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Cold Gray World (Directors Cut! Hehe Finished edit, unfinished story. I will post new chapters here as I get'er'done!)

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  • Cold Gray World (Directors Cut! Hehe Finished edit, unfinished story. I will post new chapters here as I get'er'done!)

    I awoke with a startled gasp. I couldn’t see. All I could hear was a high pitched whine. I was sitting hunched over my own legs which were folded under me. I could feel my bony knees as the side of my face rested on them. Both my arms and legs were numb. I tried to move my head and it felt like somebody was running a knife along my neck and spine. I sat there and gurgled. I could feel saliva running down my mouth. My nose seemed not to work. Gurgling, my heart beating and numbness were my whole world.
    I remembered things as I sat there frozen. My kids and my wife, our dog. The house I lived in, the one with the two garage doors. The left door didn’t work. I need to fix that. I was always putting it off. Our house was like the other houses on the street and in the neighborhood. They were all the same, except the colors. Was I in my house? I willed my arm to rise and touched my face. I could feel my face, but the hand didn’t seem like mine. It felt like a lump of wet flesh, a Sunday pot roast. My mouth tasted like blood and dirt. I thought of myself as conscience, yet in a constant state of nothingness.
    I passed out again.
    I woke up and passed out. It seemed like hours I had been this way. Or was it days? Had I been here for days? Where was I? I still couldn’t see and my world was so small. After waking and slipping into oblivion and waking, more times than I could remember, something changed; the pain came.
    My legs began to feel like somebody was hitting them with a hammer. They throbbed in unison. I tried to will myself to move them, to feel if I were bleeding. Was I bleeding to death? I couldn’t do anything but breathe, a ragged breath of a dying man I had heard so often. Where did I hear this? Who was I? When I next passed out, it was most welcome.
    Next, I saw a light. It wasn’t a comforting light. It was blurry and it was full of dust. The light was coming from a crack above me. The dust swirled within the light and irritated my eyes. I couldn’t lift my arms to rub them. All I could do was blink. It was bright and dark at the same time, a dull gray thing that my mind did not compute. I could see the light change and grow dark. I finally realized it was smoke. Smoke was causing the light to darken. I could smell it now. I panicked. Was I going to burn? Was I going to die feeling the heat consuming my body? I moaned, the only sound I could make.
    The next thing I remembered was water dripping near my head. It was dark again, but I could feel the spatter on my forehead. Drip, drip, drip, splatter; three drips and a splatter, I counted them, like a drum cadence. I moved my arm up and felt the cold water slowly dripping down; drip, drip, drip, splatter. I moved my arm to my mouth and tasted the water. It tasted like blood. Or was it my own blood I tasted. So thirsty. So alone. I decided at that moment to die and promptly passed out.
    The light again and anger. I yelled within my mind that I had given up and wanted to die. All that came out was moaning. Was I yelling out to God? My boss? My father who I rarely saw growing up? The light came back above me. Shining through the crack a million miles above my head. I tried to stand and was immediately awarded with pain shooting down my back. Pain was good, right? Pain means that you are alive. I was alive. Or…. Was I dead?
    This was certainly Hell. What happened? I had lived a good life. I did good things. I gave money to the poor and I helped those people who needed help. I went to church. Why had God punished me to this place?
    I reached up and saw my hand. My fingers were broken and misshaped. I could see a bone sticking out of my pinky. My hand was crusted blood and dirt. The numbness was still there, but now a deep throbbing also. I moved the lump of flesh to the dripping water and tried to clean it off. . I could hear screaming and realized it was me.
    I could hear again. The squealing in my head had slowly gone away as I sat there hunched over. I could hear rumbling in the distance and fire roaring. Every so often a distant explosion. Where was I? Who was I? I tried to stand again, the pain shooting down my back and legs. This time I hit my head on a plank or a girder above me. It made me go dizzy and reel back down. I reached up and felt it with what was left of my right hand. I grabbed my mangled hand. My left hand was numb, however, through the distant light; I could see that it wasn’t as broken as its twin. The numbness started seeping away from my body, being replaced with pain. Cold- intense pain.
    I spat blood, spit and dust and reached out with my “good” hand grabbing the plank above me. I had just enough strength to pull myself up; grabbing the plank like a toddler grabs its mother’s leg. I held this position until the strength left my body and I fell back down to my grave.
    I had nothing to do but scream and cry and wish I could die. I became nauseous and threw up, tasting the bitterness of it.
    We had purchased our house in a suburb of Atlanta. I worked a job that I can’t remember doing. I was married to my college sweetheart a few months after graduating. She was a…. She was a? I can’t remember what or where she worked. I can’t remember what she looked like. We had kids. I remember kids. There was Kari our first born. She turned 16 a while back. We had a party at an amusement park. Then there was my son. His name was. His name was. His name was? I can’t remember his name. He rode his bike to school. His bike was red and green. Screaming. My head. My head was being crushed. Was it physical pain or the pain of forgetting?
    I woke again into a nightmare worse than what I dreamed. I could now smell wood burning and plastic. The crack of light above me. The smoke and sunlight trading places. I can’t remember.
    I had to go up. Up was where I could live or die. Up was where the light was. I reached up again and grabbed the plank. I tried to ignore the pain in my body. I pulled myself over the plank. It wasn’t wood or metal. It was made of flesh. The plank or girder was made of flesh. It bled down onto me. Into me. Into my mouth. Into my nose. I felt my stomach flip as I hung there and threw up again down into my hole. I swung my leg over the plank and held my position there shakily. I knew if I went back down into the hole, I would not die. I would live forever in a place that was neither life nor death. I had to go up. Whether to die or live, I didn’t care.
    What happened? I now lay on my back with rubble around me. I could see smoke and fire in the buildings around me. The buildings were high on either side of the street. Small town America was ablaze. I could feel a rumbling. Or could I hear the rumbling? It was light out. I could see the sky. It was gray and smoky. I turned my head and saw “my hole” Did I hear screams coming out of it, my screams? It was beckoning me back. It was telling me to come back inside where it was safe. I coughed and vomited dust.
    There was a piece of rebar sticking out of the ground next to the hole. I pulled myself to it and reached out with my good hand. I was able to pull myself, despite the pain, using the bar. I stood hunched over leaning against this staff. I squinted and looked around. I was on what was left of a sidewalk, a road. There were ruined and gutted buildings around me. Some were on fire. The road was littered with paper and dust blowing, covering everything. I could see smashed cars, with large pieces of concrete lying on top of them. I looked the other way, down the road. There was an ambulance lying on its side. I could see a mangled body partly covered by a dirty and bloody sheet. I began to see other people lying on the road and sidewalk. Most were mangled, some burned. Some lay there as if sleeping peacefully. I stood there swaying. I could smell burning flesh and feces. I could feel the heat of the fires near me. I bowed my head and closed my eyes, leaning against post. I saw death even with my eyes closed.
    I flew on planes. I did it a few times a month for my job. I dressed in a suit and neatly folded my jacket, placing it in the storage above my seat when I flew. My favorite suit was a pin stripped dark navy blue suit my wife had gotten me for my birthday when I turned 35. How old was I really? I felt like an old frail man. Yeah, flying. I liked flying. It gave me a chance of closing my eyes and meditate about life. I was busy. I worked hard. I made a lot of money. I had a boat on a lake…or was it on the ocean? Life had been good. I was happy. I yelled “Is this hell?” to the sky.
    I sucked in a lungful of air and opened my eyes as I leaned against the rebar. I looked down and saw that I was wearing pinstripe pants. They were dirty and ripped. I was wearing a shoe, a nice brown leather shoe. I had socks on but only one shoe. The shirt I was wearing had once been white. It was now covered in white dust and splattered with blood. My blood? Was it my blood? I looked again at my tattered hand and laughed, swaying as rooted against the metal post.
    I was startled back into the sick reality around me. Besides my mangled hand, I felt fresh blood slowly pouring down my head. I looked towards the ambulance on its side. I decided to make my way to it and try to treat my wounds. I pulled the rebar trying to get it out of the concrete for which it was stuck. It took several minutes to break the bar out of the concrete. I used it, stumbling towards the ambulance.
    It was then I heard the scream. I knew it wasn’t coming from me.
    The screaming was echoing against the buildings and I heard it over the rumbling and flames. I could hear it getting closer. It sounded like a man, but I couldn’t be sure. I struggled to get to the ambulance, stumbling forward and will my legs to work. My flight or fight syndrome kicked in and I was terrified. I fell a few feet from the vehicle and crawled forward shaking with pain and fear. After what felt like minutes, I was able to crawl into the ambulance and close the open back door. I laid there in the dark.


    I heard the voice.


    The voice stopped yelling and I could hear it mumbling as it walked by my hiding place. I was still and terrified. My mouth was dusty dry. I shook more, not because of the pain I felt, but because of the fear of that monster outside finding me. He was death and pain. Whomever outside was dying and taking anyone else he could find with him.


    The yelling man’s voice sounded farther away as I cowered. After a time, I was able to lock the back door from the inside with a clank. I waited silently and only moved when I saw bottles of purified water that had fallen off the shelf they had been stored in. The water tasted metallic, but I drank three of them. I was then able to push an empty stretcher against the front seats. I stacked bags of equipment; a defibrillator, a heart monitor and other bags on top of the stretcher. I made sure the crew cab was blocked. That man I heard might come back and try to force his way in, I was sure of it. Had he seen me crawling to the ambulance? Had he sensed another dead man teetering toward insanity? I chattered my teeth in the darkness, hugging my metal bar against my chest.
    Soon, after a time, minutes? Hours? I decided to tend to my wounds. I was able to find a dressing which I wound around my head. Whether it was the physical activity I did, or the loss of blood, I got dizzy and passed out against the cold inside of the ambulance.

    When I woke, my mangled hand and head were throbbing. I thought I had little medical experience, but knew that I needed to try and straighten my fingers and put a splint on my hand. Was I once a medic? Was I a doctor? I was familiar with the equipment in the ambulance but couldn’t say why. I rummaged through the cabinets and found a splint that looked like it was made for fingers or toes. I found a bottle of rubbing alcohol and some dressings. I also found a locked box mounted on the side of the ambulance that said “Class II” on its side.

    I used the rebar and broke the lock. Inside I found several small bottles of morphine and pill bottles of Hydrocodone. I took three of the pills and began to clean up my hand using the alcohol and bandages. I could see after removing the dirt and dried up blood that I had sustained a crushing injury. It appeared as if three of my fingers were broken and I had a large cut between my thumb and pointing finger. After cleaning, I took a deep breath and attempted to straighten my middle finger. The pain made me scream out and I blacked out slightly as I tried to rub clean the wound. I was going to have to use more than just the pills. I prepared a syringe with the morphine. How did I know these skills? My memory was still fragmented and missing. It took minutes to get the shot ready using my only good hand and my leg and mouth.

    I shot up my hand with the morphine. I could feel the medication warm my arm and make its way to my back and head injury. I began to feel drowsy. I placed my misshapen hand on a counter and used the rebar to roll my fingers straight whimpering in agony and sweat. I quickly put the splint on and the wrapped the whole thing in a long bandage.

    Feeling even drowsier, I grabbed a blanket and pillow and was barely able to lay down before falling asleep. I dreamed of screams and gunshots and the insane man laughing in my face as his hands squeezed my neck.
    Last edited by Buggyout; 06-24-2017, 04:37 PM.
    I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.

  • #2
    Chapter 2

    I was a giant turtle stuck inside my shell. I felt like I was lying on the bottom of a pond when I heard a WHACK. It woke me up but I didn’t peak. WHACK…WHACK. I began to get frightened. It was apparent that some creature wanted in to eat me. I would be safe in the water if I was still….
    I woke up with a start not registering what was going on. I then remembered the ambulance and my throbbing injuries. I remembered the medication as it gave me a still warm and agitated release into semi-conscience. I also remembered the destroyed city outside. I began to sweat and my body went cold.
    Somebody was trying to get in. I tried to remain as still as I could. The ambulance didn’t have windows, I couldn’t see what was out there. I felt whoever was banging against the outside of the vehicle
    I then heard a gunshot far off. Then another just outside my hiding place.
    More gunshots in rapid order far off and a few resounding booms from the outside of the ambulance. I then heard a scream and a gurgle. Then silence.
    After what felt to be hours, I heard a different voice, a female voice say, “If you reach for the shotgun, I will shoot you”. The only reply was a moan.
    I heard what I thought was somebody kicking a gun and it skittering across the street.
    I heard a scuffle, the woman screaming and one more gunshot then silence once again.
    I waited not moving. I thought about what was happening. Maybe it was the drugs coursing through my system. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know what had happened outside. As far as my mind could tell, whatever life had become was always the way it was. But what about my wife and kids? What about my job? My favorite suit? Were these things made up? Were they real memories? I had no answer.
    I waited. The minutes rolled into hours and the hours into days. I slept and woke. I drank water and began to feel hunger. I looked as quietly and carefully as I could for food. There was none. Outside, I heard more gunshots, explosions and rumblings. I was asleep when what I believed was a building next to the ambulance came down and partially covered it. I felt giant slabs fall around the vehicle and wondered if this was my time. Soon the rumblings stopped and silence once again came. I tried to open the back doors and could not. I started to panic, thinking about being down in the hole again. Was this my new coffin? Drifting off I was the turtle, the turtle, the turtle…..
    Sleep , wake, sleep wake. My morphine was almost gone. I had one bottle of hydrocodone left and two bottles of water. I had not eaten in what I thought weeks. Pumped up on drugs, it wasn’t a problem, yet I could feel the hunger. My injuries had lessened into a dull throbbing. On my “wake” cycle, I would clean and dress my hand and head as best I could. I hoped I was healing. I knew I would have to leave soon.
    After a few more days, hunger started motivating me. I moved the baggage from the stretcher and then used my rebar to bend a part of the stretcher out revealing the bottom part of the front windshield. I got down on my stomach and looked outside. I could see the rubble and torn cars of the road. Parts of buildings were still smoldering. I saw a pack of dogs fighting over something I choose not to think about. I did not see any live people. I saw corpses lying about. The nearest, most unscathed building had a sign that read “Jorges Quix Stop”. I decided to try for that. It appeared as if the top of the building had crumpled down into the road where the sign lay propped up on some rubble.
    I waited and watched.
    I took my rebar and smashed the bottom of the ambulance’s windshield. I waited a few minutes hoping that I didn’t draw any attention. I smashed some more and finally made a hole I could wiggle out of. I took an emergency blanket and laid it on the broken glass. I also grabbed a bag and placed my remaining narcotics, some ointments, bandages, tape and an emergency flashlight I had found between the front and the passenger seat. Although my broken hand still throbbed I could now use it enough to push away the glass and more importantly, to push myself out of the ambulance. Scooting on my stomach I was soon out of my hiding place.

    I lay there looking around and blowing little dust swirls with my breath, my hands upon the cold concrete.

    I looked to the back of the ambulance and saw a woman wearing a police uniform. She was lying on her back. Arms splayed out, with a knife sticking out of her chest. She still held a pistol in one of her hands. Next to her was a man dressed in a suit similar to mine, only white and a piece of two foot pipe and a broken stock shotgun next to him. The top part of his head was missing. Both bodies had flies already buzzing around them, blood mingling and drying in a pool. I could now reconstruct what happened. The man was trying to get into the ambulance, hitting the back doors with the pipe. The police officer was trying to stop him. She got close enough and got a knife in her chest for a reward. In turn, she shot the man. Her eyes were still open with a look of surprise on her face. It was a gruesome violent scene, one I’m sure played out again and again in this city I was in. The world had changed quickly and violently. I knew that. What had happened, I did not know. There were parts of my memory I just didn’t have, foremost what plunged life into death, order to chaos, on a massive scale.

    I started slowly crawling towards the Quix Stop. The outside was littered with empty boxes and broken bottles. There was a body lying in the rubble with its head smashed by a large piece of concrete. Whomever it was, wore a jumpsuit and had a name tag that said “Arland” on it with a happy face sticker next to the name. I could see that an animal, or animals had started feeding on “Arland”. I suddenly thought, I hoped it was an animal. The smell was sickening, causing me to wretch. I crawled farther, intentionally around the body and made it to the wrecked front of the store.
    Without getting up, I slowly moved concrete and bricks with my rebar, pushing them out and aside. I was trying to be as quiet as I could. Even so, the sound of bricks being moved echoed across the street.

    Soon, I was able to open up a hole large enough to get inside. I slithered through the opening, turning and refilling my entrance as best I could with more rubble. I then stood up, shakily on my haunches and looked round.

    I pulled my flashlight out and fumbled for the on switch. The light was small and black, about six inches long with the switch on the end cap. It flickered on cutting through the darkness and the dust. I could see seven long display shelves filling the center of the store. Most were empty. The front counter and register looked like somebody had set off a bomb next to it. The register was laying on the floor near what was left of the front door. It still had money lying around it. The whole front of the building was blocked and in shambles. There was a rear door that was closed, next to the entire back wall which was a walk in cooler. The doors to the cooler were cracked or broken, with few items remaining inside. Thankfully, there were not any bodies in the store, or anything alive for that matter. The bad news was the store looked like it had already been looted. Maybe looted several times. How long was I in that hole and ambulance?

    I decided to check the shelves. I found several bags of potato chips that looked like they had been stepped on. I tore into them ravenously and with purpose. I couldn’t taste whatever flavor they were as I ate the crushed stale chips quickly. I next found ten cans of whatever food, without labels which I stacked in the middle of one of the aisles. There were piles of dried pinto beans strewn about. I collected these also, putting them into a display box I found. I looked some more. There were toiletry items, toothbrushes and tooth paste and clothing detergent. I found a few tubes of diaper ointment near a perfect display of stacked diaper boxes. As I made my way back to the cooler, I could see gallon broken jugs of rotting milk and vegetables lying about. When I opened the door, the smell was nearly as bad as the bodies outside. Not surprisingly, there was no beer in the cooler. There were miscellaneous cans and bottles of soda that appeared to be stuck in the shelving. I was able to find and get fifteen free and place them in an empty box.

    The back of the store, where I assumed the liquor had been stored was empty with shattered glass and the smell of stale booze. I did find a small bag of beef jerky on the floor, partially sticking out from under a mat.

    My stomach gurgled. I pushed an ice cream case, blocking the back closed door and sat against it. I started to eat more of the stale potato chips, haphazardly wiped off the bag of beef jerky. I tore into the bag with my teeth. Surprisingly, the jerky tasted fresh. A can of soda was next. It went down hard, I choked a little on the carbonation. It was cool and sweet. The thirst and hunger pains were alleviated slightly. I sat and dozed thinking about my next course of action.

    I leaned against the cooler, drifting in and out of conscience. I still had no idea who I was or what had terribly happened outside. It looked like the whole world had been turned upside down and shook. Nothing made sense. I had fleeting images of memories; Barbeques, parties, dancing with my wife; the one person I couldn’t remember what she looked like or what her name was. I remember teaching Kari, my daughter how to ride her bike. Teaching my son how to hit a baseball. It was all safe, these images. Cozy and safe. It was frustrating not knowing. I tried to will myself to remember, nothing came.
    My chin hit my chest and startled me awake. I looked around, empty chip bags and cans of soda. I took four more pain pills and drifted off again.
    Was I better off dead? I certainly didn’t have the will to survive. I had nothing left in the world, or so I thought. I slowly slid into a once again drug induced frantic sleep.
    I woke up sore and sick. My stomach reeled at the thought of food, even though I was probably starving. I stood up and vomited. Got dizzy and sat back down. It took a few minutes for the dizziness to go away. I thought about what to do next.
    I took inventory of my pathetic life.
    I had a box half full of food and soda. I had a bag with basic medical supplies. I had a barely serviceable shirt and pair of pants. Two socks and one shoe and a metal bar. I needed more food, more basic supplies to stay alive.
    I decided to collect more of the loose dried beans by hand on my knees. After about an hour, I figured I had at least a pound. I scavenged every part of the store and found a few more cans and packages of food – crackers and such.
    I knew that I had to find out what was behind the back door to the store. I slowly pushed the ice cream cooler back, unfortunately opening it during the process and filling the store with a rotted diary product smell. I used medical tape and taped it shut.
    I then tried the backdoor knob. To my surprise, it opened. I shined my flashlight down about 30 feet of hallway. To the left was the entrance to the walk in cooler. To the right was a door that had a sign on it saying “Not a public restroom”. The back of the hall was strewn with rubble and impassable.
    I opened the bathroom door. It had a toilet and a sink and a mop bucket. I tried the sink knobs and nothing came out but air and a little putrid water. The toilet was full of feces and dry. I closed the door.
    I next went to the walk in cooler. I put my shirt up, covering my nose and opened the door. The inside was stale and warm. There were empty pallets lining the back. Besides the rotting dairy, I did not find any more food or drink. As I walked back towards the door, I saw my first break. There was a one piece quilted jump suit hanging on a hook near the door. It was the same type of jumpsuit that “Arland”, the body outside wore. I assumed it was used when whomever was working inside the cooler or maybe the cooler was used as an impromptu changing room. I had no clue. I grabbed it and left, shutting the door behind me.
    Okay! I had a little food, a little water, some extra clothing to keep me warm. Now I needed to find some shoes. I knew I would have to go outside. I knew that unless I found a fully stocked shoe store, I would have to take whatever off of a dead person.
    I kicked open the entrance I had made and wiggled out onto the street.
    The city was quiet. No engines. No birds. No people talking or laughing. The dead body in front of the store had been torn again by what I assumed dogs, or possibly cats. I hoped. A sudden nightmare vision of another person doing this crossed my mind. I trembled and licked my lips. Whatever shoes “Arland” had been wearing were long dragged away.
    I stood up and walked back towards the ambulance. It was there as I left it, broken front windshield, and the two corpses lying at the back. I walked towards the body of the cop. She still held the pistol in her hand. I had little knowledge of guns. I had a BB gun as a kid and had gone skeet shooting with co-workers. I remembered that. I looked around, then bent down and pried the pistol from the cop’s hands. It was black and evil looking. It had the word “Glock” on its side. I placed it in my front pants pocket. The cop was wearing boots, which I could use if they were my size. Unfortunately for me, these boots were tiny and wouldn’t have fit my daughter Kari. I thought for a moment of taking the knife that was lodged in the cop’s chest. I shook my head and moved to the body of the man who was killed. He was wearing tennis shoes that had once been white along with the suit. They looked about my size so I took off my one good shoe, looking at it for a moment. It had to have been very expensive. It was good leather and decorative. Maybe I should go back down the hole and look for its mate. I shivered. That was out of the question. The tennis shoes fit with a little extra room to spare. The broken shotgun next to the man was just that, broken and useless.
    I made one more stop at the ambulance to grab pillows and blankets and then limped back to the Quix Stop store. After squeezing myself through the entrance, I spent more time filling it up, hopefully camouflaging better.
    It started getting cold. As I was running out of pain medication, my senses were back on full. I tried to remember what season it was. I would guess fall? It was late in the afternoon when I returned to the store and there was a distinct chill in the air. Funny though, none of the bodies I saw wore jackets or winter gear.
    I shook my head and got into the store jumpsuit. I then wrapped myself with hospital blankets and after a while drifted off to sleep.
    I dreamed of a huge face in the clouds. It was a hungry face and took bites out of whole cities. It laughed and chewed. I could see hundreds of people, cars and parts of buildings fall out of its mouth as it consumed everything. I was running from it when it looked right at me and started chasing me. I ran to an edge of a cliff and turned to see this face opening its mouth and sucking me into its darkness.
    I woke sweating and crying out. I drank a soda and got up to urinate in the opposite corner of the store. It was still dark, yet I couldn’t get back to sleep. I laid there, thinking of nothing and shivering even with the extra clothing and blanket.
    The next morning I went to the back hallway, to where the rubble had caved in. I could see the outline to a back door to the store, possibly a service entrance? I could also see that part of the rubble was a staircase leading up to another floor of the building. I could see into the stairwell and the second floor if I stretched over what was left of the depleted wooden staircase. I thought this might be an opportunity missed by looters. I just needed to figure out a way up.
    I didn’t have rope, nor did I have a ladder. It was about twenty five feet up to the next floor. I doubt with my still injured hand I could pull myself up with a rope. My only option was finding a ladder.
    I left the store with the cop’s pistol tucked in my belt and the flashlight in my hand. I camouflaged my entrance as best I could using bricks and what remained of the sign. Across the street, there appeared to be a burned out restaurant. I decide to try that first. As I neared it, I saw the inside of the restaurant completely burned out. I walked to the side of the place down an alley. My hope was to find a fire escape ladder I could somehow dismantle and bring back.
    I did find what was left of a fire escape. The ladder was bent and unusable. I stood there and looked at it, thinking to myself, “What now?”
    That’s when I saw him. There was a man standing about 20 feet down the alley from me, in the shadows, not moving and staring coldly at me.
    I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.


    • #3
      Chapter 3

      The man stood with his hands down at his sides. He had dirty hair and a months’ worth of beard. He was wearing tattered jeans and a firemen’s jacket. I really doubted he was a fireman. He held a length of board or thick stick in his right hand. Nothing moved but his mouth.
      “Give me all the food and water you have”, His voice was raspy and unemotional.
      I could feel the Glock pistol at the small of my back where I had put it.
      “I want the flashlight you got too”, He sneered.
      I grabbed the flashlight with both hands.
      “It’s mine, IT’S MINE!” I surprised myself yelling almost childishly. My voice echoed in the alley.
      The man stared at me.
      “I won’t ask you again. You wouldn’t be the first person I have killed lately.”
      I got angry. I could feel my face flush.
      “You want it, TAKE IT!” I threw the flashlight at him as he started running towards me with the stick raised.
      The flashlight hit him square on the chest, slowing his attack slightly. I stumbled backwards and grabbed the pistol from my back. I raised it at stomach level, pulled the trigger as the man was nearly upon me. He stopped, stood lowering the stick he had and without changing his expression fell to the ground, face first. I stood with the pistol still raised and watched as a puddle of blood formed around his body. The man jerked twice as I watched and was still.
      I just killed another human being. He was dead and laying before me. I stumbled back and tripped falling on my backside. I still had the pistol pointed at the dead man. I could still smell the fumes from the gun powder and I still had the echoing of the shot ringing through my ears.
      I had to run. I had to hide. I got up and fled back to the convenience store. I dug out my entrance and got inside. I pulled the ice cream cooler and blocked it and then backed into a corner. I threw the gun across the floor, it slid and clanked into a display.
      What had I become?
      I stayed inside my hide for nine days. I ate, I slept. I paced around. I tried to justify the killing another man. What had this world become? What had I become? Was I a monster? The man was going to kill me for a two dollar flashlight. In that alone, I was justified in protecting myself. My problem was that I had become angrier than I ever had been. I also enjoyed pulling the trigger of the gun. I felt nothing as I watched the man’s blood pour onto the sidewalk. I was running out of time. My sanity was running out of time.
      I heard sporadic gunfire and screams day and night for the first five days, for three days it had been quiet. Strangely quiet. I was running out of food and drink. Having only soda, my body craved the water I did not have.
      I went back to the stairwell. If I could only find some way of getting up to the second floor. I wasn’t going back outside, I wasn’t desperate enough to do that yet. Twenty-five feet up. How could I do it?
      It was getting cold. I could now see my breath the whole day. My hands were especially cold. I kept them under my arms when I wasn’t doing something. I had taken all the rotten dairy products and vegetables from the walk-in and placed them in the bathroom. I found a few cans of disinfectant and sprayed the interior of the walk-in cooler down. I now slept inside, on the pallets. It was warmer and I had another level of security, be it just broken glass doors.
      I decided to go out again. It took a lot of thinking and a lot of self-convincing. When had I become such a coward? I had changed. I knew I had lost much weight and was beginning to be gaunt. I had a scraggly beard and unkempt hair. I smelled terrible. It’s bad when you can smell yourself.
      I pushed the ice-cream cooler aside and dug out the bricks and concrete from my entrance. As I moved the last rubble, my hand felt icy coldness. Snow! Gray dirty snow! The streets were full of it. I clenched my pistol and stood up. I looked up the road towards the now snow covered ambulance. I looked down the road. In the distance I could see smoke. Be it that, the whole world had died and frozen. It was quiet and still.
      There were no footprints in the snow. The corpses I tried not to see were now gray snow covered humps. I walked past the restaurant, looking down the alley. I knew I had to go and get the heavy fireman’s jacket the man I killed wore as I was freezing even with the layers of clothing I wore. I walked up to where his body lay and kicked the snow from it. The jacket was stiff and the body frozen. It came off with some of the dead man’s skin and I retched.
      I took it back to the store and shoved it inside. I stood again and looked down the road. Nothing, silence. I walked past the ambulance and to the hole I had somehow managed to crawl out of. I looked down into the darkness and saw nothing, yet it called out to me. I would have been part of that nothing had I not fallen into the hole, my stolen grave. I looked to where the hole was and backed away, feeling the desolate evil of the thing.
      I walked to the end of the block. Looking down I saw red crimson in the gray snow. I saw empty firearm casings. The trail of blood led around the corner. I peaked and saw what I never imagined. I saw two figures swaying over a body, covered in gore and eating the dead cold flesh.
      I raised my pistol and fired. One of the cannibals fell to the ground. The other ran away, screaming high pitched and unintelligible. The cannibal on the ground writhed in pain as I approached it. I could see that it was female and young. She growled at me and wore a school uniform of some type with no shoes. Her feet were black with frostbite.
      Her eyes followed me as I circled her and looked down the street for the other who had run away. I could see the footprints in the snow and followed them around another corner where they disappeared into a destroyed building.
      I walked back to the one I shot. She was now looking up into the sky. I could see her eyes were unfocused. She gurgled as she tried to breath. I hunched over my knees with the pistol pointed at her haphazardly and watched as she died. A lot of time went by before she drew her last breath. Once again, I was a murderer. Or was I a redeemer?
      The body the two had been feeding wore a robe, blue with a fuzzy white collar. There wasn’t enough of the face left for me to determine whether it was female or male. A few feet away I found a small revolver that matched the rounds I saw on the corner. The revolver held five empty rounds. I kicked it in the snow.
      I made the decision right there to get out of this city. Get out of this hell. I didn’t know how I would do it. I didn’t even know where I was, much less where I needed to go.
      I went back to my store, I used a broom I found to sweep off my tracks in the snow. I camouflaged the entrance with rubble and gray snow and then pushed the ice cream cooler against the opening inside.
      I looked down and saw the firemen’s jacket. It had thawed enough for me to try and clean it off. There was body purge and skin on it. I had to scrape the gore off using a piece of broken glass. I retched as I tried to get it clean and serviceable. While working it, I found a pair of heavy gloves attached to the inside. I put the jacket and gloves on over my jumpsuit.
      I went into my cooler and wrapped up in blankets. I only had dried beans left, which I chewed raw. Sleep came hard.
      I dreamed again…..
      I dreamed of being chased by gaunt, filthy howling people. They wore torn and dirty clothing. Their finger nails were long, misshapen and stained with blood. Their teeth were rotted and black. They chased me into my store and cornered me in the walk-in cooler. I fired until my gun was silent, but they kept coming. The last thing that happened was their teeth ripping my flesh. I woke up whimpering and sweating despite the cold.
      The howling hadn’t stopped, despite being awake. I heard it. It was coming from outside my store.
      I got up and ran out the cooler and down the hallway. I looked up again towards the stairwell. I ran back to the cooler as the howls were getting louder, followed by pounding on the outside of the building. It sounded like a large group of people were out there. I was frantic to find a way to protect myself.
      I took the empty wooden pallets and stacked them against the inside of the hallway door. I took chunks of rubble from the cave in and stacked them on the pallets.
      That’s when the explosion happened.
      I saw a bright light coming through the cooler glass doors before they shattered inward. I was blown down the hallway into the stairwell. I saw the hallway cave in around me and then I passed out.
      I woke up looking up into the stairwell. It was dark and quiet and I was cold. I moved my hands and my legs to make sure they worked. I patted my chest and wiped my face with a gloved hand. I was not injured. I turned my head and saw that the hallway, including the cooler door was completely blocked.
      I don’t know what happened. The explosion was tremendous. Zombie-cannibals weren’t supposed to have bombs or cannons or whatever! Whatever they used had trapped me in the hallway. Another hole to die in.
      I may have been trapped again, but at least I was safe from the monsters outside.
      The stairwell had caved in again, this time filling it further where I could climb up. Above, which I figured was the second floor was a ledge towards the front of the store and a closed door facing into the back. The rubble had re-piled enough where I could jump up and grab the ledge with my good hand. I just needed a little more boost to get up to it. I got down and went to the now caved in hallway. The pallets were buried under pipe, wood, plaster and other debris. No help there. I looked to the bathroom. The door had been pushed inward by the cave in. if I could just get the door uncovered and out. I could wedge it inside the stairwell and easily hoist myself up.
      I had lost my blankets and my medical bag and what was left of my food. My mouth was dry and full of the plaster dust. I desperately needed water. I was weak. It was more than a chore to uncover the bathroom door. I saw that the top two door hinges had broken off. By removing the rubble I was able to move the door back and forth until the bottom hinge snapped.
      I now had my door.
      It was heavy; I drug it back to the stairwell and pushed it up through wedging it in place. I then scooted up, using the door and the wall as a brace.
      I reached up to the ledge, threw my leg up and pulled myself up. The second floor to the front of the building was completely caved in and open to the outside. Not only had this floor caved in, but also three or more floors as I looked up into the jagged debris filled space. The front of this room was missing. There was a foot of snow that had blown in. I made my way over to the opening.
      Below me I could see many tracks in the snow and an explosive black pattern emanating from the front of the store. There were two barrels that once held fire but now were just smoking. I don’t know how long I had been unconscious. It looked as if the whole interior of the store had caved in and the group of people gave up trying to dig it out.
      I suddenly felt very fortunate. I was alive. I wanted to scream it.
      I looked around the remains. I found several couch pillows, a hammer and a nearly full bottle of cheap whisky in a destroyed desk. I took a long swig of the alcohol. I was cold and thirsty. Although it didn’t hit the spot completely, it helped warming my insides more than anything.
      I couldn’t stay here, open to the elements. I walked back to the stairwell. The door opposite to where I was standing across the stairwell was large and made of metal. It was shut and to my surprise had a chain and padlock securing it. I realized that whatever was behind that door would help me and had been there since before the world went to hell.
      I looked up the stairwell and saw the stairs above me hadn’t collapsed. They were two floors up and unreachable given my current circumstances.
      I sat and thought about what to do.
      I took my pistol out and figured out the magazine catch. With a “schink” sound the magazine fell to the floor. I picked it up and unloaded five rounds. I placed them back in the magazine and then shoved it back into the pistol. I still had the little cheap flashlight, the gloves and the clothing I wore.
      I was thirsty. The snow didn’t look right, gray, but I had to quench my thirst. I scooped up a little and placed it in my mouth. It tasted like sulfur. I took another swig of whiskey to get the sulfur taste out of my mouth.
      I wasn’t sure what the second floor space was. There was a large smashed metal desk and file cabinet on the street below – dislodged from the explosion. I found receipt books and paper orders strewn around. I assumed this room was an office to the store below.
      It started getting late and getting colder. I had to figure out to get either into the locked room or the floors above. I walked back over to the stairwell. Leaning farther out and looking up, I saw a red box on the wall on the next floor up. It was about the size of a window with a broken glass face. I looked at it and it didn’t register immediately what it was.
      Ten feet or less! I could manage somehow to snag it and pull It out of the wall, I would have a modified rope. I looked around the office. There was a copper pipe sticking out of what was left of one of the walls. I thought it might be some plumbing to the floors above. I had to move some debris, but finally got to a place where I had leverage to try to pry the pipe out.
      It was a harder job than I thought; I ended up only getting five or so feet of pipe by moving it back and forth until it snapped. I took the pipe and leaned out of the stairwell. I was a foot short of the fire hose box. I sat on one of the couch pillows and thought again.
      The hammer!
      I grabbed the hammer and ripped my white dress shirt sleeves to create strips. I used the strips to tie the hammer to the pipe. I leaned out again and easily reached the fire box. I smashed what was left of the glass, shards came falling on my head causing annoyance more than injury.
      I turned the pipe and fished blindly using the hammer’s claw. After a few minutes, luck was with me and I snagged the hose and nozzle. I pulled it down hard until I could reach it then pulled about thirty feet of hose before it ended with a clank. I tested the weight by pulling hard on the flaccid hose. It appeared to be strong.
      If I could climb up to the firebox, I may have enough room to sit on it and toss the hose to the next floor. That was one option. The second option would be to create a harness out of the hose and “repel” across to the locked metal door. I could then use the hammer to break the padlock.
      Of course, I didn’t know if there was anything behind the door. I wasn’t sure if going up the stairwell would get me to another floor either. I decided to try for the metal door.
      I took the hose and wrapped it around my body and crouch. I had to make several adjustments to get it the level of the metal door. The fire box was situated between the office and the metal door. I would have to swing myself over and somehow grab the chain and hit it with my hammer.
      The real test was if the hose would support my weight. If it didn’t I would surely fall down the stairwell and at the very least break bones.
      I edged out into the stairwell and the hose went taunt….
      The hose creaked but supported my weight. I swung to the door, tried to grab the chain, missed and swung back to the office. I took a running start and swung again towards the metal door. I grabbed the chain with my not so healed broken hand. I held it and pain shot through my arm. I reached down and grabbed the hammer, nearly dropping it as I hung haphazardly in the stairwell. I swung at the lock.
      Nothing. I swung again harder.
      The lock broke off and fell down the stairwell making a clanging sound.
      The chain that was supporting the lock slipped off the door causing me to swing back into the office. My weight had caused the hose to loosen and I hit the ledge knocking the wind out of me. I hung there for a few minutes, gasping for air. I was finally able to crawl back into the office. I unfurled the hose around me and lay there panting.
      I looked over at the metal door. It was open slightly and whatever space behind it dark. I guess I could Tarzan over. I’d be in trouble if there nothing but open space behind the door.
      I took my flashlight out. I turned it on and underhanded it through the crack in the doorway. It hit the floor spun a few times and righted itself shinning back towards me.
      Well, at least there was a floor, I thought to myself. I think my father told me? Or I had read somewhere; “There are only winners and losers who don’t try” I decided to swing over.
      I took the fire hose in both hands and with a running start swung across the stairwell. I hit the metal door with my full weight pushing it open and sliding another five feet into the room landing with my face inches from the lit flashlight.
      As my eyes adjusted, I saw around the room and the best thing that had happened to me…….
      I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.


      • #4
        Chapter 4

        The room was full of shelving and boxes. Canned food, bottled water, pallets of beer – Everything you would think of a convenience store having. The room was untouched and clean. Somehow, this storage escaped pilfering. It had to have been the building falling down, the stairwell collapsing in the initial chaos that had blocked this little Promised Land.

        I shook as I opened a carton of cigarettes and lit one up with a lighter from a tub full other lighters, all different colors. The one I had grabbed was red. I guessed I smoked. I inhaled the sweet smoke filling my lungs. I ripped open a case of water and drank four bottles in quick secession. I then sat on the floor and wept.

        The room had no windows and no other door. I turned on five brand new flashlights I found in a box and set them up pointing to the ceiling. Besides the shelving, there were two large freezers and a large safe. Whatever was in the freezers was going to stay. I still didn’t know how much time since the world collapsed? Weeks, maybe more like a few months. That means the power had been off for at least that long. I had better keep them closed and let whatever was inside rest in peace.

        The safe was one of those antique jobs with a wheel and a handle, besides the combination lock. I tried the handle and to my amazement it opened.

        I shined my flashlight inside; the main shelf had a till full of paper money and coins. Behind that boxes of rolled coins. There were two other shelves above it. The next had some sort of financial book and other paperwork. It had a deed of some sort in a manila envelope. I left everything the way it was.

        The top shelf had an ornate wooden box on it.

        I took the box out and opened it.

        Inside was a beautiful pistol and three loaded magazines. The side of the pistol had “Colt 1911” engraved on it. I knew about this type of pistol. My grandfather carried one just like this in World War II. He often took it out and showed us kids. My grandfather lived in Macon Georgia. The memory of him came back in a flood. I still didn’t know who I was, or where I was for that matter. I knew in an instant who my grandfather was. I took a magazine and slid it in the pistol’s stock. It clicked locking in place. I felt instantly safe and better. The memory of my grandfather or what he taught me about this style of pistol, I didn’t know.

        My memory had corrupted files, missing parts. Maybe it was because the extreme physical and emotional trauma I had sustained. Maybe it was in particular the wound on my head. I didn’t know. For a fleeting moment, I thought maybe it was better this way given the way the world had changed.

        I traded the pistol for the Glock in my waistband.
        I rummaged around the place and found a box of candles. I lit many so I could see, turning off the flashlights. I started getting hungry and opened a case of beanie-weenies. I popped the top off of one can and ate with a plastic spoon I also found. The beans, although cold filled me. I ate two more cans tossing them down the stairwell.

        I then got paranoid. Really paranoid.

        I thought for sure I would be found out. The monsters outside would take my stuff. It was MINE! I FOUND IT!!!!!

        I shook my head like a dog shaking off water. This wasn’t mine. I was the one taking this stuff. It belonged to someone else. Somehow my basic needs trumped any ethics that I once had. I knew at once, I would protect my treasure, with my life if I had too.

        I took out the pistol, cocked it and set it down on the floor next to me.

        I stayed in the room for three weeks. I ate and grew stronger. I would throw my waste, even my body waste down the stairwell. Security was never a problem as I thought it might be– I was cut off from the world outside. I was on the second floor of a caved in building, and across the chasm of a caved in stairwell. I doubt Spiderman could climb up the front of the building, much less jump across the stairwell. I always shut the door on the fire hose securing it.
        I would sometimes use the fire hose to swing across to the office where I would look out over the street. I would creep to the edge of the fallout and watch. On one such occasion I viewed a running gun battle between two groups of people in the distance. One group was surprisingly well groomed and uniformed in military clothing. They carried automatic weapons. The other group was rag-tag but brave. This group had a variety of weapons; Shotguns, hunting rifles, military style rifles. Both of the groups used urban tactics, shooting and covering each other. They used the rubble superbly as cover. I thought that they were evenly matched until the military group brought up a heavy machine gun and a rocket launcher.
        The resulting carnage and explosions killed a number of the other group. I can’t tell you what happened to them all, as the battle moved down the street away from my view and the sounds of it finally faded.
        Another time, I saw a man push a shopping cart full of what looked like garbage. He was obviously insane as he talked to himself and would stop and grab at his hair. I picked up a small piece of plaster and threw it at him. He looked around saying “YOU!” YOU!” and quickly moved off. I felt bad for doing that to him out of boredom more than strife.
        The storage room became my sanctuary. It was surprisingly warm. I used empty boxes laid on the ground and on top of me to sleep. The nightmares I had grew less and less frequent.
        I thought a lot about myself. I still didn’t know who I was or where I was. I didn’t know why the world was the way it was. I had recollections of before. Watering the lawn, painting my house. Driving to work and drinking coffee. COFFEE!!!
        I rummaged around and found a case of instant coffee. I opened the metal door and made a small fire using cardboard and wooden crates. I rinsed out a bean can and filled it with fresh water. After a few moments set over the fire it started boiling. I mixed the brown coffee crystals and took a long swig. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the past.
        The morning drive, drinking coffee out of my favorite mug. The cup holder in my Honda. My cup had a Christmas scene on it and said “Santa Dad”.
        My name came back to me softly and without any effort. Ethan. My name was Ethan. It wasn’t much, however enough to bring a little hope to my little world. I smiled to myself, the first time in what felt like years.
        The snow continued to fall and color my world with dirty gray. I, Ethan, took to building small fires in what remained of the office to help keep warm and cook. As I crouched over one such fire, one day, I heard someone speak.
        “You, I know you are up there. Come to the edge” The voice came from the street below.
        I didn’t move, my eyes grew wider.
        “Hey, I’m not here to hurt you or take whatever you have”
        I was statue still.
        “I just want to trade with you? Everyone has something someone else wants”
        I slowly took my pistol out and crawled to the edge of the office. I looked over, pointing my pistol at the man below. The man raised both of his hands. He was dressed in heavy canvas homemade jacket with patched jeans, brown cowboy boots and blue baseball cap. Shaggy blond hair fell down his face and scraggly beard.
        “Oh good! Say..that’s a nice pistol. 1911 right? I have ammo for it. .45 Caliber right?”
        The man smiled.
        The stood beside a homemade sled built on pallets with plastic sheeting providing the skid. The sled held a lot of different merchandise; Boxes of canned goods, tanks of propane and gasoline. Tools, and tarps.
        “Can I lower my arms now?” the man said still smiling.
        I motioned down with my pistol. He lowered his arms to his side.
        “My name is Chris. I saw the smoke from your fire. You should really be careful doing that” He still smiled. “There are bad people around here”
        I rasped, “How do I know you aren’t one of them?” Caught off-guard and realizing I had just spoken after weeks.
        He smiled.
        “Because I would have already shot you if I was” He pointed to an automatic rifle leaning against the sled.
        The man had an honest face. Sometimes you couldn’t trust honest looks though. Wearily, I put away my pistol and stared at him.
        “Can I come up?” He asked, lowering his hands.
        “There is no way up. I have been up here for weeks”
        Chris nodded. “Yeah, that has happened all over the city. Most people I find are nearly dead stuck and holed up in the destroyed buildings. Some are ok. You look pretty good”
        Chris smiled again.
        “Listen, I’m not a stupid man. I assume you have been living off what was left in the store, nodded towards the “Quix Stop” sign. “Maybe the store room?” “I’m not here to take it. I just want to trade”
        “What do you have?” I said.
        “Well, I have tools, ammo, I have some canned goods. Gas….propane…I even have some alcohol, but not much” he said this while rummaging around his sled.
        I thought to myself, I had a lot of booze. I didn’t want him thinking I did.
        “This place had been looted before I found it”, I lied.
        “Okay Bud, What do you have?” He replied shaking his head.
        “I have some water and some money”
        “Money!” Chris laughed. “Money aint worth nothing. May as well burn it” He chuckled. “I’ll take the water though. How much do you got?”
        I had nearly a pallet full, but I lied again.
        “I have two cases I could give you”
        “Well, what do you want for them?”
        I sat and thought for a moment. “Do you have any rope? Or an axe, I could use an axe!”
        “I have both” he said, “But, those are commodities, my friend. You are going to have to produce more than just the water” He smiled again.
        I thought about the Glock pistol.
        “If you give me the axe and the rope….and a favor… I will give you a pistol I have”
        He looked up at me wide eyed.
        “The .45?!”
        “No. I have a Glock”
        “It’s a deal! What is your favor?” he laughed.
        “I want you to tell me what happened to the world? Where are we? What is this city?”
        Chris laughed. “Son, you are in Houston Texas. Well, the outskirts of Houston! You really don’t know, do you?” I realized he indeed had a strong Texas accent.
        I shook my head. “No, I, uh…” Chris continued.
        “We were bombed! Hundreds of low yield nuclear missiles launched from container ships. Most were pieces of junk, that’s why you aren’t dead of radiation poison right now. We think they came from both Iran and North Korea! Those sons of bitches got together on this. Many of the missiles were also packed with conventional explosives. They hit most of the major cities across the good ‘ole USA including this one.”
        I stood there open mouthed and stunned. It was as if my world had imploded for a second time.
        “Yeah, it was a tossup on which country’s bombs would hit us. Iran had the junk, so everyone assumes that’s what hit us. We have heard stories that Los Angles and Seattle are completely wiped off the map. Those Norks had better bombs.”
        I shook my head in shock.
        “Are we still at war?” I said.
        “Nobody knows. Once the missiles fell on us, we turned both Iran and Korea into a parking lot, I know that. All the media stopped along with shipping, commerce - everything came to a complete halt. There were rumors that India fired on Pakistan and that Pakistan fired on India and Israel. Europe fired on Russia and Russia on China. We fired on Russia, the big stuff. They fire back hitting our major cities. It was a massive chain reaction. In less than twenty-four hours, the whole world was sent back to the Stone Age. Look around you, did you ever see this much snow in Houston? Its Nuclear winter man, its July and it’s getting colder!”
        I couldn’t say anything. I had nothing to say to the man who was telling me this. I knew it was true. I knew my life had changed forever. I would never know the order and goodness of what I once had. I took it all for granted, the plushness of my previous life. The ease of living in the world. That would change, however. I would struggle to survive and my chances of dying horribly were nearly certain.
        Chris the trader was good to his word. He even tossed up the axe and rope, trusting me to toss him back the Glock. He threw in a cheap pocket knife too. I liked the guy. He reminded me of a friend I once had before the shit hit the fan. I tossed down the pistol. He thanked me and asked me if I wanted to go with him. He apparently had a basement a few miles away. I lied and told him I had other things to do. I thanked him for the rope and axe and more importantly the information.
        He moved on telling me he would be back in a few days and to expect him. I waved and simply said “See ya”

        I would have to be careful with any fire I built. Somebody a lot more unfriendly could find me, Chris was right. I took the axe and threw it into the storage room. I took my new rope and wrapped it around my shoulder, then, swung back to the storage room using the firehouse. I discovered the rope was 50 feet long and the heavy duty type used on yachts and boats. My new axe was like any other you could buy at a hardware store. It was sharp though. I was sure it would come in handy in the future. I used it firstly to chop the few wood pallets I had for firewood.

        My hiding place still had enough rations and water for months if not a year. I was careful what I ate and drank. I used a paper binder I had found to mark what I had and what I used.
        I kept busy – cleaning, rearranging and such besides keeping track of my supplies. It was when I had nothing to do when I thought about things.

        My name was Ethan. I was in Houston Texas. I flew a lot on whatever job I did. I made good money. I had a family; a wife who I had forgotten, a son who I could picture in my head but didn’t know his name. And, I had a daughter, Kari who I knew and could picture clearly. I loved my whole family, but as the days wore on into weeks, memories of them faded even more.

        The days wore on. I read and reread the magazines and books that I found in the storage room. I established a pattern of waking, eating, watching, cleaning and sleeping. The loneliness was terrible. I wished Chris the trader would return, so I could talk to him. It was still deathly cold out and getting colder by the day. I slept in my jumpsuit and heavy fireman’s jacket. I didn’t use what water I had left to clean up with. I knew I was filthy. I found a small mirror and was surprised to see the bearded, gaunt-dirt stained face looking back at me. Ethan. Ethan, you look terrible I thought.

        A few days after the trader left, I decided to try and climb farther up the stairwell. I felt stronger, and I was definitely lighter. My hand, although numb was usable. I thought I could throw the rope up around the stair handrail and loop it around with a weight, maybe use the hammer like a grappling hook.

        I took the rope and made a double knot in it every three feet. I would use these knots to brace my feet with and climb up. I looked down the stairwell. It was a long drop if I slipped. The banister and handrail of the stairs were about twenty-five above me.

        I fixed the hammer using a triple timber hitch. How did I know that? Was I a logger once too? I shrugged my shoulders. I was ready to toss the rope.

        I leaned as far as I thought safe and swung the hammer up to the banister. It clanked and fell back down. I then tried to throw the hammer. It didn’t make half way before falling and almost knocking me on my head.

        This was harder than it looked.

        I needed more leverage, or a more lighter…..the light bulb went off in my head. I went back to the storage and found some floss. I brought it back and tied one of my .45 Caliber rounds on the end. The floss had. Surprisingly, fifty yards rolled into the little package. I unrolled about what I thought was thirty and swung the bullet up to the handrail. It easily looped around it and fell back to my outstretched hands.

        I untied the hammer and tied the floss to the rope. I gently pulled until I had the end of the rope. Victory!

        I tied the end of the rope through and around the heavy metal door hinges. I was ready to try. I tested the rope and could hear the stairs creak a little. I couldn’t see them give way I felt like they would hold my weight. It would be a short trip down again if it didn’t. At the last moment, I had the idea to intertwine the rope and the firehouse. I decided to cut what rope I had left into two foot sections and then tie the hose and my knotted rope together as I climbed. I would hope it would form a crude latter.

        I stepped off holding onto the rope and the hose. Besides more of the creaking, it held. I tied a length of rope crosswise. I tested it with my weight and it held. I climbed up on it and tied another length. This went on until I was almost to the banister. I could see a closed metal door, the same as my storeroom and an open doorway.

        I boosted myself up onto the banister and lay there panting. That had been hard work, but now I had a ladder!

        I got up on my elbows. The doorway led into a hallway covered in graffiti with the same metal doors lining it on each side. Besides the one metal door opposite of me, there was a ladder leading up to what I thought was the roof.

        At the end of the long hallway was a stairwell going down.

        It was then I heard soft music coming from one of the doors down the hallway. I wasn’t alone.

        I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.


        • #5
          Chapter 5

          I pulled my pistol and cocked it. I slowly crawled forward. The music sounded as if it was coming down to the left. I checked every door. They were all closed, yet unlocked. I inched my way down the hallway.
          The music stopped.
          The door opened about fifty feet in front of me. A man dressed in camouflage and carrying a compound bow walked out and looked quickly my direction and I squeezed slightly the trigger of my pistol pointing at him. He then turned and went down the stairs. I let the tension off my trigger. I could hear his boot steps, the sound of a chain being moved and then a slam of a door and a lock put on. I don’t know how he hadn’t seen me.
          I laid there for a few more minutes. Silence.
          I inched my way to the door the man had come out of. I reached up and tried the handle. It was unlocked. I slowly opened the door. There was a living room with a door leading left and a door leading right. A dirty barred window. I went to the right door and opened it; I was greeted by the most revolting scent I had ever smelled and the most horrific thing I had seen. Rotten meat and vomit. Dried blood and feces. The room was dark and blood splattered. Hooks held meat and bones….and clothing. This place had once been a kitchen, now it was a butchery. I shined my flashlight and saw one body, hanging, wearing what was left of a little girl’s printed dress. This man, no, this monster was a cannibal.
          The anger came back. I clenched my hand on my pistol until it went white. This son of bitch was going to die, I promised myself. I shut the door.
          I shined my flashlight around the living room. I could see a couch with a sleeping bag on it. An end table with empty beer bottles on it. A coffee table with an ashtray full of cigarette butts. There was a knife in a sheath lying on the coffee table. I took it out, it shined as if new. I tucked it in my jacket.
          The sleeping bag was serviceable. I rolled that up and placed it by the door. In the corner was a pile of clothing. I found socks, which I desperately needed, a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans that looked like they would fit. I shuddered to think where these cloths came from. That son of a bitch cannibal.
          He would be back and I would be ready for him.
          I checked the stairs he left by. They went three stories down. I crept down and saw that he had chained the door from the outside. I went back into his apartment. The door I hadn’t tried opened to a bedroom full of blankets and clothing mostly stacked haphazardly on the bed. Another door led to a bathroom with a tub full of dirty water and a toilet that was dry.
          I went out and tried the door opposite of the one I was in. The door opened to an apartment full of garbage and sewage. It looked like the man was using this place as a toilet.
          I checked all of the other apartments. They had all been looted or looked like they were looted. In the last apartment, I found the mummified remains of an older lady lying in a bed. I locked the apartment door behind me so nobody else would disturb her peace.
          I went back into the cannibal’s apartment and waited in the corner behind the large pile of clothing.
          It felt like hours before I heard the chain and heavy boot steps in the stairwell. I saw the door open and the man walked in with a green backpack and the bow he left with. He threw both down in front of the coffee table sat on the couch, put his foot up and dug out a pack of cigarettes. He lit one up and sat back puffing smoke to the ceiling.
          “I know you are there in the corner. I even know who you are”, He puffed again.
          I held my pistol on his forehead.
          “Why?” I said in a sneer.
          “Oh you mean in there?” He pointed his cigarette towards the kitchen.
          I said nothing.
          “I have been expecting you for some time. I actually watched you swing on that firehouse of yours to that office. I know you made it into the store room. You see, I know all about you.” He puffed and smiled.
          “WHY?” I yelled.
          “Simple my man. I had too,” he paused leaning forward, “I had to eat.”
          He leaned back again.
          “Why didn’t you try and lower yourself down and kill me, if you knew all about me?”
          He smiled.
          “It’s simple” he looked at his cigarette.
          “I knew that one day you would come and kill me.” He looked at me with dead eyes.
          I swallowed and shook my head. This man was insane. In a small way, I couldn’t fault him. I would be insane if I had eaten human flesh.
          “Do you want to hear my story? I think it would be fitting, seeing as you are about to end my suffering! Do what I am too cowardly to do”
          I looked at him, again not saying a word.
          “Well, I’ll take that as a yes. I lived here. In this dump.” He gestured around him “I was a city worker. A trash man. I made good money, but had to pay a bitch and her kids because of a bad divorce. No, they weren’t my kids, only according to the law.”
          “My life consisted of working, coming home, drinking beer, smoking cigs, passing out and doing the same thing the next day. What a life, huh?” He laughed.
          “Hey, by the way, what is your name?”
          “Ethan, that’s all you need to know” I said.
          “Well Ethan, my name is Tom” he smiled.
          “I would shake your hand, but these circumstances… I’m sure you understand.”
          I didn’t. I didn’t understand how a man could change into the monster before me.
          “Anyhow, back to the story. I was home sick and watched all the shit happen on TV before it went dark. I heard the bombs go off and cowered in the corner. Ethan, can I tell you something? I was glad. I was glad that my pathetic life would soon be over.”
          I could understand what he just said. I wished over and over that I had died in the explosions. I found myself nodding.
          “See, SEE! I knew you would understand. Anyhow, the story.”
          “When it was clear that I wasn’t going to die, I joined the masses downstairs in looting and pillaging. Do you know I have over $50,000 dollars hidden in this couch?” He patted the frayed cushions. “I was the one who looted the Quix Stop. You know, the store you were buried in? I don’t know how many times I ran up here with boxes full of food. I fought people with my bare hands and sticks. I stole all that money from a bank vault. Shoot! I even got me a girlfriend, I might add. You killed her that day. Don’t worry though, I was getting sick of her constantly talking. That was your first favor to me!”
          What was he talking about? I killed “her”? He was far more gone than I had imagined. Tom laughed and lit another cigarette.
          “A lot of hookers and blow that would buy us! He again patted the couch where his money was. “The fact is that it is as worthless as used toilet paper.”
          He chuckled again taking a deep drag on his cigarette.
          “Weeks went by. Months I think. People started killing each other for basic needs. Ethan, I have been out there. I know you haven’t. Listen to me when I say that almost all the people in Houston are dead. Gone. And they are not dead because of the bombs. We all turned into monsters. All of us.”
          Tom leaned forward starting to shake, looking intently at me.
          “Ethan. I didn’t want to eat that first person. That first body I found lying in the snow. In fact, I told myself this would be the only time. I had no food left. I did though. I did it again and again. I am a monster Ethan.”
          Tom regained his composure and smoked, blowing rings on the ceiling. For a while we just sat there silently.
          “Ethan, I’m a coward. I should have offed myself months ago. I just couldn’t. I knew it would be easy, see… I have a pistol right here in my coat pocket.” He patted.
          I clenched the gun tighter.
          “That’s why I know you are going to kill me. If you don’t..I will kill you and…. “ He leaned forward menacingly, “AND..Eat you liver raw!” Tom jumped up.

          I shot Tom through his right eyeball.
          The smoke from my pistol finally cleared. I sat on my haunches for a long time after I killed the cannibal looking at his still body. Was my sin, murder, greater than his? I couldn’t morally deviate between the two. Adding to the fact the man wanted to die. His redemption was my murder.
          I soon stood and went to the bow and back pack he had leaned on the coffee table. The bow I had no use for. I tossed it aside and opened the pack. It was full of tools and other things, a sleeping bag, a tarp, a small tent. Laying on top of everything was a folded note. I took it out and read it;
          “Dear man from downstairs –
          This is my reward for you ending my life. In the bag you will find necessary gear to live by. You will also find 2000 rounds of .22 LR shells. I also have several gold coins hidden in the lining of this bag. The bullets and coins can be used as currency. In the event we don’t talk, there is $50,000 dollars hidden in the couch in this room. You may do with it what you like. Maybe someday it will be worth something again. If I hadn’t had a chance to thank you, I do so now. I never meant to do the things that I did, please understand that.
          I wish you well, and leave you with an important word of advice:
          Get out of the city before you turn into me or are attacked by somebody like me.
          • Tom”
          I re-read the letter again. Tom was right. I couldn’t stay here in the city forever. I had been lucky by luck and circumstance mostly not to have been attacked by whomever. Nobody had found me out.
          I climbed up onto the roof and used a pair of binoculars that I found in the pack to look around. I was in a strip mall of sorts. I could see what was left of Houston about 20 miles south of me. Most of the buildings were in ruin. Some were still smoking. North appeared to be urban sprawl; rows of houses and gated communities. It seemed that most of the houses were burned up. I could also see a highway full of abandoned vehicles heading north in both lanes. Some were shot up or destroyed, others with open doors and bodies lying in and out of them. The gray dirty snow covered the land.
          I went up to the roof frequently for the next week and wrote what I saw. I would stay until dark most nights. I rarely saw anyone. Those I did see scurried from rubble to rubble, hiding and digging to find food. They were all dressed in filthy tatters and often fought with each other using sticks and rocks. I called them “Cavemen.”
          There were still shots being fired, some nights close other nights far. There were some distant explosions that lit up the Houston skyline. I once saw a military helicopter far off and high. It circled whatever and fired rockets.
          One day I saw a figure pulling a sled. I grabbed my binoculars and saw Chris the trader heading between the buildings.
          I stood up and waved my arms, calling out to him in a hoarse voice.
          Chris unslung a rifle and pointed up at me.
          “CHRIS…CHRIS..It’s me!!! Don’t you remember me?”
          He lowered the rifle.
          “Aw, my friend who traded me the Glock. You must have more up there than I thought. I would have though you would have gone north with everyone else. Hey! Weren’t you in the remains of that store?” He pointed to the destroyed Quix Mart.
          I coughed. “Yeah, long story.”
          “Amigo, the world is now full of long stories.” He laughed.
          “Listen, can we trade again?” I wanted information the most, and I think he knew it.
          “Whatcha got Paco?” He smiled.
          I thought for a moment.
          “I have a bow. A compound hunting bow. I also have a hundred rounds of .22 ammo” I slipped in remembering what Tom had written down.
          Chris’s eyes widened.
          “Oh, you do now! That stuff, the bullets are like gold! What do you want?”
          I thought fast.
          “I’d like some canned goods and .45 shells?” I needed neither.
          “DEAL!” Chris said.
          “Wait , wait wait, I also want some info???”
          I figured you would, he sat on his sled.
          “I’m listening?”
          Chris took a deep breath,
          “There are five types of people in this country; there is what’s left of the government. They are spread pretty thin. Believe it or not, we have a “South” again, like the civil war. The federals and those guys are duking it out in the same states as before, in the first civil war, only not so many on each side and a lot less civil. Now the third types are people like you. You have managed to avoid being shot or worse, not to many of you guys. The forth type I call “Slinkers” they have barely any human in them. They are cannibals mostly and, I have to be honest, I shoot them on sight.
          I nodded. I was very familiar with this type of person.
          “The fifth type are the gangs and the mini empires that have risen up – Bikers, gang-bangers, Red necks, White supremacists, you name it, and it’s out there. Shoot! There’s even a Native American coalition taking scalps and living in Teepees. All these groups are mean sons of bitches. Every last one of them. There are “Good guy” groups. People holed up – survivalist peaceful types, the Mormons and such. They were the first to be decimated by the bad guys.”
          Chris was quiet for a moment.
          “You don’t have any people up there, if you know what I mean?” I knew he meant the bodies of people for food.
          I held up my hand and ran back inside. I grabbed a case of beanie-weenies, running back and tossed them to Chris.
          “Free-be on me, by the way, my name is Ethan”
          Chris nodded.
          “Thanks, I didn’t take you for one of those arm chewers, you never know though. Let me tell you about those cannibal stripers I ran from just the other day….”
          I laughed, interrupting him. The first time I had done so in a long time.
          “No thanks, maybe some other time. Listen, I saw an army helicopter shooting rockets a couple of days ago! Do you know anything about that?’
          Chris rubbed his beard.
          “Well, they could have been fighting with one of the gangs. There is a really bad one in Houston led by a death row convict and a hundred others like him. They also could have been shooting it up with the P.A.L.
          “Yeah, trust me bud, they are NOT our pals! “ He laughed.
          It stands for Pan American Liberation. All those little illegal drug countries got together after the bombs fell and decided they would “Liberate” what was left of the United States. They also killed, raped and pillaged their way up through Mexico. I heard rumors that their military columns have been spotted as far up as Denver, or what’s left of Denver. “
          He shook his head.
          “Is there any GOOD news you can tell me Chris?” I said sick to my stomach.
          “Well, You are still alive and you look pretty well fed. , That’s good, aint it?” he laughed.
          Not really I thought.
          Chris sighed.
          “Bro, I’m not coming back. I’ll tell you one more thing before we trade and I leave. I know people and you are a good guy, so listen”
          “Thank you, what?” I said.
          “The whole world hasn’t gone to shit. Canada somehow made it mostly unscathed. They have moved their people and their supplies all the way up to the Arctic Circle. Alaska joined them. They are calling themselves the “Northern Federation”. It’s safe up there. They have enough supplies and skills to make it until this ‘ole world rights itself. I’m going up there. I wish you would too?”
          I thought about it and told him no. I told him I may see him, but right now I had personal things I had to do. Chris nodded sadly and we traded. At the last moment I asked him for a jerry can of gas for another 100 .22 rounds. He accepted and hid the can under some rubble.
          “Well, goodbye my friend. Stay safe and remember – the Northern Federation.”
          I nodded and waved at him until he disappeared down the street.
          I decided to leave a few days later. I took the back pack and loaded it with the tarp, sleeping bag, two extra blankets, a pot, the knife, and the axe. I added about two weeks’ worth of food and a few large one pint bottles of water. I also carried matches and two cartons of cigarettes. Tom the cannibal had a pair of work boots he used on his job. They were larger than my foot, so I added three pairs of socks I found in the clothing pile.
          I made a heavy scarf by cutting down a woman’s wool jacket. I also found a baseball cap. I dressed with the jeans and sweatshirt as my first layer. I put on the jumpsuit and then the fireman’s jacket. I wove the scarf around my neck and put on the hat. I tucked the pistol inside the jacket so it wouldn’t be seen and picked up my pack.
          I shut the door to the store’s stash and locked it. I climbed up my homemade ladder for the last time cut it and the fire hose and walked the hallway and down the other stairwell. I wanted the storeroom to become once again inaccessible. It still had a lot of supplies in it, that I could bargain with or need if I was ever coming back through the area. I broke the lock and chain with my axe.
          There was one last thing I needed to do.
          I uncovered the gas can Chris had given me and took it back upstairs. I poured gas all around, especially in the bloody kitchen. When it was empty, I lit a cigarette and tossed the match. By the time I was outside, the apartments were burning quite nicely.
          I waited and watched the fire for a few minutes then started north.
          I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.


          • #6
            Chapter 6

            I walked following a two lane highway, staying mostly on the shoulder. There were hundreds of human tracks marking the highway in the snow. Also both fresh and old sled and wheel marks. I cinched up my pack. It didn’t weigh much, however it was very apparent that I was out of shape. Walking in the snow even though it wasn’t very deep was tiring. I would have to try and make some snowshoes at one point.
            I walked past housing developments and gas stations. Some looked like nothing had happened to them, although looted, barren and quiet. Others were burned out or ruined.
            A few miles in I started to see bodies in the cars stalled on the highway. I saw many more on the side of the road. It looked as if whole families had died in their vehicles and around them waiting for help that never came. I checked the cars and trucks that had keys to see if they would start. None did. All their batteries seemed dead, like the land.
            I walked for at least ten miles as the chilly wind blew through me. I began to get tired and decided to stop for the night. I saw a house up a long driveway that looked undamaged. I decided to try if I could get in. The place looked like any other house, I guessed a three bedroom rambler, painted blue with white trim. There were children’s toys out front in the snow. There were also suit cases and bags, some empty and other full of clothing and personal items near the front door. I saw a vehicle track from the open garage. It looked like whomever had left in a hurry.
            “Hello” I shouted, “Anybody home”?
            Nothing but silence.
            I looked in the garage. It had some tools, some boxes stacked on shelves. I saw some bikes hanging and Christmas decorations in bins. It looked like my garage back home.
            I called out once again.
            I was a murderer, I may as well be a burglar too.
            I walked to the front door. It was shut and locked. I pounded on it.
            “HELLO, ANYBODY HOME?” I yelled.
            I walked back to the garage looking around and back down the driveway, I walked in. I checked some of the boxes on the shelving. Kid’s clothing and old toys, more Christmas decorations. There was a large red tool box with its drawers open. Some of the tools were still inside, there were a few laying on the floor.
            I walked to the inner garage door leading into the house. It was unlocked. I opened it and called out again;
            “Hello, anybody?”
            I waited a few moments and walked in. The house looked as if it had been ransacked. Furniture was upturned and pictures and decorations were broken. I checked the place with my pistol out. The whole house was empty and gloomy.
            I looked into the kitchen. I found a can of spinach hidden on one of the top shelves that had been left by the family or, I assumed the looters. It went into my pack. I tried the faucet. Nothing heard but a faraway hallow gurgling sound.
            I went back to the living room. I turned back over the couch and pulled it near the fireplace. My wet jacket, boots and coveralls came off. I hung them all on the mantle thinking I could build a fire to dry them out. I laid out my sleeping bag and blankets, wrapped them around me to get warm and fell asleep before making a fire, my pistol cocked and ready cradled against my chest.
            I slept badly. I had a dream of people wailing and crying as they walked up the highway I was standing by. They walked to an edge of the roadway falling off into a flaming abyss. I screamed out to them to stop, but they kept going. I heard an ominous laughing.
            I woke up with a shout, my own, and a whimper.
            It was daylight. I could see through the clouded windows. I got up out of my cocoon and was instantly chilled to the bone. I hopped around trying to get warm. My jacket and coveralls were still moist and now partially frozen, I got into them regardless.
            I opened a can of beans and drank half of a bottle of water. The beans I ate cold. I realized water was going to be a problem in the future. I needed to figure out a way of getting it, the snow or some other way. I didn’t have a clue.
            I packed up quickly trying not to look at the pictures of the smiling family that had once lived there. I left walking back down the long driveway and onto the highway.
            I walked until the houses became fewer and fewer. There were now strands of trees covered with the dirty snow. I saw my first living thing besides a person as I walked by one of these stands. It was a wild pig. It stood there and looked at me, then turned and wallowed back into the brush.
            A buddy of mine had given me some wild pig meat once. It was the worst meat I had ever eaten. We threw most of it out. Weeks later he asked if I wanted more. I told him that my freezer was full and declined. Yeah, it was that bad. The way I felt now, starved by the lack of protein in my diet, I would gladly accept the wild boar meat. I didn’t know about hunting, but, I knew that I could shoot a pig if I had too.
            I walked and took a break in an abandoned church van. I ate some potted meat and finished off the second bottle of water, my last. I had to get more water.
            As I sat there I saw two people walking down the highway, south. One of them had a wagon he was pulling. They didn’t look like Slinkers. Their clothing was in half way decent order. I couldn’t tell whether they were male or female. They had scarves wrapped up around their faces and stocking caps.
            I slid open the door to the van.
            Startled, the person in the lead raised a shotgun I hadn’t seen.
            “Whoa whoa whoa!” I said rather quickly and excitedly.
            I raised my hands out the van door.
            Both stopped and stared at me.
            “I’m a good guy! I’m a doctor! I can help you”, I lied, or did I? I don’t know why I said I was a doctor. I did do a good job repairing myself back in the ambulance.
            “Maybe he can help us, mom” the wagon puller said.
            The shotgunner motioned me out without saying a word.
            “Keep those hands raised Son”, she said
            I did as I was told.
            “Who are you? Why are you here? Where are you going? I was asked in quick concession.
            “Well, I’m…uh…my name is Ethan. I’ve come from Houston, well the outskirts of Houston. I am heading north”
            “Mom! Maybe he knows?” the wagon puller said.
            “Maybe he does Clair”
            “Uh..Could you lower that cannon you got, Ma’am? My arms are getting tired” I said.
            “I think we can trust him Mom”
            “Ok son, one stupid move and I will part your head. Do we understand each other?”
            “Yes Ma’am!” I nodded.
            The woman lowered the shotgun but held it pointing to the ground.
            “My name is Harriet and this is Clair my daughter. We are from a ranch ‘bout 30 miles back in the Davey Crockett National forest. My husband left three weeks ago to go into Houston. We haven’t heard a word. Besides some nasty folks I had to pepper with buckshot, you are the first person we have seen. The first live person I should say. ” The older woman said.
            “Mr. Ethan, my father was going to get help. Our neighbor is hurt in a bad way. He was shot in the stomach“ Clair pushed down her scarf and blond hair tumbled out. She smiled sweetly. She looked about 16, just like my daughter. I smiled back at her.
            “Mister, or Doctor I don’t care who you are” the older lady. “The only thing that matters in this world is my daughter. I don’t want you looking at her, smiling at her or anything.” She shouldered the shotgun, pointing it at my head.
            Harriet brought me back to reality. “Look Ma’am, she reminds me of my own daughter. That’s all. I don’t mean any harm to you guys. I just..I just… I need you guys as much as you need me”
            Harriet thought more a moment and slung her shotgun.
            “Well, it’s getting dark. Let’s set a fire and make something to eat. We can go off into the woods a little, our smoke won’t be seen”
            With my stomach grumbling, it sounded like a wise idea. I followed them. We found a place surrounded by trees and protected by a low thicket. Clair wasted no time, gathering rocks and making a fire pit. Harriet took a hatchet and cut down some branches lying about. I made myself busy clearing the area of the snow, kicking it with my boots.
            We soon got a fire going and a pot of water boiling. I asked them how they had been getting their water, trying to make conversation. They told me that they used snow and filtered it through a charcoal cotton swath. They then boiled it. They told me that they would be glad to show me how to do it. I smiled thanking them.
            We ate out of my food stores; canned ravioli and the canned spinach I had found back at the abandoned house. The women made a type of campfire bread from a mix containing flour, dried milk, baking powder and salt. They added a little water to create dough then wrapped it around a stick and roasted it on the campfire.
            We ate in silence, still not having developed the trust of friends.
            I broke the silence.
            “I would be glad to come help your neighbor. I don’t have a lot of supplies, but I don’t have a problem helping out” I begged.
            “We aren’t going with you back to the ranch. I am going to give you directions. We need to go find my husband” Harriet said poking the fire with a stick.
            “We appreciate the help; Old man Smith is in a bad way.” Clair said.
            I thought about Houston and how terrible it was. I would be amiss if I didn’t try to convince them to not go. I understood finding their family member, but I also understood cannibals and killer gangs.
            “Listen, Ma’am. I have come from the city. There are……well… there are horrible things there. People who would gladly see you and your daughter die. How long has your husband been gone again?” I asked.
            “Three weeks.”
            “I can’t tell you if he made it into the city, I was a few days from Houston in the outskirts. I didn’t see him on my walk here. Neither did I see him where I was holed up” I went on to tell them about the store I stayed in and the apartments, leaving out the part of the cannibal.
            Harriet gazed into the fire not saying anything.
            “Mr. Ethan, my father is a tough man. He is ex-army and strong as an ox, we expect him fine” Clair said.
            “I would worry about a whole battalion of Army Rangers in that place, you guys sound pretty sure of him though.” I wasn’t going to dissuade them in finding him I knew that now.
            We sat there in silence until Harriet spoke up;
            “Ethan, if you wouldn’t mind going back to the van on the highway to sleep. We are going to set up a tent here. Please don’t come over before morning, I will shoot first and it would be a shame to kill you”
            I agreed and said my goodnights and walked to the van. They certainly had skill with making fire, I couldn’t see it from the road. I took my boots off and wrapped up in my sleeping bag locking the van doors. Sleep came quickly and I didn’t dream that night.
            I woke up to find both women taking down their camp. They had prepared a water filter for me by taking a cotton shirt and rubbing in charcoal from the fire. They told me to keep rubbing in charcoal as I used it and to always boil the water.
            Harriet had also drawn a map on part of a brown grocery sack for me. The ranch I was to go to was pretty isolated. I gave them my word and honor I would head that way and try to help.
            With that, they left walking south towards Houston with a wave and a thanks.
            I packed up my gear and after searching the van for anything useful, I left.
            I walked for five hours before I came to a road that led off the highway east, the first direction the map told me to go. There were farms and the trees grew denser as I walked.
            I came to a little town just after midday. Harriet had marked the word “no” on the map and underlined it. Not much of a town. It had a store-gas station, a feed store, a small fire department and a few other stores. The place looked as if a battle had happened. There were barricades set up and smoldering ruins. I could see bodies lying about in the road - some were dressed normally, others dressed in torn rags. The only thing that seemed to be living were crows hoping about the carnage and cawing.
            I looked at the map. There wasn’t going to be another town until I reached the ranch. I needed to try and get some supplies. The fire station hopefully would have what I needed. I stayed in the woods and slowly made my way to it.
            As I got closer, I could see the doors to the fire station were open and the vehicles inside missing. I could see that the bay had been ransacked. The door to the office was open. I took my pistol out and made my way to the door.
            As I neared it I could hear two gruff voices arguing.
            One voice was saying that it was time to leave and he thought the military or police would come for them. The other voice wanted to stay and search the town for more supplies.
            The first voice said that he thought everything to be had was found. The second disagreed.
            I peaked around the door. Inside I could see the two men dressed in hunting camo. I could see a rifle leaning against a desk. One of the men, the second voice had a revolver tucked into a waistband and a half empty bottle of whiskey. Both men were dirty and hard looking.
            There was a table with supplies on it in the center of the room; canned goods, several bottles of alcohol, clothing and a paramedic bag. I needed that bag. I just didn’t know what to do about the men.
            The man who spoke first said that if the authorities came and found them, they would link all the killings in the town on them. They would be shot for murder and looting.
            The second man, who I could see was intoxicated, said that the local police had been killed days before.
            From what I could gather listening to them, they had been a part of a group of bandits that had attacked the town. They were the only two left and had killed everyone.
            I decided to enter the room and try to capture them.
            I opened the door and pointed my pistol at the drunk man.
            “Put your hands up, I’m not fooling around. One false move and I’ll shoot you!”
            Both men looked at me in surprise.
            “Where did you come from Bro?” the drunk one said.
            “Does it matter? I replied. “I’m not here to take all your stuff. I do want that medic bag” I pointed at it with my pistol.
            The drunk guy smiled, “That bag has some goodies that we need in it, no can do Bro”
            The other guy backed away slowly towards the rifle.
            “I TOLD YOU NOT TO MOVE!” I screamed.
            ‘Hey man, let’s talk things out” The man kept backing up.
            “No, let’s not!” the drunk man said pulling his revolver shooting and throwing the alcohol bottle at me.
            The bullet and the bottle crashed into the door behind me.
            I shot towards him three times. One round hit him in the chest. He fell screaming to the ground throwing his gun across the floor.
            The other bandit leapt towards his rifle. I shot five rounds as fast as I could. He grunted and instead of reaching for the rifle jumped through a glass window.
            I followed him with my gun raised. I saw him run down the street and around a building.
            “You son of a bitch, you shot me!” The bandit spitted at me writhing on the floor.
            “I told you I only wanted the bag” I grabbed it and fled out the door and into the nearby woods.
            I ran until I couldn’t. I stopped falling to my knees breathing hard. I still had the pistol in my hand and noticed the slide was back. The gun was empty.
            The whole ordeal flooded my mind. I started to shake and realized that I could have been killed had things gone the other way. It was lucky I hadn’t been shot.
            I dropped my backpack and drank some filtered water. I waited until my breathing was back to normal.
            I hope this was worth it. I opened the medic bag. It contained trauma supplies and ten bottles of prescription pain killers with different names on them. I hope this was what I needed to treat the rancher.
            My problem now was I hadn’t a clue where I was.
            I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.


            • #7
              Chapter 7

              It was dark. The kind of dark that you can’t see your hand in front of your face and it was snowing.
              I brought out and unfolded Harriet’s map and cuffed the end of my flashlight to read it. The town I had run from was at least another twenty miles from the ranch. Unfortunately for me, I looked like I ran in the wrong direction. I knew the only way I could get back on track was to try to find my way back to the town and use it as my navigation point. One thing I didn’t have was a compass. I would have to try to get one either by trading or finding later.
              I decided to lay low and wait for morning. I found a tree that had fallen onto another and set a tarp over it. I cleared away as much snow as I could and got into my sleeping bag, re-loading my pistol. I decided against making a fire thinking I may have been tracked. I was cold; sleep never came as I shivered. It was a rough night.
              As soon as it was morning, I packed up and followed my tracks in the snow. Several times I had to backtrack to find them because of new snow that had fallen in the night. I walked slowly with my pistol drawn.
              After what felt like hours, I saw the tops of the town buildings through the trees. It was quiet. I heard the bandits say they were the only people left. I was wary; both were still alive when I had run out of town.
              I kept in the brush and made my way around to the road leading towards the ranch. A soon as I was far enough from the town, I got trudged back onto the road and hurried my pace.
              The map directed me another ten miles to a turnoff. I figured I could make it that day and have enough time to set up camp. I walked with my head swiveling back and forth my hand on the pistol in my jacket.
              Soon I came to the crossroad surrounded by farm land and dense forest. I made my way in to the trees, about a half mile, and found a thicket where I would be relatively safe to set up camp. I got a fire going with fallen branches and tried to warm myself.
              The drunk bandit I shot, I knew was in pretty bad shape. I didn’t know about the other one. Would he try and track me? Take out some revenge? I didn’t know. Human behavior was now unpredictable in this new world. I had done things that haunted me, waking and sleeping. I could justify doing them now. What I couldn’t do is justify the acts on the life I lived before the bombs fell. I had to convince myself, out loud, over and over again that I wasn’t a monster.
              Those men, back in the town, were monsters. They gave in to their primal needs. I had done so too, but I knew I was a good man. The question that kept propping up was, what if they were just like me? I had no internal resolution.
              I warmed a can of baked beans and mixed it with tuna fish. I sure wish I had gotten some of Harriet’s flour. I needed the carbohydrates. My body had become lean. Any fat I had melted away because of the intense activity I now did to live. Dinner was tasteless and unfilling.
              I set my little tent up and got out of my jacket and coveralls placing them hanging on branches over the fire, hopefully drying them before morning.
              It was almost impossible to sleep. The weather was getting colder and the sleeping bag and blankets I had weren’t enough insulation against it.
              I dreamed again. I dreamed of the bandit lying on the floor with his blood pouring out of him. He asked me why I had to shoot him. He told me he was a family man and was just providing for them. I suddenly saw my own face on the dying man. I woke up and waited for the morning to come.
              “Ethan, Ethan wake up”
              I was startled awake. My tent door was zipped down. Just outside was Clair kneeling and smiling. Behind her stood Harriet and a bear of a man with a full beard and hunting rifle slung over his shoulder.
              “Ethan, I’m glad we found you!” Clair said. “I want you to meet my father Alan, we found him a day after we left you.” She smiled.
              Alan moved towards the tent opening extending his hand. “My girls have told me all about you, Son. I want to thank you for all that you are doing”
              I grabbed his huge hand and shook it. He pulled me up out of the tent with ease.
              “Sir, I….” I was suddenly overcome with emotion. “Your wife and daughter were very polite and trustworthy with me. I’m the one who needs to thank you. I have a question though? How did we not meet on the road?”
              Alan smiled, “We did meet, in a way. I was hidden in the brush by the highway twenty miles back. You were in my rifle sights for a bit! We need to work on your move to track skills”
              I thought about it and it made sense. I was no Daniel Boone. This man apparently was.
              “Oh Alan, give the man a break! He’s a city boy.” Harriet said shaking her head.
              I suddenly felt happy and safe. These people warmed my heart and I didn’t fully realize why until later.
              “I found a trauma bag in the town back there” I said, lowering my head and closing my eyes.
              “That was you? Yeah, you left a little bit of a mess. We found a dead man in the fire station. A shootout eh? It looked like you were quite lucky.” He said seriously.
              “Yes Sir, I was. I shouldn’t have done what I did.”
              “No.” Alan interrupted me. “You did exactly what you were supposed to do.”
              “Son, the world has changed. The way people act has changed. I knew it was coming, years ago. I knew that life would become hard and that good folk, like yourself would have to do hard things. You are a good man, Ethan. You need to know that.”
              Alan’s speech caused a thousand pound weight to life from my shoulders. What he told me put my beliefs in life back in order. I began to tear up.
              “Now, now” Harriet said walking up hugging me. “It’s going to be okay. You are one of the good guys”.
              Their companionship in this lonely world was what I needed. Mostly I needed to hear from them that I was doing right. In that few minutes, they gave me back a part of my humanity that I had lost.
              We stood there me crying into Harriet’s shoulder. It was enough. Enough to keep me going.
              We continued on, walking down the road. The family moved slower and more silently, watching where they stepped. Alan taught me how to hunch forward and watch everything around me. He told me it’s how you stocked an animal on a hunt. He said that this was an important skill to know now that the world had changed.

              We soon left civilization, the houses and farms. Even the power lines and asphalt road ended. We walked further into the woods down a snow covered one lane road.

              It started growing dark when we made camp. Alan showed me how to use brush to camouflage where you set up. He said it was important to get as far off the road as you could and to find a place where, even an animal would find it hard to get into. We crawled into a thicket of blackberries which hid us. Alan explained that even if somebody or something was trying to get in, we would hear it long before they were successful.

              I thought about all the times I had camped, mostly right out in the open. I realized that I had once again been lucky.

              We built a small fire, using a trick from Native Americans. We built it in a shallow pit with a short tunnel in the ground leading off of it the smoke would escape from. The tunnel would “cleanse” the smoke so there wouldn’t be much when it finally made its way to the sky. Alan called it a Dakota fire pit.

              The women mixed up a batter of the camp bread, Alan said was named “Bannock” He said it had been made like this for hundreds of years. He also gave me my first taste of pemmican – a dense meaty and moist block of dried meat, nuts and berries. It tasted good, a change from the canned goods and fabricated food I had been living on. I swear I could feel the protein nourish my body as I ate it.

              Alan explained that we would all have to go back to these skills the pioneers and first nation peoples used if we were to survive. He was a treasure trove of this kind of information as we talked. I hadn’t noticed how much I missed a good conversation. We discussed what happened to the world. I told him what Chris the trader had told me. He knew some of happened, but since he and his family lived so far off track, he didn’t know the full story.

              I told him that I didn’t even know all that had gone on. I told him that I had lost my memory and still didn’t know things about my life prior to the bombs going off. He asked me what I was going to do. I shrugged and said I wasn’t sure. I said that I felt compelled to find my family and where I had come from. I told him this even though I had a bad feeling about if and what I would discover.

              We set up our tents and Alan extinguished the fire. He said that the smell would attract predators, both man and beast. I was told a heart felled good night and zipped myself up in my cocoon. I slept better and without nightmares that night than I had since this all began.

              The next morning we prepared some filtered water and coffee and soon left our campsite.

              After walking about five miles we made it to a bridge over a small stream that had collapsed or had been destroyed. Alan told me that one of the other families in this area had probably blown it. He told me that there were still vehicles running although far and few. This stopped them, even people on foot.

              We had to walk down stream where I was shown a natural bridge to cross. A large tree had fallen over allowing us a safe way to cross. We carefully navigated it above the icy running water and made our way back to the road.

              A few more miles and we were hailed from the woods;

              “Alan? That you friend?” the voice said.

              “Yes, it’s me and we brought a doctor! George is that you?”

              I was instantly panicked; I wasn’t sure I was a doctor and never told these good people otherwise.

              A man dressed in white and black camouflage materialized out of the brush with an AR15 at port arms. He looked at me suspiciously.

              “If Alan says you are okay, then I trust him, mind you him….not you”

              “Sir, I understand and only want to help!” I said and meant it.

              “Well the last person who wanted to help ended up shooting old man Smith in the stomach after leading a group of looters to our woods” He said coldly.

              “He’s okay, George, I’ll take responsibility for him” Alan said.

              George nodded.

              “Smith is in a bad way, Alan. He’s wracked with fever and his wound has become infected. I hope your friend can help”

              I hoped I could help as well. I desperately thought.

              “He still at your cabin?” Alan asked.

              George nodded again. “Let’s not waste any time”

              We trudged down the road quickly, nearly jogging.

              It didn’t take long to get to the cabin. As George opened the door, I could smell the infection even before seeing the old man. Inside the cabin was a woman, I presumed the wife of George.
              The old man was lying on a couch talking gibberish and wracked with pain.
              “You found some help?” the older woman said excitedly.
              “Yes, his name is Ethan, a doctor.” George replied unslinging his rifle and propping it up near the door.
              “Are you sure he didn’t bring friends?” the other woman said suspiciously.
              “We can’t be sure of anything, wife” George replied.
              I winced inside praying that whatever skills I had would come to the surface. I couldn’t panic. I closed my eyes for a few moments and then got to work.
              I walked up to the couch. The man’s wound was covered in a cotton swath, clean but I could see fresh blood soaking it. I lifted the swath. His would was obviously infected. There was one hole with redness circling it.
              I gently turned him to his side and looked at his back. I couldn’t see an exit wound.
              “Did anyone see what he was shot with?” I asked around the room.
              Nobody replied and shook their heads.
              “A few of the sons of bitches got a way” George said coldly. “The weapons we took off the bodies of the ones we killed were military type – ARs and such”
              I looked at the wound opening. It looked small.
              “Okay, is there anywhere I can wash up?” I asked. “I’ll also need some sterilized cloth”
              I opened the trauma bag. I pulled out the medical instruments. They were bagged and didn’t require treatment. There was also a bottle of alcohol and Betadine.
              “I’m going to need a bucket with hot water in it.”
              I went to the fire place where a pot of water was already boiling. I ladled some in a bowl and added some cold water. One of the women brought me some soap. I washed my hands and stopped, closing my eyes.
              I had been here before. I had done the exact same thing. I was wearing a uniform. The young man, a soldier, I was preparing to help had been shot in the leg. Two others were holding him down. There were gunshots and explosions around me as I pulled equipment from my bag….
              I opened my eyes and looked in the trauma bag again. I took the bottle of Betadine and poured it over my washed hands. I then poured it on a bandage and gently wiped the old man’s wound. He screamed out in pain and fresh blood bubbled out of his stomach.
              …I took a knife and cut the soldiers pant leg. The bullet had gone through his upper thigh and exited his buttocks. His thigh bone was crushed. I shot him up with an ampoule of morphine, sticking him twice in the other leg….
              I grabbed the morphine bottle from the bag and quickly prepared a syringe. I gave Mr. Smith a shot on his buttocks, quickly rubbing an alcohol patch prior. After a few moments his cries subsided.
              …the soldier stopped screaming and seemed to pass out. His exit wound was fragmented. That told me that there could still be bullet fragments in his leg. I gloved up and stuck my fingers into his backside. I could feel the metal…
              I put on a pair of gloves and using my finger, I circled the inside of the old man’s bullet hole. I couldn’t feel anything. I took a scalpel and opened the wound, asking for one of the women to dab off the blood.
              ….The metal was close to a main artery. The artery had been breached. I used a clamp to stabilize it. I then yelled for an evac and was told one was already on its way. I wrapped his leg and buttocks in a pressure dressing and held it using my body weight until the helicopter landed in a nearby field.
              I dug deeper into Mr. Smith’s stomach. I asked George for extra light which he produced. A flashlight, shining where I was working. I was going beyond my skills. I was taught to stabilize and evacuate. I did know the procedure though. I used my hand, more to feel where the bullet fragment was. After a few minutes, the old man eyes began to roll. I needed to find the bullet quick.
              Clair began to cry, furthering the hysteria in the room.
              I breathed in closing my eyes again. I could do this.
              I again entered his wound. I finally felt the hardness of a metallic object near what I thought was his large intestine. I pulled it out, a perfect lead bullet that hadn’t fragmented and threw it in the bucket.
              ‘Water, QUICK!”
              One of the woman handed me a bowl of heated water. I splashed it in his stomach.
              “Flashlight” it was handed to me. I shown it inside his wound.
              His innards looked to be intact. That was a good thing. I decided to close him up. His blood pressure was racy and thready. He was a tough son of a bitch.
              I took a suture package and amazed myself at how fast I could close his damaged stomach. I wrapped him with a large bandage, a pressure wrapping to stop the bleeding.
              I then backed away and sat in a chair, exhausted.
              “Will he be alright?” George said quietly.
              “I’m not sure Sir. I have done all I could have. Days will tell” I sighed.
              I knew that the most dangerous thing for Mr. Smith was sepsis, a post-operative infection. I pulled the medic bag close to me and looked through the medicine bottles. Most were pain medications, but one was an antibiotic. I closed my eyes and thanked the Creator above.
              “I need to sleep. I am suddenly exhausted” I said to nobody in particular.
              “You did a good job, son”, Alan said. “There is a cot in the next room” He pointed.
              “Give him another shot of morphine in four hours and wake me if something happens”
              I walked to the cot and was asleep before hitting it.
              I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.


              • #8
                Chapter 8

                I awoke to the smell of bacon. I had to still be dreaming. I opened my eyes to see George’s wife cooking in the kitchen.
                I got up and checked the old man. He was sleeping and his color was coming back.
                “Good morning Son” She told me handing me a plate of real bacon and real eggs, with toast and a large cup of coffee.
                “By the way, my name is Ethel.” George came in from the outside carrying an armful of wood.
                “Morning Ethan! Did you sleep well?” He said. I told him that I hadn’t slept as well for months.
                I sat on the table with George and Ethel and ate my first home cooked meal that I could remember.
                “We owe you a great deal coming and saving our friend’s life” Ethel said.
                “He’s not out of the fire yet, we have to treat any infection.” I wolfed down the smokey bacon. “Say, how is it that you have bacon, this is delicious!”
                “One thing we got around here is wild hogs” George replied stopping me in mid-motion. Great, I thought, wild pig. I had to admit this was pretty good though.
                “Can you tell us more about what’s going on with the country?’ Ethel asked.
                “Leave him be, let the man eat! He’s scrawnier than one of those starving African kids.” George smiled.
                “Oh I’ll be glad to tell you as much as I know, which isn’t very much” I said with a mouthful of buttery fried eggs. This was the best meal I had in a long time. I was feeling better than I had in months.
                I soon finished up eating and asked for a second cup of the wonderful coffee. Ethel gladly refilled my cup with a smile. I stood taking the cup and went to check on Mr. Smith.
                He was still out cold. I needed to get the antibiotics in him. If he didn’t wake up soon I would have to perform a blood transfusion, as I didn’t have IV bags. I hadn’t a clue how to get the pill form of antibiotics into his system.
                George told me that the others would be back soon to check on things and that I had the run of the cabin. His wife patted me on the back and went to clean up the breakfast.
                I walked outside following George. It was a beautiful day and not snowing. I stretched and sat down on a chair near the front door. George told me he would be around if I needed him. I thanked him. I zoned out as I sat there. I thought about what had happened last night. I was a soldier once, a medic, those memories flooded back during the operation. I knew I had been to Iraq or Afghanistan, I just couldn’t say when. The skills I learned flooded into my mind as I sat closing my eyes.
                My life was still puzzle pieces that I couldn’t quite put together. There were a lot of unanswered questions that I still had.
                It was gorgeous there by the cabin. The dwelling was set into the trees and had a small barn next to it. Next to that was a pen full of chickens! Now I knew were the eggs came from.
                I felt my spirit settling. This whole incident was as healing to me as it was the old man. I hoped, no prayed, that he would make it.
                I sat there until I saw Alan and Clair walking up the snow covered road.
                “Ethan! It’s good to see you friend,” As he walked up shaking my hand.
                “Hey Dr. Ethan” Clair said.
                “No no no, just call me Ethan.” I replied.
                “Well, you are a doctor now, congratulations! I’ll have you diploma sent to your mailing address in three weeks!” Alan voiced merrily.
                I laughed.
                “I just hope the old man makes it. We need to figure out a way of treating the infection”
                “Son, that’s your job! I do know a few things about wild plants that may help, we’ll talk later about it”
                “Sounds like a plan” I said.
                I stretched again smiling.
                “I got a great breakfast! I’ll tell you that”
                “Yeah, Ethel can cook!” Clair said smiling that beautiful smile that she shared with my own daughter.
                “We came to speak with you Ethan” Alan said getting serious.
                “Oh, okay. Shoot?” I replied.
                Alan sat on one of the chairs on the porch.
                “We have seven families here, in this forest. We are and have been cut off from the world for the better I’m sure you agree. We hunt, grow and live off the land. We did this before the bombs. We are simple people, but are fortunate.” I nodded. I could completely agree with what he said. This was a paradise from the outside world where I crawled from that pit, months ago.
                “Ethan. We want you to stay with us. We need your medical skills.”
                There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.
                “I take it that doesn’t agree with you?”
                “No” I said “It’s not that Alan. This place is heaven for me. You and your family and friends have done more for me than I could ever repay; you let me in to your world. For this I thank you. I can’t ever repay you, all of you. I just…. I just need to find myself. I know it sounds cliché, but I have a family out there. I need to find out where and what happened to them.”
                Alan lit a pipe and for a few minutes puffed it gently in deep thought. The smell of sweet tobacco swirled around me.
                “You are right. It was selfish for me to ask.”
                “No, not at all. It was an honor. If I knew I was alone in this world, you would be my new family.”
                Alan puffed and nodded.
                “I just want you to know that you have a place here. You can stay as long as you like. You are a good man, Ethan.”
                “Thank you Sir” Feelings welled up in me.
                “Well, let’s get some of that good coffee before George drinks it all” Alan laughed. “Oh, and don’t call me sir. I work for a living.”
                “After you,” I replied laughing.
                We went into George’s cabin.
                Three days later I was checking on the old man’s wound when he opened his eyes.

                “Who in God’s name are you and why do you have your hand on my stomach?” The old guy rasped crankily.

                I liked the man already and said a word of thanks to God for bringing him back.

                “Are you one of those damn bandits?” He started reaching where he lay.

                “Where is my rifle!?” It came out sounding like “Rafle”

                “Take it easy Smith. This man here saved your life. I saw him dig out the bullet. He’s had his hand in a lot more places than on top of your stomach” George said walking in from the kitchen. The old man’s eyes widened. Ethel, who was standing behind George laughed.

                “Well, he sounds like he’s back to his old cantankerous self.” She said.

                “How do you feel sir?” I asked.

                “Well, I feel like a horse drug me from Dallas and back, besides that I’m okay! Just let me get up”

                The man struggled to rise and I held him down.

                “Listen, you may be tougher than an old goat, but you aren’t getting up just yet.”

                “Don’t worry Smith, we got your farm taken care of, listen to the doctor and relax” George said sternly.

                There was a short bout of cussing, but the old guy did as he was told. I grabbed the bottle of antibiotics and took one out. I gave it to Mr. Smith with a little water. I also slipped in a pain pill.

                “Not too much water right off the bat. You’re going to have to eat mush and whatever soft foods for a few days” I told him.

                The old man’s eyes widened even more. His frown matched his long mustache. "Son, maybe you can eat that Hippy food, but I need meat!” he coughed. “Ethel! Make me some eggs, and a lot of them!” I smiled. I knew now that he would be fine.

                Alan soon opened the door and walked in winded.

                “I could hear the old son of a bitch cuss from my farm, he’s going to make it, I take it?” He asked narrowing his eyes at the prone man.
                I smiled. “I think so”

                “Well, I guess that’s a good thing” Alan laughed. “Or maybe not”

                “Mr. Smith, you get some sleep, Doctors orders” I said. He dozed off almost immediately.

                Alan told me that he wanted to show me something. I told Ethel if we were gone more six hours to wake Mr. Smith and give him two more of the pills. She nodded saying she understood.
                Alan and I left the cabin in good spirits. I was especially glad the old guy woke up. Even in the real world, or the world before the bombs, that kind of wound had a fifty/fifty chance of killing. I didn’t think the people would blame me if Smith died. I would blame myself though. Where did that come from, I tried to remember my old life.

                We walked for a few miles deeper into the forest. We soon came to a large clearing surrounded by new log fencing. In the clearing were all kind of animals; horses, sheep, cows, goats, even a Llama!
                “This is where we keep all the livestock. We have a twenty four hour guard, he pointed to a teenage male in a tree with a rifle. The teenager waved back.
                “Well, this makes sense.” I said. I hadn’t seen anything larger than a dog since being here.

                “Yeah, early on, our individual farms were attacked almost daily. They always went for the livestock. We decided on this set up! If any intruders come, the guard will blow an air horn and we will come in force. This is also why we didn’t ride horses to Houston. They make big targets!” Alan explained.

                “So far, nobody has attacked since that turncoat bandit and his group. We never showed him this place!” He continued.

                “We take turns bringing in feed. Our stores on that are getting pretty low. We have seeds planted in green houses. The starter growth won’t survive in this cold. I will admit to you, we have about half a year’s worth of food left.” He kicked at the snow. “I wonder if we will be able to grow anything, ever.”

                I nodded. Tough times. This paradise did have its Achilles Heel. We continued our walk.

                Alan and I went to the surrounding farms, which were up to five miles away. He introduced me to everyone. They all thanked me and asked about minor ailments. I helped as much as I could.
                In the evening, I had dinner at Alan’s ranch house. We ate steak, grilled with cowboy beans and canned peaches. Harriet prepared some of the best cornbread I had ever eaten. Clair was a pleasure to be around. She was in that half little girl, half woman stage. She brightened the room when she laughed.

                After dinner, Alan and I sat on his porch smoking pipes. I had never smoked one, at least I didn’t think I had, but the tobacco hit the spot. Alan said he grew it himself. We sat in thought.

                “What will you do? I mean, when the food runs out.” I asked.

                Alan shrugged. “We’ll probably have to move on. Maybe by that time it will be safe. Who knows?” he puffed.

                I didn’t think the world would ever be the same. Those people that had become animals, the Slinkers, would never revert back to normal. I couldn’t guess the trauma to their individual minds. There was also the mini kingdoms that had popped up. Maybe everyone would kill themselves, and leave the good folk behind to pick up the pieces. I had no idea.

                ‘Alan, I need to tell you something else.” I remembered. “That trader who I told you about? He said there was a “Safe zone” in Upper Canada and Alaska. He said he thought the power was back on and people were somewhat back to normal. It’s just a thought, but maybe you all could go up there.”

                Alan puffed his pipe in deep thought.

                “I know a few of us would go, the younger ones, some of the old folks would rather die here though. Like Smith.” He finally said.

                A sound. I heard something I couldn’t place. It was coming from towards the road. It was an engine and the sound of trees breaking.

                Alan jumped up. “HARRIET!” He called out. “We got company, get the woman and children together and to the animal pen!”

                Alan and I ran to George’s cabin where he dispatched another teenage boy to gather the rest of the men. I was handed a rifle, a 30-30 lever action of which I had no idea how to operate. The three of us ran down the road. Soon the other men I had met joined up with us. We made it to the blown bridge.

                On the other side was an armored personnel carrier with one more behind. The engines stopped and a man wearing a gray set of fatigues and a submachine gun jumped out of the top hatch.

                He walked stiffly to the bridge and yelled over to us using a bullhorn;

                “My name is Second Captain Anderson of the NCSA. That’s New Confederate States of America. I hereby claim this area and all that’s in it for the new republic.”

                We stood there in shock.

                Alan stepped forward. The rest of the men raised their rifles. The turret of the APC swung towards our group.

                “Captain, what is it you want from us?” Alan called out.

                “Sir, I have given a hundred of these speeches, all to people just like you. People that don’t have a clue as to what is going on in the world. Every group we meet doesn’t trust us and that’s fine. We don’t trust any of you. You see Sir, I have held the dying body of one of my boys because we thought there was good still in the world” He pointed back toward the APC. “We think of ourselves as the good guys. We aren’t here to robe, kill and destroy. We are here to build the nation back up on the principals long lost, principals that most of the south held EVEN before the attacks!”

                He paused.

                “I don’t have time to argue. You have five minutes to let us pass. We will camp in your area. We will require food. We will open our ranks for those who wish to join. That is all I am going to say and your five minutes starts now” He looked at his watch and raised his other hand.
                George stepped up close to Alan’s ear. “We have to let them in. You know those Stryker vehicles and you know what they can do. I don’t trust these guys either Bro, but… We don’t have a choice”
                Alan nodded.

                “Captain, you seem to have us at a disadvantage. I figure you will come across no matter what our decision would be.” Alan said coldly.

                “Sir, you are correct, two more minutes.” The young captain said looking at his watch.

                “Lower your weapons men” Alan waved behind him.

                “Captain, may I have a word with you?”

                “As soon as we set up our perimeter, I will meet with you” Short and to the point.

                The Captain jumped back onto the APC, spoke into his microphone on his shoulder. The APCs started up and drove left of the bridge. They soon found a safe fording place, crossed and crashed back onto the road.

                Our group of men walked between the two vehicles as we were “escorted” back to the first ranch; George’s cabin.

                The soldiers set up quickly, backing the APC to each other and setting up a military tent. They were kind to ask where they could dig a latrine. George pointed to a thicket behind his barn.
                The Captain had a smaller tent set up for him next to the larger.

                All of our men waited outside the cabin.

                After an hour, a Corporal came over. “Sir, the captain will see you now” He said and about faced back to the perimeter.

                “Let’s not mention the women and the animals. Eventually they are going to find out. Who knows how long they will be here.” George said.

                The three of us, myself, George and Alan walked to the Captains’ tent. We were let in by a guard. The inside was spartan at best. A cot, a folding chair, small desk and a space heater.
                The captain was writing his report. After a moment he lowered his pen and looked up to us.

                “What can I tell you Gentlemen?” he said in a bored voice. “I know you want information and I am a wealth of it.” He said sarcastically.

                “Well first off” Alan stepped forward “We are still citizens of the United States. I believe, Captain, that there are constitutional rights against what you are doing”

                The Captain leaned back and smiled.

                “Sir, with all due respect, there is no longer a United States of America. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We, the NCSA are currently fighting on three fronts. We are fighting what’s left of the Northern Coalition, those are the Yankees, from the Smokey Mountains east to the Mississippi river. We are fighting PAL, That’s the Pan American Liberation from the old Georgia – Florida state line AND the coast where they land daily, AND here in what’s left of Texas. The third is some whack job from the Rockies who believes he’s Jesus. He’s been able to gather more bandits, cannibals and other worse sub-humans to attack us non-stop. They are completely fearless because of their leader’s influence and beliefs. They attack in droves with everything from RPGs to rocks and they die in droves.”

                We stood there listening.

                “We are slowly getting eaten, no pun intended in some cases, trying to get back to the way we were before the war. That’s world War III, if you don’t know that. WE are the ones who have taken the Constitution; WE are the ones who believe in the USA, WE are the ones who fight for freedom!” He said fervently. “To your earlier question. If we didn’t have a shred of decency left in us, we wouldn’t have asked to come onto your land, we would have taken it. You can believe my men and I will treat you all with respect. Now… What are your questions?” The Cpt. said crossing his arms.

                “You have given us a lot to think about” Alan said. “I also served in the last army. George here did too. What we want is your assurance our people will be safe. I’m sure you can understand that”

                “I give you my honor as an Officer in the new republic. I will tell you though, we were sent here to stop PAL, all those countries now led by gangs and drug lords. If you don’t already know, they have taken what’s left of Houston. They are modernly equipped and don’t ask questions if you know what I mean.”

                I swallowed.

                “Could I ask something Captain?” I spoke up.

                “Go ahead Sir?”

                “What about Atlanta and Macon? Are those areas under your control?” I asked.

                “Macon is. There was a long battle to take it from a white supremacy gang. We finally did secure it. Atlanta is still “Wild”. We use that term for any city not under our control, and that’s nearly every one. We don’t have the men or the supplies to hold a major urban area. That’s why we meet the threats just outside of the cities, like what we are doing here. I am a scouting unit. The rest of our battalion is held up in an abandoned town south of here.”

                The town I had killed the bandit in.

                “We cannot guarantee your safety if fighting breaks out. I am under orders to invite you and give you directions to a “Safe” area east of the Mississippi.” He finished off.

                “Any more questions?” He really had said this speech a hundred times.

                “What about the safe area in Alaska or Canada?” George asked.

                “Canada stopped being a country shortly after we did. Alaska is on its own. Our government does not have communication with it or the rest of the world for that matter.”
                We all had heard enough. We thanked the Captain and soberly left back to George’s cabin.

                Back at George’s place, we sent a younger man to tell the women what was going on. We sat around a table, hunched over and talking softly.

                “Well. That was more information than I can stomach. I am physically sick at what we just heard. We have no reason not to trust this man. We need to decide if we are to bring the women and kids back.” Alan piped up.

                Everyone seemed to be deep in thought.

                “I hate to go on feelings, but I think this man is golden. I don’t know about this “New” government of his. It sounds like the Yankees are driving some of the same principals as the southerners this time. I think it’s a fight between the two political circuses we had before the war. If that is true, then I would side with these southern boys.” George brought up.

                “You are right, Bro. Me too. Let’s give them our trust and support. Also, if what they say is true, we would have eventually been attacked by a whole lot worse.” Alan added.

                Everyone, including me nodded their heads in agreement.

                “Send the boy back to get the women folk” Alan directed a rancher who stood and left outside.

                Harriet cooked supper while Alan and I talked at his kitchen table.
                “Now what, Doc?” he asked me.
                “I don’t know. I think I’m from Atlanta or Macon. I’d still like to go east. It sounds if I’m on my own, getting there. I don’t think this military is going to help or even can.” I said, scratching the side of my face.
                “I don’t feel right about what’s going on. These soldiers know more than they are telling us. Things may get out of hand in the future. We might go east as well.” Alan nodded.
                Dinner was served, Beans and rice with roasted pork. Harriet could cook also.
                “I don’t know how you guys do it with this wild pig. I’ve had it before and I have to be honest, it was terrible.”
                “Hunger trumps taste” Alan told me with a laugh. “We never get seafood from the Gulf or good Angus beef again. Do you know what I miss?” Alan asked.
                “No, what” I smiled.
                “Sushi!” Alan said
                “SUSHI” I laughed “I never thought you an ethnic eater!”
                “Sure, we would drive into Houston all the time. The city has some great Sushi restaurants” He realized his mistake and got serious.
                “I should say, Houston had” He got distant.
                “I hear you. I miss more than I can remember. “
                Maybe forgetting was good in a way.
                There was a knock on the door.
                Alan got up from the table and opened the door to a Sergeant and two privates standing on the porch.
                “Sir,” the sergeant said. “We are here to pick up food. I’m sorry if it displaces your needs” He said sharply.
                “We still have enough. I have boxes for you, 40 Lbs of pork, 10 Lbs of beans and 10 Lbs of flour. I also added some spices that I’m sure you all could use.” He pointed to a stack he had recently put together by the door.
                The sergeant smiled. “Yes Sir, we are used to bland food, those spices would cheer us up”
                “I thought so” Alan smiled back at him.
                The privates picked up the boxes and the soldiers left.
                The door closed.
                “I wonder if the revolution soldiers had to do the same thing. You realize, that we have been a rebel army a few times in our past” Alan said and relit his pipe.
                “This crazy world, what are we to become” I said to nobody in particular.
                We sat by the fire. The heat warmed us and the crackle was comforting.
                “I have something, I want to share with you” Alan got up and walked to a cabinet. He took out a bottle of 25 year old scotch.
                “This is the good stuff.” He grabbed two glasses and poured the golden liquid.
                Concurring, I picked up the glass drinking and almost immediately felt warm and fuzzy.
                “You could always come with me you know, you and Harriet and Clair”
                Alan leaned forward and looked into the fireplace.
                “The only place we know is here. I’ll go only to protect my women” He poured another glass of scotch and refilled my own.
                “The group here and I’m sure elsewhere around the country, people like us, we are the ones who will rebuild this country. I’m not sure if it includes those soldiers out there or not. I’d like to think so. It sounds if they have an impossible job” Alan drank.
                I drank and looked at the fire in silence. We talked a little, drank a little and nodded off a little. The next thing I remember is waking up on Alan’s couch and it was morning. The fire was stoked and Clair was singing in the kitchen.
                After I shared a breakfast with the family, I took a walk and ended up at the soldier’s camp. There was a commotion with soldiers running about packing and checking equipment.

                The young captain was standing outside his mobile headquarters with a radioman. He motioned me to come over.

                “Sir, I’m afraid we have bad news. PAL and our most forward units are engaging between here and Houston. PAL has a large force moving up. We are the most northerly perimeter and have been given orders to realign with our main group.” He said intermittently stopping to listen to the radio traffic. “We will be leaving this area soon. I know you don’t live with these people, I’d like you to convince them to leave.”

                “Is there any chance that the Pan American’s will miss this area?” I asked.

                “To be honest, I don’t know. If they are well supplied, they may be moving fast. Those chances are thin. They resupply using every possible means. They are ruthless to any civilians they come in contact with. Sir, it’s a dire situation.”

                “I’ll call all the ranchers to meet, thank you for the warning.” I was waved off as the soldier went back to speaking on the radio.

                I hurried back to Alan’s house and told him what was happening. We both walked to George’s cabin and sent a runner to gather the people. While we waited, I was surprised to see old Man Smith limping up the road leaning heavily on a staff.

                “Mr. Smith, you look better every day” I smiled at him.

                “I’m good enough for a fight!” he said “I hear there is about to be one”

                “That’s what I was told.” I said grimly.

                It took a bit, but all the men from the other farms made their way to the front porch. Alan told the news to the visibly shaken group.

                “I know a lot of you, most want to stay here on your land. However, if the what the soldiers say is true, which I have no doubt that it is, this area could very well be a battleground and soon.” Alan said standing on the front porch.

                “We could hide in the forest, at the animal pen” one rancher piped up.

                “These soldiers would be aware of the habits of civilians and would be looking out for livestock.” I added.

                “Well then, we stand and fight!” Another rancher said with agreements from a few others.

                “The Spanish soldiers are well equipped. We don’t have any heavy weapons to stop an armored unit advance. It’s a toss-up whether the NSCA can route them. If they do, we would have a chance, a small chance mind you, to make it” George brought up.

                “We knew something like this could happen. We have enough small arms for everyone, women and older kids. I can’t make the decisions for you. That’s up to individual families.” Alan replied with nods of most of the farmers.

                “I don’t know about all of you, but I’m staying! I aint got nothing but what is here. I’m staying and going to fight!” Mr. Smith said leaning against his stick and breathing hard.

                A few of the farmers repeated “Here here!” and “Let’s get those SOBs”.

                I had grown some strong bonds with these people. I also knew that the chances were slim if the heavy units made it here. Still, I couldn’t abandon these people just yet.

                Two of the families agreed to leave and dismissed themselves to pack. The rest of the farmers were going to hide out in the woods and hope for the best. George decided he would follow the NSCA soldiers as he had experience in armored fighting. Alan was unsure of what to do. He kept on looking at his daughter Clair and wife Harriet.

                It was a tough matter in tough times.

                I decided to follow George and a few of the young men to the APCs.

                The Captain shook George’s hand when he said he would join up with them. He nodded to the other young men as well.

                “We will try and equip you the best we can. You may not get uniforms, but know that you will be one of us. Gather your things, we are about to head back to command.” All were ready to go.

                The Captain waved me towards him.

                “I hear you are a medic?” He asked.

                “Yes Sir, I am.”

                “We are short on medical troops. I would ask you personally if you would tag along with my unit.” The Captain asked.

                I couldn’t say no. I realized that these were the growing pains of the rebirth of the American spirit. I nodded. I went back to Alan's ranch house and grabbed my pack and medical gear. Alan told me that he was going to join the ranchers in the woods because of his daughter Clair. I agree wholeheartedly and gave him a rough hug. "I'll see you in a few days!" He said and quickly went back inside to pack.

                The scout unit was already packed up with their vehicle engines running when I returned.

                ‘Let’s move!” the Captain ordered. We climbed on top of the Strykers and headed south.

                I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.


                • #9
                  Chapter 9

                  We drove back to the city I had run from. It was changed. The NSCA had cleaned up the little town and made it into a fortress. There were defensive position of bunkered down APCs, Strykers and Bradleys all facing south towards the highway. I counted at least ten of these vehicles, plus a smattering of Jeeps, Humvees and civilian trucks all painted the same gray as the NSCA uniforms. Behind them were three tanks, two M1As and an M60. The tanks were dug in behind earthen defensive structures.
                  The fighting positions were a combination of sandbags and pits. There were at least 200 Soldiers in gray uniforms and another 100 of miscellaneous recruits dressed in whatever, like myself and the others from the ranch.
                  We were directed to three large tents set back between the fire station where I had my shootout and an auto supply store.
                  The five of us were waved into the first large tent, the HQ. We were met by an older man wearing a traditional Cavalry uniform. He had a full beard and the rank of Colonel. We stood out of the way while the Colonel leaned over a map table and gave directions to other officers who were hastily writing down what he said.
                  The meeting finished about forty-five minutes later, ending with a prayer the colonel himself gave. The unit commanders all knelt. I was very impressed with the man. He had an air of respect and leadership that was out of place in this country, even before the bombs.
                  The soldiers all stood and cheered, then saluted and marched out of the tent leaving the colonel with Second Captain Anderson.
                  “Sir, reporting as ordered” the captain said saluting.
                  “Good! It’s good to see you Wayne”, he patted the captain’s shoulder.
                  “I see you brought some help! Come on over here men” The Colonel said, motioning us over.
                  “My name is Colonel Higgans. Let me tell you about myself. A year ago I was a Baptist preacher in a church on the Alabama Georgia border. I retired from the United States Marine Corp twenty years ago. I was pressed back into service along with a couple thousand more troopers when we flooded into Fort Benning after the first bombs fell. Surprisingly, Benning wasn’t hit.” He told us.
                  “Just to let you know, we are not rebels. We consider ourselves the remnant of this great nation. Benning was cut off just like everywhere else. After months without hearing from the Pentagon, The senior commanders there took things into their own hands mostly after hearing about attacks from the northeastern Yankees on cities full of people who needed help. We don’t know what happened up there, we hear that a rogue leadership was put in place after DC was silenced.” He paused.
                  “Now, I have to tell you, this may startle all of you. DC was hit by a modern and fully operational nuclear weapon. It no longer exists. We think it was the Russians who did it, but right now, none can be sure. Whoever are leaders of the north do not have the best interests of this nation. We have captured several “UN Observers” and have fought whole units of foreign troops in our old uniforms, using our own weapons. The fact is we don’t know what happened, but we are currently in battle to stop it.”
                  This information indeed startled every one of us. My stomach turned.
                  “You have the honor to join NSCA. To do this, all I require is a pledge of allegiance, just like what you learned in school. Unfortunately, the north uses our beloved Old Glory. We use the Third National Flag of the Confederacy, the Dixie flag, until Old Glory can be restored. I require your patriotism and your honor to fight for this God given and blessed country. Now, what say you?”
                  All of us stepped forward shouting, “YES!” we took the pledge.
                  “It is an honor to have you.” Now Second Captain Anderson will take you over to supply. We don’t have much, but we will equip you as we can. You are dismissed!” A few of us saluted the Colonel as he went back to his map.
                  “This way men.” The captain said escorting us outside.
                  We made our way to one of the other two tents full of military supplies. We were left to a gray haired Sergeant, chewing on a cigar. He told us he didn’t have uniforms, but had boots. I took a pair, replacing the work boots I had gotten long ago. He asked us what type of weapon experience we had. George stepped up and said he was experienced in many of the modern day military weapons. He was given an M4 and an old style of web gear full of magazines and a canteen.
                  The young men and ranchers with us were not as familiar with the M4 and were given M1 Garands with a set of even older but functioning web gear. Everyone got a new pair of boots and misc. camouflage that looked like it came from a large sporting store.
                  I was asked what weapon I was experienced with. I told the Sergeant I was a medic and showed him my 1911. He had a good eye for weapons and smiled at it. I was given more magazines and a brand new medic vest with two SAPI plates built into it. The vest was heavy, but I had pouches and a smaller pack I could keep my medical gear in, plus protection. I knocked on the hard plates. The Sergeant also refilled my supplies; Bandages, morphine and other equipment I didn’t have to include an IV rig and several saline bags.
                  The Sergeant shooed us away telling us to wait outside where our new unit leaders would meet us.
                  We stood outside, getting into our new gear.
                  “Looks like I don’t have to shave my beard” George said. The supply Sergeant had a beard and a pony tail. We looked around, some soldiers had some sort of facial hair, and others were clean cut. The clothing we were given had the Confederate flag sown on its left sleeve. We were told we could discard our old clothing on a pile next to the fire station. I sadly and reluctantly let my jumpsuit go, tossing it on the pile. I did keep my fireman’s jacket. The newer clothing was warmer and in better shape, so I didn’t feel that bad.
                  At around noon, we were given a box of MREs, which we dug into. George commented that they had changed a lot and where actually edible. Tasting the MRE’s brought memories again of me in the desert eating them. I think I had gotten sick of them then, today I wolfed a spaghetti MRE down and was content.
                  An hour later, senior sergeants and Jr. Officers came and gathered us up. All the men went to different units except George and me. We were happy to see Second Captain Anderson walk up smiling.
                  “Congratulations men” He said to us. “You are now NSCA scouts” He laughed. “George, I hope you can keep up!”
                  “Don’t worry about me son, I have been chasing wild pigs for months!”
                  We all laughed.
                  We were led to captain Anderson’s two Strykers. Which were situated behind and on the flanks of the other units.
                  “Make yourselves at home men! I’ll get an NCO to you in a bit to explain the situation.
                  We sat against the giant tires of one of the Strykers and waited.
                  Hurry up and wait. I was used to this in a prior life too! It took an hour for the Sergeant, who we didn’t know, to meet us.
                  “My name is Sgt. Hanson. I was told to give you the tour, answer questions and do what training we can with the time we have” He said unenthusiastically. The Sergeant was a huge African American with muscles bulging out of his uniform. He spoke with a soft, almost childlike voice completely opposite his appearance.
                  We followed him as he showed us the front lines. He didn’t introduce us to any one, saying that there was no time and it was probably better that way. We next went to the ammo dump, where both George and I loaded up on ammunition. George grabbed some grenades, which I decided against.
                  We then marched a mile back where the support units were. There was also a mess hall, where we got a bite to eat; wild pork sandwiches on MRE bread and some of the worst coffee I had ever tasted.
                  “Pretty good, huh?” The Sergeant mocked.
                  “Yeah, pretty good to clean an engine block!” George said.
                  The support men and equipment was preparing to move farther back. We were told that the Scout units usually provided security for them. It wouldn’t happen this time as every fighter was needed up front. The support guys were mostly un-uniformed civilians and the first women we saw. They all worked hard and with military efficiency.
                  We got back to our position. “Okay” Sergeant Hanson said. “We are tasked to envelope if the Colonel orders it. Think of us as the Cavalry of old. Our secondary mission is to reinforce. Pretty simple. Doc, you will be tasked with the mortar/machinegun crew. They are 200 Yards behind us. Your job is to come forward for the wounded as we call.”
                  “Do I have assistants, or other medics?” I brought up.
                  “You have one private. He will assist you. Before you ask, we have several four wheel ATVs. We have equipped one with a trailer that holds two patients. You will stabilize the wounded and take them back to where our support has set up. To answer the next question you will probably ask, we do not have EVAC nor do we have a field hospital. The Doctor and three nurses we had were killed several weeks ago. It’s just you and a handful of other medics.
                  Dire circumstances.
                  “We have lost many soldiers that would have survived if we had proper medical staff. No offense to you.
                  “None taken” I said.
                  “Ethan here did a good job with one of our own who was shot in the stomach a bit back, don’t underestimate him.” George growled.
                  The Sergeant was taken back slightly.
                  “You’ll have to forgive me. I’ve lost a lot of buddies in the last few months.” He said sadly.
                  George loosened up. “I understand son, you’re good with us.”
                  We learned that the Battalion fought in the Battle of Macon and also a major battle with a rouge biker gang. They had fought the Northern Coalition and PAL all across the south.
                  “Mr. George, you will be dismounted Infantry. I hear that you have been one of us. So all I can say to you is Whoaah!”
                  “Whoaah” George replied.
                  I met the private who would assist me. He looked 14 if that and no taller than the rifle strapped to his back. He wore a one piece camouflage jumpsuit and a Rangers baseball cap.
                  “Hello Sir! My name is Jason. Uh….I mean Private Orwell. Good to meet you”. He saluted. “No need to salute me son, just call me Ethan” I said.
                  Private Orwell grinned.
                  “I take it you are an expert in driving that contraction”, I pointed to the ATV.
                  “YES SIR!” he said proudly. “I mean…errr… yes Mr. Ethan. I used to ride ATVs, you know, before the war”. I was going to like this kid.
                  We were given sleeping bags and poncho liners and told that they were used. I thought about the soldiers who wouldn’t see their loved ones again who previously owned them. I wasn’t sure I would see my family. This was worth fighting for. Every red blooded prior-American would think this way. I didn’t fault Alan and the rest of the ranchers. Family trumped calling, every time.
                  We slept right out into the open in fighting position. It was going to be a long cold night.
                  The next morning, I awoke with a layer of greasy snow covering me and a sore throat. I was released to go to the mess hall for breakfast. Although the coffee was terrible again, it warmed me up. This soldiers’ life was rough and it was going to take a while for my body to get used too. Again.
                  I ate pork sausage and powdered eggs with the ambiguous MRE bread. Private Orwell met me in the mess.
                  “You ready Sir?” He asked,
                  “Ready for what?” I replied.
                  “We are going out to loot….I mean procure supplies on a few of the abandoned houses south of town. It’s one of the Scout Unit’s jobs.”
                  “I guess I’m up for it having just thawed out!” I said.
                  “Ever ride an ATV?” The private grinned.
                  “I know absolutely, I have never driven an ATV” I replied smiling.
                  “No problem Mr. Ethan, I’ll show you. It’s easy.” He motioned for the door. We walked back to our position.
                  He led me to a battered ATV covered in mud. After a quick lesson on gas and breaks and riding a circle around Private Orwell, we picked up large empty back packs and headed south. The private couldn’t help showing off a little, jumping obstacles and racing around. I on the other hand kept it slow and easy.
                  We made our way onto the highway and then turned west. I was told that the area around town had already been checked. The circumference of the search had increased by ten miles.
                  We stopped at a crossroad. The private pointed out a housing complex where we would be searching. We parked our ATVs in a thicket and slowly made our way to the complex, stopping in a thicket to look at it with binoculars for several minutes.
                  “May want to take your side arm out, Sir. We don’t know who might be here” he whispered.
                  I pulled my .45 out and checked the chamber. All set. We moved to the first house. It looked like a vehicle had driven through it. We snuck in through the crashed opening, the house was trashed.
                  “We are looking for food, clothing – preferably camo, boots, tools and anything else we deem as valuable we can trade with the Bureau.” Orwell quipped.
                  “Bureau?” I said “What in the world is that?”
                  Private Orwell stopped and turned. “Nobody has told you about the Bureau?”
                  “No, is this ANOTHER faction this country has?”
                  “Well, sort of.” He replied. “The Bureau is a trading group spread all around the country. Their supplies are needed by everyone, even the crazy guys in the Rockies. So, they can cross lines pretty easy. They are based out of Memphis. Some guys got together there and formed the group. They go out in, well wagon trains would be the best I can describe it. They loot and trade. Funny how looting has become the norm, Right Mr. Ethan?”
                  “Yeah, I don’t think I would be raiding someone’s house back in the prior world.”
                  ”Well Mr. Ethan, I think of it like this; there is a good chance that the people who owned the places are dead. We find a lot of bodies. If we do find a resident, we offer to help them the best we can. Most places more than the norm have gotten all looted, maybe twice and four times over already.”
                  I nodded. No laws no police. It was the Wild West and worse.
                  We searched the first house and found some clothing in the attic. It looked like old ski clothing. Private Orwell told me this was good for the support guys.
                  The next house appeared as if it had been locked and left for a days’ work.
                  We knocked on the door at the ready. After a few minutes, we walked around and found a broken window. Both of us crawled in. The house was amazingly in order. We went into the kitchen, the cupboards were bare as well as the fridge. The pantry was full of garbage, empty canned food and other common household trash. We walked to the living room. The front door was barricaded with a heavy desk. The private raised his weapon silently motioning to the upstairs.
                  We slowly walked up. I started smelling death. This wasn’t going to be good.
                  The first room was clean and in order with a body lying on the queen size bed. Its head was missing, a red and white splatter against the headboard. There was a shotgun clutched in one of its hands.
                  “We see this a lot too Sir” Private Orwell said sadly.
                  We searched the rest of the upstairs. It looked like a family of five lived here, young kids. It wasn’t hard to reconstruct the events that happened. One parent was left home alone for whatever reason. He (Or she, we couldn’t tell) lived the best they could waiting for family to return and finally without hope did themselves in.
                  It was sad. Orwell picked up the shotgun, clearing it and placing the serviceable shells in his bag. We found some jewelry in the house and left leaving everything else as it was.
                  We checked the others houses in the neighborhood getting more clothing and finding hidden forgotten food. We found some tools in the last house Orwell said the support unit could always use.
                  We trudged back to our ATVs and headed west again. We came to a strip mall with a dollar store. Orwell was excited, he told me that no matter how many times stores like these were looted, you could always scavenge more stuff.
                  The inside of the store was trashed. All the long displays were turned over. Orwell began to dig under the displays. We found a lot of food, cans and packages, some spices that were like gold! We soon filled our packs.
                  We left riding back east towards the battalion perimeter.
                  Orwell suddenly raised his hand, meaning me to stop. We turned off our bikes. About a mile down the highway was a Humvee. I took out my binoculars and Orwell did the same with his.
                  There were two men with PAL uniforms staring back at us with binoculars.
                  “Forward PAL units, Scouts!” Orwell said excitedly. “We need to get back to the Battalion and quick!”
                  The two soldiers jumped in their Humvee and sped off South as we sped off North. It was hard for me to keep up, Orwell was balls to the wall! It didn’t take long to make it back. We reported directly to Captain Anderson who then took us to the HQ tent.
                  We told the Colonel’s staff what we saw, when and approximately where. The Colonel soon came in and ordered the staff to gather unit commanders. They started filing into the tent. After a few minutes the briefing started.
                  “We didn’t expect the PAL units this soon. Word was they were still fighting in Houston. The unit that our scouts reported was definitely feeling us out. This means that the main force is close. Maybe less than 20 miles south.” The staff S3 or Operations officer said.
                  “I want all units on alert, no fewer than a quarter should be off duty at a time. The rest will be in defensive positions” The Colonel said.
                  “We are going to hold the line. I want our support unit to be ready to move at a minutes’ notice. They will make a tactical retreat north along this highway.” He pointed to the map. The support commander, an older woman nodded.
                  “Prepare your units, Men” It won’t be long. “Dismissed!” The Colonel said.
                  We followed Captain Anderson back to our positions. Private Orwell was still excited. He told me that this would be his first major battle. I was suddenly sad for him.
                  “Have you ever fought in a battle Mr. Ethan?”
                  I told him that I wasn’t sure and that I had lost my memory when the bombs hit.
                  “We may be baptized by fire together, Kid” This caused him to grin and nod.
                  I told him to have his ATV and trailer ready to move and to stay close to me.
                  We waited near the mortar platoon. There was an eerie silence in the town. No more laughing and talking. No generators or engines running. Weapons were pointed south down a gentle incline where the highway followed. It was open with cow pastures and sparse vegetation.
                  It didn’t take long for the enemy to arrive. We first heard them, then saw a long column of vehicles, about a hundred, appear five miles down the highway. They fanned out, crashing through fencing and brush. Older Russian tanks and armored fighting vehicles and a smattering of US surplus. Behind them was a menagerie of troop vehicles, civilian and military along with support vehicles, some civilian tanker trucks.
                  At once, about five thousand ragged soldiers hopped out of the transports. They were herded up to the front of the armored vehicles by men in sharp camouflage uniforms from the armored vehicles.
                  I looked through my binoculars and looked at the ragged troops. Even from here, they looked disorganized and desperate. They were armed with rudimentary weapons, firearms and some with nothing more than a baseball bat or axe.
                  “Steady men!” The mortar sergeant shouted.
                  I put a hand on Orwell’s shoulder, I could feel him shaking.
                  “FIRE!” The mortars started whooping as fast as the men could load them. I could see they were right on target, even the few mortars we had were deadly to the men in the open. I continued to look through my binoculars.
                  I could see some of the ragged men running away. They were shot by the soldiers in uniforms.
                  The ragged group was forced forward at a run. They began to fire their weapons. The enemy also had mortars and those began to fall around our bunkered down units. Our heavy machineguns and APC cannons started opening up. I saw over a thousand men fall or literally blown to bits in a matter of seconds. The soldiers continued to advance on foot.
                  Our tanks started firing on the armored enemy vehicles. The enemy started firing at nearly the same time. Again, our skill was apparent; we lit up tanks and APCs almost immediately. The enemy’s fire wasn’t so lucky. They did not hit any of our bunkered down vehicles.
                  The battle waged on fiercely.
                  Many more of the ragged troops fell again within seconds. They were still able to advance forward. We started hearing calls for medics. Orwell and I went into action.
                  I hopped on back of the trailer as we moved forward. We came to our first casualty, a trooper who had been hit by mortar fire. His wounds looked serious. I stopped his bleeding and bandaged him up with speed I didn’t know I had. He was put on the trailer. Another trooper had been shot through the arm. He declined to move back. I patched him up and went to the next casualty. Explosions were shaking the ground around me and Private Orwell as we ran from fighting position too fighting position. Another injured soldier was put on the trailer and Orwell sped back to the support area.
                  The next trooper had taken a round through his helmet. I could see that he was dead. I pulled him back from the trench he was in and covered him with his poncho.
                  The enemy was losing tanks and APCs quickly. The ragged ground troops kept advancing as they fell in droves.
                  Our tanks started running out of ammunition. Men and women came up from support to resupply what they could. The battle waged on.
                  Colonel Higgans moved from position to position in the open bravely. He rallied the men, motivating them to continue their defense.
                  The next injured soldier was one of the rancher’s that had come with us. He was the teenager I saw in the tree guarding the animal pen. I could see that he sustained a heavy round to the chest. I dressed his wound the best I could as he gurgled up at me. He wasn’t going to make it. I gave him some morphine and waited until Orwell raced back. We loaded the boy on the trailer. Due to the seriousness of the injury, I told Private Orwell to go and get this kid to the safe area. Orwell sped off again.
                  The ragged troops kept advancing, their ranks decimated. About 300 yards, the enemy began to fall back. At the same time the enemy armored unites began to back up.
                  There was a cheer from our troops! Troopers were congratulating themselves, the firing stopped on orders from the colonel.
                  That’s when it happened. We started receiving fire from our flanks. I pulled out my binoculars and my stomach reeled.
                  I could see modern tanks and APC’s attacking from our sides.
                  I could also see the Stars and Stripes furling from one of the lead vehicles.
                  That’s when all hell broke loose.
                  I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.


                  • #10
                    Chapter 10

                    The Northern Coalition.
                    It was an instant nightmare for our Battalion. Several of our APCs were destroyed in seconds. One of our M1 tanks exploded, causing the turret to spin up in the air and land with a crash.
                    Men began to die and get hit around me and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. I was blown to the ground by an explosion and felt a searing pain shoot through my arm, the hand that I broke long ago.
                    The order to retreat was given. I ran north along with other soldiers. Our vehicles began to try and maneuver and get out of defensive positions. They were destroyed, one by one.
                    I looked back and saw Captain Anderson on his Stryker vehicle one second, and the next he was killed as the Stryker exploded.
                    I ran back with everything in me as men were hit and screamed with pain. I was blown to the ground again. I couldn’t hear and was dazed. I got up shaking and continued to limp along.
                    The next thing I saw was Private Orwell’s face in front of me. He was screaming, yet I couldn’t hear anything. He pulled me onto the trailer of his ATV and sped off down the road leaving the torn and burning town.
                    We made it back to where the support units were. I could see that they had been hit, most were on fire. Men and women lay dead or dying. Orwell interweaved through the carnage.
                    We continued to race along the road. I held on as I was rattled, nearly falling off the trailer several times. Private Orwell was going as fast as he could. He suddenly made a sharp right turn as we saw enemy vehicles heading towards us from the north. We sped across a cow pasture and into some trees. Orwell didn’t stop. He jumped and maneuvered around obstacles, nearly causing us to crash, the little trailer bouncing me in the air.
                    We were fired on by the units to the north. However, they didn’t stop their advance or follow us into the wood line. We continued fleeing. Soon, the gunfire and explosions became distant as my hearing started to come back.
                    I passed out.
                    I was in that place again, Houston. The hole in the ground leaning over my broken body. I looked up and could see the outside get farther and farther away. There was no hope, nobody to help. That evil laughter started again. I could see my blood pour out of me. I was going to die. I tried to call out but my mouth wouldn’t open. My mind screamed out in pain. The hole started to close around me. My world fading, then everything going black.
                    I woke and was confused for a moment. I was looking up at trees branches. Snow was falling around me and it was quiet. I was on the back of the trailer and we weren’t moving. I willed my head to turn. Private Orwell lay slumped over the stopped ATV handle bars.
                    I turned and pulled myself up the trailer. My legs were numb, I couldn’t move them.
                    Private Orwell was still breathing, I could see that he was struggling to stay alive. I could see a stream of blood drip from his arm onto the snow making a pool. The back of his uniform was also stained red.
                    “Private Orwell”, I said. I heard him moan, or was it me.
                    I blacked out again.
                    I awoke chocking, not realizing where I was. My memory came back after a few minutes, I had somehow made it under the trailer. What I could see of Private Orwell was still and covered with snow. I crawled out and was able to get to my feet leaning against the ATV. I reached out and felt his neck. No pulse, stiff and cold. The boy was dead. I started to weep.
                    Orwell had saved my life. His first and last battle. He was so young, so full of life. I looked at his body slumped in the ATV driver’s seat.
                    This was too much. When would the nightmare stop? Why was I still alive? I started replaying in my mind the battle that happened.
                    The Northern Coalition and PAL were allies. Our valiant Colonel was defeated in one of the oldest tricks in the book; a frontal attack and flanking maneuver. Our battalion would have been completely destroyed.
                    I may be the only survivor thanks to brave Private Orwell. The woods around me were silent.
                    I once again was alone, injured and had no clue where I was. I thought about my friends from the ranch, George and the others, hitting my fist against the ATV seat.
                    I knew I needed to get into shelter fast. I pulled the frozen body of Private Orwell off the machine and gently laid him on the ground. He deserved a proper burial; I was in no condition to honor him such.
                    I next checked the ATV fuel tanks. Empty. The young Private drove it until it stopped. I shook my head, nobody would know but me of heroic Private Orwell. I searched his body for anything useful. I grabbed his rifle and used it to prop myself up. I took what ammo he had and found little else on his body. I took a look around. I was in some heavy trees. I could see the tracks of the ATV leading off in one direction. I decided to go the opposite. I actions were robotic and stiff.
                    I limped from tree to tree. It started to snow heavily. I continued for what I thought was a long time and stopped. I looked back and could still see the ATV. My arm started throbbing. I took off my vest and jacket. The wound looked like a piece of shrapnel had lodged into my upper bicep. I dressed it as well as I could, the bleeding was slowed by the freezing cold.
                    I continued on. I started getting dark as I limped leaning on the rifle. My legs were still numb, my hands were freezing even with gloves. I was getting sleepy and knew if I stopped, I would be dead.
                    I staggered for what felt like hours and finally came to a clearing. I looked up and saw an object that my brain didn’t register. It looked man made. I stood there staring until I recognized it as a building of some sort. It was covered with snow. I could make out a roof and some of the walls. It looked like it was made out of logs. A cabin. I looked around the clearing surrounding it. There was an overgrown, snow covered road leading out into the woods. There were no fresh tracks or otherwise in the snow.
                    I stumbled to the cabin and found the door. I got down on my knees to clear snow away from it. I couldn’t now feel my arms as I frantically pushed and dug into the snow. I finally cleared enough to find a rusted padlock, which I whacked with the butt of my rifle. When all hope faded that I would get it off, it broke falling into the snow.
                    I opened the cabin door enough to squeeze through. The cabin looked like it hadn’t been used a long time. It had a bed with old musty and rotted blankets on it. Above the bed was a deer’s head. There was a wooden table in the middle with three chairs around it. Opposite the bed was an old potbellied stove. There was a cabinet next to the stove. I limped to it and opened it up. There were old rusted cans and cookware inside. I opened a coffee can and to my surprise, it had a few matches in it.
                    I closed my eyes and thanked God.
                    I went to the old rusty stove and opened it. It was full of spider webs and looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time. There was an empty wood box next to the stove. I then went back to the table and chairs. I selected a chair and swung it on the ground, breaking the old wood easily. The pieces went into the stove I took one of my packaged bandages out of my vest and opened it, throwing both the bandage and wrapper into the stove.
                    I lit the fire after several attempts with my numb hands and the old matches. I waited in front of the open stove until I could see it burning the wood from the chair.
                    The smoke started filling the room up, I grunted and limped outside. Reaching up, I used the rifle butt to clear the small chimney of snow. When the smoke started pouring out, I went back inside shutting the door behind me. I sat in front of the stove as the inside of the cabin started warming up. I dozed off several times, waking up with a start and adding more wood to the fire.
                    After an hour or so, the stove became red hot. The little cabin heated up nicely. I went to the rotted bed and lay down on the ancient spring mattress. I was asleep almost immediately.
                    I had no dreams, I felt empty.
                    I awoke with the fire down to coals in the stove. I broke another chair and stoked the flames. I realized I was terribly thirsty. The snow would have to be melted and drank without me sterilizing it, I would have to take that chance. I took one of the pans from the cabinet and opened the front door. I tried to get the freshest snow, thinking it would be the least contaminated. I placed the pan on the stove, where the snow quickly melted into grayish water. The water had a metallic taste as I drank it down coughing. I took off all my outer clothing and laid it on the cabinet to dry and stumbled back to the bed.
                    Sleep again came easy or I passed out. I wasn’t sure which.
                    I woke again, the cabin was warm. Almost too warm. My arm hurt, I would have to treat it. I went outside quickly and got a pot of snow closing the door fast trying not to let the heat out. I took off the two shirts I was wearing and looked at my arm.
                    It looked like the shrapnel had lodged just under the surface in the muscle of my forearm. It shouldn’t be a problem taking out. I washed my hands and sterilized them and my arm with betadine, I started experiencing sharp pain. I reached over and was able to grab the ragged metal. I pulled, causing another wave of intense pain.
                    The shrapnel came out. I stoked the fire and gave myself a light shot of morphine. I cleaned the wound again and sutured it up as the morphine took effect.
                    I was back to sleep in minutes.
                    When I awoke next, I was extremely hungry. I looked around the cabin not expecting to find food, which I was right. Now what? What do I do now?
                    My body was no longer numb. Every part was sore like after an intense work out. I decided to take stock of my belongings and situation.
                    I had my vest, still equipped nicely with medical supplies. I had my large hunting knife. I had my 1911 with six full magazines. I had the Garand rifle with eight full clips. Of course, I had my heavy winter clothing.
                    I was in a warm shelter, an old hunting cabin. I was in the middle of the wild, somewhere in Texas still I surmised.
                    It was light outside, I could see it streaming from the door.
                    I had enough wood inside to last at least another day. I’d have to burn the table, the cabinet, maybe even parts of the bed.
                    That was it.
                    My most logical course of action would be to leave. I could go without eating for a few days, however it would eventually lead to weakness and my body shutting down. I could try and go hunt for wild pigs or other game. I didn’t think I had the experience, but if this place hadn’t been used in a while, the game outside should be plentiful.
                    I decided to try.
                    I put my clothing on and left my vest on the rickety table. I grabbed the Garand rifle making sure it had a full clip. It did.
                    I quickly went outside. It didn’t appear to have snowed again. I could see my tracks coming in. It was terribly cold though.
                    Again, I went opposite my tracks keeping the cabin in view. I started circling the cabin looking for game tracks. I did find small animal tracks, they were old. No pigs or deer.
                    I came to the road leading out. It disappeared around a bend. No human evidence at all.
                    I soon saw my first squirrel. It was 25 yards in front of me digging for nuts in the snow. I shouldered my heavy rifle and thought for a minute. Would this rifle be too much? The bullets were huge! I had no choice. I tried to aim at the head and pulled the trigger.
                    The shot was deafening, echoing through the trees. I didn’t think of that. Anyone for a few miles would have heard it! The good news was that I hit the squirrel. The bad news was it was mutilated by my round.
                    I had no choice, and took what was left of the little carcass. I decided that this would be enough for now. I trudged back to the cabin and cleaned and skinned the animal. It went into a pot of boiling water. I waited hungrily until I thought the squirrel was sufficiently boiled. I remembered an old salt shaker, one of those plastic cheap ones in the cabinet. I salted the pot, then placing it on the floor, I began to pick at the meat eating every possible bit, including sucking out the bones. I then drank all the meaty broth.
                    I was still hungry, but this would do for now. I gave myself another light shot of morphine and went back into a dreamless sleep.
                    I slept a long time, waking up for just moments – Light and dark, light and dark. When I finally did rise from the bed, my fire had long gone out. It was cold again in the cabin.
                    I restarted the fire and spent a few minutes breaking the table into manageable pieces. I used my knife as a wedge and one of the table legs to get the job done. I re-started the fire and decided to go out for another squirrel. I was hungry again and getting plenty of sleep; this was a good thing.
                    I redressed and grabbed the rifle. I decided to walk up the road.
                    I tried to use the skills that Alan had taught me. I suddenly thought of the ranchers, in particular George. Was he killed in the battle? I hoped he made it out alive. I was suddenly saddened. Maybe we all did make a bad decision joining up with the soldiers.
                    I soon heard grunting and squealing. Just up the road, where I had shot the squirrel, was a huge herd of wild pigs. More than thirty I quickly guessed. I thought they must have been drawn to what was left of the squirrel! I then thought about poor Private Orwell. He had probably become dinner, maybe to these same animals. My stomach retched as I shouldered the rifle. I shot five rounds as fast as I could. Three of the pigs fell, the rest started tearing into the lifeless animals. I wasn’t the only one hungry. I reloaded my rifle and shot the entire clip again. Two more fell as I ran forward screaming. The other pigs ran off into the woods.
                    I had three large pigs and two smaller ones. It took me over an hour to drag the pigs back to the cabin. The blood and gore attracted more of the smelly animals who would stand off until I was back to the cabin and then race forward, tearing into the meat of the carcasses I left. I had to shoot again to scare them away. These animals lost their natural fear of man because of their inability to get food. They were becoming quite fearless and dangerous.
                    It took few hours to butcher what I had. I placed the hunks of flesh into the snow on the roof of the cabin.
                    I now had plenty of food, although disgusting as my prior experiences with them led. I prepared a pig meat stew. It tasted like wild pig. I retched and ate it all, drinking the broth.
                    I stayed at the cabin for a week, before feeling strong enough and deciding to leave. I had longed burned everything I could within the little cabin and had to trek outside for fallen logs and branches. I also found pigs outside, becoming bolder and bolder. I had to shoot a few to get them away from me several times. It was time to go.
                    I grabbed all my equipment, taking the heavy vest and putting it on. I thought about taking out the armored plates making it lighter, but decided not to. I grabbed two heavy pig hams and tied a rope around them so I could shoulder them. I took the pot and the salt as well.
                    I looked around at the cabin. Maybe someone else could use it to survive with. I shut the door and left slowly walking up the road.
                    The road interweaved through the forest. Before I lost sight of the cabin, I could see the wild pigs surrounding it. At least whoever found it would have food! If they didn’t become pig food themselves!
                    After about five miles, I estimated, I made it to the remains of an old two lane highway. Another five hundred yards and I found an abandoned vehicle, a family car. It was a red SUV with those stick figure family on the back window. It had two car seats in it, empty of course. I stared at them I started a small fire and roasted some of the meat I had. I then went into the car, closing the door and laying there trying to sleep.
                    I wondered what had happened to the family this car belonged too. The fuel gage and the inside of the car was empty. I wonder if they made it out of the area when I finally dozed off.
                    I woke up after a hard sleep in the cold interior of the van. I left without looking back, my legs stiff and sore from walking the day previous. My life had become simple. I would walk, find an abandoned vehicle, eat and sleep. I did find a few items, lighters and some packaged food; mostly candy bars and such in the vehicles. I found a lot of human remains as well, which I tried to ignore. The road weaved through the countryside without seeing much of humanity. Even before the bombs, this part of the country was probably pretty desolate.
                    One day, I was shot at. There was a ranch, a cattle ranch I walked by. I first noticed more than the usual human remains lying about in various states of decay, it didn’t register until the shots came. The dwelling was a mile up a winding driveway, with fenced pastures surrounding it. The shots came before I heard them whizzing by me like angry bees. I ran down the road to escape whoever was taking shots at me. I imagined the cattle rancher had plenty of animals, as so his welcome he gave me. I couldn’t fault the guy. With the amount of raiders around, I’d shoot first and ask questions later. It dawned on me there were still good people alive, although far and few. I was sure this rancher was one of them.
                    I came to the freeway a few weeks into my trek and my food running out. The freeway sign I saw said 20 East.
                    I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.


                    • #11
                      Chapter 11

                      I stood there thinking what to do. My plan all along was to go east. I knew I would be following the Interstate. My problem was how to go about it? Should I walk paralleling it? I looked down over the embankment I was on. I could see multiple fresh tire tracks in the snow. I could also see where hundreds, if not thousands of people marched through. The snow was beaten down and dirty. The tracks all led East. There were few leading west.
                      I would certainly find live people in desperate shape. I made sure my rifle was loaded and walked alongside the freeway.
                      It didn’t take long to find my first bandits. I took my binoculars out and hid in a snow covered bush. They were holed up in a truck stop with a barricade and guards under a freeway overpass. There was evidence of their doing; cars and other vehicles had been shot up and pushed to the sides of the road. Their M.O was easy to figure out. Across from the truck stop on the other side of the freeway there was a field. In the field were stacks of human bodies covered in tarps. I could see the naked legs and feet of some sticking out. There was blood stained snow around the stacks of corpses. There were herds of pigs feeding on them, I realized, shuttering. Good operation I said to myself disgustingly. A choke point to whomever was traveling down the road. I heard music and laughter from the truck stop. The Bandits were dressed in a variety of clothing. They all were wearing red bandanas though. There were stacks of supplies around a huge bonfire. I could see a few poor souls tied to posts, freezing and dying in the snow. Humans at their worst.
                      I snuck around the roadblock, walking widely into the woods. I knew that PAL and the Northern Coalition would eventually find these Bastards. I wish I could be here to see the results. I snorted, IF they didn’t recruit them!
                      I continued to the Freeway. I needed to find food, which meant that I had to veer off the highway too probably already scavenged places or worse, more bad guys. I thought about the “Slinkers” in the cities. This was a different game out here where men preyed on each other out of greed more than desperation.
                      I soon came to another overpass. It had a sign on the road above saying that a town was a mile north. I took it and soon made my way to varies structures, houses mostly. It looked like a place to stop and get gas and a bite to eat before the world went to crap. I little farther in was the main part of the town, no larger than the town our Battalion had been in.
                      It looked empty. I decided to go back to the Freeway, when I noticed a partly destroyed Dollar Store. Thoughts of Private Orwell came back to me, the both of us scavenging through buildings. He said you always found stuff in Dollar Stores, even if they had been looted.
                      I carefully made my way over and into the store through a shattered front door. The place was destroyed and looked picked clean. I dug around using Orwell’s technique and soon found a few cans of hidden food putting them in my bag, and leaving hurriedly.
                      I made it back to the Freeway and soon found a semi-truck alongside the road. The trailer was opened and whatever had been in it gone. There was a body inside which I pulled out, it looked like the guy had been shot through the windshield. I was surprised to find a sleeping bag and other bedding inside the crew compartment. I had canned Okra and green beans from the dollar store eaten cold for supper before crashing out in the sleeper cab.
                      I awoke to the sound of engines running. There were five trucks heading towards me from the east. The lead truck had a sign on it saying; “Bureau”.
                      I sat in the cab watching them slowly come towards me. I had to warn them of the bandits I had seen a few miles back. I decided, jumping out of the truck. I waved them down with my arms. The truck column stopped and thirty heavily armed men and women jumped out. They were dressed in new and clean snow gear and had submachine guns that were all the same.
                      “Put up your hands!” I did as I was ordered. “What business do you have with the Bureau?” One of the men asked.
                      “There are Bandits up ahead, I wanted to warn you” I yelled out with my hands raised.
                      “We know, our scouts have already located them. We are going to them now to procure supplies” Another man yelled over to me.
                      “Can I put down my hands”, I yelled the wound on my arm throbbing.
                      “Go ahead, stay put where you are” Two men came towards me with their weapons pointed. They frisked me taking out my pistol and knife.
                      “Follow us.” I was instructed.
                      We walked back to the lead truck. The passenger door was open and a woman was talking on a radio, sitting half out of it. I waited.
                      She stopped and looked at me. “We are traders. Do you wish to do business with us?”
                      “Uh, yes. I don’t have much”
                      “I see you are wearing the NCSA patch, are your units close by?” She asked.
                      “No Ma’am, our unit was destroyed south of here by the PAL and the Northern Coalition.” I told her.
                      “We heard about that battle, you aren’t the only survivor. We met with several of their armor units a week ago. They were traveling east on 20, same as you” She wanted all the information I had on the enemy units, where they were how many, whatever I knew.
                      I was surprised and excited at the same time. Maybe George and the Colonel did make it out.
                      “We don’t have a lot of time. What do you have to trade?” I was asked.
                      The only thing I really had was the rifle and ammo. I wanted to keep the pistol and knife. I felt bad giving away Private Orwell’s rifle. I was in need though.
                      “I have a Garand Rifle. What will that get me?”
                      “I suppose you want food?” She knew what she was doing.
                      That would be nice.
                      “Please” I said.
                      “Our standard transaction for one maintained rifle is 15 cans of food and or miscellaneous packages. Now, how much ammo do you have?” She took out a notebook and started writing.
                      “I have three clips left.” I said.
                      “Okay! Ammo is worth more than the rifle. Do you want more food?” I did want more food, but needed a pack.
                      “Do you have a back pack I could have?” I asked.
                      “Of course!” She motioned another trader who went back to a large Uhaul truck painted in a green and brown camouflage pattern. He soon came out with a red hiking pack in new condition, heavy with canned and bagged food. I was escorted back to the semi-truck where I climbed up and got the rifle. I handed it and the rifle ammo to the guard.
                      We walked back and collected my new pack.
                      “Is there anything else” The female said crisply.
                      “No Ma’am, You just need to know those bandits up ahead have killed hundreds of people.” I pointed back down the highway.
                      “Again, we are aware of them. They will trade with us or be eliminated, their choice.”
                      I was given back my pistol and knife. The lead trader stood in the truck door and hand motioned the others back into their vehicles. They slowly headed west on Highway 20, soon leaving me behind.
                      I watched them go. That was an impressive operation I thought. I was left alone, missing their human contact, no matter how robotic they were.
                      I went back to the semi, gathered my sleeping bag and bedding, stuffing it into the pack and headed east.
                      After twenty minutes, I could hear a lot of gunfire behind me, followed by a smattering, then silence. I guess the trading went sour. The Bureau knew what they were doing; I imagined there were many newly dead bandits, with satisfaction.
                      I trudged on down the Freeway.
                      I walked for a week, stopping to camp or hole up in a vehicle or building. The canned food from the traders was filling: Beans and pasta mostly. Good stuff. I would see evidence of people more and more as I headed east.
                      One day, I moved off the interstate when I heard engines coming, just to be safe. It was a bad idea getting the red back pack. I’m sure you could see it for miles. I removed it and threw it under some brush. I hid behind a tree.
                      A truck containing two men were driving east checking out abandoned vehicles on the way. They looked pretty rough and carried hunting rifles. The back of the pickup contained dead wild pigs.
                      They soon disappeared around the corner of the highway. I waited a few more minutes, and then continued my journey. After a few miles, I saw a large sign with the hand painted word “FOOD” on it and an arrow pointing north. The fresh tracks suggested that the truck had turned here. There were other fresh human tracks.
                      I decided to check it out and walked about a hundred yards paralleling the turn off. I soon came to a gas station and burned out fast food building. To my surprise there were a few groups of people and single individuals standing in line in front of a plywood stand that had the same “Food” messily spray painted on it under the gas pumps. Some of the people were standing or sitting in the snow eating off of paper plates. I watched them for a few minutes and decided to walk up.
                      I said hello, nodding to one of the others and got in line. It was strange waiting in a line again with people. Soon I made it to the front. A middle aged woman smiled and asked me how much I wanted. One of the men I had seen in the truck, was barbequing pig behind her on a portable grill.
                      I was amazed at how civil everything was. I hadn’t experienced this in a long time.
                      “What can I get you, Sir” She said again, shaking me out of my brain freeze.
                      “Ummmmm, I’ll have whatever everyone is having please.” I said.
                      “One plate of BBQ and rice coming up, we take ammo, gold, silver and canned food,” she said.
                      I didn’t want to rid myself of food. “I’m a medic, can I work for food?”
                      “We don’t have any sick people,” she smiled, gesturing about.
                      “Okay, how about some medical supplies,” I asked her.
                      “Whatcha got?” she replied.
                      I thought, I guess I could give up two of my morphine injections. I better get more than just one plate of food.
                      “I have some morphine. I’ll tell you what,” I said I’ll trade two doses for a plate of hot food and a large ham?” I asked.
                      “Morphine, we need. I’ll throw in a small bag of rice for that plus what you asked for” She said.
                      I was soon sitting on a picnic table eating steaming BBQ pork and rice. The ham was strapped to my pack and the rice stowed. This was amazing. The BBQ was perfect. None of the wild taste in the meat. It was crispy on the edges and melted in mouth.
                      I struck up a conversation with some of the other eaters. They told me that this family came down every few weeks and opened this shop. I was told that they were from a group of people another ten miles north of the gas station. Most of the people eating were regulars, which amazed me even more. The hosts were rough looking, but good people. The customers, I found out, lived miles away and came when the family came. I guess you couldn’t judge people by their looks.
                      My sense of safety and humanity hadn’t come completely back; two of the men eating suddenly started arguing loudly. It looked like a fight was going to break out. I finished my food and headed back to the highway.
                      It was a nice break, but still pretty wild. I enjoyed talking with people the most. My insanity was in question being alone so much. Atlanta seemed an impossibly long ways off. I was still in Texas according to the road signs.
                      I continued my walk. Abandoned vehicles appeared less and less. I noticed that most of them appeared to be shot up. Things must have been a whole lot dangerous the first few months. I wish I had automotive experience, it felt safer for me to be in a moving vehicle. All the cars and trucks I checked were out of gas, the gas caps open. I imagined people had siphoned them long ago.
                      I was making pretty good time. I estimated at least ten miles, maybe closer to fifteen daily. I thought that was pretty good in the snotty snow.
                      I often heard gunshots far and close. The closer shots always prompted me to seek cover and wait it out.
                      After a week of walking, I finally saw a sign that had been knocked over, it read; Shreveport 15 Miles.
                      There were more vehicles on the Interstate as I neared the city. About ten miles in, the vehicles were stacked up on the east bound lanes. There was luggage and trash alongside of them. I began to see less and less evidence of recent human activity. Some of the cars and trucks had frozen mummified bodies in them.
                      Around five miles out, I started seeing hand painted signs. Some were messages; “I made it home Eric, love Mom” and “Walter, I will be at Mile post 120 on 1/7, meet me there.” There were also more ominous signs; “Danger, don’t go into the city!” and one peculiar sign; “I am watching you”
                      I kept going. I would walk around the city if I had too.
                      I started seeing the outskirts of civilization. Gunshots were becoming more frequent; I even thought I heard a scream in the distant. I decided to keep walking, even though it was getting dark. I soon came to a large bridge over a river. The bridge had burning barrels on it and bodies. It had a huge wall of wrecked vehicles blocking it. There was a giant erected sign that said; “STOP! No Admittance. “The word admittance was spelled incorrectly.
                      I stood hidden behind some brush, off of Interstate 20 on a hill. The snow eerily lit up the surroundings. I could see the main city of Shreveport across the river. It looked like it hadn’t been bombed, a dark and powerless ruin. I stayed in my hide for a few hours just watching. At one point, I saw a vehicle chase another just across the river. The first vehicle crashed flipping over. A group of people got out of the second and sprayed down the first with automatic gunfire.
                      It wasn’t going to be an option going in, I thought. I couldn’t see a way across except for the bridge. I would have to go north or south.
                      What should I do, I sat and thought? I realized that the halfway fresh vehicle tracks went north into a suburban area. I couldn’t see any tracks going south. I decided to follow the river north.
                      I followed the vehicle tracks until I lost sight of the river. I then skirted across until I found the river again. Buildings were becoming less and less as I traveled north. The river twisted and turned in the dark. It was late in the night, nearly morning when I became tired. I saw a well to do house through some trees a few yards up from the river. It was dark and looked empty.
                      I walked towards it. The snow hadn’t been touched, I could see no tracks. The house was large, a two story multi-bedroom affluent structure. The front door was open with some of the snow blowing into it. There was quite a lot of luggage stacked outside and covered in snow. I walked up and yelled; “HELLO!” nothing. I went inside. The entryway and living room appeared to be left in a hurry. There were boxes of personal items stacked near the front door. It looked clean and except for a light coat of frost on everything, untouched. I shut the door behind me, locked it and made my way to the kitchen.
                      This was a beautiful house. The kitchen looked modern and expensive. It had granite tops and a huge stainless steel fridge, which I opened to the full and rotten insides, the smell was horrific. I did grab a six pack of soda and a few beers. I closed it up quickly. There were pictures on the fridge, of a happy and smiling family. There were a few drawings made by a young child and magnets, one which said “I’m the cook, you’re the eater, get out before I beat ya!” The whole place looked like it was frozen in time.
                      There was a door leading outside and a door to a walk-in pantry. I opened the door peaking into it. It was stacked full of food; cans, bags, and boxes. There was a stack bottled water cases in the corner! This was a fortunate find, one missed by any looters.
                      I grabbed a bag of chips and opened them. They were slightly stale but edible. I drank three cans of soda and continued my search of the house while munching on the chips.
                      The upstairs contained four bedrooms, two small children’s room, a teenage room, a guest room and the main bedroom. All of the beds were made nicely. Strange.
                      I began to search the master bedroom. The walk in closet contained men’s and woman’s clothing. It looked as if some of the clothing had been removed; there was a pile of coat hangers on the floor. All the heavy winter clothing was still hanging, including several fur coats.
                      These people must have left right when the bombings started. It looked as if they left fast.
                      The family had been into skiing. There was a nice tan males’ ski jacket. I took it down. On a shelf above it was a set of long underwear. I took them as well.
                      I went back into the master bedroom and looked through the nice oak bedroom furniture. I found a drawer full of heavy socks which I grabbed four pair. I found other clothing that looked as if it would fit me.
                      I took off my vest and dingy firemen’s jacket. I stripped the rest of the way down, my clothing filthy and smelly. I put my unlaced boots back on and walked naked down the stairs, back into the larder. I grabbed a case of bottled water and went back to the room.
                      The master bathroom was clean and had a large walk in tub. I found some soap and got into the tub, using the bottled water to wash up in. My skin was stained with dirt. I did the best I could to wash up with my teeth chattering with cold. I then walked out and pulled the bedspread off the king size bed, covering myself with it.
                      I soon warmed up slightly sighing with relief.
                      The bedroom had a fireplace in it. I opened another closet and found a couple cases of manufactured logs, which had been put away for the winter. I started a fire and soon the room warmed up.
                      I jumped on the bed, covering up in the clean sheets and bedspread.
                      It was amazing that the simple things became important. Being warm and fed. Clean sheets and a clean (Halfway clean) body. I drank some bottled water and ate some more kid friendly snack food. I watched the fire burning cheerfully and dozed off.
                      I dreamed of my family. We were in a beautiful park, the sun was shining and it was warm. There were other people there; throwing Frisbees, walking….. laughing. I could see my daughter and son’s faces. My wife’s face was a blur. We were all happy, I was taking pictures. We had a wonderful day. Was I dreaming of a real time? I wasn’t sure. Suddenly I could hear screams and the sky erupted into fire….
                      I woke with a start. The fire had gone out and it was dark outside. I grabbed the long underwear and socks, getting into them under my blankets. I soon got the flames going again and walked downstairs. I rummaged through the pantry finding some mayonnaise and canned tuna fish. After finding a can opener, I opened the cans of tuna and jar of mayo. I found a bowl and mixed them together. I grabbed a box of crackers and a few cans of soup. My arms were full when I grabbed a hanging copper pot, a spoon, the can opener along with the bowl of tuna. I went back upstairs. I opened the cans of soup, dumping them into the pot and placing it on the fire. I mixed the tuna with the mayo and munched on it with crackers until the soup started boiling.
                      The hot soup was wonderful. Not the cheap canned stuff, but the best. I slurped it down and drank more water. I was strangely happy, I thought. I had no reason to be but surmised that my basic needs were being met no matter the situation. I was soon tired again and fell into a heavy dreamless sleep.
                      I stayed in the house for a week. I was warm the whole time. I ate nearly all day long and soon started feeling better. I shaved my face and cleaned up daily. I spent my time reading books left in the house and generally just resting my body.
                      I did a thorough search of the residence and found many items I could use; some camping gear, a compass, a well-made hunting knife, another nice pair of binoculars. I found some white spray paint in the garage, which I used to camouflage my red backpack.
                      I knew I would have to leave soon; I still had a long ways to go. I would have to traverse half the country to get where I was drawn to be. I thought about all that had happened to me in the months the world had changed. Most of it was a struggle, with few moments of rest. Living in this house was one of those times of rest. I became stronger, coupled with what my body had already been through, I was probably stronger and fitter than I had ever been. This life didn’t agree with me. I don’t think it would agree with anyone, however, it did weed out weakness. Funny how living rough did that.
                      The man’s clothing I found was a few sizes larger than my now lean body. It worked though. I could wear more layers of clothing under it, which was so important in cold weather. I dressed myself in the long underwear, jeans, a t-shirt and two buttoned up plaid shirts. I found a stout leather belt and cinched it up tight. I placed another set of clothing in my pack.
                      The boots I had gotten from the soldiers were still serviceable. I had my choice of footwear from what I found in the master bedroom closet, even some nice snow boots. I decided that my feet would continue to be healthy if I wore the now worn army boots. They were made for a stressful life. The day I left, I put on two pair of socks and laced my boots up tight. I put fireman’s jacket on and the NCSA vest on top of that.
                      I was ready to go.
                      I debated on staying another week in the house. I could use more of a rest, but was driven by something I couldn’t nail down to go. Family? Who I was? I didn’t know. I just knew that my destiny was before me.
                      I looked around sadly.
                      With my shouldered pack full of food, at least another few weeks’ worth, I quietly closed the front door of the home and walked towards the river. My hosts, if they ever came back, would have a clean house and a note from me detailing what I took that I left on the kitchen counter. I thanked them most emotionally in the note.
                      I walked north following the river.
                      The owned properties became fewer and far between. I was now back in the countryside where it was safer. I walked in near silence, getting back my rhythm. My boots crunching in the snow and my breath were the only sounds.
                      An hour later, I heard a noise. I couldn’t place it but knew it was coming up ahead. I walked a few steps then stopped. Silence. I walked a few steps more; there it was again! It sounded like people talking and a crackle of a radio.
                      Ahead, I saw another smaller bridge over the river. Parked on both sides were armored Humvees. One of the Humvees had a confederate flag flying from it.
                      I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.


                      • #12
                        Chapter 12

                        It appeared as if the NCSA held the bridge. I saw several soldiers standing around the vehicles with their rifles slung. This was good news. They looked like regulars, all of them were wearing the same uniforms. I ran down a gentle incline with my hands held high. The soldiers on top of the Humvees swung their machine guns towards me.
                        “Sir I need you to stop and put your hands up!” One of the soldiers said.
                        “My name is Ethan, I belonged to Col. Higgan’s armored unit; I fought in the battle north of Houston several weeks ago.” I said excitedly.
                        “I’m a medic!” I pointed to the medics vest and NCSA patch I wore.
                        Two of the soldiers came down from their positions pointing rifles towards me.
                        “Sir, he is wearing one of our vests and has on a pair of our boots.” One of the soldiers called out.
                        I saw another soldier walk down from where the vehicles were parked. He was wearing Lieutenant bars and carrying a small submachine gun.
                        “My name is Lieut. Grant. I’m responsible for the security of this bridge.” The lieutenant couldn’t be more than 20 years old. “You aren’t the first one from that battle to make it to this bridge, sir.”
                        I wanted to ask about George and the Colonel.
                        “Lieutenant, did Colonel Higgans make it out of the battle?” I asked.
                        “Sir, I’ve only been here for three weeks. In that time I did not see Colonel Higgans. It’s quite possible that the Colonel did make it through; however, I don’t have that information. There have been a lot of soldiers who have been filtering in since I’ve been here.”
                        I wanted to ask about George but I knew that the lieutenant probably wouldn’t know
                        The lieutenant told me that he had orders to send any NCSA troopers to a rallying point another 10 miles down the road. He apologized that he couldn’t offer a ride as he couldn’t leave his post.
                        He told me that I would receive warm food and a place to sleep at the rallying point. It wasn’t too late in the day, so I decided that I would walk to the camp.
                        I was escorted across the bridge, and followed the human and vehicle tracks up the road, excitedly.
                        Soon I could see several large tents on each side of the road. I walked up to a guard, told him who I was, and asked him where I should go.
                        The bored guard pointed to the first of the large tents and told me that I would have to report in. I walked up and entered the tent flaps. Inside was a desk and several soldiers. I could see a sergeant sitting and writing. I again had to tell the Sergeant who I was and where I had come from.
                        He wrote all the information down in a book as I spoke. I was next motioned to another tent where I received a plate of beans and rice and the ambiguous pork. I sat down with several soldiers and ate.
                        The coffee was far better than it had been before. As I talked to the soldiers around me, I learned that the Northern Coalition had coordinated their attacks around the country on more units than just mine in the previous months. I heard that the NCSA had lost a lot of ground.
                        When I was finished I brought my tray to a barrel full of steaming water and placed it inside. I was then told to go to the next tent, which contained a washing up station. I walked in and was told to strip down. I was given the opportunity to keep my civilian clothing or receive another uniform. I thought about it for a minute, and decided to keep my clothes. I was ushered through the opposite end of the tent, into a shower area. I took my first hot shower in months. After drying off, I was powdered down with a disinfectant. I was told to wait in the tent until my civilian clothing was clean. After about two hours my clothing came back, clean and folded. Amazing.
                        I was then motioned to another tent. The tent was full of cots with rolled up sleeping bags on them. There were some men who were sleeping on the cots, while other cots were empty.
                        I chose a cot in the corner, took off my boots, my vest, and outer clothing and unrolled the sleeping bag.
                        I laid there for a few minutes before going to sleep.
                        When I awoke, more the cots were filled with snoring men. I got into my clothing and went outside.
                        I meandered around the area, finding my way back to the mess tent. I had another hot meal and drank some more that wonderful coffee.
                        While sitting in the tent drinking my coffee, I heard an announcement on a PA system. The announcer said that there would be a new soldier meeting at 1400 hrs. I had to ask another fellow what time it was, as I didn’t have a watch. He looked at me strangely and told me that it was 11 AM.
                        Just before 1400 hrs. I followed a group of soldiers into yet another tent full of folding metal chairs. We sat there and waited. Soon, a grizzled Sergeant Major came into the tent chewing on a cigar and walked to the front.
                        “My name is Sergeant Major Howe. I’d like to welcome you to FOB, that’s Forward Operating Base Phoenix. I’m sure a lot of you have questions about what’s going on. Unfortunately, they will have to wait. Our orders are to feed, clean and make sure you are well rested. As soon as we have enough of you, and it looks like we do, we will transport you to Vicksburg. Vicksburg is our most westerly NCSA base. There you will receive your new orders.”
                        I saw several the soldiers nodding. It took a second to realize that I wouldn’t be walking.
                        The Sergeant Major continued with camp rules, and other less important information. He finished off asking us if we had any questions about the camp and where we were going.
                        None of us did, and he left.
                        A few hours later we were instructed by the PA to gather our equipment, and were given directions to a place where we would wait for the vehicle to take us to Vicksburg.
                        A few hours after that, three five ton utility trucks drove up. We were ordered to mount up.
                        We drove out of the FOB slowly and cautiously. The drivers were skilled; we weaved our way through abandoned vehicles and other wreckage on the highway. About three miles out, we were met by two Stryker APCs waiting for us with their engines running. They moved into the front and rear position of our column to provide defense.
                        It was cold in the back of the covered vehicles, but we used our body heat and the heat of the engine to warm up. Soon I and the other soldiers dozed off. We traveled the rest of the day and into the night. We only stopped for quick bathroom breaks and ate MREs handed to us on the run.
                        We finally made it back south to Interstate 20 and continued east.
                        I couldn’t speak with any of the other soldiers as the roar the engines made it hard. I mostly just sat with my hands under my arms, and my head down, lost in thought and of nothing in particular.
                        Late morning the next day, we stopped at a checkpoint. We were told that the Mississippi River was just up ahead. Ahead of that was Fort Vicksburg.
                        We came to a large bridge as the river materialized out of the snow. The bridge was heavily fortified with bunkers, tanks, and APCs. We spent a few minutes until we were given the orders to cross. We then turned left and into an old civil war park.
                        The whole park was fortified with barb wire fencing, sandbag walls and guard towers. It was interesting to see war monuments scattered about. It was ironic that the NCSA would be garrisoned here. A large battle had once been fought one hundred and fifty or so years earlier. Funny how war once again came to our beloved nation. We drove into the main gate and were directed to a parking area.
                        There were rows of tents and hastily built structures along with hundreds of military vehicles. There were many thousands of soldiers marching, meandering about. A bee hive of activity.
                        I then realized that the NCSA was a formidable force. If this was the most westerly base, I wondered what Fort Benning, in Georgia would be like.
                        We were escorted to temporary barracks, where we were given a rundown of how to act in the base. We were told that the mess hall served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They also had a light meal at midnight.
                        We were given directions to the showers in the latrines. We were told to stay in our temporary barracks until ordered elsewhere. The temporary barracks was an old circus tent containing many cots. I soon found an empty cot and put my backpack on top of it. I made my way out to the latrines were I relieved myself and back to the warmth of the tent. It was good again to be with people, even though the amount of them gave me a certain uncomfortableness having not been around so many for so long. I soon struck up a conversation with a young man from Alabama who had fought with the Denver cultists. He told me that they were absolutely fearless in combat, willing to die for their leader. I asked him if they really thought that their leader was Jesus. He told me that he never got close to a live one, that’s how brainwashed they were. It was a scary situation out west.
                        We stayed in the temporary barracks for three days. On the third day a captain came in and ordered all the regulars out to stand in formation. That left us, volunteers, and civilian support alone in the tent.
                        I had lost my young friend from Alabama as he was a regular. I looked around the tent. I saw a man about 10 cots over looking at me. I sat looking at him. Did I know this man? Suddenly the man stood up and yelled “ETHAN!” He came running over and hugged me. I looked at his face, it was Chris the trader.
                        “Chris” I said! “How did you get here?”
                        “Ethan, I never thought I would see a face I knew!” Chris said, patting me on the back with tears in his eyes.
                        “It’s good to see YOUR face; you are the last person I expected to see here.” I said with a laugh.
                        “I see you joined up with the NCSA as well and you’re a medic no less?” He said looking at my vest and supplies.
                        I nodded. “Yeah, after I left you I headed north on foot. I met up with the group of ranchers a few days out and they took me back to their compound. We were met by Scout units of the NCSA, and a few of us, me included, decided to volunteer. I discovered I was a medic of some kind before the bombs fell.” I explained to him.
                        “Well my story is nearly the same.” Chris said. “I almost made it to Denver before I met up with a heavy armored NCSA unit that was in battle with that crazy guy, I’m sure you’ve heard of him. It was rough.” Chris continued. “I watched those armored guys clean up those crazies! Just as they were about to route them completely the Northern Coalition hit them from the rear. I just couldn’t do anything. I knew the Northern Coalition was playing dirty. I had to cross enemy lines to get to the NCSA position, where I volunteered as a driver. Unfortunately we were routed. I ended up driving a fuel truck all the way here.”
                        “The same thing happened to my unit.” I said. “We were fighting PAL in a defensive position and had pushed them back. The next thing we knew the Coalition was attacking us from our flanks. It was terrible; I thought I was the only one to survive. If it hadn’t been for a Private who threw me on the back of his ATV, and then drove through the enemy and into some woods, I would have been a goner. That poor kid was shot and died driving me out.”
                        Chris shook his head sadly, lost in thought.
                        “This is a strange world that we live in Ethan. I never thought a year ago, I would be fighting on American soil.”
                        “Me too my friend, I sometimes feels like I’m on another planet.” I said sadly.
                        “What are you going to do now?” Chris asked.
                        “I don’t know to tell you the truth. I still have a family somewhere out there I hope. I know these soldiers could use me, as a medic, but I also know that I need to leave at some point and I guess, find myself.” I said staring off into space.
                        “Ethan, you’re a good man. I knew it when I first saw you. You have to do what you have to do, I understand that. I still might decide to head up north to Canada and Alaska at some point myself.”
                        I nodded silently. We spent the next hour talking about nothing important and laughing about it.
                        The regular soldiers outside were soon split up and assigned to units. They came in and grabbed their gear and reported. That left us volunteers in a near empty tent. I didn’t see any of Colonel Higgans’ support team in the tent. They had really been hit hard by the enemy that day. I thought I had recognized a few of the regulars as being part of my old unit, I couldn’t be sure.
                        Chris moved his cot closer to mine and we spent hours talking and laughing. I felt like I’d known him all my life. I didn’t have many friends in the world, but Chris was one of them. Chris told me he had been a long haul trucker, even having gone up down the Pan-American Highway to Alaska and back several times. This was rough work, I remembered. It took a special person to drive those wilds in a big rig. That was very dangerous work too. He told me that he was from South Carolina and had been on a long haul to Houston when the war broke out. He wanted to get back to his family as much as I.
                        The next morning Chris and I went and had breakfast together. We had bacon and eggs and toast, all fresh with orange drink and coffee. It was a great breakfast.
                        We were given liberty to walk around the Fort. Chris and I would spend our time walking and talking about Houston and what we had gone through.
                        The weather began to turn while we were there at the Fort. The snow stopped falling and after a few days the sun shone for the first time, but only fleetingly.
                        After about a week at the Fort, we were taken aside individually, and asked if we wanted to continue to volunteer with the NCSA. I had a lot of time to think prior to me being asked. I knew I had personal goals, but I also knew that the country needed me.
                        I decided to stay on as a medic.
                        I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.


                        • #13
                          Chapter 13

                          I was moved into a more long term barrack. This one was in an old FEMA trailer that, with some finagling, I was able to share with Chris. Chris made the decision to stay on when he was offered an eastern post with the NCSA. He came back and told me that he would be able to travel, as a truck driver to the Atlantic coast and hopefully find his family.
                          It took us a bit to find the trailer with more than a hundred other trailers, all lined up with military precision. We found #124, the number assigned to us, at the very end of the Fort and quickly moved in. Chris and I were amazed when we discovered our lights and electricity worked. They were powered by military generators. We even had a flushable toilet and a hot shower. Life was getting better by the day.
                          After washing up, we were directed to a huge mess tent. It was the size of the circus tent, only wider. It contained a kitchen and hundreds of tables and folding chairs. The kitchen was a bustle of activity and run by one woman, who the volunteers and soldiers called; “Gran”. Gran was one of those tough people you knew who could survive in any situation. She was probably from a long line of tough people. I later found out that this was correct! She had come from the now Oklahoma badlands and had generations of family that knew how to live in the country. No city woman in her!
                          We stood in a long, but fast moving line. We soon picked up a tray and were loaded with freshly prepared foods; beef stew, a chicken salad, fresh fruit and bread. To top it off, we had our choice of a beverage; Coffee, Tea, soda or juice.
                          I grabbed a coffee and a soda while Chris ended getting juice and coffee. Chris asked for a beer and was told only the regulars got them by a way too serious kitchen volunteer. The volunteer then laughed, saying beer wasn’t allowed on base to Chris’ chagrin.
                          We made our way to a table with civilians and soldiers where we dug into our dinner. It was amazing! I asked a young woman sitting at the table about the food. She told me that “Gran” was in charge and always was able to feed everyone well. Gran had whole teams to go out and scavenge the area for fresh food and had weekly shipments from Benning of long term stuff. Thousands of troops were fed every day.
                          I thought the temporary mess hall back at FOB Phoenix was impressive! This operation blew my mind.
                          We enjoyed the company around us and were given the opportunity to have second helpings of the meal. Chris and I stuffed ourselves, only finding out after, that there was even dessert! A blackberry cobbler! It was the best meal I had since the bombs fell.
                          We walked back to our trailer fat and happy. On the way we heard music from some of the trailers, yes! Even a radio station had been set up playing country, rock and patriotic music. If I had a radio. I could have grabbed several radios along my journey. Those were items I no longer needed, so I didn’t think about it. When Chris and I got to our barracks, he produced a small battery powered radio; LEAVE it to him to have one! I asked what else he had in his bag. Chris laughed and told me; “You never know!”
                          Sleep was wonderful. Although we still slept on cots, it was warm and our stomachs were full. We talked into the night, stopping when Chris started snoring loudly. I soon followed drifting off.
                          The next day, we were herded to a new soldiers briefing. Even just being volunteers, we had to restrict ourselves to the stringent rules of camp. The Corporal who gave the briefing had done it a hundred times. He spilled out the rules quickly asking us if we had any questions. Several people raised their hands, and he waved them off saying that the rules could be had on paper anytime in this tent.
                          After being dismissed, breakfast was again amazing. We were then left to our own dithers. We explored the Fort and visited all the old civil war monuments for the rest of the morning.
                          Rested, Fed and safe! I started feeling happy if not content again, like back in the rich people’s house. Only this time, I had others around me. Relationships with other people were as crucial as food and shelter. I hadn’t realized this until living in Fort Vicksburg. It added something to my life I had forgotten, or maybe never knew.
                          It was two weeks before we received instruction. By that time, I was fatter and healed. I was able to get treatment by a real doctor. My arm soon healed almost completely, the doctor said I had done a great job in patching myself up.
                          A sergeant came by with a clipboard. He first addressed Chris telling him he would be assigned to the transportation unit, who desperately needed drivers to ferry supplies to the satellite Forward Operation Bases. Chris was anxious to start. He was given directions to the Transport HQ and was told to report at 0700 the next morning.
                          I on the other hand, received orders to attend medic training that would last two weeks. I wasn’t as excited as Chris, but knew I probably needed it. My first class started the next day and would last a full eight hours. We were also told where the supply tents were if we needed clothing, equipment and such. We thanked the sergeant as he left.
                          The next morning, Chris left for work and I soon reported to training. There was a group of about thirty other medics, some with advanced experience; nurses and such and some with no knowledge of the skill at all. We suffered through basic first aid the first day to get everyone up to speed.
                          Later that night, Chris came back saying he would be leaving on a supply run to Fort Benning ASAP. He told me he would be back in a few weeks and to “hold down the Fort” I laughed and told him to keep safe. He soon packed a bag and left waving.
                          I had the trailer to myself and tucked into bed early.
                          The next morning was more the same basic first aid training, in fact it went on for another two days. After basic first aid, we were instructed in a program the Army used called “Combat Medic” That went for the rest of the week. It was little more than basic first aid and first responder with a few other simple treatments and light trauma procedures. The next week was different, nearly all the regulars left leaving the more skilled students. We learned advanced trauma procedures and life-saving techniques. I was impressed at the instruction, even though it had only lasted two weeks, I was interested and I gained a lot of knowledge back. Or maybe I just learned new skills.
                          The next day the assigning sergeant came back by my trailer. He told me I was going to be assigned to another Scout unit. He gave me directions and told me to meet at 0600 hrs. the next morning.
                          I woke up early and made my way to the mess hall. I had a wonderful hot breakfast and then walked my way across the fort to where my new unit was assigned.
                          The unit was heavier than my last scout assignment. It consisted of three tracked Bradley fighting vehicles and two Humvees. I also later found out, that the unit had ATVs and motorcycles.
                          I reported to the commander, Captain Baughn. The captain smiled, shook my hand and told me he was glad I was in the unit. He said there was only one other medic since they had lost another the month prior. He looked me over and asked if I wanted a weapon. I told them I had the 1911 pistol, I opened my jacket and showed him where I kept it. He told me, that although the pistol was a fine weapon, I probably needed more firepower. He instructed me to go to the fort armory, where I was issued a small MP5 submachine gun and five loaded magazines.
                          Back at the unit, the Captain waved over an NCO and told him to take me to Firestorm Six, his lead Bradley designation. The Bradley APC had four other soldiers besides the captain and me. It was a little tight inside, but manageable. I had a chance to run to the supply tent and pick up needed medical equipment to fill my vest. I also received a trauma bag that look like it came from a hospital.
                          The soldiers from the unit were busy preparing their vehicles and equipment. I kind of hung back not really having anything to do. The soldiers started calling me “Doc”, which I didn’t mind at all. I soon got to meet the other medic, a civilian volunteer like me. His name was Andy.
                          Andy told me that he had been a paramedic in Missouri. He said that he was part of a large group of civilians who left their fair sized city after the bombs fell. He told me that those were terrible times, as many of the civilians in his group were injured or sick. He said he tried to treat as many as he could but soon ran out of supplies. Andy’s eyes grew distant as he told me. He said that they made it to Illinois before being met by the NCSA. By that time, they were just a ragged group of survivors. He told me that he had no family and it didn’t take much for him to join the NCSA. He had been part of this Scout unit for five months.
                          Andy went on to tell me that it was dangerous being in this unit. He said that they had contact all the time. They had fought the PAL and Northern Coalition several times. He said the worst battles that they had fought were what’s left of the average American people. They were unprepared for the way the world had changed. They hadn’t the skills or supplies or equipment to live in this new world. He said that often these people had been driven insane by their basic needs not being met.
                          I knew the kind of people that Andy was talking about. Slinkers.
                          I asked Andy whether or not we would be going into any major city. He told me that we rarely if ever got near a major urban area. He told me what I’d been told long ago that these areas were still wild, dangerous and a good chance, at least with the major cities, hot with radioactive contamination.
                          Andy told me that the regulars in the group, all of them except the two of us, handled the day-to-day running of the unit. Although I wanted something to do, these soldiers treated us like officers, asking us if we needed anything or if they could do something for us.
                          Andy told me that he was assigned to the third Bradley APC. He then gave me a hand-held radio saying that we were the only ones to use them and the channel they were set on. He showed me how to operate it and then excused himself back to his APC.
                          I had lunch with my new unit, MREs, as they machine-gunned me questions. I told them about myself, what I remembered about my prior life, which of course wasn’t much, and what had happened to me since. The lower enlisted were mostly younger men, some just teenagers. They were all eager and excited, and most of all motivated to fight for what was right. A far cry to the youth before the bombs.
                          Besides the captain, there was a young lieutenant named O’Reilly, a second in command. He was in his early twenties and had been a West Point cadet before. He was in charge of the radios and communication. When I met him, he shook my hand warmly welcoming to the unit.
                          Each of the vehicles had one or two sergeants that did most of the work for the unit. These men, all ex-military, had the experience and the leadership necessary to make this unit run smoothly. They were from all over the country, all ages and from all ethnic backgrounds. Most had served overseas in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts of the past. They were all serious about getting the job done.
                          After two days of reporting to the unit and spending the day rearranging my gear and talking with the men, we were ordered on a mission. We all got to go to the range and zero in our personal weapons. I was taught the basics on the submachine gun I now carried. I zeroed it in and shot adequately. The MP5 was an amazing weapon, pure German engineering at its finest. It was smooth and fun to shoot.
                          We soon met at our vehicles, we were briefed on our marching orders and then mounted up leaving the Fort.
                          We were to scout south and secure a partially damaged bridge on a small river. After securing it, we would be relieved by civilian construction support and another heavier armored unit. We were told to expect contact with the enemy. We weren’t however told which enemy.
                          The insides of the Bradley proved more of a challenge for me on the move. I neglected to think of all the equipment that we needed to perform the mission and which was now stored inside. The Captain allowed me to stand in the hatch of the Bradley as we made our way slowly to our destination. The other soldiers just laughed at me, they were used to the confines of the APC. I was told that there was another model Bradley that was even tighter, the insides full of equipment. The unit had been equipped with these Bradleys before, until a determination was made that more troops were needed in the unit. I let the wind and the fresh air blow on my face as we crawled forward, being lulled by the sound of the engine.

                          The scout troops mounted on the motorcycles and ATVs would race back and forth of our column, sometimes far ahead. They reminded me of Private Orwell, Young and obviously enjoying the job.

                          It was slow going.

                          It took us a day and a half to reach the bridge. It was a small two-lane bridge over an unnamed river. The area surrounding the bridge was flat and full of low growing vegetation. The Captain explained that visibility wouldn’t be a problem. The bridge itself had suffered some minor damage during what looked like heavy arms fire. It was gutted black and appeared to have been burned.

                          Our unit quickly set up, one Bradley on each side of the bridge and the Captain’s Bradley in the middle. The other vehicles in our unit were staggered in the middle of the bridge as well. I was just glad to get out and stretch my legs, as the soldiers didn’t take a break once on our travels. They would eat, sleep and use the restroom into empty bottles on the run. These were tough troopers.
                          I was given the liberty of exploring the area but staying within eyesight of the bridge. While I walked about, the soldiers filled sandbags and made walls partially over each entrance to the bridge. These fighting positions would be manned 24/7. I didn’t find anything around the area as I walked. There was a farmhouse in the distance that didn’t look like it was occupied. I came back and told the captain about it. He said that he would send out a few men to look it over. A squad of soldiers were quick to move out to the farmhouse, search it, and then come back reporting nothing out of the ordinary.
                          Night came and we were told to maintain strict light discipline. That was fine as I only had a small flashlight. I would have to remember to pick up a larger one back at supply on the Fort. I crashed out in the Captain’s Bradley, our first night was uneventful.
                          The next morning we had MREs for breakfast and maintained our position on the bridge. It didn’t take long to make contact with our first group of people.

                          We saw them a few miles down the road as they walked on foot towards the bridge. It appeared to be a family, a mother and a father with four kids. Two of the older kids were pushing grocery carts full of personal items. Another of the smaller kids was pulling a wagon. They looked like sad hobos as they moved along. As a family neared us, we could see the desperation on their faces. They were malnourished and dirty.
                          The Captain put us on alert as the unit had had experiences before with people in this condition.
                          “My name is Captain Baughn of the NCSA, you are to stop and put your hands up” The Captain said over a bullhorn as they neared.
                          The group of people stopped and looked up at us. They just stared. A blank dead stare.
                          “I am sending out two of my troopers and a medic. They will make contact with you and give you additional instructions.” The Captain called out. He motioned to a squad of soldiers and Andy up front to meet with the family. The soldiers had their weapons up as they approached. After a quick search they motioned back to the Captain that it was clear. The Captain looked back at me and told me that I might as well go up to learn how we dealt with situations like this.
                          I walked up as one of the soldiers explained to the family that they could not cross the bridge. They were told that we had orders to secure it, so passage would not be an option. The soldier continued to explain that we could offer medical help if they needed it. He pointed to Andy and me as he said this.
                          The family just stood, still, and looking at us. They still had no expressions on their faces. I immediately felt that they had been through a lot. I walked up to one of the young children, a little girl around eight years old and got down on one knee. She was shaking, whether from cold or fear.
                          “Are you okay sweetie, are you hurt anywhere?” I asked.
                          She looked at me with a thousand yard stare. The older lady, who I presumed was the mother came up and pulled the little girl back into her arms. The man in the group then started walking off, paralleling the River with the rest of the family following him. They soon were out of sight and we went back to our position.
                          I was very emotional and shaken; these people had a life a year ago, lived in a house, had plenty of food, smiled and laughed. Now they were just empty souls. The Captain told me that this was pretty common, although some groups of citizens the unit had met with were violent. He told me that the first time he had come in contact with people like this, he felt the same way I had. He said that he had been desensitized to it, he had seen it so many times. He told me this as he looked at the direction the family disappeared.
                          He left shaking his head, and leaving me to my own deep thoughts.

                          The rest of that day was uneventful and quiet. Late in the afternoon we were met by a resupply convoy of two Stryker vehicles guarding a fuel truck and a commandeered civilian semi-truck. The civilians in the truck quickly unloaded water and food while others refueled our combat vehicles. They left us just as quickly as they had come, I assume to the next position held by the NCSA.

                          That night, I was awakened by Andy. He told me that the sounds of engines were heard down the road. I was told to get up and get ready. This interaction could prove more deadly than the first.
                          I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.


                          • #14
                            Chapter 14

                            A civilian truck soon came into view. When its headlights illuminated our vehicles and the bridge, it stopped. We could hear the doors open and saw that two men got out.
                            “My name is Captain Baughn of the NCSA……” The Captain again called out on his bullhorn.
                            We were answered by gunfire. I could hear rounds pinging off the Bradley I was hiding behind.
                            “Stop shooting, or we will be forced to defend ourselves!” The Captain yelled out.
                            The two men got back into their vehicle and spun around heading back down the road away from us.
                            We were on alert until early morning, when the main attack came.
                            We could see 10 civilian vehicles approach us, mostly trucks. The lead trucks had metal plating welded to their fronts. They fanned out and took up position about 200 yards from of us. Men in camouflage with bald heads jumped out of the vehicles each armed with some type of firearm. They began shooting at us almost immediately after hitting the ground.
                            The captain gave the order to start shooting back. Automatic fire rained down on them from our positions. The Bradley’s main gun, an auto cannon started firing. Two of the trucks erupted in balls of flames.
                            The noise of the Cannon beat against me and rattled my teeth. Several of the enemy fell, ripped to shreds by our fire.
                            One of the men shooting at us left the cover of the vehicle he was hiding behind. He shouldered a rocket launcher and quickly fired - the round whizzed by the bridge and exploded on the other side. All the fire was immediately directed towards him and he disappeared in a bloody red mist.
                            It was evident that these men hadn’t seen all of our military vehicles. The battle was soon over as fast as it began. Some men just ran back down the road, while others got into the trucks that were still intact and sped away.
                            “MEDIC!!” I heard a scream from a soldier.
                            Andy and I rushed to where the screaming was coming from. One of the young ATV riding soldiers had been hit my chest. He was bleeding profusely and struggling to breathe. Andy and I looked at each other knowing that this was a critical wound; the bullet had pierced the soldier’s heart. Andy took out several auto morphine injectors and injected the young man.
                            We held him as he died in our arms. All I could think about was Private Orwell as I watched this young man’s life fade away.
                            As shaken as I was, we were ordered out to the carnage of our attackers. I felt anger towards these men. We walked out expecting many casualties. The only thing we found were bodies, mostly pieces of the maniacs spread about. A soldier pointed out to what was left of the RPG that had been fired at us. I was told that it was Russian-made and probably had been given to the group by PAL.
                            We also found out that these men belong to a radical supremacist group in the area. It wasn’t the first time that the NCSA had made contact with them.
                            We secured the area and buried the dead.
                            Even though I thought the life of soldiering was familiar to me, I still was troubled by the incident. Andy perceived this, and patted me on the back.
                            “You’ll be alright, you did your job and you did it well” He told me.
                            “This is the hard part of what we do. You know this.” He motioned to the burning hulks of the trucks we had destroyed. “I’m here if you want to talk”
                            I shook my head.
                            “I just need a few moments. I’ve been here before….my life before all this” I nodded. “You’re right, I’ll be okay”.
                            Would I be okay? I thought. I have been through so much. It was getting worse. It was getting harder to maintain my sanity, I thought as I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth.
                            War was hell and I was in the worst the world had ever seen.
                            What would I pull out of me, pull out deep within to settle my feelings.
                            I didn’t have an answer.
                            The next morning we were greeted by sunshine, although the land was still covered with sooty snow. The temperature was still in the freezing range during the night and morning, it still was cool during the day. What little heat from the sun did wonders for our troop morale. Even the funk I was in became eroded with the new slight warmth and smiles of the other men in my unit.
                            Things changed around noon. We started receiving fire from a sniper towards where the trucks from the previous day had fled. Our own snipers fought with our hidden enemy until it got dark and the firing suddenly stopped. Fortunately we suffered no casualties. Our Scout-Snipers disappeared for a few hours, then slinked back and reported that whoever had shot at us, was long gone. We were on high alert, I had time to reflect again.
                            I did my best to fit into this line unit. I reflected on the fragmented memories of my old life, I started to remember my life as a soldier, the battles of Iraq and Afghanistan, clouded memories of my past. I wasn’t a soldier now, but had been in the past. My role with the unit was easy in some aspects and very hard in others. I decided to do the best I could, act like a soldier without being one.
                            The Captain ordered a squad to recon down the road. I asked him if I could go with the men. I told the Captain that I was bored and the experience would help me adjust. He looked at me silently for a moment, and then reluctantly allowed me to go.
                            We left on ATVs and motorcycles, I got on the back of one of the larger ATVs, and started down the road.
                            After approximately 5 miles we came to a crossroads with a few desolated stores and homes surrounding it. These places had been scavenged again and again, some were burned out and destroyed. Our squad stopped, turning off the engines of their vehicles and hiding them in a wooded area. We then fanned out on foot, Reckoning the area.
                            I followed a soldier to a barricaded convenience store. We found our way inside and found several bodies. It looked like they were attacked and killed by whoever needed to get inside. We didn’t find much, no food, a few rolls of toilet paper, hand soap and a few bottles of cleaning supplies.
                            Other soldiers searched the rest of the buildings. It appeared as if this place had suffered many small violent isolated incidents. We found over thirty bodies of civilians and a few of the Supremacists.
                            We convened at our hidden vehicles to consolidate what we found.
                            Before we started, every one of us turned our heads, a vehicle was approaching.
                            The soldiers were silently ordered into cover.
                            A Humvee soon appeared. In it were four soldiers, two in modern US military camouflage and two in the uniforms of PAL.
                            They got out of their vehicle, stretching and laughing. One of the Non-PAL soldiers started to radio into their HQ. They did not detect us.
                            The leader of our group, an experienced Sergeant first class, whispered to me that he wanted prisoners. Hand signals were passed along to our hidden troops to ready themselves. I clutched my MP5 to my chest and waited.
                            “DROP YOUR WEAPONS!” The SFC called out.
                            The enemy reached for their individual weapons.
                            “FIRE!” The SFC yelled.

                            Blistering automatic fire erupted from our hidden positions around the crossroads. Two of the enemy, one of each uniform fell. The other two jumped back into the Humvee. I realized I had been firing my Submachine gun as well. I was angry and did it before I realized it.
                            “I SAID DROP YOUR WEAPONS, OR YOU WILL BE KILLED!” The SFC said again.
                            The soldiers were trying to start their vehicle and talk on their radio.
                            “Echo, disable!” The SFC said to a soldier next to him carrying a large caliber sniper rifle. The sound of the 50 Caliber roared as a round went through the engine housing of the Humvee and after a quick reload, another through where their radio was.
                            Soon, two sets of hands appeared through the open windows of the vehicle.
                            Several of our troops ran forward, pulled the two soldiers out and zip tied their hands, yelling; “SECURED!”
                            I followed the SFC to where the enemy was lying. I could see that both had suffered wounds. I was instructed to treat them. I went into medic mode, binding wounds and giving out morphine for pain.
                            “Ethan, not a lot of pain meds, we need these guys to be able to speak.” I was told.
                            “Roger that, Sarge!” I said back, adjusting and minimizing my dose.
                            “They’ll be fine. Nothing serious, just superficial wounds. They were lucky.” I said.
                            “Let’s get these guys back to the bridge. Blow the Hummer.” The Sergeant said. Two of our troopers pulled out explosive charges from their packs, setting them within the Humvee.
                            We left with the two shoved in front of an ATV rider each. As we left the crossroad, the Humvee exploded with our charges.
                            We raced back to the unit and reported back to the Captain.
                            The weapons and ammunition of the enemy, location were given. The Captain nodded and started questioning the prisoners.
                            We made a disturbing discovery; both seemed only to speak Spanish. We had a translator, A Hispanic soldier who was able to determine that they were part of a combined unit of Northern Coalition and PAL. They would not say anything more.
                            Captain Baughn radioed HQ. We were told to stop questioning them and await an extraction back to Fort Vicksburg.
                            While waiting, I treated the “Lieutenant” in the American uniform. While cleaning his wound, he began to speak to me in broken English.
                            “You cannot win this conflict” He said.
                            “Oh yeah? Why is that?” I told him as I bandaged his arm.
                            “We want same for you, USA. We sent to help” He continued.
                            I stopped and looked at him
                            “You are wearing our uniform, fighting US citizens on our land. You are not American. Do you understand?”
                            The prisoner just stared at me.
                            “We will fight you until the last man to get our country back. You have no right to be here.”
                            The prisoner shrugged.
                            I was getting angry. The country may be in pieces, I was damned if this foreign invader would try to justify his position.
                            “Do yourself a favor” I told him seriously. “Study American history and you will know what type of people you are dealing with.” I seethed.
                            “America is better our way.” He arrogantly spat.
                            I finished treating him without any more conversation.
                            After a few hours, I heard the noise of a helicopter. Soon, a Blackhawk appeared and landed in a field next to us. These prisoners must be important – This was the first aircraft I had seen operational. A Major and two Special Forces troops double timed toward us after the helicopter landed without turning off its engines.
                            “I’m Major Parris from Benning high command. We’ll take it from here, Captain, good job!” The major told Captain Baughn.
                            “Yes Sir!” The Captain replied promptly.
                            The two enemies were roughly taken away and loaded into the helicopter. After a few minutes, the aircraft took off.
                            “I didn’t know we had an air force?” I said to nobody in particular.
                            “We don’t, besides a few choppers and civilian planes. Our Air Force bases weren’t as lucky as us ground-pounders. Besides, without the power grid in place, the Air Force has a tough time being operational.” The Captain told me as we watched the helicopter fly east.
                            “Captain Baughn” I turned, facing him. “Are we going to win back what we lost?”
                            The Captain shrugged, still staring at the now empty sky.
                            “If we don’t, we’ll all be speaking another language. In my view, the rest of the world has wanted this country for the last couple hundred years. These times have given the opportunity to try and take it.” The captain turned to me.
                            “If we don’t stop them, all that we have accomplished; our principals, our beliefs, our history, will disappear. We have been fighting this way before the world changed. We are just playing a different game.”
                            The Captain walked off. He was right of course. His wisdom about what was happening didn’t surprise me, it’s what every one of our soldiers knew and fought against.
                            A serious and deadly situation for our beloved America. Lord help us.
                            A few hours later we were attacked again.
                            The attack on the bridge started with bone chilling and accurate artillery. We were subjected to air burst rounds and immediately suffered causalities before anyone could seek cover.
                            Andy was killed during the first few seconds of the attack. He and I were talking one minute and then I was holding his neck as blood poured out of him next. He died within seconds of the extreme trauma to his neck. He was almost decapitated, it would have been better for him. I was stunned, tears welling up as I held him. Men called out. I laid Andy down and went to work.
                            We lost another ten troopers and one of the Bradley fighting vehicles a few minutes and another barrage of deadly fire later.
                            I was rattled by the explosions and heavy weapons fire. I went into a robotic mode, treating what injuries I could and moving on past a dead soldier to the next victim. I don’t know how I wasn’t hit by the deadly fragments raining down on us. After three volleys in ten minutes, the arty stopped.
                            A tank crashed through the farmhouse in the field to our right. Ten APCs fanned out over the road 300 yards to our front. Soldiers were seen in groups moving up and behind the APCs.
                            The automatic fire rounds were relentless. They showered us with death and destruction.
                            Our brave soldiers picked up anti-tank rockets and were successful in knocking out three of the APCs. The tank however fired consistent and precise rounds on our position. Captain Baughns’ Bradley took a hit that disabled the tracks.
                            Captain Baughn leapt from his APC and switched to a mobile radio, calling for assistance. He was hit soon after and knocked unconscious falling and still clutching the radio mic.
                            A team of two recon scouts moved forward under fire and destroyed the tank a few minutes later. They both were killed after being pinned down by the force to our front. I didn’t have time to think as I worked on injured troopers.
                            Our remaining Bradley moved up into the frontal position and knocked out two more APCs before it took an anti-tank round to the turret. Screams could be heard inside, as we tried to pry the rear hatch open. I was met by the horrific smell of the burning bodies of our comrades.
                            I continued to offer aid when a huge explosion knocked me senseless. I was blown off the bridge into the frozen water of the river below. My body screamed with cold and then the blessed darkness took me once again in its warm embrace.
                            I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.


                            • #15
                              Part 2

                              The warm tunnel I was in…… It surrounded me. Called to me as I sank deeper into its….
                              Its safety.
                              I was losing. I was sinking…..
                              I was becoming nothing. The light!
                              It was getting smaller, it was supposed to get larger when you died. My light shrank. A circle of shrinking light…
                              And then…
                              I was pulled back toward it.
                              I heard a voice. “This one is alive.” It said.
                              I was roughly grabbed. I opened my eyes. The bridge and what was left of my unit above me in ruins. I was tossed onto the shore.
                              I was freezing. Then the pain came.
                              ….. I was back under the surface, in the warm tunnel. I looked up, trees. sky. Then vibration. I wanted to run from the light. I wanted back into the warmth and nothingness.
                              I woke with dull pain in my good arm. I raised it. It was bandaged. I laughed to myself. At least it wasn’t my other arm, the weak many times injured one. I raised my other arm, it had an IV jabbed in it. I tried to sit up and became dizzy.
                              I was in a tent. There were others around me on cots. I sat up. The smell of old canvas and the space heater clicking away in the center. I got up and fell to the floor, my left leg handcuffed to the cot. I lay there until rough hands placed me back onto the cot. The pain in my arm and shoulder became unbearable.
                              “Please, morphine?” I said out loud. I could smell infection.
                              Nobody came. I passed out, once again.

                              “Ethan, Ethan wake up!” I looked up at Clair’s smile.

                              “Clair, what are you doing here? Where is Alan? George? Why are you here?”

                              “It’s okay Mr. Ethan. You are going to be okay. Get back to your family… They love you. Get back to what you know. You can do it! I know you can do it Ethan.” Clair smiled. I then saw the face of my own daughter.

                              “Dad, you never trust me! I can do this!” She said.

                              “I know you can, Baby, I’m just worried. The College is across the country” I told her.

                              “Well, you have to let me go! You know, spread my wings”

                              “I love you Honey”

                              “I love you too, Dad”

                              I came too, realizing the flapping of canvas of the tent had changed to a different canvas and movement. My hands were bound behind my back. I was in a military truck being transported somewhere. There were others that were tied up, some conscience, others not.

                              There was a guard carrying an AK47 sitting at the back of the truck bed.

                              “Where are we?” My voice weak and cracking.

                              The guard was silent, not answering.

                              “Where are you taking us?” Again, I tried to shout.

                              No answer.

                              We traveled for hours, stopping for fuel and nothing else. I could see through a crack in the canvas cover. The land still had snow on it, I realized much less than what I was used to. When the guard realized I was looking out, he roughly put me on the floor of the vehicle.

                              The drone of the vehicle engine lulled me into submission. My arm and shoulder still throbbed and I was thirsty.

                              “Can I get some water?” I mumbled.

                              “It’s no use, I don’t think he speaks English.” Another captive said to me.

                              “NO SPEAK!” The guard yelled and pummeled the man. Blood started pouring down the corner of his mouth as he was knocked senseless and unconscious.

                              The truck stopped and more guards roughly pulled us from the back. Five of us were lined up on an overpass of a four lane highway. The guard from the back of the truck slung his rifle and approached opening a knife.

                              This was it, I thought.

                              He turned each of us and cut our bindings.

                              “GO!” We stood where we were unsure about what to do.

                              “GO!!!” He kicked one of the other captives. The man fell back onto the overpass. I turned, expecting to be shot.

                              The guards backed away and loaded back into the truck. It started and left back down the road, away from us.

                              I turned and began to shakily walk down the steep incline. I saw a sign.

                              The sign read;

                              WELCOME TO NEW ORLEANS
                              I'm not a fatalist. I'm a realist.