“Sittin’ on the dock of the bay,” Pickle Juice sang softly.
“It’s not a bay,” said Loretta, half sitting, half laying, with her head against his chest.
“Watching the ti-ide roll away,” he continued undeterred.
“Actually, it’s rolling in.”
Looking down at her, not singing. “You know what your problem is, Sweet Cheeks? You have no soul.” Then, pointing out across the water, “I guess that’s it.”
Loretta followed the arc of his forefinger and off in the distance could just make out a small fishing boat chugging its way toward the Santa Monica Pier, upon which they were perched, along with the rest of the survivors of their small group. A much smaller group now. They had followed the signs, just as Zach had said.
It had been three weeks, give or take, since three nameless golf tourists had been dragged screaming from the very entrance of Big Slick, PJ’s bar, and disemboweled right on the sidewalk. A few steps further in and, who knows, at least one of them might be here as well. As it happened, their deaths were quick and comprehensive. Followed by the entire bar’s compliment, shrieking like howler monkeys on fire, losing their collective shit.
Except for the Waakenloobs. Gustav stood up without a word, closing the window above their table. Gertrude, after calmly bookmarking her place in Nabokov’s Despair, moved quickly but deliberately. She closed the front doors, barking authoritatively, “PJ, lock ze door! Gustav, Joey – zis table und zat one. Barricade!” Her normally carefully concealed accent burst its bounds in crisis conditions.
Gertrude turned her attention to Chance Harvey’s golf clubs, conveniently dropped as he was dragged to his death, his monogrammed bag putting a name to what used to be his face. Gertrude distributed a couple of wedges to Loretta and Jenny. To her husband, Gustav, she handed a mid-iron, probably a 6. The long-irons and fairway woods she tossed to the younger men, PJ, Joey and Gregory. Gertrude took the driver for herself.
Then they hunkered down, clutching their make-shift weapons, and listening to the terrifying screams from the street.
“So, what did they get right or wrong?” Loretta asked, looking up at PJ.
“You’re quite the fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, right? What did they get right?”
“Ah,” PJ, aka Pickle Juice, nee Chris Johnson, replied with his eyes fixed on the approaching boat. “I guess Cormac McCarthy got it right. And the Walking Dead, too, in that the biggest threat isn’t keeping yourself fed or sheltered. It’s surviving fellow survivors. There’s some bad, bad people left.”
“Agreed. Overall.” Loretta nodded. “But we’ve found some good ones too,” she pointed at one of their number. A hulking man, muscles breaking out of the tatters of his clothes. “Jimmy is a sweetheart. And he’s put himself at risk for our sake more than once.”
“Point conceded. I’m just saying, we have to constantly question the intentions and motives of anyone we come across. Including this guy,” he pointed at the approaching vessel.
“Okay. So, what did the post-apocalyptic literature get wrong?”
“The smell. Nothing I’ve ever read or seen truly conveyed how bad it is. I don’t mean the rotting corpses either. That goes without saying. I mean us.”
“Ha! That’s for sure,” Loretta chuckled. “You smell like a bucket of shit.”
“You’re not exactly a bowl of petunias,” he said with a great deal of charm.
Everyone sitting on the pier had experienced the luxury of exactly one change of clothes since the whole business had begun – after they had scavenged through the GAP in Santa Barbara on their way south. Anything approaching bathing had been almost as rare. PJ had given up trying to hide the ever expanding stain on his pants, a visual reminder of the reason for his nickname. And when he and Loretta had first given in to their carnal desires following Joey’s likely death? Ripe didn’t even begin to convey the pungency of their attempted congress.
It had been two weeks, give or take, since the encounter with the Marauders near Pismo Beach. Portland Yelpster Gregory, standing a useless watch, had been killed almost instantly. In the ensuing fight, Gertrude had taken out six or seven vicious, heavily armed men with nothing but a Cobra driver before being shot down. Gustav Waakenloob had also fought with a ferocity and effectiveness belying his years. PJ and Joey had often speculated about the Waakenloob’s background, suspecting there was more than met the eye. Sure, they were academics, but academics that may well have put their talents in the service of criminal masterminds, or Nazis, or something. Gustav faced his wife’s death with a predictable combination of stoicism and efficiency. With his face and hands covered in blood – his, hers, theirs – he grimaced. It was a look indistinguishable from his smile, and just as unnerving. Surveying the bodies strewn about, he said, “She will meet them in Hell. Then she will kill them all again.” He breathed deeply, exhaling a sigh. “She was a remarkable woman. I will miss her. Now we must keep moving.” And that was that.
In the aftermath of the fight, with most of their meager supplies gone, the dwindling Big Slick survivors took stock. Jenny sobbed over Gregory’s body before lovingly clipping the still somewhat-waxed, formerly-handlebar mustache off of his slightly mutilated face, placing it in a pouch she carried around her neck. The pouch had previously contained a bedazzled Buddhist Cherokee Mandala Dream Catcher, for spiritual protection and comfort. But recent events had caused her to call bullshit on its efficacy. A piece of Gregory, she figured, couldn’t do any worse.
Gustav and Jenny also were keeping an eye on the fishing boat as they shared a Cliff Bar scavenged from a CVS in Oxnard. “I want you to know,” Gustav spoke in his usual even tone, “that I know that you owe me no allegiance.”
“What are you talking about, Gustav?” Jenny mumbled through white chocolate and macadamia.
“Well, you don’t know my age. Nor I yours. But it is safe to say,” Gustav flashed his Sardonicus-like grin, “that I must be thirty years your senior.”
“It’s sweet that you want to spare my feelings. But where we are going I assume there will be men. Younger men. A better match for you. I will not feel betrayed if you were to . . .”
As he searched for the proper wording, Jenny smiled and sighed, “Hmmm, guess we’ll just have to wait and see, old man.” She leaned over and kissed his bristly cheek. Gustav kept an eye on the fishing boat, now only a few hundred yards out. “I’m not sharing my Cliff Bar with Jimmy now, am I?” she added.
It had been a week, give or take, since they lost Joey. So Joey-like, he had sacrificed himself to save the rest. They all held out hope that he had made it.
“You guys head into that Applebee’s and barricade the door. I’ll lure them across the parking lot into the woods,” Joey had said. The group was packed into the back of an abandoned Econoline van, surrounded by an ambient, angry buzz, which contrasted yet complimented the sharp thumps of hundreds of tiny little psycho bodies battering themselves against the windows and sidepanels.
“They’ll kill you Joey,” Loretta pleaded.
“No shit, genius,” Joey winked and grinned. “But otherwise, they’ll kill a bunch of us. Maybe all of us. I’ve spent years studying these things. They’re not going to go away. I know. This is the only way. Now give me the dildos. And the food.”
“They’re vaginal dilators, asshole.”
The last image PJ and Loretta had of their dear friend was of him running into the woods beyond the parking lot, holding two dildos over his head, one in each hand. One smeared with honey, the other with Smuckers strawberry jam. Chased by a swarm of Africanized bees, Joey shouted, “Come on you little motherfuckers! You’re coming with me!”
They were just on the outskirts of Ventura. PJ recalled the map on the wall of Big Slick and the last conversation he’d had with Joey regarding killer bees. The irony wasn’t lost.
It wasn’t until they were safely inside the abandoned Applebee’s, door barricaded with foyer benches, that they saw the two men. One, a giant, whirled and clenched his fists menacingly. The other, blood-smeared and obviously the worse for wear, laying on the bar, head propped up on a stack of menus. The prone man, even in this condition, was obviously a looker. He spoke in a weak voice, “It’s okay Jimmy, they’re not Marauders. They’re just regular survivors. Like us.”
Jimmy relaxed a little and the group stepped forward. “We mean no harm, Jimmy,” said PJ. “We just need to hole up in here for a while till the bees are gone.”
As they moved forward it became obvious that the man on the counter was in a bad way. His face was pale and his abdomen was covered in blood-soaked bar towels. Still, he looked like a movie star. “I’m Zach,” he said, “Zach Trope. This is my brother, Jimmy. We’re the Trope brothers. ”
PJ introduced what was left of his group. Zach went on to tell how he and his brother had been surprised by Marauders. For the most part, the Marauders had been sorry about that. Jimmy had snapped the necks of a baker’s dozen. Zach had taken out a few himself, but not before sustaining a stab-wound to the lower ribs. And here they were.
“I’m not going to hang on much longer,” Zach addressed the gathering. “I hope you’ll let my baby brother join you. I take it you’re headed for Santa Monica?”
“Not particularly,” said PJ. “We’ve been headed south for no good reason other than wanting to live out the end of the world in a nicer climate. Moving just to move. What’s in Santa Monica?”
“The pier. That’s where they pick people up every other day. At daybreak.”
“Survivors. They’ve set up on the oil rigs off shore. They say it’s safe out there. Far enough out and not actual land so it can’t . . .” Zach’s voice trailed off. He closed his eyes for a couple of seconds and reopened them. “Old guy at the campground up the road told us about it. Since then we’ve seen the signs. Handwritten all up and down the roads. More frequent the closer we’ve got.”
He slipped in and out of consciousness for the next thirty minutes or so. Big Jimmy cradled his head and wiped away tears. Zach, during spurts of wakefulness urged his brother to stay strong and to help his new friends. “Protect them like you’ve always protected me, little brother.” Jimmy promised over and again that he would.
As the fishing boat neared within fifty yards or so, a voice from a bullhorn ordered the group to line up on the pier. “Put your hands up and keep them up. We’re going to search each one of you and your belongings,” said an authoritative female voice. “Declare any weapons we may find before we begin the search. Undeclared weapons will get you shot. If you’re on the level, congratulations, your troubles are over. If you’re bad news, we’ll shoot you dead without a thought.”
The boat held a crew of six, all armed with assault rifles trained on the Big Slick crew. One of those was clearly in charge. The others called her Major Leonard. She was probably in her 50s, but the kind of 50s spent running marathons and winning MMA titles in the AARP division – with a military bearing. Her olive drab tank-top showed off an impressive pair of guns. The boat’s crew disembarked and approached the refugees. Major Leonard stopped short. “Well fuck me! Is that you, Doctor?”
“Major Leonard,” Gustav acknowledged with a slight smile. He addressed the quizzical looks of his traveling companions, “PJ, Loretta, Jenny, Jimmy, This is Major Clarissa Leonard, U.S. Army. We worked together. On a project. For the government.”
“Was U.S. Army,” Leonard corrected. “Not sure that still exists. I guess this whole thing wasn’t a complete surprise to you and Gertrude?” Then, suddenly realizing, “Gertrude isn’t with you?”
“Marauders, regrettably. Rest assured she extracted a heavy price from them. And you are correct. We suspected from the beginning that his was related to Nevada.”
“I’m so sorry, Gustav. She was the best I’ve ever seen with an edged weapon – better than any Ranger or SEAL. Hell of a scientist, too, of course.”
The familiarity didn’t seem to diminish the thoroughness of the crew’s search. It took the better part of thirty minutes to get them all aboard. Crowded. Major Leonard said that they had taken as many as a dozen refugees in one trip before. This was nothing.
As the shore receded from view, Loretta looked at PJ and said, “Do you think Joey might be alive? I mean, he still might find us right?”
“You never know. If anybody can outwit a swarm of killer bees it’s gotta be Joey.”
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Ventura, in the Applebee’s parking lot . . .
© 2015 Whiskey Leavins