I have my laptop? I just want something to do. I’m going crazy down here.”

“You will call for helps,” she said, shining the flashlight right in my eyes. “Too much funny business.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head emphatically, “If there’s no internet, no connection, then I can’t call for help. Look, I promise, I just want something to keep me busy. No funny business.”

“No.”

“But…” Fuck, what will get her to go for it… “But I just need to work out some thoughts, you k now? I’ve been doing some thinking and… Well, maybe you guys are right, you know? About this whole end of the world thing.”

“We are right?”

“Yeah! Yes! I just want to think some things over and… Writing out my feelings… It really helps, helps me sort out my thoughts. No funny business, I promise.”

“No funny business?” she repeats, intrigued.

“None.”

She comes back an hour later with my backpack. Before opening the padlock she searches through it, taking out anything she thinks might be “funny” – a USB drive, a pocketknife, a hair pin, a CD. I wait on the other side of the room from her to make her feel more at ease and she carefully unlocks the padlock, drops the bag in and slams the door.

“No funny business!” she shouts, rattling the door menacingly.

“Deal. No funny business.”

There’s no outlet and probably no electricity anyway so I’m forced to use the battery conservatively. I only open the laptop to shine it around and check out the cell and to write bits and pieces so I will be able to remember things later. I know now that there might be a way out. Our jailer isn’t terribly bright and that makes me giddy with hope. I shine the screen at Ned’s cell. He’s sitting close to the chains and squints back at me. There’s a deep cut over his eye and a bruise along his cheekbone.

“Phase one complete,” I say, grinning. My head is still killing me and the headaches are pretty much nonstop but this is something to be proud of.

“I can’t believe you,” he says, shaking his head, “You’re going to be seriously fucked when they figure out you haven’t had a change of heart. They’ll bash your head in with that laptop of yours.”

“Might not be so bad. I mean, what exactly would a change of heart entail? Fucking you?”

Ha. Ha.

“Maybe they’ll find someone dead sexy for their Adam. You never know…”

“You’ve lost it.”

“Don’t be so judgmental, Ned. We all grieve in different ways: some of us try to go on living, looking for the good in the bad, relying on the silver lining, and others of us go fucking bat shit insane and start an end of days cult. Each to their own and all that. Who are you to say they’re wrong?”

“I think your one small victory has gone to your head,” he says dryly, stretching out on the floor.

“Not at all. I mean, what have we learned today? Helga is an imbecile, gullible as all get out, and willing to bargain with us. I’d say that’s a big victory, not a small one.”

“Yes, and unless you’re fucking MacGyver, that laptop isn’t going to do shit for us.”

“Baby steps, Ned, baby steps.”

[To be continued…]

10-26-09 – Possession Pt. I

Posted in Uncategorized on June 11, 2009 by allisonhewitt

We live in a prison.

We live in a world that provides us with millions of questions and not a single understandable answer. I have endeavored to survive this cataclysm with dignity and strength. I see now that was an impossible dream. Call it foolishness or naiveté, call it whatever you want, but I desired it more than anything… More than answers, more than just life… I hoped we might make it through with our heads above water.

I have been away from all of you and I apologize for my silence but I promise that my silence was not voluntary. I will try now to describe the events of the last week with clarity and detail but some information is lost forever, lost to memory.

As you can imagine, the arrival of Collin’s wife threw a bit of a wrench into my plans for a simplified, normal existence. Whatever sickness had been ravaging our survivors only worsened with the arrival of her and her companions. They are a ragtag bunch with no real connection to each other, just a shared goal of surviving long enough to reach the campus and the arena. They too heard the radio broadcast and supposed the worst when the transmissions stopped coming. Without Lydia (Collin’s wife) and her dogged persistence, they might never have arrived at all. She is a tall, strange Amazon of a woman with arrow-straight silvery hair and a free, artistic face. I tried not to form a negative opinion of her, I tried to remain objective, but objectivity in such cases is impossible.

She either intuited something had happened between Collin and I, or she simply does not like me based on some other observations. Our first interaction was awkward and strained and, happily, took place far away from Collin. Lydia singled me out among the individuals in charge. She found me arguing with a handful of Black Earth Wives as they tried, again, to protest Collin’s leadership.

“Hello,” she said, dragging her hand across her face to clear the hair from her eyes. She is, I think, close to Collin’s age. She has a dramatic way of speaking, giving each of her words equal and melodic weight.

“Hey,” I replied, distracted in the extreme.

“You must be Allison.”

“Yeah that’s me, sorry, a bit busy here.”

This didn’t seem to matter to her, as she continued standing a few feet away, regarding me with cold, veiled eyes. She had her head cocked to the side as she inspected me from top to toe. Ned came over to help and, without a word, stepped in to try and bargain with the Wives. They were demanding more food, more clothing, more, more, more. He had a way of persuading them to stay quiet for a day or so, but they seemed to outright mistrust me.

“Is that Ned?” Lydia asked as I backed away. One of the Wives held up a makeshift cross and Ned gently lowered her wrist to get the Popsicle sticks out of his face.

“Yeah. He’s a huge help around here.”

“Hm. He looked taller from a distance.”

“Yes, well, he’s not exactly the Colossus of Rhodes, but I’m sure from your lofty height everyone else looks positively Lilliputian.” Not the best answer, but at the time my temper was – rightfully I think – pretty short. I didn’t expect Lydia to respond, but life is full of unpleasant surprises.

“Never cared for Swift really.”

“Well if he rises from the grave I’ll be sure to let him know.”

The conversation ended there. I can’t bring myself to look at her face and I can’t bring myself to face Collin. It doesn’t seem fair to demand he choose or even defend the situation; no one is really to blame. As usual, Ted is no where to be found. He has a way of disappearing at the worst moments, the moments when I need him the most. Ned is a sympathetic ear. He is determined to stay on my side and for that bias I am deeply, sincerely grateful. His sympathy, however, is part of what got us into a bit of trouble, and by bit of trouble I of course mean a shit hole so deep it may as well have led to the center of the earth. Verne would be proud.

The Black Earth Wives have come to a decision: They want to leave. Word from Collin reaches us that they should be allowed to go. After all, this isn’t a Fascist state, they can leave if they want to. It’s their funeral. Ned insists that I stay with him while the initial shock of Lydia’s arrival is still fresh and terrible. He can see what the others can’t: My stability has been somewhat wrapped up in my bond with Collin and now I will need to find another outlet. We spend two hours in the gym and it’s brutal but it’s a distraction that I desperately need. Then Ned and I take Dapper to the cordoned off part of the parking lot where the vehicles are kept. The Black Earth Wives are being given one of the long vans that seats six to eight people. It’s a generous gift, one I don’t think they deserve.

“What is wrong with me? I’ve turned into a total hag,” I say, checking the trunk for any unwanted stragglers. We’ve been assigned to clean out the van and make sure it’s in good working order. There are worse tasks.

“Just stay away from her. It’s all you can do.”

“You’re right. I can’t be trusted.”

Ned laughs, sweeping an eye-watering pile of dust out of the van. “If it’s any consolation, I don’t like her much.”

“She thinks you’re short.”

“And I think she’s a rotten bitch.”

“BFF Ned, BFF.”

Dapper jumps onto one of the seats, claiming it for his own. I can’t imagine there will be anywhere peaceful to write so I sit on the seat beside him and take my laptop out of its backpack. Ned slows the cleaning down to a crawl so if anyone comes to check on us it looks like we’re still busy. We are both notoriously good at avoiding med tent duty. Ted’s God complex is soothed by the backbreaking work but Ned and I prefer target practice or the gym. It’s cold out there and my fingers start to go a little numb as I type, Dapper trying to dart his tongue along my wrist as I write.

This is where it starts to get fuzzy. I remember Ned standing outside the van, his head bent as he checked beneath the front passenger seat and I remember hearing footsteps outside on the pavement. There were a few whispers and then a flash of pale brown as something hard and heavy hit the back of my head.

I wake up and the back of my head feels soft and wet. I’m in the dark, an echoing, clammy dark. Everything is a little damp and freezing. It feels like the basement of the arena but it smells different, more metallic and dusty. I touch the back of my head and my fingers come back sticky and damp; a lick of my fingertips tells me the crown of my head is bleeding but it’s tacky and starting to heal. Groaning, I sit up and squint into the thick darkness.

“Hello?” I croak. “Anyone? Fuck.”

There’s no answer, just my voice coming back to me from a few different directions. There’s a faint perfume lingering above my head, a few feet off the ground. It smells a bit like lavender soap, with the tangy dryness of potpourri. Shivering, I crawl around on the floor trying to find the parameters of the room. It’s small, probably ten feet by ten feet, with two walls made of coarse chains that smell strongly of rust. The other walls are bumpy, cold cement. There’s no light to adjust to, but I can make out a kind of window way up above me. It’s covered with cardboard, shutting out the daylight or starlight. I have no idea what time it is, no recollection of the time between sitting in the van and waking up on the floor. There’s a bucket in one corner and I can only presume that’s supposed to be my toilet.

What worries me the most is that I’m alone, that neither Ned or Dapper seem to be near.

I waited for what had to be hours, curled up against the wall with only questions to keep me company. I feel almost nothing because I know that whatever happens now is probably out of my hands. There is no surge of power, no moment of great anger because I can’t imagine having much more taken away from me. There is only one option: To wait.

At last, with my stomach growling and rumbling every twenty seconds or so, I hear footsteps. A flashlight appears, the thin, yellow beam bouncing along the concrete. I see now that I’m probably in a basement, that this was at one time a kind of storage facility. The flashlight illuminates a pile of deflated soccer balls and basketballs in a far corner and the remains of a miniature hockey net. The light flashes in my eyes and it makes my already tender head explode with pain. I shield my eyes and then squint through the piercing brightness to see who has come for me. She’s very tall, wide, with broad, manly shoulders and a limp mop of curly hair that clings to her head like a greasy helmet. Her mouth is small and puckered and there’s a drawn tightness around her eyes. She’s at least as tall as Ned, maybe six feet.

“Where am I?” I ask, finding that my voice has only gotten more hoarse.

“You eat now,” she grunts, kneeling with great effort to slide a shallow plate beneath the crack in the chain door. There’s a big, nasty padlock around the door handle. “In a few hours I come back.”

“Wait, please,” I say, scrambling forward on all fours, “Can you just tell me who you are? Who are you?

“Not important,” she says, her English heavily accented with German or maybe a Swedish accent. “I come back soon for you.”

Well, she’s a filthy liar because she doesn’t come back for hours. In the mean time I eat what she’s brought, which is a meager, watery portion of oatmeal. It tastes stale, like it’s been rotting in the back of a pantry for decades. Still, I eat it, hoping that it isn’t laced with something. I try to think of a way to keep time, but without any sun on the floor it’s impossible to really get a feel for time passing. I know it probably feels longer than it is because there’s nothing to see, nothing to distract me from the long, dark hours.

When I hear another sound it’s in the room next to mine. The flashlight comes again and the same woman, but instead of opening my door or coming to see me she opens the room next to mine and pushes someone inside. There’s a scrabbling of shoes on the cement and a crash as the door is shut and a padlock looped around the handle.

“Don’t struggle. You were given a chance.”

This time it isn’t the jailer speaking but someone else, a low feminine voice I vaguely recognize. The flashlight is firmly on the floor, and I can’t see her face.

“Go fuck yourself.”

My heart squirms into my throat. Thank god: It’s Ned.

He spits on the ground and I hear a gasp from the woman and a strained chuckle from the big German woman with keys. “May the Lord have mercy on you, Edward. Though I don’t think he will.”

They leave, the flashlight bouncing away until they turn a corner and disappear.

“Ned? Is that you?”

“Jesus, Allison, you’re alive!” he says. I can hear him shuffle over to our shared wall. I crawl over in that direction, running my hands across the chains until I feel his fingertips.

“Where are we?” I ask, so thankful for his company that I can feel tears welling in my eyes.

“I think it’s a preschool or something, the walls upstairs are all pink and yellow and green.”

“And Dapper?”

“I didn’t see him,” Ned says, his frown coming through in his voice. “I can’t believe you’re alive. God, Allison, it’s horrible. These are horrible people. I don’t know what will happen to us.”

“Slow down – who is terrible?”

“The Wives, the Black Earth Wives, that’s where we are, it’s who… God damnit. They took the van, they must have, and they took us too.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense. Why would they take us? Why risk it?” I ask. I can feel his hands trembling, shaking the chain wall and making it tinkle gently like a wind chime.

“It’s me. They want – wanted – me.”

You?”

“Thanks.”

“No, I mean, what for?”

“They’ve lost it, Allison, all of them. They’re crazy…”

“But if they want you, why are you down here with me?”

“I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t do what they asked. It’s like a cult or something, something bad. I don’t know what the fuck is going on,” he says, his voice breaking in the middle of the sentence. Something is wrong, really wrong, and the wall shakes harder. “They tried to… They tried to make me have sex with them.”

“Fuck my life. Jesus.”

“Exactly, Allison. They think it’s the end of days, Armageddon, they want to repopulate the earth. They kept calling me Adam… And Corie… She was standing right here, just, right there and she didn’t do anything, didn’t try to stop them. It’s so fucked… And now… Now I think they’ll probably just kill us.”

“Kill us? What the hell did I do?”

“We’re sinners… And I… I couldn’t… They have the boys. They have Evan and Mikey.”

“Jesus, Ned,” I say, feeling my skin try to disappear. The stale oatmeal is threatening to come back up and fast. “You should’ve… You should just do what they say. Don’t worry about me, just get your kids to safety.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” he said, “I wouldn’t let my boys see me like that. They won’t be hurt, at least… Well, I don’t know, but they’re just children.”

“So what now?” I ask, squeezing his fingers.

“They’ll look for their Adam or whatever, I guess and we… Well, we aren’t needed. They kept talking about sacrifice, sacrificing the unworthy. They’re rebuilding the world, I suppose, rebuilding it the way they want.”

Anything is better. Swimming in a tank of hungry sharks would be better. Even being trapped in the arena with Collin and his wife would be better than this. Evan and Mikey are up there with a bunch of crazies, probably scared and wondering where their dad is. And who knows what they’re being told or shown…

“We’ll get out of here,” I say, squeezing his hand again, “We have to. It’s not over, not until we’re dead. We’ve come too far to die here. I’m not letting a bunch of nutso housewives take me down, not after coming so far.”

There’s no hope but I search for it anyway, trying to dig deep, almost forgetting that I’m not dealing with mindless undead anymore. I want to forget. I want to forget everything, to find a numb space where there’s no thinking, no feeling… But something won’t let me, something tells me I have to push again, something tells me I’m not allowed to be defeated. I want my dog back, and I want my freedom.

[To be continued…]