Created and Edited
Created and edited by Jeremiah Donaldson.
All stories copyright 2014 by their respective authors.
Special thanks to S.S. White for editing 'John's Story'.
All rights reserved. Any resemblance to persons you know is reality playing tricks on you.
Table of Contents
Nine years ago this December, I finished my first novel, Plague. I edited it to death, taking bad advice when offered, and eventually called it 'done' a year afterward.
The idea for a sequel had always been in the back of my mind, but the story left that I wanted to tell didn't come to another book itself. This idea to do a collection led to Aftermath.
A call for submissions resulted in six stories by five authors fitting the bill, with my own story making seven total. Mine had always been meant to close the book out, and all others were assigned random order. As always, I'll let the writing speak for itself.
Jeremiah 'Jerry' Donaldson
Shell casings bounced all over the interior of the hybrid while Ann poured automatic fire into the pickup on their right. They joined the cold casings and empty clips littering the passenger side floor of the tiny car John drove. She pulled a full clip from between the seats and resumed her attack on the cult vehicles. John held the car steady as bullets ricocheted off the hood and roof. Several had punched through the windshield, causing it to sag in the frame. Spider webs of cracks blocked most of his sight. He drove by watching the remaining lights on the cult vehicles and Moss' van ahead of him.
The truck on the right took a hit in the driver’s side front tire, slowing them down. The driver over corrected towards the curb. John stomped the accelerator to catch the remaining vehicle, but the damaged truck with its bad driver over corrected again and sent the truck back across the road.
John didn’t even touch the brake before the front of the hybrid slid under the driver’s door of the truck. His seat belt held, snapping his head forward as the shattered glass flew from the frame against the side of the truck. Shards rained into the cabin while the edge of the truck slid up on the windshield frame. The spinning drive shaft and haphazard exhaust went by in slow motion before the rear wheel peeled paint off the hood and cleared the car. All the lights went out as the power died.
The truck swerved side to side out of sight until the taillights disappeared down the street. Not even the tick of a hot engine broke the silence. Or any thing else. Panic clinched John’s chest and he reached to the right. The passenger seat sat empty.
He blinked, trying to see in the near darkness caused from the blackout and tall buildings blocking the moonlight. Only faint outlines were visible. Nothing made a sound. She must have been thrown clear and knocked out.
The door was deformed from the impact and required several hits from his shoulder before it popped open.
A groan came out of the darkness.
John crouched and pulled his pistol from the tactical vest holster: A .40 Desert Eagle.
“My leg! Help!”
The third sound gave John a good idea of the man’s location. He crept forward, wary for an ambush and wishing he’d taken the time to find his night vision goggles before leaving the car. His eyes adjusted to the gloom enough for him to make out the silhouette of the man laying on the sidewalk. He must have been one of those riding in the truck bed.
John didn’t see any other movement in the dark and stepped closer. He pointed the pistol at the man’s head before speaking. “Don’t move.”
The man stiffened. “D-don’t kill me. Please.”
“You weren’t trying to extend the same courtesy to us.”
“We were doing what we were told.”
“Well, I’m with the military, and I’m telling you to run before something bad happens to you.”
“My leg…” The man had his hurt limb stretched out in front of him. A bulge and dark stain indicated a compound fracture in his shin.
“I’m not a medic, nor can I call in help. I’ll leave you something for a splint and some pain pills, but you’ll have to find your own way out of here.”
“Please, I can’t walk.”
The protests ceased.
He went to the car and cut one of the seat belts loose. Some branches from a nearby decorative tree completed the splint materials. He tossed them at the man’s side while holding the gun on him. Only dead men let down their guard.
“There’s some stuff to get started.”
“But-” The man ended with a sigh.
“Did you see a woman?”
“Just the one shooting at us from the car.”
“She was thrown into the back of the truck during the wreck…and threw me out.”
John looked down the street. Why hadn’t she disabled them and returned? “Thanks for the information. Take care of that.”
John didn’t turn his back on the man until almost to the car. He had to walk from here.
His knapsack felt disturbingly light. The MREs were running out and he hadn’t noticed since he just reached back and grabbed what he needed. He combined the contents of Ann’s sack with his to make one full one.
Ann’s M-16 had disappeared. He found his wedged under the seat but the sights had caught on the seat frame and twisted out of shape. It could have been his imagination in the dim light, but the barrel didn’t look right. He decided to leave the weapon behind since there was only one more clip for it. Better to travel light and find an undamaged weapon he could count on. The pistol and combat tomahawk would get him to a gun store or pawn shop.
He paused and considered his choices. Ann’s failure to return left him without backup and suggested she‘d been captured or killed. Moss and his friends couldn’t be counted on for much in a fight. He placed their chances of reaching the objective at a mere 10%. Maybe less, depending on who roamed the dark Tampa streets. Hopefully, they were only captured instead of killed. He decided to return to Moss’ apartment complex to reacquire The Preacher’s trail if he couldn’t locate them.
The rim on the cultists' truck had gouged a deep line down the still warm pavement. Pieces of shredded tire littered the road after he’d walked for several minutes. Then a rarity appeared at the edge of his vision: A telephone booth.
Please let the book be there.
They’d been without a map since leaving Texas. The hybrid they’d ditched the Humvee for didn’t have GPS and the network for his military computer had been cut when it sensed unauthorized movement of the system. Butterflies fluttered in his stomach as he approached the booth.
The door stood half open. The receiver had been ripped loose and lay on the floor. But the book sat in the slot with its plastic cover and anti theft cable intact. Two well placed blows with the tomahawk freed the treasure trove of information. He retreated down a nearby alley to examine his find.
He used a precious few minutes of flashlight battery life to dot his position on the included map based on the last street sign he’d seen. The dock they’d planned to go to lay an hour or more walk away. He needed a vehicle and more weapons.
Several more minutes were spent finding places for guns in the business section and circling their addresses on the map. Five advertised guns. All but two were pawn shops. Gun shops were preferred, but their locations close to St. Petersburg were further than the dock. He compared the size of the advertisements to estimate the size of the business, and the closest one looked to be the third in size and in the direction he had to go. Worth checking out first.
Only random gunshots in the distance broke the night while he walked. Most people had left, but many remained. The blackout and danger kept them behind locked doors. Only three times did he see anyone else before reaching the pawn shop. All were specks on balconies far above him. The gouge in the road he followed continued past the turn he made to get to the shop.
The place was busy. John edged close enough to watch while staying in the shadows.
Several pimped out vehicles sat in the street. Two four-door cars, two SUVs, and a sports car. Flames engulfed one of the four-doors, lighting the chaotic scene. The headlights of the other vehicles were pointing to the pawn shop’s front door. Five bodies lay in various positions on the pavement and sidewalk among pools of blood and spent casings. Half a dozen men milled around in front of the pawn shop unable to get past the multiple locks on the steel gate over the door. One of them pointed an AK-47 at the locks and pulled the trigger. The burst of automatic fire from the modified weapon shattered the night. Bullets whined off the gate, lock, and bricks. One of the men screamed, grabbing his leg. The shooting stopped.
A loud argument broke out between three of them which turned into a shoving match that ended with one pulling a pistol. He emptied the clip into the other two men before saying something to the remaining three. They all seemed to agree afterward. One walked to a black SUV while the others dragged bodies to one side.
He ducked as the headlights lit the street when the driver backed up to the front of the shop. Sounds told him all he needed to know. They looped a chain through the gate and around the hitch several times. The driver eased forward, straining the motor until the tires chirped. He backed up and floored the gas. A crash of metal told of the gate being strained but not broke. The driver repeated. Again and again. John had to back up from the corner to protect his ears from the sound worse than gunfire. Something finally gave and the gate popped open with one final clang of metal. The engine and headlights of the break-in vehicle were turned off. The door slammed shut.
John gave the driver long enough to join the others before slipping back around the corner. Entry still hadn’t been gained. The solid wood door had three deadbolt locks holding it shut. Once again, the gangsters brought the modified AK-47 to bear for more effect than the first time. The shooter emptied the clip in a semicircle around the locks and stepped back while the others began kicking the door, which gave way within seconds. They paused for a moment once the doorway stood open in front of them with the partially lit shop beyond, and then rushed inside laughing and cheering. The one with the AK put it over his shoulder without reloading.
He’d never get a chance even though he was saved until last.
John pulled his pistol and approached the shop being torn apart by the four men. Their warning shot went through the head of the man who’d killed the other two minutes before. They all were staring into their own headlights, blinded, as he emptied his clip in them. The AK wielder went down trying to claw another clip from a pocket of his cargo pants. John held ready for a moment to make sure none were faking the bullet wounds. None were. However, one did have possible signs of infection.
John reloaded his pistol before returning it to the holster, then took the AK from the dead gangster. All the others had handguns. The smell of gun oil in the wood stock clearly stood out from the smell of powder in the air. John reloaded the weapon and hung it around his neck on the attached single point harness. The pockets of the gangster contained three full clips and two empty ones that he transferred to his vest in place of his empty M-16 clips. A search of the pawn shop turned up enough ammo to reload all his empty clips, including two for the pistol.
He ran across two down sleeping bags he tied on top of his backpack. They’d come in useful during the damp Florida nights. A pack of batteries that would fit his flashlight lay at the end of the counter. He shoved them into one of his cargo pockets. The fresh load weighing him down calmed his nerves. Time to get moving again.
A gun hanging against the right hand wall caught his attention going to the door. The dark wood gleamed wherever the light touched and the shells in the bandolier around the stock sparkled. A high powered scope had been attached over the bolt action. The Remington 700 would reach out and touch people in ways his other weapons couldn’t. He used a chair to climb up high enough to pull the gun down and confirmed its good condition. Ammo for it sat behind the counter. He found a second AK-47, clips, and ammo in the bottom of a gun case after further search. Stopping here had been worth the trouble.
Any of the non-burning vehicles seemed like a good choice, but he decided to take the SUV that had been used to pull the gate from the door. He wasted several seconds throwing out all the garbage in the floor. The road was littered with fast food wrappers, drink bottles, and cigarette packages when he finished. He put the now heavy backpack and large guns in the back seat and locked the doors once in the driver’s seat.
The engine caught instantly. He continued following the gouge in the street.
The scene was one of the most grisly he’d seen. Bullet wounds were one thing, but the head of the man on the sidewalk had been crushed beyond recognition with some sort of spiked club. He couldn't tell if it had been Moss or his friend. The blood had started drying along the edges. They were a ways ahead of him.
His foot kicked something when he turned back to the SUV. A spent shotgun shell skidded away from him, reminding him he had more than spiked clubs to worry about.
He turned to the shot up truck left behind. Some heat still radiated from the hood, but not much. Further search didn’t turn up anyone else, living or otherwise.
John looked into the darkness down the street and then in the direction of Moss’ apartment. His intuition didn’t help with the choice. There wasn’t enough information to form a decent picture of who did what. Obviously, a fight had taken place, but not a large one and someone had escaped or been captured. And still no Ann to clarify things. He dug a coin out of his pocket to flick into the air. Heads. The apartment first. He could get there much quicker anyway.
There were signs of life while he drove the several blocks, but none were of those he looked for. More gang members were breaking into businesses and a few cars passed him in a hurry to leave the city. He wished he could. They were supposed to have swooped in, grabbed Moss and company, then slipped out of town. Fighting crazies in one of the centers of Ebola infection didn’t rank high on his to do list.
He parked in an alley a block down from the apartments to walk the rest of the way. No reason to let them know they were being checked out. He took the night vision goggles and an AK, locking the truck behind him.
The humid air had him sweating by the time he approached the hive of activity around the apartments. Bodies of those killed by the virus had been piled and set afire in the parking lots of the buildings. People streamed in and out of the buildings with more bodies and fuel for the fires. He watched from the sidewalk for several seconds before he picked The Preacher’s truck out of the carnage. Then he noticed the people tied to the trees in the grassy area between the parking lots. Ann’s silhouette stood out as the only woman with a crew cut. She slumped on the rope holding her to the tree.
His first instinct to rush to her rescue had to be repressed. They outnumbered him more than one-hundred to one. Death only lay down that path. A glance at his watch told him it neared ten at night. The cult members should be calming down for the night before long and he could slip in to get her.
He sat in a dark doorway to wait and watch.
Time passed slow while watching the crazies feed the bonfires. He suspected they would regret burning so much when the fervor died and they realized they needed some of the stuff that'd gone up in smoke.
Burn something you really need, bastards.
He could hope, but it didn’t matter. His stay here would be no longer than needed.
Dew had dampened the grass by the time he started into the parking lot, leaving his footsteps behind him. Fires still burned, but low since no one had added fuel to them for the 20 minutes he’d waited after the last of them disappeared inside. Battery powered lanterns visible through the front lobby doors told of interior guards even if none had been posted outside. One after another, the people tied to the trees stirred and moaned for help. He hurried past them to free Ann first.
She rubbed circulation back into her wrists. “How did you know?”
“I found your friend that you threw out of the truck. The rest was luck.”
“We have to let the others loose and get out of here.”
“Release the prisoners, yes, but not leave. They didn’t care if they spoke around me, and they talked about a plan to blow up gas stations to burn the city down to purify it.”
“That’s crazy. They’ll burn themselves out too.”
“They seem to think they can burn the city in such a way as to leave them an island in the rubble. Thousands of people will be killed or displaced whether they die or not.”
John nodded and glanced at each building in turn. “Which one is he in?”
Ann pointed to the one on the right. “But we’re outnumbered. There has to be 200 or more people here, almost half are armed with something.”
“You’ve seen them up close. How would you handle them?”
Ann shrugged. “Call in backup, but that’s not possible. Instead, I say we wait until they send the people out to blow things up and take those guys out without confronting the main group.”
“How long will that be? I found one of the other group dead. They could be in trouble if they made it to the dock.”
Ann sighed. “If they’re there they will wait. If they aren’t, we don’t have anything to hurry for. IF, they aren’t ALL dead by now.”
John glanced around to see they hadn’t been noticed. “Let’s release the others and get out of here before things become if with us.”
John wanted to park closer to the overtaken apartments to keep an eye on their targets, but they couldn’t chance being found while getting some shut eye. He found a dark alley several blocks from the apartment complex and backed the SUV deep into it so that only someone walking through the passage could stumble upon them. The sound of the door locks engaging let him relax some.
He looked over. Ann had already sat her seat back and fallen asleep with a captured pistol clutched to her chest, but he knew she'd be up in a flash if anything out of the ordinary happened.
Hot engine sounds lured him to sleep once his hearing adjusted to the silence.
A spot of sunlight angling through the window hit John in the eyes and woke him up. He blinked. The sun still sat low in the sky, but the morning was already bright and humid. Sweat trickled down the middle of his back. He forced himself upright and let the window down for fresh air.
“Ann?” He reached over and shook her shoulder.
“What the fuck?”
He poked her shoulder. Rigor mortis had set in. His stomach dropped. Panic and the urge to vomit nearly overpowered him as he thought about sleeping in the truck with an infected body. He looked closer. Not infected. A goose egg stood out at the base of her skull. An untreated concussion.
He felt guilty at how much the realization calmed him.
Suddenly, the sun didn't seem so bright.
He drove around for several minutes before finding a small construction site where he could bury Ann in broken ground. A piece of scrap lumber served as a shovel. When finished, he lay her sunglasses on the ground over her head and recited a short prayer.
A tinge of worry crept over him for the first time since the ordeal began. Ann lay dead. Moss and company were dead or missing. He could report to the nearest National Guard HQ, but then stood a chance of being detained for deserting. And he still had to stop a cult from burning the city.
He looked at his watch: 0937. The grave had taken longer than he'd thought it would. Hopefully, he hadn't missed the guys going out for a day of barbequing.
He made his way to the apartment complex on mostly empty streets. A couple stragglers passed him going in the opposite direction, but they appeared to be people escaping the city. Most of them drove slow to keep the stuff piled in the back of their vehicles from falling out. Their windows were shut tight, and their panic filled faces looked side to side while they drove as if they expected an ambush on the nearly clear road.
Several vehicles had broken down or ran out of gas on the exodus out of the city. Their carcases sat every hundred meters or so. Some were in the center lane and others were half pulled onto the sidewalks. Most of their doors stood open with the interiors ransacked and personal effects laying about on the ground.
He passed two bodies within half a kilometer of each other. The glint of the morning sun off scattered shell casings indicated they'd died of something other than the virus. Both had died heading in the same direction, both had been shot execution style, and bloody footsteps led from where the first body lay past the second one. They'd been chased down like animals.
Traffic picked up once he reached the street running next to the apartments. He seen his first emergency vehicle since entering the city: A Tampa city police cruiser without flashing lights or a siren that sped past him so fast that the SUV rocked on its springs. He doubted the person behind the wheel was a cop unless they were on their way out of town without intent to come back.
He passed the apartments without slowing down, taking in the situation out of the corner of his eye. Cult members were already moving about the properties. One group prepared to leave in a pickup, but one of them had a piece of paper and tallied the pile of supplies laying on the grass between the buildings.
The Preacher stood in his bed sheet attire, yelling at a knot of men in front of the tree that Ann had been tied to. One of them stepped forward, attempting to explain something. The Preacher kicked him in the groin and shot him in the head as he withered on the ground.
Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned to The Preacher, tensing. Time seemed to stop. Even the sound of the SUV disappeared. John thought they were going to rush their leader. Then guards holding assault rifles on either side of The Preacher shifted on their feet and glanced around. Everyone turned from their gaze and went back to their business. The Preacher pointed at two men who'd been standing on either side of the man shot. They lifted the body without hesitation and carried it away.
The building cut off John's view as he continued down the street.
He glanced at the empty passenger seat and wished Ann had mentioned the hit to her head. She'd probably never realized the seriousness of it, and like himself, would have known finding treatment was remote.
He went down to the next block and pulled into a looted strip mall. Even the laundry mat, open 24/7, had busted windows, and the washers inside had been broke open for the change. A burned out car still smoked at the opposite end of the parking lot. He put the SUV in park.
He had no backup. The crazies were a bit crazier than he'd initially believed. The people he needed to meet up with were possibly dead.
John took a deep breath and gripped the steering wheel.
But he had more training than most of them put together. He would only be engaging small groups by surprise. And he only had proof one of the others was dead, which left two who could still be waiting on him.
He unlocked the doors and walked around to the passenger side so the SUV blocked him from the view of those on the street. He moved the small weapons to the front, setting the two AK-47's in the floorboard with all the extra clips not in his vest. He made sure his Desert Eagle was ready to go. The remaining miscellaneous pistols were checked and slipped into the crack in the back of the passenger seat for quick access. He had a dozen random clips for the pistols, but several were only half full. He checked the Remington 700 and lay it across the back seat, wrapping a seat belt around it so a sudden stop wouldn't send it flying. He wedged his backpack into the space behind the front seats in case it did.
On an afterthought, he opened the pack and pulled a bottled water and pack of beef jerky out of the pack before closing the doors and returning to the driver's seat. He locked the doors, and pulled up to the barren street as two people on a crotch rocket buzzed by going north followed by a convertible with a pile of belongings tied down in the back seat. No one paid him any attention. He automatically flicked on the right turn signal before pulling out.
He only drove 50 meters before twisting the wheel left across the other lane of traffic, stopping at the front door of the office building there. A few broke windows, a wedged open front door, and scattered computer wires spoke of it being looted. With a bit of luck, those passing would think he was doing damage assessment for the company. More importantly, he could see half the parking lot taken over by the cult, including most the grassy area where The Preacher oversaw his men organizing the supplies they'd gathered so far. No one else appeared shot or strapped to a tree, yet.
The pile of supplies grew as John watched and chewed on some jerky. Two pickups had pulled in and trains of people unloaded them, stacking water and canned food into mountains taller than themselves. At least a dozen guards prowled the parking lot with assault rifles. They readily stood out in their mismatched, army surplus fatigues. He could have taken The Preacher out from his position with a well placed shot from the 700, but he didn't like his odds of escaping so many angry people in daylight. That was a job for tonight, if need be. A frontal assault would be suicide.
The first truck to finish unloading pulled out. He had little need to hunt their gathering parties, but perhaps he could throw enough fear into them that more would refuse to leave, and therefore refuse to light fires. He waited until the small pickup disappeared down the street before following.
Ginny Bowman lives within the confines of Missouri with three children, a cat, and an independent film company that's fed on scripts. When not writing on her own, she's probably writing with her partner or donning a catsuit for Comicon. Life is, after all, nothing without variety. She can be found online at: http://www.facebook.com/shaneandginny.
Jeremiah Donaldson writes from London, Ky where he lives with his daughter and cat. He is currently working on his 3rd novel and several other projects. Aftermath is his first attempt editing a group project. He can be found at: www.ephiroll.com.
Jenner Michaud is a speculative fiction writer with a leaning towards the dark recesses found at the edge of reality. She enjoys weaving stories that push the boundaries of the possible, even when they go bump in the night and keep her up. Based in Ottawa, Canada, she can be reached via jennermichaud.wordpress.com or Twitter @JennerMichaud.
Lyndsey Shir-McDermott-Pour grew up devouring books like the character Matilda from the Roald Dahl book. A former flight attendant and soldier in the British Army Intelligence Corps, winning the Navegator: A Sequel writing contest made her determined to devote more time to her writing. She is 34 years old and lives in Derby with her husband, two children Nefertari-Jill and Kanaan and cat Sunshine. She enjoys all things sci-fi and fantasy, tennis & yoga, the music of Handel and Tchaikovsky and cheering on the Leicester Riders basketball team. She is currently working on her first novel and can be contacted via her Twitter page @LyndsMcDermott.
S.S. White was born and raised in a small Missouri town. She began writing poems and short stories at a young age. In 2000, she was introduced to the sci-fi/fantasy genre and incorporated that into her writing. She published her first book in 2014, which was a collection of her poems and stories throughout most of her life. Read more about her at wordsofsswhite.com.
Matthew Wilson, 31, has had over 150 appearances in such places as Horror Zine, Star*Line, Spellbound, Illumen, Apokrupha Press, Hazardous Press, Gaslight Press, Sorcerers Signal and many more. He is currently editing his first novel and can be contacted on Twitter @matthew94544267.