Monday, December 27, 2010

Land of Shadows: Chapter XIX - The Uni

Dee found herself experiencing a sense of deja vu as they approached the small town where they would probably be spending the night. According to the map it was called St. James. It was about ninety miles southwest of St, Louis. They had been making good time, it was as if someone had gone before them and cleared their path of wrecked cars and such. It was not until she had bent down to pick up her father's journal after it had once again slid under the dash that she had realized that was exactly the case. Her father, along with many of their hometown's founders had done just that on their way up from Missouri years ago and there had been no traffic since then to clog things up again.

They had been unconsciously retracing their route since leaving Chicago. It was decided that the pursuit of James Nash's killer would be abandoned for now. They knew where he was going and it was hoped that they could beat him to it. She had read and re read the pertinent journal entries and hoped that her father was wrong. But she knew deep down that he was not. The catastrophe that had wiped out most of humanity had been man made.

The machines that had been used to work this horror had destroyed themselves in the process. But they were only prototypes. There was a secondary location in Houston that housed a bigger, more powerful machine. And it was just sitting there waiting to be used. Her father knew this because he had rescued a man that had helped build these machines. The man had been badly injured, but he had babbled about it constantly in his final delirious hours before dying. When he had been lucid he talked reluctantly about it, afraid that he would punish him for his role in the destruction of human civilization. But her father had learned enough enough to know how to go down there and shut things down. Or, for his killer to go down there and reactivate the machine. Neither her, nor her father knew if those that had been passed over once would be passed over again. Odds are they would, but no such guarantee existed for those born since. And even if they were not, would more wraiths, or worse, be visited upon them?

She shook her head and placed the journal safely in her pack and studied the road ahead.

They were coming to a bridge passing over the I-44. The wind was blowing something fierce and a sudden gust billowed snow from off the bridge and for a moment the road was lost. Dotty was at the wheel and slowed briefly. Then sped up again after the snow clear and a second later slammed on the brakes. A large bulky shape loomed in the road ahead. An ancient leftover from an era dead even before the disappearance. Dee recognised it at once. A Sherman tank. Its back was to them as they headed southward on the northbound lanes, but its turret could rotate three hundred and sixty degrees. And the Hummer was now skidding right towards it.

* * *

He sat in the passenger seat watching the miles fly by. The bleached blond jail bait sitting behind the steering wheel would not have been allowed to drive by the old laws. But things were a little less formal now and there were no police officers cruising about looking for underage drivers. Had one been around and foolish enough to pull her over, he would have been surprised by the hardware she had tucked away under the in various locations in the cab of the truck. A sawed off shotgun held to the door panel with Velcro straps, a revolver under the seat and a nine millimeter where the Delco stereo had once resided, not to mention the police issue Glock in the almost too large for her police issue gun belt strapped on under her parka.

The conversation was a bit one sided, but that seemed to be fine for both of them. All he had to do was nod from time to time and she just chattered away. He would be glad when the time to came to shut the bitch up. Unfortunately she was not compatible. But for now she was useful. She seemed smarter than his current host, she could read and was willing to take him most of the way to Texas. And he was sure that he would be able persuade her to accompany him further.

He had been making his way southwest across the overgrown parking lot of a big box store in Fond Du Lac, winding between battered old cars and rusting shopping carts. He literally stumbled into her. He had decided to climb over a flatbed truck blocking one of the aisles. He jumped down from the rusted diamond plate steel platform and knocked her down as she was carrying a bundle of liberated supplies from the box store. She had her gun out and pointed at him before he even knew what happened.

The two of them froze there for a few moments staring at one another. She smiled at his flustered expression completely misreading him. She put the gun away and said, "Well you look harmless enough."

* * *

Dotty managed to turn the wheel into the skid, take her foot off the brake and gas long enough for the big 37x12.5R17 Super Swamper off road tires to bite into the snow before gunning it again, just long enough to pull the Hummer off its collision course with the tank. Even so they clipped the forward edge of the tread with the right rear of the Hummer. Dotty tried to gun it again desperate to get away from the tank. Dee reached across and laid her hand on the older woman's shoulder.

"It's ok Dotty, it's dead."

"Dead ... are you sure?" She asked as she allowed the beast of a vehicle to coast to a stop.

"Positive. It's been dead for fifteen years now. Billy Parsons blew it up." She opened the door letting snow swirl into the cab for a moment. "I'll be right back," she told them before shutting the door leaving the other four human occupants to stare after her dumbly. Duke had quietly followed her out into the snow.

Aside from being almost buried in the snow the tank was as she had remembered it. Billy Parsons had stripped the fifty caliber machine guns and ammo before they left, but the tank was not what she was interested in. The big Unimog camper was just fifty yards away. Snow had drifted halfway up one side. There were holes in the windshield and it was sitting a little closer to the pavement than she remembered. Of course the tires were flat. She waded through the snow to the front of the vehicle. The steps leading up the door were not as far up as she remembered and it was not entirely due to the flat tires. She had after all only been five years old when she had stepped down out of this camper the last time.

The cab door was unlocked but the latch would not budge. That left the driver's side door which would have to be dug out or the main door into the camper section, which was slightly less buried. She opened it while Duke snuffled around the vehicle. It took some effort to push the door open past the snow. Stepping into the camper was like stepping into the past. It was all so perfectly preserved. Her father had been such a methodical man. Even while they were abandoning the Uni, he had take some time to neaten things up. His beloved old Smith Corona typewriter that had been fatally shot through the open cab door had been placed back on the writing desk. The platen and ribbon cover both bowed upward. There was a gaping hole in the back and the segment plate was broken in two. But as neatly as everything had been packed up and put away there had still been something left behind. Just inside the Uni's small bathroom was small pocket sized photo album. She picked it up and began flipping through the pages. She was unaware of the tears sliding down her cheeks. It had been so long, she had actually forgotten her mother's face.

She did not even have to turn around to know the light footstep on the stairs up into the camper were Allison's. She was the only one of their little group light enough to step up inside without making the weathered old springs creak and a stranger would have set Duke to barking.

"For a while, this was home. We had not yet found a safe place and we had to keep moving. It was small and cramped sometimes, but it was home. And Daddy was still alive. I helped kill a man to defend it. But it was already too late. He had shot everything up." She gestured towards the front of the camper and the tank beyond that, though the door between the cab and the living area was closed. There were bullet holes in the wall there. Many of the cabinet doors hung askew, having been knocked off their hinges. "I wanted so much for everything to just go back to the way it was before. Or at least to go back to our house back in Independence. Now I just want Daddy back." Allison did not know what to say, but her father had taught her that sometimes that was ok. She just climbed the rest of the way into the derelict camper and hugged her sister. Together they cried for all that had been lost.

* * *

Together Jewels and the boy Deek stared out the window at the girl. Jewels knew what the boy was thinking. It was dangerous, but it could work. Deek looked at Jewels and the old man nodded.

"Now we start fighting back." Deek said, smiling. But it was the smile of a stone cold predator.

© 2010 R. Keith McBride

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Land of Shadows: Chapter XVIII - Zombie Dog Walker

Of course, Sister Irene had decided to stay. She tried to talk him out of going, but he had insisted. He had thought to borrow one of the two running vehicles that she had somehow managed to keep going. He hoped that he would be able to find gas on the way. But she had instead led him out to a stable. Sheltered comfortably in the stable were three mares and a stallion. She wouldn't let the stallion go, but one of the mares she was willing to part with. After three unsuccessful attempts to mate with the stallion, all that she had produced was a deformed and stillborn colt.

She was a good solid chestnut colored Morgan Irene introduced as Penny. It had been a long time since Elias had ridden a horse. But, she was a steady horse and gave him not an ounce of grief for his clumsy attempts to pull himself up into the saddle. The last time he had been on a horse was back in the Marine corps. A girl he had been dating was a veterinarian that worked several ranches in around the vicinity of the base.

She would frequently exercise horses by riding out about the owner's spread. Her excuse was that this allowed her to spot possible problems. Like test driving a car. But she confessed to him that she just loved to ride but had no place for a horse of her own. She knew that some of the ranchers suspected this but allowed it anyway. She thought it was probably because they just didn't want to take the time to do it themselves. But Elias thought the real reason was just because they like to watch her ride. He knew he did. Kim was an attractive woman with an athletic build, but more than that, she was a born rider and more graceful in the saddle than most could ever hope to be.

During a two week leave she finally coaxed him up onto one of the gentler mares and gave him a few riding lessons. Like everyone else in his past, he had tried not to think of her too often, having long since given up hope that she was fortunate enough to have been spared.

It had been a couple of days since he had left the convent and Sister Irene back in Salina. He was now heading south to Houston hoping to get out from under an impending blizzard before it covered Eastern Kansas in a heavy white blanket. But if he didn't, at least he would not have to worry about the wraiths.

He had spent the night before in a Dodge Caravan that had come to rest under a tree some fifteen years ago just east of McPherson. The farmhouse he had come to that evening proved unsuitable. A tornado had ripped the roof off a few years back so the house was uninhabitable. There were not that many houses along this stretch of I-135. So by night fall his options were somewhat limited.

The little van was resting under a big maple at the end of the drive. Dirt and debris covered it to a degree that he could not determine what color it had been originally. But all the windows were intact. The sliding door was stiff and he did not think he would be able to get it open, but he slipped a couple of fingers into the track under the window and pulled out while pulling on the door handle. The door moved like it had sand packed in the tracks. The interior was a bit stale smelling but the door seals were still good. A few vacant wasp nests had clung to the sagging cloth head liner but he knocked them down and swept them out. He slept curled up on the back seat and stabled Penny in what was left of the nearby garage. It was not perfect, but it was the best he could do. The little van proved to be dry and a few candles carefully placed in cup holders with heavy foil bowls under them provided enough heat in the small confines of Caravan enough that he was reasonably comfortable, even with the front window cracked a quarter inch. But the next morning he had a few moments of panic when no matter how hard he tried, he could not get the doors open. He kicked out the rear side window and crawled out dragging his pack with him. He slipped on a layer of ice as soon as his feet touched the ground. It had drizzled in the night and froze on contact. The doors were frozen shut. It was a struggle to get back up to the house until he abandoned the drive and walked on the grass, His feet crunched through the ice with every step but did not fall ... much.

But tonight it looked like his luck was better. His going had been slower, even with four sturdy legs under her, Penny was not immune to the ice. She had not fallen yet, but he had not wanted to risk pushing her any further than necessary. But by the time the sun had started going down he had come to the small town of Hesston. A great many of the residences had been ripped apart by a tornado about five years ago, but the Mennonite church had been untouched. He brought Penny in through the big glass doors at the south entrance.

There the two of them rode out the blizzard that raged across Harvey County and most of eastern Kansas for three days. The church food pantry supplied all he needed for Penny in the form of canned wheat, oat meal and various vacuum packed dehydrated fruits and vegetables he found in plastic bins.

* * *

It had been quiet for some time. Deek had been following the old man's advice and laying low, but he just had to have a look around. The old man appeared to be asleep so he went to the window and peered out.

The lake was frozen over but a youth's lifetime experience hunting with his father told him that it was not yet thick enough to support his weight. It had snowed and the bike had been abandoned. To his horror, he felt his body moving forward to the frozen edge of the water and step onto the ice. A sudden memory of an incident in his childhood of his brother falling through the ice bubbled to the surface.

He stood there on the edge of the frozen little stream watching as his brother chased after the little deer. In the dim understanding of his six year old mind he knew it was wrong. But his brother knew better and followed his own council on this matter. When the ice cracked beneath him like thunder he stood there a moment in mute surprise before the rotten ice collapsed completely beneath him. He vanished under the cold black water. Deek just stood there not knowing what to do. He was still standing there when his father found him two hours later. The water was already filming over with ice.

The beast was three steps out on the ice when a loud cracking sounded. He froze and looked down at his feet. There were no visible cracks but he did retreat back to the shore of the lake and rethought his plans to cross the ice. He hunted around shore and found a large rock that was not frozen to the ground. It weighed about sixty pounds he estimated. He skidded it out onto the ice about ten feet. It sat there for a moment. Just as he had about determined that it was indeed safe the rock broke through and disappeared.

Deek watched, relieved as his captor seemed to change his mind about crossing the ice. He felt the old man's hand on his shoulder.

"You handled that well," he told him, but Deek had no idea what he was talking about.

The beast headed west along the lake shore. It was going slow. It did not like the cold and had bundles up so heavily it was almost immobile. The one lone slave he remaining of the trio he had started with had been unable to continue so he had shot it and was now travelling alone. But that was fine with him.

He came to a little bay and and headed north along a small side road that lead up to a main county road. He had no idea what road he was on but knew the general direction he needed to go. He would have to get new host that could read or find a companion or hostage that could. The county road went due west in one direction and north east the other way so he turned to the west. Half a mile later the road ended in a "T" and he took the southern path. He took a few steps and pulled up short. There were fresh tracks in the snow. Wide tracks made by big off road tires. He deiced to follow them. Perhaps it was someone he could hitch a ride with or use.

* * *

They had planned to go into the little town of Elkhart Lake to find a place to stay for the night. But two tractor trailer rigs lay tangled under a blanket of snow completely blocking the J Road junction so they headed south along Co Rd P. They passed the thinly frozen lake that the town to the east had been named for. A short distance from that they came to a tiny stone chapel. It was set back a little bit from the road but the winter bare trees did little to hide it from Dotty's sharp eyes. She did not immediately see any access to the chapel so she backed up the road a bit till she came to a slightly overgrown drive leading to a parking lot. The south edge of the parking lot was about a hundred feet from the chapel. No one like the idea of leaving the vehicle that far from where they would be sleeping so they pulled the Hummer as close to the chapel as they could.

The chapel was a small stone building with thick walls and deeply recessed doors and stained glass windows. The front door opened on the east was a heavy iron bound wood affair with a small window and set in the top half and a pointed arched stain glass window at the top of the door. Directly above that was a little round porthole of a stained glass window. The gabled roof was steeply pitched to so it could easily shrug off thick winter blankets of snow. Inside they found that most of the pews had been removed. There were three stained glass windows on the north and south side, just after the third window was a large stone arch lending its support to the vaulted roof. A large wooden crucifix dominated the west wall. A fire place had been added to the south side where another doorway had once been. This would provide heat since the wall heaters were cold and dead. A once neatly organised kitchen area was set up around the fireplace and a bed was set nearby. Furs were filed here and there and there were a few work areas set up, some with unfinished projects still waiting to be completed. A small blue plastic kiddie pool sat in the center of the chapel. But what really drew their attention was the dead man hanging from the ceiling, directly above the kiddie pool. Suspended beneath him, hanging by a heavy chain leash and a steel choker chain, was a large German shepherd. Allison would forever think of him as the Zombie Dog Walker.

"Well, there's something you don't see everyday." Dotty whispered.

Dee was just glad that Duke was out guarding the Hummer.

It took them about an hour to find a ladder and get the dessicated remains down. Dee wished that Pastor Tom were here to say a few words, but they just settled on a moment of silence while the placed the remains in a nearby garden shed.

Although the others seemed quite comfortable once they had a fire going and the place warmed up a bit, Dee felt a little uneasy, like she was being watched. She wondered if she was just being paranoid.

* * *

He peered through the stained glass as best as he could but it was covered in a decade and half of unwashed dirt and grime. He did not dare to wipe any away for that would surely draw their attention. He thought of setting fire to the little chapel but it was stone and they could be outside and looking for him before it caught enough, besides that damn dog would alert them if he even tried. He would love to get a his hands on the fucking mutt too. But it was better that he just go. But there would be paybacks, oh yes.

He backed away with a sadistic gleam in his eye, unaware that he was being watched.

© 2010 R. Keith McBride