Clown World: Book One, Chapter Six…unedited and incomplete…new writing…

The mere mention of the mess hall stirred up my hunger pangs, next to me Emily’s stomach growled so loudly that even Francis heard it. She chuckled and motioned for us to follow her.
“Y’all come with me,” she said, as she led us to the dining facility.
Rae sat at the far end of the counter, the delicious aroma of fried eggs and bacon filled the air, so much so it caused my mouth to salivate. We walked over to where Rae sat and took seats next to her. Francis walked over and sat next to Emily.
“There you are,” Rae said, after she took a sip of her coffee. “I’m glad you guys made it.”
The cook, an old bald man with a white beard, saw us come in and sit down at the counter. He put more eggs and bacon on the griddle. Once the food was cooking, he brought three cups of coffee over to us.
“You wanted to see us about something, Rae?”
“Yes, I did. Jake, I wanted to thank you for being here. This morning could’ve been much worse if you hadn’t been in that tower.”
“It’s a shame you have to move on,” Francis chimed in. “The intel that comes from Kingsbury doesn’t cover Nevada. As far as we know, Nevada is overrun with Lurkers, or as we call it, dark.”
“Dark? What does that mean?”
“Emily, it means no one knows what lies on the other side.”
Rae nodded and continued where Francis left off. “We have five human settlements along the border, and nobody knows what is waiting over there.”
I knew it, I thought to myself as I ate. They want us to go over there and see what’s what.
“That’s why you guys doubt that the ‘haven’ in Estes Park even exists. No one knows what lies between here and there.”
Francis blew smoke toward the ceiling and chuckled. Rae stayed silent, apparently, I had caught them with their hands in the cookie jar, so to speak.
“A human settlement could exist there, for sure, but if one does exists, why doesn’t the message ever change? It’s a continual loop of the same message over and over again.”
“You think it’s a trap,” Emily said.
“Yes,” Francis responded. “We do. This is where Rae and I have our disagreement.”
Emily turned to Francis and looked at her, and then asked, “what disagreement?”
“Mom thinks two people could sneak through Nevada, map a trail to Estes Park, and report back whether there is a human settlement there or not.”
“That’s quite a tasking for two people,” I interjected.
“It is a large responsibility,” Francis agreed. “Still, two people wouldn’t draw as much attention.”
“Sure, that’s true, but if those two people run into trouble they have no back up,” Rae said. “And it’d be foolish to assume they could traverse the entire state without attracting any trouble.”
“I’m not dense, daughter. I know the risk, but this trip is worth it’s weight in gold,” Francis responded curtly, “and at a minimum it’d pay to know what was out there lurking in the shadows.”
The cook came over and topped off everyone’s coffee. Then, he came back and removed the dirty dishes. He and Francis gave each other a look that bordered on sweetness.
“And what do you think, Rae?”
“Jake, you saw what the Lurkers did to my squad. If we’re going into Nevada, or even to Estes Park, we need to go in heavy. I’d shut down everything but our biggest bases, and roll out in force. Yes, it’d make us a bigger, slower target, but we’d have firepower and numbers to fight whatever came our way. If that’s too much risk, I’d suggest sending in a platoon-sized element loaded with heavy weaponry.”
“What would the mission priority be for this heavy platoon? Reconnaissance?”
“The council would decide the priority.”
Emily scooted forward on her stool and looked at Francis and Emily, and she did not look happy.
“You want me and Jake to go with these platoons or squads or whatever?”
“You and Jake have a choice, Emily.” Francis sucked some smoke in and held her breath, then let it out real slow. “Y’all could help us, but if you decide not to, you can stay in Kingsbury and have the same deal you have here.”
“Surely there are more options than that,” Emily snapped. “You can go out there and find out if the Lurkers are hungry, or you can stay here,” Emily drawled out in an exaggerated Southern accent. “Those aren’t choices.”
“You and Jake talk it over. When you’ve made up your minds, come to the command tent and let me know,” Francis said, as she stood. Rae hadn’t said anything for a while, she watched us as Francis laid out the details. Emily walked over to her and whispered, “if you are ready to teach me how to help Jake, I’m ready to learn.”
“Sure, Emily. I can teach you how to use that weapon on your hip. Come with me.”
It was times like this when I missed Ted the most. He always had something witty to say to break the tension. I watched as Emily and Rae walked out of the canteen. My thoughts turned dark, as I considered what course of action would cost Emily and I the least. The digital clock above the griddle read 1159.
“Noon. Time is racing past, and I’ve got to make a decision.” My thoughts turned to Ted again and I murmured, “what would Ted do in this situation?”
The cook brought the coffee pot by again and topped off my cup.
“I’m Jonah,” he said, as he poured. “You look like a man with a lot on his mind.”
“Yes, sir. I’m Jake. It wouldn’t bother me so much if I was the only one who’d pay for making the wrong choice.”
“I understand, son. You want to talk it out?”
Gunfire erupted from somewhere in the camp, and I looked up trying to figure out what to do next. Everyone else kept eating and drinking, and acted as if this was a common occurrence. Jonah chuckled.
“Rae took your friend to the range. They’ll be there a while. It ain’t none of my business Jake, but there ain’t no shame in staying put for a while. Far as I can tell, there ain’t no wrong choice.”
“Yeah, I know. There’s no safe place anywhere.”
“That’s true, son, but there are some places safer than others.”
I nodded in agreement and drank some coffee. The caffeine made me feel a little better about our situation, but before I did anything, I needed to consult with Emily.
“Here’s some truth that neither Rae nor Francis will put to you, Jake. We, that’s us in this camp, we could use more people like you. You’re a fighter, and while there are lots of people around here with weapons, few served in the military.”
“I don’t understand, Jonah.”
“We could make a stand right here. Lake Tahoe isn’t far from here, if things get dicey, we can take up shelter there.”
“I see what you’re saying, Jonah, but what about the constant influx of survivors that show up here daily? Where do we put them? How do we feed them when our supplies are limited?”
Jonah sighed and tossed his dirty rag onto the counter top. He wiped at his eyebrows and shrugged.
“I don’t know, Jake. There are no easy answers.”
“No, answers are fleeting when you need them the most.”
Jonah walked over to the griddle and began to clean up. I sipped my coffee and listened to the gunfire coming from the range. My mind wandered to Emily, and I grinned. Jonah noticed and said, “your friend is a pretty gal.”
I glanced up at Jonah and cleared my throat. The stupid thing wouldn’t stay cleared. How could he have possibly known I was thinking about Emily?
Jonah laughed, and I blushed red. He walked over to me and said, “Son, only one thing makes a hard man grin like a fool, and that’s a woman.”
“We’re just friends, Jonah.”
“Jake, you’re too close to the situation. You don’t see how that gal looks at you, or how you look at her with those love struck eyes of yours.”
“I’m trying to help her, Jonah. She lost her mate on the way here to a group of rapists. She’s stuck with me.”
“Look around this camp, Jake. Every day we lose more and more people to the Lurkers. There’s no time for dating, no high-priced nightclubs or restaurants, heck, there’s not even money anymore. If you’re lucky enough to find someone you can get along with, you settle. That’s the long and short of it.”
I drained the rest of my coffee, and said goodbye to Jonah. Then, I walked back to my tent and took out a towel and a clean set of clothes, and set out for the showering area. After a ten-second shower, I walked back to the tent, put my gear away and crawled onto the bed. I listened to the gunfire until my eyes grew heavy, and I fell asleep somewhere between the gunfire and nightmares about hungry Lurkers.
Around midnight, I felt Emily crawl into bed. She leaned over to me, her soap and scent filled my nostrils. I breathed it in and smiled.
“Are you awake, Jake?”
“I am now, Emily. How did it go?”
“It was fun. Rae is a great teacher.”
“Awesome,” I said, as I stretched. “What do you want to do?”
Emily leaned close, a mocking grin on her face, and whispered, “right now?”
I cleared my throat and blushed. Emily giggled, the sparse light danced in her eyes, and my stupid throat wouldn’t stay cleared. She traced the outline of my jaw with her fingers. My whole body singed at her touch.
She leaned close and her scent grew stronger. Emily put her hand under my chin and tilted her face toward mine. She kissed me softly and whispered, “I want to stay with you, Jake.”
I licked my lips, my heart raced, and I resisted the urge to give into my carnal desires. We had to figure this out, because the bus would arrive in only a few short hours. I hated myself for not giving in, but hopefully, there’d be time to make up for this denial.
“It’s not that simple, Emily. If we go to Kingsbury, then we fall under their rules. We don’t know anyone there. If we strike out on our own, we’re walking into the unknown.”
“So, we stay here, Jake. You and me, and we build us a life together. We know Rae and Francis, and we could work here.”
“What about Estes Park?”
“It’s like they said, no one knows what’s on the other side of the border. We know what’s here.”
Emily snuggled up to me and wrapped her arms around me. I couldn’t believe it, the girl of my dreams wanted to stay with me. But it would do no good if we didn’t have a plan. Alone, we didn’t stand a chance against the Lurkers.
“Is that what you want, Emily?”
“I want to stay with you, Jake. Whatever you decide to do, I’m ride or die with you.”

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