For part 1 go here
I was six hours into my journey south to the flatlands, gas is going to become an issue soon and I was most familiar with the mountain ranges of the Appalachian and Smokeys. Also, I had not gone on a stock run in some time, supplies were low, food, water, gas, and I still had a long way to go to get to the hideout where Ashanti was stationed according to the map I had inherited from her now-dead husband. I also had no idea what to expect or how to even approach the situation. Ashanti was a spy for The Last Outpost, there is no way for me to know if she is even using the name, though I had a picture and a good idea of a face to look for. They may not take me. It may be a fight, and of course, it could also mean that I blow her cover and get us both killed in the process…..So many IFs…..Too many.
Reaching into the console, grabbed one of the five ancient cassette tapes and popped it into the surprisingly still working cassette player in the dash and continued on for a bit while I came up with some sort of plan. It wasn’t much longer before I came upon the crop. A crop is what I called areas of the road that were cluttered with destroyed or abandoned vehicles. Luckily It was Summer and I still had daylight on my side. Crops, just like gas stations and the supermarkets of old had become ambush spots for pirates and raiders lying in wait to pick the bones from the hapless scavengers. In other words, one has to assume that they are ALL dangerous as fuck or risk getting a surprise boning up the ass by jackals worse than themselves.
I stopped the car and got out. I raised my hand cannon, well alert. I kept the sawed-off in its holster as I began surveying the area cautiously. So far, so good. I went back to the car and grabbed the 5-gallon gas can and a hose. I knew there were a number of things that could go wrong. I could still get jumped by pirates more skilled, younger and faster or just plain more desperate than me. That was one. Then there were the possible different grades of gas which may or may not be worth a shit depending on the quality and how long the vehicles have been sitting here dormant. It may be the scene had already been picked clean, which would mean I was screwed anyway, or the fact that while my engine could run the crude based shit, it wasn’t built to do so and I could well fuck my engine to Hell and back and end up hoofing it the rest of the distance anyway. Crude based gas was one of those, worth risking your ass in a pinch that could leave screwed in any case alternatives. I always stayed on the lookout here and there for a small bottle of engine cleaner to add, just in case.
I opened the tank on a nearby car and inserted the hose and I began to blow to generate the suction from the pressure. Just as I had given it up for empty or bottom of the tank at least, a familiar and nasty flavor reached my tongue and I spit while inserting the other end of the hose into the gas can. It made the smell of gasoline strong and brought back memories of junior high school when huffing gas to hallucinate was such a fad while you ate your brain. Just then I heard a noise and quickly pointed my hand cannon it’s direction. A squirrel scurrying away at the sudden movement set my mind at s much ease as it was capable of these days.
My can was almost full…..Great about five more times of this process should do the trick.
A few hours pass as I toil and eventually manage to fill my gas tank. Deeming this crop a good or safe harvest, I decided to take a closer look around, gun still at ready in case. One can never be too careful in this day and age.
Up ahead there was a breach in the guardrail, looming over I saw an overturned semi with a busted open back end and the word Wal-Mart on the now rusted trailer. I moved down to investigate, there was no one in sight and I saw inside the trailer, busted pallets, boxed furniture of cheap particle board and electronics of little use to anyone in this world that had grown accustomed to a very different form of living, but in the back, I spotted something of use. Cases of canned goods had been thrown about as that truck had crashed and not all of them had been pillaged. I found over seven càses of store brand sliced potatoes, peas, carrots…Shit, that dumb asses would have left thinking that magically they could go get a Big Mac the following day…..Paydirt.
On my way back to the car, something caught my eye in the passenger seat of a Nissan Accura, a bag that I took a mental note of as I carried my haul back to replenish supplies. Returning to that Nissan I threw my elbow into the driver side window with force and reached in to grab the paper bag. Removing the contents of that bag I would find a quart bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey…And it made me smile. I think I’ll tuck that away for later. As of now with a decent stock of food, first aid kits, a full tank of gas and now a bottle of alcohol my focus then turned to how the fuck to get around this mess without having to double back for miles only to risk hitting another such spot which may be either less fruitful and more dangerous. I opted to go off-road to get around the mess. It was a risk, one that could leave me stuck in the rough and back at square one or it could pay off despite the lack of 4 wheel drive…….Hell, EVERYTHING in this world has a risk factor now…This is no different.
I decided to take another sideroad into the mountains themselves risking once more getting a car that has no business being on such a path stuck or worse. My gamble paid off and I came into an open field near the top of the mountain. I kept myself armed just in case, as I got out of the car and looked around. Looking down I noticed the ground was covered in very distinct sprouts that I recognized as wild onions. This will make a good base camp for about a week while I prepared and restocked for the journey ahead. I set myself to gathering maybe 150, 200 wild onions all told. Leaving my goods in a pile I decided to go ahead and further survey the area looking for other natural food sources and hopefully a spring. Luck was on my side in both of these searches as I found a suitable patch of safe, edible mushrooms, patches of wild strawberries and finally a spring with ice-cold water dribbling from the ground behind a patch of stones. I marked the location and took my haul back to the clearing so I could grab some water bags I had previously made out of the trunk of the car, then I went to collect my water.
This was how I spent my first four hours in this new safe space. On my second trip, I noticed a family of deer grazing in the forest…Tomorrow I thought.
I was tired and it was near dark as I finished cleaning up my haul, cutting the green from the wild onions and washing them. Digging out a can of sliced potatoes and a can of sliced carrots that I decided was going to be tonight’s dinner I then went in search of a sandstone of suitable size. Taking the can of potatoes and turning it upside down I began rapidly rubbing the top against the rough sandstone, stopping periodically to blow the tiny metal shavings away and starting again until I had broken the can’s seal and pushing the lid inwards effectively rung out the juices leaving only the potato content. I threw away the lid and began plucking out the slices one at a time. A bland dinner, for a bland time when beggars couldn’t be choosers, but tomorrow I would change that. In the morning I would go hunting, that was when the real work would begin. After my meager dinner of cold sliced potatoes and carrots along with a couple of wild onions and strawberries as dessert, I got into the driver seat and let the back down as I closed my eyes for the night and prayed for a quiet sleep uninterrupted by threats both without and within.
Like clockwork, my internal sense of time saw me rise before the sun and I again popped the trunk, this time to grab my quiver of arrows and compound bow. I would still take the firearms as a safety measure, but you never hunt with those, not anymore. Not only could the sound of a gun going off attract the attention of those who knew it meant that someone was protecting something of value, but ammunition was also a rare commodity meant only to be used when there was no other choice unless you wanted to learn how to make your own bullets…Fuck all that. The best armed were the mountain survivors and the pirates…And considering that you are never at an advantage with raiders and pirates that left your only trade option being the mountain survivor groups who were comprised mainly of militia members and the families that had tolerated their paranoid asses. They valued ammunition above all else but the life of one of their own. It was a trade-off for a loner like me. I could force them into a trade by threatening one of their own, but I valued the safe passage my discretion had earned me among their members.
I went to the spot where I had seen the deer the day before. Looking for their tracks to get an idea of their movement. I saw many, some from the day before and some that were older. Continuing to examine the ground I had noticed that of the older tracks I could tell they were varied in age themselves, meaning this was a fairly high traffic area for them. It looks like all I would have to do is wait and they would likely be back. I stood up and began surveying the area looking for a high spot that would still give me a good vantage point of the tiny clearing, I found it in a tree ten yards away. The tree had a branch that was sturdy and thick that I found easy to saddle and most importantly it was easy to climb up to. From where I was I had a straight shot into the little clearing. Everything was perfect.
As the sun came up more, it’s fiery orange tone gave way to normal bright sunlight and I sat there watching as the light bounced off of leaves and passed its beams in between them. A part of me loved these moments. They were peaceful and when you could allow yourself to fall completely into them, it became easy to forget what the world had become. Judging how the light changed while I was sitting there I figured that not long after midday the clearing would be in the shade which was likely when the deer would come back. It had been shaded when I saw them the day before. Nothing to do until then. Nothing to do but sit and sweat as the heat was rising along with the sun.
I was counting the ways that my ass was getting numb sitting here in this tree when sometime after three in the afternoon by my judgment, seven deer entered the tiny clearing. I pretty much had my pick, but my eyes locked onto an eight-point rack and the massive buck it was attached to. Quietly taking a few deep breaths to steel my nerves and steady my hands, I knocked an arrow and took aim. One shot, I let the arrow fly and it tore into the side and the heart of the deer that had jumped in shock like it wanted to run off but instead, it fell to the ground dead. The other deer scattered which was fine by me, I had gotten what I came for, no more, no less.
I dragged the deer back to camp and grabbing a bag from behind my driver seat that held all of the sharp tools that I used for butchering I started the process of gutting the deer being sure to set aside the various parts I would be putting to use such as the stomach and the bladder to be processed and converted into new water bags. If the bladder was full I would use the deer’s own urine to aid in removing the hair from the hide once I removed that. Any excess fat I would melt down into oil that I would use to waterproof my guns. Before all was said and done almost every part of this animal was going to be used including the brains as a curing agent for the hide tanning process, though that was my least favorite part, I’ve long since gotten over the disgusting tactile feel of squished animal brains but the Goddamn stink of it could make a maggot puke. Having taken out the innards I then took a rope from out of my bag and tied off the deer’s hind legs. Finding a nearby tree with a low enough branch to allow me to work quickly I slung the other end of the rope over and began hoisting the deer carcass up and tied off around the tree. Taking one of my sharpest blades I started splitting the hide and working it off the body. I had roughly four hours of daylight left. Thoroughly cleaning the parts would take most of that time which meant I was going to be working throughout the night by my headlights cutting the meat. I would be left to hope I wouldn’t have to shoot a coyote or bear that may happen along my prize.
The sun was rising again as I let what little was left of the deer which was mainly just skeletal remains to the ground and dragged it some distance from camp. I was exhausted having been up a full 24 hours already. But there was no time to rest, I had to set up to begin the cooking and smoking process. Once I got that started I could risk a few hours of downtime.
I set myself to collecting wood and stones to build my smoking pit, as well as a separate fire to begin canning the stew and frying up a few steaks as I also had not eaten since the first night I had come to this spot. By midday fires were blazing smoking jerky, steaks and chops and the small pressure cooker was sealing the box of small Mason jars in fours with deer stew made from my hunted and pillaged goods. I would get to the nasty business of tanning on the following day right now was all about preserving the all-important food source. I was going to be another day or two doing that alone. I would start the tanning process the next day because that was what was going to keep me here the longest.
I cut a few wild onions and salted up three tender sirloins to throw in a pan on the fire. I opened twelve more cans of potatoes and carrots and peas by way of sandstone and dumped the contents into four more Mason jars adding the cubes of deer meat, some cut up onions and a few chopped mushrooms. I had a laugh as my arm started cramping up…..All this shit I have and I never thought to seek out a basic can opener. That’s the way it goes in life, isn’t it? You are always missing the one thing that can make life that much easier. Back before the pandemic, it seemed we had lived in an age of instant gratification and that one thing we ended up missing was sheer common sense, hence why the world fell to shit after that, I think.
I ate my steaks and started four more jars of stew while I set the previous ones aside to seal as they cooled, each making a popping noise as they did so and I checked in on the smoking pit, adding some wood chips as I pulled open the teepee of deer hide that I used as the tent. I collapsed to the ground by the car and leaned my head back finally allowing myself to doze off. I would wake up again in a few hours to check on everything…
I woke up sometime around six in the evening and checked all my processes. I opened another twelve cans of vegetables and prepared another four Mason jars before deciding that it would be wise to return to the spring and replenish my water source that I had used most of in the process of cleaning and cooking. It was near dark before I had returned dragging all my water bags on a bundle of branches and saplings that would chop up and use to keep the fires burning.
I cooked up another three steaks and going into the car, broke out the bottle of whiskey I had found on the highway. The moon was rising overhead and I could hear a pack of coyotes in the distance howl. ” I’m sorry,” I said aloud after the seventh swig from the bottle of Jack started kicking in. This was a mistake and I knew it was going to be, but we all have our vices and mine wasn’t the alcohol so much as holding onto something that was dead and gone for me a long time ago. “I don’t know if you’re actually out there anywhere Jenny Lynn, but if you are…Heh heh first off you should know I haven’t heard the sound of my own voice for three days so I’m a little rusty with things being as they are. You know I can’t remember a day that we were together that I didn’t tell you I loved you…How much and now it seems like it was never enough”…The emotions that I normally kept bottled up began to free flow like diarrhea of the mouth and I knew it would cost me, but still, I continued. ” I think that’s because the one time that I knew you needed to hear it most…I wasn’t there, because I wasn’t supposed to be…..But I never got over that. Never stopped feeling like I had let you down when you needed it most.” My eyes were welling up as my voice and the crackling fire cut through the silence of the night. “I’ve lived in shame of that ever since. I had finally found you after the worst part of my life and you brought me back…Every day you brought me back a little bit more…..And I wasn’t allowed to be there with you when you needed me most.”
Sometimes even grown men cry themselves to sleep…We’re all human. That night, talking to the empty air was another breaking point in the shit I keep myself too busy, always on the move in order to survive…I tell myself, but in reality, even I know I’m just trying to outrun facing something that has already happened and can’t be changed and as much as it rips my insides out……It’s how I keep e everything that was dearest to me close by…A welcome haunting.
I was sitting at my computer……This one again. For the most part, I am generally grateful that I am too exhausted to let my mind wander into the light/dark places of my memories in sleep…I hardly dream or at least hardly remember when I do, but when I do, man it’s a motherfucker. This was a memory I knew by heart and every time I opened the flood gates I knew what would happen. ” Darius Martinez. 12 years old. Was last seen in the Green Heights area in Massachusetts. If you see this child or anyone on this list of missing children you can contact your local FBI office or turn in your tips to the missing children cyber tip line at 1 800 The Lost.” I clicked off the camera and began uploading my video to my YouTube channel dedicated to updates on cases of missing children. I took a bite of my sandwich as I began the process. “And here I was going to fix dinner.” I heard from behind me. “Yeah well, I got tired of waiting,” I said with a mischievous grin on my face. “What are you eating anyway?” Jenny asked. “THIS? This is a delightful combination of peanut butter and honey.” I replied. “PEANUT BUTTER AND HONEY?…Did you ever come off the streets? What are you five, and living in subsidized housing?” I started laughing, her sense of humor was always one of her strongest assets. “Would you like some Sugar Smacks with your peanut butter and honey? Perhaps some commodity cheese?” She said as she moved in and wrapped her arms around me. It felt so real…How cruelly our minds play tricks on us as it replays scenes from our past. “Heh heh heh, Funny you should ask that. I was a kid when I saw this fine recipe in a movie and it just sort of stuck with me.” I answered. “How goes the good fight?” She whispered into my ear sending shockwaves down my spine. “We recovered one today safely,” I said proudly. “Strange hobby mister.” She jibed. “I just want to do something that matters to people,” I said. “I know, it’s one of the many reasons I fell in love with you.” She replied, tightening her grip in a hug that if I could freeze time I would let last forever.
In a flash, we were both in bed and I was holding her. Not this one…..Why does it always have to be this one? I helplessly wandered. “Do you love us?” She asked. “You mean like you and me? I would think by now you would know I really don’t mind us so much.” I replied, gently kissing her behind the ear. “Well what about you, me and……..
I felt the tightness in my chest begin to take hold even in sleep. Natural instinct saw me come alive instantly screaming even while I pulled my hand cannon out and pointed it into the empty night. everything was surfacing again, all the pain, all the rage. repeatedly I threw my fist into the side of the car for lack of having a target to shoot screaming all the while. Then came the tiny voice in my mind asking me why I was letting myself go through this when I had the answer in my hand and I pointed the cannon at my chin. I was gripped by a poison I had no antidote for and the only way out of it was death and I knew so why?…. Why not just do it and bring an end to all this misery? My grip got dangerous on the hair-trigger of my hand cannon as another voice entered my mind…It was my own. “I’ll do it.” I had said. I would take this intel to the Last Outpost even if it blissfully killed me and I threw the cannon away with a shriek and fell over staring at the moon and star overhead on a clear night through the blur of tear-filled eyes. I screamed my agony out into the night and the peaceful and serene setting I had made my home for the next few days even as I knew my home was gone…I had not been back there in years and never cared to see it again…
I wasn’t able to back to sleep and for a multitude of reasons I felt like utter shit as the sun came up. My first sizable batch of smoked goods was done and I stoked the fire and reloaded. I had another day of canning and another two days of smoking what goods I had. I checked in on the sinew I had drying. That was surprisingly one of the most versatile parts of the deer. It could be used for anything from stringing a bow to a little known use as being excellent suture thread as it absorbs easily into the skin. With all of these things checked and prepped I turned my attention to the nastiest task yet, the tanning process. If I were a betting man I would have placed everything on the notion that before this process was even halfway over I was going to regret hitting the bottle the night before having to do that shit…I would’ve won too.
I had sacrificed two of my Mason jars on the day I killed the deer to empty the bladder into during the cleaning process, with all the meat yielded by my prey and the still plentiful stock of canned goods I had found in the Walmart truck on the highway that I had neither enough stewing meat or jars to make deer stew for using meat from the same part of the neck for jerky, the jars were more expendable to me than any of the water bags. Add to that a man will die of thirst long before he starves to death and the decision is a no brainer. Practicality counted for everything in this world now and that went double for the loner nomads like myself who had to make damn sure they watched their every step in these chaotic times.
I took a scraper and a jar of deer piss and went to work removing the hair sending a small cloud of flies scattering. The smell was pleasant I would tell you…..If I were lying my ass off and for those who have never had the honor of being covered in the coarse hair of a deer, that feeling wasn’t all that great either. After the hair was removed from the hide I dug a small hole by hand and putting the hide in it, I began filling the hole with water…Now came the fun part. Shooing away more flies I uncovered the brains of the deer that I had removed and as the smell hit my olfactory nerves a sudden signal fired to my alcohol-laden stomach and I turned away projectile vomiting…If only I had been a betting man and anyone else had been around to wager with. Readjusting I took the brains in hand and went to work rubbing and squishing them into the hide. Once more before the deed was done I puked, I would follow that up with a second dry heave as there were no more contents in my own stomach to eject, but I would finish my work regardless.
With the nasty work done I checked once more on everything being done and decided to go hunting for something else reaching into the pocket in the back of my passenger side seat, I pulled out a half-full shampoo bottle and a bar of soap I kept wrapped up. I was betting that the frequency with which the deer had appeared in that one spot meant there must be a water source other than the spring I had found somewhere nearby. An hour into my search I found what I was looking for by following the deer tracks this time. It was a small pond, not more than four feet deep at most. Stripping down I got in. The water was cold as fuck at first but it would feel good soon enough, there were no more functional Hiltons, not in this world. In this world, you had to live with the dirt and the grime until you found or made a suitable water source to get clean. This world reminded you what it meant to be a human animal in every sense of the term and no bullshit could save anyone from it. I could explain to you exactly what that meant when came to having to take a shit in the wild, but I think this alone will suffice for the sake of some resemblance of civility.
When done I moved back to shore to dry in the sun which I would have to do thoroughly to brush off the sand as best I could before putting on the same raggedy-ass gear I was wearing before I cleaned up. Indeed in this world, everything was about give and take. I would make my way back to camp and start another round of pressure-cooked stew. There was never a shortage of things to keep one busy, not anymore.
Tonight’s menu was deer ribs and water. After finishing I checked again on everything before leaning back in my driver seat and reluctantly crashing. I was in no hurry to repeat what had happened the previous night so I forced my mind to be quiet. At some point, I was going to have to balance all of the work with rest which was always hard as fuck to do when on your own, because every task is on you.
Again I awoke before dawn and went to gather more wood for my fires. I would be finished canning by midday and allowing everything to cool, counted thirty-two jars of stew with three of my seven cases of canned goods left, I had used all of my wild onions and mushrooms and still had some berries left, I would finish smoking everything else the following day I figured. I returned to the spring and again refilled my bags. All was going well. Once the food prep was done I was going to have a few days of downtime and rest while the tanning process finished.
As I was wrapping most things up on day five I decided to finish my bottle of whiskey that night…..Fuck it. Only that night was meant to be in celebration. After another cold bath, this time hand washing the rags I wore too and another hearty meal I reached into the glove compartment where I kept my tobacco and rolling tubes, I rolled five cigarettes by firelight and then laid naked on the hood of the car staring up at the night sky, a bottle of whiskey in one hand, a cigarette in my lips and hand cannon next to me, because you could never take peace for granted.
I watched a number of shooting stars overhead, the nights were always so much more clear now without the light pollution. I dared to ask myself the question. I had to after five days of relative peace. I had the knowledge, why not just stake a claim to somewhere like this mountaintop. Why not just live in peace for the rest of my days? The answer was always the same, I had in me a God awful restlessness. I’ve had it ever since I dropped that phone receiver with the doctor still on the line and walked out of my house never to look back….”Careful” I warned myself, in that train of thought there be ghosts well adept at calling the monster out of you…
I awoke covered in early morning dew, the whiskey bottle now mostly empty, most of it spilled out. My head wasn’t pounding, but it was still spinning. Checking on the hide and sinew before grabbing clothes off of the branch I left them hanging on and heading back to my driver seat in the dry interior of the car. I would crash again in blissful emptiness and awake sometime after three by my figuring, not hungover but really just more relaxed. Getting dressed I checked on everything again. Most of that final day was spent toiling with the punchout list, a carpentry term for the small detail list of loose ends when completing a job. Things like oiling the guns, especially the new ones acquired from the cult members I took down at the creek and looking over the map for the journey ahead. I would sleep peacefully one more night.
As morning came a week after my arrival I took everything down and stored it away. I dared to take one more look around at what had been my peaceful sanctuary for a full week and wondered again to myself why I didn’t just stay and let the world do whatever it felt it needed to in order to reclaim its own balance. This time I had more than a ghost and the senseless restlessness it caused me. “I’ll do it.” I had promised. With that single thought, I got in the car and fired up the engine. I still had miles to go before reaching the camp where this Ashanti had been stationed. I pulled out from the clearing without looking back, that was a habit I had grown all too accustomed to as I roamed these wastelands of a once-great nation.