True North (MM Romance) Excerpt #1
Where do you want to be when the world ends?
Joshua has had enough of people. Especially those desperate, starving bastards who he’s certain ate his dog. When people decide to leave the university town of Lincoln, Nebraska and head south before winter sets in, Joshua heads north instead. When he lands face-first in a snowbank, he welcomes death. What he finds instead is the handsome smile of Chris, a lone goat farmer who’s trying to make the best of life without power.
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When the end came, there were no zombies.
I felt a little lied to; betrayed by all those late night horror flicks I’d snuck into the den to watch while my snoring grandma was blissfully unaware her ‘little angel boy’ had gotten out of bed. There weren’t any atomic bombs, either, but I’m glad about that. I think I could fight off a zombie or two before they ate my brains, but radiation poisoning wouldn’t be my first choice for how to die. There was also no big volcano explosion, no Texas-sized rock from space, nor a giant global earthquake caused by magnetic pole-shifting.
No, when the end did come for us, it was far less than a Hollywood disaster flick where the world goes to shit and some random dude saves it and his family. That other guy, the writer, was more right than anyone. Humanity didn’t go out with some great bang; some momentous thunder worthy of our ‘great and powerful’ species. All it took to send our advanced civilization to its knees was a quiet, inaudible whimper.
Or, more aptly, a really big fart.
Fuck, that still makes me laugh on the inside a bit, even if my lips are too cold and chapped to even think about actually letting the sound out. The whole human race, done in by the sun letting one rip. Or two. Not entirely sure. North America was completely taken out with the first solar wave, so what happened after that is only a guess.
We had warning. Well, not really we, but the various global governments knew it was coming. A few private sun-watchers took to social media to warn folks, but most people just tossed tin-foil hats at them. We’d been hit with several big solar flares in the past decade as the sun entered some sort of ‘period of high activity’, but they’d caused barely a tickle against the satellites. Sure, loss of cell reception and YouTube sucks for a few minutes, but it’s not the end of the world.
If I ever come across some tinfoil, I think I might make me a hat and wear it in honor of those guys. I bet they’re probably surviving in some anti-electromagnetic, protected bunker, with enough food for five years, all the NCIS reruns on a flash-drive, and laughing their asses off at the rest of us suckers.
That first day, we all kinda laughed. I was in the middle of chasing a night-elf druid with the flag on World of Warcraft, doing my best to ignore the unfinished midterm paper on my desk, when the power went out. There was no zap or static sensation, or even a flash in the sky. It just flickered a bit then went out, like during a storm, or the time that old drunk guy hit the light pole down the street.
I cursed, swore revenge on the druid later then began reviewing my term paper notes.
My cellphone was dead, too, but I was notorious for letting the battery run down. It never occurred to me that the phone was actually fried, that power wouldn’t be coming back on, or that the last meaningful conversation I’d had on that phone had been to the pizza delivery guy and not my grandmother. We don’t really think about those things, what could be gone, until they simply are.
I’d like to tell you that our little suburb near Lincoln, Nebraska, banded together into some utopian neighborhood of communal sharing and tribal rules. And maybe, for a time, we did. In the second week, we had a ‘town meeting’. Theories were tossed around. News from nearby neighborhoods shared. A science professor from the university grimly stated the facts while some people began hording food.
I think food was probably the biggest issue for most folks. There were wells around, so we had water, but food? Most of us had never eaten anything not already dead and stuffed in a can or frozen into a square container. Or a burrito. Damn, I miss burritos.
By the end of the first month, I’d given up hope for trying to reach my grandma in Omaha. A man on horseback from Iowa said the whole country was out, and probably the world. He stayed one night, then left, heading west to find his daughter in Denver. Sometimes I wonder if he ever made it. I like to think he did; that those Hollywood movies may have had at least some grain of hopeful truth. In my gut, though, I’m pretty certain he was shot dead for his horse by some jackass who’s never ridden a day in his life.
As the fighting began over food and what some people thought everyone else should do, I kept to myself. My little basement apartment went unnoticed for a while, my own small stash of canned tuna and crackers enough to keep me satisfied. My dog, a boxer named Kenzie, wasn’t too keen on the situation, or the tuna. By the end of the second month, we’d both gone a bit cabin-crazy. Then, Kenzie disappeared.
I don’t like thinking about the how or the why. People knew I had the dog, as I couldn’t just let her poop in the apartment, and I’d already noticed the thinning pet population in the neighborhood. Desperate people will do desperate things. Unthinkable things.
When the first snow hit, everyone realized just how bad it was about to get. Some families banded together – living in one house while using the other house for fuel. Most people, though, they left. Heading south, they said, with encouragement for the rest of us to follow. Lines of hungry, ragged-looking people walked down the freeway, passing abandoned cars and the skeletons of looted, burned out buildings.
I left too, but no way in Hell was I going to head in the same direction as those bastards who probably ate my dog. No, I had this genius plan. Avoid the masses, the cities and the south. Head north, find some abandoned camper’s cabin, and eek out the winter on melted snow and anything edible I could find.
Hindsight being what it is, that decision may not have been my best moment. I’ve lost count of how many weeks I’ve been walking, from stripped-bare farmhouses to ghost-town subdivisions. I could’ve stopped, I suppose, and made any one of those places my home, but something kept driving me on. I’d lost my already wilted trust in people when I lost Kenzie, and the first sight of another human being had me packing up what I’d scrounged and moving on.
Moving, though, is becoming more difficult. I don’t think I’ve ever been this cold. It’s been snowing steady for three sunsets, and I’ve thought once or twice about returning to the last farmhouse I spied through a ticket of trees. There’d been firelight and the smell of smoke. Scents of civilization. Survival.
But that’s a few miles back, I suppose. Probably too late for me to turn around, anyway. With one last slogging footstep over an embankment, I know I’m not long from seeing my dog again.
I always thought death would be scary. But now I’ve seen scary, and it had nothing to do with death, and everything to do with what living people will do to one another to keep from dying. I don’t think I was cut out for this new, powerless and convenience-lacking world. I can’t be what’s required to survive.
Tumbling forward, I close my eyes in the freezing snow, letting the darkness pull me under with lucid dreams of Kenzie and microwaveable burritos.
*** *** ***
A cold press against my cheek has me reaching out with stiff arms. “Fuck off,” I mumble through uncooperative lips. The press reappears, and I swear, that dog never lets me sleep in. “Dangit, Kenzie, I’m-”
The inhale to speak brings in the scent of hay. The sound of Kenzie’s name reminds me she’s not there. Can’t be here. Where the fuck is here?
With a force of will I didn’t know I possessed, I force one eyelid open. Warm, flickering light from a kerosene lantern blinds me for a second. As my vision clears and the long, black barrel of a shotgun comes into focus, I take in a deep gulp and wince my eyes shut. “Don’t shoot!”
“You’ll have to give a good reason, first, boy.”
I blink open my eyes again, attempt to sit up and fail. “Where…”
“You’re in my goat barn,” the masculine voice responds.
“Goats?” Goats? As if to prove I’m not dead and living some crazy purgatory nightmare, a nudge against my shoulder has me eye-to-eye with a tiny, blue-eyed goat. The goat sizes me up, tucks down its head and butts me again. “Ow.”
“Where are you from, where are you heading, and what are you doing on my property,” the man questions, obviously not as happy to see me as the goat.
The goat hits me again as I finally manage to sit up. I start to talk again then stop, knives of pain instead making me reach for my pocket. The man’s gun lifts to my head and I freeze.
“Whoa now,” he says with a clear warning on his voice.
“Chapstick,” I say. “Lips…” and they crack with blood. Dammit.
Keeping his gun at the ready, he reaches towards me. I don’t have the energy to fight, so I just sit there, slumped in the hay with the goat bumping into my shoulder. The man, whose face is still mostly a blur, begins riffling through my pockets. I don’t have much, but he pulls out the cherry Chapstick and looks at it before handing it over.
I take it with numb, floundering fingers, only then realizing he must’ve stolen my gloves. Great. At least I can die with moist lips, though. The lip balm stick is down to the last little nub, but that’s Heaven, right there.
“Thanks,” I manage, still trying to blink away the fuzz in my brain. “What… How’d I get here?”
“I believe I asked some questions that I’d like answered first.”
He’s tall. I can see that much. Tall and… a cowboy hat?
His throat clears as I continue to sit there, dazed and confused. Thinking hard, I recall what he asked. “Uh. From Lincoln. Heading north. And… Well, I thought I was dying. Didn’t know it was your property.”
He eyes me for a quiet moment and I sigh. People. I hate people.
I try to stand, but he stops me, so I hold up one hand with an attempt to appear even less threatening than I obviously am. “Look, just let me leave your goat barn. You can keep my gloves and whatever else. I’ll go find somewhere else to die.”
That seems to surprise him a bit and I take the opportunity to stand. The barn spins and I collapse back against the wooden wall behind me. Everything hurts.
I suck in a breath, arm wrapped around my ribcage where it feels like someone is stabbing my guts. The goat head-butts my leg and I nearly end up back on my ass. Stupid goat. Stupid, ridiculously cute, goat.
“Who’s Kenzie?” he asks again and I glare at him in response. It’s none of his damn business. “Listen, son,” he says like I’m some dumb kid. “If you’ve got a friend out there in this blizzard, you need to tell me before they end up dead.”
Oh. I really am a dumb kid. “Kenzie was my dog.”
“I think my neighbors ate her.”
“Oh.” The shotgun lowers, the goat head-butts my leg again and I fall to my ass in a hiccupping sob.
“Those bastards ate my damn dog.” God, I’ve lost it. I give up. I give in. “She was a good dog. Why are people so awful?”
I don’t think Mr. Shotgun has an answer for that, because he lets me cry in his goat barn for a good five minutes. After it’s done and I can’t discern if I’m still aching because of Kenzie or the pain in my ribs, I try to find my composure.
“Sorry,” I mumble, going first to my hands and knees then slowly crawling up a hay bale to my feet. Putting weight on my left ankle hurts like a bitch, and I’m suddenly pissed off at the cowboy-hat-wearing asshole for thawing me out just so I can go find another snowbank to die in.
The goat, which I figure is either a pygmy or a kid, helps me walk by getting right under my feet or nudging my leg. “Yeah, yeah. I’m going.”
“Why are you heading north?”
I stop, hand outstretched towards my backpack that’s been opened and pilfered through on a haystack. Jerk. “Because everyone else is heading south.”
“No.” And not that it’s any of his business, but my mouth keeps moving. “Well, my grandma was in Omaha, but I doubt she’ll make it through the winter. Diabetic. She’d beat me with her cane if she thought I’d left the safety of society to find her, anyway.”
That gets a small chuckle from Mr. Shotgun. “I had a grandma like that, too. Maybe yours got taken someplace safe.”
I nod at that, unsure what else to do. In weeks of walking, I’d managed to let go of false hope. “So, can I have my things back?”
He lets out a breath then moves towards my backpack. “You can, if you tell me why you have this?”
When he pulls out the medal from my bag, I reach for it with a snarl. “It’s mine.”
“Now,” he pulls it away from me. “I don’t believe for a minute that you’ve ever seen a day of combat. I know times are tough, but stealing someone’s Purple Heart for barter-“
“I didn’t steal it,” I reach again, this time getting a hold on the cold metal medallion. I lack the strength to pull the ribbon from his grip though, but I finally meet the man’s eyes for the first time since he shoved a shotgun in my face. They’re honey-brown, like Kenzie’s were.
“Okay,” he says calmly. “Then where’d you get it?”
“It was my mom’s.”
“Oh.” His fingers let go of the ribbon and I stumble back a bit from the sudden lack of resistance. “Well, where is she now? North?”
Guess he still doesn’t believe I’m just going north for the hell of it. “She’s buried in Omaha. After getting the Heart, she healed up, went back into service and came back the next time in a box.”
His fist clenches, the shotgun in his other hand all but forgotten. Yeah, I have a wonderful life’s story. After weeks avoiding people, the compassion in his eyes makes me leery. I’d been prepared to die. I don’t need some sympathy-card from a stranger who’d just as soon blow my head off for touching his damn goats.
Tucking the medal back in my bag, I gather up the rest of my stuff, including my gloves which are now, thankfully, dry, and- Oh. Guess maybe he wasn’t trying to take my gloves? Not that it matters.
“Now, hold on,” he says as I make a limping step towards what I think is the exit. “Are you seriously just planning on walking out of here and back into the snow?”
My lips are starting to crack again, and so is my confidence in my desire to die. “Been doing it for weeks now. I’ll get by alright.”
“Oh really? How’s that?”
“On my art degree,” I drawl out sourly as he continues to block my path.
That has him doubled over in a rich, baritone laughter, and his smile makes me forget all about the snow and the shotgun. Damn. He’s handsome.
Tall, lanky legs in blue jeans, narrow hips, broad shoulders and a weather-worn face, with a strong jaw and those honey-brown eyes. I think he’s a bit younger than he looks, but farm work will do that to a man. The sunspots and crow’s feet don’t do a damn thing to make him less attractive.
Okay. Time to leave. He’s probably got a wife and kids stashed somewhere, which is why he took the crazy man playing in the snow to the goat barn instead of the farmhouse. If he didn’t shoot me for that, he might shoot me for being queer.
“L-look,” I stutter, averting my gaze around him. “Thanks for letting me thaw. If I promise not to touch your goats, can I pass through your property?”
Fuck. “Uh, okay. Can you give me a general idea of where your property line is so I can go around it?”
“No,” he says, a smile tugging at his lip.
What the heck is he playing at? “And why not?”
“Because either one of those options would be a death sentence. The blizzard that’s brewing is looking like it’s gonna set in for another few days at least. Dunno if it’s everything being turned off now or what, but I haven’t seen a winter like this since I was a kid.”
My gaze moves between his chest and the goat prodding my calf. Inside my chest, that damn flicker of hope reignites – that there are still good people somewhere in this world. “If you’re offering to let me stay in your barn-“
So much for that. I take another limp to the door. “Then-“
“I’m offering to let you stay in the house, at least until the storm passes and your ankle heals.”
My fist cinches the strap of my backpack, my head not ready to let my heart lead. I’ve seen too much. Walked too far alone. The warmth in this barn is making me soft. “I’m sure you’ve got enough mouths to feed.”
His shoulders raise and fall, that smile still tugging at his lips. “Just the one.”
“You… You live alone? What about your family?”
“Don’t have one. My kin and I… Well, we had ourselves a disagreement about some things, so I came out to the middle of nowhere to raise goats in peace. They stopped taking my calls and never sent Christmas cards, so I figure I don’t owe passing a worried thought their way during the apocalypse.”
That makes me smirk. I can’t fault him for his attitude. “Where exactly is here?”
His brow skews a bit. “You said you were from Lincoln? Lincoln, Nebraska?”
“Well, shoot, son,” he chuckles. “Thought you were heading north.”
Another, deeper laugh, and my thawing heart skips to the sound. “Welcome to Kansas!”
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