As I sit here being a stereotypical writer in my local Starbucks while I enjoy my free birthday drink as I agonize over every word, my mind wanders over the last year.
It’s been a weird year for sure. It seems like it flew by, but at the same time, it seemed to drag on forever. While Shannon has been furiously working toward finishing her master’s degree, I’ve done absolutely nothing.
The fact that I’ve long struggled with my mental health is no secret. For years I’ve been adamant that while I struggle with anxiety, I am not depressed. Every time I would ask my doctor for something to take the edge off of my anxiety, he has tried prescribing me antidepressants. I would argue, sometimes angrily that I’m not depressed, just anxious.
Well folks. After getting absolutely nothing productive done over the last year, I decided it was finally time to face facts. My name is Justin, and I suffer from depression.
Now I want to make one thing perfectly clear. When I say I suffer from depression, I do not have suicidal thoughts or anything like that. I haven’t had one of those since high-school. Even then, I think they were more environmentally motivated than a result of my depression.
My form of depression was much more subtle. I would wake up in the afternoon (night shift worker) and sit there doing absolutely nothing until it was time to go to work where, again, I would do absolutely nothing. Luckily, my job doesn’t require much of me beyond being there and awake. Still, the whole point of taking this job was to give me time to write. Instead, I would sit in front of my computer browsing the internet and watching Netflix on my phone until it was time to go home.
Other days, I would feel the overwhelming urge to cry for no reason. I would just be sitting there in my usual stupor when suddenly I would feel the tears welling up for absolutely no reason. I wasn’t thinking about anything particularly sad. It was just raw emotion welling up inside me. When this would happen, an inner voice would tell me it’s because I hadn’t written anything in months.
Still, I would sit there telling myself to go write something with absolutely no motivation to actually do so.
Worst of all, it was starting to effect my relationship. I found myself getting irritable for absolutely no reason. I found myself lying about how much writing I’d gotten done out of shame and embarrassment. Shannon has always been so supportive of my writing and I felt like I was letting her down.
I finally decided it was time to do something about it. At the beginning of this year, I made an appointment with my doctor to discuss options and I’m proud to say that I think I’m finally on my way to recovery.
Now I’m not going to try to claim I’ve completely kicked my problem, but I’m at the point where the new meds should be taking full effect and every day, I feel a bit more motivated.
Forget the video I did at the beginning of the year. I’m considering today the start of my personal new year and for once, I’m feeling positive about it. I can’t promise I’ll start blogging regularly, but I’ll hopefully see you again soon. Wish me luck.
P.S. Since I just turned 42, I’m still waiting for the ultimate question to life, the universe, and everything.
“Truck? Oh. You mean that death mobile you used to shoot up a buncha’ my folk? Ain’t seen her.”
Butch stepped forward, pulling his pistol and cocking it.
“I’m not playing with you. Me and my men want our truck back now.”
“Now, now. No need to get testy. Why don’t ya’ put that thing away and set a spell so we can talk?”
As he said this, a small child in ragged clothing appeared as if out of nowhere with another chair and placed it across from the old man and disappeared as fast as she’d appeared.
“I don’t want to sit. I want to get what’s mine and get out of here. If you give it up now, we’ll leave peacefully. Otherwise, my boys are going to come rolling in here and wipe you out.”
“Your boys.” The old man said in a wheezing laugh. “Ain’t but the five of ya. Not even armed that well either. Now my people? We may not have guns, but we got numbers.”
Butch looked at him uneasily.
“That’s right. We seen ya’ coming a mile away. Now think about it. If we had your truck, do ya’ really think we’d let you get so close? Hell. If we took the damn thing, don’t ya’ think we’d have come in and wiped out everyone in that school by now? Probably woulda’ slit a few throats while we was stealin’ her too.”
Butch’s arm dropped just a hair.
“Now why don’t ya’ have a seat so we can jaw. Call your boys in. They’ll wanna’ hear this too.”
Butch waved for Nutcase who approached warily. As he waited, four more chairs were brought out. Bear and Gut eyed the flimsy chairs uneasily and chose to stand.
“Yeah, Boss?” Nutcase said.
“I need you and Bear to run and go get Rat. Might as well bring the bikes up too.”
“But where’s the truck?”
“Never mind that now. Just do as I ask and this gentleman will explain once you’re back.”
Nut gave the old man another wary glance, but then he and Bear were off. Butch sat in the chair across from the old man.
“Okay. So start talking.” Butch demanded.
“If ya’ don’t mind, I’d rather just go through all this the once. Meantime, can I interest y’all in a drink?”
Without waiting for a reply, the old man gave a whistle. Almost immediately, an elderly woman came bustling out with a bottle and handed it to the old man who pulled the cork and sniffed whatever was inside with pleasure. He made as if to take a drink, then stopped.
“Where are my manners?” He asked, shaking his head and holding out the bottle to Butch.
Butch eyed the bottle, but didn’t take it.
“Well, I guess I can’t blame you for bein’ cautious.” The old man said, and took the first drink before offering it to Butch again.
Butch took the bottle and sniffed. It smelled like paint thinner.
“What is it?”
“I just call it hooch. M’own private recipe. Don’t bother askin’ what’s in it cause I ain’t tellin. Besides, you prob’ly don’t wanna know anyway.” He gave another of his dry, wheezy laughs.
Butch still didn’t trust the old man, but there was something about him that was impossible not to like. He took a tentative swig or the hooch. It was surprisingly smooth considering how it smelled. He took a bigger drink before handing the bottle to Gut.
Gut upended the bottle and began drinking. Butch finally elbowed him in the ribs, causing him to spray a fine mist of hooch into the air.
“You want to save some for everyone else?” Butch asked.
“Sorry.” Gut said sheepishly. “That’s some good stuff.”
“No worries. I got plenty more in the cave.” He gave another whistle and the elderly lady came back out with three more bottles.
Just as she headed back to the cave, Butch heard the sound of approaching motorcycles. Bear and Nut rode slowly behind Rat, who was on the lead bike and wobbling dangerously. Butch had forgotten he wasn’t a rider. He held his breath as Rat approached a large boulder as if he were aiming for it before swerving and missing it by inches. His breath escaped in a loud bellowing laugh.
Finally, the bikes were parked and the five of them sat together as they watched the old man as he started a campfire against the gathering dusk. Two more sturdy chairs had been brought out for Bear and Gut.
Once the fire was blazing brightly, the old man sat back in his own well-worn chair.
“Now then. I suppose introductions are in order.” He said as he uncorked another bottle of hooch. “Name’s Dan, but most folks around here call me Smokey. Some o’ the younguns have taken to callin’ me Old Smokey. They love singin’ that damn song at me too.” He took a swig of hooch and passed the bottle to Butch who introduced himself. He then took a swig and passed the bottle to Bear, who did the same.
And so it went, each man introducing himself, then passing the bottle. Finally, Rat introduced himself and made to pass the bottle back to Smokey.
“Ya ain’t gonna’ take a drink?”
“I don’t drink, sir.” Rat said.
“Hmph’ Not sure I can trust a man sittin’ round my fire who refuses to drink with me.” Smokey said, eyeing him suspiciously. Butch cleared his throat and nodded to Rat who begrudgingly took a small sip.
“There now. That’s better.” Smokey said, relieving Rat of the bottle. “Now then. As I was tellin’ ol’ Butch here. I do believe Y’all got snookered.”
Their knobby tires crunched over the hardpan as they raced toward what they had taken at first to be small hills but were turning out to be mountains much farther away. As the bikes chewed up the distance, Butch wracked his brain trying to come up with some sort of a plan. Not easy when he had no idea what they were walking into in the first place. He briefly considered hiding the bikes once they were close and walking the rest of the way, but he was sure they’d be spotted long before they were within walking distance. Even now, looking at the craggy peak, Butch could imagine a lookout monitoring their progress through a pair of binoculars as the rest of the raider camp readied their weapons.
“This is stupid.” He thought to himself. There was no way they were going to get their stuff back. Part of him was surprised they weren’t being fired upon already. He thought of the powerful sniper rifle he’d kept stashed away in the truck. The one he’d sworn to himself he’d never sell. If the raiders turned that on them, they’d be easy pickings. Still, what he’d said to Jacob about them being dead without their truck hadn’t been a lie. That truck was their livelihood in more ways than one. Sure, being traders was a good business, but more than that, it made them welcome at most of the settlements they came across. Having items to trade literally opened doors to them which would remain shut if they showed up empty-handed.
He supposed they could find a new truck and start over, if they could keep from starving in the meantime. That was a big if. Still, Butch couldn’t see how to approach the raider camp without dying. A full assault was out of the question. They had neither the firepower nor the cover they needed for something like that. They only had one chance of getting anywhere near the camp without being gunned down first. Even then, it was a huge risk. Still, it was the only thing Butch could think of. He pulled in his clutch and slowly applied the brake to avoid sliding in the dirt. The two bikes flanking him did likewise.
“What’s up, Boss?” Bear asked.
“Rat, Nut. Sling those guns across your backs.” Butch ordered.
“But what if they start shooting?” Nut asked.
“Then we’re dead either way. Let’s just hope they won’t if we look friendly enough. If we show up looking for a fight, I’m sure they’ll be happy to give us one.”
“I don’t like it.” Nut said, doing as he was told anyway.
“I didn’t ask if you did.” Butch barked, a little too harshly. “Look, I don’t like it either, but I don’t see any other chance we have. Just put on your friendliest smile and be ready to empty your mag if negotiations fail.”
Butch looked at Rat, who already had his rifle slung across his back. He nodded, first to Bear, then to Gut as he put his bike back into gear.
They approached the craggy mountains slowly. Warily scanning the rocky outcroppings for anyone who might be laying in wait for them. Butch could feel his muscles throbbing and realized he’d been tensing for the inevitable gunshot ever since they’d crossed into rifle range. He consciously tried to relax them, but as soon as he stopped thinking about it, they’d tense back up.
Butch felt the air cool as they passed into the shadows of the mountain. He stopped his bike and dismounted. The others did the same. They found themselves at the mouth of a funnel leading to a narrow canyon between what were actually two mountains standing side by side.
“I don’t like this, Boss.” Rat said nervously. “It looks like a…”
“A trap. I know. But unless you’ve got a better idea, we have no choice.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about that.” Nut chimed in. “What about that thing Rat wired up. What’d he call it?”
“A failsafe.” Rat said.
“Yeah. What about that failsafe thing?”
“Jesus Nut. Do you know what that thing does? If Rat presses that button, the truck, and everything in it, blows up. Including Bertha.”
“Better than letting these assholes get their filthy hands on her.”
“So you’re telling me we came all this way, just so we could vaporize the whole thing without even trying to get it back? Is that what you really want to do?”
“Well, you asked for ideas.”
“Fine. Let me clarify. Does anyone have any GOOD ideas?”
The rest of the group stayed silent.
“Okay then. Here’s the plan. Gut, Bear, and I will see where this canyon goes. We’ll keep our guns holstered.”
Gut and Bear exchanged a look at this but said nothing.
“Nut, I want you to follow us with your rifle, but try to stay out of sight. Keep your distance, but stay close enough to cover us if need be. Got it?”
Nutcase nodded, but the look on his face said he didn’t like the idea.
“What about me?” Rat asked.
“You’re staying here with the bikes. I want you to be able to make an opening with your rifle if they box us in. If things go bad, I want you to blow the truck, jump on my bike, and hightail it back to the school, got it?”
Rat nodded solemnly.
Without another word, Butch headed down the canyon path with Bear and Gut flanking him. None of them said a word. Soon, the sheer walls of the mountains pressed in on them. Even though they tried to be as quiet as possible, the crunching of their footsteps echoed off the rocks, making them feel like someone was following them. Here and there were shadowy holes in the rock face. Butch assumed they were cave entrances and eyes them warily, waiting for an army of raiders to come boiling out of them, but none did. Still, from time to time, he could swear he heard sounds coming from them that weren’t their own echoes.
Finally, the path began to widen as the sides of the mountains retreated from each other and they suddenly found themselves at the mouth of a box canyon. At the far end, sitting in a battered lawn chair, sat an old man. Smoking a pipe. He felt Bear going for his pistol and stopped him.
“Well, well, well. Look what the cat drug in.” The old man said with a chuckle that turned into a wheezing cough. “Looks like they done got you too, didn’t they?”
The broken chain lay on the pitted asphalt next to the open gate. The shiny ends of fresh steel where the chain had been cut stood in stark contrast with the patina of rust that covered the rest of it. Butch was about to ask the obvious question with its equally obvious answer when he heard a voice behind him.
“Hey guys. Man, have I got a story…” Nutcase began.
Butch wheeled on him and punched him in the jaw, knocking him to the pavement.
“Where the hell were you?” Butch screamed at him.
“What the hell, boss? I was just about to tell you that before you decked me.” He said, holding his jaw. “Hey, where’s Bertha?” “I was going to ask you the same thing.” Butch spat. “You were supposed to be watching the truck.”
“I was. It was fine when I left it. I swear.”
“And when was that?”
“Just after sundown. Not long after Rat went to bed.”
“You left it alone all night? And where exactly did you go?”
Nut blushed at this.
“Well… You see. I was sitting here, finishing the lockdown when this girl comes up to me. She was really friendly and, you know. One thing led to another and we went back to her room.”
“And you left the truck unlocked?”
“No, Boss. I swear. I’ve got the keys right…” Nut stopped, patting his pockets. “They’re gone. I swear I had ‘em. Honest.”
Butch put out his hand to help him up. Nut shied away as if he were afraid of being punched again. Butch probably would have, but by now, the citizens were starting to dribble into the courtyard. Some held bundles of treasures they were hoping to trade, but most of them only seemed interested in the commotion.
“Oh my god! The gate’s open!” A woman screamed. “Somebody go get Jacob.”
Several people rushed off, only to return with the weapons they’d bought the previous day as they eyed the shadows and the rooftops, looking for raiders.
By the time Jacob Drake came puffing into the courtyard, carrying with him a fresh length of chain, the courtyard was full of wide-eyed people.
Drake rushed right past Butch and swung the gate silently closed. He took the lock from the broken chain and attached it to the new one and locked it, giving it a tug to make sure it was locked before striding angrily over to Butch.
“Would you mind telling me what happened here?” Drake demanded.
“Why don’t you tell me? How could this happen without anybody noticing? Don’t you have security patrols?”
“Normally we do, but I had your assurance that we were safe as long as your vehicle was in the yard. Where was your man?”
Butch shot a withering look at Nutcase.
“I’m sorry Boss. What was I supposed to do? Bring a stranger into the truck?”
Butch silenced him with a look, but it was too late. Drake was now looking at them with suspicion and hostility.
“I think it’s time you men got on your motorcycles and left.”
“I think you’re right. Just point us in the direction of that raider camp and we’ll be on our way.”
“Don’t be a fool. You won’t get within a hundred yards of them with that machine gun in their hands, not to mention all the other arms you had in the back.”
“That may be so, but we’re dead anyway without our truck. That thing was our whole livelihood.”
“Suit yourself. I’m pretty sure they live in the hills to the south.” Drake shrugged, walking away.
“If we could just borrow a couple of rifles…” Butch started, but then stopped again as everyone holding a weapon suddenly hugged it tighter to their chest.
“Oh don’t be such fools. Don’t you see that they’re our best hope?” A familiar voice said. Melanie stepped out of the shadows and into the center of the crowd. “If they don’t get that truck back, the raiders will be back as soon as these guys leave and mow us all down.”
At this, a couple of men loosened their grips on their guns. Melanie immediately targeted them. She walked to each man, whispered something to them, and then deftly plucked them from their hands. She then returned to Butch and handed them to him.
They weren’t much, one semi-automatic rifle, and one bolt action. Still, Butch knew complaining wouldn’t do him any good, beggars not being choosers and all.
“Thanks.” Butch said, handing the semi-auto to Nutcase and the bolt action to Rat. “What did you say to them?”
“Oh come now. A girl’s got to have some secrets after all.” She said, giving him a peck on the cheek. “Take this one too, she said, slapping the thirty-eight he’d sold her into his hand.”
“I can’t take this. You need it. Besides, I’ve already got a pistol, he said, nodding down at the nine millimeter strapped to his hip.”
“Take it anyway for good luck. You can give it back to me when you get back.”
“But I might not…”
“Shhh.” She said, giving him another kiss, this one on the lips. “Don’t talk like that.”
Without another word, Butch tucked the revolver into the back of his waistband. He turned and started to walk away before turning around and striding back to Melanie. He grabbed her and she let out a brief squeak of surprise before melting into his arms. He kissed her. A real kiss this time, holding her body tightly against his. He heard a few people in the crowd gasp, but he didn’t care. This might be his last kiss ever, and he was determined to make it a good one. He could feel tears welling up inside him and released her, turning quickly and nearly running to his bike. Bear was already mounted up with Nutcase gripping his rifle behind him. Rat was squeezed in behind Gut. Butch mounted his bike which sat between them. They started their bikes as Drake swung the gate wide. The courtyard rumbled as the three beasts roared to life. They warmed their engines for a moment before putting them into gear and heading back out into the wasteland.
The rest of the day went well. Butch was actually surprised at some of the things people would bring him to trade. Things that had been extremely valuable in the old world, but were frivolous luxuries now. Nobody even argued when he was sadly forced to offer a low price for a grandfather’s watch, or a great grandmother’s cameo.
Finally, as the last customer was walking away, seemingly pleased with his transaction, Butch gave the signal to start packing up. At this point, they were like a well oiled machine. Each man knew exactly what to do. The whole operation was completed within a matter of minutes.
By the time they were done, the two waitresses who had served them their pie and beer were standing nearby, watching them. The moment they were done, they approached Gut and Bear. Soon, the four of them were talking and laughing together. Soon after that, they broke up into two couples and wandered away. Butch smiled to himself as he watched them go, then remembered he had a date himself.
“You guys good here?” He asked Rat and Nutcase.
“We’ve got this.” Nutcase said. Rat gave him a thumbs up, unable to talk due to the screwdriver he was holding in his teeth as he tinkered with whatever new contraption he was working on.
“Good. I’ll check back in later. I’ve got… uh.”
“Have fun, Boss.” Nut told him with a knowing smile, saving him from actually having to say where he was going. He turned and walked away quickly before his men could see his reddening cheeks.
Butch didn’t actually know where he was supposed to meet Melanie. He began wandering around the school, hoping he’d bump into her. As he explored, he discovered where the peaches for the cobbler had come from. The school’s old football field had been turned into an orchard. In it were hundreds of trees heavy with various fruits. He marveled at the lush forest here in the middle of the barren desert, wondering how they kept everything watered. The areas between the trees were filled with what Butch at first took to be undergrowth, until he realized that these plants too were bursting with produce.
He continued his self-guided tour, finally coming to the old auto shop. There were no vehicles in it, of course, but it still seemed to have all the tools. Butch was wondering if they’d be allowed to pull their vehicles in so Rat could perform some much needed maintenance when there was a tap on his shoulder. It was so unexpected, he actually jumped. When he wheeled around, he was surprised to see Melanie’s smiling face.
“Hey, Sugar. Happy to see me?”
Butch realized that his hands were clenched into fists and quickly released them.
“Sorry. You surprised me.” He said, a bit sheepishly.
“It’s okay. Are ya’ ready for dinner?”
He felt his stomach rumble at the thought of food.
“Lead the way.” He said.
Her room was small, but she’d done what she could to make it look as little like a classroom as she could. Brightly colored fabrics adorned the walls. A few ripped posters, relics of the old world, hung here and there. Butch noticed that there were two beds in the room.
“My roommate’s.” She said, catching him looking at it. “Don’t worry. I convinced her to stay with a friend tonight.”
Butch smiled, unsure of what to say. He’d gotten used to women being forward with him. In this new world filled with widely dispersed small villages, strangers were always popular with the ladies. Still, Melanie seemed braver than most.
His stomach rumbled again.
“Oh my. You are hungry. Have a seat, I’ll go get dinner.” She said, and flitted out of the room.
Butch sat in the folding chair facing the door. The battered folding table was a bit wobbly, but sturdy enough, he supposed.
With nothing better to do, he let his eyes roam the room. It took some effort to resist the urge to snoop. It wasn’t anything malicious, he was just curious. Still, he knew the best way to wreck what was about to happen was to have her come back and find him looking through her things.
Before long, she was back, carrying two covered plates which she placed on the table. When she removed the covers, he was greeted by a sort of stir fry with lots of vegetables and some sort of meat. He didn’t ask what kind. Sometimes, it was something normal, but others, it was better not to know.
He was about to dig in, when she stopped him. She turned and bent down into a wooden chest, deliberately giving him a view he didn’t mind at all. When she stood back up, she was holding a bottle of wine and a corkscrew.
“I don’t have any glasses. I hope you don’t mind.” She said, uncorking the wine.
“It won’t be the first time I’ve had to drink right out of the bottle.”
“Let’s just hope it’s not vinegar.” She said, handing him the bottle.
He looked at the bottle, as if he had any clue. The label was singed and he couldn’t read the winery’s name, but he could make out the year. 1977. Of course, he had no way of knowing if it was a good year or not. He took a tentative sniff before upending the bottle and taking a swig. It tasted good. Decadent almost. He wondered if he’d have been able to afford it in the old world.
He passed the bottle back to her.
“Well, dig in.” She said, taking a sip of the wine herself.
He didn’t have to be asked twice. He took his first bite.
“This is really good. You cooked this yourself?”
It was her turn to look sheepish.
“Oh, heavens no. You wouldn’t want to eat anything I cooked. I just stole it from the dining hall.”
“That’s okay. It’s still good.” He said, diving in.
Before long, his plate was empty. She was still picking at her food. Butch assumed she was trying to keep up appearances, but he knew better than to encourage her to eat. He reached for the wine bottle, but set it back down when he realized it was empty. Without a word, she retrieved another. This one had no label, but was still just as tasty. He leaned back in his chair, wishing for a cigarette. She smiled at him.
“So tell me. Have you always been a bad-ass biker?”
Butch couldn’t help but laugh heartily at that one.
“Not even close.”
“Okay then, what did you do before?”
“Well, let me ask you this. Do you know what the word monger means?”
“Well, sort of. I mean I’ve heard of warmongers. I assumed it was something related to that.”
“It means peddler. A salesman. We were all in sales of some sort. Gut and Bear worked at a motorcycle dealership. Bear actually sold me my first bike. Nutcase, he was one of those crazy guys you see on T.V. who smashes stuff while he yells about his insane deals. Rat was his assistant. The one who fixed things when people brought them back broken, which they often did.”
”What about you?”
“I owned a bookstore. I loved that place until the day it burned down.” Butch grimaced as he tried to push away the memory. “It started as a joke. When we all started riding together in our suburban motorcycle club, mongers sounded tough if you didn’t know what it meant. After everything happened, we decided to go with it and stick to what we knew best. Selling things.”
Melanie laughed at this. Getting up to retrieve another bottle of wine. It was only then that he realized he’d finished the second one. He vaguely wondered how many bottles she had stashed in her chest.
The conversation flowed as freely as the wine until Melanie stood up. He half expected her to tell him she was turning in and that he should go, but instead, she wordlessly took him by the hand and led him to her bed.
The next morning, Butch woke as the sun was just peeking above the horizon. His head ached from the wine, but not too bad. Melanie was still asleep. He considered waking her, but decided to let her sleep. Instead, he slipped out of bed, got dressed, and made his way to the courtyard.
Gut, bear, and Rat stood together in a knot, mumbling to each other.
“Mornin’, boys. Isn’t it a fine day?”
The three of them turned to look at him, their faces pale, even Rat’s. It was only then that butch looked up at the empty courtyard. Something was missing, but it took Butch a moment to realize what it was.
The truck was gone.
So that’s it for this week, but remember, if you just can’t wait to find out what happens next, part 5 is already up on my Patreon page. It’s only a dollar for early access to this story for the whole month. More perks, like exclusive short stories, are available if you’re willing to pay a little more.
Just finished setting up my patreon page. From now on, my Fiction Friday posts will go up on there a week before I post them here. It’s only a dollar a month and I could really use your support. Please go check it out.