The True North Strong And Free*

The final installment in the adventures of Evie and Owen. Read the whole story here.

This is Colorado and not Nevada...but it's my blog and I do what I want. Photo © Vers Les Etoiles

This is Colorado and not Nevada…but it’s my blog and I do what I want. Photo © Vers Les Etoiles

         “It’s been over a week.”
         “No sign? Nothing at all?” Jessamy’s voice cracked on the last word.
         Evie stirred, trying to get the cottony taste out of her mouth as she struggled to open her eyes. Jessamy was talking to the surgeon.
         “None. His heart rate and temperature haven’t been steady—but that’s to be expected. He could still get any sort of normal infection in that arm; we were working with the roughest possible instruments. But I think,” he sounded as if he was trying to convince himself as much as Jessamy, “I think he’ll be okay. He won’t turn into a stumbler, anyway.”
         Evie could feel the wrinkles of the blanket imprinted in her cheek as she lifted her head. One of her hands was numb and she looked down to see Owen’s long fingers curled tightly around hers. His hand was limp last night when she held it. She tried not to breathe. The steady beeping of the monitor reassured her and Evie’s eyes moved up from his fingers to the stump lying on his chest, then to his face.
         “Hi,” he mouthed, no sound escaping his lips.
         Evie tried to say something, but her throat caught and she put her head back down on the rough blankets. She felt his fingers press hers every so lightly—she could tell it took all his strength and she raised her head.
         “Tears, Evie, love?” he asked weakly. “Tears for me?”
         Evie shook her head, biting her lip and willing the tears to stop.
         “You’re nothing but trouble,” she said unsteadily. “Knew it the first time I saw you.”
         Owen’s other arm stirred and he winced, glancing quickly away from the stump. He swore.
         Evie released his hand and half-rose from her chair, “Does it hurt? Let me—”
         Owen grabbed her wrist with his good hand, mindless of the ropes of IVs that ran out of it. He pulled her towards him, his hand running up her arm to cup her cheek as he drew her face down. She tasted the salt of her tears on his lips.

——–

         Owen’s legs were steady as he suffered Evie to buckle his pack across his chest. She shoved him gently as she felt his lips against her ear and hid a grin at his hurt expression. She rolled an eye towards the crowd standing behind them and he returned the expression.
         “Never thought I’d see that again,” Owen brushed a finger across her cheek.
         “What?” Evie asked, trying not to blush.
         “That smile,” Owen winked at her and she ducked away from him.
         “Worse with one hand than you were with two,” she hissed, sidestepping the swat he aimed at her.
         “Owen,” Gregg stepped forward and clapped Owen lightly on the shoulder. “Sure you won’t stay?”
         “No, Gregg. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll all head out, too. If I learned anything from Vegas, the tweakers are adapting to the cold. Staying here won’t keep you safe for long.”
         “I ’ppreciate the thought, friend. We got a good setup here—weapons, food, the goods. I think we can wait it out a while longer,” Gregg looked as confident as he sounded.
         “Stay safe,” Owen shook Gregg’s hand.
         “Evie,” Gregg awkwardly offered her a hand.
         “Thank you, for everything,” Evie shook his hand, holding his gaze.
         He looked away, “It was nothing. A favor for a friend.”
         Evie nodded, sharing a grin with Owen at Gregg’s embarrassment.
         “He don’t want anyone to think he’s got a soul, that one,” Owen whispered as they went to thank the surgeon and his aides.

——-

         The old Jeep was loaded with supplies, weapons, and ammo; all the goodbyes said except one.
         “I can still come with you,” Jessamy said, checking the straps on the bundles tied to the roof. “I can pack in a few minutes.”
         Evie smiled and shook her head, “No, you should stay here—if it’s what you want.”
         She watched as he glanced over his shoulder at one of the young women in the compound walking along the perimeter of the makeshift bunker, rifle resting easily on her shoulder. Jessamy flushed and then grinned at her. His face turned purple when she pulled him into a hug and he fought to regain his composure as he shook Owen’s hand.
         “You’re a good shot, Jessamy. I owe my life to you just as much as any of these doctors,” Owen said quietly.
         “Take care of each other, yeah?” Jessamy said, looking back and forth. “Try to remember the tweakers are the ones you want to kill, not each other.”
         Owen put a hand to his machete, “I’ll be good if she is.”
         Evie put her hands on her hips, “I hear there’s still some courts up north. I can still get that divorce, you—”
         Owen cut off further threats—encouraged by the whoops and catcalls of the men and women in the yard—until Evie ducked out of his embrace, trying to ignore the burning in her cheeks. They got in the Jeep and Evie put it in drive as the compound gates swung slowly open. She glanced once in the rearview mirror and stuck a hand out the window to return Jessamy’s wave. She looked over and caught Owen’s gray eyes on her, a smile spreading across his thin face.
         “Where to?” he asked.
         “Where you wanna go?” she replied, watching him fumble to open the map with one hand and hold it steady with his other wrist. She stopped the car and took a deep breath against the emotions that tightened her chest.
         “I’ve never been to Canada,” she looked at the snow-cloaked landscape.
         “Canada,” Owen shifted the map, swearing as part of it tore.
         “Don’t slow me down,” Evie said, struggling to maintain a serious expression.
         “Girl,” Owen looked over at her, tipping her chin up with two fingers. “I’ve been chasing you for years. Now that I finally caught up, ain’t no way I’ll let you go.”

* Title thanks to my favourite Dilettante and the Canadian National Anthem.
Writing soundtrack for this post: Last Train Home by Ryan Star

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“It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”

Read what’s happened so far to Evie and Owen here.

        Drip. Drip. Drip.
         Evie felt a tic starting in her cheek just under her eye with each drip of the liquid in the IV bag. She stopped wondering where all the medical equipment was from when several of the men addressed the surgeon as Sergeant. Owen’s face was gray and she saw his eyes moving back and forth beneath his lids. She didn’t look at the stump of his hand that was tightly bound and tucked into a sling across his chest. The stubble on his chin looked blue against his pallid skin. He already looked like a corpse. She stopped counting the seconds, the minutes, as the first hour stretched into three, into five.
         It took Chett a few hours—she thought, but she didn’t know when the first blood got into his leg. Somewhere in her head, she started counting down as soon as they hauled Owen into the helicopter. As soon as the stumbler latched his teeth onto Owen’s arm. The doctor—Sargent Surgeon, her brain called him—gripped her shoulder when they were done stitching and cleaning and bandaging, telling her to let go of Owen’s shoulders. She could see the bruises her fingers left under the edge of the cleaner shirt they’d put on him. She swallowed the bubble of hysterical laughter that rose in her throat. If he was awake, he’d joke about her trying to strangle him when he was flat on his back. If he was awake he’d smile that crooked, stupid smile at her. If he ever woke up.
         “Evie,” Jessamy’s voice was quiet—a crypt-voice.
         She took the cup of coffee he handed her with both hands and gulped the boiling liquid, tying to hide the way her eyes watered. Evie still heard Owen yelling, saw him standing on the rooftop, the tendons in his neck stretching with the force of his scream as the tweaker bit into his flesh. She felt the cup burning her hands, the faint numbness of her protesting fried taste buds, but everything else was cold. She leaned forward again to press her fingers to the inside of Owen’s wrist. His pulse hammered there, just under his cold skin. He felt like a corpse already except for the heartbeat. Sometimes they didn’t get the fever before the change, something whispered. Sometimes they just went cold before…
         “Evie,” his voice was clear as he said her name before lapsing into a garbled murmur.
         Every nerve drew tight as a bowstring as she waited for him to speak again. Five hours and Owen was still in there. Part of him at least.
         “You should—” Jessamy stopped at the look she gave him.          “Right.”
         “If I sleep…if I leave for a minute…he might not be there anymore. And if…when…” Evie took an unsteady breath. “I have to do it. It can’t be anyone else.”
         Jessamy looked stricken but he nodded, his face gray, he patted her shoulder awkwardly before shuffling back to one of the other beds they’d provided in the bunker.
         Evie scooted her metal chair closer and wrapped her hand around Owen’s chilled, unresponsive fingers. She pushed the hair away from his face and ran her fingers across his cheek—the bones already stuck out more from the loss of blood.
         “All you ever wanted to do was save me. And all I ever wanted was to run,” Evie didn’t try to stop the hot tears that spilled over her cold cheeks and splashed down onto the sheets as she pressed her lips to the back of Owen’s hand and squeezed his fingers as though she could force him to wake up.
         “I’m done running, Owen. But I think it’s too late for both of us.”

Wasteland

Chuck Wendig’s latest flash fiction challenge: use ten random words of Chuck’s choosing in a 1000 word story.*

         Half the willow’s branches were gone, burned away. The damage turned the delicate tree into something grotesque, like the otherwise perfect face of a beautiful woman disfigured by scarring. Fletcher wondered idly if a summer storm was to blame—bolts of merciless lightning pounding the tree, the tallest thing for miles. He heard a familiar whirring sound and stood, dusting off the ash that clung to his trousers. The packed clay beneath it showed evidence that a river once flowed, perhaps feeding the dead willow once upon a time. The dirigible floated effortlessly down several meters away. Fletcher broke into a trot along the dry riverbed, pulling the kerchief tighter over his mouth to keep too much of the ash from invading his lungs.
         “Oy, ‘ad a nice day in the country?” a muffled voice greeted him as the door to the dirigible slid open.
         “Top notch, Cal,” Fletcher said, digging an elbow into his friend’s side.
         “Don’t know why we keep making these runs. There’s nothing to find,” Cal pulled the handkerchief away from his own face and adjusted his goggles as he twiddled some of the controls, sending the dirigible skyward again.
         “At least you get to sit around in this oversized balloon while I scrape around in possibly radioactive dust,” Fletcher wiped the sweat off his brow on his sleeve and grimaced at the gray streak it left.
         “The Gull is an innovative piece of aircraft, Fletcher McCready,” Cal said, wounded.
         “And how many times have you had her up in Grafton’s getting tuned…this week?” Fletcher laughed and grabbed a canteen of water as he lounged back against his seat, glancing out the front windscreen.
         “Bugger yourself,” Cal said.
         Fletcher made a rude hand gesture in response that Cal couldn’t see and took a swig of water. It was lukewarm, but tasted heavenly after all the dust.
         “What were you doing down there anyway?” Cal asked, piloting the dirigible with one hand as he swiveled to look back at Fletcher. “Looked like you were staring at that tree.”
         Fletcher shrugged and gulped some more water, but Cal continued to look at him, eyebrows raised above his flying goggles.
         “Do you remember the last time you saw a tree—a real one?” Fletcher asked.
         “What do you mean, ‘real’? The trees we have in New Utopia aren’t good enough for Master McCready?” Cal adopted a refined accent, turning back to the front of the dirigible. “Perhaps the leaves aren’t quite green enough? Shall I lodge a complaint with the Council of Shrubbery?”
         “Oh, sod it,” Fletcher glowered at Cal’s back. “I don’t care what the scientists say. Those things aren’t real; they’re fake, just like half the things in ‘topia.”
         “Would you rather live down here? An hour out there and you smell like you’ve been using Eau de Sulfur and Brimstone,” Cal laughed.
         “Yes, Calhoun Stuart. I would much rather live in a desert brimming with radioactive particles and under constant threat of atomic destruction,” he mimicked Cal’s tone. “That’s not a life, it’s a long funeral. Prat.”
         Cal laughed and they lapsed into silence for the rest of the ride, Fletcher seething inwardly. He knew Cal liked to needle him, but for once, he’d like his best friend to actually listen. No one else noticed—or cared—about things like the trees. Things that captivated Fletcher. He remembered climbing trees outside his old home—the way the bark felt beneath his fingers, the smell of the damp wood when it rained. The trees glistened in New Utopia when it rained. But it wasn’t like the dripping, rain-bejeweled glitter he remembered. It was eerie, unnatural. He was lucky to live in ‘topia, he knew. Topside, people didn’t last long, even with protective masks and suits. After the Last Great War, the air itself turned toxic. Fletcher knew he should wear a mask when they went out on runs to the Waste, but it wasn’t too bad this close to New Utopia.
         He picked moodily at a hole in his trousers until he felt the dirigible drop down into the canyon that led into New Utopia. They landed effortlessly and Fletcher had to admire Cal’s skill at the helm; he would crash the Gull in seconds. The heliport doors slid shut over them and it took Fletcher’s eyes a moment to adjust to the sudden darkness compared with the blazing light above. He tried not to grit his teeth as Cal locked down all the controls and they grabbed their knapsacks. He could smell the darkness—the cloying scent of rotting earth and the things that lived in it. The glow-lamps that dotted the passage out of the heliport were a poor substitute for sunlight. A shape moving in the dark in front of them made him reach for his knife before the figure tackled Cal with a clearly female laugh. He curled his lip and skirted his friend, hurrying up the stairs.
         Honestly, he thought, you’d think they hadn’t seen each other in months and I know they were snogging before we left this morning.
         “Fletch! OY, Fletch!” Cal caught up with him, holding Lilah’s hand.
         “Hello, brov,” Lilah smirked.
         “What’s the rush?” Cal asked, slightly out of breath.
         “Excuse me if I don’t fancy sitting around watching my best mate snog my little sister,” Fletcher said, shifting his grip on his knapsack.
         Lilah rolled her eyes, “It’s been bloody months, Fletch. Get over yourself.”
         Fletcher shrugged in answer and lengthened his stride. He was taller than Lilah and Cal by several inches and it wasn’t difficult to escape. He had good reason to return home before anyone else—especially including Lilah.
         Once back in the pod he and his family called home, he opened the flap of his knapsack. Nestled in the top was a small cutting in a glass jar. Taking something from Topside, especially something living was strictly forbidden. This level of deceit could get him exiled Topside, but Fletcher couldn’t help but smile.

*the ten words: FUNERAL, CAPTIVATE, DECEIT, BRIMSTONE, CANYON, BALLOON, CLAY, DISFIGURED, WILLOW, ATOMIC

Cold in the Desert

STOP. Do not read, do not pass “Go,” do not collect $200 until you catch up with Evie and Owen here. There is also a trigger warning for this post for some sensitive subject matter.

         The rushing in Evie’s ears as the wind buffeted the helicopter seemed to abate only when they finally touched down in the compound outside Reno. She was aware of people running towards the ‘copter, of Gregg shouting and of a flurry of activity but it was all on the periphery. She could feel Owen’s thready pulse unevenly through the fingers that clamped viselike onto hers. She could hear the ragged sound of his breathing even over the blood that pounded in her ears. And she thought she could hear her own frantic plea through her numbed lips please, don’t die. please, don’t die. please, don’t die. It was a worthless thought, or prayer—whatever it was. Because death wasn’t the thing to worry about.
         Owen’s eyes were closed and his face was ashen, but he stayed still. He hadn’t started spasming yet—what some referred to as the “tweaker twitch.” Once the seizing started, it was all over. Every time a wave of pain made him jerk, her free hand tightened on her knife. The blade was narrow and double edged. It would go cleanly through his eye socket and into his brain. He wouldn’t be able to feel pain at that point, anyway. She knew better than to hope that the moonshine could have killed the bacteria. Minutes passed before she got to the wound, and minutes were plenty of time to send infected blood cells streaming into his veins, multiplying as they went. Someone rolled a makeshift gurney up to the helicopter. Jessamy grabbed her by the shoulders, pulling her away as Gregg and other men hoisted Owen’s limp body onto it. She saw them tighten a thick strap across his chest and legs. No need to take chances. Jessamy helped her down and kept his arm around her back as they staggered after the men.
         The building looked like an old warehouse—corrugated tin walls and huge fluorescent lights bathed the scene. But, strangely enough, there were hospital beds and even some equipment; Evie noticed these as she stumbled along, slowly becoming aware that her teeth were chattering against each other. She bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted coppery blood and the chattering stopped. The last time she and Owen were in a hospital was the last time she saw him before he showed up at Thad’s. She never thought she’d see him again.
Unbidden, her mind went back to the pristine white walls and the doctor who patted her hand and told her that she would be fine, but unfortunately the trauma was too much for the baby. She shied away from the memory; there was no reason to go back there. They wheeled Owen to a corner where the ground was covered in thick plastic. Evie felt the bile rise in her throat. She shoved her way through the group and grabbed Owen’s foot—the closest part of him she could reach.
         “I poured pure moonshine on the hand—right after it happened. I heard tell of a man who did that to a bite and came out fine,” she stared down at her fingers, wrapped around Owen’s boot. They were covered in blood.
         “Miss, it’s not just that—the bite’s real ragged,” an older man said. “We’d need to cut the hand off anyway to prevent a regular infection. As it is, we may be too late. On both counts.”
         “Can you…can you give him anything?” her fingers tightened on his shoe.
         He nodded jerkily, “You can stay, too, if you want.” He looked at her doubtfully. “Everyone has to wash up, though. We can only get things so sterile, but every little bit helps.”
         Evie released Owen long enough to wash up and to hurriedly pull on the scrubs they offered her. She didn’t care about modesty at this point and rolled the pant legs up until she could see her shoes again. They were several sizes too big. Once everyone was clean to the older man’s satisfaction—Evie guessed he had some medical training—and Owen had a steady drip running from an I.V. he told Evie to stand at Owen’s head and to keep him still. He gave her a piece of rubber to stick between Owen’s teeth once they started cutting. Jessamy had disappeared behind a curtain with an apologetic look at Evie. Evie put her hands on Owen’s shoulders and was surprised when his eyes fluttered open. He blinked in the fluorescent lighting as they began to prepare.
         “Evie,” his voice was hoarse and she had to lean close to hear him.
         “It’ll be okay,” she said. “You shouldn’t feel a thing.” She looked guiltily at the little bag dripping liquid and hoped she was right.
         “I shouldn’t have let you go back there…shouldn’t have let you go see him. Who cares if the son’vabitch was dying?” his eyes were flickering back and forth and she wasn’t sure if he could really see her. “I should have known he’d knock you down—when did he do anything else? You weren’t his anymore, we had something, a life…and the baby…and I let him take that from us,” Owen shifted in the restraints, his eyes latching on hers, wild with pain.
         “Shh,” she frantically tried to keep him still, finally putting her hands on his cheeks, feeling the prickle of his beard and the unnatural heat of his skin.
         She knew it was the medicine and pain talking. She knew he could be dying—that the disease could already be in his brain. She never thought it would come to this—not even when she ran out.
         “My fault…’s all my fault…” he murmured before his eyes slid shut.
         “We’re ready,” the older man said.
         Evie stuck the rubber strip between Owen’s teeth so he wouldn’t bite off his own tongue. It took her several tries because her hands were shaking so badly.
         Evie stared down at his pale face and tried not to listen to the sawing.

All Or Nothing

No matter what game you’re playing in Vegas, someone always has to lose. Find Evie and Owen’s story up until now here.

Photo © me

Photo © me

         Evie didn’t look down as she was hauled painfully upward; the rope bit into her skin. It was a relief when a hand reached down and yanked her up into the helicopter. She struggled with the knots, finally freeing herself from the flimsy, makeshift harness. The rope twisted back down again and she peeked out the open door long enough to see Jessamy gesturing at Owen before shaking his head and looping the rope around himself.
         Someone else was flying the chopper; Gregg had on a massive set of headphones and leaned over her. “Who’s the runt?” he yelled over the buffeting propellers.
         “A new friend,” Evie shouted back.
         “Good thing we brought this baby,” Gregg gave her a satisfied grin.
         Evie leaned back against the cold metal, too exhausted to pull herself up into one of the few precarious seats. Jessamy appeared a few minutes later, wincing as he shed the harness.
         “Chris’almighty,” Gregg swore, flinging the rope back down again.
         “What?” Evie asked, heaving her pack off and crawling towards Gregg and Jessamy.
         She saw Jessamy’s face turn white. Evie grabbed his arm and stared down at the building. Tweakers swarmed the rooftop; somehow, they managed to pull themselves up the icy metal rungs. Owen fired into the stumblers that were already over the edge, but Evie could see more crawling up behind.
         “Throw the rope! Throw it!” she yelled, her fingers biting into Jessamy’s shoulder.
         The rope swung wildly, buffeted by the wind and the propellers. The snow whipped around Owen and she saw him squint as he tried to grab the rope once, twice. Jessamy swung his rifle out the door and began shooting the tweakers as Owen tried to tie the rope around his torso. Evie saw one break free from the milling mass; it stumbled over another tweaker’s writhing body and stayed upright. Her scream froze in her throat as Owen gave a frantic tug at the rope. Gregg and Jessamy hauled at it so hard it knocked Owen off his feet. He struggled to right himself, to keep one hand on the rope and one on his gun.
         Evie reached out one hand—to warn him, to stop the tweaker, she wasn’t sure. But as he spun at the end of the rope like a rogue kite, the tweaker latched its grimy hands on Owen’s arm. She heard his scream as the stumbler buried its teeth in Owen’s outstretched hand. The gun dropped onto the snow and the men gave a tug that pulled Owen clear off the rooftop. Evie thought for a moment that the tweaker would come too—that he would rip Owen’s entire arm off. But Owen released the rope and drove the heel of his other hand into the tweaker’s face. Evie thought she could hear the bones shatter, but surely the roaring in her ears was too loud.
         Owen’s face looked gray as they pulled him over the edge. The whites around his eyes were showing and there was blood running freely down his hand. His thumb and most of his next two fingers were gone—mangled stubs of raw meat. They pulled him all the way in and Gregg, swearing enough to impress even Evie, launched himself into the copilot’s seat. They spiraled away from the rooftop—now completely overrun. Evie had Owen’s head in her lap and his uninjured hand clamped tightly on one of hers, she could feel the feeling leave her fingers.
         “Jessamy, in my pack there’s a black canteen,” she waited for his eyes to focus on her. “It should be in one of the side pockets.”
         She could see his hands shaking as he fumbled with the zipper.
         “Evie,” Owen said weakly; she could hear the panic in his voice.
         “Shut up,” she said, squeezing his fingers—hard.
         “Here,” Jessamy handed her the canteen, top unscrewed.
         “This is going to hurt like hell,” Evie said.
         She glanced at Jessamy and he moved to hold Owen still. The floor of the ‘copter was sticky with blood. Evie poured the moonshine over Owen’s ruined hand and felt him stiffen. A sound almost like a whimper escaped his lips and his fingers crushed hers. Evie poured a continuous stream over the seeping wound. The bright red blood didn’t worry her, but she saw the clear outline of the bite on the back of his hand and fragments of teeth. She bit the inside of her cheek. If he ripped out the tweaker’s teeth, there would have been blood. If that blood got into the bite…
         A scratch from a tweaker was fine—unless infected blood got in it. A bite might even be okay if their mouths weren’t bleeding. The problem was that the first things the drug killed were the brain’s pain receptors. The only way to make sure they stayed down was to cut off their heads, stick a knife through the eye, a gunshot to the head—anything that destroyed was left of their intelligence.
         Since they couldn’t feel pain, the stumblers tended to be riddled with diseases and infections. They staggered around bashing themselves into things, cutting themselves up. Most of them had some kind of internal bleeding. If you hit one with a car and didn’t crush the skull, the bastards could get right back up. Evie hunted one with a leg so mangled it was just dead weight. The thing kept going for miles and still had some fight left in it. Chett cut himself on something—a deep cut but not dangerous. Then, in a fight with some tweakers, he made a real mess of one and blood got into the wound. Just like that. Three days later, she put a bullet in his skull and never regretted it.
         She looked down into Owen’s gray eyes, half shut in agony as remaining fingers on his hand twitched convulsively. The eyes were the first thing she noticed when Chett started to turn.

You Can’t Save Me II

Read the beginning of Lara’s story here. This was originally “A Birthday to Forget” but after my dear friend and sometimes-editor made some much-needed suggestions, this is the updated (and improved) version. Thank you to my favourite Dilettante.

         I didn’t know if he was laughing at me, but in spite of myself, I laughed, too. It sounded like I was choking. I couldn’t get the hysterical bubbles of laughter under control. I noticed then the cuts on my knuckles and palms. They must have come from the gravel or the broken bottle. I shoved my hands between my knees and tried to stop the shaking. I stopped laughing. I gasped for air, there wasn’t enough in the RV and the walls seemed to shiver in front of my eyes. I felt hands on my shoulders and wrenched away. I tried to cry out, but the face of my rescuer swam into focus.
         “Sorry, I’m sorry,” he was saying. “God, you’ve really been through something.”
         I was having trouble focusing on his words. I had to watch his lips move, to make an effort not to see the light going out of beastly blue eyes, to not taste the tang of blood.
         “I killed someone. I stabbed him with a beer bottle, there was blood—blood everywhere,” I realized I was rubbing my hands up and down my arms, trying to stop feeling the warm, thick flow of blood running down them. “Oh, god. Oh, god.”
         I breathed hard through my nose, there wasn’t anything left in my stomach to bring up but it heaved all the same.
         “Hey, hey,” he knelt down in front of me—not touching me—but holding out his hands as if he wanted to steady me. “It’s…well, I can see it’s not okay. But, you can trust me—talk to me.”
         I nodded once, making the effort to calm my breathing. I held out my hand and he reached back to retrieve the bottle of whiskey and splashed some into my empty glass. I took it from him and the whiskey sloshed in my quaking hand. I drank a big gulp and didn’t care that I coughed. My eyes watered. I rubbed a hand across them, but there were tears now, too. He looked at me wordlessly, waiting for me to speak. He regarded me like some sort of puzzle, not someone evil—not a murderer. I faltered under that gaze.
         “I should go,” I said, but I didn’t stand up. I was afraid I couldn’t.
         “Go?” his pale brows pulled down over his nose. “You can’t go—look at you!
         “I’m a murderer—I can’t stay here! They’ll find me. Oh god, they’ll find me,” the whiskey spilled over my fingers onto his floor.
         He took the glass from me and I flinched as his fingers brushed mine. He grimaced, but not at me.
         “You didn’t just stab some guy with a beer bottle because he was staring at you funny. He did something. Bastard,” he spat the word out. “Did you know him?”
         I shook my head vehemently. I didn’t want to think about what he looked like, whether he had a name, a family. I didn’t want to think about anything. He stayed crouched in front of me, his brows furrowed, the bottle dangling from his hand. I saw his eyes drifting over the cuts on my hands and I knew there was probably still blood under my fingernails. There was dirt under the blue-eyed boy’s nails. They were long and ragged. I could see them again reaching for my throat.
         “He was stocky with bad skin…greasy hair, I think it was dark, I don’t know. His eyes—his eyes were blue,” the words poured out of me so fast I could barely get my tongue around them. “He was young—twenties, I don’t know. The coffee shop,” I jerked my head up to meet his eyes. “He was at the coffee shop. He saw me—his friend works there. He followed me to the bus stop and—” my words sputtered out like a spent birthday candle.
         His eyes widened briefly and then narrowed, “The filthy son of a bitch. Did he have any tattoos? Scars? Anything unusual?”
         I forced myself to think back to his hands, his neck, his face. Nothing. I shook my head.
         “I can think of a few guys around here that fit the bill,” he said. He must have seen the fear and disgust on my face. “Don’t think about it anymore just now.”
         I buried my face in my hands then put my face on my knees. I couldn’t shut my eyes and black spots were dancing across my vision, like black drops of blood. There was a roaring in my ears; it drowned out my rescuer’s muttered curses. I heard the floor creak as he stood and again as he began to pace. He was talking to himself, but I couldn’t make sense of the words—the noise in my ears was too loud.
         “Hey,” he was crouched in front of me again, his eyes hesitant.
         My mouth felt dry and I wondered if years had passed while I sat with my head on my knees, trying not to be sick. He held out a mug of something that steamed and his lips twitched in a crooked smile. I didn’t hear him cooking, I didn’t even notice the tirade of swearing ceased along with the roaring.
         “It’s just Ramen, but it might be good if you ate something…” He held it out to me, still carefully keeping his distance. “Are you hungry?”
         I realized that I was. Now that the nausea subsided, I was starving, but I was afraid the smell of food might make me sick again. I took the mug with numb, shaking fingers. It had some sort of yellowish broth and a pile of white noodles. I took the fork he offered and tasted it. The saltiness soothed my stomach, and the warmth that leeched into my fingers was heavenly.
         “I’m Jericho,” he said as I took another small bite. “Jericho Lang.”
         “Lara,” I said. “Just Lara.”
         He offered me both his names, trusting a confessed murder. I only had one to offer in return. My spine prickled as I remembered the letter in my knapsack. ,em>Nadia
.
         “Now you know why I have to go,” I said.
         He shook his head emphatically, “Now I know more than ever why you should stay.”

… Flight

Sometimes, even in Vegas, the luck can run in your favor. But, as any gambler will tell you, it often doesn’t last long. You can find Evie and Owen’ story up until now here.

         “Up there,” Owen pointed his machete at a rusty sign high atop a building.
         Jessamy nodded, panting. They had not slackened their pace since leaving the club. Every gust of wind across the ashy snow sounded like a stumbler’s dragging footsteps. Evie wanted to push Owen’s hand away, but his grip on her elbow kept her running. They saw a rusty set of metal rungs in the side of the building and Jessamy swarmed up them nimbly. Evie hoped the precarious steps would elude the tweakers.
        Owen shoved her towards the wall and she scrambled up the rungs, her numbed fingers struggling to grip. Near the top, her foot slipped and she heard Owen grunt as her boot smashed his fingers. Evie’s face hit the rung in front of her and she tasted blood as she crawled over the lip of the building and pushed herself to her feet. She shoved Owen’s helping hand away this time, and wiped her hand across her lip, looking down at the smear of blood for a long moment.
Owen’s rough fingers found her chin and tilted her face to look at him. His gray eyes were unreadable as he wiped the blood off her cheek.
         “First time I ever met you, your lip was split,” he said.
         “I remember,” Evie said, pulling away and spitting out red-tinted saliva.
         She saw Jessamy watching them with a strange expression on his face and laughed bitterly.
         “What?” he and Owen asked, almost at the same time.
         “He never knocked me around, Jess,” Evie said, jerking her head back at Owen.
         “What the hell are you talking about?” Owen looked between the two.
         “We were comparing war stories. And I let him think my battles were with you,” Evie said lightly, taking off her pack and setting it on the ground.
         She began to rummage through it for flares, keeping one eye on the steel gray sky. Owen was still staring at her, eyebrows raised, when she looked back up.
         “And why, Evie, love, would you let our young friend here think I hit you?”
         “In case I needed an ally—I knew I couldn’t get to Gregg’s plane alone, even if I did manage to get the satellite phone off you somehow,” she sat back on her heels, the flare gun in one hand.
         “You were going to take the sat phone, call Gregg, and just leave me here in this godforsaken city?” Owen asked.
         The disbelief on Owen’s face gave Evie a slight pang of remorse, but she shrugged.
         “I would have, if it came to that. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t do the same thing,” she continued her search for the flares, finally feeling them at the bottom of the pack.
         She loaded them into the gun, careful not to drop any into the snow that heaped the rooftop. Owen crouched down next to her and she had to look him in the eye.
         “I protected you from your bastard of a father, I married you. Hell, we were even going to have—”
         “Shut up,” Evie stood, using Owen’s shoulder to push herself up and unbalancing him in the process. “Don’t talk about it. Don’t you dare.”
         Owen surged up from the ground and grabbed her by both shoulders.
         “Why do you think I came back to Louisiana? What did you think I was doing there?”
         Evie gaped at him, feeling his fingers dig into her shoulders as he shook her slightly. His gray eyes were wild. She thought of the cigarette lighter in his pocket—the one with her initials. She thought of him telling Gregg he went back to Louisiana to “get something.” He slackened his grip suddenly and they stared at each other.
         “It wasn’t your fault we lost it. And it wasn’t my fault, either. Goddamnit, Evie. You should’ve known better. You did know better,” Owen’s voice was raw; Evie strained to hear it over the wind.
         “They’re coming,” Jessamy said suddenly.
         The three of them hurried to the side of the building and peered down. A shambling gray horde of tweakers was making its clumsy way towards the building. They moved in a pack, but without seeming to notice the others. They were drawn by the warmth of human flesh—their mutual desire and destination, nothing more.
         “The flares, Evie,” Owen said sharply.
She stared at the gun in her cold hands for a moment before raising it and firing it into the cloudy sky. It soared upwards in a burst of acrid smoke and streaked red across the cement-hued backdrop. They all strained their ears as it blazed for a moment and then began to fade, hoping to hear the plane’s engines. The stumblers grew closer, their grunting and shuffling seemed magnified in the expectant silence.
         “We have to get higher,” Owen said.
         They began to scramble up the creaking struts of the sign, finding precarious hand holds. Owen watched the hands tick on his watch, wedged into one corner of the metal frame. He gestured to Evie after what seemed like eternity and she fired another flare into the sky. Evie resisted counting the seconds as she clung to the rusted metal skeletal remains of the sign, peering through the fog.
         “He’s not coming,” Jessamy said, his shaggy hair falling into his eyes.
         Evie hugged her knees to her chest, glaring at the steely gray sky. A mechanical rumble broke the chilly silence and a Bell 205 helicopter dropped out of the clouds. Evie quickly shrugged off her surprise. If Gregg’s compound was all he said it was, it stood to reason they’d have more than Gregg’s crappy Cessna. She stood to wave, losing her balance. Owen’s hands caught her easily. She pulled away as the chopper dropped down, regaining her grip on the frame.
         “How is he going to get us?” she yelled over the sound of the propellers.
In answer, one of the doors flew open and a coil of thick orange rope snaked down. Evie looked at it in disbelief.
         “You first, Evie, love,” Owen said, catching the rope and winding it around her waist.

Land of the Free, Home of the BigMac

I’ve always been told to avoid putting disclaimers in front of your writing–so I won’t. Just know that if you haven’t been following long, Fridays are usually some thing weird and/or quirky thanks to Mr. Chuck Wendig with his Friday Flash Fiction Challenge. This week was “somethingpunk” —— for example in “steampunk” everything is powered by steam. Chuck wanted us to take something else and use THAT to fuel our world. I guess you could call this meatpunk.

         “It seemed like a good idea at first. With everyone switching to meat as the primary source of food, the offal started to pile up. They even made special recycling bins for it—big, jarring orange cans that went by the curb with the regular trash and recycling. All the fat trimmings, the gristle, the guts—the things the purists wouldn’t put anywhere near their puffed, red lips. Some of the finer restaurants tried to use everything—taking the Nose to Tail approach to cooking all too literally. But a well-known food critic choked on a piece of hoof used as a garnish on his Osso Buco. After that, the FDA outlawed the use of animal bits not meant for consumption. Since even the laws regulating dog food excluded the use of such leavings, there wasn’t much you could do with the offal. So they started collecting it, storing it in big vats that replaced the grain silos (since the grain was mainly used to feed the Meat, anyway).
         It wasn’t long before some conservation-energy efficient watchdog group asked what was happening to all the lard, innards, and other inedible scraps. When they found out it was basically sitting around stewing, they decided to convert it—use it as a source of energy to power the slaughterhouses, the meatpacking plants, finally even homes and cars. They found out the fat would burn like old-school tallow candles and produce mass amounts of heat energy. Everyone thought it was a win-win—the rapid production and consumption of Meat by the masses and the creation of cheap, accessible energy.
         They didn’t gamble on the effects of pumping all that greasy smoke into the air. Once everyone realized the haze hanging over their cities and homes wasn’t dissipating like normal cloud cover or smog, they got concerned. But by then, it was too late. They didn’t factor in the fact that the increase of livestock and the decrease of oxygen producing crops would turn the air entirely unsafe for the human lungs. When a particularly potent case of offal tainted with Mad Cow Disease fueled a fleet of elementary school buses and the vaporized flesh made an entire small town in Nebraska go five kinds of crazy—someone finally took notice.
         The wealthy got the first out, of course. A company called Maison de l’Air had been quietly developing units of luxury condominiums that hovered just above the cloud and smog cover. They shopped them out as timeshares at outrageous prices as air quality steadily declined. By the time they went public—everything was booked or sold to high profile investors and private citizens. That’s when the rest of us knew we were well and truly screwed.
         The overlords got in their little bubble planes and took off, leaving us behind to breathe in the stench of rotting animal flesh. But they left a parting gift—the BreatheFree500. They look like old-school gas masks and probably work just as well. Supposedly they filter out the toxins so we can “breathe freely” and continue to tend the animals left here with us on Earth. They didn’t reckon on the malcontent of us third class citizens left behind. When even the overseers began to see what a shit hand they’d been dealt, I knew it was time.
         My great grandfather was a farmer back in the days when there were fields holding more than hormone injected, force fed livestock. I remembered stories of the rolling hills and the tall green and gold crops waving in the wind. I held onto those memories—knowing I’d never see anything like them in my lifetime. But since it doesn’t look like my lifetime is going to last much longer—it’ll do. That’s another thing they didn’t tell us—the BreatheFree500 could filter out the air once we started using them, but it couldn’t undo the damage already done.”

         I leaned away from the flickering screen of my crappy computer and cracked my neck.
         “Y’almost ready?” Julian poked his head into the door of my cupboard of an office. Neither of us wore the BreatheFree—hadn’t for some time.
         “The boys all set—everyone know what they’re gonna do?” I spat out the thick wad of tobacco packed in my bottom lip. I smiled, remembering people saying tobacco would kill you.
         “Everyone’s ready, Chase. Just waitin’ on ya,” Jules leaned against the doorframe, looking at my computer with eyebrows raised. “What’s that, the manifesto?”
         I laughed, “Nah, just a little declaration of intent. A final middle finger to the bastards that did this to us.”
         “Hoorah,” Julian said, clearly pleased. “We’ll be downstairs whenever you’re ready.”
         “I won’t be long,” I said, waiting until his footsteps retreated before I turned back to the ancient computer.

         “We’re a dying breed—us lowly third class citizens. No one bothers to check on us, to regulate anything. We butcher the meat and package it pretty for the gaping greedy gobs of the elite. All the garbage packed into that meat is bad, but what comes out in the offal is worse. Our Earth is nothing more than a revolving heap of meat, blood, the trimmings no one wants—and us. The lowly serfs for the high flyers. But, I’ll let you in on a little secret. There are more of us than there are of you. They say when you cut the head off a snake, the rest dies—but we really know that you have to separate the head from the belly. We can only wish you bon appetit.”

         I shoved my seat back from the computer and stood, staring down at the email for a long moment before clicking send. I didn’t look back as I walked down the rickety metal stairs. I breathed in the rank, rich smell of blood and lard. The fat burns like tallow. And the bombs we collected from all over these United States will make a pretty dinnertime show when everything goes boom.

Fight or…

Anyone who visits Las Vegas knows that, sooner or later, your luck runs out. To read Evie and Owen’s postapocalyptic, zombie plagued story, start here.

        Evie’s first bullet drilled through the tweaker’s forehead and he dropped like a stone. She was glad she always loaded the gun before bed as the next one shambled out, his one yellowed eye peering around the room. She didn’t know if he could actually see out of the clouded, oozing lens but the bullet she put into it made the question moot. With a splatter of vitreous fluid and brain matter, he dropped, too. More shadows were shuffling through the yawning black hallway, dim gray shapes in the darkness.
        She could hear Owen grunting as he hacked at the tweakers’ faces and arms as they thrust themselves at the gap in the front door. The bar held—for now. A bullet whizzed by Evie’s ear and took down another tweaker, blasting the top of it’s skull off in a spray of red and fragments of bone–it looked like a female. Jessamy took down three more before Vanessa finally started shooting as well. She missed more than she hit, but the tweakers coming through the hallway were hesitating, confused. Several tripped over the bodies of dead stumblers and bullets ended their clumsy writhing. Evie’s clip was empty, so she thrust the gun into her belt and drew her knives.
        She chanced a look at the front door. Owen’s machete and arms were streaked in blood and sweat poured down his face. There was barely enough room for the two of them at the door but he moved aside as soon as he heard her coming. She could hear the crack and wet thunk of bullets behind her finding their marks and hoped Jessamy and Vanessa had enough ammo—it would have to be enough. She sliced a tweaker’s hand off at the wrist and it howled, staggering back away from the door. The sheer weight of the bodies piling against the door was bending the bar further inwards, widening the gap. Evie stabbed through a tweaker’s jaundiced eye into its brain and felt it twitch before it, too, slumped down.
        “We can’t do this for much longer, the door wont hold,” Owen panted, avoiding a set of snapping, rotten teeth.
        A quick slash relieved the tweaker of her bottom jaw and a terrible sound came from its ruined mouth. They could still feel pain–which was lucky for the uninfected. It didn’t slow them down as badly, but they felt it. Evie grimly dispatched another tweaker, jabbing her knife into the skin at its temple.
        “Got a better idea?” she asked, swiping at the sweat rolling into her eyes.
        “Gregg’s plane. It’ll be here soon,” Owen rhythmically sliced through several more forearms, ignoring the gore that splashed across his arms and chest. “If we can hold them back or drive them off long enough to get outside and get on top of a building…”
        Evie glanced over her shoulder.Jessamy and Vanessa stood almost shoulder to shoulder, angled so no tweakers could run by them. They were picking them off one by one. The stench was beginning to rise–unwashed bodies, blood, and the odor of excrement. It looked like fewer were coming through the doors, but she couldn’t be sure. The wind was blowing drifts of sand and snow over the bodies and through the gap in the door, Evie’s hands were starting to grow numb.
        “Can you tell how many more are out there?” she asked.
        “Not without getting a kiss from one of them,” Owen leaned away from gaunt, clawing fingers and cut through the tweaker’s face, shoving the body back through the door with his machete handle. “And that’s not something I fancy, Evie, love.”
        Evie didn’t have time to answer. The bar rattling in the handles creaked suddenly and they both stepped back. Outside, it seemed that the moans and snarls increased.The squeal of metal against metal shattered the air as the weight against the door increased; Evie grabbed Owen’s arm and pulled him back just as the rusting iron bar broke in half and the doors burst open. She bit back a scream and felt Owen’s forearm flex under her fingers as they backed away. Jessamy and Vanessa had turned at the sound, not noticing one of the tweakers that lurched out of the doorway.
        Owen’s wordless yell was all the warning they had as it grabbed Vanessa’s pack with its grasping fingers. She screamed, trying to get the straps off her shoulders as it clawed towards her. Evie stepped forward, but Owen grabbed her elbow and yanked her back, jarring her shoulder. Two more tweakers burst out of the shadows at Vanessa’s scream. Evie never saw them move that fast before. Jessamy stood frozen and Owen yelled his name three times before he turned a white face to them. Vanessa wasn’t screaming anymore. Her throat was torn out, but they could see her legs and arms twitching. Jessamy spun back around and fired. Her legs went still.
        The front door had collapsed under the weight of the bodies—no more tweakers were visible on the street. Owen drug Evie out, staggering behind him. She heard Jessamy’s feet pounding through the drifting gray sand and snow slush. Her breathing was ragged in her own ears and she concentrated on evening it out, on not falling down, on the pressure of Owen’s hand around her wrist. Anything but the sight of Vanessa’s boots twitching and the sounds of the tweakers gorging.

Showdown Part II

Sometimes you have to take a gamble and just roll the dice…see how Evie and Owen got here by catching up on the story thus far.

“When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” Frank Costello, The Departed

To Evie’s dismay, Edgar kept the gun jammed into her lower back, pressing his other hand to his face.

“Don’t you move, don’t you even move you little–Jessamy, you just gonna sit there?” Edgar’s voice was thick from the blood running down over his face.

Vanessa sat on the ground, her hands clasped to the back of her head, her face twisted in a grimace of pain. Owen had her gun casually leveled at the back of the dark head. His grey eyes were hard. Evie didn’t think he would actually shoot Vanessa but she could tell from the woman’s wild eyes that Vanessa wasn’t so sure. Edgar breathed heavily, spewing insults and curses as he tried to wipe the blood off his face. Evie thought about making a run for it, but if Edgar was a half-decent shot, he could put a bullet in her before she’d gone too far. Some of his blood dripped onto her shoulder as he wrapped his arm across her chest, jerking her closer.

“Edgar…” Vanessa’s voice trailed off as she looked pleadingly up at him.
Owen pressed the barrel of the gun into her dark hair and looked at Edgar, eyebrows raised.

“You think I give a damn about her?” Edgar’s laugh was ugly, and blood sprayed from his mouth.

Evie hoped she at least knocked a few teeth loose, too. She could smell the coppery blood and the sweat that ran down Edgar’s face. She pulled her arms in close to her body, wondering if she could drive her elbows back into his chest hard enough to knock him down. Owen gave a slight jerk of his chin when she looked up at him and it took everything in her to stand still.

“No, no, Edgar, I don’t. I don’t think you care ’bout anyone other than yourself,” Owen said.
“And why should I? Look at these three, women and a whelp of a boy. They’re no good to us. You and me though, Owen. We could catch that little plane of yours and be out of here with no more troubles.
“You’re right, Edgar. We could.”
Owen raised the gun and Evie could see the black eye of the barrel staring back at her.

Her ears rang and she lifted a shaking hand to her face—it came away red. Edgar hit the stage like a sack of rotting vegetables, half his scalp blown away. Evie turned, still holding up her bloody fingers and saw Owen standing with a pistol still pointing towards Edgar’s body. It wasn’t one of the ones he usually carried—his holster still lay in the mess of his bedding—it must be one he kept hidden. She felt cold, except for the spray of Edgar’s blood that ran down her forehead and cheek. She vaguely noticed movement at her side and someone thrust a bandanna into her hands: Jessamy. He stepped over Edgar’s body as though it was no more than a pile of clothes and put a hand on her shoulder.
When she made no move to use the bandanna, he reached to extract it from her trembling fingers. Owen appeared, handing his and Vanessa’s gun to Jessamy.

Vanessa still knelt on the stage, her face white and frozen. Owen gently tugged the bandanna from her hands and slowly began to wipe away the blood spatter from her face. She realized her teeth were chattering when Owen grabbed her chin and turned her face towards him.

“You okay?” he mouthed.
Evie nodded, unable to hear him clearly, but reading the question in his eyes.

Evie remembered the first time they met. She was walking along a lonely stretch of the interstate with no clear destination in mind, she ignored the chilly wind that blew the swamp smells of mud and decay in twirling tornadoes of leaves and debris. She shoved her hands deeper in the pockets of her worn, second-hand jacket as a truck roared by. The brake lights flashed red as the truck slowed and pulled over onto the shoulder. She slowed her pace, pulling her hand out of her pocket to feel for the knife that hung from her belt. Maybe he thought he had a flat or ran out of gas. No one emerged from the car and she hesitated; the driver stuck his head out the window and gestured to her. She loosened the knife and peered through the back window of the old Ford. He was alone. She walked to the passenger side of the car and he rolled down that window, too.

They looked at each other for a minute. She stared flatly at him, aware of the yellowing bruise around one eye and the blood that still caked her nose and lips. She hadn’t taken the time to clean up.

“You okay?” he asked.
For some reason, the familiar Louisiana drawl put her at ease. He was a local, too. She shrugged and waited.
“Heading somewhere in particular?”
“Not really. You?” she resisted the urge to scrub at the blood on her face and leaned warily against the door.
“Not really. Heard there’s a bar up the road that doesn’t care what you’re wearing,” he laughed.

Evie eyed him. He wore a faded blue flannel shirt and dirt streaked his tanned face. She judged him to be a few years older than her—by the dark scruff on his jaw and the beginnings of lines around his gray eyes. She couldn’t deny he was good looking–one of the best looking men she’d seen. He smiled again as he let her look him over and his teeth were white and straight. No one back in the park had teeth like that.

“You talking about Thad’s?” she asked jerking her head up the road.
“Yeah, you know it?” his dark brows rose and she smirked as she saw him trying to calculate her age.
“There are a lot of things Thad doesn’t care about,” she said as she opened the door and slid into the seat.

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