Thursday, June 29, 2017

Chapter 2: Iowa

Let me tell you something about Iowa: it's pretty fucking empty. That's why we moved here.

Well, part of why. The sparseness of its population was why the CDC set up a secret lab housed in a bunker not all that far from our eventual home. A home we picked because of its proximity to that bunker and all the juicy research contained within. The man living in it, John Liebowitz, was Kell's former research partner. He joined us, which meant moving all the research to the farm.

Gone now. All gone.

My larger point is to demonstrate that you can walk for a long time in this state and not see anything past the plains and the farms written into their soil. Towns are oases, small dots of civilization with resources to draw on. Our slow walk led us to one of them. As happens more often than anyone likes, this ended up being a lot of boring time spent with little change followed by sudden and unpleasant excitement.

Though the spaces between towns and cities here were nearly bare of zombies, even a small burg like our destination always had a few. We stopped a hundred yards from the first buildings at the edge of town and stared at the milling bodies ahead.

"You've got to be fucking kidding," Jess said. "Didn't we sweep this place like a month ago?"

"We did," I confirmed. "I figured some would drift in, but this many is just insulting. It's like we didn't even touch the place."

There were dozens of them that we could see. Jess and I both had weapons, of course. The escape tunnel we used to get under the farm's fences was provisioned for a worst case scenario. Jess's rifle rested on a strap over her shoulder, but it was a tool of last resort. I held a heavy baton, a solid bar of aluminum. She carried one of the mass-produced extra-thick machetes common across all the communities in the Union.

Jess crossed her arms, letting the blade dangle from her hand. "We're not going to fight those things. You do know that, right?"

I frowned. "Do we have a choice? The car we stashed here isn't going to drive itself to us."

She gestured at my lower half. "You can't run. You've been pushing through the pain and it's impressive and whatnot, but this is just gonna get you killed. Probably me too."

I leaned on the baton like a cane, trying to subtly take pressure off my knee. Jess noticed, of course. She noticed everything nowadays. I ignored the satisfied smirk on her face. "What do you suggest, then?"

She gazed toward the teeming dead, who clearly had yet to smell us since they weren't moving toward our position. "Let me scout it. If I can get to the car, I'll drive back to you. If not, then at least I'll have a better lay of the land than we do now."

"And what am I supposed to do while you go out there and risk your life?" I asked.

She pointed toward a tiny cluster of trees. "Haul yourself up and wait for me."

The argument happened in my head at about fifty times the speed it would have in real life. I could have tried to cowboy my way through it and pretend I was fit enough for a fight, but she was right. Once again, Jess would be carrying me. I didn't hold it against her--she was tough and strong, fully capable--but it made me feel like a burden. It was a common state of being for me.

"Fine, go ahead," I said. "I'll wait for you."

Jess nodded, wasting no time as she turned and began jogging in a wide arc around the outer buildings. I watched her until she vanished from sight. I made my way over to the trees and found an oak with a branch low enough to snag. Pulling myself up without the use of my leg would have been impossible before The Fall, but the apocalypse got me into pretty good shape.

I found a comfortable perch and settled in. Over the years the worst enemy I'd fought was my own mental health. Depression and anxiety that would have still emerged had the world not ended, but made that much worse by our circumstances. I knew on a logical level that many of the fears and worries I had were unfounded, yet as I thought back to a few minutes earlier, a bunch of facts lined up in a way that didn't seem a product of my imbalanced brain chemistry.

Even before we moved to Iowa, Jess had begun to change. I don't mean the obvious stuff like becoming a better survivor and developing rock solid confidence. I guess it was more about how she changed with me. We spent so much time together that the slow decline in how often we shared a laugh or even companionable silence was hard to notice at first.

Since leaving Haven, it had become much harder to ignore. She protected me, but something wasn't quite right. She left to face danger, possible death, without so much as a pat on the shoulder.

It scared me in ways I didn't even know existed.

But I waited anyway. I knew she'd be back. Long legs and years of cardio meant it would take a truly groundbreaking zombie to run her down.

When she finally came back more than an hour later, it wasn't in a car. And though she was being chased by zombies--outpacing them by a wide margin--it isn't the dead I'm referring to when I say that she didn't come back alone.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Chapter 1: Once Upon a Time

To explain fully how Jess and I ended up living in Iowa with a bunch of other survivors would require me to drop a huge information bomb. There are a bunch of ins and outs, and most of it has been written about here before. Even the more secretive aspects are now well-known. 

Worst opening for a story ever, right? Fine, then. Let me say this. 

After three and a half years of building a community, of surviving the plague of zombies salting the earth, after losing more than any sane person should ever have to cope with, we didn't actually want to leave. Haven was our home, and even with the terrible pain we'd suffered, I always thought it would be. 

But as you may now be aware, we had a diamond hiding in the rough. I called him K or Big K, but his real name is Kell McDonald. He's the one whose work was stolen and used to accidentally create the plague. Long story short, I and a few other people had interesting symptoms that Kell thought he could study and use to create a cure. That's why we left the safety and prosperity of Haven for a farm so truly in the middle of nowhere that seeing even one zombie was the exception instead of the rule. Kell was planning to save the world. We wanted to help. 

That isn't where the story starts. Why would it be? Every survivor knows the basics. We found a property, built it up, made a home. This isn't about daily life on our little farm.

We were attacked. That's where it begins for me. After a few years of relatively idyllic daily life, we were targeted by a group from the east coast. They wanted Kell and his research. This too is mostly public knowledge by now. I've seen the updates on the repository website. 

I suppose the above is the groundwork needed to understand the tipping point, the instant in time when the momentum of change marked the real beginning of my recent history. 

It's always hard to figure out the exact moment in time to tell a story. Think about every time you've relayed one to a friend. Where does your adventure--or misadventure, as the case may be--start? It's difficult to put a finger on the space between heartbeats and decide which pause is the right one to begin your tale. 

Sometimes you just have to take the plunge. 

* * * 

After the attack, I slept for most of two days. Jess and I escaped with our lives and not much else. We weren't stupid; the farm was always a target and we'd prepared for that. All of us had. There were caches of supplies and a few hidden places safe enough to hunker down in for a little while. Jess got away clean, which was good for me because she was healthy enough to help haul my ass away from the farm. I torqued my lower back and left knee hard as we escaped through the tunnels. Pain was not a new acquaintance of mine by any means, but enough of it slows down anyone even when running for their life. 

Because of her--which should be the title of my biography--we made it to safety. The two of us curled up around a pair of backpacks loaded with canned food and jerky after downing enough water to drown us under normal circumstances, and we slept. Ten straight hours of running and evading will do that to you. 

"Are we going for the rendezvous?" I asked her when we were finally both awake and resembling something close to human. "We're going to have to find a vehicle if so."

There were quite a few of them dotting the surrounding area, trucks and cars made to look like the rest of the abandoned hulks we'd put back together and refueled for just such an emergency. I knew where several were, Jess knew of others, but getting to any of them would require a lot more walking. 

She hesitated in a way I knew to mean there were layers to the expression. Pursed lips, looking down and away, a new tension in her shoulders. She was about to say something I wouldn't like. 

"I think we should find a car, but not to go to the rendezvous," she said. "Whoever those people were, they can't follow all of us. We're probably safer on our own."

I nodded along with this statement. "We'd eventually have to go somewhere, though. We can't just wander forever."

Jess gave me the curiously flat look that told me I was being stupid and she was being nice enough not to say that out loud. "Yes, thank you very much, captain obvious. I know that. I think we should get to the cabin. Stay there for a while and keep an eye on the repository so we can read about whatever's going on from a safe distance. Did you notice the guys who shot at us were all wearing matching gear? Using military weapons? They were organized. This wasn't some random group of marauders."

I blinked. She was right--she usually was--but I hadn't really thought about the logic of our situation. "Okay, the cabin is fine with me. But I don't think a single tank of gas is going to get us there. We'll have to walk a bunch of the way."

Jess waved a hand roughly in the direction of my still-aching back and knee. "We'll take it slow, and I'll drive once we find one of the stashed vehicles. You'll be able to rest and recover. Don't worry, sweetie. I'll carry your water like I always do." She said the last with a gently mocking smile, just giving me a hard time,  but there was a lot of truth in the words. No relationship is perfectly equal, and since The Fall began, Jess had blossomed into an almost entirely different person than she was before it. Confident and outspoken when she'd been withdrawn and quiet, a decisive leader instead of happily letting others set the tone. Circumstance determines a lot about behavior, or so I concluded years ago about the origin of those slow but powerful changes in her personality. 

We stayed in our little hole, which was in the manager's office of an oil-change place, for another half day to regain our strength. Jess used the ladder bolted to the inside of the bay wall to scamper onto the roof every hour or so, scanning the area for any enemies who might be looking for us. Unlikely since we were nearly ten miles from the farm. The tiny little burg was mostly built around a truck stop. I doubted more than two thousand people had lived there in its prime. 

Eventually my leg felt solid enough to walk on, and we moved out. It would take time to find the nearest of the camouflaged escape vehicles, assuming there were any left, but we'd do it as we did most things. 


I had no idea how fleeting that state of existence was for us. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A preface for a new age

If my last post was too vague, forgive me. In some ways writing here again felt completely natural, as if I'd never left. In others it was strange. Not unlike picking up a guitar after years of disuse and finding the chords for a song you aren't sure how to play. The last post was something of a hello, a wave to those of you who've been here before. Today, indulge me one more time before I start on the story proper. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about it and feeling a need to muster up the courage to finally tell it.

And so today I will set the stage and satisfy some of your curiosity by telling you the general state of my life as it is now. How I got here is pretty much the point of the overall story I'll begin telling in my next post, so we'll leave that element alone for now.

In short, I'm living in a large, fortified cabin on the edge of a small lake. I can't tell you where it is for a few reasons. The first is that I'm not entirely sure. I know how to get here from several directions--I should, since I'm the one who found it in the first place--but I never used a map or paid attention to road signs or borders. Those kinds of considerations are minimal at best when zombies have destroyed civilization itself. It's enough to know it's west of Kentucky by a fair margin, temperate in climate, and far from any community of survivors I'm aware of.

The cabin was intended to be our fail safe. Jess and I found it years ago on one trip or another. Just the two of us, I remember that much, though we might have been on a short scouting trip inside of a larger group mission. My memory isn't clear on the particulars. Funny, since this place is so important to me now. You'd think the specifics would stand out sharply.

At any rate, the lake provides all the water I'll ever need. Jess and I made a few discreet trips out here over the course of a few years to stock it as best we could. Even after we left Haven, we occasionally came here to make sure it was untouched and to add to the supplies. We found an intact distribution center for a big box store and spent three solid days bringing boxes of canned food, rice, everything you can imagine. Which is good since I can't hunt for myself. My warden, as I think of him, won't let me out to do it.

The cabin itself is rarely bothered by zombies. We're far away from any main roads or population centers. There's just not enough human scent here to attract them. Once in a while a straggler or two, even a small swarm, will wander through. I might not be allowed out to hunt, but Adam has no problem letting me pick off random zombies with my bow. Best not to get rusty, after all.

Adam is also part of the story. It's easy for me to sit here and call him my jailer, but the truth is that I'd be dead a dozen times over without him. Our relationship is complicated.

So I sit here in a lovely cabin built by people who clearly had some expectation that things would go wrong in the world, warmed at night by a huge wood burning stove and cooled in the day by dips in the lake. I spend some of my time preserving meat and other food Adam brings home, or filtering lake water, or working on some project or another to make life here that much more comfortable. I remember an early post back when The Fall was new where I wrote about how surprised I was that boredom could ever be a problem at the end of the world. Here I sit today, a little befuddled at the idea that I would be able to once again take up my favorite pastime--swimming.

A lot of you would call this life an idyllic one, and I don't want to sound ungrateful. I can recognize my fortune in being safe and having provisions, in living in a zombie-proof home.

Which brings us to why these circumstances are faint concerns for me. It all ties in with how I got here, and what happened in the time between. I'm sorry you'll have to wait a few days for the story to begin, but it's unavoidable. Our portable cellular transmitter has batteries, but they're recharged by solar panels and it takes time to build up enough to send a signal, however brief.

So from here on out, no more foreplay. No more dancing around it. I will intersperse pieces of the story with life here with Adam, but I promise you the next thing you hear from me will be the beginning of the tale.

God help me. I know telling it will be therapeutic, but that doesn't mean the pain of doing so is any less scary. Still, it needs to be told.

And so I will. Consider this post and the last its preface, the necessary mixing of facts and circumstances needed to prepare you--and if I'm being honest, me--for taking the leap.

The bottom is a long way down.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Nothing ever ends, and everything does

I'm a bit rusty, so I hope you'll forgive me. I don't know where to begin.

Almost four years ago I said my goodbye. My intent was always to come back to this space, to update you on how things were going for as long as I could. That obviously didn't happen. There were a lot of reasons, ones I can't and won't detail here. They're split between being unimportant or too private for public consumption, and they have no bearing on what comes next.

Many, probably all, of you are aware of the changes that have taken place in the world since we left Haven. I'll be touching on those larger shifts in the near future, but for the moment it's a smaller story I want to focus on. That's going to require some explanation. Some prep work.

You see, I'm not writing here to start again on a project I consider complete. When I wrote my goodbye years ago, I considered the job done. The end of the world had come, and I chronicled my life and our experiences through the darkest of it. When Jess and I went out as settlers with our crew of people, a new dawn for humanity was just in sight. We'd passed through the most dangerous part of the bottleneck. We were going to make it.

And we did. We as in the human race, that is. On the smaller scale, things took a turn. That's why I'm not here to tell you about my daily life; it's unimportant. I will touch on that, too, but only in small ways that give you context. I'm here again not to tell you what is happening, but what has happened. My current circumstances are a direct result of events over the last few years.

The state of affairs is simple. I'm alive and but for one other person, I am alone. That person is not my wife. For all practical purposes, I am a prisoner. A pampered one to be sure, but a prisoner nonetheless. Why am I allowed to write freely? How am I able to upload these words to our small but scrappy attempt at an internet? We'll get there. I promise.

You need to know these things to understand what comes next. I've been working on this story as a means of therapy. You might call it grief counseling, which in a weird way it is. The point is that yes, I will be updating on whatever schedule I can, and yes I will be talking about what's happening with me now if not in the way I used to. But I'll also be relaying events that have already occurred.

In short, I'm going to tell you a story. I've been working on it in my head for a while now. To make it easier to consume, I will present it as just that--a story. A first-person account of the twists, turns, and tragedies of my recent history. The only spoiler is that I lived through it, and I can't honestly say it's a blessing.

Will the words spoken by the other people, the characters if you like, be exactly what was said in reality? No. No one has that sort of memory. But the spirit of them will stay the same. The larger purpose will be to expiate my own grief and loss by finally putting pen to paper, or at least its digital equivalent.

We live in a world where the dead have risen, where humanity still fights a daily war (which we're winning so far) against the zombies shambling like a plague of locusts across the land. There was no species-wide epiphany in which all people everywhere suddenly realized that decency and respect would pull us together and make survival a safer prospect. Which is a pretty way of saying that for all the good in humanity, there are still a lot of selfish, murderous dicks out there looking to get theirs at the expense of whoever is in their way.

We are together at this moment, you and I, because I have another story to tell. I don't know that it's necessary for my mental health for anyone else to read it, only that I have to write it. I hold a slim hope that at least one of you will find something in these words that touches you, helps you, or reminds you of the basic decency we all sometimes have difficulty holding onto.

Consider this post a preface to that story. I will certainly move in and out of the narrative I've been building in my head, updating you on my circumstances. A slow drip of explanations about how I'm living now is required; I won't leave anyone in the dark about the specifics.

But these are secondary things. The chapters explaining how I got here are the larger purpose behind me finally returning to this space.

I hope you'll stick around.