Since the first installment of my new novel This Broken Earth: The U.S. of After was intended to be free to the public anyway, I have decided to post one chapter a day so that those of you who have not downloaded it yet can get a taste or possibly read one chapter a day if you like. I will still post separate posts of regular content, but hope that people can have yet another avenue to read my book if they so desire. So here goes. Chapter 1 of The U.S. of After:
As darkness blanketed the world, Clayton Delroy woke feeling something cold pressed against his nose only to realize it was the gun-powdery end of a black shotgun barrel. He was being robbed again. Before being shaken out of his R.E.M state, Clayton probably dreamed of actually eating something that was not canned. I can only speculate about his dreams. I cannot read minds. From his current expression I surmised that he was feeling fear or maybe loathing or possibly annoyance.
Oh yes, the shotgun barrel.
“Now if you just lay there all nice and quiet, I’ll take your bag here and you can just go on your way without any incident,” said the shabby, dirty kid standing over him.
The thief threatening Clayton had an air about him as if he did this for a living, pillaging and looting. I suppose Clayton was grateful this bandit was not a cannibal… or perhaps he was. It was regrettable that the bandit was taking some of his things but at least he might at least live through this if he played the game correctly.
“Look, bud,” Clayton managed, his tongue clicking in a dry mouth. “I don’t want no trouble. Just take what you want and I’ll find some more food somewheres. Just don’t kill me. Ain’t no use in doin’ that at all, man. I’m just as hungry and thirsty as you are, I figure.”
“Hmm,” grunted the thief. “What do you know about what I’ve been through?”
I thought possibly that Clayton would “figure” now was a good time to mind his words, but he forged on and I cringed for the worst.
“You’re welcome to take what you want,” he said, the left corner of his mouth curling up. “I won’t make any trouble. All I ask is that you leave my bag. I really need it in case I want to haul around other goods for people like you to steal.”
The shabby vagabond grinned an ugly feral grin. I nervously watched the way his dirty finger moved in and out of the trigger guard while he thought about what Clayton had just told him. Knowing Clayton, and I did, trust lay in his heart that he would find food again. However, it was better to be hungry than dead at the moment. I hoped Clayton understood this, because I reasoned that if he did not then my time with him was about to end. As the young bandit with the ugly grin and the shotgun turned and fumbled through Clayton’s bag, Clayton could not help but talk to him. I suppose he “figured” he had nothing to lose. Maybe it was being alone for so long.
“You ever consider the lilies of the field?” asked Clayton calmly. “They don’t work nor make no money nor do they have a job, but they are so pretty to look at. They got the best of clothes.”
At this, the stranger locked eyes with Clayton, like a snake staring down a muskrat.
“I don’t care ‘bout no flowers,” growled the stranger, shaking his gun at Clayton for emphasis. “You’ll keep your lip from flappin’ if you know what’s good for you.”
I remember they stayed that way for a while, that bandit grinning and Clayton laying there with his hands up above his head in the sit-up position. Clayton was very quiet for a moment and it seemed like forever until the grungy shotgun wielding thief told him to get up. Clayton stood up slowly, his face showing a wince, and then the bandit began nervously jerking the business end of his shotgun to the left and telling Clayton to stand “over there” while he took nearly all of Clayton’s food, me unable to do anything.
We both began to get very upset when he found the Spam. Clayton thought he had hidden it better in the little secret pocket he made in the side of the backpack. A mystery meat shunned by most before the war, Spam was edible even if one did not cook it over a fire, and now this person was making off with it. The thief spent a while going through it all, placing what he stole in a burlap sack, then he turned around and gave Clayton that rodent-like grin again. Clayton watched quietly as the stranger turned to go, made it to the edge of the clearing before he tripped over a stump, fell to the ground, and accidentally fired his weapon loudly and harmlessly into the bushes. Clayton lay still, but before he could get to his feet, the stranger was gathering up his burlap sack and disappearing into the darkness.
I could do nothing.
These were the state of affairs in the good old United States of America after the four horsemen had galloped through unannounced. People staged a final and ugly world war, bigger than any other one, and then things spun out of control with a run away virus, a collapse of all monetary funds and then came several natural disasters. The earth was breathing its last, but Clayton did not recognize this fact. All he knew after losing his food was that now he had to get some more, and that was not an easy task, but he did not cry, did not complain. He simply trusted that he would find more. Clayton had faith and this was the reason for our companionship. As a matter of truth, Clayton had absolutely no idea he was living the last few years of his life. I had absolutely no idea either even with my connections with my Superior.
Poor Clayton simply sat on the ground for awhile and I could not help feeling sympathy for his woe. He could not remedy his situation any more than I could, but that was about to change. I gave him a gentle nudge and he went to his bag to see what the thief did not remove from his precious belongings. He crouched down, opened the grungy grey and blue backpack with the word “Targus” embroidered on the top handle, and with his trembling hands found a zip-lock bag of KFC wet wipes, a bent-bristled old tooth brush, his comb, and of course the Bible.
At least that fool did not take the Bible. Clayton did not know what he would do without that, and neither did I. He found it in an old house, the front porch falling down, a skeletal hand gripping its leather bound cover. He started reading it out of boredom and for something to do to pass the time between scrounging for food or water and trying not to be seen by freighting people. He had found something in that little book that sung to him as nothing had before. Clayton’s mother used to make him go to church, but unfortunately he saw nothing but people arguing over the color of the carpet, and felt that most church going people were living a lie. He was usually shunned by the cliques in the youth group. It was simply not real to him, only a religion used by a certain political party as a mule to haul corporate greed. As far as Clayton knew, this bankrupt earth was now devoid of corporations or governments, their paper money now good only for starting fires to keep warm.
It took Clayton the better part of a year to read through the entire Bible. He was never a reader. He found within its pages a hope that he was not able to find in the world around him. Eventually he read the words of Jesus. His eyes started to dance around when he read about all the miracles and the many teachings of an as yet unrecognized King. One day he sat quietly beneath a giant pecan tree in the deep woods and read through all four gospels. That was the day I entered his life, the day I became his companion. At the point we begin this tale Clayton had read the Bible probably seven or eight times. He was always reading it. The pages were faded and worn and the black leather cracked and weathered until the brown of the cowhide started to show through the black dye.
Clayton sucked in some air, let it out, and gathered up what was left of his things to see what lay over the next hill. I felt sad as I watched his shoulders slumping. He would find some food, or find someone who had some who was willing to share. Clayton never had any trouble being kind to others. It was simply what he had learned to do, no matter how badly he was treated. I hoped he would find someone who could share their food with him soon.
He wandered through the woods for a time and finally emerged at an old road. I say old, but really it was just unused. No cars had driven on it in quite some time, and there was an odd smell in the air like turpentine. Clayton hid behind a bush until he felt safe enough to show himself. It is good that he did, because a creaking, smoky old diesel flatbed truck came lumbering along, one wheel wobbling precariously. I did not know what they were burning but it was indeed foul. Ragged people were hanging off of it, every one of them holding a gun or a pitchfork or some other bladed weapon. Clayton sat in the bushes at a safe distance and shivered even though the heat was nearly unbearable.
The world had shown Clayton several horrific things.
Unseen by Clayton but visible to me was a sick darkness hanging over the truck, streaming out a long cloak of inky black, and it made noises that he could not and dare not hear. It was better that he sat in the bushes and shivered. I saw the poisonous black beings but made sure they did not see me. It was futile to provoke a confrontation with the enemy. My Superior was giving them permission to run amok at the moment.
I could hear Clayton’s teeth chatter and his breath sounded like a broken aspirator. He did not dare move anything else. He did not know if these wanderers were friendlies or not, but from the looks of them this was obvious, their faces full of desperation, all unwashed and grimy. Clayton was good not to show himself. These were city dwellers out on a raid. Their faces blotchy and sun-baked with a matted halo of wild hair. As they rolled closer, I saw that the driver was an older man with missing teeth and his cheeks sullen, dark as pitch, covered with the grime of this world.
They chunk-kachunked on past. Clayton’s bravery rose up and he crept out into the road as they were becoming a fast blurry spider on the next hill, their legs and arms dangling down. They seemed to be wandering aimlessly. We did not care as long as they left us alone. In the big cities food had become so scarce that they had started in on one another. Clayton thought they were rumors but I knew better.
Further down the road was an old convenience store, a faded sign out front that read “AST Grocery and Gas”. Several of the letters had fallen with time and Clayton chuckled to himself about the price per gallon. That was all gone. The windows, broken and vacant with time caused Clayton to walk a cautious line to the front door. He reached in his backpack for his hatchet and then made a sullen face when he realized it was not there. He heard not a soul, so Clayton proceeded quietly. The sound of the wind blowing through the shattered windows startled him. It was simply something inside the store hanging loose, blowing in the intermittent wind. After seeing the flatbed full of terror roll by, not to mention some of the other dirty and weathered pictures of humanity he had been forced to witness in the year or so he had been on the road, Clayton was wisely cautious.
After about an hour Clayton failed to find much: a few cans of beans and an old zippo. The beans must have rolled under one of the end caps and whoever looted missed out on a good meal. He threw one of the cans on the floor, its sides expanding. He didn’t want to get sick. He opened one can with his trusty Swiss army knife that had been stashed in his pocket and sipped on the beans as if he were drinking a soda. Sadly the thief had taken his only fork. I heard him whisper a word of thanks for the beans.
He decided to use the store for a shelter that night because it would be safer than sleeping outdoors. He lay down on several bundles of paper sacks and mumbled about New Orleans.