Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Thirty-First Entry: A Visit From St. Ash

December 25th

Merry Christmas.

“Are you okay?” was how I was awakened this morning by Beth. I had fallen asleep leaning against the magazine rack in the front window. I hadn't even realized I had fallen asleep. I just closed my eyes, and suddenly Gerry had been replaced by Beth (who is much easier on the eyes, truth be told), and it was daylight. I felt like I was frozen, having been uncovered all night. I hope I don't get sick now.

“Yeah, I guess,” I answered, climbing unsteadily to my feet. My back and knees did a passable impression of a bowl of Rice Krispies as I stood.

“I know we don't know each other very well, but I wanted to say that I'm sorry about Tara.”

That should have made me hurt inside, but I just felt cold. I still feel cold inside, even though I've since warmed up a bit physically. I guess that losing almost everything in your life in one afternoon will do that to you though.

“Thanks, “ I replied, “I'm sorry about Officer Perry.”

Beth smiled a little, “Yeah, Rupert was a good guy. At least it was quick; poor Alex though. I wonder if he was still alive when the... you know.”

Yeah, I did know, before the explosion. I was kind of wondering that too. Would the explosion have actually reached up there? Would it have been big enough to blow up through the floors? Was it quick for Tara when it happened?

When I was very young I wanted to be an architect. Like everything else in my life I did not pursue that though. Maybe if I had at least learned something about architecture I would know how an explosion would effect a building like that. I did not pursue it though, like everything else in my life, I just let it go.

Changing the subject, I asked, “How's Sharon?”

“Practically a vegetable,” Beth thought for a second, “Sorry, that's insensitive. I did check on her before I switched with Gerry a few minutes ago, and she was just lying there with her eyes open, staring at the ceiling. Sorry.”

“S'ok,” I said, “She'll come out of it.”

“You should try and get some real rest. Gerry told me that you sat there all night.”

“When's it my turn to keep watch?” I asked.

“Umm, we were discussing that, “said Beth, clearly trying to choose her words carefully, “and we decided that you wouldn't.”

“What?” I asked.

“Maria thinks you should just keep an eye on Sharon, to put it nicely.”

“You guys don't trust me?”

“No, I'm sure Gerry and Maria trust you plenty, but with everything that's happened they're worried you might not be all there, you know?”

This pissed me off a little bit. I'm not saying that they are wrong, as I don't feel like I am all here; I feel like a lot of me is missing, but that doesn't make me a liability.

“I'm perfectly fine!” I lied.

“If you say so; considering the last twenty four hours, you seem to be doing as well as any of us. I don't see any problem with giving you a shift except that someone does need to watch Sharon.”

“Why? You told me yourself that she's just sitting there staring at the ceiling.”

“But what happens when she stops? She might try and hurt herself, and you and her are good friends, right?”

“We certainly used to be.”

Beth smiled a little, “You almost got yourself killed to help her get coffee and comic books. You obviously care about her a lot.”

“Mangas, not comic books.”

“Whatever. The point is that she is going to need someone, and that someone has to be you. None of the rest of us are as close to her as you are. You need to make sure that she doesn't do anything to put us or herself at risk.”

I was still mad at that, but I really couldn't argue. I've never seen Sharon like this, and I don't know what she might do. I don't want to see anything happen to her; she's the only thing I have left now, so I guess it should be me that protects her.

I was still pissed off at the time though, so I just responded with, “Yeah, whatever.”

I stormed away to the area where people used to fill up gallon sized sodas and get foil wrapped hot dogs that had been under heat lamps for hours. This is where Sharon's sleeping bag was. She was awake, but, as Beth had said, she was just lying there staring off into space with tears running out of her eyes.

I sat down on my sleeping bag next to her, “Sharon?” I asked.

Sharon didn't respond, her eyes didn't so much as move to the sound of my voice.

“It's going to be okay, you know?” I asked, not believing it myself.

Sharon did nothing. I leaned over and kissed her on her cheek, it was wet and salty, “If you want to talk, let me know.”

I climbed into my sleeping bag, and closed my eyes. I lay there for a long time with the events of yesterday running through my mind. I'm not sure when I fell asleep, but the images of yesterday gradually became more vivid, felt more real. I kept seeing Tara sitting there cradling Alex in her arms, telling me to leave, telling me she loved me, telling me she would be right behind me.

I kept seeing her being hit with a wall of flame. Sometimes it's as she runs down the stairs, sometimes she's still with Alex and the blast rips up through the floor. In the worst version she comes into the garage just in time to see us drive away, and then the tanker explodes; in that version had she been maybe five seconds faster she would still be alive.

The dream repeated the same twenty minutes or so of events over and over, each with those slightly different endings. It seemd like I was dreaming for hours and hours. After what was probably the thirteenth cycle, the dream changed. Tara and I were in the same part of the shopping area, and everything was the same as it had been (African Swallow in flames, etc), but everyone else was gone. Alex, the bodies of Rontreal, Milton, and Rupert, even the other bodies that I had seen were all gone.

Tara came over and hugged me. Alex's blood still stained her shirt.

“What is this?” I asked, “What's happening.”

“You're coping.”

“You left me,” I said to her.

“No, honey, you left me,” she replied, smiling, “I told you to, and you listened, and I am glad.”

“Is this real?”

“Real enough for now.”

“Can you give me a straight answer?”

“You're asking the wrong questions,” she replied, looking saddened, “I can tell you straight that I love you.”

“You promised that you would come with us.”

“And I did. I'll always be with you.”

“You're dead though,” I said, confused.

“Am I? Are you sure? Did you see me die?”


“So you don't know that I'm dead,” Tara started smiling again, “Still, even if I am, I'll always be with you. If I'm not, well, you had better hang onto my Christmas present, I”m going to want it when I get there.”

Tara turned and started to walk away from me then, heading in the direction of Insert Coin, “Where are you going?” I yelled after her.


“You just said you would always be with me!”

“I will, but that doesn't mean you'll see me there,” she called back, “You need to go back now. Take care of Sharon, and tell her that I'm sorry for how I behaved.”

“Don't go!” I yelled, my voice echoing through the otherwise silent mall, even the flames were burning noiselessly.

“Keep her safe, hon,” Tara called again, “You two could be good together given a chance. She needs you, and you need her right now. Keep her safe.”

I tried to run after her, but my feet were rooted to the shiny floor.

Tara's voice echoed back through the area, “Wake up, sleepyhead, you don't want to sleep all the way through Christmas!”

My eyes shot open then, and I was once again lying on the floor in a sleeping bag looking up at a soda cup dispenser. The store was pretty bright, it was around midday.

I climbed out of my sleeping bag, and checked on Sharon; she had gone back to sleep. I made a mental note to make sure she at least drank some water later, she had been crying for nearly a solid day now it seemed.

I went and found the others, which only really took standing up, as it is a small store, and Maria was standing at the cashier's counter looking at a road map. She saw me, and gave me a quick tense smile.

“Where's Gerry?” I asked.

“Sleeping in back. He stayed up longer than any of us taking the overnight shift,” Maria said, “How are you doing?”

“I'm okay.”

“Really?” she asked with an almost predatory tone to her voice, “I mean if you're upset, that's understandable.”

“I'm fine. I want to take a watch shift.”

“No,” Maria stated flatly.

“Why not?” I asked, trying not to whine.

“Because you're in charge of Sharon until she recovers, if she ever recovers.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means that as long as she's going to be a drooling coma patient that she is a danger to all of us. Someone needs to take responsibility for her and make sure that she doesn't hold us back; that she doesn't get us all killed.”

“What the fuck, Maria?”

“I'm serious! If my attention is half on making sure that we don't become zombie food and half on making sure she stays with us, then I won't be working efficiently. If we are all doing it we will end up dead. Either someone needs to be in charge of her, or we leave her behind.“

“We're not leaving her behind, “I said, “How can you even-”

Maria cut me off, “Then I guess you;re in charge of her.”

“So I'm her babysitter?”

“You're her friend, and if you want her to stay with us, then you need to be responsible for her,” stated Maria, obviously getting pissed at me.


“No buts! She's your friend.”

“I thought you were her friend too.”

“I like her, she was a sweet girl, but this is about survival not friendship. Do you have a problem with that?”

“A little bit yes,” I said firmly.

“Tough. Look at it on the bright side though, at least you have a shoulder to cry on, “Maria paused for a moment before continuing, “We don't all get a shoulder to cry on.”

“We've got a visitor out here!” called Beth from the front window.

Maria and I left the counter and went to where Beth was standing, gripping her rifle tensely. At the edge of the parking lot was a lone figure dressed in a blue shirt and jeans. A brown leather strap crossed the front of his chest, and a chainsaw was holstered on his hip. In his hands was a double barreled shotgun, and on his face a grin that bordered on madness. It was Ash.

“Holy crap! He's still alive!” stated Maria in astonishment.

“You know that guy?”asked Beth

I nodded, “We met him months ago, when we brought Sharon home after that first attack by the Postmen. He calls himself Ash, like in those movies.”

“Okay,” replied Beth, uncertain.

Ash walked up to the window and tapped on the glass with the barrel of his shotgun, “You guys gonna let me in? It's kind of cold out here,” his eyes twinkled with the same insanity he had when we last saw him.

“Is he safe?” asked Beth.

“He was last time.” I said.

We let Ash in, and the first thing he said was, “Well, it's not much warmer in here either, is it?”

“We didn't pay the bill, so they shut the power off,” answered Maria.

“So who all made it?” asked Ash bluntly.

“Me, Maria, Gerry, Sharon, and this is Beth O'Hara.”

“What about Jimmy?”

“He didn't make it,” answered Maria, not going into detail yet.

“Sorry to hear it,” answered Ash, still smiling, ”If it's any consolation, that whole Mallville thing lasted a lot longer than I thought it would. I Didn't think you guys would even make it into winter there.”

“You're a real positive guy, aren't you?” asked Beth

“Reality ain't exactly positive right now, is it sweetheart?” Ash replied, “So was the big boom an accident or on purpose?”

“That was Jimmy,” Maria answered somberly.

“Wow, well it sure got my attention,” Ash chuckled, “It sent a lot people running from that place too. I have no idea how many of them even made it through the night though. Did you know that the deadites have been taking shelter in buildings? It's like they don't like the cold.”

Beth ignored the question, “So how did you find us in particular?”

“I had a feeling that if you guys, “ Ash pointed at me and Maria as he spoke, “ made I out alive that you would come back here since you had already stayed here before. I saw the vans out back, and saw Gerry at the window last night. I decided that it would be best for my continued survival to come back in the daytime so that you could more easily tell me from one of them.”

“I see you cleaned the rest of the supplies out of here, “ commented Maria.

“I had to stockpile everything I could; you guys were like fucking locusts the way you were clearing things out,” Ash thought for a moment, “You know, it's a shame to think how many things that I could use were in Mallville when it went up.”

I asked my next question with apprehension, “So it was all destroyed then?”

A building that big? No. I'm not sure what the damage is like inside, but the building itself is still standing, well, mostly. One section partially collapsed. Still, I am guessing that whatever led up to the fire created a large body count, so that is not a place I'm going to be going until I am good and desperate for supplies; it must be crawling with deadites by now.”

I looked down at the floor.

“So is someone going to tell me what happened?”

We told Ash about the events of yesterday afternoon, and the events that led up to our departure. He already knew about some events from seeing them from outside, the attack on Halloween and our assault on the Postmen in particular, but we filled him in on the details of those too.

We told him about Kaur's making it seem that the council was killed on Halloween, and about how Alex was trying to challenge Kaur's position as leader. Beth told him (and me, as I had not heard some of the things I had suspected be confirmed before) about Kaur's plans to use his increased security force to ensure loyalty to him, and how some people had in fact been executed for openly defying him.

Beth and I let Maria do most of the talking when describing yesterday. Ash seemed genuinely sorry to hear about Tara, Rupert, and Alex even though he had never met any of them. He gave me a look that said “So you truly understand now” when Maria told about who Tara was to me, and how she didn't make it out with us.

Ash was surprised to hear about Sharon's current condition, “I thought she was stronger than that.”

Beth got angry then, “What the hell is wrong with you? She lost almost everything in her life! She lost the person she loved, saw him shot right in front of her, you insensitive little prick!”

Ash fired back, “Been there and done that, sweetheart. I've got the t-shirt to prove it; it's a limited edition for the ever shrinking number of people still alive.”

“If you call me sweetheart one more time, I am going to shove that chainsaw up your ass!” Beth growled.

“Oooh, feisty. I like that in a chick!” Ash chuckled as Beth's eyes widened in anger, “But what I'm saying is that we have all lost people we love,” he pointed at me, “Sounds like he's in the exact same boat, but you don't see him in a corner drooling on himself waiting some undead monster to come munch on heis brains.”

“What the fuck do you know about it?” asked Beth.

“What do I know about it, honey? How about the fact I had to kill my own mother and sisters? Is that knowing about it enough for you? Oh, but you didn't know that did you? Maybe you should try to learn a little more about me before you start to judge.”

Beth was taken aback, ”I-I'm sorry.”

“Yeah, me too,” Ash replied, his voice edging towards hysteria, “Then there's the fact that while you have all been hiding out in Fort Commerce waiting to kill each other, I've been out here on my own learning what I needed to learn to survive. People who can't cope with losing everything die. I'm not wishing that on Sharon, cuz she seems pretty cool, but if she doesn't have what it takes then she may as well put a bullet in her head now!”

Beth's anger came back in a split second, and before any of us realized what was happening, she had struck out and punched ash in the jaw. The kid stumbled backwards, and went down on his ass, banging the back of his head against the glass door of the store. Luckily he was still holding his shotgun, if it had been in his holster, it probably would have shattered the glass.

Ash shook his head, trying to clear it, and then brought his left hand up to rub the side of his face. He worked his jaw a few times to make sure it still worked properly, and then laughed, “Well, I guess I was right. You are a feisty one.'

Beth just stared at him with her lip curled into a slight snarl.

Ash extended his left arm towards me, and I stepped forward to pull him to his feet, “Thank you much,” he said, “Well, maybe I deserved that, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe if you are willing to fight like that you may survive, if you don't turn on each other that is. “

“What would you know about that?” asked Beth, “You don't care about anything but yourself.”

“It's not that I don't care, honey, I just don't care to be responsible for anyone else. Keeping my own ass alive is a full time job as it is, I can't be keeping an eye on people who may not be keeping a proper eye out for me.”

“I think you should leave,” stated Beth calmly.

“Not yet, I did not just come here to piss you off, or to be neighborly, “explained Ash, “I came by because I wanted to take you to show you something. We can use one of your vans, and you should hide those by the way; not everyone leaving Mallville is going to be willing to just let you keep them.”

“I don't think our going anywhere with you is a good idea,” replied Beth

“Aw come on, you outnumber me. If I tried anything at least one of you would shoot me. Besides, you don't have anything I want. I've got enough food and water to last for a year, and I'm gonna plant myself a little veggie garden on the roof come spring, “explained Ash, “Why would I want to hurt you?”

“So how do you know you can trust us?” Beth asked.

“Well, I don't know about you, babe, but these others I've already met. If they had meant me any harm, they could have tried it then,” Ash replied, and then laughed, “and even if you wanted to, you could never get into my building. You don't know where it is, how it's secured, and there is nothing you could threaten me with to make me tell you.”

“We could kill you.” Beth said softly.

Ash smiled wide, and leaned closer to her, “I'm going to die eventually anyway, we all are. There's no getting out of this; no magic words to restore the world to what it once was. Go ahead, kill me, you still won't get my stuff.”

Beth stepped back from Ash, looking a little afraid. Ash laughed loudly.

“You know, I didn't make noise when you guys were sleeping,” called Gerry as he walked out of the stockroom, his hair sticking up in multiple directions as he rubbed his eyes, “Oh, hey Ash, how's it going?” he asked upon seeing our visitor.

“Still alive, still uninfected, can't ask for much more than that.” Ash replied.

After a bit more discussion, it was decided that they would go with Ash to see what he wanted to show them. I say they as I was to stay behind and keep an eye on Sharon and our stuff, which is pretty much as fun as you would expect keeping watch over a vegetable to be.

I found a copy of “Fantasy & Science Fiction” on the magazine rack, the cover said “Display until April 3rd”. I imagine that if they had known that it would be their last issue they would have made it a bit thicker. I read a couple of the stories out loud to Sharon, and she sat there and cried. It killed a couple of hours at least.

I kind of envy her. I want to cry over Tara, maybe not totally veg out like Sharon has, but cry, and I can't. My eyes start to water, and then the tears just dry up. I think I may be broken inside.

After I got tired of reading I decided to look through my satchel, sort of take stock of what is actually in there. Aside from the small arsenal of handguns and ammo I collected yesterday, this is what I found:

Half a box of unsharpened pencils

A pencil sharpener with the little chamber that catches the wood shavings missing

Two black ballpoint pens with no caps, and a blue retractable with the Apollo Coffee logo on it.

Two packs of Zing Cola gum, one spearmint, one wintermint

A small notebook with something that has long since faded into illegibility on the front page, the rest of it is blank.

Two travel packets of Kleenex

A tube of Chaptex

A “Pokemon Ruby” GBA cartridge

Four of those little swirled peppermints you used to get at restaurants.

A printout of hints for the game Xenosaga

A small first aid kit with no band-aids left in it (so basically just tweezers and a tube of ointment).

Two AA batteries

A wind-up flashlight

A beat up photo of Sharon and I at graduation

A pin that says “Jar Jar Sucks”

A small pair of binoculars in a nylon case fastened with velcro

An unmarked bottle containing ancient Advil that probably expired when Clinton was president

An equally ancient box of DayTyme cold medicine

A blue camping towel with brown stains of my own blood on it

Tara's Christmas present

This journal (obviously)

A Swiss Army knife with the toothpick missing

A coupon for two free ounces of tea at Teatropolis

and a beat up paperback copy of “The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues”

As you can clearly see I am most definitely prepared for the outside world here.

I did a bit of scrounging around the store here, between what we took last time we were here, and what Ash took since then, there is little of any use left, but I got a few things:

Some roadmaps, I don't know where we are going to go, but it's never bad to have maps.

A couple of eyeglass repair kits. I took these mostly for Sharon, but who knows when tiny screwdrivers might be handy?

A package of cable ties I found in the store's office.

Three bungee cords

And a hobo tool (that's what the package called it). It's kind of neat really, it's like a Swiss Army knife, but it has a fork, knife, spoon, bottle opener, and a can opener on it. Plus it splits at the center so the knife and fork can be separated. This is even more useful than a spork.

Of course now my satchel is pretty full, but I hope that we will do any traveling we have to do in the vans, so I shouldn't have to carry it too often.

Finally! I hear noise out back; they must be back finally. I was starting to worry since it is getting dark out now. I'd better go let them in. I wonder what Ash wanted to show them.

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