Except from Chapter Three – Present Day
He stood there, in the middle of the four-way stop, staring down at the dusky horizon, the growing shadows of the building. There was a reason they had come here, but the beauty of the twilight mesmerized him to the point of forgetting. The fact that nature could still hold its beauty, its color, despite all that has happened, only strengthened his faith in God.
For ten years they had lived off of faith. Living on what they worked so hard to obtain. All the clues, riddles and puzzles they solved to find and unlock caches filled with supplies; their lifeline. For ten years of survival and struggle they found joy with pain, blood with sweet, rejoicing with suffering, repentance with sinning. It was their faith in Christ that held them together, in the darkest moments when the night closed in all around them and the sky seemed as if it was falling on them.
There was no sense of weekdays, calendars. All they knew was based off of measuring the months themselves for the last ten years, since 2017. They knew it was at least ten years that they’ve been together.
Thinking back to his memories always put Phil in a trance, and the twilight hours of day only deepened it. He could best be described as “the lights are on but nobody’s home.”
“Phil. Hey, Pastor Phil!” Tim yelled out louder than he was comfortable with, but he could see Phil was now alert.
“What?” Phil asked, breaking away from the trance of the twilight.
“The Humvees? Remember?” Dakota asked from nearby. Her voice sounded concerned as she pointed to the ancient bodies of metal vehicles.
They were only scrap now, after ten years of rot and decay has set in. All three Humvees sat at the four-way stop, filled with potholes; probably from mortar fire. This was obviously a case of friendly fire as the vehicles too looked like they were hit by mortars. Rubble had piled up on the sides of each vehicle and the area as a whole looked like it had suffered a good deal of mortar fire.
The three Humvees used to be used by the Army. One had a hatch on its roof, where a mount for a machine gun, now long missing, had been positioned. He had the idea to start searching the city more painstakingly, seeing that the last of their supplies was stretching thin. There were no more caches available and their resources were depleting. So Phil wanted to double check everything… again. He hoped these Humvees would make their day a little more fruitful because so far the only things they had managed to find was two MREs and a bottle of whiskey.
“Right,” Phil said, looking away from the twilight horizon again, to focus on the task at hand. “Tim, take the center, Dakota the first. I’ll check the rear one,” he ordered, walking away towards to the Humvee ruins in the back.
Tim and Dakota both shrugged their shoulders casually, but they were both thinking the same thing. Before Dakota parted from Tim, he stepped closer and whispered in a low voice.
“Do you still think he’s just going through a phase?” he asked.
“We all do every once in a while.” Dakota answered.
“In basic, you go through a thirteen-week adjustment period. Guess what, he’s been like this for months now.”
“Tim, it took me two years to adjust to America when I moved here, and three years to learn English. It has to be a phase.”
“Ten years after everything went into the gutter, and now he’s going through a phase? I don’t buy it, sis. Otherwise he would’ve been like this from the start,” Tim said, patting her back and turning his attention to the ruins of the vehicle in the center.
Dakota had the leading Humvee. It felt normal because she always was the one taking point—well, usually she was. Whether it was scouting, reconnaissance or overwatch, her eyes were mostly up front looking ahead. Even when she was in the 75th, she went on frequent scouting missions. Before that she was a field surgeon who knew her way around a needle and the basics of an operation table.
She was no psychologist but she knew something was wrong with someone who was constantly getting stuck in his head. Blaming it on current circumstances was futile: they were all, to a degree, sociopaths. She had shot and killed people within arms reach and still could sleep the same night. Granted, it took some time getting to that point. No, Tim was right. Something else was eating at Phil from the inside.
They would have to worry about that later, right now they only had a little bit of time left to forage what they could from these Humvees and head back to base before other things became more active at night. Though she and Tim both remember that they had already picked these Humvees clean long ago. The whole city was pretty much picked clean. For Phil to forget something as little as that, there had to be something more going on with him; and they couldn’t waste anymore days’ worth of work to let him sort things out in his head.
Phil watched as Tim took to the middle Humvee and started to pull on the driver door. Its long rusted hinges gave way as Tim pulled the door clean off. Of the three, Tim was the strongest. He could overpower Phil in any wrestling match they had. His dark skin was sweating, even though it wasn’t hot or humid outside.
He never knew why but, for some reason, when he was a child Phil was intimidated by black people. It was strange, because just about every black person he met as a child was a nice person, very charismatic.
All that intimidation would change the day he joined the Army, after graduating high school. Just about all the men with him in boot camp were African American. Even later on during active service, most of his fellow comrades alongside him were black, and were the closest friends he ever had. Maybe the intimidation was, in part, due to his sheltered upbringing. That was why he joined the Army in the first place, to toughen himself and discard that timidity he felt; for he was timid of many more things. It was ironic: since the bombs blew and the radiation created abomination from that of God’s creation, he found even more things to be timid of. There was that fear of combat that never did change, his mind just became calloused to it; and now there were unmeasurably more things to fear than other people. But he thanked God every day that he was no longer intimidated by people who weren’t the same color as he, for Tim always gave Phil a sense of security when present.
He liked Marines too, back in his day, they were always fun to mess around with because they could take what you threw at them and dish it back. Mostly. Tim even dressed the role on a regular basis, though more of a casual sense. There was no reason to dress in anything that wasn’t combat friendly. He usually wore the olive drab, or OD, green shirt with matching battle dress uniform, or BDU, digital camo pants and combat boots. But every once in a while, he would adorn civilian attire and a black leather jacket. Some things you just don’t quit doing after everything’s fallen apart.
Then Phil took a look at Dakota. She spoke excellent English for a Brazilian; save for some discrepancies that were so minor, he hardly ever noticed. Nevertheless you knew what she was saying.
Phil could relate to Dakota a lot more then he could with Tim at times. She was dominantly introverted. You’d really have to force her out of her shell to see any extroverted behavior. Fortunately, after knowing each other for ten years, they were all comfortable with one another, so she had long since come out of her shell. He himself was introverted, but at times extroverted.
Tim was extroverted, enough said.
Dakota had an inner beauty of her that reminded Phil a lot of his mother. For Phil and Tim, she was their rock, who could bear all sorts of weight on her shoulders. She too joined the Army, but later on she became a Ranger; Phil went a different path in his career. Phil often wished that the three of their paths had crossed before the fallout occurred, had he retired later.
Phil had mad respect for the Rangers. Hell, he went through Ranger school himself for the honor of the Ranger tab on his uniform. Ever since, he had the utmost regard for Rangers. But he loved harassing them at the same time, he and his buddies he served with. But it was more like picking on your little brother. Just like with the Marines, he could joke with any Ranger and expect them to return the favor, oftentimes tenfold.
Dakota chose a more practical way into the lead Humvee. The doors would not open for her and she knew she couldn’t rip it off like her dingle-dork buddy did. So instead she climbed on top of the vehicles and worked her way in through the hatch. But upon inspection, she came up with the same result as did Tim. There was nothing here. She looked out the busted back window and saw Tim rub his head as he finished his search.
Like Tim, she wore the same type of pants, except hers was a solid green pair of BDU pants, with combat boots. She sported a dark blue tank top with a dark green overshirt. She kept her hair in a ponytail with her bangs framing the side of her face. Neither Phil nor Tim could ever understand how she could stand to have hair as long as hers; though it wasn’t long at all, just more hair than they had.
It was a bust, the whole day. Two MREs and a bottle of liquor, even though the liquor could be used for quite a few different purposes. It could also help them to stomach these age-old MRE’s too.
Phil felt his foot move something, and a metallic clank followed. Looking down he saw a rectangular piece of metal, bent and twisted. The paint that once was green was now faded save for the last three letters spelling “ave”. He recognized this old road sign; it was still scorched and ruined as when he last saw it.
“Shit,” Phil said rubbing his head as he gently laid the metal back down. He remembered now: they had already searched this site, along with the entire portion of this part of Atlanta, at least four times. This place was long since bone dry of anything to scavenge.
Standing back up he looked towards Tim and Dakota and whistled, loud enough to be heard but not loud enough to echo down the street. He wouldn’t bother looking into the rear Humvee, there was nothing there.
With a wave of his hand he motioned the other two towards their mode of transportation—ironically, a Humvee. There were plenty of vehicles left once the military abandoned the city, the whole state of Georgia for that matter. Dakota had claims on their Humvee, as she was quite fond of it. But that didn’t stop Phil from climbing into the driver seat, knowing she wouldn’t mind; he needed the distraction of driving. He took a glance at himself: his old brown hiking boots, his blue jeans, black shirt and brown, leather bombers jacket were all dusty. It was time to clean them again—which meant dusting them off as best he could.
Tim climbed into the passenger seat and Dakota into the back with her eyes watching the rear.
Hmph, eyes on back. Nice little mix-up on things, she thought to herself.
“We’ve already been here before,” Phil mumbled, more to himself than to them. He was disappointed in himself.
“Don’t worry about it buddy, we’ll get it tomorrow.” Tim’s voice was solid and reassuring, but not entirely convincing. How do you make up for a days’ worth of scavenging?
“Maybe it’s time we started looking outside highway two-eighty-five?” Dakota suggested, but got no response.
The engine shook and rumbled to life at the turn of the ignition switch before Dakota could finish what she was saying. They all knew what lay beyond the highway encircling Atlanta, and he wanted to avoid another debate—at least for now. Phil took a wide ‘U’ turn and then they were on their way back home.