“Bring forth the murderer.”
Beaten, bloodied, and bruised, Tomahawk was dragged across the courtyard, his knees dragging on the broken asphalt. Jagged stones bit his bony kneecaps, but he barely noticed. He was fast losing his grip on consciousness. Not now, he thought. Just five more minutes, then I can sleep forever. Just a little longer. His captors tossed him to the ground. Too weak to catch himself, he bit his tongue, filling his mouth with the taste of blood.
“Kneel before King Maladroit the Magniloquent!” A rifle butt jabbed him in the ribs, and he let out an anguished cry. Impossibly, he managed to push himself up on his hands. Before him, a scruffy, bearded man sat on a scrap metal throne, an eyepatch over one eye. A wolfish grin appeared from the overgrowth of kinky red hair.
“So, you’re the one they call Tomahawk, eh?” His voice was a husky tenor, slightly too affected to be taken seriously. “You realize you’ve killed eight of my men? I don’t look kindly on those who attack the citizens of my kingdom.”
“Neither do I,” replied Tomahawk, meeting the man’s gaze. “And it’s eleven, not eight.” Another minute, that’s all I need. Just have to get my strength for one final push.
Maladroit laughed, a dry, humorless laugh. “Defiant ’til the end. Just like they said you’d be. You know, I spent a lot of precious resources getting hold of you.” He stood, moving to stand over Tomahawk. “I’m gonna take my time with you, and then you’ll be just another trophy for the wall.”
Closer. That’s it. Tomahawk sat up on his knees, letting his hands dangle at his feet. Right next to his boots. Where knives lay hidden, ready to strike. A smile stretched his cracked lips, revealing red stained teeth. “I don’t thi — ”
“Ted! Teddy! Tedster!”
Ted blinked and looked around, as though awakened from a deep dream. He set his book down on the plush leather seat of their commandeered party bus. Scooter plopped down beside him, smelling like a thoroughly grassy skunk. His eyes were glazed and bloodshot above his permanent stoner’s grin. “Que pasa, amigo?” Scooter’s SoCal accent grated on Ted’s ears. “Whatcha doin’?”
“Reading,” Ted answered curtly. “You know, just doing some research.”
Scooter nabbed the book and turned it over. “Tomahawk and the Unworthy King,” he read aloud. “That doesn’t sound like research, bro.”
“Well, it is.” Ted had been the last one to join their little group, and he was starting to regret it. Unlike these juicehead gorillas, Ted had been preparing for the end of the world for years. He still couldn’t believe how trusting they were, simply inviting a stranger into their lives. I could have just pulled my guns on them and taken everything they had. However, one thing that came up time and time again in his research was that having friends was better than having stuff, so he’d accepted their invitation, calculating that it had greatly increased his odds of survival.
“Tell me about it, dude,” Scooter said, getting out his rolling papers.
Ted sighed. “It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world. The biosphere collapses, and the remnants of humanity have to fight it out for the last remaining resources. It’s really realistic and — ”
“I don’t know, dude,” said Scooter, shaking his head. “That biosphere doesn’t really look collapsed to me.” He pointed out the window, where the rolling hills of Napa Valley swept past, the vineyards overgrown with lush, green grass. “You’re the last person we’ve seen in like, months. There are resources all over the place.”
“Hell yeah there are!” Vinnie called from the back of the bus. He was slumped over on the seat, wearing dark shades, a bottle of vodka in his hand. He shook it at them and said, “Liquid resources!” A collective woo! went up from the gorillas, and Ted died just a little.
“Oh shit, this is our exit!” yelled Darren from the driver’s seat. He edged the van around the scattered abandoned cars, weaving up the exit ramp. “It’s party time, fuckers!” A few moments later, the opening riff from Wolfmother’s “Joker and the Thief” blared from the speakers. Narrow beams of white light drifted through the weed smoke as the disco ball began to spin. Vinnie wobbled up to his feet and started goofing around on the stripper pole, while Scooter leaned back and sparked up.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, thought Ted, sulking. The world had finally ended, just like he had always known it would, and he was stuck with the only three people on Earth incapable of taking it seriously.
The sun was beginning its long slow arc down to the sea when they finally pulled into the winery’s abandoned circular drive. The hedges on either side were tangled and overgrown, and the grass had gone to seed—universal markers of abandonment. “Alright, let’s do this,” said Darren, opening the doors. While the dudebros eagerly jumped out, Ted hauled out his go bag and started putting on his gear. Leather gloves. Respirator. Goggles. Ted strapped on his pistols, a pair of chrome-plated Desert Eagle .45s he’d looted from a gun store. Thelma and Louise.
Darren was hanging from the crossbeam of a trellis when he came out, doing pull-ups. “There’s the Tedster,” he said, letting out a little grunt between reps. “Look at you—unh—all ready for battle and shit—unh—do you even know how to use those things?”
“Of course I do,” Ted replied. He’d read countless manuals and magazines on the subject during his seclusion. Target practice had been out of the question, though; he couldn’t risk giving away his position, to say nothing of wasting his ammo supply. “They’re mostly for deterrence, anyway. I mean, no one’s gonna mess with a guy wearing these.”
Vinnie punched him in arm, hard enough to make his fingers tingle. “That’s right, you fuck with the Tedster, you get the horns!” The others laughed and headed for the door.
“Wait!” said Ted, alarmed. “You can’t just walk into an abandoned building. There could be guys with guns in there or booby traps or something.”
“Or something?” said Darren. “What, like zombies? That shit’s just in comics and movies, dude.”
“Relax,” said Scooter. “We’ve been in tons of abandoned buildings, and all we ever found were dead people and free shit. Come on, the vino’s waiting!”
Twenty minutes later, they were all sitting at a dusty outdoor table, enjoying a bottle apiece, watching the last rays of sunlight descend over the hills of the vineyard. The dudebros passed around a joint, while Ted abstained. Gotta keep my head clear. Even the wine was a bit much for him; he’d barely finished his first glass, while the others were ready to uncork round two. They laughed and joked and told stories of the world now dead; Ted sat and stared off into the hills. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
In the distance, a small white speck flew through the air above the trees.
“Hey,” said Ted, sitting up. “I think I saw something over there.”
“I’m seeing something right here!” said Vinnie, giggling.
“I’m serious. Look!” He pointed to the patch of air where he’d seen the speck. A moment later, another flew by, followed by a faint pink! sound. “Did you see it?”
“You’re just high, bro,” said Scooter. “You gotta stop reading so many books, they’re fucking with your brain, amigo.”
“No, dude,” said Darren, sitting up. “There’s like, lights over there. See?” Through the trees, the brilliant white of electric lights popped into life.
“Oh shit,” said Vinnie, pulling off his glasses. “Tedster, they’re turning on the floodlights. They know we’re here!” He grabbed Ted by the arms and shook him dramatically, screaming into his face. “Run!”
“Knock it off!” Ted said, clumsily fighting him off. Darren stood and said, “Come on, let’s go meet the neighbors.”
“You can’t be serious,” said Ted, also standing. “We have no idea who they are or what they want. Are you really going to just walk in there empty-handed and expect them to… be nice?”
“He’s right, man,” said Scooter. “We gotta bring the vino.”
Darren put a hand on Ted’s shoulder, looking him straight in the eyes. “Hey, we know what we’re doing. The three of us have been making friends for a long time, and we’re good at it.” And you aren’t, his tone implied. “Just stick with us, and you’ll be okay. Besides, they’re playing golf. How bad could they be?”
The sky was a dusky shade of purple by the time they reached the stand of trees bordering the golf course. Vinnie had been right, they were floodlights, and they were currently being used to keep the course open after dark. To the right was a gradually sloping hill, with a clubhouse sitting at the top. White globe outdoor lights had been strung up over the patio, and smoke was rising into the air, carrying the scent of charred meat. The distant, rhythmic thump of a kick drum pulsed in the twilight. “Dudes, it’s a party,” said Darren, stepping out onto the course. “Let’s go!” Before Ted could find the words to tell them how stupid they were being, the others had followed. Idiots! he wanted to scream at them. After a few moments considering whether or not to sneak through the trees, he followed too.
They crested the hill to find rows of picnic tables laid out on the concrete patio. Scattered groups of men and women sat at the tables, eating, drinking, laughing, while a pack of kids chased each other around in weaving, looping circles. An older gentleman stood at the grill, a beer in one hand, a spatula in the other. He had long grey hair pulled up in a man-bun. As Ted and the gorillas approached, the conversation began to fall off and people stood, all eyes on them. Darren leaned towards Ted and said, “Let us do the talking.” He turned his megawatt smile on the crowd and said, “Howdy, neighbors!”, holding two wine bottles in the air. “We come in peace!” The looks of concern turned to smiles, and soon they were engulfed by a whirlwind of handshakes and hugs. In the center of it all, like the eye of the storm, was Ted, with Thelma and Louise on his hips, all but ignored.
The crowd parted as the older man approached them. “Hey there, fellas. It’s good to see some new faces around here. The name’s Papa Dave. Welcome to our little community.” Papa Dave glanced at Ted and the girls. “You won’t be needing those here, son. In fact, they might make people a little uncomfortable.” Dave held his eyes for a moment, making his point clear. “Well come on, boys, there’s plenty to go around. Why dontcha come sit at my table, we’ll jaw a bit.”
After nearly two years of nothing but old packaged and preserved foods, it was the best meal any of them had ever eaten. Papa Dave explained how their little co-op came to be, how they’d gotten the local agriculture back up and running, and how they met every night for communal meals. Dave had been living in the valley since before the world ended, and had started maintaining the clubhouse as a way to keep from losing his mind. “I used to just sit up here, whacking balls down the hill and perfecting my strawberry tarts. Speaking of,” he said, getting to his feet, “it’s time for dessert.” He disappeared in the clubhouse, leaving the four of them alone.
“Can you believe this shit?” said Vinnie. “It’s paradise! We’ll never have to get back in that rank-ass bus again!”
“I don’t like it,” said Ted, looking sour. “There’s something going on here. No one is this nice for no reason.”
“Hey, Ted,” said Darren. “Just be chill, will you? Don’t fuck this up for us.” Dave returned with a warm strawberry tart, with bright red jam peeking out through the golden, flaky latticework crust. Slices were passed around and they dug in. All except for Ted. The others sat back, smiling and sated. “What’s wrong, Ted?” asked Papa Dave. “You don’t like strawberry?”
Ted stood up abruptly, fumbling Thelma and Louise from their holsters. “All of this is wrong!” he shouted, bringing the party to a standstill. “Are all of you fucking blind? The world has ended! Everyone is dead except for us, and you’re all out here having nice dinner parties like nothing has changed! There are no rules anymore, no one to keep order. Anyone could come in here at any time and just shoot up the place and take everything away from you. I spent two years alone, hoarding, looting, doing research, anything I could to prepare for life in the goddamn apocalypse, and you sat up here on this hill baking strawberry tarts? IT WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE THIS WAY!!!” He lifted Thelma, took aim at the slice of tart, and fired, spattering his neighbors with bright red jelly. There was motion on all sides. A moment later, Vinnie’s arms were wrapped around his head and neck like pythons. Before Ted could register what was happening, the world went grey-ish red, and he went to sleep.
“Ted. Teddy. Tedster!”
A sharp slap brought him around. He was sitting on a cold concrete floor, his arms tied behind him around a pole. Darren knelt in front of him, shaking his head. “I told you to let us do the talking. I told you not to fuck this up. But you just couldn’t listen, could you? What the hell, man? What were you thinking?”
“It isn’t supposed to be like this,” Ted said weakly.
“And how is it supposed to be? Did it ever occur to you that after seeing so much death and destruction, we might all be sick of that shit? That maybe some of us actually believe in being good to each other for its’ own sake? I’ve known plenty of people like you, Ted, little guys who thought the world was holding them down. But the world was never the problem, buddy. It’s Y. O. U.” He jabbed his index finger into Ted’s chest to emphasize each word. “I talked them into letting us stay, but you’ve gotta go. And we’re keeping your guns.” Darren turned to leave. At the door, he turned back and said, “It didn’t have to be this way, Ted. You should have just eaten the damn tart.”