An excerpt from Apocalypticon, a post-apocalyptic buddy comedy road trip horror adventure by Clayton Smith
The soup was easily the best thing Ben had ever tasted; carrots, celery, onions, kale, white beans, basil, and thyme, seasoned with healthy amounts of pepper and unhealthy amounts of salt. The flavors danced together in a symphony of flavor unlike anything he’d experienced in the last three years. Even the fresh venison of the night before couldn’t compare (especially not in hindsight). Paired with the fact that he’d just had his first hot bath in over three years, thanks to his hosts’ well and well-stoked fires, he now felt perpetually on the verge of grateful tears. “The soup is amazing,” he managed to say between spoonfuls. Warren grinned.
“The vegetables and herbs are grown right here in our own little garden. Mary’s got a heck of a green thumb, a heck of a green thumb!”
“Oh, stop it,” she said, blushing.
“It’s true! Isn’t it true, kids?”
Two young children, one boy and one girl, sat across from Patrick and Ben. The boy was older, maybe by a year or two, and was dressed like his father, in a red cardigan over a white turtleneck. His hair was parted the same way, too, left to right with a gelled wave in front. The girl wore a pleated jumper over a light blue blouse. Her dark hair was pulled back and tied with matching ribbons that streamed down her back.
“Your father asked you a question,” Mary said sharply.
“Yes, father,” they answered in unison. The boy rested his head on one hand and drew imaginary pictures on the tablecloth with the end of his spoon. The girl wriggled uncomfortably in her seat, which had been boosted up with dictionaries so she could reach the table. “May we be a’scused?” she asked.
“You may not be,” their mother said. “It’s not polite to leave the table while others are eating.”
“Oh, no, please, we don’t mind,” Patrick said through a mouthful of kale.
“It’s not polite,” she repeated firmly. “Nor is it polite to speak with your mouth full.”
“Mary,” Warren said, “these men are our guests.”
She frowned. “I’m glad you’re enjoying the soup,” she said.
Ben stole a questioning glance at Patrick, but his companion was taking a passive approach to their host’s tone by ignoring it completely and hurrying up with his dinner. Ben did the same.
“Now you may be excused,” Mary said when Ben had finished slurping the dregs from his bowl. The children beamed and exploded out of their chairs. They scampered out of the dining room with squeals of delight.
“Help your mother clear the table!” Warren shouted after them, but they were already bounding up the stairs. He shook his head and chuckled. “Kids these days, eh?” He stood and began clearing the dishes from the table. Patrick and Ben moved to help, but he shooed them away.
“It’s impossible to teach them any sort of decent value in today’s television culture,” Mary said, shaking her head. Warren agreed.
Television culture? Ben mouthed to Patrick. Even televisions run on generators were useless; the stations had almost all stopped broadcasting. The only active channels they knew of were the ones set to blast pre-recorded emergency information on loop. The information was completely useless, advising people to take shelter in their basements, as if those vulnerable to the Monkey dust could have survived by hunkering down in a cellar. And even those emergency broadcasts were probably dead by now. It was hard to imagine someone keeping them powered this long. There sure as hell wasn’t any “television culture” infecting the youth. That was an extinct concern. Patrick just shrugged.
Warren reappeared in the dining room. “I hope you don’t mind, I moved your bags and things over to the guest room. That’s, uh…that’s quite a little arsenal you boys have,” he said, more with curiosity than concern. “I suppose you must be…what, some sort of bounty hunters?”
“Uhm…not exactly,” Ben said.
“What an exciting life that must be!” Warren continued, his eyes growing glassy with imagination. “Dedicating yourself to tracking down all manner of miscreants and ne’er-do-wells. Sleeping under the stars, traveling to exotic locales, all that excitement and adventure, bringing criminals to justice. I do envy you boys.”
“Well, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Patrick said, his voice dropping a whole octave. “It can get pretty dangerous out there, but we like to think we do some good.” Ben rubbed at his temples.
Warren shook his head and smiled. “Mm. I do envy you,” he said again. “Come on, why don’t we head down to the study?”
He led them to a small, comfortable room at the corner of the house. The dark leather of two overstuffed couches matched the stained oak bookshelves that lined the walls. About half of the shelves were full of books; the other half held family portraits, various plaques and awards, and polished woodcarvings of horses, sports cars, and contemplative Native Americans. “Have a seat,” he said, gesturing to the couches. They plopped down and sank into the cushions.
“Oooooo!” Patrick said, bouncing a little. “Very nice.”
Warren lit a fire in the hearth. Its light still paled in comparison to that given off by the plethora of candles spaced around and above the room, but the warmth was nice. He crossed over to a bar cabinet against the far wall. He pulled three glasses and a bottle of Four Roses small batch from inside. “I’m afraid our ice maker’s on the fritz just now. Do you fellows mind taking it neat?”
They toasted to good fortune and sipped their drinks quietly in front of the fire. Warren seemed deeply lost in his own thoughts as he swirled the drink in his glass. “This is a pretty classy man cave,” Ben said, breaking the silence. “Put in a pool table and you’d never have to leave.”
“Is billiards your game?” Warren asked. “I’ve never been much for it myself. Too mathematical, billiards. All angles and speed. I’m more of a links man, myself. Do you boys play golf?”
“I hit a guy with a putter once,” Ben said. “Remember that, Pat?”
“Yeah. I do. ‘Cause that guy was me, you jackass.”
Ben smiled at the memory. “It sure was.”
“I used to play,” Patrick volunteered. “You know, before everything happened.”
Warren gave him a queer look. “Before what happened?”
“You know. Everything. M-Day, the Flying Monkeys, and all that. The end of the world.”
Warren grimaced and shook his head. “I’m afraid I’m not much for politics,” he said by way of apology. “I’ve always been of the mind that a man should do his duty to his family, provide for them by earning an honest paycheck, and let the rest of the world sort itself out. I don’t even bother watching the news anymore. It’s gotten so I don’t need to listen to a couple of talking heads to know how far the country’s fallen. Why, take a look around you. I’m sure you’ve noticed the board on our windows. The neighborhood kids have broken them so often, with their bats and their stones, heck, some of them just drive their fists right through the glass. I got tired of replacing them and just up and said, ‘Enough!’ Young hooligans running around screaming and destroying things like that, with complete disregard to a man’s private property…well, I ask you, what kind of world is that? Where’s the humanity? It’s gotten so we don’t feel safe sending the children to school anymore. Just last month, I walked the children to the schoolhouse myself. I wanted to discuss their progress with their teachers. William’s in third grade now, he has the sour-faced old woman, Mrs. Whatshername, Leidwenger? I tried to have a conversation with her about William’s lessons, just casual conversation, you understand, but she just sat there at her desk, ignored me completely, ignored the entire room! It’s no wonder the other parents have stopped sending their children to school. Even the teachers have given up on the youth. Of course, that’s why they’re all vandals and hoodlums. They’re not held accountable. There’s no discipline anymore. Mary handles the children’s education now, and I think she does a fine job, a fine job! We don’t leave the house much because of it, either. Well, they don’t, anyway. A man has to work, of course, but there’s not much cause for a woman and children to go wandering about the neighborhood, not with such reckless violence happening everywhere. Having two calm, rational boys like yourselves in the house is a comfort to me, a real comfort. Mary refuses to accept that the neighborhood teenagers have gone feral, some sort of motherly defense, I guess, but they have, oh ho, mark my words, they have. They’re the ones who were chasing you, and I knew you two were on the up-and-up. The ferals don’t chase each other. It’s dangerous times out there, I tell you. I don’t know what’s gone on with the world.”
Patrick and Ben sat wide-eyed as Warren finished his speech and sipped thoughtfully from his glass. Patrick elbowed Ben. Ben elbowed him back. The unspoken message was clear: Holy shit.
Warren finished his whiskey and smacked his lips, savoring the flavor. “Would you boys excuse me? It’s about time to put the children to bed. Make yourselves at home. Pour another drink, if you’d like. I’ll be back shortly.” He left the room and closed the door behind him.
Ben jumped to his feet as soon as the door clicked. “What the fuck is he talking about?” he whispered hoarsely. “Neighborhood vandals? Watching the news? Dear God, he sent the kids to school up until last month? That teacher was fucking dead, probably rotted to a skeleton! These people are out of their minds!”
“Yeah, but they have excellent refreshments,” Patrick pointed out, sipping his drink.
“Are you out of your mind? We have to go!”
“Go where? Back out into the woods? At night? With those man-eating psychopathic politicians running around? No, I don’t think so. You go right ahead. I’m gonna sit here by the fire and drink more whiskey.” He proved this by remaining by the fire and by drinking more whiskey.
Ben shifted nervously from one foot to the other, wracked with indecision. Patrick was right; if those emaciated man-things were still out there, there was practically no way they’d survive the night. But being inside this house was just as unsettling. “Will you sit down?” Patrick asked. “You look like you have to pee, and that makes me have to pee. And I don’t want to go pee because this couch is really comfortable.”
“Are you sure ‘cardigan wearer’ wasn’t one of the old lady’s warnings?”
“No, she never said anything about being attacked by Mr. Rogers.”
Ben sighed helplessly. “Okay. We stay here tonight, but one of us should keep watch at all times. Seriously. We can take turns sleeping.”
Want a free story about Pilgrims that doesn’t involve eating? Of course you do.
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