The streets of the city were desolate. Long abandoned vehicles lined the road through town, and unchecked vegetation had begun to reclaim the landscape. Vines climbed crumbling buildings, weeds were sprouting from cracks in the asphalt, and the sound of the diesel engine echoed off the skeletal remains of Boulder. The former city appeared to have been sacked. The trio had driven about halfway through the destitute location and had not yet seen any place worth scavenging, instead snaking their way through debris filled roads and alleys.
“Jesus…” Chloe lamented, now back in the passenger seat of the Dodge. “I’ve never seen a place look so… dead.”
Joel made a turn down the street to the left to avoid a blocked road. “I don’t like it. This place feels all wrong.”
“What do you mean?” Chloe asked as she continued to scan the buildings for potential supplies.
“I don’t know yet. Something just seems off. Gut feeling…” The former Marine knew that a gut instinct was nothing to be ignored, however he had too little information to know what to do about it besides press on at the moment.
“Yeah,” the girl confirmed, “my spider-sense is tingling too.” She looked to Fenix, who was also more attentive than he had been before entering the wasteland of a town, looking out of the windows with his large ears perked up. Joel made a right up a side street.
“Where’s the bodies?” Joel gestured to the empty road. “There’s signs of violence; bloodstains, broken windows, bullet holes. But no bodies.”
Just then, Chloe had a realization that made her stomach drop. “Joel?” She asked cautiously, “Doesn’t this all seem kinda… deliberate?”
“Like we’re being led somewhere…” Joel finished the thought as his grip on the steering wheel tightened.
“What do you want to do? We’re already halfway through town. Maybe whoever set this up moved on.” The girl didn’t sound as hopeful as the statement implied.
Joel turned the truck to the left down another street, as the right side as well as the road ahead were blocked by vehicles. “I say we run the gauntlet.” He said as he began to pick up speed. “Try to speed past whatever trap-” Joel was cut short as he saw movement ahead to his right. A bus that was parked on the road sloping down onto the street began to roll in front of the old Dodge.
“Joel?!” Chloe asked, pointing at the bus as Delilah picked up more speed.
“I see it! Hang on!” The grizzled driver growled, grabbing another gear and hugging the left side of the road in an attempt to avoid the springing trap. As they sped toward the closing gap, Joel and Chloe were barely able to notice the people coming out of hiding to intercept the truck. The racing diesel began to clear the gap between the incoming bus and the corner building when Delilah’s bed was violently clipped by the former transport vehicle. The tail end of the Dodge was thrown to the side, and Joel sharply turned the wheel to the left to compensate as the tires squealed in protest. However, it wasn’t enough, and the old truck was sent careening through the glass windows of a storefront before crashing into the counter inside, bringing everyone to an abrupt halt. Fenix was thrown into the back of the seats, the bridge of Joel’s nose bounced off of the steering wheel, and Chloe’s face smashed into the windshield.
Joel heard muffled voices closing in. He had been knocked out only seconds. With his ears ringing, his vision blurry, and head pounding, he looked over to check on his passengers. Chloe was bleeding from her forehead, temple, and cheek. The glass had done a number on her exposed skin, but she was conscious. In pain, but conscious. Faint whining could be heard coming from the back seat. Before the wanderer could look back to check on Fenix, the voices were inside the building that the truck was now enclosed in.
“Chloe? You alright?” Joel asked as he pulled himself together and got his bearings.
“S**t…” was all she managed to get out before one of the men who had ambushed them was at her side window grabbing for her, trying to pull her out.
Joel grabbed her jacket with his left hand, while reaching for his shoulder holster with the other. “Get down!” he ordered as he pulled her towards him. As she lowered her head, the Survivor pulled the Colt and took aim, firing over the dazed girl and hitting the attacker in the face. The man’s head snapped back from the bullet, leaving a red mist behind him before his body fell limp.
Chloe was regaining her faculties, and looking behind her companion, shouted, “Joel!” but just as she said it, another attacker came to the driver window and grabbed at Joel, punching him in the cheek. Joel dropped the Colt due to the sucker punch, but reacted quickly by grabbing the collar of the man’s shirt with both hands, and pulling him towards the truck with all his strength. The ambusher’s face swiftly collided with the top of the Dodges door frame with a crunch, knocking out teeth and breaking his nose. Then while he was still reeling, the Wanderer kicked the truck door open, throwing the battered attacker to the ground.
Joel briefly took in his surroundings. The storefront was mostly cleared out, now only home to some empty shelves on the walls, broken glass and debris from the crash, and the somehow still idling Delilah. The transmission had been knocked back into neutral upon impact.
Two more men were advancing through the wreckage toward their “prey”. One had an old metal baseball bat, the other a rusty length of chain. Joel walked over to the writhing man he had just knocked over and stomped on his head, feeling the bones of his face break under his boot. He then turned to the new threats and squared up, bringing his fists up to his face and protecting his ribs with his elbows. “Well,” he taunted, “come on then!”
Meanwhile, Chloe’s vision has stopped swimming. She looked in the backseat to see Fenix was alive, but buried beneath some of the supplies that were stored in the backseat.
“I got you boy,” she said softly as began working to free him. After a bit of struggling, and with his new companions help, the dog was able to free himself and get back to his feet. Chloe turned back around to assess her situation.
The man with the bat charged at Joel first, his aluminium weapon raised over his shoulder with both hands, followed closely by his counterpart. The Survivor readied himself, and as the bat came down, he sidestepped. The swing of the sporting equipment missed him by inches, and its wielder stumbled forward until he crashed face first into the counter behind his target.
Joel quickly turned his attention to chain wielding maniac. The man’s arm was already cocked to swing at a diagonal arc. The ex-marine ducked under the attack, stepped forward and grabbed the man’s waist, as well as an arm, in a bear hug, before lifting him in the air with a ferocious battle cry and throwing himself backwards to the ground. A loud thwack came from the attackers head hitting the floor of the building, and he went still.
Joel picked himself up quickly and turned back to the first man, who was already charging. He swung the bat again, this time horizontally. Joel stepped towards the attack to lessen its impact and caught the still painful blow to his ribs, before locking his elbow down on the weapon to control it. With the attackers face so close to his own, the Survivor reeled his neck back and head-butted the man. His grip loosened on the bat as he stumbled backwards from the blow, and Joel took advantage, wrestling it from his hands and swinging it at the aggressor’s head. The bat connected with the side of his face, collapsing the eye socket of the man and sending him to the ground. The bearded survivor stood over the not quite dead man and raised the bat again.
The unique sound of metal shattering skull echoed around them as the sound of more footsteps approached the theater of chaos.
Chloe’s hand shot to her hip for her pistol before remembering that she had no ammo. She had been bluffing when she threatened Joel upon their initial meeting, however she very much doubted that tactic would work here. Instead, she turned back towards the backseat to find anything she could use as a weapon. But as she was looking, another pair of hands came through the passenger window and grabbed her hair and jacket collar, and Chloe screamed and grunted in protest as she was pulled out of the truck.
“I got the Breeder!” Chloe heard the voice say after she had been forcefully removed from the truck. The grip on her hair released, and instead a sweaty forearm found its way around her neck as the man behind her started to drag the young woman out to the street. “She’s a pretty one boys!” the voice continued. Disgusted, and a little panicked, Chloe reached her left hand to her side, wrapping her fingers around her combat knife on her belt.
Just then, gunshots could be heard from the street. Commotion and incoherent yelling soon followed.
“What the hell’s going on out there?” came the voice. Chloe pulled the knife. “Hey…!” The blade sank into the abductors thigh as he howled in pain. His grip loosened as the woman yanked the sharp metal from the mans leg and brought it down again. The enraged attacker pushed Chloe away from him screaming, “You f*****g b***h!” and just as the bloody girl roughly hit the ground, Fenix came snarling out of the diesel.
“Oh shi-” was all the man managed to say before the dog pounced, clamping his powerful jaws around the attackers throat. He struggled briefly, attempting in vain to free himself of the canine, before succumbing to his loss of blood, his eyes still wide in panic.
Joel heard the gunshots coming from outside, and although it was dividing their ambushers attention, he did not know yet if it was good or bad news. Just as he heard yelling followed by the vicious snarling of his four legged companion, the back door to the building burst open revealing three more of the thugs about 15 feet from where he stood on the other side of the counter. The man in front of the pack was a tall, stocky, bear of a man wielding a pistol gripped, pump action shotgun. He took in the state of his former colleagues. “Enough of this!” the giant yelled as he leveled the shotgun at Joel. “You’re both coming with us.”
Just as the man finished speaking, Fenix came streaking into sight from the passenger side of the truck. His brown eyes were locked onto the big man as he charged. The prodigious newcomer swung the shotgun around to aim at the dog. Joel threw the bat he still had clutched in his hand, rapidly following behind it to engage the men. It collided with the side of the goliath’s head just before he pulled the trigger, sending the blast off course into the floor. Given this small window Fenix had jumped on the large assailant, biting into his forearm as they collided and fell to the ground, causing the man to scream.
The two lackys who had come in with the ogre now battling the dog were armed with an iron pipe and a length of rope respectively. Presumably they had assumed that their prey would surrender at the sight of the shotgun, as they both hesitated to react. “What the hell are you doing?” the man-bear screamed, in a tone unbefitting of his size. “Get it off of me!” Finally, the man with the pipe raised it over his head in preparation to strike the offending canine.
Joel had quickly made it to the counter, vaulted over it, and grabbed the pipe wielders wrist in his right hand, and with his left forearm across the side of the man’s face, dug his feet into the ground and pushed the would be attacker across the floor, screaming angrily as his legs pumped until they both crashed into the wall. The pipe clattered to the ground following the impact, and Joel wasted no time battering his opponent. He brought a heavy right hook into the man’s nose, breaking it, following up with another blow to confirm the nose was indeed broken. Joel then stepped back, pulling the pipe guys head down, then wrapped his arm around the dazed combatants neck in a reverse headlock before jerking up and constricting his muscles. The ex-marine could vaguely feel the trachea collapse on his forearm before hearing a soft pop of the neck dislocating. The corpse limply fell to the ground.
As Joel turned to assist Fenix dispatch the giant on the ground, who was considerably more bloody and panicked, he felt a weight on his back briefly, before feeling a much more important tightness around his neck. The Survivors hands instinctively shot up to the offending object, a piece of rope.
Chloe had picked herself up as her canine savior bolted around the front of the truck. The sound of the shotgun blast immediately afterwards twisted her stomach and she feared the worst. She scrambled over to the dead man to retrieve her knife from his thigh, then back over to the still idling Delilah. She could somewhat hear the sound of combat, snarling, and screaming over the diesel as she opened the door to the truck. Chloe began searching for a weapon. Preferably a gun. She had seen that Joel had dropped the 1911 just after he shot the first guy, but she couldn’t find it. In her haste to find something… anything, she opened the middle console, and there sat salvation. The Glock 17 and Joel’s two remaining grenades. She picked up the Glock. Ejecting the magazine, she quickly counted the rounds remaining.
Chloe let out a disappointed sigh. “Better than nothing,” she mumbled to herself as she climbed out of the truck and back into the fray. Just as she exited the truck, she once again heard running footsteps coming from the broken storefront. She rapidly turned to see another lunatic lunging for her. He grabbed her by the throat and began to squeeze, but before he could do much, Chloe again took the knife that was still in her hand and drove it into the side of the man’s neck. The attacker made a low gurgle, a shocked look in his eyes, before the small but capable girl pushed him off of her with little effort. As his body landed on his comrades, Chloe turned and rushed to help her companions.
Spittle flew from Joel’s clenched teeth as he flexed his neck muscles and tried to wrestle the rope away from his throat. However, the man’s grip on the rope was firm, and the two were in a deadly standoff. Joel released the rope with one hand and began throwing elbows into his adversarys ribs, but he held firm.
He could see Chloe running towards them through his tunneling vision. She had a pistol in her dominant hand, her knife still clutched in the other. The sounds of gunfire persisted outside and seemed to be getting louder. They were running out of time.
The big guy was still on the ground, his large fist pounding into Fenix’s head, who was currently clamped down on one of the man’s gory, torn up forearms. The dog-loving female ran up to the gruesome display and yelled, “Hey a*****e!” before she soccer kicked the offender in the groin. His hands reaction to cover his privates would end up being his undoing, as now his more vital parts were exposed to the well trained dog.
As Fenix pounced on the opportunity gifted to him by Chloe, who was now aiming the pistol at the wrestling pair, Joel began pumping his legs backwards, pushing the struggling duo into the wall behind them. The impact caused the rope weilding lacky’s grip on said rope to falter, just for a moment, but it was all Joel needed. Getting both hands under the makeshift garrote wire, the flannel clad warrior leaned his head forward before driving it backwards into the nose of his would be assassin. The force caused a sickening crunch to emanate from the ambushers face, followed by a cry of pain.
Chloe continued to look for a shot, but from her position, she risked hitting her new acquaintance. The grip on the rope fell away completely, and now free, Joel turned around and launched a heavy right hand to the already broken nose, followed quickly by a left hook, and another right. The ex-marine was now in a berserker-like rage, and grabbed the dazed man by his shirt and threw him to the ground on his back. Climbing on top of him, Joel wrapped his left hand around his neck, punching him once more with a right before clasping both hands around his throat and squeezing. The bleeding bandit tried to fight back, grabbing at Joel’s hands, arms, shoulders, and even his face, but the berserker shook off his pitiful attempts to save himself. Now seeing red, Joel began to lift the man by his neck before repeatedly slamming his skull into the hard concrete beneath them, screaming in rage as he did so.
“Joel!” Chloe tried to get his attention to inform him of their impending situation as Fenix sniffed and subsequently disregarded his defeated foe. The gunshots were just on the other side of the bus trap now.
The man’s eyes bulged, his tongue began to protrude from his blood covered mouth, and his cranium began to make a softer, messier sound as it connected with the floor. As his glossy eyes started to roll back in their sockets, and a reddish pink mush began to leak from the back of his head, he gradually fell limp. Knox continued to squeeze, his teeth bared in a savage snarl as blood from the top of his gashed nose dripped from the tip of it.
“JOEL! We have to go!” Chloe pleaded as two more men ran into the abandoned shop. They ran towards the trio, but with the adrenaline rush still going strong, Chloe took aim with the Glock still in her hand and fired twice, hitting each new threat once. They went down, moaning and grunting. Not dead, but not going anywhere.
The sound of Chloe firing the pistol so close broke Joel from his trance. His grip loosened, realizing his target was now dead, and looked to his female companion. Just then, bad went to worse.
“By order of the Independent Survivors Army, surrender the people you have just captured to us, alive, and we will cease fire and be on our way,” came an authoritative voice from some sort of speaker. “Failure to comply will result in further casualties.”
“S**t…” hissed Chloe. “It’s the goddamn raiders.”
Joel picked himself up and walked over to the now dead big man and picked up the shotgun next to him. He noticed in passing that where the gun had blasted into the floor there was very little damage and chunks of rock salt. Looking at the shotgun in his bloody hands, there was a crudely carved inscription in the barrel. “SALT SHAKER” the shotgun had been dubbed, confirming to Joel that the weapon was loaded with rock salt shells.
“Get back to the truck,” he growled, his voice hoarse from the strain his throat had undergone. “We gotta go before they get that bus moved. Fenix!” The battered survivor gestured to the truck as he called for the dog, who obediently jumped into the equally battered diesel.
Joel checked under the seat for his Colt after not seeing it on the floorboards, and retrieved it once it was found before he climbed into the driver’s seat with a grunt. Chloe meanwhile had jogged over to the passenger seat, hopping in as well.
“Come on girl… Hold together for me,” whispered Joel to the old truck. Thankfully, the deer guard on the front of the truck had protected the engine from a majority of the damage. He put the transmission into reverse and released the clutch. The ever reliable Delilah lurched, the powerful motor causing the truck to rock as her wheels tried to find purchase among the rubble. After a moment of bouncing, the diesel broke free of her confines and finally reversed out of the former store.
As Chloe looked out of the passenger window, she could see the bus. The would be trap had they not picked up their pace. It was rocking slightly, and she could see a group of men in urban camo attempting to move the cumbersome thing. Remembering the grenades in the center console, she had an idea.
Delilah squeaked into the street, and just as Joel was about to put the truck into gear to make their escape, Chloe yelled, “Wait! Stop!” as she opened the console and grabbed one of the explosives.
As she opened her door, she could hear Joel exclaim, as best as he could, “What the hell are you doing?” She pulled the pin. The Raiders, putting their task aside, reached for their weapons. The raven haired woman lobbed the grenade towards the front of the bus, and quickly jumped back into the truck.
“Go! Go!” Chloe encouraged. But Joel, understanding what had just happened, was already guiding the roaring truck out of the labyrinth. They could faintly hear a short burst of yelling, before a quick explosion, then after turning around the next corner, only the sound of Delilah’s motor remained.
After some time and distance away from Boulder, Delilah began to slow some as Joel looked around for a place to catch their breath and clean themselves up. The trio were heading south, skirting around the outside of Denver, when they finally came across a gas station just off the highway. After checking the side mirror for what must have been the hundredth time to confirm they were not being followed, at least for now, Joel pulled off the exit.
Chloe had been silent since their escape from Boulder, in fact, everyone had. Even Fenix’s soft pants had been absent. Although the danger was temporarily behind them, the tension had remained. The girls green eyes had been staring vacantly out the window for most of the drive. Something was obviously troubling her, but Joel had no idea what, nor did he ask about it.
The gas station they had pulled into had a few vehicles around that appeared not to have moved since the original fissure five years ago. There was also a fuel tanker parked off to the side. Some of the windows to the building were broken, but overall, the area was clean. Joel dared to hope that maybe the place had remained untouched since the first riots. There was always a surprising number of things left behind when people were looting in a panic.
Joel parked by the front doors to the convenience store and turned the key to the resilient diesel off, causing the motor to wind down and shake the truck slightly before everything was still. The faint sound of birds and bugs bode well, signaling that there were no predators, namely creatures of the rifts around.
The still very bloody survivor stepped out of the truck and walked around to the back to inspect the damage for the first time. The bus had hit the bed of Delilah just behind the rear axle. The passenger tail light was crunched into the metal, which itself was considerably mangled. Joel bent down to look under the truck to see if there was more than just cosmetic damage. The driveshaft was straight, the U-bolt was in tact, and the axel itself appeared to be unscathed. Even the steel belted tires seemed to be undamaged.
Standing back up with a grunt, Joel spoke to himself, patting the dependable Delilah.
“Good. You’re not outta commission yet ol’ girl.” As he walked up to the passenger door, he caught a glimpse of himself in the window. Blood covered his nose and stained his beard, and his red flannel was darker in spots from the coagulated substance. Looking down, his boots and jeans fared a little better, but still carried the evidence of their earlier struggle.
Flicking his wrist, he lightly rapped the window with his knuckles, regretting it instantly as the flesh of those knuckles was cut up or raw from the fight. Chloe, who was still vacantly staring off into nothingness, jumped slightly at the sound before her eyes settled warily on Joel.
“Come on,” he said, “Let’s get cleaned up.”
The girl, slightly less bloody than her counterpart sighed before opening the door and stepping out as well, then held it for canine who’s snout was matted in red. The two walked towards the door before Chloe stopped.
“Joel… We need to talk,” she said.
Joel sighed, one hand on the shop’s door handle. “Yeah, I figured,” he turned to look at the girl. Blood still stained the side of her face from her temple, making the small cuts seem less significant. She wore an expression of uncertainty as she spoke.
“Back there… Do I need to be concerned? You kinda lost it.”
“We were fightin’ to survive. I did what I had to.”
“Goddammit Joel… I can’t trust you if you won’t be honest with me.” Joel’s expression changed very little as she addressed him, however she caught the slight eye movement away from her before his cobalt optics immediately refocused on her.
With a sudden realization, Chloe softened as she continued, “Or are you even being honest with yourself? Joel… you lost the plot. You checked out, and whatever took over… it wasn’t good.”
The wanderer was silent for a moment, studying the girls emerald eyes before simply saying, “It was necessary. What if it was a Raider?” Joel regretted saying it as soon as he saw the pain reflected in Chloe’s eyes as her lips thinned.
“That’s different…” she defended, an ever so slight quiver in her voice.
The ex-cop committed, following up with, “How so?”
Chloe’s eyes burned, glossing over with the beginnings of tears, and just as they began to grace her flushed cheeks, she shouted, “Because they murdered my father in front of me!”
She stared daggers into Joel, her brow furrowed, her lips pressed even thinner, and tear tracks running down her thin face. Both were silent for a moment before Joel said softly, “Chloe… I…”
But Chloe interrupted. “Oh f**k off Joel…” she pushed past him and into the store, leaving the stunned survivor standing outside. Fenix was sitting alone now in front of him, his ears perked and mouth closed as if to say ‘Nice Joel.’
“Don’t look at me like that. How was I supposed to know?” he retaliated against the phantom accusation. Fenix cocked his head, which translated for Joel into ‘Well?’
Sighing, he said, “Alright. Fine,” and entered the gas station.
The interior of the building was indeed ransacked, however, just as Joel had hoped, there were a few things scattered about here and there. He could not see Chloe, but he could hear her noisily searching through some racks on the other side of the store. Joel headed behind the counter to search for something in particular. He slid the cigarette rack over to look behind it on the shelves, and much to his delight, he found what he was looking for. A carton of Pall Mall menthols sat alone pushed back against the wall. He grabbed them, then walked around to the employee area behind the counter. He again saw what he was looking for. A stack of cardboard boxes. Mentally crossing his fingers, he opened the top one which was still mostly full of Maker’s Mark bourbon.
“About time my luck turned around,” he said to himself as he pulled a bottle out of the box and set it on the nearby desk. He then opened the carton of menthols, pulling out a pack of the Pall Malls before opening it as well. He pulled out a cigarette, lit it with a Zippo he carried with him, then grabbed the bottle and headed back into the store proper to find Chloe.
He didn’t have to go far. As he came back to the counter, he saw Chloe emerge from the cooler with a plastic wrapped bunch of bottled water. Joel took a long drag of his cigarette as the still angry woman approached the counter and dropped the case of water onto it. She looked at Joel coldly, seeing the cigarette still in his lips. She walked over, snatched it from his mouth, and put it in her own before going back to the water and tearing open the plastic.
Joel smirked as he lit up another smoke and walked to the other side of the divider to face Chloe. “Listen…” he began, but was interrupted.
“Joel… Are you in control when you’re like that?”
He took another drag by way of an answer.
“Ok…” Chloe continued, “are you gonna turn on me next time you snap like that?”
Joel shook his head. “No.”
“Ok then,” she concluded as she exhaled smoke. “You do what you need to.”
“Look…” The Survivor said, setting the booze on the counter. “You’re probably right. Losing it like that… Well…” He grabbed a bottle of water as he continued, his cigarette bouncing with each word he spoke. “I can’t promise it won’t happen again, but I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Good,” came the reply.
Joel poured some of the water on his hands, rubbing them together to wash off the dried blood. “One more thing. I’m uh… I’m sorry for pushin you about the Raiders. And about your dad.”
A sad smile formed on Chloe’s face. “You would’ve liked him. He was a Seal,” she grabbed the bottle of whiskey, opened it, and took an impressive pull.
“That explains a lot,” Joel nodded. “You’re your father’s daughter all right.” The girl let out a single chuckle as she thought about her father. “Alright, I’m gonna go hide the truck and we’ll get cleaned up and bunker down here for the night.”
He took the Maker’s Mark from Chloe and took a long drink himself. Then he turned and headed out to take care of the truck, saying “Stay here boy,” to Fenix, who had been sitting on the floor watching the conversation.
“Come here handsome,” Chloe said to the dog, who approached her wagging his tail. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
The trio sat in the small, windowless employee area of the gas station. Joel had brought in the more important items just in case prying eyes found Delilah during the night. The single door in or out had a heavy deadbolt, giving the room an unusual sense of safety and comfort.
They had gotten cleaned up, washing the blood from their injuries before rubbing them down with a rag soaked in whiskey to clean them. Joel had just thrown away the blood stained red flannel, instead now wearing a black T-shirt under an open dark green flannel button up, the sleeves of which were rolled up to his elbows.
Chloe had taken her jacket off to let it dry after washing off its few blood stains, and now wore a skintight olive green Henley shirt, the top two b*****s undone. The shirt showed off just how athletic she really was. The lean, firm muscle of her arms, stomach, and back finally beginning to relax after the stressful day they had endured.
She and Joel sat next to each other on the floor, sharing another bottle of bourbon, as well as a few stories and jokes. Fenix lapped up water from a styrofoam cup. And for the first time in a long time, even if it was just temporary, things didn’t seem so bad.