Read an Excerpt
Strong and healthy, who thinks of sickness until it strikes like lightning?
Preoccupied with the world, who thinks of death until it arrives like thunder?
—SUTTA NIPATA II, discourse collections of the Buddha, fifth century B.C.
MARCH 12, 2022
I didn’t know much about guns. The one I’d been gripping in my sweaty palm held four bullets in its clip and one in the chamber—same as it had when I’d removed it from the corpse I’d come across two weeks ago. It was rare these days to find a dead body that hasn’t been skinned and stripped of its meat. Thankfully, I’d never been forced to consume human flesh, which was why I was here … out in the woods, hoping to shoot a deer before the last deer was taken, before the last of my supplies ran out and hunger drove me either to cannibalism, suicide, or starvation.
I’d arrived in the woods before dawn, having ridden all night on my motorcycle. No lights needed, thanks to my night-vision glasses, no sound since the bike was powered solely by batteries. I’d been staked out in this blind for the better part of eight hours. Sweat continued to pour down my face and soak my camouflage clothing, and the bugs were relentless, but I’d chosen this spot because it was only twenty paces from the creek, offering me a clear shot at anything or anyone that ventured by. Truth be told, I’d never shot anything more lethal than a BB gun, but desperate times required desperate measures.
When I was younger, my father had taken me camping with the Cub Scouts. The closest we’d come to hunting game was roasting marshmallows. A real hunter wouldn’t have been hunting deer with a handgun. A real hunter probably wouldn’t have had ant bites all over his ankles or mosquito bites on his arms, and he wouldn’t have been so scared.
I wasn’t scared of the woods. I was scared of being lost in the woods, unable to find my way back to the main road and the brush where I’d hidden the bike. Mostly, I was scared about what else might be in the woods hunting the deer hunters.
I called them the “SS”—sociopathic survivors. Rapists, murderers, cannibals—the SS were soulless beings hell-bent on enjoying their final fleeting moments on Earth. I’d never seen them in action, but I’d seen the forensic evidence of their depravity and it terrified me.
The last bullet in my gun’s chamber was reserved for my brain should those pack animals hunt me down.
The SS were bottom-feeders before the Die-Off, which is why they’d survived. They lived off the grid. Same for the fortress farmers, bunker clans, conspiracy theorists, and other whack-jobs who could read the tea leaves and had known the world’s oil reserves were running out.
Note to any future generations listening to these audio tapes: The powers-that-be knew the world’s oil reserves peaked in 2005; in fact, they knew how things would end as far back as the 1970s when Jimmy Carter was in office. And still the assholes did nothing.
My father had known, which is why he left his tenured position at the University of Virginia and moved us to a small rural community in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. No Internet connection, no cable TV. We went from being a normal modern-day household to twenty-first century pioneers, gradually inching our way off the grid. None of us was thrilled; my mother had contemplated divorce, my younger sisters labeled Dad the new Unabomber and threatened to run away from home. As for me, if my father had told me a flood was coming then I would have been outside with him building an ark.
It had been shortly after the first mushroom cloud bloomed over Tehran that my father explained his motives. “Robbie, life is a test, and humanity is about to face a big one. Unfortunately, when it comes to facing the unthinkable, most people prefer to remain in denial. You saw the movie Titanic, right? When the ship hit that iceberg, some passengers headed for the lifeboats, while the majority of people were so convinced the ship couldn’t sink they either stayed in bed or went back to the bar to have another drink. When you get older you’ll learn two hard facts: You can’t save people who don’t want to be saved; and preferring to remain ignorant when faced with a catastrophe demonstrates a lack of intelligence.”
Dad could have added human ego to the equation.
I’d grown up in a world of bank bailouts, recessions, unemployment, collapsing economies, and endless wars; my country embattled in a perversion of democracy where corporations had been granted the same rights as citizens. Corruption overruled any sense of justice, the radicalization of the political system preventing the few true representatives of the suddenly impoverished masses from enacting solutions that could have reversed the eventual collapse of society. As my father said, “Human ego created these problems, and human ego will drive us over the cliff. The world would be better off if a computer ran everything.”
Computers.… The next computer I own will be implanted in my skull.
A sound! My heart skipped a beat. It was an animal, approaching the creek from the thicket to my left.
Quietly, I wiped fresh sweat beads from my already moist brow and palms, shifting my body weight to aim the pistol, my eyes focused on the clearing. It was a deer, a young male, maybe eighty pounds, as anxious and as thirsty as yours truly. My hand trembled as he glanced in my direction, my body shook as he turned, offering me a clean shot at his flank.
I hesitated, drawing a breath, suddenly fearful of the gunshot and who might hear it …
The buck collapsed upon its forelegs in silence, the arrow having appeared seemingly from out of nowhere, its tip passing cleanly through the startled animal’s spine and out its chest cavity.
Leaving my makeshift hunting blind, I approached the dying beast. The angle of the arrow’s entry indicated the archer had shot from the trees.
“Touch the venison and you’ll die where you stand.”
I turned slowly, my heart racing as she emerged from the forest like an erotic female warrior from a Luis Royo painting. Her ebony hair flowed nearly down to her waist in a curly tangle camouflaged in twigs and leaves, every inch of her flesh concealed in green and brown paint or beneath a skintight matching bodysuit. Ten paces away and I could smell her scent—a heavy animal musk. She looked about my age. The quiver was strapped to her thigh, the muscles of her upper body taut as she aimed the graphite bow’s arrow at my heart.
I was as stunned as I was smitten. “The deer’s yours. Take it.”
“I intend to. Drop the piece.”
“The what? Oh, the gun. Seriously, you can have it. I doubt I could even shoot the damn thing straight.” I lowered the weapon, placed it on the ground, and backed away. “What’s your name?”
“Shut up.” Quivering the arrow, she grabbed the gun, expertly ejecting the clip to check the chamber. Reassembling the weapon, she shoved it into a satchel concealed around her waist, hoisted the dead deer over her shoulders, and was gone.
Alone again, I waited thirty seconds, then followed her through the dense brush, losing her trail within minutes.
Who was she? Was she alone? Part of a group? Her attitude suggested otherwise. My guess? When the lights went out and the grocery store shelves were rendered bare, she had fled to the mountains—or more likely her family were mountain folk. Whatever the case, she was everything I was not; ruthless, cunning … a hunter who showed no mercy.
And yet she had spared me.
Well, dork-wad, you did give her the gun. Practically curtsied as you laid it on the ground.
I paused again to listen to the forest; heard nothing.
By her scent, I knew she lived in the woods, probably a cave. Heading for higher ground, I followed a path of ferns and moss-covered rocks that emptied into a clearing of tall weeds.
To my left, the Blue Ridge Mountains caressed the setting sun between its peaks and valley. With darkness a mere ninety minutes away, I had to choose—the woman or sanctuary?
It had been twenty months since I’d carried on a conversation with another living person. I might be an introvert by nature, but listening day and night to the voice in my head had been maddening, leading to the creation of these recorded journal entries. But seeing her … she was a thunderbolt, a goddess. I knew I had to find her, even if it meant risking an encounter with the SS.
Pausing at the edge of a clearing, I retrieved water and an apple from my knapsack, consumed a quick snack, buried the evidence, and continued my trek up the mountain.
After three hundred feet the woods began anew. The shadows of pine trees were closing in, dusk coming fast. For half an hour I wandered through a maze of trees, until the night was upon me and I accepted the fact I was hopelessly lost.
Hearing men’s voices, I quickly hid.
There were a dozen of them, more in the cave.
The dogs had found the woman’s lair, its small entrance concealed by brush. I figured now they would stake out the area, waiting for her to return.
I smelled her as she moved through the shadows to join me behind the bushes. I felt the gun press firmly against the left side of my ribcage. “I need a place that’s safe.”
“Get me back to the main road.”
* * *
The motorcycle was hidden in a ravine behind mile marker thirty-six. Six months ago, I had replaced the engine and fuel tank with an electric motor and rechargeable truck battery, rendering it fast yet whisper quiet. We waited another hour before heading south, my night-vision visor illuminating any nocturnal predators that might venture near the highway.
My family’s suburban neighborhood had long since been abandoned. Our house stood alone among burnt-out foundations on a cul-de-sac. I had cleared the surrounding terrain to expose anyone who approached. Every window was bricked up, the house and matching eight-foot wall that surrounded the backyard’s concealed acreage painted to appear like charred cinder.
The lawn was covered in sheets of metal—hundreds of car trunks and engine hoods, planted flat into the grass and welded into a giant jigsaw puzzle. Climbing off the motorcycle, I instructed the beautiful huntress to follow precisely in my footsteps, my night-vision glasses revealing a preset path that turned and twisted to tall shrubs that camouflaged a subterranean side entrance. Once we were inside the house, I bolted the steel door behind the woman, shocking her by turning on the lights.
“You have electricity? How?”
“While other people were searching for food and water, I was busy collecting car batteries and solar panels.”
“And car hoods. What’s that all about?”
“Security. Step onto my property and you get zapped with ten thousand volts of electricity. By the way, my name’s Eisenbraun, Robert Eisenbraun. Most people used to call me Ike.”
“Andria Saxon.” Dropping the deer carcass on the floor, she roamed the house, taking inventory. “Air-conditioning … a working refrigerator and stove—pretty impressive, Eisenbrain. What else do you have here?”
“A running shower and soap for starters. And it’s Eisenbraun.”
“Tell you what, I’ll handle the brawn, you handle the brains and maybe we’ll manage to survive this mess.”
Copyright © 2013 by Alten Entertainment of Boca Raton, Inc.