Where do you want to be when the world ends?
OR get it at a discounted price in the HEART’S COMPASS omnibus edition.
An apocalyptic M/M Romance. Electricity is gone. Society is on its knees. The heart’s compass becomes the light in the darkness.
Alex has never had luck with love. Or, luck in general for that matter. It takes the end of the modern world for his luck to change. He and a small group from his apartment building seek to leave Los Angeles before it self-destructs in the growing gang violence and desperation of its citizens. When he forms a fast friendships with Mateo that quickly spirals into much more, Alex wonders when his bad luck will catch up with him.
“What do you mean, you’re leaving?” The words come out as more of a whine than I’d intended, but, well… Was he crazy? “It’s the freaking apocalypse out there!”
“Look,” he huffs, tugging his striped polo-shirt over his head. “You’re a nice guy and all, but… I’m not staying in Los Angeles, and I can’t take you with me to my parents’ place in Santa Barbara.”
And there it was. Apocalypse or not, even after living together for three months, I was still his dirty little secret he can’t take home to mommy and daddy. “You still haven’t told them you’re gay, have you.”
It’s a flat, accusatory statement. My arms cross as I sit naked on the mattress with my blond hair disheveled and my pale skin sheened in sweat. The bastard had seen fit to fuck me before he told me he was leaving me alone to die in this place. Outside, a feminine scream shatters the early morning. Yeah, Los Angeles wouldn’t have been my home of choice had I known civilization was about to end.
“Doesn’t matter,” he says, staring at the window. “My parents will need my help.”
But, what about me? I thought I mattered. I thought there was a ‘we’.
What the hell did I ever see in him? Well, besides that beautiful, tan body and those pretty blue eyes… Those eyes are narrowed at me now, and I can’t see the nervous newbie I picked up at a club six months ago.
He runs a hand through his thick brown waves. “Listen, Alex, you should really think about leaving the city yourself. It’s not safe here.”
“You think?” My eyes roll to the ceiling. “You know damn well I have nowhere to go.”
I told you, you selfish prick! I told you everything, and you wouldn’t even tell your parents you like my cock. Jerk. Yuppie, polo-shirt wearing jerk!
A sniffle tickles my nose. Dammit. I will not cry!
“I’m sorry, Alex. It was fun, but-“
“Get out!” I toss a pillow at him. When that doesn’t work, I reach for the useless, unpowered lamp. “Get out, you bitch!”
With those pretty blue eyes wide, he stumbles backwards over a bag he’d already packed. The lamp flies through the air and slams against the wall. He makes it to his feet, grabs the bag and backpedals out of the single bedroom in my little apartment.
Sheets gathered around my waist like a Greek god going to war, I chase after him with a fake, golden Tony Award in my grasp. “And you better not take any of my shit, you small-dicked motherfucker!”
“I’m sorry,” he says again, breathless and surprised I’d come after him. Then, he’s out the front door and jogging towards the stairwell as the morning sun begins creeping in.
Dignity thoroughly trashed, I stand in the hallway, Tony Award raised and the white-sheet toga clenched in my fist. I look like the damn Statue of Liberty float in the Pride Parade. With a deep breath, I open my mouth one last time as he opens the stairwell door.
“I have AIDS, motherfucker! Think about that on your hike to Santa Barbara!”
Chest heaving from adding conviction to the lie, I turn in a flourish of bed-sheet to find several people with their heads poked out of their apartments. “What?” I lift my chin, stomp back to my dark apartment and slam the door.
And thus begins my third week after the world has gone to shit. With any luck, I’ll be dead and living it up in rainbow-clouded gay-Heaven by morning. But, I’ve never really had luck on my side.
*** *** ***
“Hey,” an unfamiliar voice vies for my attention, but…
Ow. I hurt. Everything. Hurts.
“Hey, uh, Alec, right?” the voice is insistent that I answer.
“Al..ex…” Ow. Even my lips hurt. And, is that blood? That tastes like blood…
“Alex, right,” the voice says. “Hey, I need to know – do you really have AIDS?”
What? AIDS? … Oh, right. My tempter-tantrum in the hallway… three days ago? No, four. Five?
Wow. I can’t focus. Hurts. “No. Lied. I’m clean.”
The voice chuckles. “I’m sure he’ll be wondering about that the whole way to Santa Barbara, though.”
“Was the point.” Who is this guy? Where am I? “What happened?”
“Couple of punks formed a gang. They’ve been raiding apartments. Mr. Gonzalez and I chased them off. Did you know that man has eight shotguns and a grenade-launcher in his apartment?”
“Desert Storm vet,” I wheeze out. It all comes back to me in a flash of red bandanas, baseball bats and kicks to my gut, followed by Mr. Gonzalez’s angry yells and a shotgun blast. “Those bastards stole my Spaghetti-O’s.”
Mystery man chuckles again. “At least you still have your sense of humor.”
“Or irony.” I push myself up on one arm. I think I’m on my kitchen floor. “Brandon took my can opener.”
“Your, uh, ex-boyfriend?” The guy helps me sit up. “The one who left for Santa Barbara?”
“Stupid. I doubt that guy will make it. That’s a long-ass walk to go alone.”
“He has a horrible sense of direction, too. Probably ended up in Long Beach.” I manage to finally open one of my swollen eyes, but the guy’s face is a blur. “Does my rescuer have a name?”
“Oh, sorry – yeah. Mateo. Mateo Ramirez. Apartment 304.”
“Ah. Mr. 304. Moved in five months ago. Short. Tan. Works out. Pretty eyes, and… I just said all that out loud, didn’t I?”
Mateo clears his throat. “Yup.”
“Shit. Can you forget all that and blame it on the pair of Nikes that were kicking my head earlier?”
“Alright,” he agrees and I let out a sigh of relief.
“Thanks.” The last thing I need is for this guy to think I’m hitting on him and for him to start hitting me.
“Mateo?” someone calls from down the hall. I think that deep, scratchy, heavily-accented voice belongs to Mr. Gonzalez, but it’s hard to tell with my ears throbbing.
“In here,” Mateo calls back, making my head pound and my eyes wince shut.
“I chased those punks clear to Maria’s Grocery!” Mr. Gonzalez boasts as he steps into my apartment. “Ay, Alex,” he sighs. “You look like shit. Why you no just give them what they want, eh?”
“Because it was my last can,” I declare indignantly.
“He doesn’t even have a can opener,” Mateo informs through a laugh.
Mr. Gonzalez blinks at me. “That pendejo took your can opener?”
“Si,” I reply in one of the few non-vulgar Spanish words I know.
“Ay, mi amigo,” he starts with a shake of the head, and here comes the ‘padre’ speech he gives me every time I get dumped. “You always pick the worst boys. Them rich gringos no good for you. Need to find you a nice obrero; someone who works hard for a living, with strong hands. Take care of you. Not leave you alone when the world goes to shit.”
“Felipe, my friend,” I manage a wry smile for him. “If you find one like that, who also happens to be gay and available, you be sure to point him out, okay?”
“Is not as hard to find as you think,” he grins. “Now, come, let us get you off the floor.”
Mateo and Felipe both help me stand. The room spins a bit, but I lean back on the countertop with a nod that I’m okay. “Thanks. Who else got hit?”
“Many places already empty,” Felipe shrugs. “But they took the last of Malinda’s food, and that young couple in 205-”
“Greg and Lidia?” A tinge of anxiety races up my spine. “The baby?”
“They are all okay, but those bastards took their food, and even the baby’s food.”
“That’s awful,” Mateo shakes his head, his hands on his narrow hips.
Which I am not staring at. “Damn. I think I’ve still got a can of green beans stashed in the bedroom closet. Could mash it up maybe?”
“That’s nice of you, Alex.” Felipe puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes. “You always think of others first.”
I shrug, ducking my head. I’m taller than both men by half a foot, and it makes me feel a bit awkward. “I don’t like green beans anyway.”
“Uh-huh,” he says like he doesn’t believe me. “You come to my place in ten minutes or so, yeah? I think we need to have a meeting of us who are left.”
Glancing at my ransacked apartment through two black eyes, I nod. “Sounds like a good idea.”
“I’ll go tell everyone,” Mateo offers, looks at me for a second then heads out the door, followed by Mr. Gonzalez.
With a limping hobble, I make my way to the bedroom, left arm tucked against my sore ribs. I think I managed to keep all my teeth, but I check each one with my tongue to be sure. The can of green beans is still at the back of my closet, inside a boot, but the rest of my secondary food stash is gone. It’s crazy how I’d gone from neat-freak to hoarder in under a month.
Not that it did me any good.
Fisting the can, I ignore the way all my dresser drawers have been dumped, then I stumble through my living room with its overturned couch and head into the dim hallway. The apartments aren’t so bad during the day, but the hallways never get much light. We’ve all developed low-light vision I think, and would probably all be blinded if the florescent lights suddenly came back to life.
Leaning against the wall, I take a breather. Thank God I don’t have to go down any stairs. I don’t think anything’s broke, but my head is throbbing and everywhere they kicked is sore.
“Alex!” a worried woman’s voice calls down the hallway.
I look up to see Malinda jogging my way, dressed in scrubs. “Hey, doc. Heard you got hit, too.”
“Not nearly as hard as you, it seems,” she huffs, reaching for my face.
“Don’t touch him,” a man warns. “He has AIDS.”
Wonderful. It’s that homophobic dick from 106. Of course he’d still be here.
“He does not, Mark,” Malinda laughs. “Don’t you know a joke when you hear it?”
Mark grumbles something that sounds like infected queer and keeps walking past us into Felipe’s apartment. Glaring at him hurts, so I ignore the comment. “Well, isn’t he just a ray of sunshine.”
“As always,” she mutters while focusing on my eyes. “Now, shut up and follow my finger.”
Once I’ve been discharged by Dr. Vargas, she helps me walk the rest of the way into Felipe’s apartment. After a few minutes, Mateo appears with Ms. Jennings and her sixteen-year-old, autistic son, Will, followed by Greg, Lidia and their baby girl. Lidia sits next to me and I hold out my meager, canned offering.
“Here. Thought maybe you could mush it up for Elsa?”
“Oh,” Lidia blinks down at the can, starts crying and flings one arm around my shoulder. “Thank you!”
“No… problem…” I wince out.
“Lidia, honey,” Greg’s smiling as he tries to get his wife off me. “Careful with him.”
“Oh!” Lidia lets me go. “Sorry. But, thank you. Are you okay?”
“No worse off than my pride,” I try to give the usual beaming smile that wins over yuppies like Brandon.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Mark mutters from the corner. “Bleeding all over the place. Could get us all sick.”
“Oh, for the love of God,” Malinda huffs. “Alex does not have AIDS.”
“Sorry,” I blush a little bit while glancing around the room. “It was a bad joke wasted on a jerk with no sense of humor. And I don’t mean you, Mark. Though, it’s good to see the Sunnyside Villa rumor mill still makes it all the way down to your end of the basement during the apocalypse.”
That gets me a few snickers from the group while Mark crosses his hairy arms over his chest and appears to become even more molded into his dark corner. It’s the end of October, so a nice breeze is blowing through an open window, making me once again thankful I live here and not someplace like… Nebraska or New York. Soon, those unlucky people will have snow.
“Thanks for coming everyone,” Felipe starts. He’s become the glue that’s held our little apartment building together, although he was that way before the blackout happened. I think we all respect him; even grumpy, basement-dwelling Mark.
“Now then,” he continues. “It’s been nearly three weeks since the power went out. Heard from Jose down at the Rio Vista apartments that it’s not just California, or even the U.S., but the whole world that’s out.”
“It was a solar flare,” Mark comments as Felipe takes a breath. “Three flares, actually. They released electromagnetic pulses that fried anything with a hard-drive or processor chip. So, even if by some impossible miracle the government gets the power grid back online, nothing will work, except maybe lightbulbs.”
“How do you know this?” Greg asks, a gurgling Elsa bouncing on his knee. “Are you a scientist?”
“No,” Mark grows a bit defensive. “But there were warnings all over the Net. No one believed them, though. But I did. That’s why I still have food.”
“You have food?” Ms. Jennings asks. “How much?”
“Enough,” Mark shrugs. “For me,” he finishes more quietly.
“Any baby food?” Lidia asks with hope in her voice.
Mark fidgets uncomfortably. The food-hoarding little shit probably regrets boasting. “No… But… But I got carrots. Canned carrots. Would that work?”
“Yes!” She looks like she may start crying again. “I’ll trade anything for them!”
There’s eight of us left, plus baby Elsa, and I can tell we’re all running out of food with the way we’re suddenly looking up to Mark like he’s the savior’s second coming. He’s always been a bit odd, and I wonder if he was hoping to hide in his basement with his stash while the rest of us died off.
“You… can have them…” he mutters, eyes on the floor.
“Thank you,” Greg says. “At least that gang didn’t get it all.”
“Those stupid kids couldn’t get into my place. Extra locks. I know how people would get – taking and killing.”
“And it’s only going to get worse,” Felipe points out the giant gorilla in the room. We all know it’s going to get much worse before it gets better. “Which is why I think we should leave the city.”
A few gasps, a few nods, and then Mark steps forward. “And go where? I got no place but here.”
“Same,” I begrudgingly admit a common ground with the man. Catching Mateo’s eyes, he frowns sympathetically at me. Or, maybe empathetically?
“Same,” he says, still looking at me. “All my family is in Mexico, except for a brother in Texas.”
“My parents are in San Francisco,” Lidia says, “But I know they wouldn’t want me trying to get there.”
“That would be a bad idea,” Felipe agrees. “Many of us have family elsewhere that we are worried about, but getting to them is probably impossible. Those that could, have already left, yeah?”
The group nods, and I recall the faces of the tenants who left in the early days of the blackout, joining family in other parts of the city. Being outside the city-center, I think we’ve been lucky that today’s gang-hit was the first violence we’ve seen. For the most part, people have been keeping to themselves, fear and hunger slowly driving them to desperation. Looking around the group, I see that desperation on everyone’s faces.
“Where would we go?” I quietly repeat Mark’s question.
My head cocks left, and I wince as it pops. “Ow… Piru? Never heard of it.”
“Me either,” Mark says as the rest shrug.
“Exactly,” Felipe grins. “Is a tiny spot on the map, west of Santa Clarita. No one will be heading to Piru, but us.”
“What’s in Piru,” Mateo asks.
“A friend,” Felipe’s grin widens. “I not want to say nothing ‘til now, because there were still too many of us, yeah? But now, just eight? I think my friend wouldn’t mind so few. Is maybe three, four day walk at my elderly pace?”
“Your friend?” Mark’s question carries the heavy weight of suspicion.
“Old war buddy.” Felipe motions towards the pictures on his wall of people in military uniforms standing in front of tanks and mud-brick buildings. “He has much land. Bunker. Food and a water well. Told me if shit ever hit the fan and the world ended, I should head there.”
It sounds like a good place to be right now, but we could walk all the way there and end up dead in the desert, or shot by this guy. Or turned away. I doubt anyone would turn away a young couple with a baby, or a doctor, but me? I’m probably in the same ‘unwanted’ category as conspiracy-theory Mark.
“Alex?” Felipe waves at me. “You look like you have something to say, yeah?”
I hate how he can always read me like an open book. A sigh deflates my sore shoulders. “It sounds nice, Felipe.”
“But?” he presses and I scowl at him as best I can, given that I look like a raccoon that’s been hit by a bus.
“Must I wave the rainbow flag?”
“Bah!” he scoffs at me with a flick of the hand.
“Don’t bah me,” I pout.
“Listen, I know your history,” he says, like it’s just me and him in the room.
But, I can feel everyone looking between us. At me. Mateo is staring right at me.
“Then you know why I would be reluctant to leave,” I grouse out through a tight, swollen jaw.
“David won’t care,” he replies with confidence. “You come. Will be fine. Besides, the man likes to eat, so he will respect you as a chef.”
“I’m a pastry chef,” I argue dryly. “I don’t think the apocalypse calls for strudel.”
I hear a snort followed by this muffled snickering. Redirecting my ire, I see Mateo nearly doubled over, his arms across his gut and his tanned cheeks darkening with the effort to contain his amusement. Looking up at me, he tries to calm his laughter. “Sorry, man, but if you could’ve seen your face when you said that…”
“Mateo,” Felipe warns, though he too is a little red-faced from his attempts not to laugh at my expense. “As a fellow chef, you should show respect, yeah?”
That has me doing a double-take at the man. “You’re a chef?”
“Cook,” Mateo corrects. “Just a simple line cook. Was saving up for culinary school, but then,” he shrugs with a glance upwards at the unlit celling fan hanging over our heads.
“So, we have two cooks,” Felipe claps his hands. “And a doctor, unless you need to stay?”
“No,” Malinda shakes her head. “The clinic’s shut down. No more supplies, and we’ve had a few break-ins. I did manage to get a first-aid kit and some minor things. I put them in the trunk of my car, because, who is paying attention to cars now, right?”
We all laugh a little at that as I fight against my desire to continue glancing at Mateo. Every time I do, he’s either grinning at me outright or flicking his own gaze away. I wonder if-
No. You’ve done tanned, cute and pretty-eyed before, Alex, and look where it got you. Can opener-less, that’s where.
Not that I still have my precious Spaghetti-O’s, anyway.
“So, two cooks, a doctor, a teacher,” Felipe continues and Ms. Jennings nods. “And, let’s see… Greg, you are in construction, so good, and Will is young and strong! Is good to have, yeah? Mark, you… Well, you fixed electronics.”
“Electrical engineer,” Mark mutters bitterly. “Lot of good that is now.”
“Could be,” Felipe continues to try and sweet-talk all of us into this idea of his. “What if David has a generator or something needing fixing? Eh? What if maybe you engineer the solution to this whole mess?”
He pauses, looking at each of us in turn, then smiles almost sadly. “Ay, what a group, yeah? Is why we are left. Alone, we always underestimate our potential. But, I think, together? What have we got to lose?”
“Our lives,” Mark announces, ever the bastion of glad tidings. Then, the man actually laughs. “But, we could all die here, too. Actually, statistically speaking, we have a better chance of survival outside of the city.”
“Agreed!” Felipe continues to be our apocalyptic cheerleader. “I think we should all spend the evening gathering what things we have, then we should all sleep on the same floor, maybe even same apartments?”
“I am afraid those hoodlums will come back,” Ms. Jennings says.
“You and Will are welcome to stay here,” Felipe says. “I have a fold-out couch.”
“Thank you,” Ms. Jennings looks relieved. “Will, what do we say?”
Will doesn’t make eye contact with anyone, but nods. “We say thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Felipe says to the boy then turns back to the rest of us. “Tomorrow morning, at sunrise, I will be at the front door to this building. Please, I hope that you all will join me. If not,” he looks specifically at me, “then I will be sad, but I will wish you all the best of luck.”
Luck. I’m really beginning to hate that word.