Well, after a few months of hiatus, here's a story for you all. Jesse has been bugging me to get out, and since the weather broke, I figured it was time to listen to him. Welcome back Jesse.
“I ain’t here to save anybody,” said Jesse.
The expressions on faces that were looking at him fell. Jesse looked over to Mitch, who was shrugging and trying to ignore the people who were watching them load the Toyota. The old Land Cruiser has seen better days, but the last few weeks had been harder than usual on the SUV. The grating covering the windows was dented and in some places it was missing chunks completely. There wasn’t a straight panel left on the yellow beast, and bare metal showed in more than one place through the paint. Mitch dropped the sleeping bag into the cargo area and then made his way to the driver’s door.
“But you can get us out of here,” came the quiet protest.
Jesse sighed and pointed to the surrounding wall that the people had managed to erect during the cold winter months. While it was not as pristine as the one that surrounded The Lodge, they also did not have the advantage of being on a peninsula which thrust into the heart of a large lake. The wall itself surrounded a motley collection of trailers, a single house, make-shift tent-huts and a big tractor-trailer with WalMart emblazoned on the side of the trailer. They had been living off the items found in the trailer, which had been driven to the location by the driver who had been fleeing a horde of undead. The trailer was mostly empty now, with the unused or unwanted contents laying in heaps around the trailer and yard. In the air hung the stench of the open latrine they had dug off to one side and in the warm spring air, the odor assaulted Jesse’s nostrils. He wondered just how they had managed to survive. Even further away from the houses than the latrine was the graveyard; a collection of mounded earth with markers made of what ever material they could spare—pieces of siding, plastic sheets—anything that would not burn.
A couple of the men were armed, but they stood listlessly by while the main man tried to argue with Jesse to take them with him. The man’s heart was not in the argument, and all of his pleas were easily deflected by Jesse while Mitch calmly loaded the Toyota and kept an eye on the crowd, his AR slung from the tactical harness and ready to be put into use if the situation called for it. Mitch had been very quiet on their arrival to the small compound, which they had found by accident hunting for a fuel source for the TLC. Jesse leaned on the slung-stock of his own rifle and waved a hand once more at their compound.
“You got protection, you’ve got the means to plant and herd—there’s no place I can take you that is any better.” And I’m not taking the lot of you back to the Lodge, or giving out directions, he thought to himself.
The gathered bunch wearily shook their heads. Someone began to sob. They were a very disparate group of people, some of them still dressed in the threadbare clothing of their former occupations, as if they thought putting on a suit coat and tie somehow was going to deflect the evil in the world away from them. Others had given up for the most part, dressing in stinking clothing day after day and letting the grime and body oils mat their hair into tangled lumps which sat one their heads like mud dabbers nests. All of them were flea ridden, many had scabbies and open sores from the lack of hygiene. The man claiming to be in charge had told Jesse the night before that they had been reduced to water rationing, with nothing left over for cleanliness and dysentery and sickness had wiped out nearly half of those who had escaped the walking dead. Added to that, a mere 1000 calories a day at one point and only with the coming of spring and the desperation to not starve to death had made them start to gather the dandelions and other edible plants in the area. Jesse and Mitch had shown up at the gate with a half dozen zombies following and a butchered cow. The cow they had shot not far down the road and the fresh meat had been used to gain entrance into the small compound.
The zombies Mitch and Jesse put down with as many shots from their silenced rifles. Using more ammo than the people had seen in a month to do so. The survivors devoured the cow, eating the flesh of the animal with loud grunts and laughter while Jesse and Mitch sat back in the shadows and watched, amazed that the group had survived at all.
The headman, wearing a tattered suit coat put a filthy hand on Jesse’s arm. “We’re tired—can’t you do something for us?”
Jesse growled a small curse. “I’ve already done what I can; find a radio, one that will transmit further than your valley here, lock onto the frequency I gave—The Lodge will be monitorin’ that channel as will the Highlanders—and start learnin’ to live.” He pulled his arm out from under the man’s grasp. “I can’t help you do that, it’s somethin’ you gotta do yourself.”
“We need the tools--,” protested another.
“You have the tools,” exclaimed Jesse. “Look around you! Start by findin’ seed and gardenin’ equipment, break ground now, and get those in the ground. There are books and books on how to do this stuff. You told me that there is a small library nearby, get there, you’ll be amazed at the things you find.”
“Jesse—“ said Mitch. Jesse looked over at the man and nodded.
“We’re leavin’,” said Jesse. “I hope you make it.”
He stepped away from the crowd and before they could protest further, Mitch was putting the Toyota into drive and creeping away from them while Jesse opened the door and slid into the torn seat. They made it to the makeshift gate ahead of any protest. The kid at the gate thankfully was unaware of the mood of his people and after a cautious look outside the fence to be sure no undead wandered, slide the portal aside. Mitch gunned the motor, sending the TLC leaping through the opening as the first of several dirt clods and rocks hit the rear of the vehicle. Jesse gritted his teeth as they sped off and the shouts of the living died away.
As they bounced down the winter heaved road away from the small compound and the gaunt inhabitants, Mitch looked over at Jesse, who was still stewing, pulling at his mustache while he attempted to forget the survivors they had left behind.
“You need to stop worrying about them.”
“Stop? They’re humans, man, not many of us left.”
“The old Jesse, would have said ‘Fuck ‘em, if they can’t clean up their own shit, they don’t deserve to live’,” growled Mitch in a fairly good imitation of Jesse’s voice. They had been on the road for two weeks now, and so Mitch had gotten a lot of practice.
Jesse gave the man a small smile. “That was before we found more people livin’ in squalor like those than people actually makin’ it like The Lodge.”
“We’ve got it good at the Lodge,” agreed Mitch. “So remind me why we’re out here again? Oh, yeah, pussy.”
Jesse had to join in with the other man’s laughter—simply because no matter how Jesse tried to disguise it, it was true. He was looking for Rebecca and the Band. To deflect the crass comment by Mitch, he turned the tables. “You volunteered to come out here. What does that say about you? At least I have a tangible reason—chasing skirts is an American Male past time.”
“You’re saying because I’m gay, I don’t fit the American Male stereo type?”
It was a conversation that they knew by rote; they’d had many hours to discuss many things while riding along the highways and byways of the new world. They were bound to repeat a conversation at some point. Pretending to think about the question, Jesse let the silence stretch until Mitch almost spoke again, and then answered. “Well, you’re an American, your male, but we pretty much can’t call you a stereotype, now can we?” asked Jesse. “You’re not exactly the gay-mans dream-- don’t like cookin’, you don’t like clothes, you can’t match a color to save your life and you drove a truck for a livin’. You’re fat--.”
“--Used to be fat,” corrected Mitch. “The strict winter diet at The Lodge took care of any extra weight that any of us had. I have a good sense of color coordination, you just can’t tell any more because we’re lucky to have any clothing at all.” He fingered his Carhart jacket and the flannel underneath. The jacket was holding up fairly well, but the flannel shirt had seen better days. It was nearly faded to a single tone- too many washings on the boil setting had taken the bright colors to a shadow of their former glory.
“Okay, so you used to be fat.” Jesse took a moment to unsling his CAR and set it in the four-gun rack they had bolted to the dash of the TLC. Mitch’s rifle was already there as was a FN/FAL for those long rapid shots and a tactical modeled semitauto shotgun. Also bolted to the dash was a 50 caliber ammo can stuffed with extra magazines for the FN and loose ammo for the shotgun. They had taken a week to ready the Toyota for the road trip and Jesse was still wishing they had done more. He had contemplated taking one of the armored Hummers, but the thing got the worst gas mileage and on an extended trip with uncertain refueling stops, the Toyota with its 20MPG rating was a better choice. Besides, Jesse and Hannah and Chelsea had rescued the thing from a garage in the first days of the Plague and it had sentimental value attached to it.
“How are we doin’ on gas?” asked Jesse, dropping the path they had been taking.
“Under half on the gauge. We’ve got one full five gallon left.”
“What kind of mileage you think we’re gettin’?” asked Jesse.
“That last batch of gas was really far gone. We might be getting 15 or so, if we’re lucky,” replied Mitch as he maneuvered around a wreck in the roadway. “We need to find another case or three of octane boost.”
“To do that, we gotta get to a larger town,” muttered Jesse. He pulled out a road atlas. “What was the last sign we passed that told us somethin’ useful?”
“Waynesfield,” said Mitch. “On 67. We’re outside of Lima.”
“Who’d’ve thought it would take us nearly two weeks to drive across Ohio?” asked Jesse to no one.
“When you go from lake to river six times, it’s takes a bit,” answered Mitch.
“I suppose so,” replied Jesse, looking at the map as his mind wander to a month previous, just as the winter weather was breaking up and the roads were clearing--.
Jesse stood in the cold hallway of The Lodge and stared out at the courtyard which was finally exposed to the world. Not two days ago it had been under a couple feet of snow, now the weather had finally taken a turn for the better, so to speak, and after a bitter cold winter and two blizzards the rains of spring had finally arrived to wash away the ice and snow. The blowers at either end of the hallway were attempting to keep the glassed in area warm so that the starter plants and seedlings they had going could get a jump on the growing season. Hank was in a “Happy World” as he put it. He was in charge of all the growing for the lodge, along with some help, since he had the most experience growing plants under adverse conditions. Who would have thought that a man who spent most of his adult—and teen, to hear Hank tell it—life growing guerilla marijuana gardens would suddenly be responsible for the food crops of an entire community? thought Jesse. He gave a short laugh at that and wondered what people would think if they knew he himself had spent 13 of the longest months of his life behind prison walls for trafficking marijuana.
All to buy a motorcycle.
There were still parts of this life that only one or two people left alive knew about. Desert Storm, everyone knew about his time in the desert; he had used that experience to his advantage when trying to get people to accept him and a leader of the community. He was still one of the least liked of the council, but Jesse didn’t really care about that as long as people survived. The community itself had grown again, with new people having stumbled across their tracks in the snow and taking in two small holdings of survivors the population of the Lodge numbered at two hundred and ten people. More than they wanted to have, but they had just not been able to turn survivors away.
With the increase in population, the Lodge had gone through some growing pains, housing of families in rooms—no more than four to a room—bunking singles together and couples having to share space with other couples, the smells that went with the near overpopulation in the enclosed space, even a building as large as The Lodge couldn’t mask the odors with size. Only with the constant badgering of Doc Nolan and his team of nurses had they managed to make it through the winter with nothing more serious than a bout of the common cold which had been swapped back and forth until Nolan had made sure that huge doses of vitamin C had been forced on everyone at every meal. The action had depleted their meager supply of herbals and vitamins on hand, but the cold had been defeated. Now that the weather had broken, they were looking at moving people out into the outlaying cabins and homes. Just over the hill was Camp New Hope with its dining hall, summer cabins that could be winterized if needed and other facilities ripe for their use. It meant adding another patch of road to patrol, more fencing to put up for security and more wall to build around the inner-most buildings for defense, but if they continued to grow they would need the space.
The farm right outside the entrance to the Lodge was being occupied by two families now. Both families had owned rather large farms and volunteered to start breaking ground for corn, soybeans and other edible crops. In addition to the two farm families, there were three shifts of guards to patrol the roadways and farm hands. So a total of about twenty people were crammed into a house meant for a large single family. There were so many things happening now and Jesse was feeling a restlessness coming over him with the break in the weather.
Jesse lay his hand on a large crack in one of the windows, which had been repaired with a strip of plastic window covering to keep it from breaking more. No one knew how it had been cracked, an accident Jesse was sure, but it had not been reported when it had happened, so the crack had hours to lengthen. It had been caught by the daily maintenance rounds, but not before the window had lost its vacuum sealing which rendered the double paned window no better at stopping the cold than an old farm house window with a storm covering. Thankfully, they had not yet run into maintenance problems with plumbing and heating, but it was only a matter of time. The generators required fuel, the water treatment plant needed chemicals and the Lodge itself had only so many spare parts on hand in the maintenance sheds. Things were broken and once the replacement part was used, alternative repairs were necessary.
He stepped away from the window glad that the warm sun was finally making an appearance; it would go a long ways toward lightening the dark mood which had descended over the residence of the Lodge in recent weeks. It had seemed as if the weather was going to be overcast and below freezing forever. He could see sliding doors to the rooms were opening as people took advantage of the weather to air out stuffy rooms and let the freshening air into the building. The only place the heaters still ran was here in the long hallway, both up and down stairs, where the plants were struggling to take root. He took a deep breath and inhaled the scent of the plants, which was heavily tinged with the smell of the gifts left by Heart of the Moon and those brought by Hank himself—the marijuana sprouts. It was sometimes surprising that the little seedlings could already be giving off their distinctive perfume, when they were mature plants, the scent of them would be nearly over powering if kept inside. Jesse knew that Hank was planning on a transplant of almost all the plants but a very few “special” ones. The others were being cultivated for medicinal reasons and trade.
Nodding to several people who had entered the hall—it was still the only way form the main rooms of the Lodge to the former hotel rooms—Jesse began to make his way to the front desk to look over the patrol logs and watch logs from the night before. Breakfast was still being served and he decided to take the logs to the table with him and kill two birds with one stone.
Going through the common area, there were people lounging in the battered leather couches and chairs, reading, talking, playing games. These were the ones who were just coming off duty or killing a few moments before they had to report for work. With the winter storms, there were a lot of clean up crews going out to clear fallen trees, repair damage to various fences around the property and help build the new defensive wall which was being erected because of a freak horde of undead that had found their way to the isolated community. They had been very lucky in that respect; from other survivors now at the Lodge they had heard of massive hordes of undead which wandered through the landscape, thousands of bodies large, which overran many of the makeshift defenses of other survivors. There were tales now of fast moving undead, sprinters, and rumors that the undead were turning on each other for what flesh remained on the bones.
There were other rumors as well, ones that if true, meant that the dead were no longer mindless automations; but organized and thinking. Jesse found this hard to believe.
They called these Half-Lifes. Something stuck between the living and the dead.
He grabbed up the logs and nodded to the desk worker on duty. The desk job on the surface seemed to be an easy one, but in truth it involved much more than met the eye. It meant taking complaints, making sure that maintenance was notified when something was not working, passing out the rations of soap and towel and toilet paper when requested, keeping the books so that a room did not get more than its allotted share for the month, that the guards on duty were making rounds, that the radio was manned so that those on duty could communicate with the Lodge, that the two other communities they were now in contact with were called every four hours that the CB radio was scanning—multiple other things that no one ever seemed to think about. The daily running of the facility was one which took vast amounts of man power and time out of each person’s day. The running of the lodge did not include the salvage teams going out each day to systematically search houses, load essential items for transportation back to the Lodge, guarding the roadways into the area, patrolling the stretches of road and taking care of the problems which arose from those tasks.
Grabbing a tray, Jesse tucked the logs under his arm and went down the serving line, taking eggs, toast, beef (a cow had stepped in a hole and broken a leg), mush/polenta, and finally a weak cup of coffee. When the cup was handed to him the lady serving it smiled sadly.
“The last of it, Jesse, after this morning, we’ll be drinking water and tea, and when the tea is gone, we’re down to water and milk, as long as the cows hold out.”
“It seems a little light on the eggs in the serving line today,” mentioned Jesse, as he took the cup and inhaled the aroma of roasted beans for the last time.
“The chickens are molting, we might not have eggs again for a couple weeks.”
He shook his head. “We’ve come a long way from McDonalds on demand, haven’t we?”
She laughed at that. “We have, but I’m healthier for it.” She turned sideways. “I’ve lost forty pounds in the last seven months, I don’t have to watch my sugar anymore, good thing since there’s no more meds for me to take anyway, and I feel better than I have in years. When summer comes, I’ll be in a bikini with nowhere to wear it!”
“We might have the pool open by then,” grinned Jesse.
“Not for swimming we won’t,” she replied.
Jesse moved on and found an out of the way table overlooking the lake. He pursued the logs as he ate and wondered as he sat alone how the band Heart of the Moon was doing. He missed Rebecca, and sometimes wish he had taken her up on her offer to travel with the band. At the time, he had thought he needed to stay with the Lodge and help keep it running, now, with all the people there, he was starting to feel less needed and the urge to hit the road was strong.
Glancing up when a shadow fell over him, Jesse saw Mitch standing with a tray by his table.
“You want company?” asked Mitch.
Jesse indicated the chair across from him and Mitch sat.
“At least we’re eating,” muttered Mitch as he took stock of what was on the plate. “It’s a far cry from the days when it was just thirty of us and we had leftovers.”
“Not like you didn’t have the weight to lose.”
Mitch grinned. “I am a shadow of my former self.”
This was more conversation out of Mitch than Jesse had with him in a while. “What’s up?”
“When are you leaving?” asked Mitch.
“I’ve been watching you look through road maps in the last two weeks. When are you going? You miss that hippy chick and you want to find her.”
“Okay Doctor Ruth, I haven’t made any decision about anything yet, nor have I spoken to anyone about it. I was going to wait until after Hannah had her baby besides.”
“Doctor Ruth? You are dating yourself.”
“Whatever. Why do you want to go?”
“I have my reasons.”
“Care to share them?”
“Nope,” said Mitch. “Not right now, anyway.”
“Well, when I make my mind up about it. I’ll let you know,” assured Jesse.
“Hey you do that,” said Mitch. He glanced at his nearly empty plate. “You think they’ll let me have seconds?”
“Probably not,” said Jesse, gathering up his empty plate and the log books. “See you around.”
Mitch bent his head back to the plate.