The Organ Trail, Part Three: Not Dysentery
I need to ask you something. Back when I was telling you about Clements and I mentioned that this is the story of how I died, did you really believe me? Or did you assume I meant something metaphorical, like how I died on the inside? Because I can see how you might think that, considering what I told you about that mine shaft incident, because, sure, that slayed a ventricle or two. Or you might think that I’m in the process of dying right now as a result of everything that went down over the last few months, bleeding out while I stammer my story on the side of the road, imparting dying wisdom to a younger version of myself.
But I’m not. I’m dead. El finito, as the Italians say. This is the story of how that happened. It was horrible and painful and more than a little embarrassing. And baby, it wasn’t dysentery that did me in. So settle in and get ready to hear the long and short of it.
I’m not sure exactly where my story picks up. Me and Wedge — okay, I won’t mince words — I had killed that family at the mine shaft, so my memory got fuzzy around the edges for a spell. But Wedge was alive, and when we got back to the station wagon it was a relief to see everyone else was fine too. Pariah was still feeling a bit under the weather, but Somerset and Agent Five were looking good, so we hopped in, buckled up, and rolled down the road to Indianapolis. I traded off a few boxes of our ammo (we still had over 700 rounds of the stuff) for some extra food, scavenged outside the survivor colony for a bit more, and headed out. We considered spending the last of our cash to fix the car up, but we had plenty of spare parts so we figured we could putter our way to the next garage with little trouble.
Unfortunately, we hadn’t counted on two dozen maniacal bikers riding us out of town. They tried to pull alongside us and shoot through the hood into our engine, and they came mighty close to putting our car out of its misery. Fortunately for my little group, I pulled a few maneuvers that would have made George Lucas pee himself with envy, and swerved all twenty or so bandits off the road.
Back in my old life, I would have felt at least a pang of guilt about crushing a man under my car, whether he was trying to kill me or not. But after shooting Clements in the face and burying a family of five under a hundred tons of rubble, I didn’t feel a thing.
Which isn’t to say I was totally dead inside, because I sure felt something after we left Chicago.
We barely hobbled into town after our brush with the biker gang, and we spent much of our time trying to get the car back into working order. I scavenged and fought for cash, we traded off spare parts and gas and more ammunition, and Pariah took advantage of his illness to panhandle a few bucks from the city’s more sensitive inhabitants. All things considered, we were industrious and happy there. We finally scraped together enough to afford repairs. Then, with a longing glance at some of the friends we’d made in town, we were off, praying for luck but suspecting our journey was coming to a grisly close.
Turns out our fears were better founded than our hopes.
See, those bandits weren’t too happy about me murdering a whole pile of their members in self-defense rather than letting them steal our things and turn us into playthings, so they’d sent out hunters along every possible interstate and junction and traversable side-road within driving distance of my motorcycle massacre. My assumption was that they’d be begging me, the destroyer of bikes and helpless families, to join their gang. Instead, the one who happened on our little camp as we rested by the side of the road decided on a different tactic, jumping out and nabbing Agent Five and screaming gibberish at us.
I suppose my reputation as the premier killer of the wasteland needed some modification. I was damn good at taking lives — that part was spot on. Only problem was, I wasn’t too accurate about it. I was like a nine-year-old boy learning to piss standing up. Which is to say, I just sort of sprayed all over the place and lives got themselves ended whenever they stood in the way.
In this case I mean to say I shot Agent Five in the head and the bandit realized I was a psychopath and he ran off into the brush and I was too busy vomiting at my mistake to chase him down and take his scalp.
The rest of the group stood around looking shocked. Pariah was sympathy-vomiting, Wedge was mad, and Somerset was trying to comfort me and not get too close to me all at once.
At any rate, we couldn’t stay put in case the bandit found more of his biker friends and told them we were sitting around feeling bad about blowing out a friend’s brains, so we got back in the car and drove through the night, not talking much except to point out things in the road or to snap at each other, then shutting up and feeling sheepish for a while. We got off the main road and crept along pitch-black farming junctions, keeping the lights out to avoid attracting more attention. When morning came, it seemed we have evaded the bandits. For the time being, anyway.
We eventually came to a remote shack populated by few dozen survivors. They were willing to help us out (for a price, naturally). They also had a job for us, one that struck a personal chord in me: bandits were nearby, they said. They were a new addition to the area’s scenery, only having shown up recently. And when they came or went, they used bikes.
Our bandits, then. Surely. They had to be.
The locals told us they’d taken up residence in a building overlooking the freeway, and they had a tendency to shoot at anything that moved — zed, survivor, car. No interest in robbing or taking slaves or checking their fire. Just murder in their hearts and the ammo to back it up.
I agreed to wipe them out on the spot.
The others weren’t as enthusiastic. “We’ve snuck past them,” Somerset pointed out. “They think we’ll come along the freeway, but now we can just get on a little farther down the road and we’ll never hear from them again.” Wedge agreed that the risk was too great, and Pariah was too busy being sick to care much in either direction. So I said my goodbyes and told them to take care of each other and leave if I wasn’t back in a day’s time. Somerset cried and Wedge tried to look braver than he was feeling and Pariah puked for me.
When I left the shack, I could hear the survivors whispering about me. They said I was the one they’d head about over the radio and from passing travelers. I was the one who had come up against the wasteland gangs and stood my ground; I was the man who would shoot his own friends rather than negotiate with thugs or let them be dragged into captivity; I was the scourge of the apocalypse. And my legend was inspiring people to be better men, to be braver and bolder. To act without worrying about what a dead society would think, because that was what this harsh new world demanded.
Right then, I realized that this was how I would die. How I should die.
So instead of sneaking up on the building from behind, I moseyed right up to the front and bellowed my challenge. I would have liked to shout the names of the men I’d killed, but the only ones I could come up with were Clements and Agent Five (and that was only his post-apocalypse name), so I tucked away that little flourish for later use once I’d invented a handful of mean-sounding bandit titles.
The occupants were visibly terrified, and I realized that I’d thinned out their clan significantly. There were only five left, and a couple recognized me instantly and began shouting and firing wildly. I took cover behind some sandbags they’d set up to use during their ambushes, and the fight was on.
I could tell you all sorts of colorful embellishments about the battle, but it really came down to patience. The sandbags were thick and the enemies were panicked, so I just cozied up and waited. When they paused to reload or wonder if I was dead, I’d poke out and pop one in the head. I did this five times until the echo of gunshots faded and the air was still and five men had stopped their shouting.
So yeah, it was a bit of a letdown.
The wasteland gang was all but wiped out, scattered to the wind and completely unable to regroup after spending so much energy chasing after us, and the radio in the survivor shack confirmed it. I wish I could say my friends were glad to see me, but I think they were as disappointed with my survival as I was.
On to St. Louis and beyond. Not much of note happened beyond that point. Survival become routine: we would arrive at yet another relatively civilized location, I would take jobs consisting of murder while the others would barter for food and look at me less, and then we were gone again. Life was like this for weeks. Eventually we all fell ill. The wasteland was taking its toll, constant vigilance wearing us out, and winter was coming on. I was glad Agent Five hadn’t lived to see this, though I never said it to the group because I knew they’d start to wonder if I was planning on ending their misery too.
Wedge and Pariah were the first to go, slipping into unconsciousness as we drove through the cold of the mountains. Somerset and I fed them and wiped their drool and turned them onto their sides so they wouldn’t drown in their own gurgle. Somerset’s skin eventually turned greyish, and she sat still and looked forwards and didn’t blink often. I held her hand and wondered how much longer it would be.
She fell asleep the next day and didn’t wake up. She wasn’t dead, and a part of me thought maybe we could make it to the next blip of civilization and get something warm to eat and the right medicine to revive my friends and maybe some recognition for all I’d done and all I’d meant to do. The bigger part of me knew this was it. I wasn’t going to die as the savior of the wasteland, or having made it to the haven on the West Coast. I was just going to die.
The station wagon rolled down a heavy grade, and it didn’t brake as well as it used to. It would have been nice if it had flung us off a cliff to a fiery end, though I suspect we didn’t have enough gas left in the tank to make much of a fireball. Instead, this happened:
And that was it. Killed by a speedbump, exactly the way I said it would happen when the dumb community watchdog organization back home was campaigning to get them put in on my street. That was two summers and a hundred years ago.
So. Yep, I’m dead. Is there a lesson here? I sure don’t know; probably not. Even if there were, it wouldn’t do me one ounce of good. But here goes anyway:
Watch out for speedbumps.