Daylight: Falling From Grace
Episode II: The Road to Nowhere
Disclaimer: Daria and all associated characters are property of MTV. The author does not claim ownership of Daria or any associated characters, and is not being compensated for his work, which is just as well.
Dave Swanson relaxed in his camping chair. Nearby, a campfire pit was completely out from last night’s fire. Behind him was his van, full of supplies for his planned trip to Patuxent River State Park. The parks were always quieter in the winter, and after New Year’s Eve, he was ready for some quiet. Dave opened up a can of beer, and thought about how he’d be there right now if he hadn’t stayed up watching Dick Clark as the ball dropped, as he had the last 25 years. There he sat, in the shade of a sign stating “Welcome to Frederick”, watching the dregs of humanity pass by.
Because he didn’t leave until 8 AM that morning, he was just past the sign when the first wave hit. His 1976 conversion van stalled, and he maneuvered it to the side of the road before anything happened. His stereo shorted out, and the mini-television he brought for the Rose Bowl practically exploded. There were still burn marks on the van where it had been sitting. He decided not to walk back to town when he saw other cars on fire in the distance, and he confirmed his decision when everyone passing him from both directions was even more terrified than he was.
Nobody was sure what happened, other than all the electronics and electrical stuff disintegrating, catching fire, or outright exploding. Strangely it was just electrical things, as his spare bullets and road flares were still intact. He had no family and he was unemployed after the holidays, so he decided to just move his van back to the attention-getting sign and act as a one-stop shop for whoever passed by. If some tourists came through or the cops told him to move along, he knew he could just head back then.
That was about two weeks ago. His food was still ok, since he’d planned to be well-fed for two weeks on the road, and the last couple people were generous enough to trade food for some of his other supplies. Hey, he didn’t need all three fishing poles, just “Old Betsy”. He dipped his hand into a box of metal pieces, fastened them onto the silver chains, and set them out on the card table in front of him. Maybe they wouldn’t sell, but it was better than just sitting around worrying about what would happen when the food ran out.
He spotted a group of people on the horizon. After the first couple days, he’d only seen a handful of travelers from either direction. The last two groups were ruffians, groups of teenagers trying to intimidate him with knives and guns. One look at his hunting rifle had scared off the first group right away, though the second group almost decided to chance it. This group looked a lot friendlier though; if nothing else, they sure looked prettier.
A red-haired woman led the way. She couldn’t have been much more than 18, if that. Actually, they all looked about the same age. The redhead was carrying a shotgun, but waved to him with a friendly smile, so he waved back. Behind her was another girl, a brunette, holding hands with a red-haired freckled boy. At the back was another brunette, watching behind them every few steps. They all looked so thin; before all this happened, he would have sat them down to have a decent meal at Irma’s Café. Of course, they actually looked well fed compared to the last few groups that were desperate for food.
“Hello there!” Dave yelled as they got within speaking distance. “Welcome to Frederick! My name’s Dave.”
“Hi, Dave!” The redhead shouted back. “I’m Quinn, and this is Stacy, Chuck, and Sandi in the back.”
Dave waited until they got closer to continue. “Good to see you folks. Of course, these days it’s good to see anyone. Where are you coming from?”
“Lawndale,” replied the boy Quinn had called Chuck. “Is it as bad in Frederick as it is around Baltimore?”
Dave smiled. “Well, if you mean electrical doodads shorting out, fires and explosions, and people running around scared and desperate for food, then pretty much, yeah.”
“Just like you figured,” said the girl, Stacy was it? The one holding Chuck’s hand. “This CME’s probably taken out the whole east coast.”
“What’s a CME?” asked Dave.
Sandi, the girl in back, responded. “Basically, a huge solar flare erupted and sent a humongous electrical charge through anything that would carry it. At least, that’s what Upchuck’s data or something is saying.” Dave smiled when Sandi had called the boy Upchuck. He wondered what Chuck had done to earn that nickname.
“Were you driving when this happened?” asked Chuck. Dave nodded. “Do you remember if the sun was up?”
“Yeah,” said Dave, “It had just come up at 7:30 or so.”
“Hmm, then it would have been just coming up around the Mississippi. Maybe if we get far enough west there’ll still be civilization, assuming this was just one event…” Chuck trailed off.
Quinn jumped in, “Well, with what we have left, we had better worry about getting to the next town, never mind the Mississippi.”
“If you’re planning on moving out, I’d recommend going west. North and south are bound to be trouble.”
“Trouble?” asked Stacy. “What kind of trouble?”
“Well, let me grab my map from my old job.” Dave got up slowly, stretched, then went into his van for a minute. He came out with a map with a number of blue triangles. There were a large number of them in Pennsylvania and a few in Virginia, not to mention two down near Annapolis.
“What are the blue triangles?” asked Sandi.
“Nuclear power plants.” Everyone gasped at Dave’s statement. “I used to work at one at the Calvert Cliffs facility. They’re a lot safer than people think they are, but if their electrical systems reacted like these did, I wouldn’t want to be in 10 miles of one.”
Quinn bent over to look at the map. “Hmm, then our best bet would be Charleston. It looks like there’s none in West Virginia or Kentucky.”
“And as long as we head south from St. Louis to the Arkansas border, we should be able to get to the Rockies easy,” added Sandi.
“If you can call a couple thousand-mile walk through the Appalachians easy,” concluded Stacy. “Thanks for the heads up.”
Dave smiled. “No problem. Always happy to help folks who aren’t trying to steal my stuff. I’d be happy to fill your canteens if you have something to trade.”
Sandi had just tried to shake some water out of her now-empty bottle. “Um, that would be great. What are you looking for?”
“Well, I’m ok on food and the water should hold out fine. I guess anything I can use in trade that doesn’t have a shelf life will do.”
Chuck smiled. “My friend, would you have any objection to selling, shall we say, marital aids?” he said as he took Dave around the side of the van to display his salvaged wares. After a few minutes, they both came back with smiles on their faces.
“Chuck, it’s a deal; water and a couple cans of food for your little gizmo. I’ll tell you what though; to even out the trade, please take a set of these necklaces.” Dave picked up a pair of necklaces. “I’ve got more than I’ll probably sell, and the market on these things has probably dropped to nothing, but I think they’re right up your alley.” He handed one pair to Chuck, who looked at them and handed one to Stacy.
“What’s this?” Stacy asked.
“It’s the right half of a heart that says ‘Forever in Love’, my dear,” Chuck replied.
“Oh,” said Stacy, blushing. “Thank you, and thank you Dave.”
“No problem. Now, have you three girls been friends a long time?” Dave asked.
“Ever since I got to Lawndale a few years back, and those two for even longer,” answered Quinn.
“Then these are for you.” He handed Quinn three necklaces which together formed a circle reading “Best Friends Forever”.
“Thank you!” exclaimed Quinn. “Stacy, you should have the left, to make sure you’re never left out. I guess I should be the center, since I’m kinda leading us now…”
“Ahem,” interrupted Sandi, “and why is the Fashion Club President not the center?”
Quinn smiled. “Oh Sandi, I thought you were always right.” Everyone else laughed at this, including, eventually, Sandi.
The foursome set camp around where Interstate 70 and 270 converged. While it was still light, Chuck opened his map of the area. He was studying it carefully for about five minutes when Stacy joined him in looking. “So what’s the plan, Charles?”
Chuck looked deep in thought. “Well, I figure we should follow the main roads where we can. Getting off on a back road might lead us into a trap or some unfriendly country. I see two main paths to Charleston. We could go northwest on 70 past Hagerstown to Hancock, then 68 through western Maryland to Morgantown, then south on 79 to Charleston. Otherwise we could take 81 south to Lexington, Virginia, west on 64 to Beckley, then 64/77 north to our destination. I figure the south route adds 30-50 miles, depending.”
“Depending on what?” Quinn asked, pulled from tending the campfire by the discussion.
“Depending on whether we get to 81 at Hagerstown or down by Winchester. We can follow 340 out of here, but the roads tend to get a bit smaller past the Maryland border. We’d save a good chunk of walking, as long as we can get through.”
Sandi joined them after giving the fire a final poke. “I think we should decide the main route first, before we look at the details.”
Stacy agreed. “You’re right. Is either route better than the other?”
Quinn answered. “Well, going north might be a bit hillier. South would bring us around these mountains here, giving us a bit flatter terrain. Still, we’re following a highway, so it can’t be that rough. Plus, having Maryland ID’s may serve us better going the north road. Who knows if they’ll mean anything outside the state?”
“Who knows if they’ll mean anything inside the state?” Sandi replied. “Still, I would agree that north is the way to go. It’s shorter, and we’ll encounter more small towns; towns that may not have been as ravaged as the bigger cities.”
“And even though I think the south road is far enough north to be away from those nuclear plants, it’s better not to chance it,” Stacy pitched in.
“Then it’s settled,” Chuck concluded, “we go north across the Maryland Panhandle, then south to Charleston, and hopefully less mess than we left behind in Baltimore.” Chuck thought back to those heady days after everything went wrong.
The scene they’d escaped in Baltimore was one of utter chaos. All around people were scrounging for supplies. People were being killed, at first for not sharing food, then for having food in the first place, and eventually just because they were there. Some people had even turned to cannibalism after less than a week, desperate to survive at any cost. The police tried to keep the peace for the first few days, but many criminals targeted them first. Within a week, many of the police forces were laden with casualties and forced to concede that the situation was out of their control. Those few precincts that were able to keep up had started to declare martial law to keep the peace, whether they had the authority or not.
Quinn knew that Chuck and Stacy needed some time alone, so she took Sandi back to the campfire they had started. Stacy’s words, as well as her arm around his shoulders, brought Chuck out of his thoughts. “Charles, it’s all right. We’re out of there now. Mack and the rest are safe in their bunker.”
Chuck sighed. “I know, but what about the rest of those people? Those who weren’t starving to death were getting killed by lunatics. Everyone was going crazy from hunger and whatever drugs they could get their hands on.”
Stacy hugged her boyfriend and started to cry. “I know. It’s been all that I can do just to put that out of my mind. I wish I could save them, just like I wish that I could save my parents, or Tiffany, or Quinn’s sister, or Stu, or all the other people in my life that I’ve lost since that stupid Saturday morning. All I have left now are you, Quinn, and Sandi. We have to save each other now. If I lose you, I don’t know how I’ll go on.”
Charles pulled away, just enough to look Stacy in the face. “Stacy, I don’t want to go on without you either. However, I need you to promise me that if something happens to me, you’ll continue on without me.”
Stacy’s eyes went wide. “What are you saying? Nothing’s going to happen to you. I won’t let it!”
Chuck held Stacy by her shoulders. “And I won’t let anything happen to you, but if I can’t save you, I don’t know how I’ll go on either.”
Stacy looked concerned. “But you have to! I couldn’t die thinking you’d give up without me. You have to keep going…without me.” Stacy realized what Chuck was saying before he said it.
“And you have to keep going without me. I’m with you, from here to the edge of oblivion. But if only one of us comes back from that edge, the other has to continue on, for Quinn and Sandi, and for both of us.”
“I promise I’ll keep going, and I promise I will do everything in my power to keep you going with me.”
“And I promise to keep going, with you if possible, without you if necessary.”
“‘Til death do us part.”
“‘Til death do us part.”
“I love you, Charles.”
“I love you, Stacy.”
Quinn stared into the now-roaring fire. Poking it with one of the longer sticks she found, her face was blank. Sandi, standing across from Quinn, noticed her mood. “I think the fire’s going to stay lit for a while now.”
Quinn looked up. “Hmm? Oh, I guess you’re right.”
Sandi walked over to Quinn’s side and sat down. “Something bothering you?”
Quinn inhaled. “Kind of, not exactly bothering but…I was just thinking about Stacy and Chuck.”
“What about…oh, I see. I prefer not to think about them when they go off like that.”
Quinn buried her head in her hands. “Not that! Well, kind of that. They have something to take their mind off everything that’s been going on. As much as we all have each other, they have something that I don’t; something that neither of us has.”
Sandi smiled. “Yeah, Upchuck’s…”
“No, I mean their relationship. They understand each other so well. They can comfort each other. I just wish…”
A long pause followed. Sandi decided to push it. “That there was another guy for you.”
“I know what you mean. I’ve had the same dream for a few nights now, where some Fabio-type guy took me onto a horse and we rode off away from all this to a green pasture.”
“It was, until we got there. The first time he turned into a skeleton, and then the pasture just died away leaving some kind of wasteland. The second time he tried to rape me, and I barely escaped. The third time…um, that was just weird. I mean, I’ll take weird over the other two, but still.” Sandi shivered thinking about it.
“Sandi, that’s horrible. My dreams haven’t been much better. Once I was watching Daria trying to escape the house, and when that one timber was about to land on her, I pulled her out of the way, and she thanked me, but then she pushed me into the beam and another was about to fall on me. Another time I was in some kind of Western movie. We were protecting some village from bandits. First Stacy ran into a building, shot a bunch of the bad guys, and freed a bunch of people, only to be shot as she watched them leave. Then Chuck got shot trying to protect some kids. We made it into this house, but you got shot on the way in. You kept asking me what kind of treasure we were getting.”
Sandi looked at Quinn. “Gold, sacks of it.”
Quinn was startled. “That’s what I said in my dream. How did you know?”
“Quinn, have you ever seen the Magnificent Seven?”
“Yeah, why?” Sandi only smiled. “Oh, yeah; I guess that explains why I was bald.” Quinn giggled as she looked down, remembering the movie.
“So how did you die?”
“Um, actually, I didn’t. You died in my arms, and then I woke up crying.”
Sandi smiled. “How romantic.”
“I know.” Quinn smiled, then flinched and eyed Sandi warily. “Wait, what?”
Sandi shook her head. “Sorry. I think this being on the road is getting to me.”
“Not to mention what’s going on off-road.” Neither one could help overhearing a now-familiar high-pitched squeal. “Well, at least they should be up here shortly for dinner. Usually Stacy is only up for one of those.” Quinn poked at the fire between stirring the food inside the pot above it. Finally, she sighed. “God, I’d be up for one of those.”
Sandi’s eyes went wide at the sudden honesty. “Whoa.” She then laughed to herself a little. “Yeah, me too. Maybe we should talk to Upchuck about those “marital aids” he’s selling before they’re all gone.”
Quinn got a devilish smile on her face. “Well, we do have to make sure they still work.” They overheard some more moaning in the distance and Sandi rolled her eyes. “And maybe they deserve some competition!” yelled Quinn. The moaning turned briefly to giggles before resuming.
The four made it to Hagerstown without incident, but had decided to skip going into the city after stopping by a small suburb called Halfway. People had been streaming out of Hagerstown for days since the New Year started, begging for food and talking about the same kind of violence Baltimore had seen. Two days ago, people suddenly stopped coming out of the city. Nobody was sure why, and nobody really wanted to find out the reason. They were able to restock a couple days worth of food and their water, enough to get them to the next town at least, at a local emergency relief center that looked to be stretched to its limits. It wasn’t the best food or the purest water, but they were safe, and these days that’s what mattered.
They next made the twenty-some mile trip to Hancock, a small town of about 1700 people (or so the sign said) that marked the beginning of both Interstate 68 and the Maryland Panhandle. Again, their trip there was mostly uneventful, other than spotting a man in his twenties riding a small motorbike. It turned out that his model was very low-tech, and the only electrical system was for the lights, which the man had removed after they stopped sparking. The engine still worked, and the starter was mechanical, so it had survived the recent events relatively intact. Judging from the man’s build and lack of weapons, not to mention his trust shown in stopping for them, the bike might have been the only reason he was alive. He was heading in the opposite direction, to try to find relatives in Wilmington, so they bid each other adieu.
Upon reaching Hancock, they were surprised and relieved at what they found. While many of the larger communities, as well as some of the smaller ones, had largely turned against each other and struggled to survive. Here, where less than a thousand had survived, they worked together to start rebuilding their community. Already a makeshift meeting hall was being built where the high school baseball diamond had been. The football and track facility had already been turned into an outdoor forum of sorts, where large group meetings could be held as well as small dramatic productions put together by locals to keep spirits up. (According to one of the locals, they had just missed a dramatic reenactment of the lightsaber fight from Star Wars, preceded by a performance of “Who’s On First”, put on by two members of the high school Forensics team last night.)
Having arrived early in the day, they had been offered to partake in their evening meal in exchange for helping out in the rebuilding process. Chuck helped in assembling walls for the new church that was being built, while Quinn brought fresh water to the men from wells that had been reestablished. Sandi assisted the cooking staff in preparing the evening meal, while Stacy helped with the preparations for gardens and farms to grow new food once the old food ran out.
At the end of the day, the townsfolk gathered for the evening meal. The four sat with Bob, the interim mayor, and his wife Dottie to discuss their immediate future after their meal. “I have to hand it to you,” Bob said, cutting into his small slice of turkey, “you made good on your promises to help us out. If you hadn’t seen that weak spot, that whole wall might have needed to be replaced.”
Chuck grinned as he swallowed a forkful of mashed potatoes. “Thank you, but I was just fortunate enough to have seen the wood bowing. The brace the men made should hold indefinitely.”
Bob smiled. “It’s just too bad you four are heading out tomorrow. You can certainly join us for tomorrow’s breakfast before you head out.”
Quinn responded after taking a sip of water. “Thank you, Bob. You are very generous. We don’t want to burden the town any more than we have to, and Chuck’s father was out in Arizona when this happened, so we’re heading west while we can.”
“West on 68 and 40?” asked Dottie, and Quinn nodded. “I wish you weren’t heading that way. A couple people from Cumberland came through here a week ago. What’s left of that city has been taken over by a gang calling themselves the Doomsday Device. That town’s mayor survived the First only to be captured by that band of murderers. They brought him out into the town square and…and…” Tears came to Dottie’s eyes, and she shook her head.
“That man’s head is now on a spike outside their headquarters,” said Bob, his face grim. “There are less than a dozen of them, but they’ve got the rest of that city working for them, forcing the people to live on next to nothing while they get the best available food. Anyone trying to leave gets rounded up and killed, but those two were able to sneak away after the rest of their group was slaughtered.”
“Thank God they got out of there,” Stacy said, then sighed. “Still, that’s the only way to go. I’m not sure we could survive going back down through Virginia at this point.”
“And we have weapons, so at least we can fight back,” added Sandi. “I just wish there was a way around them.”
Chuck answered that. “There is, but it’s another fifty miles, and it takes us into Pennsylvania, and I’d rather avoid that state if I can. I’m not sure how close those nuclear plants are, and I’d rather not find out.”
Bob pulled out his map of the Maryland Panhandle. “Well, if you’re going, you’ll want to follow 144 until you hit 68 again. 68 will be a little bit steeper, but it’s a lot shorter. Besides, if cars can go over it, you can. Pratt, Gilpin, and Flintstone were all pretty much deserted when they came through. When you get close to Cumberland, you’ll reach Elk Lick Run and the Baltimore Turnpike. You’ll want to take it north, and then it’ll come back together with 68 later. Those punks have 68 scouted out well there, but they haven’t done so well blocking the Turnpike. From there, you’re on your own.”
Quinn said, “Thank you, we can use every scrap of information we can get.”
“A man’s life can depend on a mere scrap of information,” added Bob as he lifted his glass of water. “True in the Old West and even truer today.”
Even though they were in a theoretically safe neighborhood, the four agreed to keep watch as usual, for safety and to ensure their usual sleep schedules weren’t thrown off. Stacy took the first shift, Chuck the second, then Quinn, and finally Sandi. More often than not, Chuck would stay up talking with Stacy until her shift was over (when Quinn and Sandi noticed, they made sure talking was the extent of their activities), and Sandi would talk with Quinn when she woke up early.
They enjoyed their breakfast, pancakes and summer sausage (one of the few meats that kept well at room temperature thanks to its preservatives), with the townsfolk, traded a few supplies for extra summer sausage, and filled their canteens. Thankfully, there were a number of small rivers and streams on the way, and they could boil the water over the campfire with Stu’s stew pot. Without any guarantee of people until Cumberland or friendly people anywhere ahead, they had to rely on what little resources they had.
They struck out on their journey with the thanks and good wishes of the people of Hancock. It was about 25 miles to Flintstone, which they covered in two days, and another 10 to the outskirts of Cumberland. When they arrived in Flintstone, it was as deserted as Bob had said it would be. Gilpin and Pratt could barely be called villages, and neither had a single sign of life, outside of the myriad small creatures claiming the ruined and abandoned houses for shelter. Flintstone was bigger, though not by much, and just as devoid of people.
Searching the houses was a depressing, and often disgusting affair. Most of the bodies were decaying or down to skeletons from predators searching for a meal. Where fresh food had not been destroyed by fire, it was covered in mold, worms, and other parasites. Some family portraits survived, and the four knew that even if the people in them had survived, they would likely never return. Amongst the ruins, parts of toys, decorations, furniture, and other belongings told the story of the destruction. One pine tree with remnants of tinsel and crudely cut paper ornaments colored in crayon reminded them of the past Christmas, while New Year’s party favors spread around one burned out house captured the true spirit of this New Year.
They were able to find a few useful things amongst the wreckage. A tool shed survived, and amongst a number of rusty tools were a salvageable awl and a brand new socket wrench set, still in the gift box with a gift receipt attached. (Chuck mused that this may not have been the former owner’s first choice for a Christmas gift.) A six-pack of semi-expensive imported beer that had been sitting under a tree in the back yard of the party house, apparently forgotten in the haze of the celebration, stowed in Chuck’s bag next to his last bottle of Champagne.
Finally, they came to an older house that looked to be relatively intact. It was tucked back in some woods, and had been picked relatively clean before they arrived. However, it was insulated, and sturdy enough to spend the night in, a blessing as a snow storm had just blown into the area. There was a king-sized bed in the bedroom, as well as a couch in the living room. They decided to split the night in half, with Quinn and Sandi taking the bed during Chuck and Stacy’s shifts, and vice versa, and when one of the pair was on watch, the other could rest on the couch.
Sandi was sitting on the bed as Quinn came up to the bedroom. Quinn spoke first. “God, I’m glad we found a warm bed to sleep in for the night. Having to shiver this night away in our blankets would have been terrible.”
Sandi grimaced. “Not that last night was exactly restful. Why couldn’t this have happened in the spring?”
“I know, but if it hadn’t been that night, I wouldn’t have been at Jane’s, and Stacy and Upchuck wouldn’t have been in that bunker. Who knows if we would have survived if it had been another day? That thing hit at about 8:30 in the morning. If we were in school when it hit, we would have been trapped in that huge explosion just like Ms. Li.”
Sandi sighed. “You’re right, Quinn. Snow isn’t as bad as dying, or going through all this without you.”
“Thanks, Sandi. I know I wouldn’t be doing nearly as well as I am without you here. I mean, I’m glad Stacy’s here, but…”
“She has Chuck.”
“And so you have me.”
“It’s not the same.” Quinn looked away.
Sandi looked at her feet, and then she made up her mind. “I know, but…what if it was?”
Quinn snapped her head back to look at Sandi. “What?”
“What if I were what Chuck is for Stacy?”
“Sandi, are you sure? We’ve talked about this…”
“And I was always unsure. Well, now I’m sure. Quinn, I love you. I realized that last night. I think I have since you helped me get back on my feet after my broken leg.”
Quinn smiled, thinking about her actions back then. “I had a feeling that you first started really considering me a friend back then. Why the confusion then? Why couldn’t you admit your feelings to yourself?”
“I was afraid of what it would mean. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t really like gay people. Not that they hated them, but they said that gay people were making it hard to raise kids, or they were wrecking the sanctity of marriage, or they weren’t a marketable population subsection, or whatever they were bitching about at the time. My dad’s brother came out three years ago, and most of the family has practically disowned him. Dad still talked with him every now and then, but Mom kept telling him it would be so much easier if he just went back to being straight.”
“I can understand that feeling, but that’s who he is.”
“I just wasn’t sure if that was who I am. I’m still not. I don’t feel like a…lesbian. I feel like me, Sandi Griffin, the Queen of Popularity, and someone who can get just about any man she wants, single or otherwise. Lesbians are supposed to be either ugly hags that hate men or those women in porno movies that will sleep with anything that walks. At least, that’s what Mom said. So I’ve decided I’m not a lesbian.”
Quinn was confused at that. “So, if you’re not a lesbian, then why…”
“Because, Quinn, I realized last night it doesn’t matter what I am. I can love you without being gay or bi or whatever. I’m just me, and you’re just you. The rest doesn’t matter.”
Quinn put her hand on her chin. “I guess that makes sense. What if we get, um, physical?”
Sandi smiled. “I was kind of planning on that eventually. I mean, that’s what lovers do, after all.”
“Well, isn’t that kind of gay?”
“Maybe, but it’s kind of like that quote: Some are born gay, some achieve gayness.”
“And some have gayness thrust upon them…”
Both looked at each other, pictured the exact same thing, blushed and said “EWWWWWWWW!”
On that note, the two started to undress for bed. Sandi had taken off her shoes and socks, paused, and turned to Quinn. “Quinn, do you love me?”
Quinn looked at Sandi, having removed her top. “Of course, Sandi. I’ve told you that before.”
“Maybe, but that wasn’t the same thing, unless you’re planning on inviting Stacy up here to join us.”
“Ooh, good point. That’s a definite no. She’s gotten over that weird infatuation, thank God, but she’s not really my type. It’d be like dating that guy who everyone says is ‘so nice, and always helps out, and treats me so well.’ Like I didn’t get my fill of that from the J’s. If I were looking for a guy to do more than date, I’d need someone who was at least a bit more of a prick.”
“So what would you want for a girl?”
Quinn smiled. “I guess I’d want a girl who can be a real bitch at times.”
“Then you’d better get over here, Morgendorffer, because I’m looking to get cranky right now.”
Quinn laughed as she crossed to Sandi. Both were now down to their lingerie, and Quinn wrapped her arms around Sandi. “I love you, Sandi.”
“I love you, Quinn.”
They kissed, at first tentatively, then with increased vigor. Their tongues intertwined as their bodies did the same. Finally, they released their lips and opened their eyes.
Sandi spoke first. “Wow, and how many guys got that far with you?”
“Just the J’s, and until now, I thought they were decent kissers. That was so…amazing!”
“I know. Whenever a guy kissed me, it was always with so much force. With you, it was like our lips just melted into each other. And that tongue…”
“Well, considering how much both of us talk, it’s not too surprising our tongues are in good shape. Still, I can think of a better tongue workout.” Her eyebrows waggled up and down.
“As tempting as that sounds, we need to make sure we get some sleep soon. We don’t want Stacy to come up here after only an hour of sleep, or before we get the chance to sleep.”
Quinn sighed. “You’re right. Besides, we shouldn’t go too fast on this. I don’t want you to think I’m easy or anything. Um, is it all right if I take off my bra? I’m more comfy sleeping without it.”
“I certainly don’t have a problem with it, but I’d like to check something first.”
Quinn looked puzzled. “What?”
“This.” With that, Sandi moved in for another kiss. At the same time, she maneuvered her hand behind Quinn’s back. Three seconds later, Quinn felt her bra slack. Sandi pulled away and took Quinn’s bra with her, eying Quinn’s breasts all the way. “I knew it! And Brad said it was too difficult to do with one hand without looking.”
Quinn smirked. “You let Brad get that far?”
“I tried to. After a good minute of fumbling around, I made him give up. If he couldn’t get it off, he didn’t deserve to take it off.”
“Wait, let me see.” Quinn walked over to Sandi and began kissing again. Sure enough, five seconds later, “Wow, what is guys’ problem with this? Push together, unlatch, job done.”
“Yet another sign that this was the right thing to do. Now come on, I need to get you into bed.”
“Rrr, feisty!” Quinn mimicked, causing Sandi to laugh as she headed over to the bed.
The next morning, they set out for Cumberland. They reached the Elk Lick Run in the early afternoon, and there the Baltimore Pike separated from Interstate 68. They had planned to make this their camp, and after a fairly thorough scouring of the nearby environs, they set up their campfire and readied their meals.
Sandi and Chuck were working on the fire and the meal, so Quinn and Stacy went to the Run to gather fresh water to boil for cleaning and drinking. As they neared the water source, Stacy decided to figure out a nagging doubt she had. “Quinn, you seem different today.”
Quinn looked over at Stacy. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. You just seem to be a lot…lighter, I guess. I haven’t seen you smile like this since before the big one.”
“I guess you’re right. Maybe I’m getting over what happened, moving on or something.”
“I guess, but that doesn’t seem to be it. I mean, if I didn’t know we hadn’t met anyone since yesterday, I’d swear that you had just gotten…” Stacy trailed off as she put together a few things she’d noticed and dismissed all day, including catching Quinn and Sandi holding hands as they walked. Quinn just smiled in response. “Oh Quinn, I’m so happy for you! How long has it been going on?”
“Well, I’ve been hoping for a while now; really ever since we found her in that shed. She’d had feelings since even before then, but she wasn’t really sure what to do about them. Two nights ago she got herself figured out, and last night she told me.”
“That explains last night.” Quinn eyed Stacy, causing her to chuckle. “No, we didn’t hear you or anything. It’s just that, well, the bedroom had a certain aroma.”
“Oh, yeah. I guess things did get a bit hot and sweaty last night. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. The extra pheromones must have given Charles an extra gear. I’m still having aftershocks.”
“Oh, um, that’s…I’m not sure what to say to that. Part of me wants to say ‘ewwww’, and another wants to give you a high five.”
“I know that feeling. After a few of the things that Charles has tried to…”
Quinn interrupted that. “Oooook, that’s bringing me back to ewwww!”
“Sorry. Let’s just say that there are some things that work better in theory than in practice.”
“I’ll bet. By the way, that first time with him, did he have any trouble getting your bra off?”
“Not really. He may have fumbled a little, but it was off quick enough. Why?”
“Oh, just curious. A little discussion Sandi and I had.”
“Quinn, you’re taking off each others’ bras, and you’re discussing how long it took?”
“Well, it’s not like we hadn’t seen each others’ boobs before.”
“I know; it just seems weird. I’ve never been in that situation before, but it sounds like something out of a bad novel.”
“Well, at least she didn’t start commenting on my ‘heaving bosoms’ or ‘the waves of pleasure’.” Quinn giggled as she said this.
“Yeah, giggling would really kill the mood.” Stacy joined in on the giggling.
Stacy’s watch shift had ended without incident, and Chuck’s was about to do the same. Chuck yawned, took one last look around, and went to wake Quinn up. Quinn was sound asleep, and it took a few nudges to wake her up. After the third nudge to her upper back, Quinn mumbled, “C’mon Sandi, you’re way too high. I’m down here…” and grabbed Chuck’s arm. With that, she wrinkled her nose, opened her eyes wide, turned, and saw Chuck standing above her, causing her to gasp before she got her bearings. “Chuck! Don’t scare me like that!”
Chuck smiled. “Sorry, just trying to wake you up for your watch shift.”
Quinn grimaced. “Already? Man, I must not have slept much last night.”
“That’s what Stacy said.”
Quinn squinted at Chuck. “About me or herself?”
Chuck shrugged. “About all of us, apparently. You always have such vivid dreams?”
“Not usually, but lately, yes. I’ll be at the fire shortly.”
Chuck walked back to the fire, scanning the area as he walked. Quinn sat up, stretched, and got to her feet. She took her water bottle and poured a little of the water on her face, wiping it off with a hand towel she kept in her pack. She took a swallow of the water and then began undressing. She stowed her clothes from yesterday in her pack, then washed off a few strategic areas of her body before putting on the new set for the day. (She had promised horrible things to Upchuck had he ever peeked, and Stacy was quick to add cutting him off to the list.)
Quinn rejoined Chuck at the fire. “So, is anything happening?”
“Well, the only point of interest so far is trying to figure out what you thought my arm was supposed to be.”
“Oh, well I thought you were Sandi. Her, um, arm shouldn’t be that thick.”
“Well, I would imagine not. So you two have decided to join together?”
“Yeah, we’re officially going out now. You don’t have a problem with that, do you?”
“Only that the Big One didn’t leave me with a working video camera.”
“Not even in your dreams, Upchuck.”
“Why not? I’d give you two final cut and equal share of the profits.”
“Tempting, but after high school, I think I’ve had enough of guys drooling over themselves watching me with clothes on; I don’t want to think of what they’d be doing watching that.”
“That’s probably best. Besides, if this works out, you won’t have to think much about guys at all.”
“Nope, just the one lady. Don’t worry; Stacy’s safe from us.”
“That’s good. I may be able to compete with other men, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for choosing a girl over a guy. I mean, that’s what I did a long time ago.”
“You thought about switching sides?”
“Not seriously, but every man does; especially when he gets to his senior year without a date. You weigh out the pros and cons, and you make your decision.”
“And your decision?”
“Well, after holding the Playboy and Playgirl centerfolds next to each other for five seconds, the curves won hands down.”
Chuck sighed. “Two minutes?”
“That sounds honest. I can’t blame you, really. Those muscular guys never really did much for me. I mean there was one thing you guys have that I’d miss…”
“And I still have that apparatus should you desire it.”
“Sorry, but I’m still not sleeping with you, Upchuck.”
“You misunderstood me. I meant this apparatus.” With that, he took out a harness looking object. He helped Quinn step into it, adjusted the straps to fit, and then stepped back to admire it.
Quinn was confused. “So, really complicated crotchless underwear? Seems excessive to me.”
Chuck smiled. “The strategically-placed hole is meant for one of the ‘marital aids’”
Quinn understood. “Oh!” Then she thought of the possibilities. “Ohhhhhhhhhhh!”
“You’re welcome. And now I shall retire to ponder thoughts of my sweetheart. Don’t think about that so much that you forget to keep watch.”
“Night, Upchuck, and thanks.” Quinn took off the harness, folded it, and placed it into her bag. Sandi would be quite happy with the news when she woke up.
About an hour later, she thought she heard footsteps in some nearby snow. She felt for her pistol, making sure she could grab it quickly if she needed, and then put her hand back on the shotgun trigger. The sounds were coming from ahead. If the Doomsday Device were coming for them, she would make sure they paid for it dearly. She got behind a pillar of the overpass, and heard the sound getting louder. She jumped out to confront the intruder.
A lost Shih-Tzu jumped through the snow ahead of her. Quinn contemplated going up to the dog, but then worried about possible rabies and thought better of it. She smiled at getting so worried over a dog. Then, with a thump, the world went black.
Sandi was lying with Quinn in a green meadow. They had ridden together on Quinn’s white horse, and were now lounging on a blanket together, feeding each other grapes. Just as they were about to kiss, the familiar horseman from her dreams rode into view, wearing a look of rage. The man reached for her, but she rolled out of the way, so he grabbed Quinn instead. Just as Sandi was about to reach for Quinn, the man swung a sword at her, and it came down on her shoulder, ready to slice her in half.
Sandi awoke with a start. She caught her breath, and realized she was safe. She looked around, and noticed the campfire was getting low. Quinn must have been distracted, and Sandi thought she could stand a bit of distraction herself. She got up and walked over to the campfire. Quinn was nowhere to be found. That’s bizarre, she thought. It’s much lighter out than it should be. It’s almost like I overslept, but Quinn wouldn’t let me do that. She heard a muffled voice, and then looked over to the overpass pillar to the left of camp.
Sandi’s scream woke Stacy and Chuck from their slumber. They clambered to their feet and rushed over to see what the matter was. A middle-aged man was tied to the column, his mouth covered with a scrap of cloth. Chuck went over to the man and untied the gag, leaving him tied to the overpass for the moment.
As soon as the gag was removed, the man started speaking. “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you! I was beginning to think you might not wake up!”
Sandi spoke first. “Who are you, and where is Quinn?” Stacy and Chuck looked around as Sandi said this, realizing just then that she was missing.
The man spoke very fast, as if he wasn’t sure what to say first, but needed to get everything out as quickly as possible. “The one with the red hair? Oh, I’m so sorry, but I couldn’t help her. If I had done anything, they would have shot everyone, including me. They brought me to be the messenger, but I’m just one of their captives, or I was anyway.”
Stacy interrupted. “Whoa, slow down. Who are you, who are they, and what are you doing here?”
The man stammered a bit. “M-m-m-my name is Alex. I’m an insurance agent from Cumberland, or I used to be. My office was destroyed on the First, and I’ve been just trying to survive since then. My wife and kids were killed by the Doomsday Device, and they forced me to carry their stolen food on their raids. They’re the ones who tied me up here. They wanted someone to tell you what was happening.”
Chuck spoke. “Our condolences for your family, Alex. Now, what happened to Quinn?”
Alex sighed. “The Doomsday Device took her with them. They said it was payment for entering their territory. If you wished to continue through town or turn back, you would be left alone as long as you left before sundown, but the girl would remain theirs. If you spent another night in town, another one of you would be taken as payment. You could attempt to bargain for the girl’s life with their leader, but her price would not be cheap.”
Sandi looked ready to kill. “You’re darn right she’s not cheap. She…” Sandi’s face went pale. “Oh no, they aren’t planning on using her as a…” She couldn’t bring herself to say the word before collapsing to her knees.
Chuck looked grim. “A group of men, willing to kill people, decapitate them, and display their heads on spikes? I would imagine rape would be fairly routine for them.”
Alex nodded as well as he could from his position. “It’s the only silver lining of my wife’s death. She was dead before they could do anything to her. Some of my former friends’ wives and daughters weren’t so fortunate.”
Stacy was keen to change the subject, not wanting to think about the current topic. “So what happens next for you?”
By this time, Chuck was working to cut the rope holding Alex to the pillar. “Well, I’m supposed to head back to their headquarters to let them know what you said. I guess I could run off to Flintstone or Hancock, but I’m not sure I’d get there without supplies, and they’re holding my secretary as incentive for my return. If I’m not back by nightfall, they’ve threatened things a gentleman shouldn’t repeat.”
“You’d be best off having enough for a three-day trip to get to Hancock,” Chuck said. “Flintstone’s a ghost town and it’s been picked pretty clean, but Hancock’s already started rebuilding. I’d recommend heading back for your secretary’s sake.”
“Thanks for the info. What should I tell them for you?” Alex asked.
Stacy stepped forward, taking a deep breath. “Tell them we will pass through Cumberland, including the redhead, and we’re willing to discuss terms of our passage. We’ll meet with them in any public area they desire, but not at their headquarters, and we will be armed for our meeting. If everyone behaves, then nobody gets hurt.”
Chuck gaped at Stacy’s show of strength, and then said, “Um, yes; that pretty much sums it up. Run and tell that to the Doomsday Device.”
Alex, looking a bit scared, but also a bit relieved, smiled nervously. “Yes. Yes, I’ll do that. Good luck to all of you.” Alex ran towards town along the Baltimore Pike.
Chuck watched Alex leave. “Hmm, they must have secured this position after those people left. Stacy, such an alluring show of confidence; you must tell me what inspired this moment of fortitude.”
Stacy shrugged. “Well, I figure if these guys see me cowering in the corner when we’re trying to get Quinn back, they may think we’re easy pickings. If we stay strong, they might just respect us enough to not kill us outright. I might as well practice being strong with a stranger I’m not afraid of.”
Chuck nodded. “Good thinking. A little confidence will go far. Sandi, are you ok?”
Sandi was still on her knees crying. “I can’t be ok! Those losers took my Quinn away to do God knows what to her! Just when something in this damned world is starting to make sense, it’s taken away from me. Why couldn’t they have taken me instead?”
Stacy knelt down to Sandi and put her arms around her. “Oh Sandi, don’t talk like that. If you were taken, we’d be in the same spot, except Quinn would be a wreck and you’d be in trouble. Either way, we’re not leaving anyone behind. I won’t let them take her away from you or any of us. Mark my words; Quinn will leave this town with us, no matter what it takes.”
Quinn awoke with a pounding headache. As she opened her eyes, she realized she was indoors. She went to wipe her eyes, and realized her arms and legs were tied to the bed she was laying on. Thankfully, her clothes were still on except for her coat, which she saw out of the corner of her eye on the floor next to her.
The room was fairly barren, and aside from the hearth directly in front of her, and a dresser to the right, there were no other furnishings beyond the bed. The walls were wooden, bringing to mind a log-cabin feel. The room was maybe 10 feet by 12 feet; large enough for a few people to surround the bed; a thought which provided little comfort for Quinn.
About five minutes after waking up, a young man, possibly college age, poked his head into the room. He had shoulder-length brown hair that seemed to defy any attempts to lay flat, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, and a nose big enough to grab onto. Quinn gasped, which prompted the man to say, “Ah, good; you’re awake.” His voice was calm, almost cheerful, which worried Quinn more than if it were dark and menacing.
Quinn pulled at the restraints out of instinct. “Let me go! What are you doing to me?”
The man walked into the room. He was a heavy set man, roughly 250 pounds at 6 foot tall. He was wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans. “Shh! You want to cause a ruckus? There are a bunch of guys out there just waiting for a reason to punish you. I suggest you keep quiet, settle down, and see through to this evening.”
Quinn stopped thrashing. “What’s going on this evening?”
“Well, if cool heads prevail, we’ll be able to trade you for some supplies and send you on your way.”
“And what are the chances of cool heads prevailing?”
“Well, I’m fairly sure this is hell; what’s the chance of any cool thing in hell?”
Quinn gasped. “You mean I’m…dead?”
The man smiled, then frowned. “No, although you might wish you were before the night is through. Just try to convince yourself you’re enjoying it. That’s what the last one said she did.”
“They’re going to…of course; I’m tied up and spread eagle on a bed. Dammit, this sucks.”
“I wouldn’t be too hopeful about them untying you to take your clothes off. The last girl they did that to almost got away. They’ve just been cutting the clothes off before they start. It makes it that much harder for the girl to run away.” Ryan’s tone of voice was sad, but matter-of-fact.
Quinn eyed the man before her. “Who are you? You’re keeping me captive here, but you sound more like another prisoner.”
The man sighed. “That’s pretty accurate. My name’s Ryan. They’d call me your jailer, but feel free to consider me your hospitality servant.”
“I don’t suppose that means you could get me a soda.”
Ryan chuckled at that. “No, but if you need water, let me know. I’ll also be bringing you meals when they deign to offer food, and taking you to the outhouse when you need to. I’d rather you didn’t try running away when I take you; it’ll just be the two of us, and they wouldn’t hesitate to shoot me to keep you from running.”
“God, why would you help these losers?”
“Because of the alternative. This Doomsday Device group took me in because I helped a few of them cheat their way through math back in high school. I told them I wasn’t interested, but they gave me an ultimatum: join or find out how castration feels without anesthesia.”
“That was my reaction, more or less. I figured if I go along with them, maybe I can help the people they’re harming. Worst case scenario: I do something that gets me shot, and that’d be preferable to that other option.”
“I guess. So they’re going to set up a trade with my friends?”
“That’s what they told that insurance guy to say. I don’t trust them, but the leader said it was worth it to squeeze whatever food and supplies they can out of you before you leave. A lot of the guys just wanted to take out all four of you and split the supplies, but the leader was pretty firm that he didn’t want bloodshed if he could avoid it. I think he’s afraid of the military coming through.”
“I hope so. What if the trade falls through, or they just decide to start killing my friends? Are they just going to have their way with me and kill me?”
“Oh, they’ll have their way all right, especially with someone as cute as you are, but they won’t kill you unless you give them a good reason to do so. There are a few other girls here that they’ve taken in a similar manner. After they’re finished with you, you’ll probably work in the kitchen or something, and they’ll bring you back here from time to time when they feel like it. It’s not much of a life, but it’s a life.” Ryan couldn’t look her in the eye as he spoke.
Quinn noticed. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but…”
Ryan cut her off. “Then don’t. Don’t tell me anything you don’t want them to find out. They have ways of making me talk.” Ryan shivered to emphasize his point.
“I understand. Just tell them that my friends aren’t going to leave me here. We’ve got supplies and food to trade, and we don’t want any trouble either. We just want to get through town and on to civilization, if there is such a thing anymore.”
Ryan looked toward the door. “After what I’ve seen in the last few weeks, I’m beginning to doubt it.”
The sun had just fully cleared the eastern horizon when Chuck, Stacy, and Sandi left their camp. Taking stock of the situation, they determined that the Doomsday Device had taken their shotgun along with Quinn’s pistol. After some adjustment, they found that they were able to pack most of Quinn’s backpack into the other packs. What was left of her pack, largely Quinn’s clothes, was light enough for Chuck to carry along with his own. With Chuck carrying the extra weight, Stacy assumed primary security for the party, while Sandi became the primary lookout. Nobody, her included, wanted Sandi with her finger on the trigger until it became necessary.
They decided to follow Interstate 68 since their element of surprise was gone, and the distance was shorter. As they arrived at the point where the turnpike converged again with the interstate, they encountered two tough looking men, wearing leather jackets and jeans, brandishing hunting rifles. They stood in front of a couple highway barriers and a handful of other road construction markers, assembled into a simple checkpoint. The three stopped and reached for their guns, but the men waved them to come over. Stacy took a deep breath, mumbled, “They’re just ugly guys; you can do this,” and started towards them. After a brief pause, Charles and Sandi followed, leaving their guns in their holsters, but their hands close enough to grab if necessary.
Stacy addressed the two men. “Hello. We wish to pass through.”
The man on the left, sporting a goatee, responded. “Go ahead. That insurance guy came through here and said you were coming.”
Stacy, surprised and relieved by the response, replied, “Um, thank you. That was easier than I thought.”
The man on the right with the full beard shrugged. “You’re expected. If you weren’t, you’d catch our bad side. Besides, we don’t have trouble with folks coming in.”
Sandi exhaled in relief. “That’s good to know.”
The man on the right smiled. “It’s the leaving that you’ll find difficult.”
The three young adults gulped, while the man on the left laughed. “Yep, just like the sign says.” He pointed to a sign to his left that read, “Welcome to Cumberland! Come for a Visit, Stay for Life!”
Chuck grimaced. “Somehow I doubt that this is what the City Council had in mind when they came up with that motto.”
The man on the left snorted. “You could ask the mayor, but don’t expect a quick answer.”
Stacy flinched at that. “Yeah, we heard about that over in Hancock. So you guys are part of the Doomsday Device?”
The man on the right answered. “Not really. We’re just hired muscle. They give us food and a place to sleep, and we patrol this entry point. If the legitimate powers were still alive and in power, we’d be working for them instead. At least we’re not lying around rotting like the people that tried to resist.”
Chuck interjected, “Better to reign in hell…”
The man on the left finished, “than get a first class ticket to the real thing. Get going. If you’re bargaining or just passing through, you’ll want to spend as little time as possible yapping with us.”
Stacy bowed before them. “Thank you; you’ve been most kind in not shooting us and stuff.”
The man on the right smiled. “It makes our job easier when we just have to stand around shooting the breeze, rather than overly ambitious troublemakers.”
The three teens continued on past the makeshift roadblock, while Sandi kept an eye on the two men until they were out of sight. Once they had gotten far enough, Sandi turned to her two mates. “Do you get the feeling they were bouncers before all this?”
Back at the roadblock, the man on the left looked back at where the three had just disappeared. “What odds?”
The man on the right looked thoughtful. “The leader chick looked like she was forcing herself not to run away, and that boy was about as steady as Barney Fife. Still, the chick in the back looked like she was ready to take them all on by herself. I’d say 15-to-1.”
“I don’t know; that number seems a bit low.”
“Did you see the redhead the Device had with them today?”
“Oh yeah; if she’s in play, that’s fair. What will we bet this time?”
“Well, all we have now are the clothes on our backs and the food they send us, so first bite of tomorrow’s breakfast from the Double-D’s vs. your first meal from someone other than them?”
“Bet. It’d be worth missing the meal to go legit, and I could use the extra bite if the usual happens.”
Quinn was still tied to the same bed. Since Ryan left, only a few men had visited her, all looking at her as lions watching a gazelle. Quinn somehow managed to keep her resolve when these men came in, not wanting to look as scared as she felt. It had been a couple hours since anyone had poked their head into her room, and Quinn had an urgent matter that needed addressing. Remembering Ryan’s words, she called out, “Ryan?”
“Be right there,” was the muffled reply. Quinn smiled, relieved that he, not one of the other thugs, was there.
Ryan entered the room and spoke like a maitre’d. “Yes, Madame, how may I assist you? Oh, and I’m afraid we are all out of escape plans tonight.”
Quinn giggled. “You’re silly, Ryan. Actually, right now I need to, um, you know…”
Ryan smiled. “Go to the little girl’s room?” Quinn nodded and blushed. “I would imagine you would, having been tied to that bed since you woke up. Let me untie you. Remember, they’ve got people watching, so if you run off, they’ll take you down and shoot you if you’re lucky.”
“And if I’m unlucky?”
“They’ll have their way with you, then shoot you. Or shoot you, then have their way with you.”
“Ewwwwww, that’s terrible!”
“Hey, at least that way you won’t have to live through the rape.”
“Um, I suppose so.”
“See, there’s always a silver lining, even in necrophilia.”
By now, Ryan had freed Quinn’s legs and was working on her arms. “I get the feeling you would have gotten along well with my sister, Daria.” Quinn looked away as she said her sister’s name.
“I take it she didn’t make it.”
Quinn sighed. “Our house burned down on the First, and she was trapped under a support beam. My parents were caught in the fire too. Another one of my friends died that day, and the guys I was going out with all left before I could say goodbye.”
“Guys?” Ryan asked, emphasizing the plural ending of the word.
“Yeah, Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie. They were all fighting over my attention through high school. So I headed out with two girls I’ve known for a couple years and a guy I’ve always thought was a creep, but turned out to be fairly decent. It all seems so weird looking back on it.”
Ryan smiled as he untied the last knot. “Politics makes strange bedfellows.”
“No kidding. I still can’t believe Stacy and Upchuck are going out. And Sandi…wait, how did you know they were sleeping together?”
“I didn’t. I just meant that situations make people join together that normally wouldn’t. So what about Sandi?”
Quinn’s mind flashed back to the night in Flintstone. “Oh, nothing really.”
“I suppose so. Come on; let’s get you to the outhouse.”
They walked in relative silence out the door and down the hall. At the end was a door to a fenced-in yard with a small wooden building in the corner. Quinn sighed. “I was really hoping you were kidding about the outhouse part.”
“Actually, after the Big One hit, I heard of a lot of people electrocuted from copper piping. I’d rather be somewhat uncomfortable than fried.”
“Good point. I’ll just be a bit.” Quinn went over to the outhouse and closed the door. Ryan looked around at the barbed wire topping the yard, and out towards the snow-covered trees and ground beyond.
A man in leather wearing shoulderpads with glued-on spikes came to Ryan as he waited outside. “Hey, where’s the firecrotch?”
Ryan jumped, not noticing the man until he heard him. “Hmm? Oh, she’s just over there, taking a powder.”
The man grumbled. “Good. The other kids are on their way, and Biff says to get her ready to deal.”
Ryan looked puzzled. “You mean, George said get her ready, right?”
The man smiled. “Oh, George isn’t saying anything these since this morning. Biff’s the one you should worry about, for now at least.”
Ryan took the hint. “Um, yes sir. She’ll be ready just like Biff wants.”
“She better be. Have her at the entry in ten minutes.” The man went back inside, while Ryan kicked some snow on the ground.
Quinn came out of the outhouse. “Much better, thank…what’s wrong?”
Ryan was frowning. “George is dead, and now Biff’s the leader.”
“Ok, and who are George and Biff?”
“George was the leader who said we should bargain with your friends, take everything we can, and send you off without bloodshed. Biff was the main voice calling for killing all four of you and taking your stuff.”
The color drained out of Quinn’s face. “Oh no; they’re not going to negotiate now?”
“Well, they’re asking me to get you ready anyway. I get the feeling they’ll at least start up the talks and see what you have to trade, but my hopes aren’t high for a peaceful negotiation.”
“Dammit! There has to be a way to get out of this or warn them or something.”
Ryan sighed as he walked Quinn back into her room. He knew what he had to do. “I’m sorry, Quinn. My orders are restrain you and lead you to the negotiation, and to witness the Doomsday Device probably enforce their will on your friends, you, and maybe even me if I get in the way.” They were now in the room. “Stand still, with your feet about a foot apart and your hands behind your back.”
Quinn did as she was told. Ryan tied a rope around her right ankle, then her left, leaving a length of about a foot between. She could walk, but running would trip her up. Ryan then moved to her back to tie her arms together. “This may seem unusual, but would you mind if I touch your breasts? I’m not liking my chances of living through the night.”
Quinn looked back at Ryan. “What would you do if I said no?”
Ryan smiled. “Not touch them, of course.”
Quinn rolled her eyes a bit. “Oh, sure, go for it. Those guys would do a lot worse.”
Ryan reached around her chest and palmed each breast in his hands. “And they wouldn’t ask for permission. Very nice. Just the right size, and firm. Sandi’s a lucky girl.”
Quinn sighed. “Yeah…er, that is, I…”
Ryan smiled. “I’d bet someone who had their girlfriend kidnapped from them would be pretty angry.”
Quinn had a confused look on her face. “Yeah.”
Ryan held a razorblade out in front of Quinn’s face. “And someone who’s angry is likely to want to take it out on those who harmed the one they love.”
Quinn’s eyes went wide. “Um, yeah, I suppose.”
Ryan took the razorblade and slid it under the rope at her left wrist, close enough that her right hand could reach it. “If someone took my woman, there’d be hell to pay.” He stepped away and walked around to the front. “It’s a pity it’s just those three against the whole Doomsday Device. A little bit better odds and they might have stood a chance.” Ryan smiled and held up the gag.
Quinn smiled back. “Well, I guess we’ll have to see what happens.”
Allegany High School sits on the northwestern side of Cumberland, not far from Wills Creek. In years past, actors Eddie Deezen and William H. Macy had walked the halls of this school, almost fitting given the acting job the Doomsday Device would be performing. As many of the halls had collapsed, the only inhabitants were a handful of small animals, and the Device made sure it stayed that way.
To the west of the school lies a standard high school track encircling what once was a practice football field. Today, however, a large wooden table, salvaged from the school, sat at roughly the fifty yard line, and the battle waged would be quite different. On the west side of the table sat Biff, the new leader of the Doomsday Device as of 9:30 that morning, when a disagreement in direction led to the change in leadership. Biff normally stood 6’5, weighed 300 before the New Year and had probably lost only a bit of his paunch since then. He’d been a Lineman in college, but got thrown off the team for academics. Since then he’d developed a bit of a beer belly, but still worked out, delusional that the NFL would come calling.
To Biff’s left and right sat his two most trusted associates, and his best two brawlers stood at the ends of the table. To the far left and right were his two best marksmen, ready to fire should the need arise. This left only the man bringing Ryan and the prisoner, and the man who would bring the other three travelers to the table. Only the three men at the table knew that the Doomsday Device, not counting those they had bullied, blackmailed, or otherwise forced into service, only numbered nine men, many of whom were untrained thugs, after the death of their former leader. At least, that’s what Biff believed.
From the west came Ryan and the prisoner, along with their guard, and they took up a position to Biff’s right, behind the table. Ryan was a nice guy; always helping people out. Just the kind of person Biff liked to beat up in front of his friends. George had always liked Ryan, but with George gone, Biff could do what he pleased to him. No need to kill him now though. He couldn’t harm a fly. Next time he stepped out of line though, goodbye, Ryan. That prisoner was a fox, though. At thirty, Biff hadn’t sampled something quite that young and fine in some time. She better survive, or else whoever shot her would have hell to pay.
At about high noon, the last of the gang came up from the east, with the three travelers in tow. The two brunettes kept their hands at their holsters, while the boy in the middle focused on carrying their belongings to the table. The girl on the right seemed to be the leader, but from her shaking, Biff figured she wasn’t much to worry about. Probably never had a real man in her life. The other brunette seemed to be a bit more pissed off. Biff figured it was her time of the month or something. He’d have to make sure of that if she survived. The boy in the middle looked to be the classic 90-pound weakling, used to having sand kicked in his face. He wouldn’t be much good as a worker, and he might just have to die to teach the others a lesson. What that lesson was could be figured out later.
Biff waved the newcomers in. “Welcome to Cumberland. Have a seat.”
The boy sat at the middle chair and removed his pack. “My associates would prefer to stand.”
Biff noticed the girls’ hands at their waists and thought it over. “Ah, let ‘em. Their funeral. So who are you and what brings you here?”
The shakier girl spoke. “I’m Stacy, and this is Chuck and Sandi. We’re just passing through to Charleston if anything’s left of it.”
Biff smiled. “Haven’t heard anything out of there since the Big ‘un. So, what’cha got for us today?”
Chuck started pulling out items and talking in his best sales-pitch voice. “I’m glad you asked. To start, we have this lovely bottle of Chateau Gris Champagne, 1977, a very good year. For something a little more, shall we say, blue collar, we have a full six-pack of Hall-Anderson Lager.” The men smiled at seeing that hit the table. “For non-alcoholic consumables, we have a variety of foods, including sausages, canned goods, dried pastas and a few sweet treats. Medically speaking, we have some over the counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory creams, as well as bandages. Now, I’m not sure that you’d be interested in these.” Chuck pulled out a couple of his marital aids, bringing a few laughs from the guys. “But they’re here for consideration. We also have a number of prophylactics that may help ‘enhance the mood.’”
Chuck moved on to Stacy’s pack, while Sandi had set her pack on the ground. “In here we have a number of tools, including this brand new socket set, a sturdy claw hammer, an awl, which could easily double as an ice pick if you prefer, and this small hand saw. We also have a few more cooking implements, including this chef’s knife…” The men around them watched the knife in anticipation, and relaxed only when the knife was on the table. “And a set of serving utensils. Again, we have some more food of a variety of types. This is a box of shotgun shells, and since you have our shotgun, you might as well have the shells. What’s this at the bottom? Why, it’s a snow globe with a teddy bear inside it.”
The man to Biff’s right said “Awwww,” which prompted Biff to punch his shoulder. “Ow!”
Chuck continued. “In Sandi’s pack is everything we need to get to the next town. It contains only our extra clothes, the bare minimum of meals, a teddy bear, and the pot we need for safe water. You can check it if you like. I would like to believe that we can come to some arrangement for the life of our compatriot over there.” He gestured to the prisoner.
Biff examined the chef’s knife, tested its blade and smiled. He took the awl into his hand, jammed it into the table, and was pleased as it penetrated the wood and stuck. He looked at Chuck, then to the ladies, and started clapping. “Now that’s a sales pitch! Just like that guy on the TV with those knives, Ron Pop-something.”
Chuck smiled. “And all this can be yours for one easy payment of our friend over there.”
Biff’s smile turned into a smirk. “Boy, I don’t think you have a firm grasp on this situation.”
The smile on Chuck’s face ran away. “I don’t?”
Biff continued. “You see, the man with the army can make the rules, and he can just as quickly break them. I figure I can call all this stuff mine, and all you can do is stand there, unless of course you want to get yourselves shot. The guy I took over for wanted to just clean you out and send you on your way, but he was just a chicken s***. Why would I do that when I can just take your stuff and make you all my slaves?”
The three teens gasped. Quinn gasped at the same time, but for another reason: she felt a hand on her backside. She turned to Ryan, who winked at her. She first got mad, but then realized what Ryan had done and nodded her head, silently wishing him luck. She began working on cutting her bonds.
“I knew it,” said Sandi. “I knew this was a trap.”
“And yet you came anyway. I love it when a plan comes together.” Biff laughed and stood up at the table.
Well then, thought Ryan, you’re going to love this. With that, he snuck the gun from the holster of the man assigned to watch him (but who had been lazily watching the transaction since the beer had come out). Seeing that nobody had noticed his actions, he quickly got Biff’s back in his sights and fired.
The first bullet pierced Biff’s flesh before anyone else realized what had happened, including the man whose gun had been stolen. It lodged in his rib cage after passing through his left aorta. Ryan had been fairly sure he wouldn’t get that good of a shot twice, so he switched his aim to the gunman and thug to his left. He was able to kill the gunman and hit the thug in his right arm as he ran behind the man he took the gun from, who had tried to draw his gun before realizing it was gone. Quinn, Chuck, Stacy, and Sandi dropped down out of instinct, and Sandi and Stacy drew their guns as they dropped. Stacy rolled and turned to shoot the man behind her, who dropped dead to the ground just as his shot entered the ground an inch from Chuck’s head. Sandi hit the thug on the right in the leg, sending him to the ground as well. The gunman to Ryan’s right fired at him, but first hit only the man whose gun had been taken. After that man fell dead, Ryan tried to shoot at the two men on the right. However, he wasn’t fast enough to avoid the gunman, who hit Ryan in the chest before he could fire again, then followed up with two more direct hits before he fell.
The two men left alive at the table had fallen to the ground as well, trying to get out of their chairs as quickly as possible. Sandi saw the gunman to her left, and the two exchanged fire. Both would fall, but Sandi only sustained a wound to the shoulder on her firing arm; the gunman took one to the temple. The two men at the table fired blindly at first, breaking the champagne bottle and a few of the beers, but not hitting anyone. Finally, the man at the left screamed as Chuck fired at his midsection, puncturing his lung. The man on the right flailed at Chuck, went to fire, but was prevented by a shot from Stacy, who hit him on his right elbow just before the trigger was pulled. Chuck followed it up with a shot to the head.
The thug on their right was back on his feet, and, not having a gun, charged at Chuck. Both Chuck and Stacy were out of bullets, and while Stacy might have had time enough to reload, Chuck did not. Stacy ran over to the table and grabbed the chef’s knife, but by then the man was pummeling Chuck. Stacy ran over with the knife, but the thug had seen it coming, and he grabbed her by the neck as she came up to him. She dropped the knife in terror, and she fought to breathe. Chuck, seeing the knife, wriggled his arm free, grabbed the knife, and plunged it into his stomach. The man let out a guttural groan, and Chuck retrieved the knife and stabbed him again in the chest, between two ribs. With that, the thug dropped to the ground. Both Stacy and Chuck sat up, looked each other in the eyes, and sighed. They were safe.
Stacy then turned and saw Sandi on the ground, clutching her shoulder. “Sandi! I’m coming!”
Chuck saw the other thug out of the corner of his eye. He was crawling on the ground, but had his partner’s gun out and aimed at Stacy. Chuck yelled “Stacy!” and ran at her.
Quinn had just finished cutting the ropes around her hands, and noticed the man aiming at Stacy just before Chuck yelled. She grabbed the gun from Ryan’s body, and aimed it at the thug.
The thug fired a shot. Chuck reached Stacy and pushed her out of the way. As he did, he came into the bullet’s trajectory. The bullet pierced Chuck’s right lung and lodged in his spinal column, severing his spinal cord. Quinn’s bullet entered the thug’s skull mere moments later, lodging in his cerebellum.
Stacy turned to the man who had pushed her out of the way. “Whew, that was close, Charles. Charles?” She saw the bullet hole in his back. “Oh no! Speak to me, Charles! Don’t leave me! Not now; I need you!”
Charles sputtered and coughed up blood. “Sorry S-Stacy, I wasn’t f-fast enough. Remember, you p-promised to k-k-keep going.”
Stacy was crying, but she kept her eyes open to watch her man’s face. “I will, Charles; dammit, I will!”
Chuck smiled sadly. “I know you will. I’ll b-be right with you. Always th-thought I’d die a vir…” Chuck’s dying breath escaped his lungs and he spoke no more.
The shots had brought the general populace to the field, where they found the survivors. Sandi was taken to a physician who lived nearby, kept alive and a prisoner in his house by the Device, and he was able to remove the bullet and bandage the wound. Sandi wouldn’t be able to carry her pack for a couple days, but she’d recover fully. Their belongings were repacked into their packs, except the three remaining beers, which were put on ice (on snow, to be accurate) for the surviving girls.
The girls were treated as heroes for ending the reign of the Doomsday Device, and Ryan and Charles were honored for their sacrifice. Both men were given proper burials by the local minister, and the lone surviving council member issued a proclamation that the five names would be honored in Cumberland from then on, and that January 23rd, the day of the shooting, would be known as Liberation Day in Cumberland. Thankful couples promised to name their daughters after them and their sons after Ryan and Charles.
After some makeshift festivities and posing for sketches to be used in future memorials, the girls requested that they be allowed to be left alone at the place of the shootings, which was also where Charles and Ryan were buried. (The remains of the Doomsday Device members were taken to a clearing in the nearby woodlands and burned.)
Three folding chairs had been furnished to the girls, and they sat under the aurora, taking in the recent events. They had also been given their three now-cold beers, which they had toasted together, and, after grimacing at the taste (Sandi had wondered aloud if this was why nobody had claimed the beer), sipped slowly through the evening. Quinn and Sandi had been talking, but Stacy was quieter than usual. Sandi noticed this. “Stacy, are you all right?”
Stacy turned away. “Sure I am. Charles saved me from my own stupidity, and now he’s under my feet instead of me. Life’s just a peach.”
Quinn frowned. “Stacy, I know this can’t be easy…”
Stacy turned and snapped at Quinn. “What could you possibly know about what I’m going through? It wasn’t your fault he’s dead. It wasn’t your ass he had to shove out of the way. It wasn’t your boyfriend who got killed because you didn’t watch where you were going. It’s just me. If I’d seen that man before I ran, or if I’d have stopped him from pushing me, I’d be dead, not him, just like I should be.” Stacy turned back around, her back to the others.
Quinn was speechless, so Sandi filled the void. “Come on, Stacy; do you really think you’re the only reason Charles is dead? If I hadn’t gotten shot, you never would have rushed over to me. If I’d seen that he wasn’t dead, I still had at least one bullet in my gun, and he would never have had the chance to shoot.”
Stacy started to talk, but Quinn’s flat voice was heard first. “Three seconds.”
Stacy’s anger turned to confusion. “What?”
Quinn’s face fell into her hands. “Three seconds too late. I had just cut my way out of rope with the razor blade Ryan gave me. I stood up, saw the man raise his gun, and I grabbed Ryan’s gun. I stopped to steady myself because my hands were shaking, and because of that, I fired three seconds too late.”
Stacy’s face softened. “Quinn, it’s not your fault.”
Quinn snapped this time. “Stacy, your gun was out of bullets. Even if you saw the man, all you could do was point him out. Sandi wasn’t in any shape to stop him. I could have, but I was too damn slow. Now I have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
Stacy’s anger rose to the surface again. “And what if you couldn’t cut through your rope in time? At least you did your best. I ran off blindly and now…”
Sandi jumped in. “Stop it, both of you! This isn’t getting us anywhere! This whole thing was a trap, and I led us right into it because I couldn’t think of anything but getting Quinn back. I’m blaming myself for this as much as you two are, but if we keep yelling at each other about who blames themselves more, we’ll never get anywhere. Don’t forget, if that Ryan guy or whatever hadn’t shot half of their people, we’d be slaves or corpses right now.”
Sandi paused, and the other two said nothing, just bowing their heads. She continued, more calmly this time. “Maybe we’re not heroes, even if this town thinks we are. The only two heroes from last night are buried in this ground. Ryan knew he was dead when he took that gun. He knew it when he gave you that razor blade, Quinn. Charles saw that you were going to die, Stacy, and he risked his life to save you. Us?” Sandi snorted. “We’re just the ones who got away. We shot a few people that would have shot us first, and saved our own lives because that’s all we had the chance to do. I know each one of us would have done what Charles did, and probably Ryan too, if we were in their shoes, and we’d be in the ground instead of them, while they blamed themselves for it.”
Stacy sighed. “You’re right, and I’m sorry for taking it out on you guys. We can kick ourselves and bitch about what we should have done all night, but where does it get us? We have to figure out where we go from here.”
Sandi responded. “Agreed. I think the people here would love to keep us here as heroes, but it wouldn’t be fair to take their hospitality when they’re fighting to survive.”
Quinn agreed. “Besides, we kind of owe it to Chuck to find his father if we can. I think he’d be proud to hear that his son lost his life to save the woman he loved.”
Stacy smiled. “A romantic to the very end. No wonder I love him. Um, is it all right if I had a moment alone with him?”
Quinn smiled. “Of course, we’ll be over here when you’re done.” She walked over to Stacy and hugged her, and Sandi did the same. The two walked off far enough that they wouldn’t hear whatever Stacy had to say.
Stacy knelt at the freshly dug grave. “Hey, Charles. I guess this is it. You know, before that night in your bunker, I never thought you’d be as great a guy as you were. Not just because of the sex. I mean, don’t get me wrong, those were some of my favorite times with you, but you meant so much more to me than that. You made me feel special; like I deserved to be alive. I still feel that, thanks to you. I don’t know if I’ll ever find someone like you again. If not, at least I had this time with you. You gave me a taste of heaven when the rest of my world went to hell. Then, you took that bullet for me. You died, so that I could live. My mom told me that Jesus did the same thing. Maybe you’re not Jesus, but that’s what you were to me. I’ll never forget you, and you’re right, you’ll be right with me, wherever I go.” She closed her eyes, and a single teardrop fell from her right eye, onto Charles’s grave. “God, where will I ever find another man like you?”
A scream brought Stacy out of her thoughts. It belonged to Quinn, and Stacy rushed to her side, where Sandi stood. A man wearing a tattered navy-blue business suit and sunglasses lay on the north end of the track. His makeshift walking stick lay at his side. All three gathered around the man, who was still alive, though barely so. They rolled him onto his back, and saw a bullet wound around his navel. He spoke haltingly, but deeply. “Are you going to Charleston?”
Stacy answered, “Yes, but we can get you to the doctor here…”
The man cut him off. “No time. Must get this envelope to…Secretary of Labor. Please, note…vest pock…” He would say no more. All attempts to revive him were fruitless.
Quinn remembered the man’s last words and went to his vest pocket. There was a note and a wallet. She read the note. “Let’s see, ‘The contents of the enclosed envelope are considered top secret. Displaying the contents without proper clearance will be considered an act of treason. This envelope must be delivered to the addressee on page two as soon as possible. Please wear the lapel pin enclosed to signify your identity and provide this letter as proof. Contents must be delivered by February 14th, 2000 or destroyed.’ The rest just trails off into legal stuff I don’t understand. I guess this pin on his jacket is what they’re referring to, and the address on the second page is north of Charleston if I remember the map. Didn’t he say the Secretary of Labor?”
Sandi took the envelope. “That seems to be an official government seal. I didn’t think the Secretary of Labor was from West Virginia.”
Stacy decided to speak up. “Maybe he was on vacation. He just wanted to get away from everyone else in government for Y2K.”
Quinn went white as a sheet. “The line of succession!” When everyone looked at her, he continued. “David told me about it while he was tutoring me. If the President dies, the Vice President becomes President. From there it goes to, like, the Speaker of the House, President Pro Tempura of the Senate, then a bunch of the Cabinet. They had that big White House gala for the New Year, and most of the top government people were there…”
Stacy stopped Quinn. “What are you saying?”
“Any time there’s an event where the entire line of succession would attend, like a State of the Union Address, they always have one person in the line off somewhere, in case something happens, like a bomb or something. If they’re trying to contact him…”
Stacy gasped. “Oh my God! Then, they’re all…”
Sandi interrupted. “We don’t know what’s happened for sure. It could just be a request to return to Washington to meet with the other survivors, or to somewhere else. It could even just be a briefing on what’s happening in Washington. We won’t know what’s going on until that envelope is opened, and we can’t find out without risking treason, assuming that there is still a government to commit treason against.”
Quinn agreed. “Or assuming there’s enough of a government force to put us to death. There is one other way, though. We can deliver the letter, and hope that they’ll be nice enough to tell us what it says. Even if they don’t, it’s kind of our duties as Americans.”
Stacy disagreed. “Why should we do anything for a country that, for all we know, doesn’t exist anymore?”
Quinn sighed. “Because if we don’t do anything, the country may not exist.” The other two looked at Quinn, and then the man now lying motionless on the ground.
“Besides,” Quinn continued, “we’re heading that way anyway. We’ve committed ourselves to walk another 200 miles. What’s another 10 or so?”
To Be Concluded In Episode III:
I Should Have Been Home Yesterday
Author's Note: All locations are based on the actual geography of Maryland. Note that this does not necessarily mean it's accurate, but it's as accurate as I could gather from Google Maps. Yes, that is the actual Cumberland, MD motto. Ryan is loosely based on myself. Hey, I'm lazy.