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(Part Three: "Sunlit Beauty")
It was an awkward few minutes...waiting there in the middle of the street for Milo to come rushing back to join us. But I treasured every second of it.
Sometimes...it hurt my stomach a little bit to look Jordan Chadwick in the eye from such an intimate distance. Something about those alluring, baby blue, orbs made me weak in the middle, almost to the point of collapsing. Palms began to sweat, butterflies went wild, breathing became labored and shallow. Staring was hardly enough. The need to reach out and touch was overpowering, if only to reassure myself that someone soooo beautiful could possibly be real. It was hard to be near him. And yet, there was no other place that I'd rather be. What are the odds that Jordan and I could be standing here together amongst all this chaos at 1:30 AM on a Tuesday...while the rest of the world is either dead, dying, or fighting to survive? All those who didn't run and hide, that is. Something about it seems almost magical. Finding each other should not have been this easy. Not unless...it had some kind of Divine purpose. That's how I'd like to think of it anyway.
Jordan saw me staring at him with what must have been an unmistakable 'love-goofy' smirk on my face, and he giggled sweetly to himself as he ran his fingers through his sweet, honey blond, locks. He looked down at the ground, as he used the toe on one of his sneakers to dig around on the pavement. "So...you got any place particular that you wanna go?" He asked me, his voice almost sounding...bashful. God, it was so damn cute that I nearly lost balance from the infatuated swoon sweeping through me.
"Ummm...I uh...hehehe..." A nervous giggle escaped my lips as I had a sudden lapse in intelligence. I tried to fight through the dreamy haze, but it was hard to do with him looking at me like that. "...I dunno. Maybe we could, like...just hit the outskirts or something. Find a rooftop or something? Watch the sun come up?" I sighed.
Jordan smiled at me. "Ok. That sounds...awesome. Really awesome."
I sheepishly looked away from him for a moment, then back into those blue eyes. I grinned. He grinned. I giggled. He giggled. We just had this moment where everything tingled and all was right with the world.
Then Milo came back...with him.
Ricky Carver. Why the hell would Milo think it was alright to come back with Ricky Carver?
You see, Ricky was the kind of guy who thought being a complete asshole was 'cool'. The kind of guy who's idea of a greeting was to smack you on the back of your head. Who consider calling you a faggot was a term of endearment. The kind of guy that makes people anxious to graduate high school so you can get as far away from that level of harsh immaturity as humanly possible. I was barely willing to tolerate having Milo around tonight. Ricky Carver was practically the last nail in the coffin as far as me and Jordan having some quiet time to talk was concerned.
"Whassup, bitches?" Ricky smirked. Every word that came out of his mouth was 100% 'brat'. His spiky brown hair resembling a mane of porcupine quills, he strutted over to slug me in the shoulder. Definitely too hard for a friendly tap. Ugh! He just bothered me so much. "I heard you guys were trying to sneak off tonight. So where are we headed?" Where are 'we' headed? Great. Just great.
"It's no big deal, Ricky. We were just trying to avoid the holy roller crowd for a little while." I said.
"Sounds good to me. Get too many Bible thumpers together in one place at one time and they'll be looking for a witch to burn." He just sort of invited himself. Who asked him? As he started talking to Jordan, I roughly grabbed Milo by the arm.
I whispered, "What the fuck, Milo? What'd ya bring HIM for?"
Milo gave me the most innocent shrug. "I don't know. He saw me running around and asked me where I was going. So I told him. I didn't know that he was going to follow me over here."
"What ELSE has he got to do? He's a jerk. It's not like his schedule is full of friends and parties."
"I'm sorry, Noah. Honestly..."
Sighhh...Milo really did seem to regret the mistake. Besides, he's still my best friend out here. It's not like I could be mad at him for more than a few hours without missing him like crazy. I said, "Just...don't worry about it. Whatever. Let's just go."
Just then, Ricky came over and said, "What are YOU two gaylords whispering about? Are we going to get out of here, or are we gonna sit here and 'circle jerk' all night." I narrowed my eyes in Ricky's direction, and just hoped for the best. Maybe if I can get Milo to keep him company and the two of them pair up somehow for some mischief...Jordan and I can get back to the 'giggles and silence' thing that we had going just seconds before Hurricane Carver swept in and ruined everything.
Nobody really stopped us from leaving the neighborhood. Not that the streets weren't mostly empty anyway. It's not like we had a curfew or anything. And since everyone knew that it was safer to move at night than it was during the day, a pack of teenagers roaming the neighborhood in the early hours of the morning was pretty common. Although, we were always warned to stay FAR from the city at all times. The outskirts were ok, I guess. But the closer we got to the major city, the more dangerous it became for us.
Cities were where all the remaining supplies were. Whatever left over food there was, gas, oil, mechanical parts, medicine, tools....anything that the survivors would need to keep their individual communities going strong. Unfortunately...we weren't the only ones aware of that fact. And as supplies were so scarce, there were many people out there who wouldn't hesitate to slit your throat if they thought it meant getting to the supplies before we did. Even your average collection of library books had become a commodity worth fighting to the death for. It just wasn't worth the risk. Besides, the roving anarchists had pretty much drained all of the cities dry anyway. Each claiming their own little four or five city block radius as their own piece of the pie. God help anyone who passed through their territory unannounced.
Whatever. They can have it. I had Jordan. And even in the dark, those blond locks seemed to shimmer like spun gold. I just wish he didn't always catch me staring. I wanted him to look away. Just let me admire him for a while. Maybe, if I could just get a chance to watch him sleep...I'd study every line. Every delicate feature. Every soft curve. Just lean in close enough to inhale the boyish scent of his breath. Maybe even brush my lips against his with the slightest touch. That...would be enough of a thrill to get me through the darkest of times.
All four of us walked out of the suburban neighborhood and in the direction of the city. I remember a time when the skyline used to be soooo bright. It used to sparkle and glow with brilliance. Now, the abandoned skyscrapers sit as a barely visible background to the night. Cold. Lifeless. Like a collection of spears and daggers, jutting upwards to stab at the Heavens and pierce the sky. Buildings riddled with bullet holes and burn marks from the endless protests and riots that once enflamed the streets. An upheaval of the people that got to be so bad that the military's solution to the problem became a riot in itself. Madness. Pure madness.
And we were here...to see the world as it began to tear itself apart. Never to be mended again.
Milo babbled the whole way. On and on and on....how he was able to save enough breath for walking was beyond my comprehension. But I was thankful that Ricky wasn't being too much of a pest tonight. Maybe he had used up some of that extra annoying testosterone during the day and it had mellowed itself out to a much more manageable level. I could deal with that.
"We're getting kinda close, you guys." Milo said, as we noticed the streets getting bigger and wider. The city was near, and this was about as far as the outskirts would reach before we found ourselves asking for trouble.
Ricky sucked his teeth at the idea. "What are you talking about? We can go another couple of blocks. Come on. Nothing's gonna happen. It's not even 2:30 yet. Let's keep going."
I said, "Actually...Milo's right. We shouldn't push it. There are plenty of places for us to catch the sunrise right here."
"Don't be such a pussy." Ricky said. "Ok, I don't know about you guys, but I'm gonna keep going. Bunch of cowards."
Jordan spoke up and said, "I think I'm with Noah on this one. I mean...look. There's a tall building over there on the next block. It's gotta be at least ten to fifteen stories. Looks like a warehouse. It's gotta be empty. Anything that was in there will have already been raided by now. We'll have the place to ourselves, and we don't have to worry about being to close to the dead zone up there."
Ricky started walking. "Screw that. I'm going. Who's with me?"
None of us answered. I was still feeling my heart inflating to twice its size just knowing that Jordan took my side. There was no way that I was going to choose following Ricky Carver over my work of art in the flesh. And Milo was attached to my hip like a Siamese twin. Especially when it came to exploring anything outside of our neighborhood community. So, with a smile, Jordan and I started walking towards the nearby building he mentioned, and Milo shrugged his shoulders before hurrying to catch up to us.
I think Ricky was a little disappointed that his taunting and mocking tone didn't have the desired effect. But once he realized that we weren't going to turn around and come back for him, he grunted and ran to catch up himself. "Hey, wait up. You guys suck...."
We made it to the old warehouse building, with Milo counting the floors out loud as we approached. "...Eleven....twelve...thirteen...fourteen..."
"Milo, dude. Can you stop that?" I asked.
"But there's just a few more. Fifteen....sixteen..."
Milo was quiet for all of three seconds. Then, very quickly, he mumbled, "Seventeen-eighteen-nineteen-twenty! Twenty! See? I'm done." Ugh! I wanted to slug him so bad!"
We all noticed the locked doors in front, but as we went around back, we could see where looters had pried the giant metal delivery doors open, providing us with an easy way in. The giant area was dark, dusty, empty. The pungent smell of death wasn't lingering in the room. Always a good thing. Sometimes you find a place that you think is empty, but it turns out to be a place where people sealed themselves up in an attempt to avoid the outbreak...but didn't make it in time. They were sick before they even got to a safe house. So you end up walking into a building full of rotting bodies. You can hear the flies buzzing before you even open the door. I hear the sight of seeing something like that never leaves you. Never.
We got lucky.
"I found the stairs." Jordan said, and I carefully reached my hands out in the darkness to follow his voice. I could see a vague outline in front of me, and reached out to grab a hold of his hand. Wow...I'm holding his hand. I'm actually holding his hand.
"Dude! What are you doing? Let go of me!" What the...? Ricky Carver??? YUCK!!!! I dropped his hand immediately and wiped my palm off on my pants leg. Disgusting. I'd rather lick my name in the dust on this dirty floor than touch Ricky Carver's hand in a romantic way. Blechhh!!!
I felt Milo's hand lightly grip the back of my shirt for guidance, and we all made our way up the flights of steps to get up to the roof. I was thankful for the fresh air once Jordan forced the door open with his shoulder. Jordan was used to rooftops. More than any of us. He's so awesome. Just...in every way. How can I not be in love?
I walked slowly to the roof's edge with the others, and we all looked at the calm waves of the lake before us. So peaceful. A tranquility that you could feel deep down in your bones once you let the vision take hold of you. As I stood next to Jordan, the urge to reach for his hand compelled me to push my hands in my pockets before I embarrassed myself. Still...it was a cool moment. One that I truly cherished.
We settled in pretty quickly. We had a few hours left until sunrise, and after all of that walking and talking, not to mention climbing what seemed like an eternal series of steps and platforms just to get up there...we needed the rest. Luckily, Milo was small enough in stature for Ricky to get a real kick out of messing with him. That game of cat and mouse, more like David and Goliath, kept them running around the roof for a bit, with Milo stopping occasionally to get his inhaler out and catch his breath. I don't know how long those things last, but he had better save some for the trip home. Either way, it left me and Jordan to sit on the edge of the rooftop, or legs dangling over the side, just enjoying the soothing sound of the wind as we looked down on an empty city, and out to a moonlit lake.
"Can I ask you something?" Jordan said.
I had to hold back an audible gasp. Oh God, Jordan....you can ask me anything. "Sure."
Looking out on a dead city, he asked, "Do you miss it?"
Without any further explanation, I got a hint as to what he meant. "You mean the traffic, and the people, and the parties....?"
"The Summer blockbuster movies, the sold out tours for your favorite bands...."
"The tabloid mags, reality TV...."
"People standing in line for hours for the latest iPhone..." Jordan giggled.
"And then having to stand in line for hours for ANOTHER iPhone six months later?" I giggled back.
"So? Do you miss it? Any of it?"
I thought about it for a second, and even though the city behind us looked dead and barren...I couldn't deny that the silence was somewhat refreshing. "No. Believe it or not, I hardly miss any of it anymore."
"Me either." He said. "I mean, at first I had my period of withdrawal and all, but...once I realized that it was gone, I was happy to be free from the noise of it all. The mind numbing glare of forced advertisements and a constant subliminal battering of lights and glamour and commerce...it all seems like such a headache now." My Jordan. He was so smart. I imagine that he would have been one of those 4.0 students when he was in school. "I don't know, Noah. I mean...it sucks the way everything went down, but..sitting up here like this...just looking at the lake and waiting for the sunrise with a couple of good friends...nobody to bother us...maybe the world needed a break. Maybe slowing things down was a way of keeping what's left of us sane."
I looked up at him dreamily, and whispered, "Yeah. Maybe."
Ricky and Milo came over to the ledge where we were. An unwelcome interruption to an otherwise perfect moment. "Milo says he can hear the trains running. If we were closer to the city and higher up, we'd be able to see them from here." Ricky told us.
"I can do without seeing something like that." I said.
"Come on. It's not like they're gonna stop the train and come chase us down or anything."
"Still...that's morbid. I'd rather not."
Ricky blew me off as usual. Milo said, "I hear that the FEMA trains can pack up to twenty five thousand people when the cars are all full. I hear the insides are all torn up and bloodstained from people fighting to get out."
Ricky scoffed. "How would anybody be able to tell you that, unless they were ON the train, stupid? Once you're on the train, it's a done deal. If you've seen the inside, you don't live to tell about it."
"Well that's what I heard. Maybe somebody escaped." Milo said.
"And went where? Right back to the city where they got caught again? Whatever."
I really didn't like this kind of talk. It was hard enough to block out the horrors of the world without them making casual conversation out of it. Maybe I was the monster for trying to remain desensitized to the mass executions going on all around us, but it was more of a survival technique than simple apathy. The human mind can only bend so far before it breaks. And you can't be lost in insanity in a world like this. It will devour your soul....if you let it.
I swung my feet around and sat with my back against one of the large vents on the roof. Fatigue was taking over, and my eyes were feeling dry and drowsy as my breathing began to get shallow. I smiled weakly as Jordan got down from the ledge, and walked over to join me. The vent was just big enough where he'd have to sit beside me, shoulder to shoulder, in order to lean against it too. It gave my whole body a shiver, just having him close enough to raise goosebumps on my arms.
Ricky looked over the side of the roof, and spit a loogie down to the street. "You know, I wish the whole virus thing would have been a lot cooler, you know? Like...I wish it was like some crazy ass, bath salts, cannibal zombie apocalypse shit! With bloody, half eaten, re-animated corpses...running wild in the city streets in a giant mob, with me cutting them up with a chainsaw! No no...TWO chainsaws!" Jordan and I actually chuckled a bit at the idea as he pretended to cut Milo down into puddle of dismembered body parts. "Jordan here could grab a shotgun, and Noah with a pistol and a machete..."
"What do I get?" Milo asked.
"You get....slaughtered in the first few minutes! Because you're a wuss and you have asthma." Ricky said, giving him a harder than normal shove. "Anyway, that would be a way for the world to go. Not this sorry shit. This sucks. Just a bunch of people getting sick and fading away, and the rest getting hauled off in a dumb train. It's boring."
"Chill out, Ricky. Come on." Jordan told him.
Then....Ricky said, "It's true. It's just a bunch of people getting sick and weak and losing the struggle, day after day, while the people around them pretend that they're actually going to survive it. They might as well just go in the backyard, dig a hole, and call it a day." Both Jordan and Milo looked at Ricky with shock and disgust as they saw my expression change. The pain hit me like a runaway truck, and I had no defense against it. None. Ricky suddenly caught on, and began apologizing immediately. "Aww, dude....Noah....I wasn't talking about Anna. I meant....I'm talking about some of the other people that got sick. Like...in the beginning when the outbreak was really bad. I mean...I'm sure your sis i gonna be just fine. I mean..."
I didn't want them to see the tears in my eyes, so I got up from where I was sitting and moved to the other side of the vent where I could have some peace. If surviving in this world means avoiding anything and everything that could break me down emotionally, then my sick baby sister is definitely high on that list. In some strange way, I know that Ricky wasn't trying to be an abrasive, unfeeling, asshole when he said it...but I couldn't help but to be angry with him anyway. Screw him. Never should have brought him along in the first place.
Nobody followed me to the other side of the vent. I guess they just decided to leave me alone. And that allowed the first few tears to roll down my cheeks. I could hardly connect them to any one feeling anymore. All I knew was that they helped to relieve the pressure. Because that's what it felt like. Every minute of every day. Pressure. Like a carbonated beverage with vinegar and baking soda, violently shaken, with a partially unscrewed top on it. Always waiting for the opportunity to explode. Tears help to sullen the explosion, relieving the tension just a little bit at the time. It was enough to help me breathe easy. To suppress the dark emotions, and eventually drift off to sleep.
Emotional suppression and dreams are never a good mix.
I still remember watching some kind of sitcom rerun on TV when the news interrupted the broadcasts on every station.
My mother was in the kitchen, my father was on his laptop in the den.
More rumors. More conspiracy theories. More people getting sick. It was merely the beginning. The people were banding together, exchanging information, telling their story. Suddenly, the media's version of what was going on wasn't matching up with the people's version of what was going on. Whole families began to mysteriously disappear. The FEMA camps that were supposedly set up to help people were being blocked and barricaded with such an intense military force that you couldn't get anywhere NEAR them unless you were one of the unlucky ones forced onto the trains. People reported seeing the burning of bodies by soldiers in protective suits. The statistics of people taking the vaccine were getting sick more regularly than those who didn't. Rumors of entire towns being quarantined and the population being gunned down in the streets....it all seemed so surreal.
But as denial and skepticism began to give way...the quiet executions and unexplained clouds of ash started to sink in. There was a short period of public panic, but it wasn't long before that panic turned into anger. More and more people began to wake up to the horror of the idea and they demanded answers.
The demonstrations got bigger and bigger with each month. Bigger. Stronger. Angrier. Soon...having police there to mediate the protests wasn't enough. Soon it was police and the SWAT team. Riot gear. Shields. Tear gas. And soon, even that wasn't enough. The military was called in to keep the public from tearing the city apart. However, just seeing the military's involvement seemed to bring the people's outrage to a boiling point.
I remember my mother and father slowly walking into the living room that evening. With me sitting on the couch, watching the live news feed. I had never seen people so furious. Giant posters asking where their family members were. Saying that the government was trying to cull the population. That our food was poisoned. That our air was poisoned. That our water was poisoned. The rabid protests shouted about the viral outbreak being man-made. About the Agenda 21 objective. About global enslavement. It was unreal. I couldn't believe what I was seeing as it unfolded in front of my very eyes.
I remember my father telling me about this, about what to look for and all...but even though I loved and trusted my father with all of my heart, I never really took it seriously. Not until that particular media broadcast.
I felt my father's hand grip my shoulder as the tensions in our living room began to rise. I remember the fear building in my chest as I saw the crowd inching closer. The giant mass of people began to push. The giant mass of soldiers began to push back. Neither side would budge.
The shoves got stronger.
People began to bump into one another, inciting even more rage from the crowd.
They all began to shout and push and spit in the officer's faces.
In order to protect themselves, the officers brought up their billy clubs.
The protests took note of this, and began looking for weapons of their own.
Once the first strike was landed, the line between both sides had been crossed. A scuffle took place. Inciting more scuffles to begin throughout the crowd.
The protesters, much larger in number, began to crash up against the riot shields and push the officers back.
Suddenly, several cans of tear gas was launched into the crowd.
But instead of suppressing the crowd...it only caused more anger and panic. The fighting got worse. MUCH worse.
I heard my father whisper, "Oh....my...God...." And I watched as some of the protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the officers.
They burst into flame, creating anger and panic among the officers sent their to keep the peace. Their duty began to conflict with their sense of self preservation...and soon, gunshots were being fired into the hostile crowd.
Both sides continued to escalate the violence until there was no way to calm it down anymore. Nothing could stop it. There was no more reason....only madness.
An order was given.
The military took positions.
And as the angry crowd rushed towards them, carrying some of the very weapons that they had taken from the officers that had already been overwhelmed...
They opened fire.
My mother covered her mouth in shock.
My father closed his eyes and turned from the screen....but I kept them open. I couldn't...I couldn't look away. It was like....some kind of movie. This couldn't be real. It couldn't be.
I saw the crowd being mowed down...completely torn to bits. The military weapons were much more unforgiving than the standard police issue pistol. These things sounded like thunder from the gods above. They shook the ground with murderous vibrations, punching a gaping hole in anyone unlucky enough to be in its path.
The streets ran red with blood. The gutters almost overflowing with the syrupy liquid. And yet, the protesters kept coming. Hoping to just make it through to bash in ONE head. Cut ONE throat. Throw just ONE bottle and have it connect. The carnage was indescribable. It all happened so fast. So very fast.
Soon, the TV went blank. The digital media feed had been censored, and not a single channel would work.
I distinctly remember that being the beginning of something....different. A change. Pandora's Box had now been officially opened, and the hardcore violence of this protest only led to more. Each one....ending with the same sad results.
Some of them worse.
At some point, those in control of the culling didn't see the need to keep the secret anymore. Instead, they used their armies to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who would dare to stand against them. Everything had gone digital. You couldn't watch TV unless they permitted it. You couldn't use the internet unless they permitted it. You couldn't get access to your bank account, or travel, or buy food, or use the phone...unless they permitted it. There was nowhere that you could go without them tracking you...so how hard would it be to find a 'troublemaker'...and silence them?
The watchdog lists went into effect. Anyone that went against the Order was labeled a terrorist. An enemy. A threat to national security. Pretty much anything you did or said or even wrote privately to a friend was flagged, reviewed, and ultimately considered an act of treason. If your name ended up on the Red List...well, as Ricky Carver would say...it was a done deal.
My father was one of the first to end up on that list.
They took him at four o'clock in the morning. And I just remember thinking that my dad would somehow find his way back to us. I was almost certain of it.
It's strange....the lies we tell ourselves...
....When we really need to believe it.
I felt a gentle shake on my shoulder. It woke me out of my sleep. I don't sleep very deeply anymore, but the dreams are always just as vivid as if I had. I looked up to see Milo squatting down beside me. "You looked like you were having bad dreams." He said.
I noticed that I had tears on my cheeks, but not the dried tracks of the ones before. These were fresh. And I quickly moved my hand up to wipe them away with a sniffle or two. "How long was I asleep?"
"I don't know. But the sun is gonna come up soon. We didn't want you to miss it."
The sky above was brightening quickly. So I rubbed my eyes and told Milo, "Alright. I'll be there in a second."
"You sure you're ok?"
"Yeah. I'm cool. Seriously. Just go."
"K. Don't be long. It's gonna be awesome."
Milo ran over to join the others, and I did my best to fix myself up. It takes a moment or two for the emotion to mellow out again. I don't want Jordan to see me like this. He's the last bit of hope that I've got. As long as I have him...everything is ok....
Everything is ok....