Clown World: Book One, Chapter Four…unedited…

Emily and I had enjoyed our time with the actors, but we were burning daylight. I stood up and stretched, Emily got up and shrugged on Ted’s pack. She hugged her friends and bid them goodbye. I couldn’t tell if the actors shed real tears or the phony crocodile tears they got paid to cry. So, I walked to the edge of town and waited. Behind me, I heard light footfalls. The dog was back. He stared at me and cuffed as Emily walked up.
Once again, she tried to reason with the animal, but it refused to come when beckoned.
“Fine, you stubborn dog. Have it your way.”
“It’d be kinder to put it out of its misery.”
“No, Jake. Let it be.”
We headed out, and the dog trailed after us. Emily wanted to turn around and try again, but I whispered, “let it be. Its trying to decide if it can trust us. Get a piece of jerky and tear it into chunks. Drop it every few feet.”
Every few feet, Emily dropped a small piece of jerky. We walked until the sun began its descent. We found an old campground and a fire tower that had a concrete foundation. Emily and I laid out our pallets. I had some ready made meals in my pack, so I took out two and tossed one to her. The dog walked up and stretched out by the fire. Emily squealed with delight and it backed up.
“Aww, it’s okay boy. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
I tossed a piece of jerky to the dog, and it snatched it from the air. Afterwards, it came back and rested next to the fire.
“Let it get used to you, Emily.”
We sat there by the fire for a bit, and Emily stretched. I yawned. The dog kept its head to the ground and looked at us with those soulful eyes.
“What kind of dog is it?”
“Some kind of terrier. Jack Russell or a Rat.”
“It’s cute,” Emily said, a broad grin stretched across her beautiful face. “What are you going to name him?”
A grin tugged at the corners of my mouth. I looked the dog over, and my grin grew larger.
“How are you, a Hollywood princess, going to call a pup by the wrong gender?”
Emily inspected the dog and shook her head. A laugh burst from her lips, and I joined in. She rolled her eyes, grinned and said, “why would you do that to me?”
“Why would you do it to Sue? She deserves your respect, Emily.”
“You hated what America became at the end, didn’t you?”
I didn’t say anything, I crawled on top of my pallet and looked up at the stars. Emily came over and kissed me on the cheek and whispered, “good night, sweet prince.” It might have been the kiss, or maybe it was the dog, but I got my first good night’s sleep in six months.
I slept so deep I never heard the moans of the damned.
Sunshine warmed me up, and I sat up and stretched. Emily yawned. The dog still had its head on the ground, and looked at me. I stood and continued to stretch. From the corner of my eye I saw a glint.
“Run, Emily. Get behind that post,” I yelled, as I grabbed my weapon. A shot rang out and hit the post behind me. Emily darted to the nearest post and tried to disappear behind it.
“Why are they shooting at us,” Emily cried. I blasted off a burst in the direction of the shot.
“Emily, when I fire again, run to that husk of a car to our left, got it?”
“Go now,” I yelled as I fired of four bursts. I ran behind her, blasting off rounds as we moved.
The sniper must have moved because no other gunshots were fired in our direction. Behind the cover of the car, we each waited for another shot. When nothing happened, I pulled Ted’s sidearm out.
“Come here, Emily. It’s time you learned how to protect yourself.”
“I’m anti-gun, Jake.”
“There’s no such thing in this new world,” I snapped.
“I don’t want to hurt people, and I don’t want to know how to use it.”
Her words scalded me, not because she didn’t want to use the weapon, but because of her attitude was still stuck in the past. “Let someone else do the work, I’ll just ride along and reap the benefits.” It pissed me off.
“This is reality, Emily. Nobody out here cares what you believe in,” I snapped as I showed her how to clear the weapon, how to fire it, and how to break it down and clean it. “If you refuse to learn how to handle a weapon, or how to use it to defend yourself, you make yourself a sheep. Do you think the next group of Lurkers or bandits will go easy on you because you don’t carry a weapon? The strong feast upon the weak. Now, show me what you’ve learned.”
Emily took the sidearm from me and ejected the magazine, and checked to make sure it was empty. She performed a function check, and then slapped a loaded magazine into the pistol and racked the slide back in one smooth motion.
The girl was a natural.
“Good enough, Jake?”
“Yep. There’s no reason for you to be testy. I’ve taught you the basics, combat will teach you the rest.”
We sat behind that car for the whole day, waiting for a sign that the shooter was still out there. As dusk fell in place, we crept out from behind the vehicle and continued our journey. A faded green sign informed us that we were getting close to Kingsbury, California.
“We’re nearing Lake Tahoe,” Emily said when she saw the sign. “My second home is out here somewhere.”
“Out here somewhere,” I responded. “You’ve never came out here?”
“No. I bought it online.”
“Figures,” I muttered.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that we’d probably run afoul of Lurkers in the town, or a local government set up by survivors, which was entirely possible judging by the heavily armed group that fast approached us. They didn’t point their weapons in our direction, but Emily and I stopped and let them come to us. I kept my right hand near my sidearm just in case.
“Hi,” a woman said, as she gave us a wave. “We didn’t mean to shoot at you; we thought you were a Lurker.”
“Are you blind or just stupid,” I snapped. “Lurkers swarm in hordes, they don’t sleep under a tower in twos or threes.”
“Okay, you’re upset. I get it, and I’ll apologize again. I’m Rae Hickens, but people around these parts call me Dawn. These are my friends.”
I nodded at them and said, “I’m Jake and this is my friend, Emily.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Let me guess, you guys are headed to Colorado, right?”
“That’s right,” Emily said, “we’re trying to get to Estes Park.”
“Right,” Rae snorted. “To the ‘Safe Haven’. Except it’s a long walk to Colorado, and Nevada is swarming with Lurkers.”
While Emily talked with Rae, I looked over Rae and her team. Everyone one of them was armed with a rifle and a sidearm, plus a bladed weapon of some sort. All of them had blood on their clothing and blades.
“You guys are out on patrol, I take it. Trying to keep the Lurkers at bay?”
“Well, look who thinks he knows tactics,” one of the men who followed Rae said. Rae cut her eyes to the man and he clammed up. I forced a smile, and Rae nodded.
“That’s right, Jake. We’ve got a base set up not far from here. Kingsbury is our headquarters.
“I see.”
“You and Emily are welcome to come with us. You could shower and sleep in a real bed. Plus, there’s hot food, a mercantile, and it’s safer than sleeping out in the open like a brainless wonder.”
Emily walked up to where I was and whispered, “should we go with them?”
“We’ll go with you, but then we need to be on our way.”
“Sure,” Rae responded. “I understand. A bus runs from our camp to Kingsbury every other day. You guys can catch a ride with them when they head out next, unless you just want to walk to Colorado.”
“When is the next ride?”
“Day after tomorrow, Emily. The bus went out this morning.”
Emily nodded and looked at me. I gave her a smile and a wink, she appeared to need the encouragement. So far, we’d been blessed to make it this far. However, if things were as dire as Rae had said, crossing Nevada was going to be a challenge.
Rae’s camp sat on top of a large rounded hill. A tall wooden fence encircled the base, with guard towers strategically positioned all around it. Each tower had a buddy team in it, and all the towers came equipped with a machine gun and radio. The gate leading into the camp swung open to receive us. It appeared that the gate was operated from the inside by the synchronized flipping of two levers. Flood lamps lit the entire area, powered by massive generators. It was the first artificial light I had seen in six months.
This place wasn’t a camp, it was a battle station. Built to protect the remnants of humanity in California. Emily whistled softly, and I must admit I was impressed by what I saw.
Rae’s team members wandered off in different directions, but she turned and faced us.
“Welcome to our home. This stronghold is one of five built along the border, with each one holding about ten thousand fighters, plus civilians. Along the eastern wall is our mercantile, it’s operated by Shelia. The western wall is the residential area,” Rae said motioning at the tented area. “I’ll be near the command outpost which is back there,” Rae said pointing at a large tent that sat in the back of the camp. “Do you have any questions?”
“What’s the currency for the mercantile?”
“And where’s the showers,” Emily added.
“There’s no currency for the mercantile, it’s trade only. If you’ve acquired any gear in your travels, you can barter with Shelia. Follow me, and we’ll get you squared away with a bed for the night. Oh, one last thing. There’s some bad news.”
“What’s that?”
“Nothing is free inside the compound, Emily.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you earn your keep. You pull guard, kitchen, and radio duty. Everyone here pulls their weight. There is no free lunch here.”
“And if people don’t?”
“We feed them to the Lurkers, Emily.”
Emily went ghost white, her green eyes widened at the news. I grinned, and Rae doubled over with laughter.
“You should see your face! I’m just kidding, Emily. You’re not allowed to stay here. You work or you walk.”
Rae led us to a large military-style tent and introduced us to an old woman with a milky left eye.
“This is Thea. She’s your tent commander, and she’ll get you squared away with a bunk, show you the showers, and answer any further questions you might have. You guys have a good night, and don’t let the Lurkers bite. Oh, and you guys have guard duty from 0130 until 0430. Report to tent Bravo at 0100 for your briefing.”
“Will do, Rae. Thanks for everything.”
“You’re welcome, Jake. We’ll talk more later.”
Emily and I watched as Rae walked toward the command tent. Thea cleared her throat, and we turned to face her.
“Now that Rae is gone, let’s go over the rules of my tent area.”
“Sure thing,” I responded. “Lay it on us.”
“First off, you both smell like sun-rotted corpses. You bathe, every night before you lie down. More and more people show up here daily, it is unhygienic, not to mention nasty, for you to live in an area where people don’t bathe. Your mothers should have told you that cleanliness is second only to godliness. Secondly, there’s no eating, drinking, smoking, chewing, or dipping inside the tent. This is my area, and it will be squared away.”
“We can do that,” Emily said, interrupting Thea. This earned her a scowl, and the ole Milky Eye continued.
“Lastly, if Lurkers enter the camp, we meet up at Rally Point #1. I’m your tent commander and chalk leader. If something should happen, you find me and report in.”
Thea took down a hand drawn map of the compound that had the rally point circled in yellow. The rally point was between the command tent and the mercantile. “Keep your weapon and gear on you at all times,” Thea stopped and glared at Emily. “Where’s your weapon, missy?”
“It’s in my pack.”
“Why isn’t it strapped to your hip?”
Thea turned to me and snapped, “are you trying to get her killed?”
“I’m sorry. Say again?”
“Everyone here knows the rules, but lil missy here walks around like she doesn’t have to pull her weight,” Thea yelled.
“Hold up,” I said, but Thea wasn’t hearing it.
“How is she going to survive if Lurkers get in here? What’s she going to do? Put up her hand and ask for time to get her weapon out of her pack? Or maybe she’ll drop them with a smoldering look she picked up in Hollywood? Or maybe she’ll get naked and parade around in front of them until they die of old age or have a heart attack.”
“I’m right here,” Emily yelled. “I got your point, there’s no need to keep running me down.”
Thea’s lips pulled back into a wolfish grin and watched as Emily opened her pack. I looked at the old woman, and she returned my stare with the same hatred I gazed at her with. I stepped close to her and whispered, “that young woman you are talking to like she’s stupid, her lover was raped to death on the way here. My friend and I rescued her. My friend was killed after we fought off a swarm of Lurkers. So, if you’re done showing your butt, point us in the direction of the showers and shut up.”
An awkward silence grew between Thea and me, but she pointed at a tent across from our hooch. Emily looked at me, her cheeks wet from her tears, and I said, “grab your gear and come with me.”
An old man sat on a bucket outside of the showering area. He nodded when we walked up. As old men are wont to do, he looked Emily over and gave me a grin.
“It’s a ten second shower, son. You turn the water on, get wet, turn the water off, lather up, and rinse off. We don’t have enough water for leisurely showers here. So, get in, get clean, and get out.”
“Understood, sir.”
I stripped off my shirt and took a step forward. Emily walked beside me.
“Is that it?”
“It’s better than nothing, Emily. Get ready, it’s almost our turn.”
I finished undressing, and Emily did the same. Men and women gasped when Emily dropped the last of her clothing. Apparently, she wasn’t beautiful only in her face. A man and woman stepped out, and Emily and I stepped in. Ten seconds later, we stepped out, dried off and dressed.
According to the clock on the wall it was 1930. Emily and I walked back to our tent, Thea looked up as we walked in bus said nothing, and we crawled into our bed and crashed for the next five hours.

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