The survivor journals om.., p.32

The Survivor Journals Omnibus [Books 1-3], page 32

 part  #1 of  The Survivor Journals Omnibus Series

 

The Survivor Journals Omnibus [Books 1-3]
 



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  “Fair enough.” I stood. I was not scared at that moment, though. I was staring down the night-black barrel of a police-style Remington 870, but I didn’t think for a second she’d use it on me. I think it was the tone of her voice. She sounded rational. She wasn’t scared of me. She wasn’t showing any fear, herself.

  She started to circle me. “How old are you?”

  “Eighteen.” I didn’t like her being behind me, but I didn’t have much control of the situation at that moment.

  “You came here from Wisconsin? How’d you get here?”

  “Drove.”

  “You got a working car?”

  “I did.” I lied. I didn’t need her stealing the RV out from under me. “Broke down in Newark. I walked here.”

  Ren whistled through her teeth. “That’s a helluva walk.”

  “Didn’t have much choice, did I?”

  “I would have found a bike somewhere.”

  “Wise. I should have done that.”

  “You don’t have a lot of supplies.”

  “Been getting what I need as I need it. The world is full of stuff.”

  She huffed. “True enough. Anyone else with you?”

  On this, I told the truth: “Until today, I’d found three living people. All of them are now dead. One was killed by someone else. That someone else died from injuries he’d given her. One died from cancer shortly after I found him.”

  Renata stopped circling. “Is it that bad out there? I mean, how many people are still alive, you think?”

  “Not many, sadly.” I told her about exploring most of Wisconsin, Minneapolis, Chicago, and northeast Iowa. I told her about driving across Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania and coming up snake-eyes. I heard her lean on a car behind me.

  “Damn.” That was all she said.

  We were both quiet for a long time. I broke the silence. “How about you? Have you been in New York the whole time?”

  She cleared her throat. “Yeah. Brooklyn, born and raised. When the Flu really got bad, I was sort of conscripted into the hospital where my sister was a nurse. I watched a lot of people die. I just kept hoping it was better in other states, though. I thought New York was just bad because everyone is so close together, you know?”

  “Yeah. I thought the countryside would have been better because people were so spread out. Flu took them out just as fast as it killed people in the city. It was hyper-contagious.” I heard her sniff behind me, the sort of sniff of someone trying not to cry.

  “So that’s it, then. The Flu was global. If it was the same overseas as here, then the world is dead.”

  “Looks that way.” I lowered my hands. My shoulders had started to ache.

  A low droning rose in the distance. The Jeep was returning. I spun around to face Renata. She was looking toward the sound of the engine. “We need to hide. C’mon.”

  Ren started to run. I followed. She led me to a hole in a wire fence beneath the overpass. We slipped through it and ran across a street to the remnants of an old bar, the kind of neighborhood place that would have been ignored by tourists. The door was unlocked and Renata slipped inside. The bar still clung to that stale beer smell for which old bars were famous. The bottle racks inside the bar were picked clean, not even a dusty jar of pickled pearl onions remained. “The Patriots hit this place months ago. I moved in after they left it. I knew it was safe because they probably wouldn’t be back.”

  Ren led me to a back room. The back room had a door that led to a narrow stairway. The stairway led to a tiny apartment above the bar. The flat was stark, but it had an actual fireplace. There were two windows facing the street. They were both blocked off with thick blankets to prevent anyone on the street from seeing any sort of light from behind them. There was a queen-sized mattress on the floor in one corner, a plush leather chair in another. Near the hearth was a rather eclectic pile of things to burn, mostly broken furniture and old pallet slats, stuff that could have been scrounged up around a city. There was a supply of canned food, bottled water, toilet paper, and other necessities. Clothes were scattered around the apartment. There was a small, square balcony outside of a narrow door next to the bathroom. On that balcony, Ren had a bunch of five-gallon plastic paint buckets grouped in a square. “My water collection system,” she said. “It was easier in the winter when it snowed a lot. This summer has been pretty dry. Water is starting to get sparse. I could drink water out of the East River, but I’m not that desperate, yet.”

  I looked around at her place. It was small and spartan. My digs at the library had been pretty cushy in comparison. “It’s nice.” It was a lie, but a tactical lie. She knew it wasn’t great. She didn’t need me reminding her.

  “Can I trust you? You seem like a nice guy and all, but I need to know you’re not going to try anything stupid.” She still had the shotgun in her hands and my handgun in her pants.

  “Can I trust you?” I countered. “You’re the one with the guns, right now. I honestly mean you no harm. I’m just making my way south to start to build a new life.”

  We stood in the dark looking at each other. Eventually she sighed and put the shotgun in a corner of the little apartment. “Damned thing wasn’t even loaded, anyhow.” She pulled the revolver out of her pants and set it on the mantel over the fireplace. “Mind if we just keep it there for a while?”

  “If it makes you feel better.”

  The sound of the Jeep was coming closer. Renata crept to the window and pulled back a corner of blanket. I crept to the other window and pulled the other blanket, peering out through just a crack of space. The Jeep was rolling down the street where I’d first seen it. I couldn’t see the Jeep itself, but I could see the illumination of the headlights and hear the engine. When the Jeep rolled out of sight and out of range of hearing the engine, Ren relaxed visibly. Her shoulders slumped with relief.

  She knelt next to the fire and lit a few scraps of newsprint for tinder. In a moment, she’d coaxed the flames to light into some old chunks of wood that looked like they’d once been part of a hardwood bureau. It was warm and stuffy in the apartment, but the fire was needed to cook a can of soup. “It’s not much.”

  “It’s how we live now.” I sat in the leather chair. The fire lit her face, and I could see what she looked like for the first time. She was pretty. Her hair was brown, naturally wavy; it was thick, too. She looked Latina. She had dark eyes and high cheekbones. Her face was smeared with grime, but it only served to make her look rugged and alive.

  When the soup was ready, she split the contents of the pot, ladling them into Styrofoam bowls. She jabbed a plastic spoon into one and held it out for me. “Chili. Before the Flu, I was one of those annoying-ass college student vegan types for a couple of years, the kind that lectured everyone about how good it was to be vegan. Took me exactly four days to abandon that lifestyle after the final week of the Flu.”

  “What caused you to do it?”

  “You know we have coyotes in New York?”

  I shook my head; I hadn’t known that, but I did not doubt it. I knew they were hardy little critters. I’d seen them on rare occasions out in the countryside in Wisconsin, and I knew they had started to move into the outer edges of Madison, even well before the Flu. They were like canine cockroaches. They would survive, no matter what it took to do so.

  “Well, we did. We do,” she corrected. “I was out picking apart a head of wilting lettuce to eat, and I saw one of the little buggers at the end of the street. He was munching on a discarded crust of pizza, happy as a lark. I realized that stupid coyote was the perfect symbol of my future. I decided that my future was going to be as a scavenger. Scavengers don’t get to be choosy. They certainly don’t need to stand on a moral high ground.”

  “That’s true. I’ve done more than my own fair share of scavenging.”

  Ren arched an eyebrow. “A fellow master of the canned goods, I see. What’s your favorite thing to eat?”

  “Chef Boyardee lasagna. Love it.”

 
; Ren smiled. “Those are good. I like pumpkin pie Pop Tarts. Hard to find them, especially since the Flu hit in May, but when I do—watch out. I will eat the entire box in a single sitting.”

  We lapsed into silence again. I was finding Renata a lot harder to talk to than Doug had been. There was a lot of quiet in the room. Doug’s house had been silent, but out on his patio, we’d talked easily. I ate the can of chili she’d cooked for me. “You know what I miss most?” She looked at me expectantly. I said, “Pizza and garlic cheese bread.”

  Her eyes lit up, and she laughed. “Oh, man. You are not kidding. Even when I was in my most hardcore vegan phase, I would still sneak garlic cheese bread. I used to take a bus halfway across town to go to this little Italian place just to have garlic cheese bread where none of my vegan friends might see me. I used to get so embarrassed about having it, too. Stupid, I know. It was my own private Ortolan.”

  I didn’t know what an Ortolan was, but I didn’t want her to think I was dumb, so I just nodded. I made a mental note to look it up next time I found a library. (Turns out, it is a little bird that French chefs force-feed and roast whole, and then the diner would eat it whole—feet, beak, and all. It was said that it was such a despicable and extravagant act, one should shield their face from God with a napkin while one does it. So…Renata has brains. I was a little intimidated. Scratch that—a lot intimidated.)

  Renata kicked off her boots and sat cross-legged on her bed, her back against the wall. “Did you think it’d be like this?”

  “No.” I had never even thought about how life would be after the Flu. I’d fully expected to die during the Flu, and then when I realized I wasn’t going to die, I’d spent every waking moment just surviving. I had no expectations of life after the Flu in the least. I lived day-to-day, while trying to plan for an uncertain future as best I could.

  Ren said, “Ever watch any of those apocalypse shows on TV?”

  “Not really, no. I liked comedies and video games.”

  Renata yawned and stretched. “I used to watch a couple. I liked how the survivors all banded together and helped each other survive. When I knew I wasn’t going to die, that’s what I tried to do. My sister, Elena, and I both survived. So did my little brother, Carlos. He had pretty bad cystic fibrosis, though. Without the ability to get him on his treatments, he didn’t last.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  She shrugged. “Ain’t that a bitch? He survives the Flu just fine, but a stupid lung disease kills him two months later. Elena and I dug a grave for him and our parents in the cemetery near our house. Took us almost a week to dig out three graves. Blisters for days.” Ren laughed at the memory. “My hands hurt so bad, man. I didn’t think they’d ever be normal again.”

  “Where’s your sister now?”

  Ren didn’t reply. I had an inkling of what happened. Ren took a deep breath. “Patriots got her. Found her scavenging and tried to take her back to their little fortress. I was up on a roof looking for an entrance to an apartment. I heard her screaming, and then she somehow pulled her gun and shot and killed one of them. The other two responded in kind to her. I saw her die on the sidewalk.”

  “I’m sorry.” Condolences for something like that felt hollow, but it was the only thing I could think to say.

  Ren shrugged. “Thanks, but it is better that way. I’d hate to think about what those misogynist assholes might have done to her if she was still alive. I know that other women survived the Flu, but I have never, ever seen them out with Patriot patrols. A few months ago, I run into this dude while I was combing through an office building, right? I got the drop on him, but he turns out to be an okay dude. He tells me he’s been spying on the Patriot encampment for weeks. Says he’s seen women in the encampment. Some are washing clothes. Some are cooking. Some are cleaning. The guy tells me that the Patriots want to breed a new America. Sounds like a code word for rape to me. That’s some real Margaret Atwood handmaid stuff. There are men with guns guarding the encampment at all times, and if one of the women stops doing whatever they’re told or tries to rebel, they die.” Ren was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “Some of them figure it’s better to die, and they take that bus, you know?” Renata stopped talking. She looked down at her hands. In the firelight, I could see scars and callouses. She was a fighter. A survivor.

  I didn’t know how to respond.

  “Why do men think they can just do that?”

  I didn’t know how to respond to that, either. “I don’t know.” I was a weak representative for my gender.

  “Elena was smart. She was an ER nurse. She was tough. It sounds sick, but I’m glad they killed her. She didn’t deserve to be a slave. She would have hated it.” After a moment, she shook off thoughts of her sister. “What about you? Brothers? Sisters?”

  “Only child,” I said. “Buried my parents and my girlfriend after they died.”

  “You said you were going south. Why?”

  “Because I spent a winter in Wisconsin and decided I did not want to do that again. Too cold. Too brutal.”

  “But why the South?” Ren turned to face me. “It’s so far away. And hot.”

  “You never thought about leaving New York?”

  “No. Not once. It’s my home, you know? It’s where I was born.” Ren got up from her bed and went to the window. She pulled back the curtain and what little moonlight there was outside helped illuminate the apartment. “It ain’t great, but I understand it. It makes sense to me.”

  “You could probably survive here for years. Plenty of food, plenty for places to scavenge. Plenty of things to burn for heat. Just stay away from the Patriots.”

  “Yeah. That’s what I figured.” Ren dropped the blanket. The light from the fire became our sole source of light again, rich, yellow-and-orange tones. “That’s what I was planning to do, anyhow.”

  “But then what?”

  Ren squinted at me. “Then what? What do you mean?”

  I shrugged. I gestured at the canned food. “You’re going to get tired of canned food, aren’t you? In the south, there will be fresh food. Fruit trees. Fresh game animals. Ocean fish. River fish.”

  “I got river and ocean fish here,” Ren said defensively.

  “You actually want to eat what you pull out of the rivers around here?”

  Ren shrugged, then shook her head. “Nah. The East River is really gross. I found a couple of bodies floating in it last year. Figured that people probably were dying of the Flu and chose to bail off the Brooklyn Bridge.”

  “The South will be warm,” I said. “That’s my main reason for going. It took a lot of wood to get through a single Wisconsin winter. Down south, I won’t have to fear freezing to death. There will be plenty of food in the South, too. All kinds of animals and farmland. Orchards. It just seemed to me that if I was going to live someplace for the rest of my life, I should live someplace where it was warm and food would be plentiful, and then I could figure the rest out as I went along.”

  There was a silence, and then Ren walked toward me. She looked at me with serious eyes. “Can I go with you?”

  CHAPTER NINE

  The President of the United States of America

  I wasn’t about to tell someone who did not shoot me or club me to death when she had the chance that I wouldn’t let her come with me. I needed friends. I needed friends badly. I did not know for certain if I could trust Renata; after all, she did hold a gun on me. An empty gun, sure, but a gun nonetheless. I would have done the same thing in her position, though.

  I held back the knowledge of my RV. I didn’t want her to decide to clobber me in the middle of the night and steal it. I had no desire to face off with the so-called ‘Patriots.’ I wanted to get free and clear of New York as fast as possible. I told her she could come with me. When I said it aloud, I realized I wasn’t just being nice. I really wanted her to come with me.

  Turns out, Renata was not sure she could trust me, either. After we talked about the South for a while, she said,
I’m going to bed. If we’re going to leave New York, we need to go early. The Patriots tend to sleep late. The first couple hours after dawn are pretty safe for moving around the city. Meet me under the overpass tomorrow morning where we found each other, okay? Be there early.”

  I didn’t blame her for being cautious. I asked for my gun back. She hesitated. “If I give you this back, do you promise not to shoot me?”

  I promised. It was a major moment of trust-building between us. She held it out, I took it back, and then I ejected the magazine and popped the single bullet out of the chamber, just to show her that I wasn’t going to use it against her. “Friends?” I held out my hand.

  “Friends.” She shook my hand. I’d like to say something like her touch sent electric shocks up my arm, and our eyes met. If there’s something that my journals lack, it’s love scenes. Unfortunately, if I’m completely honest with you, at that moment there was no love, only a tentative friendship, a sincere bond between two people who each desperately needed a friend and someone to trust.

  She walked me to the door of the bar and locked it behind me. There were three large deadbolts in the door. No one was getting through that door without hitting it with a truck. Once outside, I reloaded my gun. I decided to play it safe and took a roundabout path back to the RV. I went north for six blocks, ducked down an alley, and climbed a fire escape just to make sure she wasn’t trailing me with a group of armed goons waiting to take whatever supplies I had. I even considered just sleeping on a roof. It was a nice, warm night. It was the sort of judgment call that I hated to make. If she was in cahoots with others, I could be foiling their plans. If she was alone, I was just making myself miserable for nothing. I waited on the roof for maybe an hour. I had no idea what time it was. Easily after midnight, probably closer to dawn than midnight. I listened for engines, voices, footsteps, for anything. I heard nothing but wind, crickets, and the occasional distant bark or howl of stray dogs. Eventually, I decided to trust that Ren was as alone as I was, and I went back to the RV.

 
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