The Survivor Journals Omnibus [Books 1-3], page 31part #1 of The Survivor Journals Omnibus Series
The roof access door was just above that floor. Another eighteen steps. I had to do it. I gathered my gear and marched up the last eighteen steps. This door didn’t have a window like all the rest of the fire doors, but this door also wasn’t locked for some reason. I was able to push it open. Wind caught the door and slammed it open. The chain at the top of the door kept it from slamming back against the wall of the rooftop portal behind it, but the wind held the door with force. I dropped my ruck at the corner of the door so if the wind died, it couldn’t close on me. That would be all I needed—to survive a year and change over a Wisconsin winter, and then stupidly lock myself on the roof of a seventy-story office tower to die.
There was a massive stack of air conditioning blocks on the roof. They were their own engineering marvel. They extended at least an additional twenty feet on top of the roof. For a split-second, I considered climbing them and doing a Leo DiCaprio I’m-the-king-of-the-world moment, but an image of a gust of wind catching me and chucking me over the edge of the building ran that idea out of my head.
I walked to the nearest edge. There was a safety wall about four feet high around the edge of the roof. I put my hands on the little wall and glanced over the edge. That tickling sensation of vertigo whipped through my body. I liked heights, I liked that sensation, but it was a big difference to look down from this building than it was a five or six-story parking garage like I knew in Madison. Looking over the edge of this building made me think about throwing up and it filled me with an urge to pee.
I walked to the edge of the roof to my left to look down at the ground from there, but caught something out of the corner of my eye that froze me in place: Huddled in the far corner of that edge was a skeleton in a ragged, sun-bleached coat and fading jeans. Someone had chosen to die on the roof of this building.
The body wasn’t mummified like most of the graying, dry skin-covered corpses I’d found. This person had spent a year exposed to the elements, to insects and birds. It was an actual, honest-to-goodness skeleton bleached white by the sun and rain. At least, it was bleached white at the spots that were exposed. Beneath the clothes, there was still a few piles of tissue, organs, and skin. The odor of death was present, but it was not thick, not heavy. It was still enough to make me wrinkle my nose and breathe through clenched teeth, but it was far better than many of the bodies I’d seen. The body was on its side, slumped back against one edge of the roof safety wall. The skull was tilted downward slightly, the neck curving so the top of the skull was resting on the tar and scattered pea gravel on the roof. There were a couple of empty bottles of booze next to the body, along with a pulpy wad of dried cardboard that was once a pizza box. I could see the corner of a plastic Ziploc bag jutting out of the corpse’s fraying jacket. It seemed an odd thing for a dead body to have, so I knelt down and removed it as carefully as I could without disturbing the body. Inside the sealed bag was a note handwritten in blue ink on yellow legal paper.
My name was Charles Spangler. I was the last person to come into work at Morris, Heifetz, and Weiss Law Offices. Everyone else is dead or dying. They stayed home. I thought maybe being at the office would keep me healthier than staying home. I was wrong. When I started coughing, I knew I was dying, too. I came up to the roof to jump, but chickened out. The disease will get me soon enough, I guess. The disease is killing everyone. We all wondered how the end would come, and when it would come. It looks like we all know the answer to that, now.
I don’t have any last words or a will. Doesn’t look like it matters, anyhow. I just want it known that the skies over New York are beautiful without all the lights from the city to spoil them, but the city was better with all the street noise than it is with all the quiet.
I regret that I never took the chance to ask Jennifer to go to dinner. I will regret that I harbored that desire for her for so long and never acted on it. I don’t think there is a kinder, gentler soul on the Earth than she.
I will miss Central Park in the fall. Wherever I’m going, I hope there is something similar. If there is, look for me there.
If there is a God, maybe Jennifer will be there, too.
The note was signed with a flourish. It was neatly folded into eighths. A dying man’s last chance to say something to the world, and in the end that was all he had to say. I would not have done any better.
Seeing Mr. Spangler’s remains made me lose my taste for being on the roof. It tainted the thrill. I could only think about that poor guy lying huddled in that corner, hacking and coughing, gasping for air, and eventually dying. It made me wonder again why I was still alive. Why had Doug lived an extra year only to die by cancer? I know that this sort of feeling is called existential dread. It is a realization that life lacks meaning or purpose. I was battling existential dread heavily now. I had no reason for living, no reason why the Flu didn’t take me when it erased everyone else. I had no purpose on the planet other than pure survival; it wasn’t like I was going to have a career or something. As far as I could process, I was only living to spite the Universe’s attempt at wiping out the human race. That didn’t feel like much of a life. It certainly wasn’t a good reason to keep living.
I let the RV roll on impulse through the streets of New York. I wanted to honk the horn as I had in the smaller towns and cities, but I refrained. I tried it once and it felt profane. The blare of the horn echoed around the buildings, and it sounded tinny and harsh. It didn’t sound right, which is funny considering how many horn blasts the city had endured since the creation of cars. I drove in silence, instead.
When I looked at New York City on a map, it looked tiny. Even including areas around it like Newark, it was still smaller than southern Wisconsin. It was literally a fourth or a fifth of the size of Wisconsin as a whole. I spent weeks combing Wisconsin roads, towns, and cities during the past summer. I’d found nothing. The population density of New York City would suggest that there had to be people alive inside the city somewhere, but where? I was not a local. Half of my knowledge of New York came from either watching the ball drop on television on New Year’s Eve or an embarrassing amount of repeated viewings of “Crocodile” Dundee. My late girlfriend, Emily, used to watch Sex & the City over and over like I watched Scrubs. I kicked myself for not joining her now. Maybe I would have known more.
I found Central Park on the map and drove there, winding my way through the streets until the green expanse spilled out before me. I pulled my mountain bike off the back of the Greyhawk and took it for a spin through the park. I found only overgrown weeds and fallen trees, no signs of human life. It felt good to ride again, though.
I drove to Times Square. It was hauntingly empty. There were leaves and papers blown in from who-knows-where in the gutters. The myriad neon signs were dark and dusty. The Square felt melancholy, as though it missed the constant hustle and bustle.
I drove to the Empire State Building. I had no desire to see the observation deck, though; I was worried about what I might find up there. Maybe someday I would regret that, but I did not want to find another Charles Spangler.
The city streets were in bad shape. Many of them were lined haphazardly with cars. People had parked cars on the sidewalk, in the outer lanes of four-lane streets. I had to K-turn my RV a couple of times to get out of a street that was blocked by abandoned cars. I got lost a few times. One road was blocked, I took another, that road didn’t let me get where I thought I would get. I was getting frustrated and angry. I missed the open, empty highways. I missed the peaceful country roads. If I was this pissed with zero traffic, I fully understood why New Yorkers were considered angry people.
I pulled off the road underneath an overpass bridge to stop for the night. The area underneath the overpass was congested with abandoned cars. The RV would not stand out there. It was camouflaged from potential passing eyes. I pulled the RV into a tight spot next to a rusty school bus that had a bad homemade paint job, sky blue with the hand-lettered words NY SuperTaxi on the side in white. The sky was getting dark.
I froze. I had to assess the situation. What was I hearing? Friend or foe? Where was it coming from? I shut off the lantern on the table and the RV plunged into darkness. Fester protested the end of head rubs with an annoyed meow, but he wasn’t one to hold a grudge. He rolled to his feet and retreated to the upper bunk. I like to believe he sensed something was up.
I grabbed my handgun from the holster hanging near the door and crept out into the darkness. I held my breath. I stepped lightly, moving toward the street by slipping behind positions of cover. In the distance, I could hear the distinctive, unmistakable sound of a car engine.
I crouched down behind a dusty, rusty car, one of those big, boat-like 70’s-style ragtop sedans. Headlights were illuminating the buildings a few blocks down. I waited, and eventually a large Jeep came around the corner. The engine sounded a little ragged, but it was still moving. The top was off the Jeep and I could see four people riding in it. Four! My first instinct was to jump out and flag them down, but I didn’t. Something felt wrong. The hair on the back of my neck raised. I got goosebumps. Something in the lizard-brain survival-at-all-costs section of my head said, Don’t. Stay down.
I trusted my gut, and stayed very low. The Jeep passed. There were four men of various ages. They each carried a large gun. They looked rough, tough, hardened. The three men who weren’t driving were looking up, scanning the windows of buildings, probably looking for the tell-tale signs of flashlights or lanterns. They didn’t see me. I didn’t know what they were doing or why they were doing it, but everything in my body told me to hide, to get away from them. Everything about them told me nothing good would happen if they found me. The Jeep rolled down the street. I tasted exhaust. It rolled around a corner and out of view. I stayed crouched and hidden until the noise of the engine faded to silence.
Now I was given an interesting quandary: I knew for certain people still lived in the city, but did I really want to go to those people? How could I be certain they were good people? Could I be sure they wouldn’t kill me and take my supplies? Worse, what if they beat me and enslaved me? What if they just locked me in a cell and left me to starve to death? I had no idea what rules would apply to existing communities in this post-Flu world. It’s not like there is any sort of police force or system of laws anymore. I had so desperately wanted to find people, but now that I had, it was time to question whether or not that was what I really wanted. The four men in the Jeep were all alpha-male looking dudes. They held their guns easily, like they’d known weapons well before the Flu wiped out society. I was the opposite of that. I was an awkward boy, barely more than eighteen, and a pacifist at heart. Even when I wrestled, my favorite part was the end of the match. Hug the guy you just fought and congratulate him if he beat you. No hard feelings, my friend. Well done, you. These guys were different. They were not my type of people.
All this only served to enhance the fear I battled constantly. Why was I so scared of everything? In all the books I’d ever read, the heroes were always the type who were able to rise above their fears. They would stare a dragon in the eye or make the suicide charge into the swords of the oncoming army. They would stand on the deck of a wind-sheared, madly tilting ship and scream curses at Poseidon himself. I wasn’t one of those guys. It made me mad. All the hours I spent reading those books, I always wanted to be the hero of the story. I wanted to be the one who pulled the enchanted sword from the stone and ruled a nation. Now, cowering beneath the quarter-panel of an Impala, I realized that I wasn’t even in the hero’s entourage. I wasn’t the plucky comic relief or the strong, silent best friend who had the hero’s back. I was a minor character, at best. A two-chapter character, long forgotten by story’s end. I was an armorer’s apprentice who stayed back in town, married a horrible woman, and hated myself forever. I wanted to rage at my own weakness. I hated myself for it. I was a coward, and I couldn’t even bullshit myself into believing otherwise.
I resolved to go back to the RV, get as much of a night’s sleep as I could, and then get on the road heading south again before the men in the Jeep discovered that I was in their territory. Being alone forever wouldn’t be too bad, I told myself. I could learn to enjoy it.
Because I didn’t hear any noise in the vicinity, I didn’t crouch and move from cover-to-cover like I had when I’d heard the Jeep. I just strolled relying on the darkness and the abandoned cars under the overpass to hide me, sidearm held lazily in my right hand. This was a mistake, I quickly learned. Never assume you’re alone in the city, even after the viral apocalypse.
“Get on your face!”
I had not been prepared to hear another person’s voice, and certainly not one shouting commands at me from somewhere nearby. I froze, raising my arms. The voice reverberated off the cars and the concrete of the overpass. I couldn’t tell from what direction it was coming.
“Get down! Put your face to the pavement. Now!”
The voice was female. Had to be. She was trying to sound gruff and male, but I could tell it was a woman. I knelt on the ground, and then lay flat.
“Get rid of the gun.”
I had no choice, at that point. I could not start wildly shooting. I didn’t know where the voice was coming from, for starters, and I certainly did not want to alert the guys in the Jeep by firing a gun. I slid the handgun away from me. I heard footsteps off to my left. I craned my neck around to see who was approaching. I could make out the shape of someone in the darkness. Definitely female. Short, curvy hips, and long hair in a ponytail.
She walked over and picked up my gun, slipping it into the back of her cut-off jeans shorts. She had a shotgun cradled in her right arm. “You got anything else on you? And I swear, if you make a stupid joke about your penis, I will end you right here and right now.”
I shook my head. “Not a thing. Honest.”
I was wearing a sleeveless, heather gray t-shirt and a pair of black basketball shorts. What else would I be carrying? “Positive.”
She leaned back against a car. “You’re real lucky those guys didn’t see you.”
“You’re not from New York, are you? Outsider? You sound like you’re from Chicago.” She leaned back against a nearby SUV, shotgun held in front of her. She wasn’t pointing it at me, but she could have spun it and gunned me down before I could have gotten to my knees. I stayed on the ground.
“I’m from near Madison, Wisconsin.”
“Close enough,” she said. “To me, that’s Chicago.”
I was not about to argue with her over a matter of two hundred miles. “How many people are still alive here?”
“Too many for my tastes.” She spat on the ground. “The Big Apple has survivors. I’ve been able to count at least twenty since television went dark. There are more, though. I don’t know how many more. Those guys in the Jeep call themselves Patriots. They say they’re trying to rebuild America, but they’re really just ransacking peoples’ private supply stashes and trying to find people they can force to do scut work for them at gunpoint. Bad dudes. I’ve had a couple of run-ins with them. Barely escaped both times. I just try to stay out of their way, stay hidden. You should do likewise.”
I risked pushing myself u
“What’s your name?” she said.
“That’s a stupid name.”
“Nickname. My real name is Barnabas.”
“That’s even worse.”
“Yeah. My mom really loved that old Dark Shadows soap when she was younger. It’s not the most practical of names.”
She took a step closer. The gun was still on me. “Got a last name?”
“I do, but does it matter anymore? Just Twist is fine, isn’t it? Are you going to confuse me with all the other Twists you know?” There was a silence after that. I feared she took my response as being too sarcastic. I had to change my tone. “What’s your name?” I asked. When she hesitated, I said, “It’s just a name. Make it hard to be friends if we don’t exchange names.”
“You think we’re gonna be friends?”
“I’m hopeful. I could use some friends.”
There was another long hesitation. Finally she said, “Ren. Renata, actually, but people call me Ren.” She moved back a few feet and gestured with the barrel of her shotgun. “Stand up. Don’t try anything, though. If you even think about moving toward me, I’ll cut you down.”