In this fifth installment in The Borrowed World Series, Human Resources Manager Alice Watkins is finally making it home. In her journey across Virginia, she experiences a country disintegrating and collapsing in on itself in the wake of a nationwide terror attack. Her trip home is agonizing; her experiences indescribable.
She finds that her peaceful farm community is experiencing the same strife as the rest of the nation. As her world is further shaken by a series of devastating occurrences, she comes to realize that she has been profoundly and irreversibly changed by her agonizing experiences on the road. She is both emotionally blunted and wickedly violent. She cannot feel love, nor does she feel the slightest remorse at taking someone’s life.
In an attempt to find safety for her family, she must reconnect with the former coworkers that she started this journey with. She discovers the group struggling with their own problems, finding that in this borrowed world there is no promise of safety, no peace, and no promise of tomorrow.
Release date: June 28, 2017
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Print pages: 248
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Valley of Vengeance
In the nearly twenty-five years she’d spent with her employer, Alice had made the trip to Richmond, Virginia hundreds of times. Despite it being several hundred miles round trip, it had become as routine as a trip of that length could become. She could practically drive it blindfolded. She knew where the good restaurants and the clean bathrooms were. She even knew where the speed traps were. The last trip had been anything but routine. It had become a gnarled and convoluted nightmare that she hoped would soon be nothing but a memory. If she could just reach her family she could start putting it all behind her.
The ill-fated trip had started going downhill when the nation was hit with a series of devastating terror attacks in the early morning hours after their arrival. She and her travelling companions had woken to no power, no water, and little information as to the extent of the damage. Despite some debate and disagreement among the group of six, they made the decision to leave Richmond and head back home before things got worse.
They were soon to learn that one target of the terror attacks had been some of the nation’s larger fuel refineries. With the refineries offline and the ability to produce gasoline severely diminished, the president of the United States issued an executive order freezing the fuel supply. It would be available only to those taking part in the official disaster response. The group learned of this executive order while stopped at a travel plaza not far outside of Richmond. News of the fuel seizure inflamed scared and angry travelers, leading to a riot. Gunfire broke out and one of their party was killed in the chaos. It became clear very quickly that the rules had changed.
Forced to abandon their vehicle when it ran out of fuel, the group made their way to an overcrowded interstate exit where they paid an exorbitant price for a room in a hotel with no electricity. There they had a disagreement over the best course of action. Some in their party wanted to wait for the official Federal response and take charter buses to the nearest FEMA assistance center. Others in the group, whom Alice did not agree with, wanted no part of that and split from the group, foolishly choosing to walk home. It would be a while before Alice accepted that this had not been such a foolish decision after all.
She and her friend Rebecca had gone the route of trusting FEMA to deliver them home. After spending some time in a FEMA camp it became clear to Alice that the intention of the camp was not to get stranded travelers home as they’d been told, but instead to just get them centralized so they wouldn’t bother the small communities along the highways. Not only was there no plan to get them home, but striking out on their own was strongly discouraged.
When she finally realized the futility of the FEMA camp situation, she escaped in the luggage compartment of a charter bus, but again, things didn’t go well for her. Out of loyalty, she chose to include her coworker Rebecca in her plans since she was the only person in the FEMA camp Alice knew. Rebecca suffered from a streak of narcissism that required constant feeding, however. In the camp, it was fed by a man she met named Boyd.
To Alice’s horror, Rebecca shared their escape plans with Boyd and they had no choice but to include him when he showed up at their rendezvous point. Rebecca and Boyd quickly paired off, ignoring Alice for much of the trip. Clearly the third wheel, she struggled with whether to split off on her own and travel solo. She didn’t decide in time. One morning, Alice found her coworker brutally murdered by the volatile Boyd. Had Alice not slipped off and slept away from the pair that night it was likely she would have been murdered too.
Her trip continued to get worse.
Desperate, she drank untreated water from a ditch. It soon made her nauseous and eventually wracked her bowels. She became delirious from dehydration and fever, but was buoyed by having reached territory that was familiar to her. This excitement was short-lived. She crossed paths with Boyd again and ended up chained in his basement. There she found Boyd to be a mentally ill young man with intentions of marrying her and making her his wife. When she did not respond appropriately, there was a ferocious struggle. She killed Boyd with his own knife.
The experience with Boyd changed her. She didn’t know if it came from having to take his life so violently or if it came from the experience of being totally at his mercy in the dark prison of his basement.
She salvaged enough gear and clothing from Boyd’s house to eventually make it back to her office. There, by sheer luck, she reconnected with Gary, one of her original group of travelling companions. His offer to treat her with antibiotics and help her get home led her to stay with his family for several days. While the stay was supposed to help her recover and gain strength, it was not a respite from the escalating violence of their collapsing society. There were attacks on Gary’s innocent family by a marauding group of neighbors and she was forced to kill again. It had been easier for her the second time. The things that happened to her at Boyd’s made her harder inside.
Gary lost his son-in-law in that attack. That led Gary to the difficult conclusion that he had to leave his home. He would pack his family into vehicles and bug out to the rural valley where Jim, another of their original group, lived. Alice helped them pack and travelled with them to the valley. True to his word, Gary gave her a fueled vehicle after they reached Jim’s valley. Before she left, Jim told her that she was welcome to come back with her family if she needed to. There would be strength in numbers.
She appreciated his offer but the truth was that they’d never gotten along that well. They were always clashing over something at work. Those things seemed silly now. She’d changed and he’d changed. The world, too, had changed around them.
Staying in that valley was not her plan. Her plan was to get home to her family, perhaps head out to her mom’s farm and build a life of her own until things returned to normal. She had healing to do, both mentally and physically. She needed to put this whole experience far behind her. She needed to become a mother again, and a wife. She needed to be shed of the bloodstained knife she carried on her belt. She needed to be free of the blackness she wore like a gown of ice cold water.
Alice drove quickly but cautiously from the isolated valley in Russell County, Virginia. Her two-day trip to Richmond, Virginia had run into several weeks now and she was ready to get home, though she knew she had to maintain caution. Her home was on the other side of town and she wanted to get there alive and in one piece. It would be easy to lose focus here on the home stretch and do something stupid.
From the condition of the roads it was clear that this was not the same world she’d left. They were covered in debris that would usually have been cleaned up by the local highway department. There were tree branches, roadkill, and trash that forced her to drive slowly and stay vigilant. There were abandoned vehicles on the shoulders and partially blocking lanes, stopped where she assumed they ran out of fuel. They would have presented an obstacle to vehicle traffic if there had been any traffic other than her.
She passed some folks on bicycles and a few walkers. She saw a few folks working in gardens or in fields, though most didn’t have any fuel and were having to do the work by hand. When she’d left for her trip, people in this rural community would have thrown a hand up in greeting to anyone they met on the road. Now everyone was greeted with suspicion. She’d already lost that reflexive wave of greeting and these folks apparently had as well.
Around a turn she hit a straight stretch of road with no debris in sight. Either it had been cleared or simply spared the abuse that the rest of this country road was suffering. With no obstacles to dodge, she pressed the gas pedal and picked up the pace, anxious to get home. She was doing nearly fifty miles per hour when a dog leapt out in front of her. She was afraid to swerve around it for fear it might jump in front of her. She slammed on the brakes and lurched to a stop. It wasn’t that she was a dog lover, it was simply reflex.
The dog was so close to the front of the vehicle that she couldn’t see it over the hood. She lowered the driver’s side window and leaned out. She could see then that the dog was pulling against something. A glint of light hit what must have been fishing line tied to the dog’s collar. The animal had been pulled into the road on purpose.
It was a trap.
Alice caught movement from the corner of her eye. A man with a baseball bat, dressed in camo, sprang from the ditch. Alice yanked her head back in and began rolling up her window. It was not a logical reaction but an instinctive one. Then he was at the door and the bat was drawn back. The bat would shatter the half-raised window, then it would shatter her skull.
She felt for the revolver that lay against her thigh. She raised it and pointed it at the man. He saw it but didn’t even pause. Did he not think she’d do it? Did he think it was unloaded?
She pulled the trigger and there was an enormous boom. The sound was deafening inside the car and she flinched. The round punched through the glass and hit the man just below the sternum. He doubled over, then fell backward, screaming.
Alice was rattled by the attack, stunned by the sound of the gunfire in the confined space of the car. Paralyzed, she watched the man writhing in the ditch, clearly about to die.
Then her passenger window shattered, spraying her with glass. She spun toward a man clutching a short piece of rebar, using it to rake glass from the opening. She raised her gun toward him, ready to pull the trigger as soon as she had it centered on him, but he grabbed it through the window. She tried to aim it toward him but he was pushing against her and throwing her aim off. Then she tried to pull the trigger, hoping the round would either hit him or scare him. She pulled and pulled but it wouldn’t go back. She noticed he’d slid a finger in behind the trigger so that she couldn’t pull it.
Alice tried to wrench the gun from him. She put both hands on it, screaming and pulling violently. Far from being deterred, the man actually grinned at her reaction. He continued to maneuver his body through the shattered window, eventually getting a second hand on the gun.
Then he was yelling too. Not at her, but for help. She stole a glance at her rearview mirror and saw movement. There were more of them. This was bad.
She had no choice. She had to get out of there or die. She stomped the gas, hoping the dog was able to get out of the way. There was yelling behind her. She took one hand from the gun and used it to steer.
The man still had both his hands on the gun to her one hand. He would win this battle if she didn’t come up with something fast. She began weaving the car from side-to-side, trying to sling the man from her vehicle. He didn’t fall but he did take one hand from the gun and grab at her hair. He pulled at it, trying to use it to pull himself inside the vehicle.
He jerked her head repeatedly, trying to make her wreck. It wrenched her neck painfully to the side. She screamed, both from pain and fear, and tried to pull the trigger again. His finger was still wedged behind it. The gun was useless unless she could get his finger out of there. She didn’t know what to do. She was afraid to stop and fight him hand-to-hand. He was stronger and would overpower her. Then his reinforcements would catch up with them and her journey would be over. She would not die this close to home.
He tried to push her head into the steering wheel. She spun to bite his hand, but was unable to get purchase on it. The man cursed at her, letting go of her head and drawing back to punch her. She swerved hard, forcing him to grab onto the rearview mirror to keep from being slung out. A tire dropped off the shoulder into a ditch and she yanked the wheel, overcorrecting and almost sending the car off the opposite side of the road. She had to pay attention.
With a solid handhold on the mirror, the man tried again to pull himself completely into the vehicle. There was still glass in the opening, grating and sawing against the pale flesh of his belly as he dragged himself over it. Blood ran down the interior door panel. She could see the look on his face, hear it in his curses. If he got through that window, he would make her pay for his pain.
Alice swerved again and the rearview mirror snapped free of the windshield. Rather than dislodging him from the vehicle, he now had a weapon. He smashed it against her head, shattering the mirror and opening a cut on her scalp. He hit her again. She tried to swerve and make him drop the mirror but he was in the window opening up to his waist now. She was losing this fight. At this point, even letting go of the gun would not help. He would just turn it on her. She had to do something.
Ahead and to her left, she noticed a cornfield with men stacking fodder shocks. The gate leading to the field was open. As the man drew back to hit her with the mirror again, she whipped the wheel to the left and shot through the tight opening between the gateposts. The man’s extended legs hit one of the posts at thigh level and jerked him violently out the window before he could even scream.
The men in the field stared in shock as Alice turned the wheel hard. She’d done enough doughnuts in parking lots to know how to make a car spin the way she wanted it. She mashed the gas pedal, keeping the car’s momentum up, and spun until she was facing back toward the gate. She could see the crumpled man writhing between the posts.
The car fishtailed as it regained traction, picking up speed. She shot for the opening again, hearing a sickening thud as she drove over the man. The car jumped and jolted, then was back on the road. She looked in her side mirror and saw men from the field running to aid the man she’d run over. He had to be dead. She hoped he was.
Alice was hypervigilant for the rest of her drive. She took the four-lane bypass around town and found a few abandoned cars on the road but no people. When she got off the bypass, it was three more miles of careful driving to reach her neighborhood. There she found another roadblock, but this was one manned by people from her neighborhood. They were familiar faces, people who knew and recognized her. Still, that did not reduce her anxiety level. She found herself psychologically preparing for another fight.
This should have been a moment of exhilaration, but she found herself unable to show very much excitement. Everything inside her felt muted anymore. Well, not completely everything. Rage, hate, and violent impulses did not appear to be muted at all, although all of the emotions she would normally associate as being good felt as if a damp towel had been laid over them.
In her career, she had often forced herself to be friendly when she didn’t feel it. As a trainer, she frequently had to go into rooms full of people who didn’t want to be there and try to make them listen to her. She had to deliver lots of bad news, she had to fire people or tell them that they were not hirable due to a criminal offense in their past. She could put on her game face and perform with the best of them. That facet of her personality had been eroded by the experiences of this trip. She did not think she could make herself ever be friendly again.
One of her neighbors, Adam, pulled an improvised gate aside and let her enter when he recognized her. She stopped the car beside him. She knew him, knew his wife, she’d been to cookouts at their house, and their kids played together. However, she didn’t like him. She thought he was creepy. Whenever she was outside gardening he always seemed to find an excuse to come outside. Sometimes he tried to make conversation. Sometimes he just stared at her with an odd smile on his face. She’d also seen him watching from the windows of his house, his featureless dark shape recognizable in profile.
“Haven’t seen you since this whole mess started,” Adam said. “Where you been?” He crouched down beside her door, putting a hand on the forearm that she rested in her open window and patting it.
She stared at his hand, then moved her arm from beneath it before answering him. She could not focus enough to engage in conversation while he was touching her. “I was out of town,” she said. “Just getting back.”
“You haven’t been home at all?” he asked. “I didn’t think I’d seen you for a while.”
She met his eye, trying to convey to him that she knew he would have been watching for her, also trying to convey just how unpleasant she found the notion. “No, I’ve been on the road. I was in Richmond when this all happened.”
“Richmond?” Adam said. “That must have been a shit storm. How did you get home?”
Adam burst out laughing until he saw that she was not joking. “You walked?”
“I saw your family moving around,” he said. “I just assumed you were with them.”
She shook her head. “No. It’s taken weeks to get here.”
He leaned closer, folding his forearms and resting them in the open window. It wasn’t intended as a threatening gesture, but Alice found all intrusion into her personal space to be a threatening gesture anymore. It was made worse because it was him. He made her skin crawl. She could feel the reassuring warmth of the pistol hidden beneath her thigh. It was there. It was close. She could get to it if she needed. She could kill him if she had to.
“Your husband and son aren’t home,” he told her, speaking with exaggerated compassion, as if he were a friend breaking bad news.
Her heart lurched but she forced herself to maintain composure. “Do you know where they went?”
“They said they were going to your mother’s house to check on her. That was right after this whole mess happened and they’ve not been back that I’ve seen. We’ve only had this gate up for a few days though, so he could have been back and forth before that and I just didn’t notice it.”
“So he’s been gone a while?”
Adam nodded. “Yep. Right after the power went out. I’ll be honest with you, it caught a lot of us unprepared. Water ran out pretty quickly. Food too. A lot of people have left their homes. Those of us who have stayed are having to carry water from the stream down the road. Food is wherever we can find it.”
“I’m going up to my house,” Alice said.
Adam nodded. “Be careful,” he warned. “There’s been some break-ins. People stealing food and guns mostly. We don’t know if it’s neighbors doing it or strangers. Hell, it could be anyone. Just be careful.”
“I’ll be fine,” she said.
“I’ll come check on you later,” he said. “Make sure things are okay.”
“That won’t be necessary,” she said. “I’m pretty fucking sure things won’t be okay. Things may never be okay again.”
She drove off. It had been on the tip of Adam’s tongue to ask her if there was something wrong but it was clearly a stupid thing to ask. Everything about her was wrong. He tried to imagine what she’d been through, but he couldn’t. Despite her assurance, he would try to catch up with her later and make sure she didn’t need anything. It would be the neighborly thing to do.
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