The following is an excerpt from “Commune Book One”, the first in a series of three books dealing with the struggles of a small group of people trying to survive the apocalypse. If you enjoy reading this and want to know what happens next, please consider heading over to the Amazon or Kobo page to get yourself a copy. The ebook is available to Kindle Unlimited subscribers for free.
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The morning found me well quit of Primm and headed North again up the I-15. I wasn’t having any luck finding another ride despite my best efforts (well, in this case “best effort” means I was checking anything in my immediate path) so it looked like another full day of walking, which it very much turned out to be.
If you have ever driven through a long desert, you probably know how boring the activity can be when there is nothing to occupy your attention. I was fast learning that walking through a long desert is psychologically demoralizing. The horizon simply does not move. You walk for what feels like hours and, as far as you can tell, you haven’t made any real progress. Nothing moves. All the waypoints that you pay attention to out on the horizon just stay where they are, refusing to come any closer as you labor on. If you focus intently on objects far away, you’ll begin to get the sense that you’re not actually moving. I found this to be unnerving and began to put my attention only on those things that were close to me as I was able to perceive their change in position relative to my own. The problem with this, though, was that whenever I looked up again to the far away things, they were always exactly where I left them. All in all, the two realities from which I had to choose were to look up and never make progress or to look down so that I could perceive progress only to look up later and discover that progress was an illusion.
It was at one such transition from looking down to looking up towards mid-day that I first noticed the speck on the road at great distance ahead of me. I couldn’t even guess at how far away it was; once a distance is great enough, the best a human eye can usually do is tell you “it’s waaaay over there”.
At first, all I could tell was that it was something and that, over a few hours of steady walking, it seemed to be maintaining its distance from me (I was using landmarks like hills and so forth positioned laterally to the object to determine that it was not stationary). It was at this time that I began to suspect that I was looking at a person. I mean, I guess it could have been a howler monkey but another person on the road seemed the most likely explanation.
You will more than likely call me a fool (I certainly kick myself every time I think of this) but it never once occurred to me to use the scope on my rifle to get a better look at what I was seeing. I was not uncomfortable around firearms at the time but I also certainly was not familiar with them either; the optic on that rifle was the first one I had personally ever looked through. I thought of it only as a mechanism used to sight and shoot at a target. When I realized later that it would easily stand in as a replacement for binoculars, I was so embarrassed by my own stupidity that I actually cringed.
My suspicions regarding what I saw on the road were more or less confirmed when night fell. I kept walking into the evening. Far, far away in the distance, I saw the light of a camp fire off the road.
I resolved to keep going. There was still a pretty good moon up in the sky so I had plenty of light by which to see as long as I kept to the road. I only had a sleeping bag with my gear and no tent so I didn’t have much to set up when I finally decided to stop for the evening. I wanted to catch up to that howler monkey and this seemed like the best way to do it. By the time I quit walking I’m sure it was into the wee hours of the morning. I pulled my cart a short ways off the road, pulled out the sleeping bag, and bundled up. I must have fallen asleep almost instantly despite how uncomfortable the ground was. Given the lack of sleep I enjoyed at Whiskey Pete’s and the long, miserable day of walking, there wasn’t much left in the tank.
I jolted awake the next morning, afraid that whoever I was following had gotten a head start on me and eroded any ground I was able to gain the night before. I frantically jumped up, voided my bladder, collected all my gear, and got back on the road. I was relieved almost as soon as I did; I could see him out in front of me and he was close enough now that I could definitely tell it was no monkey. It was a person – a man judging by the shape of the shoulders.
Now things were going to get touchy. I wanted to catch up to him but I didn’t want to scare him or get myself shot if I could help it. I couldn’t tell for sure if he had a weapon at this distance. I could certainly see that he had a large burden hanging off his back but it was impossible to make out fine detail.
It’s hard for me to explain why I wanted to catch up with him so badly. My reasons didn’t come out of a feeling of loneliness or boredom at my environment. Mostly I think that the guy I shot at Pete’s was bothering me and I felt like I wanted a do-over. I told him I didn’t have any food because I was trying to avoid him attacking me to get it but it must have been obvious to him that I was the better outfitted of the two of us. Wouldn’t my refusal to share food have driven a starving man to desperate behavior? What if I had just said, “Yeah, man, here’s a pack of chicken curry,” and tossed him one of those god-awful MREs?
I couldn’t know, of course, but I was in the process of figuring out that I wasn’t terribly interested in living that way; killing whoever I came across because they might be dangerous. It didn’t sound like much of a life worth holding onto as far as I was concerned.
The day passed very much like the previous one. I maintained a steady pace and he maintained a static distance. As the evening came on, I was just able to make out his figure leaving the road. I continued walking. Shortly after, I saw the dim evidence of smoke rising from behind some hills. I realized that he was doing to me what I had done to the man at Whiskey Pete’s. He was choosing his ground and waiting to see what I would do. If I’m being honest, I was rather curious to see what I would do myself.
As I approached the small swell of hills just off the road, I unslung my rifle and threw it in the bike trailer and continued on. As I came around a bend, I saw him sitting calmly on the ground and facing me, with the fire just to his left. His back was propped up against something (I later discovered it was a massive hiking backpack). He had a shotgun laid over his knee like it was a bipod and pointed in my direction.
I stopped and put my hands out to my side. “Hey, there,” I said.
“Eve’ning?” He pronounced it as two words and framed it as a question, as if to say, “What do you want?”
“Uh, yeah. Well, I saw you on the road,” I offered as a lame answer.
“Yap. I seen you too.”
“Yes, well, I was just curious and thought I’d poke my head in. See what’s happening.” I was wracking my brain for something that sounded better but anything that I could have said that made sense was a little complex for the current situation. This was not going well.
“Curiosity can be a dangerous thing, these days.”
This was really not going well at all. Deciding to cut my losses, I said, “Okay, look. I’m not here to start anything or bushwhack you or any such thing. Just saw another human on the road and thought I’d see about…seeing about you, I guess. I’ll move along and leave you to it.” I turned to leave.
“You thirsty?” he asked.
I turned back. “Well, thanks but I have my own water. I’m not here to beg for supplies.”
“Water…” he scoffed. “I said ‘are you thirsty’?” He emphasized the last word and swirled a large glass bottle half filled with a rich, brown liquid.
“Ah,” I said.
“C’mon, Whitey,” he said. “It’s just chilly enough out here that we can pretend we’re drinkin’ this shit to stay warm.” He had a deep, hollow voice. It had an almost hooting quality, like he was speaking from inside the chambers of some massive, dead redwood. There was an accent that was nearly Hispanic in flavor but he shaped his words differently, clipping the hard sounds off in ways that I was not used to.
He lifted the shotgun up off his knee and laid it on the ground beside his leg; gestured to a spot by the fire beside himself. I pulled the bike trailer a bit closer to the fire and then circled around it to sit down. I remembered the Glock just then and stopped before lowering myself to the ground.
“Hey, listen. I have a pistol in the back of my jeans, here. I don’t want to forget about it and have you see it later. Don’t want you to think I’m being shady.”
“I figure you’re probably okay,” he said with a grin. “And if you’re not, I’ll put money on my 870 versus your pistol. Sit down, Whitey. Don’t shoot your ass off.”
I was starting to like this man. I pulled the pistol from my back and laid it in my lap as I sat down. There was nothing to lean against so I just sat cross-legged in the dirt. As I did, he reached over to a man-sized pile of dried brush (I’m pretty sure it was dead sagebrush) and pulled out what once must have been a complete plant. He tossed it onto the fire, where it flared up almost instantly.
“We won’t have a fire for very long tonight,” he said. “There’s not much good fuel out here. There’s plenty of this dead brush around if you’re willing to walk a bit for it but it burns up fast. It’ll go down to ember pretty quick after we pass out.”
“It’ll be okay, I think,” I replied. “It wasn’t so bad last night, anyway.”
The man held out his hand to me, which I shook. “My name is William,” he said. “Everyone has always called me Billy.”
“Jacob. Jake,” I offered in return. He took back his hand and then sent the bottle my way. I wasn’t much for hard liquor but I took a knock to be polite. There was a bit of a burn and a hint of charcoal to the flavor. I guessed it was whiskey.
“Well, Jake,” he began before taking a swig himself, “what brings you out this way? I can’t imagine it’s the Craps tables.”
“No. I have some family out this way, just North of Vegas. I want to see if they’re still there.”
“I see. Siblings? Cousins?” he asked.
“Oh. Well then…” he muttered, and handed me back the bottle.
I got a good look at him in the dying light as he passed the whiskey my way. I’d learn later that he was a pretty high-up tribal elder in one of the Mission Indian bands out of Southern California – Cahuilla (assuming I’m pronouncing that right). He didn’t look Indian at all to me, though. His skin was rather light in color and he didn’t have what I had been conditioned by movies to think of as “Native American” features. He looked a lot more Spanish than anything else. He had several days’ growth of facial hair like all the rest of us but I could tell that he had cultivated a mustache before things like daily grooming became a luxury. He was somewhere in his 60’s, with hair almost entirely gray. Between his fair skin and white hair, the only color in his face was in his eyes, which were brown. His face itself was inviting and friendly.
He was not fat but he had run to portliness in his old age. He carried his fat like most men; big barrel chest with the extra meat slapped around his gut and back. What could be seen of his legs through his pants was well formed and muscular even for a man of 30, never mind a man old enough to be a grandfather. His hands were massive, nearly enveloping mine when we shook – I judged from this and his legs stretched out in front of him that he was rather tall.
I threw back a drink, coughed, and shivered a bit as I passed it back. Billy politely made no mention of this though I’m sure I could see his eyes twinkle as he took the bottle.
“How about yourself?” I asked. “I haven’t run into many people out here.”
“Ah, but you have run into people?” he responded (ducking the question a bit, I noticed).
“They’re not with you now, I see.”
He scratched his chin; hesitated a bit. “Are they with us at all?”
I looked at him straight on. “You know how it is now,” I said, gesturing to his shotgun.
“Yeah, okay. I guess I do,” he said, nodding. “Fine. I’m making my way up to Wyoming. Have a patch of land up there with some supplies laid by. I think I can settle in up there and either wait for the rest of the world to pull its head out of its ass or at least live the rest of my days peacefully without being bothered. What?”
I must have telegraphed surprise on my face. “Wyoming is a pretty good distance from here. You plan to walk that whole way?”
“Naw,” he said, smiling. “I plan to walk into Vegas, spend some quality time shamelessly looting the place for anything I can find, and then throw what I do find into a vehicle and drive the rest of the way.”
“Oh. Well, that makes more sense, certainly,” I said.
“What about your plan? What comes after you look in on your people?”
I took another drink. Billy was right: it was warming me up rather well. “Hadn’t thought much about that, honestly. I don’t really know. I suppose I’ll solve that when it comes.”
“There’s always another problem to solve in this world,” he agreed and threw another brush on the fire, illustrating the point.
“That fuel isn’t going to last much longer at that rate,” I said, getting up. I was a little shocked at how I felt once on my feet. I didn’t think I had drunk so much. I could feel my teeth buzzing.
“Oh, better not go out looking for more, Jake,” he said as I moved over to my trailer.
“It’s fine. I have a flashlight here somewhere.”
“Sure, but you don’t know what’s out there,” he warned.
I stopped and looked back at him over my shoulder. “What’s out there, Billy?”
He threw his hands out. “Well, how the hell do I know? Coyotes and shit, maybe. Point is: neither of us knows. Could be people out there drawn to our fire and waiting to see if one of us does something silly like walking off into the distance looking for firewood. Could be nothing, I guess. Hell, you could put a foot wrong and twist or break an ankle in the dark.”
I couldn’t help but smile at him. I was just getting to know who he was but I got the impression that he tended to get agitated when people resolved to engage in what he considered to be “foolish behavior”.
“I’ll keep to the road. You can usually find trash along the highway. I might get lucky.” I pulled the flashlight and rifle out of the trailer.
“Say,” Billy said, “where’d you get that AR?”
“Is that what this is? I took it from a friend who passed away back home. He was a soldier.”
“Oh? Would you mind if I had a look at it?” he asked. He seemed pretty interested.
“Sure,” I said. I took the rifle by the barrel and stock and passed it over to him.
He took it and looked at the grip closely by the fire light. “Damn. This is an M4. You know this thing’ll fire full auto?” He pulled the rifle into his shoulder, looked through the optic, and whistled softly. “ACOG,” he whispered. “Nice.”
“I suspected but wasn’t sure,” I said, crouching down next to him to look. I hadn’t been much of a gun person before and knew next to nothing about modern weaponry. It had taken me longer than I care to admit to figure out how to extract the magazine when I acquired the rifle.
“Yeah, it’s the safety selector here. Lever-back is safe, straight down is normal single fire. All the way forward in this direction will shit a whole mag before you know what happened.”
“Huh,” I said. “I’ve always just been leaving it down.”
He looked at me with a blank face. His Disapproving Face was always a blank stare. “I’ll have to show you a few things, it seems. For now, keep the lever back if you’re not planning on going to work, okay? I’m not interested in being shot.”
“Gotcha,” I said. I took back the rifle and set the switch as instructed.
“How many rounds do you have for that?” he asked as I straightened up.
“I have 6 magazines for it. They each had 28 rounds. I have a number of loose bullets in the trailer here, too, in a box.”
“Pretty good,” he said, nodding. “You certainly lucked out with your choice of rifle. The Stoner platform ended up being just about the most popular rifle in the country before the world shit itself. We should be able to find you plenty more rounds in Vegas.”
“You think 150 or so isn’t enough?”
“One hundred sixty-eight,” he said promptly, “and, no, I don’t. They’re not making bullets anymore and you’re always going to run out. The world is such now that you want to be looking for bullets as much as you’re looking for water. It’s a challenge because everyone else will be looking too. 5.56 is a popular round though, like I said. We should be able to find some even if we have to go door to door to do it.”
“What about yourself?” I asked. “I don’t know very much but I know a 12 gauge when I see it. Any reason you have one of those instead of one of these?” I gestured to my rifle.
“Yeah, there are a few,” he nodded. “I’ll tell you about them later. For now, you better go looking for that fuel if you’re going at all. I’ll start heating us up some food.”
“Sounds good,” I said. “I have some edibles in my trailer as well. Feel free to rummage around for anything you think you might want to eat tonight.”
He pinned me with that blank stare again. “You know, some asshole’s going to kill you if you don’t exercise a little more caution.”
I was sure now. I really liked this guy. Smiling despite myself, I said, “Are you an asshole, Billy?”
“I am,” he responded without hesitation. “I’m not a murdering asshole, though. Even so, you can’t know that.”
“The fact that you even bring it up gives me a pretty good idea. Besides, suppose someone does kill me because of a lack of caution? God forbid I miss out on a moment of this veritable paradise we’ve all inherited!”
“Wiseass…” I heard him mutter after I turned my back to leave.
I wasn’t searching along the highway very long before I got lucky and found an old wooden pallet on the road side. I hauled it back to the fire where Billy still sat with a couple of cans of food cracked open and sitting near to the embers. The look on his face was rather priceless.
“The hell did you find that?!” he exclaimed.
“Further North up the 15. I told you: you find a lot of garbage by the road side.”
“Huh,” was all he said. The wood was old and dry and there wasn’t much holding it together anymore. There was a moderate amount of effort with the flat end of the hatchet to knock the thing apart. When I was finished, I threw a couple of planks on the fire. They didn’t flare up like the sagebrush but they did get burning fairly well in short order and continued to do so evenly for much longer.
Billy and I sat back to eat the canned food (beef stew, in this case – he advised waiting to eat the MREs until we had a situation where no fire was available). We talked about more things as we finished off the whiskey, some important and some not. We laughed from time to time at our own nonsense and pretended for the evening that the world was still sane. When the whiskey was gone, we set down sleeping bags close to the fire, put some more planks on, and turned in for the night.