Live or Die

by Howard Faxon

Tags: Post Apocalypse, Violent,

Desc: Action/Adventure Story: What if your story's hero is functionally insane? An apocalypse story with a twist.

I woke in the middle of the night with a high-pitched singing noise in my ears. It seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. It slowly increased in volume until I began to scream. It had to be ultrasonic in nature. It felt as if my mind was being shredded by a cheese grater. I had one strange thought that came to me from college physics--sound propagates differently in water than in air. I emptied the kitchen sink, plugged it and started it filling. It was agonizing to stand there, waiting. I scrambled through one of my two kitchen drawers for a big aluminum slurpee straw that I once bought for no damned good reason. As soon as the sink was half-full I pushed the faucet to one side and plunged my head under the water. Oh, blessed relief! I fumbled with the straw until I lined it up with my collar bone and my mouth, then put it between my teeth.

Agony! Ahh, shit! I raked my hand through the baggies and plastic wrap stored over the kitchen cabinets, then wrapped the straw's mouthpiece in cling-wrap. Once again I shoved my head beneath the water and positioned the straw to breathe through. It worked. I heard a high-pitched chord of notes something like a locust infestation, but that was all. I reached up to turn off the flow of water and stood there in front of the sink with my ass hanging out and my head in a bucket.

I didn't know how long I half-squatted there with my arms braced against the counter. I dozed until I caught myself half-drowning several times. Eventually I began to see something I didn't believe that I ever would again--the light of dawn.

It was several hours later before the noise started to abate. The sun was high, shining deep into my apartment. When I no longer heard the rasping whine I pulled my head from the sink and listened. Nothing. I stripped, dried off and threw more towels on the floor to soak up the water. I looked out my patio door. The ground was covered with the bodies of bats and birds. I slid open the door and listened. Nothing. Was I deaf? I couldn't tell. I walked to my stereo and flipped on the FM. I heard music, but it was muted. I guessed that my high frequency hearing was shot to hell. I consoled myself with the thought that I was still alive to hear anything at all.

I figured that I wasn't going in to work that day. I laughed until I cried.

After I got it together I dressed and fired up my computer. My Internet connection was solid. Whatever it was had hit world-wide. I checked web-cam sites everywhere I could think of. I didn't see any movement. I saw plenty of wrecked cars and uncontrolled fires, but no life.

I sat with my head in my hands. Now what. I made a strong drink and sat out back in the sunshine. I wondered if anyone else near was alive. I didn't hold out much hope until I thought about the local jails and sheriff's lockup. The prisoners were behind six or more layers of concrete block and industrial doors. I'd been in the Juvenile Justice Center to install and maintain computers. I knew how it was laid out. The problem was, how was I going to break in to see if any of the kids made it?

I really should have thought twice about it. I didn't get along with people in general, and I'd been diagnosed as borderline psychotic before. Still, the thought of living alone terrified me.

I had a pretty good idea of how to get in, but it was destructive as hell. I knew where to get a generator and a few cut-off saws. The metal-cutting composite blades were available nearly everywhere. First, though, I needed supplies. I also wanted some back-up! if any of those kids decided to run rough-shod over me I wanted a way to put them down--fast.

Just down the road was a Mercedes Benz dealership. I didn't want a fancy car--I wanted a goddamned delivery van! I figured if UPS, Fed-X and USPS all used 'em, then I'd go for a sprinter van too. I ran my old junker through a couple of doors until I found the key box. A tire removal tool from the shop got me access to the new vehicle keys. I got a long-bed Sprinter van gassed up, then headed down to my friendly neighborhood Lowe's. Man, it was robbery, assault and battery. I walked out with a big-assed tow-behind generator that hooked to the van, a great selection of breaking-and-entering tools, a face mask, a leather apron, gloves and a big draft fan. I gassed up the generator at the station next door.

That wasn't too far from the JJC. It was maybe noon when I pulled into the lot. I said 'screw it' and cut around the big picture window rather than try to defeat the door latch or hinge. I had a couple hundred feet of six-gauge contractor's extension cords with me. I powered through two security doors and a wall between a hallway and the monitoring office. There I managed to figure out the emergency lock release mechanism. I nailed that and grabbed a six pound ring of keys from the body of the poor bastard that had been on night duty. The monitoring office faced the gym. The gym had skylights.

It was an ugly sight. Some of the inmates had ran into the walls until their skulls caved in. Some strangled themselves with pillow cases, socks and bed sheets. Some wings were better insulated than others. The ones that survived the best had huddled together in the bathrooms with towels jammed around the doors. Out of an eight bed facility only twenty four survived. Eighteen girls and six boys. None were older than seventeen or younger than fifteen. They were all pretty shocky. I got them outside with arms full of blankets, still in their blue uniforms and slippers. I stripped the back of the van. Once everyone was aboard I headed for the local Burger King. I figured that if a kid could be taught to work in the place in one shift it couldn't be too hard. After a couple of failures I made up a bunch of Whoppers and watched everyone chow down. I had one myself since noon had come and gone.

I started talking, low and slow. It got their attention.

"I checked the radio. I checked the Internet. I couldn't find anyone. The birds and bats are dead in the streets. Whaddaya wanna bet that pigs, horses, cows and goats are dead, too. We could take a quick trip through a zoo to check, but that's my guess.

That means no more fresh meat. No more milk. No more fresh butter or cheese. None. There should be fish left alive, along with ocean-dwelling animals like sea lions, dolphins and whales.

Imagine people like you, surviving the noise, still left behind bars. Nobody around that knows they're alive. Slowly starving to death in their cells."

One of the guys quietly asked, "Why did you come get us?"

"Reflex. I couldn't live alone. I'd get drunk as hell some day and eat a shotgun barrel."

Another guy, probably illiterate but pretty smart, asked the sixty-four thousand dollar question. "What we gonna do now?"

I leaned over the table with my elbows propping up my head. I face palmed and said, "Fuck all if I know. We need to take over some place with big-assed freezers, clean it out and strip the bejesus out of the biggest supermarkets around." I raised my head, then raised my hand. "How many o'youse can drive a car or truck?" They all sort of eyed each other and tested the waters with a little wave. "For Christ's sake. I'm not asking how or where you learned, and we're not talking Dan Ryan at 4:30 traffic either. How many can drive?" They all grinned and stuck their hands up. "Fuckin' -A. All right, along the same note, anybody here know how to operate a semi?"

A Hispanic girl with bad acne scars grinned and waved. I pointed at her. "Everybody say hi to your new teacher. I hope you're patient because we're gonna need to know what you know, real fast." She looked surprised, then sat up in her seat, pleased.

"If everyone's full, go hit the John and clean up. If you're still hungry I'll burn some more meat." They were satisfied. "Okay, time to hit the road. There's a J. C. Penny's across town. We'll get you all out of those uniforms, then look for a place to stay."

We tore that poor damned excuse for a mall apart. The girls got their earrings back--in 24K solid gold! The stores had been shuttered when the sounds hit, so all the expensive jewelry was stashed away, which bummed them out. Still, J.C. Penny had some pearl necklaces and such that they admired at close quarters. I got everyone dressed and with a spare suitcase of underwear, socks, shirts and pants. I got into the bit too. We'd have to go elsewhere for boots as I was particular about my Redwings. They carried Nike's though, which made me happy.

I knew where there was a Courtyard Inn a few blocks off of Main street. It wasn't too hard to get a hand full of master keys made up so we could take our pick of their rooms. The hot tub got a lot of enthusiastic exercise before things settled down. I stayed back from the frolic. I was too worried about what the next day, week, month and year might bring.

I'd visited a luggage outlet for a nice briefcase, a Walgreens for some spiral bound notebooks and pens, and finally a Radio Shack for a disgustingly cheap but free laptop. I also picked up their best FRS radios for all of us. I was up half the night scribbling and using the motel's WiFi to ask questions. I didn't like most of the answers I got.

I was questioning our survivability. How many years could we live on salvage and foraging? It wasn't the quantity, it was the aging. Diesel fuel would begin to break down within a year unless specially treated. LP gas was available in large quantities (railroad cars), but we'd play hell finding equipment that was set up to run on it. Whatever we did to secure this resource would have to be done quickly.

Then there was the food question. What sort of institution had massive facilities for storing frozen food? Meat had to be stored at sub-zero temperatures, as well as butter and grain products. Canned goods should be stored between thirty-five and forty degrees (F). The Internet and electricity could go out at any time due to fires, floods, earthquakes or mechanical shutdown due to lack of fuel or oil reservoirs running dry. Hydroelectric power would no doubt last the longest, but I wasn't an engineer and could do more accidental damage in a minute than nature could in years. Propane-fired generators seemed to be our best avenue. We'd need the electricity to draw water from any local well.

Any heavy construction we'd want to perform would have a projected fail-over date of eighteen months to two years, if we could locate bulk diesel tanks and dose them with fungicide and alcohol (essentially, the ingredients of Sta-Bile). Could we locate railroad LP tankers and move them close to our target site?

I'd want to stay close to the Mississippi river both for a travel artery later, and for access to good soil. I believed that I hit on a reasonable site. The state prison at Fort Madison, Iowa. We had enough people to destroy and remove the cell buildings. There were local Redi-Mix concrete companies to facilitate the building of foundation slabs and there was a local prefab housing industry in Muscatine.

A prison sometimes received monthly food supplies, depending on the state and the disbursement policies. With enough time and angle grinder blades we could cut out the security doors to make the community buildings more 'friendly'. We'd be assured of a library, gym, cafeteria and hospital all on one site. Now I had to sell the idea to the others.

I took everyone to a local grocery store that had a lunch area to sit down--Meijer. I told everyone to pig out on fruit, bread and butter because once the current supplies went bad, that was it. I found a deep fryer for chicken, got it turned on. When it was up to temperature I started turning out 'fried' eggs. I wanted a banana smoothie so I perverted the Frappuchino blender at the Starbuck's, grabbed some half-n-half and ice cream and went to town. Most of the kids decided that it was one hell of an idea. Some wanted berries, some bananas, some mangoes. The ice cream shelves took a big hit. I didn't care--I didn't have to clean it up!

After breakfast was over I sat up on a table to get everyone's attention.

"I put some heavy thought into what we're in for. We can't live off of grocery store shelves for the rest of our lives. Everything has a sell-by date. Some of it's good for five years, some two, some six months. A lot of it can be extended by quite a bit by keeping it in refrigerators, just above freezing. Peanut butter, for example, and wheat flour. Tuna fish, canned beef and canned chicken. Evaporated milk. Coffee. You get the idea. The meat has to be kept waaay below zero to keep it good for ten years or so--maybe more.

Now, where are we going to find all those refrigerators?"

I heard a lot of good ideas, but I had to poke holes in 'em. I told them about the life span of diesel and gasoline. They were getting pretty damned frustrated until I let 'em in on my ideas about an LP gas farm and how LP gas is transported--by rail car. Then I brought up where I wanted to go.

I'm afraid that the mildest response was "Are you NUTS?". I asked them "How did I get you out of the lockup?" One of the girls said, "Some kind of power saw?"

"Bingo. It's called a cut-off saw or an angle grinder. It takes four-inch composite blades that can cut through almost anything. I've seen diamond-tipped blades too. If we destroyed and hauled out all the cell complexes then we could pour foundations and bring in pre-manufactured homes for all of us. There's plenty of room inside the fence for a big propane farm. There's two farms associated with the prison, too. Sounding better?"

I started to see some nods. "We NEED good dependable water for the next fifty years. We NEED that refrigeration. We NEED electricity to get that water and refrigeration. The power lines are going to fail. There's no buts about it. The diesel fuel everywhere is going to become unusable within two years. The gasoline will be unusable within five years. If it's not running on propane or muscle power then it won't work. We've got at best two years of hard work before we can back off the pressure and live better. However, we have to live like worker-bees to provide for our futures."

The oldest boy was a gang-banger. He had the tats to prove it. "Man, I don't like what you're sayin', but you're right on the money. Shit. We gonna be workin' like dogs."

"Free dogs, motherfucker. Free dogs." He grinned at me. "Yeah."

I pointed at Caroline, the girl that could drive a semi. "You need to train a person a day. Then that person trains another and so on. In five days we'll all be trained enough to get moving, I hope. I found a place near Milwaukee that has an LP gas tractor for sale. I need you to teach me first so that I can pick up a low boy and go get the thing. It's not far, about half a day's travel away at highway speeds, but I'm not gonna trust the roads to be clear of accidents, so I'm going to take it low and slow. You all know where to get fed and where to find beds, so you'll be okay. You, the oldest. What's your name?"

"Terry."

"Well, Terry, Somebody's got to ride herd on everyone here while I'm gone. Find yourself a lieutenant. I suggest that you pick the oldest girl. No heavy-handed bullshit. Just keep everyone together and fed. If everyone wants to hit a Walgreens or a Best Buy, do it. I want everyone to be familiar with these FRS radios by the time I get back, too. I hope like hell that we're all going to be living together for a long, long time. Don't make no fuckin' enemies. Got it?"

"Got it, boss. Light touch." I noticed a shorter white girl moving over to him. Good. I looked over the others. "Any arguments? Any problems? Any questions?"

One girl stood up. "What if we don't learn so fast?" I nodded. "Good question. A semi built for over-the-road work has a sleeper behind the cab. Ride along and watch until you pick it up. If you fuck up a semi, too bad. There's more where that came from." I looked around until I found our little driver. "Caroline, let's go shopping. What are you in the mood for? International, Volvo, Peterbilt, Kenworth, Mac?" I stopped cold. Whoops. "I need a driver to come along, to get the van back here. Any volunteers?" A Hispanic kid jumped up. "What's your name?" "Georje" (pronounced Hor-hay). There were a couple units sitting at the building's loading dock but we left those as low-hanging fruit. I drove across town to a discount grocery store distribution center. We picked a freight liner with a straight box and a sleeper. The fuel was pretty low. Caroline drove us to a gas station with a diesel sign on the price board. I had a couple thousand in my debit card, but I wanted to keep that. I jumped the counter, found the trip for the diesel pump and gas pump number four and hit them. We got the semi filled up and Georje filled up the van.

She taught me how to start the thing, operate the air brakes, back up, pull out, hook up, shift, down-shift and turn without running over a stop light or a car in the next lane. I was pretty tired by the end of it, and I could tell she was too. We spotted a flat-bed behind a factory so we switched trailers. I pulled into the Meijer lot and parked. Thank God the lot was almost empty because my turning and parking was still pretty raw. When I got the thing in park we both sighed in relief. I kissed her cheek and said, "Gracias." She flushed a little and smiled. "Por nada."

I stripped out the grungy bedding and clothes from the sleeper then followed her in through the door. I took a cart to pick up some replacement bedding and a pillow, a gallon jug of sweet tea, a big LED flashlight and a little cooler. I'd take off in the morning as soon as I woke up. I planned to over-night in the sleeper. Two of the youngest girls, Julie and Amy, wanted to go along with me. I sighed at their puppy-dog looks and agreed. I got a few snickers and 'cradle-robber' remarks, but I just said that I was a soft touch. I sent them off to find chair cushions, towels, pillows and pillow cases. There was only one seat in that cab, and a big aluminum box. Those chair cushions would come in handy. I wandered down the aisles until I came to the paper towels and wet-wipes. I picked up some of each.

We got settled down that night and somehow, through all the excitement, got some sleep.

Everybody was up with the sun--about five. We peed, grabbed a couple yogurt drinks and headed north. Well, north and west. I knew about a small truck stop and an I-90 on-ramp off of Rt. 47, north of Elgin.

It had only been a couple of hours, but I stopped at the truck stop to top off the tanks and find some breakfast. I found bacon, eggs, butter and English muffins in the cooler. After spending a solid quarter hour scraping the burned-on grease from the nickel top I plated up breakfast. I was relaxing with a cup of coffee when I heard country and western screeching out of the restaurant speakers. I clenched my teeth and looked around. There. They were standing next to a goddamned jukebox. I pulled out my pistol and put three rounds through it. They stood there with their mouths open. I slowly stood and walked over to them. "If I ever hear you play, sing or get someone else to make noises like country and western you will be walking from the moment I can get the truck safely stopped. You fucking understand?" They slowly nodded I walked out the door and started the truck. By the time the pressure was up in the air brakes they had quietly gotten into the cab. I pulled out.

I'd gotten married right out of high school. We both had jobs and managed to put off having kids. She fell for a smooth-talking Apache guy that worked in heavy construction. He constantly sang c&w songs to her. When I caught them together in bed that was it. I broke his knees with a piece of conduit. You wouldn't think conduit would do the job, but it will if you work at it hard enough. Then I laid it out for her. "You either go with me to he hospital and get a rape kit done, then accuse him or you're going to have a horrible kitchen accident. Your choice."

She chose the rape kit. We divorced for irreconcilable differences a month later. Ol' Jimmy-Ray did seven years hard time. Something inside me ripped wide open after that every time I heard c&w music.

I found the place from a Madison phone book. We over-nighted in the dealer's parking lot. The yellow paint job on the Minneapolis Moline tractors was pretty distinctive. It was from '72 and had a three point hitch so I could mount about anything to it. It had two big LP-gas torpedo tanks. I charged the battery to get it started and, with the help of a ramp, got the thing centered on the low-boy. Two ratchet-straps secured it pretty well. We made it back to St. Charles by ten that night. They scampered for the hotel. I cleaned up with a pack of handi-wipes, fried a steak out of the butcher's department cooler, changed clothes and went to bed. I lay there still angry, still touchy for hours before I fell asleep.

I dug out cold milk, refrigerated butter and bread, cold eggs and steaks for breakfast. I ran the meat through a cuber to tenderize them, dipped them in egg, floured and fried them on a couple electric frying pans that I took from inventory. There were still some strawberries in the cooler so I brought them out to warm for breakfast as well. In all, it was a pretty good meal that I wouldn't be ashamed to serve to anyone.

As everyone was eating I heard "Pleeease release me, let me gooooo...". I stood up. My voice sounded harsh even to my ears. "That's it, you little bitches. I fucking refuse to be dissed by the likes of you worthless little shits. I saved the lives of every goddamned one of you and I get a mouth full of shit for it. Every fucking one of you can go to fucking hell." I was out that door before they knew it. I got into my truck's cab, locked the doors and hit the key. I sat there concentrating on being calm, breathing slowly while the pressure built up.

I fueled up and went back to Lowe's for another angle grinder, face mask, gloves and apron. I took a small Honda generator and a five-gallon gas can.

I busted into the police station evidence lockers in St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, North Aurora and Aurora. I stole all the pot they had. Someone had been in business. I turned up several kilos of weed and almost a half kilo of hash. There were plenty of pipes in the lockers. I took a few.

It would keep me calm. It would keep the rage away.

I got fuel when I needed. I made it a habit of stopping at truck stops. I usually took a shower and swapped my clothes for clean. I'll say this for truck stops. They're good about providing WiFi and just about all of them have laptops for sale. Granted, if you dress from one you either wear Dickie's or look like you just stepped out of "Midnight Cowboy".

Every drug store, hardware store, plant nursery and ag co-op that I ran into I looked for packaged vegetable seeds and whatever flower seeds that appealed to me.

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Story tagged with:
Post Apocalypse / Violent /