Our plan, as it filtered back that day during the drive, was to loop around the Tiger Mountain Forest and head up Highway 169 toward Renton, then push north along Rainier Ave. to a secure fort the company had staged at the suburb’s Municipal Airport. There, we were supposed to join two of the other newly conglomerated convoys and begin a concerted extraction of Seattle’s south side.
That evening, we made it to the small town of Carnation, due east of Seattle, at the juncture of the Snohomish and Tult rivers. It was once a thriving little farm town, one I had visited often before The Collapse because it seemed such an idyllic spot. Before everything fell apart, including my own dreams of a peaceful, early retirement, I had imagined myself owning a modest old farm house on a couple rolling acres of verdant land out here, waking early every day, drinking coffee on the porch, reading for hours a day, watching my chickens peck about under apple, pear, and cherry trees, listening to the warm, ambient hum coming from the beehives. I thought by then, maybe as early as my early 50s, I would have achieved the inner peace I always aspired to and that, if it hadn’t come, I would force its arrival by buying a plot of land with a small farmhouse no one else wanted because it needed so much work and thereby disappearing into my own comfortable obscurity. More than anything, this was a dream of full self-embodiment, which, even in those days, comforted me. Anyway, Carnation represented all that for me.
But, of course, the town had fallen. All those notions of the strong rural souls who could outlast whatever befell city dwellers had crumbled like this town’s little post office—in on itself. They may have holed up like the people in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, retreating into their quaint farmhouses as if tongue-and-groove siding or even oak doors could ever hold back what was coming for us. There weren’t enough antique headboards or chifforobes to barricade oneself in with, never enough loose boards or nails. Even the survivalists who had been stockpiling massive arsenals during Obama’s neoliberal presidency because they feared the eloquent black man as if his foreign-sounding name were Xerxes, yes, all those survival rations, the crates of ammunition, enough to wait out almost anything threatening their way of life. What had become of them? Some had realized early on that they’d only trapped themselves with all that survivalist shit they’d wasted all that money on, and fled, but many, maybe even most, didn’t realize it soon enough, that you can have too many guns, too many bullets, that whether it’s government enforcers coming for you or a horde of zombies, it’s only a matter of time before you’re washed over like a tidal wave, and that, when that deafening tide finally recedes, and all is peaceful again, all that is left is archeology.
Most of Carnation’s beautiful old farmhouses were abandoned, windows broken, roofs collapsing under the weight of moss and windblown grass and saplings, but dozens had been reduced to charred skeletons, a few blackened ribs jutting into the sky. Abutting several of the largest fields in the area were six of these structures, not as if a fire had burned through and wiped them all out, but as if each had been carefully selected: by that, I mean barns and houses were ravaged down to memories, while, curiously, the other outbuildings between remained untouched. This had been no accident. They’d been run-out, routed, and I had no doubt by whom.
MS Industries had instructed us to camp in their compound, several large and well-maintained red-roofed buildings just past the last of those burned homes. When we arrived, the captain, his lieutenants, and several of the mercenaries got out and went to the gate to talk to the gatekeeper. A few other men manned the ramparts. Beyond them, cats and graders and bulldozers and excavators, all yellow, all bearing the MS Industries logo, waited in guarded row after guarded row, as if a huge construction project were about to get underway, each truck its own mechanical menace, but all facing in the same direction, out toward the bucolic rolling farmland, as if threatening some great industrial leveling.
The gate opened, and we began to pull our line of trucks inside the compound; however, before all could pull inside, two men and a woman, in their late thirties or early forties, came out of the trees to our east, unarmed, walking briskly toward us where we sat in the rear of the last truck in the convoy, shouting entreaties.
“You don’t have to help them take our land,” the woman said matter-of-factly, the way one stranger might tell another that, say, the other road has fewer zombies.
Her face was drawn and sallow, and something terrible had happened to her at some point in recent years, because a pink scar extended out from the corner of her mouth upward in a permanently lopsided smile.
“Our families need this land to live,” said a Latino man with a pointy little beard, the side of his face red and peeling from a recent burn.
“You can choose to help us instead of killing us,” said a white man with a long square beard like a folk singer or an old Russian writer.
“We’re not here for you,” Ragnar told them as we passed, his blinking getting the best of him, setting off in a flurry, almost like he was trying to blink back tears. “We’re just here to work.”
That’s when the gunshots started from the ramparts.
“See how they do us?” Little Beard said, ducking.
“What they’re doing is evil. You don’t have to—” the woman said calmly just before she grabbed her stomach and blood started seeping over her knuckles.
“Dorothy?” Little Beard asked before he’d seen the blood. “Dorothy!”
Dorothy looked down where a bullet had struck her, and dropped to one knee, and tried to stand again, but couldn’t. She didn’t cry out or even moan but her eyes clouded over with cold realization as the men scooped her up, one getting her up under her arms, the other her ankles, and retreated toward the trees as bullets kicked up dirt all around them.
As we pulled into the compound, the gate closed behind us.
That night, we were given a huge meal, prepared by actual chefs in the compound: two fried eggs each, golden hashbrowns, fresh apple slices. After dinner, we played badminton and horseshoes and drank red wine—from bottles—and laughed, and laughed, but periodically turned back toward the gate, our memories drifting toward those people, their pleas for help, and beyond them to the other people they must have represented. You could see it on everyone’s faces: What did they think we’re here for? We’re not here to hurt them. We’re just passing through. We’re just earning a living. Just surviving. What are we supposed to do? overrun an entire outpost full of mercenaries? No, there’s not much we can do. Most turned back to the games. Rang some ringers. Leaned some leaners. Played badminton. Whacked the shuttlecock back and forth and ran the word into the ground—shuttlecock, shuttlecock, shuttlecock—just for a reason to laugh. Others settled into familiar conversations, the one they always seemed to have when they were feeling most helpless or vulnerable, the conversations that made them feel ten feet tall and bulletproof, or that made them feel like they retained some semblance of control over their environment, or, barring that, at least fostered the illusion that they understood what was going on around them.
Still, despite all the distractions, the men couldn’t help it: they kept turning their attentions back toward that gate, wondering if the poor gutshot woman was dead now and, if so, if she had turned. Everyone realized the danger of this kind of thinking, of course: if you allowed yourself to think something else was possible, an obligation started to form inside you and, if that happened, you opened up the possibility that you might do something and, if you did something, there was a chance it might result in a pile of bones and guts—your own. What would it hurt to simply say something to whoever was in charge? Sometimes a lot. Were you going to just stand by if whoever was in charge dismissed you or flexed his muscle and told you to shut up or, worse, way worse, ordered you to help do the very thing that made you so uneasy in the first place? what would your options be then? Comply or sacrifice your body, defy weapons or machines of war, like monks who doused themselves in diesel and set themselves aflame, like that anonymous guy in Tiananmen Square, or the nun in Washington D.C. in the last year before The Collapse, the one who got crushed by the armored police vehicle when she refused to move during the protests. On the other hand, what if you never allowed yourself to even have the thought? if you let yourself get sufficiently distracted? put off thinking about such things until tomorrow—always tomorrow? Wasn’t that our old culture in a nutshell?
The weariness and the wine had set in, and even those who’d allowed themselves to have the thought or even think about having the thought an hour before could no longer continue thinking—at least for tonight. Tomorrow, we might think about dying for a good cause, but tonight we needed a few hours of R&R. Even good men, we told ourselves, needed strength to do good. Finally, we settled into a strange kind of purgatory, bedded down in what at least a few of Plymouth’s men suspected might be their last night on earth.
Next thing we knew, we were being awakened. We were on our feet and running before we could process what was happening, caught up in that same half-dreaming panic marking all those years on the road, survival mechanisms firing prior to realization. What is it? are we under attack? zombies? marauders? No matter! to stop is death! to think is death! go go go! How many times in the past years of our fleeing and fighting and fleeing had we all been exhausted beyond belief this way only to be awakened in the middle of a dream by the sound of a terra cotta pot breaking on a cobblestone or something thudding into a wall and even that a kind of thankful respite from the dreams and those a respite from waking? If you wanted to survive it was on your feet! and go go go!
We were one body and that body crawled, scrambled, ran. How many times had I wondered if zombies were just bodies awake while the mind slept on? doing what the body always did but through that panicked gale of a subconscious mind contorting even children into threats that must be stopped even if it means tearing them limb from limb or biting out their jugulars? Why did we hate them so for acting out on dreams so many of us normals had? They’d awakened me from just such a nauseating maelstrom in which an old Carnation farmer I assume must have been some once-imagined version of me was going around shooting all his cows and I was rushing across the yard in a half crouch, right past where the cows were falling seconds before, the poor things looking up at me through fading eyes as if I could explain any of this, all of them slipping into death, still chewing their cuds—but none of this mattered.
Go go go!
Before we knew it, we were already packed into the back of our trucks, pulling out of the compound, watching the gates swing closed again behind us, thinking we were escaping something terrible, an attack, a siege, armies of the dead.
We looked back in a panic, to see what might be aflame, whether the whole compound was collapsing in on itself, engulfed in its own bright orange embers, like so many last stands.
Everything was fine.
Three riflemen were standing up on the ramparts, laughing, waving, some of them seeing us off with middle fingers in the air.
We’d been tricked.
We still could have jumped out of the trucks, of course. We were building up speed, but weren’t moving very fast, not yet. We could have refused to go on. But no one did. Not one. Why? We were moving this way now. The power of inertia couldn’t be broken by mere will of man—or could it? Well, maybe if we jumped and rolled, before things went too far, before we reached some terminal distance or velocity, before the bonds of obligation broke. But still no one jumped so we must have already reached that point of no return. Now we were too far, too fast. A bad fall could have meant a broken leg. A broken leg could have meant death. No, last night already seemed a distant memory, a dream. The bond, if there ever was a bond, had broken. Or we’d let it break. Whatever was going to happen to those people in Carnation, it seemed, was going to have to happen without us.