Against the Grain, p.1
Against the Grain
Copyright © 2013
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All nouns - people, places and things - and their similarities to actual nouns, are herby proclaimed as figments of your imagination and bare no resemblance to real life or some such other required legal nonsensical terms. Whatnot.
As many animals as possible were harmed while writing this book from my parked and running gas hog of an SUV.
To my Friend and Editor, this thing would down right suck without you. Thanks buddy.
“He used to have so much potential.”
- My Mother
“That idiot wrote a book? Hahaha”
- A Drinking Buddy
“Eh, it was something to do.”
- An Ex-Girlfriend
“He writes like he does other things: no peaks, no valleys; just a steady plateau of adequacy.”
- The same pain in the ass Ex-Girlfriend
“Could you read it in two minutes or less?”
- Surprisingly, a different Ex-Girlfriend
I hated this, I really did. I hated the drizzling rain in my eyes; I hated the darkness that I couldn't see through, I hated that I’d tailed these three for two long days; and I hated that once they were finally in town is when they decided to turn on the girl. I hated that I was pretty sure I knew her too.
I had been out hunting when I first noticed and then started to follow this little devil’s threesome as they walked along the old highway. Maybe it was curiosity, or maybe it was just plain boredom, but I was headed back in the same direction anyway so I shadowed them through the woods. It didn’t take long to figure out where they were headed. I kept following them all the way to this spot, three blocks into town. The whole time I had kept my distance, staying quiet and unobserved, but now it looked like I was going to have to quit hiding and get involved.
The shot broke with a resounding whack, disrupting the eerie silence of the wet night air.
A suppressed AK74 was still loud as hell, especially at eleven o’clock at night in the middle of town. The first shot was an easy one; he was focused on his heinous task. The bullet hit him above his right ear.
Two more quick suppressed shots and it was all over. The second guy was too stupid to do anything but freeze up, trying to figure out what was going on. I probably could have taken him with a head shot too but I didn’t want to give him a chance to react, so I took the quicker route. Time ticked on as I tried my best to wait patiently for the gunshot’s intrusive sounds to wash away with the drizzle of rain coming out of the clouds above. It took only seconds although it felt like an eternity as I waited. Finally the night forgave my disturbance and I moved forward.
I had closed to within about thirty yards before I had fired and I was able to close the rest of the distance quickly. The young woman’s chest was rising and falling, breathing hard out of fear and surprise, but she wasn’t crying. She didn’t look too banged up and thankfully she wasn’t screaming at the top of her lungs either. Those shots on their own would have drawn enough attention that I didn’t feel like dealing with; a screaming woman would have put it over the top.
I think she was still sorting out everything that had just happened to her when I spoke.
“I… I think so. What just happened? Did you just…” her questions trailed off into silence as she started putting the picture together.
“Yeah… look I’m not going to hurt you. I’m a friend and I can help you, but I want to get moving. If you’re done here I can take you some place safe,” I told her. It was a long shot and I didn’t expect her to accept my offer on blind faith, but after a moment, she seemed to clear her head and make a decision.
“Um, okay. Yeah... I guess.”
She was obviously still shaken up, yet she seemingly had enough wits to trust her gut.
“Did they have anything in their packs or pockets? Knives, guns, food? Anything useful?” I asked her.
“What? No, we had just enough left to get to my mom’s house,” she replied.
Yep, that nailed it. I had been pretty sure I recognized her through my little monocular before, and then when they stopped at this particular house, I was even more sure. Her name was Megan, and last I had heard, she had gone off to college on the other side of the state to study biology or chemistry or something science-y like that. I had watched this house, along with most all the others, fall into disrepair on my few trips back into town over the last year or so. It was a landmark of where to turn when you would drive up from Main Street to the school. Her mother had always kept a nicely landscaped yard with a decent sized garden in the back.
“Okay, it’ll be alright. Grab your stuff… we’re heading that way about five blocks,” I directed. “Move when I move, stop when I stop and try to stay quiet.”
I wished I could say I was doing this out of pure kindness, or even just because I had a history with her ten years ago, but realistically I hadn’t seen her in at least eight years and I had a hunch that her career background could possibly help us out. I guess having previously known her didn’t hurt though. I remembered her to be a down to earth girl with a hell of a work ethic; she was funny too. That’s probably why I dated her for a while way back then.
Megan pulled her coat tight and slung her backpack back onto her shoulders as we started off at a brisk walk. I kept the speed up for a while, mostly just to get some distance from the noise and the now cooling dead bodies.
I had come by nearly this exact same route a couple of times in the last year so I already had a good course planned out. On my own I had been able to take my time and get a good idea of which houses were still lived in and which yards I could cut across. Now with a guest in tow and people maybe wondering about the shots, I had to trust that no new people had moved into the area. It wasn’t exactly a thriving metropolis these days though, so the idea of more and not less people was pretty doubtful.
Even living for so long with the rolling blackouts that had lasted for weeks at a time, without power to the streetlights in town, the whole landscape seemed foreign and awkward at night. A person would get so used to them shining down in their ambiguous yellows, oranges and blues that once they were gone, it was hard to adjust your eyes and mind to the new darkness. It was like when there was a billboard up that you drove past every single day for your whole life, you never really paid attention to it until one day when it was gone.
The darkness from the lack of electrical lights mixed with the rain clouds overhead made it easy to hide, both for us and anyone watching us, I reminded myself. We hopped the last small fence and squatted down in the shadows of a large pine tree in the backyard of a house that I knew had been abandoned a long time ago. Megan had kept up well and had only tried to talk once.
Pointing to an area behind the neglected house whose backyard we were in, I finally broke our silence. “We’re here. Follow the fence line around and stop under that deck. I’ll be there in a minute.”
As she began moving I scanned down the way we had come and in all the other directions too. It was early enough in the night that I couldn’t be sure that the people who still lived in town were all sleeping and that we hadn’t been spotted by someone out tending to the las
The house had once been a nice and well maintained family home, complete with trimmed shrubs and potted plants. Now the darkness in the windows seemed ominous as it swallowed my gaze. The pots had fallen and broken and the shrubs had been torn out by someone, probably nearby neighbors, to be used as heat for their homes. The years of harsh winters, blowing winds, drowning rains, and baking summer heat had taken their toll, but there was still the underlying strength of a well constructed home, despite all the petty exterior flaws.
Once under the half fallen deck, I moved some random junk out of the way, recognizing each piece. I recognized it all because I had been the one that had carefully put it all there, blocking the basement window in order to keep people, animals and the elements out. Once the space was cleared enough to fit through, I carefully slid open the window. The old cracked paint on the frame flaked off at my touch, and the warped wood bumped along on its track, but no loud and telltale noises escaped.
“Go on in. There’s a stool inside to step down on… Here’s a light, do not point it out here,” I stressed. “There’s only one way to go once you’re inside. There’s a lantern at the far end. Blue bin has medical type stuff and there should be a couple towels in the green bin to dry off with. I’ll give you a few minutes to get cleaned up.”
It may have sounded a little curt, but I still didn’t have a great game plan worked out yet on exactly what to do with her.
Staying out at the window, I gave Megan a good ten minutes to get situated and then worked my way down into the dark basement. The top half of the house had been emptied out, boarded up, broken into, boarded up again, and finally all but abandoned. The basement area we were now in had stayed secure though. A long time ago I had worked my way through this place, creating a virtual cave, and sealing it off from the main story of the house above. There was some food, medical supplies, clothing, and a few other odds and ends stashed here at the other end of the “cave” as a re-supply for my travels, or to use when hunkering down, like we were doing tonight.
After rounding the two corners of the basement, a soft, unnatural glow from a little battery powered lantern lit the back end of the room and Megan’s form. I could see she was just finishing arranging her clothes, so after “accidentally” bumping the stock of my gun against the wall to make some noise and alert her of my presence, I walked on into the little room.
“Find everything alright?” I asked her.
“Yes I did, and I don’t know what to say. I guess thank you for all this… and for what happened back there,” she responded.
“Don’t worry about it,” I dismissed and took off my hat and jacket.
“Everything just happened so fast… they surprised me and suddenly you were there and they were… I don’t even know why I came with you….”
I had expected it at some point, but her next words still caught me a little off guard.
“Maybe it’s just nice to see a familiar face too,” she smiled meekly.
“I wondered when you might catch on,” I said, letting my own little smile come out.
The last time she had seen me I was not as tall and certainly not as big. I measured about six foot two and maybe one hundred and sixty five pounds dripping wet back then, I was a total twig. Suffice it to say, after a few years I had found some muscle. The last time I weighed in I was at six foot five and two hundred and thirty pounds with a body fat percentage nearing the single digits. The physical growth and change, combined with my facial hair, all added together to keep me pretty unrecognizable from most anyone that used to know me.
“It’s good to see you too,” I said, turning back to grab the nearly empty water bottle from my pack.
“So what are you doing here? I thought I heard you got out of town and were in med school or something.”
I actually knew the answer of what she was doing here, what else would she be doing at her own mother’s house?
“I did. It was medical research; laboratory type stuff. I got hired out of an internship but all that fell apart when everything… fell apart. Do you remember Mrs. Pratt?” she asked me.
“Our old chemistry teacher?” I smiled again, “yeah she was great. She always used to give me and Ken Gresham the weather report and our next day’s assignments when she knew we’d be skipping school to go skiing,” I replied, briefly relishing in the long forgotten memory.
“Well she’s the one that helped me get the internship and job. I stayed there as long as I could but there stopped being work to do and the company ended up shutting down. I stuck around for a while longer to stay with my friends, but really I didn’t see much of a future. With no job and nothing looking good, finding my way home was kind of the only thing I could do.”
Even in the cold light of the lantern I could see her eyes starting to tear up at the reminder of what she found, or didn’t find, at her childhood home.
“Yeah listen… I’m sorry about that,” I tried to console her.
“Do you know what happened? The house is run down but its still there. It’s weird seeing it so quiet and empty,” she crossed her arms, hugging herself at the thought. Her voice was quiet and she sounded like she was right on the edge of crying.
“I don’t really know for sure. It’s been like that since early on. A lot of people went to the community shelters in town for heat and food. Then when the shelters started to run out of everything, most everybody got bussed out ahead of the really cold weather,” I explained.
“Bussed out? To where?” A last spark of a false hope was on her face.
I didn’t want to smother that spark, but I wasn’t one for false hope much these days either. “I never heard for sure, but I would guess South by a few States at least.”
Whoops, that broke the dam. She hung her head and the tears began to stain the floor. I never was real good at the touchy feely stuff, and knowing that she had just been attacked by two guys I was unsure about moving to console her with a heartfelt hug or some other equally awkward gesture, but my fears diminished when she leaned in to me as I came closer.
After a moment Megan collected herself and I was able to take a step back and sit down next to my backpack. If nothing else it gave me better than no excuse at all to gain some distance and keep from feeling even more uncomfortable.
“So how did you make it all the way back here?” I asked her, looking to get the conversation rolling again.
These days I really wasn’t all that interested in personal interactions, but I was interested in gleaning some more information that could somehow prove useful. So far I was actually learning a lot about her. A medical background; she was determined and resourceful to have come this far… but I wanted to hear a bit more before I got any other ideas about just what to do with her.
“I tagged along with some friends of friends that were headed this way. We followed the freeway, hitched a ride when we could and otherwise walked all the way here. Eight of us started out, but a few lived closer and the rest dropped off to catch other roads going back to their homes until it was just me, Chris and Todd. They were headed further East, but said they’d come here with me to my Mom’s. We were low on food again and they said they didn’t want me out traveling alone… liars,” she recounted, letting a little bit of anger show through by the end.
I figured I should probably address that part too, although I wasn’t quite sure what the best words would be.
“Yeah um listen, I’m sorry about that. I mean if they were your friends or something, but…”
“What?” She interrupted angrily, “Friends? No, I mean they were until they tried to freaking rape me. I had just met them as part of the group that was headed this way
“Well I hope they didn’t hurt you… and you know, I’m sorry that had to happen.”
Actually at this point I had no qualms at all about putting down two pieces of shit that would do that, or any number of other things, but I was sorry that she had had to experience it.
We talked for a few more minutes until I noticed her yawning and slightly glazed over eyes. “I’m guessing it’s been a long day and you could probably use some sleep huh?”
“Where… here?” She looked around quickly, finally unsure if she was really willing to trust another man in another a cold, dark place.
“For a few hours anyway. Look, I want to be out of town before sunrise, so you’ve got a couple options.” Time for the pitch... “You can stay here tonight, and in the morning you can head over to the shelter at the elementary school. They might have some info on your mother and they can probably get you on the next bus south, but I honestly don’t know when, or even if, that is still happening.”
She bit her lower lip slightly as she listened, but refrained from saying anything until I had dropped the other shoe.
“Your other option is to see what’s left of your Mom’s place, if you think you can make it livable there again. I know you grew up gardening with her, and there are still some good people in town that can help you out.”
“What about you? Where are you going?” She asked with a look that said neither of those options sounded all that appealing to her.
“That’s your third option,” I replied. “There’s a group of families about eight miles from here, back the direction you came from more or less. It’s the Harris’s that we went to school with. There are five families total living in three houses within about a mile of each other. The main house is the mom and dad of Breanne and her brothers. Bre and her husband Nick stay there with their two kids, her younger brother Andrew and his girlfriend…wife… whatever… they live with their two friends in the grand parent’s old ranch house across the road. The oldest brother Paul and his wife are in the last place a little further down.”