• March 16, 2020
    • 8 minute read
    Get out of the City

    “You’ve got to get out of the city!” my brother yelled into the phone.

    “What’s the big deal? This sounds more like a bad cold than anything else. It’s not like you to pay attention to this kind of stuff,” I said, pacing around my living room. My toddler watching Lion King for the umpteenth time, and my youngest scooting himself around the room; no need to crawl when you can slide on wood floors.

    “I know, I know. But I think something is really going on this time. It’s not the same as before; SARS and MERS, and all the others were bad but nothing like this. The Chinese government has gotten gun shy, and they’ve worked hard to conceal the severity of it. They wanted to ignore it and hope it went away,” he said. “But this one is the worst. There are a million different reasons why, but I’ve found reports that it affects every blood type differently. It’s gone unnoticed because it most severely affects AB-negative–the rarest blood type.”

    “What went unnoticed?”

    “COVID-19… it fundamentally alters… it changes the behavior of people with AB-negative blood,” he said.

    “Hold on, wait. I thought it was called the Coronavirus. What is COVID-19?”

    “HIV causes AIDS, Coronavirus causes COVID-19,” he said.

    “When did you become an expert on viruses and blood types? Why hasn’t the CDC or WHO said anything about this yet.”

    “I don’t know about the WHO, but the CDC is embarrassed. At the demand of the president, they put 14 infected passengers on a plane with 315 other people and flew them to the States from Japan. On the flight, everyone became infected despite quarantine procedures. It’s spreading like crazy here. And almost two million Americans have AB-negative blood. Our government is now doing the same thing the Chinese government is doing, controlling information to cover their own asses.”

    I stopped pacing and stood, watching my kids enjoying their own little worlds.

    “Look, worst-case scenario, you get to spend a little time in the mountains and get all the kids together for a few days,” he said. “If I’m totally crazy, you go back home. No harm, no foul.”

    I could hear his five-month-old crying in the background.

    “I can’t just skip out of work on such short notice. I don’t have the luxury of working wherever I want.”

    “Don’t give me that,” he said. “You run that office now, and if one of the juniors is still in town, they can take your clients for a few days. Sis and her husband are packing up now, and they have a way harder time getting off work than you.”

    He was right, and a few days in the mountains could be good for me. I could use it after the last several weeks. The stress was really starting to wear me down.

    “If you wait too long, you’ll never get out of the city. The traffic will be impossible,” my brother said, snapping me out of my daze. “People are already leaving, trying to put space between themselves and everyone else.”

    “OK fine, you convinced me. We’ll pack up and head your way—what the hell was that?”

    “What‽ What happened‽,” my brother said.

    “Hold on. Something’s going on outside,” I said as I walked to the front of my house. My kids, oblivious to the noise.

    “What is it?” I could hear my brother yelling from the phone I now held down at my side.

    Outside, my quiet, ideal street was anything but. My neighbor’s brand new Range Rover was laying on its side, one of the custom wheels he’d bragged about getting was still spinning, and three people were lying in the road.

    The driver’s side door, the door facing the sky, slowly rose open. I could see the top of my neighbors head trying to climb out of the SUV.

    “Is everything OK? What’s going on there?” my brother said frantically into the phone.

    “Hold on. My neighbor just wrecked in front of my house,” I said.

    “Don’t go outside! Get your family in the car and leave. It’s there, it’s made it to your street,” my brother said as I opened my front door.

    “Hey, man! Are you OK?” I yelled to the street from my front door. Before he had the chance to answer, one of the people lying in the street jumped up and started to climb up the side of the car towards my neighbor. Another jumped up from the ground and ran straight at me at an impossibly fast speed.

    “Whoa, hey, are you OK?” I yelled at the person running at me.

    Just then, my neighbor started yelling. I saw him fighting off the person who’d climbed on top of his SUV.

    “Get back in your house!” my brother yelled.

    I looked back at the person running at me through my front yard. He’d gained a lot of ground in a short amount of time.

    “Hey man, are you OK?” I said, but his pace never slowed, and he never answered. I backed slowly to my door, trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. “Hey!” I yelled again and slammed the door shut.

    He hit the door at full speed. I could feel the force of his body rattle through the entire house. I couldn’t believe the door didn’t come off the hinges. One of his hands had slammed through a window next to the door. I was thankful my wife demanded a solid wood door, my first choice would have collapsed as soon as he hit it.

    “What’s going on there‽” my brother yelled into my now forgotten phone.

    “Some guy just charged me from the street. He hit my front door running at full speed. I’ve never seen anything like it,” I said.

    “Listen to me. Don’t pack anything, get your wife, get your kids, and get in the car now. Don’t stop for anything. I’m serious, go now,” he said.

    Out of nowhere, my entire house rattled again. I looked through the broken window and saw the person backing up, preparing to ram the door for a third time. I quickly flipped the deadbolt on the door, hoping it would slow him down.

    “How contagious is this?” I said to my brother, watching the person charge my door.

    “You’ve watched the news, it’s incredibly contagious.”

    I yelled up the stairs from the front door to my wife, “Honey! We’ve gotta get out of here now. Get the kids, put them in the truck. We’re heading to my brother’s house.”

    “What? Why?” She yelled back. “And who keeps banging on the front door?”

    “I’ll explain on the way. We have to go now!” I yelled at the house.

    “Yeah, but what about this guy. Shit! This door…,” I panicked into the phone.

    There was another massive bang on the door. It would not handle another blow.

    “As far as I know, if you aren’t AB-negative, then that is not likely to happen to you. But that person will not stop coming for you,” my brother said as I pushed our dining room table in front of the door just as the person rammed it again.

    “What is wrong with him? Why is he doing this?” I said to my brother.

    “I have no idea, I don’t think anyone knows what’s happening.”

    The frame next to the deadbolt began to crack with the most recent ramming.

    ” OK, on the way. Gotta go. I’ll call you when we get on the road,” I said and hung up.

    “I’m serious, get in the fucking truck right now!” I yelled at the house, causing my toddler to start crying, and my wife to come down the stairs.

    “We have to go now,” I said again, panicked that our front door was about to collapse.

    My wife didn’t say anything. She slipped by me and the dining room table. She scooped up our youngest, grabbed the diaper bag with her free hand, and ran towards the garage.

    “Don’t open the garage door until we’re all in the truck!” I yelled at her as she went around the corner.

    “Hey, big man,” I said as calmly as I could, leaning against the table and door to my toddler crying on the couch. “We’re going to go for a car ride to see Uncle Bubby, OK. Can you get your iPad and get in the big car?”

    He continued to cry but slid off the couch, dragging his little tablet with the Lion King playing on it.

    Another hard bang on the door and the wood around the deadbolt shattered. The door slammed hard against the table and pushed me forward.

    I pushed hard to get the table back against the door. The person had managed to get their bloody arm and shoulder in the door. This was the first time I got a good look at him. His face looked totally calm. He could have been a guy jogging in the park if it weren’t for the blood dripping from his arm and my front door crushing his torso.

    “Is everyone in the car?” I asked my wife, hoping she could hear me from the garage.

    She came around the corner and saw me straining against the door with my feet sliding out from under me. She ran and pushed with me, but there was no slowing this guy down. He never even flinched when she slammed into the table next to me.

    “The boys are in the car. We’re as ready as we’re going to be. Who is this? What’s happening?” she said, pushing hard on the table next to me.

    “I’m going to hold the door while you run to the truck. Honk the horn when you’re in. I’ll run then close and lock the door behind me. Whoever this is will be in our house before we can pull out,” I said, straining on the table. “I have no idea what is going on.”

    I watched as she disappeared around the corner again, and a few seconds later, hit the horn of the truck. The guy was pushing hard, I wouldn’t be able to hold him much longer.

    I took a deep breath and ran as hard as I possibly could towards our garage.

    As I rounded the corner, the guy grabbed my shoulder, throwing me off balance. He was running so fast he flew past me, leaving several feet of space between us as we both hit the floor.

    I scrambled to my feet and made it through the garage door and slammed it behind me just as he slammed into it.

    I felt the force of his body in the walls.

    I was terrified and focused on getting my family away but still felt pulled to protect my house, our things.

    My wife was in the passenger seat with the engine running. My youngest was already asleep, oblivious to everything going on. My oldest sat in his car seat with tear-soaked cheeks, zeroed in on his movie playing on the iPad.

    Crying, my wife said, “What is going on? Who was that? Why are they in our house? Oh, my God! You’re bleeding!”

    I looked at my shoulder where the guy had grabbed me. My shirt was ripped, and I had a gash running from my shoulder across my upper back.

    How had he gotten through the door and over the table so fast?

    I reached up to hit the garage door opener, but my wife grabbed my hand. “Wait. Are there more of them outside?”

    “I don’t know. But if they are, we can’t stay here. We can’t sit in the garage and hope they go away. The guy inside, whoever he is, seemed very intent on getting us. We need to get out of here. Away from everything. My brother’s place is isolated. We can get there and figure out what’s going on,” I said.

    I closed my eyes and readied myself for what could be waiting in the driveway. I locked the truck doors, put it in reverse, took one more deep breath, and clicked the garage door controller. Watching the side mirrors, everything looked clear as the door slowly rose. I was expecting to see feet at the bottom of the door waiting for us to pull out, but nothing.

    I glanced at the door leading to the house one last time, just as the frame exploded. The man crashed on to the hood of my wife’s car next to us. I slammed my foot on the gas pedal, the top of the truck ripped the garage door away. The mirror on the passenger side clipped someone, and I saw them fall into the yard between our house and the neighbor’s.

    When we got to the street, I slammed the truck into drive and floored it north towards my brother’s house. In my rearview mirror, I could see my neighbor’s body slumped over the side of his car.

    There was no way I was stopping for anything until we made it to the mountains.

    • February 15, 2020
    • 19 minute read
    Don't Drink the Water

    This is part 2 of a story I started in August 2019. If you haven’t read it or need a refresher, check out Crimes Against the Human Race

    I sat crying in the mud of my broken water container and cradled my last jug. I didn’t know what else to do.

    I was so exhausted. The density of the forest had taken every bit of my strength. I’d continued stumbling several steps before I noticed the jug was no longer in my cramping hand. By the time I realized what happened, half of my water was gone.

    What was I supposed to do now? I had no idea if I was going in the right direction, with no point of reference to walk towards. I just assumed I was walking in the direction the person on the wall pointed me, the direction where there might be people to help me.

    Or the direction where there might be people to hurt me.

    So, I cried myself to sleep.

    I woke to something pulling on my hand. My vision was blurry, and my eyes were slow to open–I couldn’t tell who or what it was. Whatever it was, it was pulling on my hand that still gripped the handle on the full jug of water.

    “Hey! What are you doing? That’s mine,” I said. Terrified of the creature itself and losing my remaining water.

    My talking startled it, causing it to look me directly in the eye, but it never released my hand nor the jug. Its eyes looked crazed but human. Little else about it resembled any human I’d ever known.

    Were there part human, part creatures in the woods outside the wall? Was this what the wall was protecting us from?

    It went back to pulling at my hand and jug like I wasn’t there. I could hear it whispering or grunting.

    “Hey!” I yelled, hoping I could scare it away if I seemed intimidating. I pulled my leg back to kick it away and then realized it was saying something.

    “Society water. I need The Society water,” it kept repeating.

    “What? What are you doing? That’s my water, I need it.”

    “No. My Society water. This is mine now. I found it,” it said. The voice was soft, with no anger or violence behind it.

    I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have to struggle to maintain my grip, but it was persistent. I slapped the side of the plastic with my free hand, making a loud noise, hoping to frighten it.

    It sat back, stared at me for a second, then hissed, showing all three of its rotted out teeth.

    “This is my Society water. All mine,” it repeated under its breath.

    “No, this is my water. I carried it. It was given to me,” and yanked it back.

    This set it off. It began thrashing around, throwing leaves and sticks, kicking dirt and growling.

    In one ear-piercing scream, it charged at me on all fours. Before I could react, it spun on one hand and kicked me square in the chest with both feet, crushing my diaphragm and flinging my head against a tree behind me.

    My body curled around my chest, and my hands instinctively reached for the back of my head, releasing the water.

    And then it was gone.

    I tried to get up to chase after it but couldn’t. I watched through tears and stars, gasping for breath, as my last jug of water was dragged off into the dense forest.

    Laying on the ground, watching the spot where my water disappeared, I cried and felt sorry for myself. Eventually, I could breathe normally again, and the stars in my vision faded. I fell asleep staring into the forest.

    I woke up to the morning sun hammering my head and a thirst I’d never experienced before. Every breath made my chest ache. I watched–not moving–through the dense trees for any movement. When I felt comfortable I was alone, I struggled to my feet, pulling myself up with a nearby tree and leaned against a boulder. There was no way I could have carried the water jugs in this condition.

    After several minutes of letting my eyes adjust to the forest, I saw a faint path the thing had created dragging my jug through the underbrush.

    I eased off the boulder and started walking, stumbling from one tree to the next–thankful for the extra support. After several painful collisions with trees, I began to get my balance back. I was not graceful, but I could walk without falling.

    In time, it also got easier to see the path the thing left, up until the trail disappeared into the crumbled remains of an old highway.

    I knew from history lessons wide roads like this crisscrossed the country. You could get anywhere by following these roads. But which way was the right way? The path the thing left behind was gone, and all I could do was guess which direction to go. Nothing indicated one direction was better than the other.

    I was so thirsty.

    I kicked myself for being weak, for not fighting the thing off.

    Henry wasn’t weak, he would have protected the water. He would know what to do.

    I sat down in a spot hidden from the road on the edge of the forest and watched–maybe someone would travel by.

    After a while, the warmth of the sun made me drowsy, I could not afford to fall asleep next to the road. I decided it didn’t matter what direction I went in–it would eventually lead somewhere.

    I stepped out to the road, turned to the left, and started walking.

    The road was totally empty. The walking was easier, but I felt exposed–like I was being watched from the forest.

    Hopeless, I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going. I walked following cracks in the broken asphalt, crying.

    I didn’t pay attention to where I was going or what was around me. I didn’t care. If something or someone wanted to attack me, they could.

    “Ahoy there!” I heard a man’s voice say, breaking me out of my self-loathing trance. “You look new to these parts.”

    I looked up through tear-filled eyes, surprised to see an old man sitting on top of what looked like the remains of a truck pulled by an old gray-bearded horse. He had a long braided gray beard, a piece of fabric holding his long hair back, and wearing a leather jacket and leather pants. The old truck had a mast and sail standing out of the center and a large animal skull as a figurehead tied at the man’s feet.

    “Are you lost, young lady?” the man asked from atop his wagon-ship in an accent I’d never heard and could hardly understand. “You don’t look like you’re from around here. Based on those fancy clothes you’re wearing, I’d bet you’re from Vie Facile.”

    I just stared up at him. I wasn’t sure I understood him.

    “You’re from The Society, from inside the wall, am I right?”

    “Um, yeah–yes, I was inside the wall.”

    “And now you find yourself outside the wall. Say, do you happen to have any water from inside?”

    “I did, but someone… or something stole it from me. I was following their trail, but I lost it when I got to the road.”

    “Shame. I would have traded you for it,” he said.

    “Could you point me in the direction of a town nearby? I was trying to get there but got disoriented in the forest,” I said.

    He sat and stared at me in silence for an uncomfortably long time.

    “You’re a pretty young thing. How old are you?” he said, clicking his tongue. “Aw, never mind, that doesn’t matter. I can give you a ride. I’m headed there now, climb on up!”

    He threw a short rope ladder over the side for me to climb up his wagon-ship. I stood and stared.

    “I can get myself there. Could you just point me in the right direction and I’ll walk,” I said.

    “I’m not gonna bite, I promise. Climb up, and you can sit on the far end if ya like,” he pointed to the back of his wagon-ship.

    “It’s a pretty long walk,” he said when I didn’t move. “You just head down this direction, and at the fifth turnoff, you take a left. From there, you follow the road to the third, or is it the fourth turnoff? I can never remember, I have to do it by sight. Ole Gertie knows the route too, so sometimes I need her to tell me where to go. Then follow that dirt road on for a long ways until you see the city marker on the side of the road where you take a right.”

    I tried my best to remember everything he said.

    “Is there not an easier way to get there?” I asked. I did not want to get on his wagon-ship.

    “Not that I know of. It’s in that general direction, if you want to try the forest. Not sure what you’ll see in there,” he pointed into the forest.

    Pulling out an old metal can, he drank from it, reminding me of my dry mouth.

    He looked down at me after with a wet beard and smiled, “Thirsty?”

    “Could I have a little? Is it water?”

    “Of course, good, pure water,” he leaned down and handed it to me. “Drink up!”

    I pulled the lid off, smelled it, and drank until I thought my stomach would explode.

    “I don’t mean to be insensitive, but I have an appointment to get to in town. I’ll gladly give you a ride; otherwise, I need to get a move on.”

    I handed the can back to him.

    “You needed that,” he said, laughing, shaking the empty can.

    “Thank you for the water and the offer, but I think I’ll try on my own.”

    “Suit yourself,” he said. “If you make it, look me up. It’s good to see a familiar face in a strange place.”

    He snapped the reins, and the old gray horse started moving. The wagon-ship took off much faster than I expected. The horse moved more swiftly than its appearance gave it credit, and the sail seemed to lighten the load.

    The man disappeared around the corner, and I was alone again. Hoping I could figure out a way to the town, I followed after in the same direction.

    I walked for several hours, watching the cracks in the road.

    “Ahoy there!” I heard again.

    I looked up to see the old man lounging on his wagon-ship.

    “Sorry to bother you. I just couldn’t leave you be. I had to try one more time, plus old Gertie could use the rest. Are you sure you don’t want a ride?” he said, smiling.

    I stopped 20 feet short of his wagon-ship.

    “I get it, a strange old man offering you a ride, in a strange new world, doesn’t really seem like the best idea, but I’m good people. You can sit there on the back, keep your distance if that makes you feel safer.” He pointed to an open space.

    I was tired, and there’d been no change in the road the entire time. But it felt wrong to be helped so eagerly.

    “I, uh, I don’t know,” I said. “You’ll let me sit on the back and not come back there? I don’t have much to offer you.”

    “You sit back there, I’ll stay up here. I don’t need or want anything. I just can’t leave a new pup like you out in the wild like this.”

    “OK,” I said. “I’ll ride back there.”

    “Great! I’m Raoul Le Marchand, by the way, and this old lady pulling my ship is Mademoiselle Gertrude la Magnifique. I just call her Gertie for short.” He stuck his hand out to me to shake, “And you can just call me Ralph.”

    I flinched. He was 20 feet away, but it still startled me.

    “I’m Charlotte. Charlotte Freeman,” I said, stepping forward and taking his hand.

    “Nice to meet you, Mademoiselle Charlotte Freeman du Vie Facile.”

    I walked to the back and climbed his wagon-ship. I slipped climbing and landed on my ribs, letting out a painful gasp.

    “You OK, Mademoiselle Charlotte Freeman? You can set yourself right there on that soft tarp.” Ralph said.

    “Yeah,” I winced and settled myself among the tied down bundles. “I think I broke some ribs or something when my water was stolen.”

    “There’s a few folks in town who might could help with the pain. I’ll introduce you when we get there. Just get comfortable. We’ll be there in no time.” He snapped the reins, and Gertie started moving.

    “Do you know anyone called Pax?” I asked, once settled.

    He made a slight movement, but he acted as if he didn’t hear me.

    “Mr. Ralph, do you know anyone with the name Pax, uh, Pax Hampton?” I said again, louder.

    “Can’t say I do, Mademoiselle Charlotte Freeman. Friend of yours?” he asked.

    “No, not really. Just someone I was told to look for,” I said, watching the trees go by.

    Ralph talked nonstop, asking me questions and sometimes just talking about nothing as if no one was there with him.

    Eventually, Gertie’s rhythmic walking lulled me to sleep.

    “Mademoiselle Charlotte Freeman, Mademoiselle Charlotte Freeman,” I heard off in the distance in a sing-song rhythm. “Mademoiselle Charlotte Freeman, wake up. We’re coming into town.”

    I shot upright, realizing where I was, and forgetting the pain in my chest again.

    “Hello there, Mademoiselle Charlotte Freeman,” Ralph said without turning around. “We’re coming into town. I want to be sure, but you said you don’t have any water from inside the wall, correct?”

    “Yes, correct. It was stolen from me, why?” I asked.

    “Did you drink any of it before it was stolen?”

    “No, why? What’s so special about the water?”

    “That is a simple question with a complex answer. For now, it’s good to know you didn’t drink any and there isn’t any with you. But, long story short, it’s valuable in these parts. Fiends will attack you for it, and everyone else would trade you for it. I’m guessing it was a Fiend that stole it from you.”

    “Is a Fiend a person? I mean, I thought it was a person, but I’m not really sure,” I said.

    A group of long-forgotten buildings and people came into view. There was no glass in any of the windows, and spindly plants were growing out of cracks. There were remnants of paint on the brick buildings, and any wood was rotted and collapsed.

    The people were in worse shape than the buildings. Many looked like the thing that attacked me in the woods.

    “Bonjour monsieur,” Ralph said as we rolled past someone. “It’s probably best you not sit too close to the edge as we roll through this part of town. You look like an easy target.”

    “An easy target for what?” I asked.

    “Sit towards the center of the ship. Just to be safe.”

    I crawled to the center and stood, holding the mast.

    On the side of the road, a crowd surrounded a man reading from a piece of wood. From my place on Ralph’s ship, it looked blank but seemed valuable.

    As we approached, I could hear the man say, “Our Father, way up in the sky, so holy is your name. Give us just a taste of some daily bread, we have gone so long without it. Forgive us our trespasses, for we have surely trespassed against you. Take away our temptations and protect us from evil, for we have created a Hell all our own. For you are the Almighty, and this is your power and your glory. Forever and ever. So be it.”

    “So be it,” said the crowd surrounding him in unison.

    “As we know, the Almighty Father needs payment to provide for us. And as they say, nothing in life is free. Pass forward your Society water or anything else you might have as payment for the Almighty Father,” the man said as we rolled past.

    We continued several more blocks where Ralph steered Gertie into a side alley and pulled her to a stop.

    “Here we are,” Ralph said. “We’ve made it to town. Come with me. I know someone who can help you.”

    We climbed from his wagon-ship, and I followed him into one of the buildings.

    Inside it was hazy and dark, yet warm and cozy. It smelled sweet, a welcome scent from the smell of human waste and rot on the street. Beautiful drapes and empty sofas were spread throughout the rooms I could see from the entrance.

    A long, slender man glided in from behind a tapestry, he was much cleaner than any other person I’d seen since leaving The Society. He seemed elegant–soft and fragile–but still somewhat… downtrodden.

    “Ralph, old friend!” the man said. He spoke softly and slowly, annunciating every word.

    “Larry! Good to see you!” Ralph said, grabbing the man in a hug. I thought Ralph might break him. The long man did not return the embrace with the same enthusiasm.

    “You know I hate it when you call me that but good to see you too. It has been a while since your last visit. What can we do for–” he stopped short when he saw me behind Ralph. “You brought a friend with you? That is not your normal… taste. Also, a bit young for your typical requests. You know outside friends are extra.”

    “Lawrence, this is Mademoiselle Charlotte Freeman du Vie Facile. She has very recently left the walls of The Society,” Ralph said, holding his arm out, presenting me. “Very recently from within the walls of The Society and needs rest and recovery.”

    “Ah, OK,” Lawrence said. “Well, welcome to my establishment.”

    I studied him, he felt… uncomfortable to me.

    “What is your establishment?” I asked. “What is this place?”

    “This place! This place is Lucinda’s House of Negotiated Affections. We relieve burdens and stresses from the outside world,” Lawerence said. “For a price, of course.”

    I stared back at him.

    “Ah, yes, of course,” he said to me, noting my confusion. “I provide services to relieve stress and bring pleasure to my clients. I can relieve you of any burdens you may carry. Perhaps–if I may presume–relieving you of the burden of your innocence? And trust me, it is much more of a burden than you might expect. Or simply some soothing rest and recovery?”

    He paused and smiled, assuming this was enough. “Do you have any of the water The Society gave you as you left?”

    I looked at Ralph and back at Lawrence.

    “She doesn’t have any water, and I don’t believe much else to trade with,” Ralph said. He stepped closer to Lawrence and tried to whisper, but Ralph’s voice carried no matter what he did. “She’s going to need help. And I thought maybe you could, you know… you could maybe work out some kind of other trade.”

    Lawrence studied me with a new interest, inspecting me.

    “Have you told her what’s coming?” Lawrence asked.

    “What’s coming? What are you trading, Ralph? What’s going on here?” I said, taking a step back.

    “Mademoiselle Charlotte Freeman, there are a few things I didn’t tell you while we were on our journey…”

    “Charlotte, you’re about to begin an excruciating and dangerous transition,” Lawrence said. He turned to Ralph, “Did she drink out of the containers they sent with her?”

    “No, she told me she never got the chance,” Ralph said. “A Fiend stole it from her.”

    “Charlotte, dear, stay here. My girls will take great care of you as you go through this transition; they’ve all gone through it themselves. It will be a huge help. After, you can stay here. We can provide you a safe place to rest, recover, figure out this new world, and give you work. You can take your time and make some money to help with your transition to life outside the walls.”

    “Stay here? And do what? I’m not sure what here is. What am I being traded for?” I took another step back, and when I thought I was far enough away where they couldn’t grab me, I turned and ran.

    I got tangled in drapery covering the door and panicked. I thought one of them would grab me. But neither attempted to stop me, they just watched as I wrestled it out of the way and escaped.

    The sidewalk was crowded. There were people everywhere blocking me; all I wanted to do was run home. I wove my way through and sprinted.

    “Come back when you need the help. My door is always open,” I could hear Lawrence yelling behind me.

    I ran until only a few people were milling around. Everyone looked like they could be a Fiend. Every person I passed watched me closely, not like they were afraid of me, but like I was their next meal after they hadn’t eaten for several days.

    I found an alleyway where I could sit in a corner behind a pile of trash and rest. I would see anyone enter the alley before they would see me; no one would sneak up on me.

    I wanted to cry. I wanted to sit in my hidden corner and feel bad about myself, but I couldn’t. Only able to stare at the entrance to the alley, I tried to think of what I could do next, what I needed to do next, but I was blank. All I could do was stare.

    People walked past, but no one turned to walk down the alley or even noticed it was there. This was a place people left forgotten and useless items.

    After a while, I felt secure enough in my position to take stock of myself. My ribs and sternum were sore but bearable, my clothes were dirty but in good shape, and my backpack was scuffed but still sturdy. I opened it and pulled everything out piece by piece.

    I had to figure out a way to survive with these items. I knew there was no way to trust anyone here. I had to do this on my own.

    My hands started to shake, how long had it been since I’d eaten?

    I pulled out the freeze-dried food packs. These were good, but I needed water to eat them. There were several cans of food I could eat now.

    I pulled the knife from the side pocket and removed the long blade from the sheath, careful not to cut myself.

    Blood dripped from the tip as soon as I pulled the knife free, and I immediately dropped it.

    I looked at my hands, I hadn’t cut myself. Picking up the blade up again, I inspected it, and this time there was no blood, dried or otherwise.

    I really needed food and water.

    I cut into a can of peaches–grown in giant orchard greenhouses inside the walls. Prying the can open enough to get one peach at a time but, more importantly, to slurp down the sweet syrup.

    With my dry mouth satiated for the moment, I pulled out one of the family pictures my mother gave me. Before I could look at it, I started to sob and set the frame down to keep from dropping and breaking it.

    I got my sobbing under control and picked up the frame. Henry’s face was covered in blood. I wiped at the glass to get it off, but it seemed to flow from the picture. Then my hands were covered in blood. I rubbed my hands together, but the blood wouldn’t wipe off. It was everywhere, I couldn’t find the source.

    I shook my hands out and squeezed my eyes shut, my tears blinded me and… all the blood… it was like the night Henry died.

    When I opened my eyes, the blood was gone.

    I began to shiver in my corner despite the air being warm. I must be in shock, I thought. Taking a deep breath and calming myself, I finished the can of peaches watching people pass by the alley.

    Despite the shivering, I fell asleep, wedged in my corner.

    I woke in the dark to Henry standing over me. He picked me up, carried me to a waiting truck, and took me home to The Society. It was comforting to be with him again, and I fell asleep on his shoulder.

    When I woke again, I was lying in a bed soaked in blood. Henry’s body lay next to me, and my mother stood over me with a knife. I screamed until my throat hurt. I couldn’t move, I was paralyzed. My mother was smiling down at me. She slowly moved towards me with the knife. There was nothing I could do except watch the blade slowly sink into my skin. Everything went black.

    I fell hard to the ground, the wind knocked out of me. I grabbed at the spot where the knife went in and found nothing, and I slowly gathered my feet under me and stood. Looking around, I saw myself kneeling next to Henry’s body. Not upset, not moving, just looking at him. We were both covered in blood.

    “I didn’t kill him! It wasn’t me!” I yelled, the version of me kneeling turned to look at me, but my face was Ralph’s.

    “Mademoiselle Charlotte Freeman, it’s OK. You’re safe,” I heard.

    “What? Where am I?” I was lying in a bed, the sun was shining through a window nearby. I tried to sit up but was tied down.

    “We’re at Larry–Lawrence’s place. You are safe here, I promise–”

    “How did I get here? What are you doing to me?” I pulled harder on my restraints.

    “You’re going through withdrawals.”

    “From what? Why am I tied down?”

    “Your body is transitioning away from The Society water,” Ralph said “The Society adds something to the water to keep the people… peaceful…”

    He started to explain more, but I was suddenly sitting on a blanket in Founders Park, having a picnic with Henry and my mother. The sun was warm; we had wine and snacks spread out. My mother was leaning back reading her latest romance novel, and Henry was napping with a pamphlet from work about chemistry draped over his face. Everything was perfect. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and soaked in the warmth of the sun. When I opened my eyes again, everything was gone. I was walking in total darkness. I couldn’t see anything, but there was a sound. I couldn’t really hear it, but I sensed it. It was maddening, and I walked nonstop towards it for days.

    I came to with the most angelic-looking girl I’d ever seen sitting next to my bed, holding my hand. She seemed almost fake.

    I tried to speak, but she smiled and told me not to say anything, and she’d be right back with some water and Ralph.

    “No, I don’t want Ralph. I want to know what is going on,” I said. My voice was raspy, and my throat was on fire.

    “Ralph can explain everything to you,” she said in a soothing voice.

    “Can you tell me?” I coughed.

    “Well, you’ve been in bed for almost two weeks, in and out of consciousness. You’re almost through the toughest parts, but there is a long road to full recovery. It will take a while to regain your strength,” she said.

    “Through what? Who are you? Is this a hospital?”

    She laughed, “No, this isn’t a hospital, but we do help people. We’ve helped a lot of people go through what you’re going through. I went through it, and so has everyone else who’s been helping you. You know, you’re pretty lucky you didn’t drink any of the water they gave you. This would be a totally different situation. And Ralph, he’s such a sweetheart, has been worried sick about you this whole time. It’s good you got here when you did.”

    “How’d I get here?”

    “There’s a man that goes around looking for Fiends in need of help. He found you and knew the state you were in, so he brought you here. He’s a recluse, but he does a lot of good. You know… he has that same intense stare too.” She rubbed my hand, “I’ll be right back with some water, but we can loosen your straps a bit now.”

    She loosened the straps only slightly.

    “I promise you can get up soon. The straps are to keep you from hurting yourself or throwing yourself out the window. We learned that the hard way…,” she said. “Your bag is in the corner. I hope you don’t mind, but I went through it and found a picture. I thought you might want it close by.”

    She pointed to the bedside table and turned towards the door.

    I started crying when I saw the picture.

    “Hey, it’s OK. I know it’s hard being outside of the wall, but you’re tough,” she said, coming back and rubbing my arm.

    “What makes you think I’m tough?”

    “You just survived something designed to kill you. You’re a survivor. I’ll let Ralph explain everything else. He’ll be so happy you’re awake.”

    “Wait. What’s your name?” I asked.

    “Oh, I’m just Perdita,” and she left the room.

    • September 21, 2019
    • 8 minute read

    “Alright crew. We’re about to head out on the largest spacewalk in history.” Aiden heard his C.O., Zeb Porter, say through the comms in his helmet. “I know you know this already. I am telling you again so you know the importance of what is going on. Keep a close eye on your buddy. It will be disorienting when you first climb out of the airlock, but your lives depend on each other. Stay focused. Understood?”

    “Hooyah!” Everyone said in response.

    The group–collectively known as “The Crowd”– were a mixture of military and civilian specialists. All members had been hand-picked by the governments and private companies that make up the “Deep Space Alliance,” or DS-A, and survived the rigorous two and a half years of training.

    Over the last two weeks, the DS-A crew assembled at an engineering marvel. A massive structure built entirely in space by autonomous drones from materials mined on the Moon.

    Over the past decade, the member countries of the DS-A have been working in secret, spending trillions to build a space station to be the launching point for solar system exploration. State of the art unmanned mining, construction, and smelting equipment was sent to the Moon with the goal of building the structure now known as the “Deep Space Gateway” or DS-G.

    The drones had been mining and smelting aluminum non-stop for eight and a half years. Thick sheets of aluminum were flown from the low gravity surface of the Moon to an orbit between the Earth and the Moon where the DS-G had been constructed.

    The Crowd’s job was to take the DS-G the final mile. They were tasked with getting life support operational, computer systems installed and running, and ensure the structure would support the hundreds of people waiting to make the journey.

    Everyone crowded into the small airlock. Zeb gave the command and the Mission Pilot, Nako Mukai, started the sequence that would close the group off from the relative safety of the ship and open the outer door to the vacuum of space.

    The crew floated shoulder to shoulder, packed in like floating marshmallows waiting for their first glimpse of the blackness of space.

    On Earth, the sensations of being in space were described and studied, and training was done in an attempt to help prepare the group–but nothing compared to the real thing.

    Aiden and his EVA buddy, Abril Soto, were second to last to leave the airlock. They watched as their crew members clumsily clawed their way into outer space and latched themselves to the hull of the ship. The sole reason for this spacewalk was so the crew could get used to moving in zero gravity. The bosses on Earth called it “Translational Adaptation.” On Earth, the crew trained in massive pools to get a small sense of what it was like to move without gravity, but water still has a viscosity that provides resistance. In space, there is no resistance. With the smallest flick of the wrist, you start to turn. This was a training mission to learn how to stop that turn.

    Aiden intellectually understood everything about to happen, but forcing his body to react was going to be a different story. Aiden and Abril were tethered–where one went, so did the other. The safety systems had redundancies built into the redundancies. Aiden had a tether sewn into his EVA suit with a locking hook on one end clipped directly to Abril, and she had the same. In addition, they also had two tethers each would attach to the hull of the ship. Of the four between them at least two had to always be attached. Any sort of movement required heavy communication and teamwork. They had to work in sync, always.

    These procedures were practiced thousands of times on Earth in every scenario the instructors could throw at them. Aiden and Abril were able to move as a single smooth functioning unit.

    What they could not prepare for was their reaction to being in space. The blackness of space is not a two-dimensional blackness. Unlike a painted wall of blackness, it was a three-dimensional blackness. Almost a liquid, palpable dark blackness. Disorienting to look around and see the vastness of everything, the black void engulfed the group and their ships. There was no preparing for the sensation.

    Out of the airlock, Aiden instantly had a feeling of falling. He was startled, like you do when you are just about to fall asleep and you fall. His brain was telling him one thing, yet his body and surroundings were telling him something totally different.

    “Do not throw up in your EVA suits,” Zeb said over the group channel. “Having a bunch of puke floating around in your fishbowl helmet will not be fun, plus it could suffocate you.”

    Aiden and Abril moved along the hull of one of the transport ships–their home until the DS-G was habitable. Everything went smoothly. They took their time adjusting to the surroundings, figured out how to properly control their bodies in the zero-g, zero resistance vacuum, and completed their practice tasks without any issues.

    “Let’s wrap it up,” Zeb said. “Time to get back inside.”

    Aiden was ready to call it quits. As incredible as it was being on the side of a spaceship between the Earth and the Moon, it was exhausting moving around in the suit, making calculated moves with everything he did.

    Five meters from the airlock door Abril interrupted their normal procedural chatter–required chatter to move in sync–and said to Abril, “This was magical. So incredible.”

    Aiden turned slightly to look at her in agreement, to show his happiness with the moment too, and he saw her drifting away.

    “Abril! Abril! What happened?” Aiden said. He switched to the group channel as quickly as he could. “Abril is loose!”

    Zeb spun himself around to locate Aiden and followed his gaze to where Abril was quickly getting smaller and smaller.

    “Abril, you have reserve power in your suit that can get you close to the ship. I will come out and meet you.”

    “Not anymore,” she said. “I’m sorry Aiden. I’m sorry Zeb. I’m sorry everyone.”

    She made no visible effort to get herself back to the ship.

    “Nako, can we move the ship and catch up with Abril,” Zeb said over the group channel.

    There was an uncomfortably long silence as Nako ran the calculations.

    “We will–,” Nako cut herself off. She switched off the group comm channel and spoke directly to Zeb.

    “Everyone, get inside as quickly as possible,” Zeb said. It was obvious by his tone he was upset.

    Aiden floated, tethered to a locking point on the hull, in shock. Watching his friend drift away, he couldn’t bring himself to continue the climb to the airlock door. He played the scenario over and over in his head. How had she gotten so far away without him realizing it? What did he do wrong?

    “Sergeant Sanderson. Sergeant Sanderson! Aiden!” Zeb said.

    Aiden snapped out of his daze.

    “Aiden, get inside now!”

    Aiden pulled himself down into the hull and climbed the last few meters. Zeb followed in behind–always the first one out and last one in–and started the sequence to close the outer door.

    “Are we going to get her?” Someone said. Zeb never responded.

    Once inside, Aiden floated alone, dazed in his EVA suit as the gear of the crew was stripped down by their EVA buddies. There was no way to get out of the suite on your own.

    He noticed Nako saying something off to his side but couldn’t hear anything. It took him several moments to realize she was talking to him, snapping her fingers in his face.

    “Aiden! Are you with us‽” she said. “What happened out there? How did Abril get away from you?”

    Aiden didn’t have an answer for her. He couldn’t figure out what happened. They did everything they were supposed to do, everything they were trained to do.

    “Are we going to get her?” Aiden asked.

    Zeb heard his question and stopped removing his suit with half of his torso exposed.

    “Listen up everyone,” Zeb said. “We are making some course adjustments to catch up to Abril. We are adjusting our orbit just enough to catch up to her.”

    Sounds of relief spread through the crew. Zeb looked at Nako and paused.

    “But we will not catch her for another six hours,” Zeb said.

    It took a moment for the quick calculations to be done in everyone’s head, and then they realized it.

    Abril would be dead by the time they caught up to her.

    “There has to be something we can do!” Someone yelled from the group, Aiden was in too much shock to care who.

    “We’ve run the calculations and so has Ground Control. We are maxing out as it is to get to her in six hours. There is no getting to her sooner,” Zeb said. “Sergeant Sanderson, get out of your gear. Ground Control wants to talk to you.”

    Aiden nodded to his C.O. but didn’t move his body. He knew they wanted a reason why he failed his primary job on the first day of work. They wanted to know why they spent millions of dollars on this crew member to have her only drift away and die.

    After getting Zeb out of his gear, Nako helped Aiden strip out of his EVA suit. The rest of the crew was unsure how to respond, so they avoided Aiden altogether.

    Aiden went to the main communication station and typed in the command to connect with the Flight Director.

    “Sergeant Sanderson, sitrep now.”

    Aiden did his best to snap to attention in the zero-gravity when the face appeared on the screen. In doing so, he began to drift out of view of the camera and swung his foot to catch the small handle below the screen to stabilize himself.

    “Colonel Graves, sir. What are you–where is the–are you the new flight director?” Aiden asked. He had not seen the Colonel since he’d agreed to join SpOC at the Colonel’s request over three years ago.

    “No, son, I’m not the flight director. I’ve been brought in to aid in the situation. What’s going on up there?” Colonel Graves said.

    The Colonel had aged since Aiden last saw him. Still fit, with a rigid posture, but his salt and pepper hair had turned completely white and the wrinkles in his face had grown deeper and more pronounced. Despite–or maybe because of–his age, the Colonel intimidated Aiden. Physically, Aiden was capable of taking care of himself, but the look in the Colonel’s gray eyes set off every flight response Aiden’s body could muster. The Colonel was not a man to mess with.

    “Uh, sir, well…” Aiden started.

    “Get it out Sergeant, I don’t have all day. Your expensively, well-trained work partner has drifted off into space and will be dead in the next hour or so. You had a responsibility to keep each other safe, and she somehow managed to get out of several safety redundancies and away from you. Was this an accident? Was this a lover’s quarrel and you took the coward’s way out? Or was this a suicide? These are questions I have been brought in to figure out,” Colonel Graves said.

    “Sir, Abril and I were not–I did not kill her,” Aiden said.

    “I believe you, but this is a scenario that must be investigated. You’re grounded until further notice. We are working to get a replacement for Specialist Soto, but it will take time to ready a launch and align it with your orbit,” Colonel Graves said.

    Aiden had been speaking with Colonel Graves through the terminal external speakers and microphone; everyone within range could hear what was being said. He heard a shuffle behind him and turned to see several of his crewmates listening but trying to be inconspicuous like they were hanging out nearby.

    Colonel Graves saw Aiden look away from the screen and said, “We need to speak privately. Put on a headset.”

    Aiden put on the headset and adjusted the microphone.

    “Do not respond to anything I am about to tell you, understood?” Colonel Graves said.

    Aiden nodded and adjusted his foothold to be closer to the screen, blocking the view of his crewmates.

    “I have bigger concerns about this entire situation than someone dying on the first day of work. I do not trust the replacement they chose as your work partner, and I believe Abril was forced into killing herself so this replacement could be sent to the DS-G. I’ve tried voicing my concerns, but they have fallen on deaf ears. Watch yourself Aiden. If I am right, you have bigger issues coming your way than trying to build a space station,” Colonel Graves said.

    • August 23, 2019
    • 13 minute read
    Crimes Against the Human Race

    “Charlotte Freeman, this court of your peers has found you guilty of a crime against the human race. Because this is your first offense and the only time you have appeared before a court, you will be given a choice in punishment,” the High Judge said. “I will get to your options shortly. Throughout this trial, you have maintained your innocence. Now that a conviction has been found, do you still maintain your innocence?”

    I was not expecting to be asked this. Why would I change my story now? It doesn’t matter at this point. Considering the evidence presented, I knew I would be found guilty. I began to believe I’d done it by the time the prosecutor was done.

    I closed my eyes, hoping to block out everything around me. But all I saw were flashes of memories from that night. The night that had brought me here. All I saw was the fogginess, the pain, the blood.

    I opened my eyes, tears running down my cheeks.

    I–like most of our society–had stayed out of trouble. This murder trial was one of only four or five that might happen this year. Murders do not happen in our society. We have gone to great lengths to create a peaceful and just civilization.

    There was a time, before I was born, well before The Wall was built, when the world was chaos. Murder and rape and hate were normal between neighbors. Then came the tipping point, and society lost its grasp on law and order. Anarchy was the rule of the land until the Arrangement was created.

    Now our society values peace above all else. Sheltering its people from the evil outside our walls, governing with fairness and freedom.

    “Do you still maintain your innocence?” The High Judge repeated.

    “I do your honor,” I said. “I see the evidence as compelling, but I did not kill my brother…”

    I sobbed uncontrollably.

    “That is unfortunate,” the High Judge said. “I am sure you are aware of the options available to you. For the court records, I will read them aloud. You must acknowledge to the court that you fully understand each option.”

    Everyone knows the options. I’ve always known what the options were but never gave them any serious thought. I never considered it a decision I would have to make.

    “I need for you to acknowledge that you understand what has been presented to you,” the High Judge said.

    I looked around at the panel of judges, all staring at me, all sympathetic to my situation. By the looks on their faces, the High Judge must have repeated the question.

    “I understand my choices,” I said.

    “Can you please repeat them to us? We must be sure you’re able to make this decision,” one of the associate judges said.

    “I can take the obvious choice of Empathy Synthesis,” I said. “I can take a place on The Wall to defend our society from The Beyond. Or I can choose to leave the city, never to return, to be banished from our society and the protection it provides.”

    “Do you understand the gravity and meaning behind each of these?” One of the judges asked.

    “I do,” I said. Everyone does. Parents teach their children these choices from early childhood. They use them to scare their children into behaving well. Santa used to bring coal if you were bad, now you get sent to die on The Wall.

    “You said Empathy Synthesis was the obvious choice,” one of the judges said. “Are you clear on what this involves? This is not always the most obvious choice for everyone.”

    “I am, your honor,” I said.

    But was I clear? Why wouldn’t that be the obvious choice to everyone? It was the only way to ensure you didn’t die an untimely death. It’s not easy or pleasant or painless, but you continued living. That was the goal, right?

    “I–I–um… why wouldn’t that be the obvious choice, your honor?” I asked.

    “The process is… challenging. Your mind and body will be stretched and pushed to its limits. You will not be the same person you are today. You will be… changed.”

    How changed? I will still be me…

    Of all the stories I’d heard, everyone returned home happier and healthier. It seemed like a good thing.

    The judge must have read the confusion on my face.

    “You will be taken into custody–as you know–and you will begin therapy with several of The Society’s Psychologists. When you are prepared, you will begin a series of psychedelic enhance therapy sessions of varying lengths and intensity. Finally, you will also be tasked with caring for our inInopia to relearn empathy for those around you.”

    Intellectually I knew the process. I assumed the psychedelic enhanced therapy would be challenging, but the hardest part would be caring for the inInopia. The Society saw it as their responsibility to care for the people who cannot care for themselves. In our seventh year of school, we were required to spend time with the inInopia. The work I did during that time was hard. Although I think I learned a lot, I did not enjoy it. I always assumed Empathy Synthesis would be a more intense version.

    “If you choose The Wall,” another associate judge said. “You will be cared for. You will be required to spend at least three years defending our home. You will be regarded highly for your service. Upon completion of your duty, we will assist you in rejoining society. You will receive any needed psychological therapy, placement in a home–if needed, and assistance in finding a job.”

    Duty on The Wall also had other consequences the associate judge conveniently left out. The majority sent there, never return. The likelihood of my surviving three years was low. The people who do survive their time rarely make it back into everyday society. Many join the inInopia and are unable to care for themselves for the rest of their lives. Seeing The Beyond, fighting what is beyond The Wall, breaks people’s minds, and they cannot recover.

    “And for some…” the High Judge said. “For some, leaving our society is the best option for them. Some cannot live by The Society’s standards or feel confined by our walls. Leaving is always your option.”

    Leaving was not an option. I would not survive outside the walls of this city. The Beyond would be too much for me.

    Could I choose Synthesis or The Wall and return to find who is responsible for Henry’s murder?

    What if I killed my brother? What if Synthesis somehow reveals I am a murderer? Could I live with myself? Do I think I am capable enough to survive The Wall and still come back from it?

    “Have you made a decision, Charlotte?” The High Judge asked.

    “I–” a sob cut me off. I tried to choke it down.

    “I–I choose…” I scanned the panel of judges and looked to the jury that represents The Society. I looked down at my shaking hands and saw the blood still stained there, long washed away. Taking a deep breath, I set my shoulders to show confidence in my decision.

    “I choose to leave.”

    The High Judge sat back in her chair shocked.

    It was obvious no one in the room expected me to leave. No stable, productive member of society ever chooses to leave. When a news report came out that someone had chosen or requested to leave, they always matched a certain stereotype. Everyone thought the same thing. But we do not speak about stereotypes.

    The room, which was previously in total order–silence, everyone spoke in turn, no one moved unnecessarily–erupted into chaos. The associate judges looked at each other, unsure what to do next. The jury whispered and the people seated behind me shuffled and grunted to themselves.

    Are they going to try to talk me out of my decision? It seemed that when people chose to leave, that was it. There was no turning back, no changing your mind, and no attempt at convincing you to stay. An attitude of “if you don’t want to be here, we don’t want you here.”

    This always felt hypocritical of our society to me.

    “Please be quiet,” the High Judge said over the noise of the room. “Silence! There will be order in the court.”

    The High Judge looked around the room, shuffling in her chair above me until the auditorium was silent again.

    “I–we need to be sure of your response. Please repeat your choice for the court,” the High Judge said.

    Was this an opportunity to change my mind? Do innocent people banish themselves to an early death? Could I say something different and the court ignore my request to leave? This must be a loophole for people like me, people that looked sane, people that looked like they belong.

    I looked around the room. I saw my mom for the first time since the proceedings started. I wasn’t able to look her in the eye. I was convicted of killing her only son. She looked terrified, hurt, sad. I don’t know if she believed I was innocent, but I could see her heart breaking again. It didn’t matter if she thought I was innocent, she was losing her only living child.

    “Ms. Freeman, we need for you to repeat your decision,” the High Judge said. “Will you take Empathy Synthesis, defend The Wall, or leave The Society?”

    “I choose…” I looked at my mother again, tears running down our cheeks. “I choose to leave. I choose to leave The Society and live outside.”

    The High Judge shook her head as the grumblings around the room rose and settled faster than the first time.

    “Very well. Your decision has been made. I am sad to see one of our children leave, but these are the laws we have all agreed to uphold,” the High Judge said folding her hands in front of her and leaning on her elbows. “Bailiff, please escort Ms. Freeman from the court. We will begin gate preparations immediately.”

    The bailiff stepped forward. He was old–maybe in his 70s–and warm and kind looking. He looked sad as he smiled at me.

    The High Judge reached for her gavel, “The murder trial of Henry Freeman is now adjourned.”

    I didn’t know what to expect next as the Bailiff walked with me, his hand resting gently, almost fatherly, on my shoulder. I assumed I would be escorted directly to the gate and sent on my way; no goodbyes to my friends and family and no supplies to help me survive.

    “I’m sad to see you leave,” the bailiff whispered as we left the auditorium. “I am always sad to lose a friend.”

    I looked at him confused. Did I know him?

    “We don’t officially know each other,” he said smiling down at me. “I consider all my neighbors, all the people within The Wall, my friends.”

    This made me cry even harder.

    “Once you are through the gates, you will not receive any assistance from The Society. You will be completely cut off,” he said as he led me through the hallways of the courthouse. “But once outside, look for a man called Pax Hampton. I do not know if he is still alive, but if he is, he will help you. He is a good man, and he will look after you until you can get on your feet and able to take care of yourself.”

    “Thank you but…” I sobbed uncontrollably. I doubted I would survive long enough to find anyone.

    He escorted me to a small windowless room where I waited in silence. I had no idea how long I waited. It felt like hours, but it could have been minutes. My mind jumped continuously, from fear of being outside The Wall to my mother’s face as I made my decision to the flashes of memories from the night Henry died.

    The door swung open and my mother walked in with a bag on her shoulder.

    “Mom! I am so sorry for–” I started.

    “No! Don’t apologize. Your decision has been made. I don’t understand it nor have any idea what you are going through,” she said with wet cheeks. “I love you dearly. I am heartbroken to be losing another child, but you did what you felt you had to do.”

    “I love you. I–I didn’t kill Henry,” I said.

    “I know, I know,” she said pulling me close. “I brought a few things from home. They told me you can take whatever you can carry. I’ll let you decide what you want to take.”

    She handed me the bag. It had pictures of our family, keepsakes from my childhood, my favorite book, and some canned foods.

    “They will give you some supplies as you leave the gate, but I don’t know what you will see out there. All I know are the horror stories we tell each other. You may not want to carry any of this, but I wanted you to have the option.”

    The door opened again and two guards walked in.

    “It’s time,” one of them said, not menacing, but not as kind as the bailiff.

    “Mom, I can’t take these pictures. Did you leave any for yourself?” I said.

    “I have the sweetest memories of my family–that’s all I need. Take them all, maybe it will bring you some comfort.”

    I pulled the backpack on and hugged her, crying into her shoulder.

    “We need to go,” one of the guards said. “We cannot keep the gate prepped for opening for too long.”

    “I’m sorry. I am so sorry,” I said.

    “I love you. Be careful,” she said, fighting back a sob.

    We released each other, and I was escorted down a hallway and onto a sunny street. A crowd had gathered along the only road out of the city. It was uncomfortably quiet for the number of people standing around. Not silent, but the volume did not fit the crowd.

    As the two guards walked behind me, the two hundred foot wall bordering our city loomed ahead of us. No one said anything to me as we walked down the street. There were looks of concern but some looks of disgust. Some people cried as much as my mom and I had.

    Part of me wanted to run, maybe I could break through the line of people and hide out in the city. This had to be the wrong choice. I’d made a huge mistake. What was I thinking? Why did I do this to myself?

    Three guards stood in front of the gate waiting for me and the two other guards behind me. All five had weapons drawn ready and alert but with the barrels to the ground. When we were close enough, two of the guards aimed their weapons at the gate and two turned to face the crowd. The fifth went to a keypad and typed in a command. I stood in the center, hugging my chest, pulling the backpack closer to my body.

    The small door slid open. I didn’t know what to expect to see on the other side, but I did not anticipate seeing the High Judge standing in a small room. The fifth guard–the one who opened the gate–escorted me in but remained outside with the other four guards. Inside was a table with jugs of water, a stack of freeze-dried food packs, and a large knife.

    “This is all the help I can offer you,” the High Judge said. “Once you are on the other side of The Wall you will be on your own. We may be unable to support you, but we want you to survive.”

    I put my hand on one of the jugs of water. I was thankful for the supplies, but concerned I would be unable to carry everything.

    “We do not have much time. You need to pack as much as you can carry and leave everything else,” she said. “If you need to leave anything your mother gave you I will personally return it to her.”

    I packed everything I could, leaving the book my mother gave me but kept everything else. There were still jugs of water I couldn’t fit, so I carried one in each hand. If I was attacked or had to run as soon as I stepped out of the gate I would be done for–a risk I figured I had to take.

    The High Judge led me through a series of hallways winding through the base of The Wall. I had no idea how thick The Wall was, but it took several minutes to come to a room with a group of heavily armed guards waiting for us.

    “This is where I leave you, Charlotte,” the High Judge said. “It saddens me to see you go, but I wish you the best of luck. I hope you find the world on the other side of our Wall is not as harsh as we believe it to be.”

    “Thank you,” I said and hugged her. It was a reflexive response and caught her off guard. I’m not sure why I did it, but when she hugged me back it gave me a huge sense of calm.

    A heavy door slid closed behind the High Judge as she left the room. The guards took up a position surrounding me, rifles aimed at the metal door ahead of us. One of them called out a command I could not understand. All of them shuffled to brace themselves as the large door began to slowly open.

    Light flooded the room, and for a moment I couldn’t see anything. The door came to a loud stop and the guards motioned for me to exit.

    “Ms. Freeman, this is your exit,” one of them said behind me when I froze. “We do not want to, but we will force you through the door if needed.”

    I stepped forward, my eyes adjusting. On the other side was The Beyond, a large grassy field and a dense forest. It was beautiful. I’d only ever seen pictures of the old world that looked like this. I approached the edge of the door and looked both ways. All I could see in either direction was forest and Wall. The guards in the room shuffled forward with me closing in on the door as we got closer.

    I stepped out on the soft grass, the warm sun on my face, a cool breeze. The air smelled fresh.

    “Good luck,” one of the guards said and the door slid closed.

    That was it. That was the severing from The Society, from the only life I knew.

    I just stood and looked around me in awe of how beautiful The Beyond was–not at all what I was expecting to see. No marauders or roving gangs or man-eating beasts. Just beauty and silence and calm.

    “Hey! Hey, can you hear me?” I heard, looking around me for the source.

    “Up here,” the voice yelled again. I looked up and could see the tiny dot of someone’s head at the top of The Wall.

    “It looks like there is a small group of buildings a few miles off if you walk straight out from the gate,” the person said. “I don’t know what you’ll find there or what you have to go through to get there, but it might be a place to camp.”

    I looked in the direction the person was indicating. Several hundred feet of open field, then forest so dense I would have to walk sideways to get through.

    “Thank you,” I yelled back up. I readjusted my backpack and my grip on the heavy water jugs and started walking.

    At least it was something. I could have camped at the door and waited for the next person to be banished from our society and had a companion. But that could be months from now, and I didn’t know if this was the only gate. What if they sent people out at different gates?

    I slid between two trees at the edge of the forest, and five steps in I could no longer see The Wall. That world was gone now. I was on my own.

    • July 24, 2019
    • 6 minute read
    9 Meals to Chaos

    At first, it didn’t seem like much. A few things weren’t being restocked at the stores, more gaps in the shelves. If we couldn’t replace something in our pantry, we went without, assuming it’d be back soon.

    Really, no big deal.

    The news would announce a store or local restaurant closing down. There were reports, but life-altering news was ignored. The latest celebrity or political accusation took center stage distracting us from any real problems needing our attention.

    That is how it went. People lived off what they had in their pantry, going without the occasional luxury item or even the occasional staple. What is a staple anyway? We had two jars of peanut butter and a handful of avocados at all time in our house. Was all that necessary? There was a time I would argue the peanut butter was vital for survival, but those days are gone.

    Our “affluent” town got by a good bit longer than many places. We had little disruption for a while. We lived off the stuff that got pushed to the back. The back of the freezer, the back of the pantry. The stuff you’d pull out when there was a canned food drive at the preschool.

    We saw the riots on TV. The larger cities or poorer communities got hit the hardest first. “Hangry” to an extreme. We would sit safely and comfortably in our homes as cities just a few hours away erupted into violence. We sat there and thought nothing like this would happen to us. The problem–whatever it was–would be fixed before it got that bad here. We weren’t a big city, we weren’t a suburb either, we were sheltered from most of the evils of the world.

    I was wrong.

    The chaos radiated out from the cities to the suburbs, then to the smaller towns and out to the farming communities. Everyone assumed the farms would be in a decent place to feed themselves, but they relied on our modern system as everyone else.

    It didn’t become a problem for us until we couldn’t feed our daughter enough to satisfy her small stomach. My wife and I were hungry and feeling the discomfort, but willing and able to sacrifice to keep our little girl fed. No discussion, just something that had to happen.

    “It’s OK, baby girl. I’ll go find you something else to eat,” I said to our daughter who hadn’t stopped crying for over an hour.

    “What are we going to do?” my wife asked.

    “I don’t know. Maybe I can try Mrs. Levey’s house and see if she as anything to offer or trade,” I said.

    “Mrs. Levey? Really? She’s the coldest woman on our street.”

    “I know but she always dotes on her when we take our morning walks. And she has no family, maybe she has something extra. Plus, I don’t think there are many other options around. It’s beginning to look like a ghost town here,” I said. Not knowing where our neighbors had tried to escape to. From what we could tell the shortages were everywhere.

    Mrs. Levey was our neighbor. She was mean but not as cold as my wife thought. I often saw her early in the morning while walking our dog and pushing the stroller. Our little girl was an early riser like myself, and I’d get her out of the house so my wife could sleep a few more hours in the mornings. Mrs. Levey always waved me down to stop, not saying a word to me, scowling at our 14-year-old beagle and cooed at our daughter.

    She may not care much for me or my wife, but she loved to give little treats to our baby. I assumed she would still feel the same in our time of need.

    I knocked on her thick solid oak door, it could keep a SWAT team with a battering ram busy for a good while. There was no response, so I used the heavy iron knocker a few times. The sound reverberated through the door and into the house.

    I could hear some shuffling behind the door and said: “Mrs. Levey, it’s me your neighbor, I was wondering–”

    “I don’t have anything for you! I don’t want anything from you! Leave or I’ll call the police!” she said through the door.

    “Mrs. Levy, it’s my little girl,” I said. “We’ve run out of food, and she’s hungry. I was hoping you had a little something to spare. It would just be for her. My wife and I are going without.”

    The lock on the door echoed through the wood as she opened it. She stood in front of me, the door cracked enough to easily see each other. She didn’t weigh more than 80 pounds soaking wet and hunched over, making her less than five feet tall. But she moved around as nimbly as someone 30 years her junior.

    “Your little girl? She’s hungry?” she asked.

    “Yes, ma’am. We’ve been rationing, but we don’t have enough now. Do you have anything? You know the stores ran–” I said.

    “I know about the stores. It won’t be for that mangy mutt of yours?” She said.

    “No, ma’am,” I said.

    My wife had the foresight to stock up on dog food when things started to look bad. We had enough to feed a dozen dogs. If things got bad enough, we’d start in on that. I wasn’t prepared to give it to my daughter yet.

    “What does she like?” Mrs. Levey asked.

    “Anything right now. Is there anything with some pro–”

    “Bring her over. I’ll cook her a meal, whatever she wants. For you and your wife too. Y’all come over and eat a meal.”

    “We couldn’t take that much of your food. There are shortages you know,” I said.

    “I’m not senile. I know what is going on in the world. Bring your family over, and I will prepare a meal for you,” she said. “But leave your dog at home.”

    “Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”

    I ran home, relieved my daughter would be fed and I could delay eating the overpriced premium dog food I’d set aside for my wife and me.

    I ran into the house and scooped up our crying daughter.

    “She’s going to cook us a meal for all of us,” I said. “Let’s hurry over before she changes her mind. Maybe we can lend a hand, and she’ll be more open to it again.”

    “Seriously? You got her to help us?” my wife said. “Did you offer her anything?”

    “No, nothing. Now come on. I’d rather eat real food tonight than a handful of dog food.”

    We stepped out of our side door, the closest to Mrs. Levey’s yard and heard the sound of several trucks rolling down the road.

    “What’s that?” my wife asked.

    “I don’t know but it doesn’t sound good. Hurry.”

    A caravan of trucks rounded the corner as we headed up the stone path to her front door. We could hear people yelling, some at us to stop.

    “Hurry, get inside. I don’t know what they want, and I don’t want to find out,” I said.

    As we topped the last step the heavy solid oak door swung open. She stepped on the porch holding a shotgun nearly as long as she was tall.

    “Get your baby inside,” she said stepping past us and hefting the barrel towards the lead truck. “I think it best you folks move on from here. We don’t want any trouble and if you come around my house you’re going to get it!”

    I handed our daughter to my wife as we stepped into the foyer of the house, and I turned to call for Mrs. Levey.

    “Go, get somewhere inside,” I said to my wife. “Mrs. Levey let’s get inside. No need to provoke them.”

    But I was too late.

    “What are you gonna do with that gun. It’s bigger than you, old lady,” one of the men said as he stepped onto the stone walk.

    “I will put a hole through your gut so big–”

    “I don’t think you could hit the side of a barn,” the man said as he took a step forward.


    Mrs. Levey fired a shot so loud it stopped every person in the neighborhood. The paving stone at the man’s feet exploded, leaving a crater in the walkway.

    “Like I said, I think it’s time for you folks to move on. We don’t want any trouble, and that’s all you’re going to get if you come a single step closer to my house.”

    “OK, OK, OK,” the man said with his hands over his head. “We’re moving on. We were only looking for any food scraps. We’ll get out of your hair.”

    He looked shocked the old lady could aim the gun so well and not fall over from the kick. I was shocked she was still standing.

    The man got in his truck and the caravan left. Mrs. Levey stood watch until she could no longer hear the engines.

    “Damn, I forgot how hard this one kicks. That’s going to leave a bruise. Let’s get inside and feed that baby of yours.”

    “Mrs. Levey, are you OK?” I asked.

    “Yes, yes. I’m fine. I don’t get out to the range as often as I used to and these guns have gotten heavy. This one always beat me up, but it makes one heck of a statement, doesn’t it?”

    “Uh, yes ma’am,” I said. “You’re not the person I thought you were.”

    “Nobody is,” she said.

    “Do you think they will come back?”

    “Let them. It will take an army to get into this house, and there is enough ammo to take on a small country. I like my security, and this house might as well be Fort Knox. We’ll be safe here for a while.”

    “Thank you.”

    “Don’t thank me yet. I am a terrible cook, and I invited you over for dinner.”

    • June 25, 2019
    • 5 minute read
    The Blacksmith

    “Damit Callaway! You make my life a living hell! You know that?” Ox said as he stumbled into my shop drunk, again. I could smell the moonshine on him from ten feet away. “Did you know you make my life hell?”

    I didn’t respond; experience taught me talking to the son of our little enclave’s “mayor” when he was drunk only added fuel to his fire. I turned back to my work and continued on.

    “You know, you’re lucky. No one else in our little village has the experience you have,” he said. “But you know what? I think you are full of it. I think you’re a faker. If my daddy hadn’t lost his hands he’d be the one in here workin’, and you’d be out on your ass. I’d kick you out if I could.”

    He wasn’t far off. In another life, the life before this hell, I was a computer engineer. I sat behind a desk all day. My experience in anything close to blacksmithing was a class I took over a couple of weekends at the local tech school. We’d learned the basics of bladesmithing. I’d wanted to start a hobby making my own knives. Something different to do in my spare time, working with my hands, as far from the keyboard as possible.

    Ox was about six feet tall and maybe weighed 130 pounds. He hunched his shoulders making him a few inches shorter than he should be. And his neck curved forward and up pushing his Adam’s out, causing it to protrude from his throat. Along with a too-big-for-his-face nose, he had a very bird-like appearance. He paced back and forth on the other side of the little counter I had in my shop, separating me and my work from folks who came to visit. There were pieces scattered about. Some were new knives, arrowheads, spikes used for protecting our village. And some were farm tools I’d either mended or crafted for folks in the village.

    “My daddy knows how to do what you do. Part of owning a junkyard I s’pect.” Ox picked up and dropped a dull ax head.

    Our “village” is an old junkyard deep in a valley of the Appalachians some of us managed to escape to when the world went to shit. A good place to escape to in many aspects. We were able to build walls out of stacked cars and school buses. And there is plenty of scrap metal around to melt down and re-purpose for weapons and farm tools. Ox’s father is the owner of the junkyard, which put him in the position to call himself the “mayor.” He’s a fair man; can’t complain about him too much, but his son is a huge pain in everyone’s ass. He does nothing to contribute to the community. More a drunk, entitled “Sheriff of Nottingham type” without any authority except to cry to his father.

    “You know what? I bet I could do this job. I could do it better and faster than you and your stuttering fool back there.” He pointed a half-completed knife blade to the back of my shop where my assistant Jim leaned against the door frame to a small office.

    “It’s a damn miracle the two of you get any work done. He can’t get a damn sentence out in less than five minutes, and you might say a dozen words a month. That’s why you’re so slow, you two can’t communicate.”

    I continued to work on a pitchfork, or trident – depending on its intended use – I’d been fixing when Ox walked in. All he wanted was to get a rise out of me, any response. I pretty well blocked him out with the rhythm of my work.

    Tink, tink, tink with my hammer on the orange glowing tines and the whirl of a hand-cranked bellows fan. Always aware of Ox, I had to turn my back to him every time I went to the forge.

    There was a calm rhythm to the work. I could block out the hell our world had turned to. Block out the memories of the life I used to have, the family I used to have. It gave me a purpose as well, a way to help others. And Ox loved to get good and liquored up on moonshine and try to get me riled up. I may have been the only person around who didn’t cater to him, and it drove him insane.

    Jim was an easy target for him, a schoolyard bully picking on the kid with a speech impediment. The thing was, Jim was one of the smartest people in our village and could manhandle Ox with ease if the need arose. He’d engineered many of our more complicated projects, and I’d done the metal work–he did the heavy lifting. But over time Jim learned to keep quiet so people wouldn’t make fun of him for his stutter. We’d worked out our own form of silent communication, and it worked well for us.

    “Is that why you don’t got no family?” Ox said. “‘Cus you never talked to your wife?”

    Tink, tink, whirl.

    “You know you hold up this entire community with your slow work. We can’t trade – harvest is slow without ‘nough tools, weak without ‘nough weapons.”

    Tink, tink, whirl, tink, tink.

    “Is that what happened? You ignored your wife and she left you? Couldn’t take being ignored all the time?”

    I turned back to the forge, spinning the bellows handle, keeping the hammer in my hand in case he came around the counter. I shuffled the coals with the pitchfork, the ends red-hot.

    Ox threw the half-finished knife at the wall trying to make it stick, it bounced back almost hitting him in the face.

    “Damnit, Callaway! I swear to God!” He picked up a sickle sitting on the edge of the counter and charged at me, stumbling to get around the corner of my counter. Jim left his perch from the office door to head off Ox.

    I turned and wedged the handle of the pitchfork into the side of my anvil, expecting the red-hot tines pointing at him to stop his charge.

    But no, he ran straight into the glowing red end of the pitchfork, his skin sizzled as the points pierced into his chest below his sternum, instantly cauterizing the wound.

    He rolled to the ground, pitchfork and handle sticking straight up like a dinner fork stuck in a piece of steak.

    Jim stared at me. Both of us with the same series of thoughts. It was self-defense. I’d done the community a big favor. But I could’ve just knocked him to the ground.

    “Well…” I said. “You better run off and get the sheriff.”

    Jim continued to look at me in shock, terrified. He looked down at Ox and then back to me.

    “Run off. I’ll wait here.”

    I leaned back against the closest workbench, crossed my arms and waited.

    “What’s all the fuss about Callaway? Jim came running up in a tizzy,” the sheriff said walking into the shop.

    I pointed to the ground in front of my feet.

    “Well damn Callaway,” the sheriff laughed. “Jim, I wish I coulda heard you say ‘Ox finally got what he deserved.’”

    Jim shrugged. If we didn’t know any better we’d all assume he was mute.

    “This puts me in an awkward situation, Callaway. I want to shake your hand and say ‘thank you,’ but I need to take you to the mayor on this one. Don’t know what he is going to do, with your place in the community and all.”

    “It is what it is,” I said.

    “It looks to me like self-defense, he’s coming at you with the sickle there. In the old world, this’d be a open, shut case. But it ain’t that no more, is it? Let’s go I guess.”

    I wiped my hands on my work apron and hung it on a hook next to the forge. We stepped out into the cool night and headed up to the mayor’s trailer at the top of the hill. I signaled to Jim to stay behind, leaving him to stay in the tiny shed with a dead body.

    If I got banished from the community at least I could leave knowing I’d left it better than I arrived. If the mayor decided to execute me, I could escape the hell of this world and see my wife and daughter in the next life. I was ready for whatever punishment handed down to me.

    My fate was in the hands of a handless man.

    • August 15, 2018
    • 6 minute read
    Problem, Solved?

    “I mean, how often do you get an opportunity like this?”

    One thing I loved, and hated, about Kara, she always did her damndest to fix your problems, even if you had no desire whatsoever to fix it.

    I know this about her and is probably why, subconsciously, I told her about my current predicament. In my mind I wanted someone to listen to me complain, to have a sounding board, just to vent.

    But no, I asked my one friend that can’t leave a problem untouched. I could have asked anyone else close to me, and I could have screamed it into the void of a caring face.

    But no.

    I asked Kara.

    I barely got the thought out before her mind was working up ways of fixing it, of talking me off the ledge, of convincing me how stupid I was, and to do what she thought was best.

    “Can we at least wait until our drinks are here before we get into it?” I said.

    “If you wanted to wait, you shouldn’t have told me all about it on the walk over here.”

    She’s right. I did spill the beans not five minutes after we met up outside of her apartment. We had texted back and forth for a week to set up drinks after work, and when we finally got together I was about to explode. It didn’t help that we walked around midtown for 20 minutes trying to decide which bar we wanted to go to.

    Kara is a bit of a partier. Nothing bad, but she can hold her liquor, and does so two or three nights a week. She had an opinion on every bar we walked by until we got to one that was acceptable.

    “One Henricks and soda and one Evan Williams and Coke.” The bartender said as he set our drinks down.

    “How much do you make now? I think you can afford to buy whiskey that sits on a shelf. Evan doesn’t even get shelf space,” I said.

    “Don’t be hating on my good friend. Evan and I have history together. And when you drink as many of these in a week as I do, you don’t want to spend $12 a pop for something that only tastes marginally better.”

    “How do you not have diabetes drinking so many Cokes?”

    “Look, I do three things with my week: hunt for young blonde men, workout, go to work. In that order.”

    “At least you know yourself. Any current young blonde men in your life?”

    “Not at the moment. Stop trying to divert from the issues at hand! You have your drink, so now I get to say my piece.”

    When Kara is aware of a problem, she can’t let it rest – and I know her argument, but sometimes you have to hear it to understand it.

    “OK then. Give it to me.” I said.

    She took a deep breath, looked me straight in the eye and said: “You’re a fucking idiot” and took a long sip of her drink.

    “Ouch. I’m glad I waited for the gin. A bit harsh.” I said, taken back but also appreciating it, a bit.

    “You do the same shit over and over again. You meet someone, you get all hot and heavy a little too fast, and one of two things happen.”

    She takes another sip, she’s already halfway through.

    “One, the relationship goes on for way longer than it needs to. You get to the point – like you were with the one from high school – where, by the end of it you’re saying it should’ve been over two years sooner.”

    “OK, yeah. And two?”

    “Or two, you end up heartbroken and depressed for a few months over someone who wasn’t worth your time in the first place. And look, I know I’m not the poster child for relationship advice; I haven’t had a serious boyfriend since high school. But this is easy to see from the outside looking in.”

    She’s right. That has been my M.O. in the past, except for maybe one or two in college.

    “So what do I do then?”

    “Seriously‽ Are you kidding me‽ You’ve wanted this or something like it since we were in college. I thought you were crazy for even trying. And now you have the chance to achieve a huge fucking dream, and you are wavering over it?”

    She finishes off her drink and sets it on the inside of the bar so the bartender can see it.

    “And to be honest, it fucking pisses me off you even have to stop to think about it. Fuck buddies come and go. And yes, so do jobs, but not jobs like this. Not jobs you have wanted for over a decade, maybe more.”

    I could tell she was starting to feel a buzz. When she gets fired up and has a drink in her, she cusses like a sailor.

    “One more please.” She says to the bartender.

    “Yeah but this one feels different. What if taking this job ruins it, and it could be something? I don’t want to be 50, alone, and only have my career to show for it.”

    “You’re still young. There’s plenty of time to meet people between now and 50. If it’s meant to work, it’ll work. If it doesn’t work, it saves future you the heartache.”

    “What about leaving you and everyone else behind?”

    “You aren’t dying. You will eventually come back, and you will still communicate with everyone.”

    I take a long sip and finish off my gin and soda. I’ll miss Hendricks when I’m gone.

    “Right? You’ll still communicate with everyone… I know it’s not as easy as just texting or calling me up, but it’s still a possibility, right?”

    “Well, the texting part will be almost as easy, with a delay. But, it won’t be the same as a face to face conversation.”

    “Yeah but how often are you really talking to your family in person? Same with some of our friends. I rarely see some of them at all except for their Insta pics.”

    “True, most of them I rarely see in person anymore,” I nod to the bartender for another drink.

    “What are you so afraid of?”

    “I don’t know. The regular stuff, you know.”

    “No, I don’t know.”

    Baited. It annoys the crap out of me. I’m just giving her ammo to more strongly prove her point.

    “Oh, come on.”

    “Tell me why you’re so afraid of something you’ve been waiting for, working your ass off for. A job that most people would kill for. Hell,” she whispers, “someone may have killed to be in your position.”

    She stops and dramatically looks over my shoulder.

    “Actually, you should probably watch your back. That, I guess is a legitimate fear, and I’ll give you that one.”

    “You know, the usual stuff.”

    “What usual stuff?”

    “I’ve wanted this for so long – it’s such a big dream – accomplishing it is scary. And failure. What if I get there and can’t handle it? What if I wash out and have to quit?”

    “Failure? Really‽ They know it’s hard. They wouldn’t have recruited you if they didn’t think there was a possibility of you making it through.”

    “Yeah, but it’s all still scary as hell.”

    “Yeah, well, life can do that sometimes. I’m going to get a little philosophical on your ass.”

    She takes another long drink.

    “Life is scary as shit, but you’re the result of a long line of survivors. You wouldn’t be here today if someone, in the generations before you, hadn’t survived. Thousands and thousands, hell maybe millions of people, have survived for you to be here right now – don’t let all that survivor-ing go to waste.”

    “I must be drunk, that sort of makes sense.”

    “Damn right it makes sense. You got here somehow.”

    “That’s true. I get everything you are saying, but I’m still scared shittless of going. I mean, yeah sure I’ll likely survive, but it’s not any less terrifying. And you know there is a possibility I won’t survive.”

    “Maybe what I’m getting at is, you and I, we’re survivors. There’s courage in us, and courage has spread through the people who’ve come before us. Courage is contagious. One person in a room starts acting like a little bitch in a horror movie, and you know the bad guy is going to come in and get everyone. But when one person starts talking like a badass, all of a sudden the bad guy is going to have a bad day.”

    “Hmm, okay.”

    “Plus, I need the bragging rights. I need to tell people ‘Hell yeah my best friend is a badass!’ I’m going tell every guy in the bar.” She smirks, “At least do it so I can get laid.”

    “Why didn’t you lead with that? I’m sold.”

    “Best friends are supposed to help each other get laid.”

    “You know this is just an invitation to the join the training program. I have to get through everything first.”

    “Well, what the hell are you doing sitting in this bar drinking? Shouldn’t you be out there running and doing push-ups or something?”

    “Ha. Probably!”

    “The worst thing that can happen is you get there, you realize it’s not for you for whatever reason, and you come back here. We sit at this bar and have a drink, and you tell me all about it. That doesn’t sound too terrible to me.”

    “That’s true.”

    “So that means you’re taking it right? Are you going to tell the boo about your decision?”

    “In time. It’ll work or it won’t. I’m not going to let it get in the way of your bragging rights.”

    • July 22, 2018
    • 6 minute read
    Fancy Dinners For My Wife, God Bless her

    There is a shit ton, pardon ma french, of money to be made as a landfill miner, but I ‘spect ya already know that.

    I started out as a heavy equipment operator, ma job was to make sure all the garbage dumped was packed down good’n’tight and then bury it.

    It was a good job.

    For the first 5 or 6 years I kept ma mind occupied by smokin’ cigarettes. I’d just smoke one after the other and push the trash around, bury it, keep the dump goin’. It was good honest work, ya got over the smell eventually and we got insurance outta it.

    But anyway, I’d drive ma dozer around and smoke like a chimney all day ‘til ma wife, God Bless her, told me I had to quit. I told her smokin’ weren’t any worse than the trash air I was breathin’ all day long.

    She weren’t havin’ none of it

    I had to quit smokin’. So I did. It weren’t easy and it took me a good while, I mean hell, what was I supposed to do all day with ma wanderin’ mind, sittin’ in the cab of ma dozer all by maself.

    Ya know what helped me quit?

    That damn first iPhone I found. That thing changed ma life.

    I tell ya what, people throw away all kinds of shit, pardon ma french. There’s all the usual stuff, ya know, typical garbage, food and just trash. But they also throw things they’d never want no one to know about. Toys and sexy underwear ya’d only use in the privacy of yer home, if ya know what I mean. Bibles, ya wouldn’t believe the number of bibles I saw once I started payin’ attention.

    I never noticed any of these things until I quit smokin’. I was constantly watchin’ what I was pushin’ ‘round with ma dozer. It was fascinatin’.

    Then one day, I spotted what looked like a perfectly good iPhone sittin’ on top of a pile of trash. The screen weren’t broken and it was pretty clean for just bein’ dumped out of the back of a truck. So I stopped ma dozer and jumped out to grab it. That’s technically against the rules but there weren’t no one around to run me over in their dozer or report me, so I figured why not.

    So I grab it. Up close it still looked like it was in great shape. I wiped off whatever mess it had gotten in transport and climbed back in the cab of ma dozer and went back to work.

    I ain’t nothin’ but a country boy redneck, I didn’t know much about fixin’ phones or nothin’ like that. So I YouTubed how to get it workin’ again. I figured it was a long shot but I’d try to fix it up to give to ma wife, God Bless her, as a gift.

    Well, long story short that phone was dead but I did come across a video talkin’ about how valuable the innards of a phone are.

    There’s a lot of gold in ‘em things!

    So, I popped open that phone and took it apart. I started typin’ in the numbers printed on the little components into the Google Machine and hell ya could sell a lot of those little doohickeys for cash and people’d buy up as many as ya could get yer hand on. They wanted tons of ‘em

    The next day I was on the hunt. I grabbed up every electronic device I could find. I tried to keep ma dozer separate from the other guys so I could jump out and not be seen breakin’ the rules or get run’d over.

    And ya wouldn’t believe it!

    People’d spend all that money on somethin’ and just toss it in the trash. That first day I took home laptops, phones, stereo equipment. Everythin’ I could fit in the cab of ma dozer got picked up. I still can’t believe that I hadn’t see all of this stuff before

    Workin’ in a landfill has the benefit of work never comin’ home to the family, except for the smell, occasionally. So ma wife, God Bless her, was not very happy when I showed up that evenin’ with a truck full of trash. The trash was supposed to go to the dump and stay there she told me. I said I know, I know but ya won’t have to seen none of this never again. I took it all out to ma back shed where I like to tinker with stuff. I got to work breakin’ it all down and sortin’ all the pieces.

    Accordin’ to the Google Machine I’d struck it rich. All the stuff I couldn’t sell I’d take back and dump it.

    After a week, I had enough to sell and off it went. And I tell ya what! I got two weeks wages off a week of searchin’ and tinkerin’. I’s so damn excited I grabbed up ma wife, God Bless her, and we went out to a fancy dinner date at the Red Lobsters, she really loves their coleslaw and I can’t get enough of those little biscuits. She celebrated with a glass of fancy sweet wine and I had me a Budweiser.

    I thought to maself, I could really get used to this, sellin’ trash and eatin’ fancy dinners

    I got to be pretty good at findin’ stuff. I’s seein’ it everywhere. I’d come home with more and more little devices, so much that I got ma wife, God Bless her, helpin’ me. And soon enough ma kids were in the back shed breakin’ things apart, sortin’ little doohickeys. We had us a family business goin’

    It got to the point at work, I’s jumpin’ out of ma dozer to snatch stuff more than I was doin’ ma job. The bosses didn’t like that much so I had to work out a better system

    I’d get to work before dawn and search around with a flashlight ‘til ma shift started. Then I’d work ma regular job, occasionally jumpin’ down to grab somethin’ too good to pass up. Then when ma shift was over I’d search ‘til a little after dark and take ma haul home. Ma wife, God Bless her, and kids would work on breakin’ everythin’ down.

    And wouldn’t ya know it! With this new system I started bringin’ home even more stuff, and had to hire a high school kid to come over to the shed in the afternoons to help out

    We was findin’ and sellin’ off mountains of gold and other fancy metals.

    At the time I was only grabbin’ the small stuff that’d pack the biggest punch. I could’ve gathered up all the metals like warshin’ machines and the like, and sold to em to recyclers but it was a lot of work to load most of it in ma truck and the payoff was less

    When I’d get to tired breakin’ things down, I’d go to the Google Machine some more and try findin’ other ways to make a buck off the gold mine I went to every day. In ma searches I came across a lady who’s wantin’ to buy up old landfills, dig up all the trash to run through this incinerator contraption and resell the land that used to be a dump for new development. She’s already a Gazillionaire at the time and was gettin’ close to startin’ a project.

    I thought to maself, I know how to bury trash, I’m sure I could dig it up too, and I could find all the recyclin’ to sell. Maybe I could turn this into a thing

    So I told ma wife, God Bless her, all about ma plan and how’d it be a risk and what all I’d have to do to get started and she said “OK! Let’s do it!” I did promise her more fancy dinners at the Longhorns or the Red Lobsters if it worked out.

    I sent that gazillionaire an email with ma ideas and what I’d already been doin’. And she wrote me back with an even better idea! We were off to the races.

    Now I’m just an old redneck that drives a bulldozer around so Ms. Gazillionaire took care of all the government regulations and hired the educated environmental types. There was a lot of that sort of stuff to be done.

    When the rubber hit the road I was in charge and boy was that fun! I was still down in the dirt every day diggin’. I had to follow all the rules about dealin’ with Methane such and such, but we was really gettin’ after it.

    That first dump took us 5 years, and we learned a lot. Ms. Gazillionaire made boohoos of money, but so did me and ma crew I’d put together. I weren’t quite the gazillionaire as she was but I sure as hell weren’t hurtin’

    She asked me if I’d do more projects with her and I said “Shoot yeah I will” and here we are twenty some odd years later and I’m tellin’ ma story to the President of the United States. We’ve now done somethin’ like 70 landfills but ya already know that. I think that’s probably why ya brought us here to have dinner with ya and that fancy environmental award ya gave us. But I’ve rambled on for too long now. Ma wife, God bless her, she says I just ramble and ramble sometimes

    Oh and one more thing, bein’ the first ever landfill miner weren’t a glamorous job, but it did get us a fancy dinner at the White House…. and, I did promise fancy dinners for ma wife, God Bless her.