Hi, I thought you guys might want to see a preview of my next novel After the End. Here we go:
“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”
“When things aren’t working out for people, the end of the world seems like an easy way to wipe the slate clean.”
“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”
The Last Hurrah
The trip was going really well until the announcement.
The campsite was a large clearing halfway up a mountain near the Canadian border, known to the people in the area as Boulder. It was an hour’s drive from the nearest settlement, a tiny bump in the road called China Bend, and two hours from the nearest police officer; the incompetent Jeb Jenkins of Pan Falls. Consequently, it was a great spot to have a rowdy, drunken weekend.
Mark, his cousins, and his friends had formed a tradition of going to the site every Memorial Day for the last few years, making an event of it. That first time only eight of them had gone, but the event had grown bigger each year since; this year’s group comprised of two dozen people. The first-timers had no idea how to get to the site, so they met at the only grocery store in Pan Falls, Sun Foods, to convoy up together after grabbing some last-minute supplies.
The ride up the mountain was slower than usual. It quickly became apparent, as they drove the winding road, that they were the first group of the season. There were numerous fallen trees and limbs strewn across the road for them to clear away, a yearly chore for the lucky first few. It was a long and tedious process as they stopped for each fallen tree—four in total–and an uncountable number of large branches. The best pieces they threw into their already-cramped vehicles for the campfire they were planning for that night.
The swollen red sun was starting to slip toward the horizon by the time they reached the campground, and it was almost nightfall by the time the tents and the rest of the area was set up. As they finished setting up, they watched a convoy of RVs and a few cars drive past them; another group up for the weekend, headed to one of the campgrounds farther down the road. Mark’s group had brought four kegs of beer and they tapped one as they started cooking hot dogs and sausages on sticks. “Nothing like the first beer of the night,” Mark’s cousin, Alan, sipping his beer from a red plastic cup.
As he drank his beer, Mark marveled at how the two dozen people in their camping group had constructed a veritable tent city: Mark and his brother Jeff were sharing a large cabin tent with their cousin Brandon, and Mark’s best friend Kevin. A little way down, Alan and his wife Carly had a large tent, and the tents of their six friends—including Carly’s ever-present best friend Cindy—who had come up with them, were clustered around it. Along with Mark’s tent, the cluster formed half of the tent city.
The rest of the tents were on the other side of the fire pit, curving around the huge boulder that gave the area its name. More cousins of Mark’s—Tom and his younger brother Drew—had set up tents with their wives, Debbie and Angela. The rest of the tents belonged to Tom’s eight friends.
Mark didn’t know any of Tom and Debbie’s friends, but he figured he’d learn their names by the end of the trip. The single girls were pretty, and he smiled to himself as he decided he’d get to know them first.
A couple of hours after the first keg had been cracked, and when they were more than a few drinks deep, Mark worked up the courage to talk to a tall redhead standing by the fire. She was sipping a beer and as she stared into the flames they reflected in her green eyes.
“I don’t think we’ve met before. I’m Mark,” he said, feeling like an idiot as he awkwardly shifted his drink to his left hand and offered her his right.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Aubrey,” she said, taking his hand. “I’m one of Debbie’s friends from work, she invited me out here for this shindig because I haven’t been out much lately. It’s really fun so far!”
“Yes, it’s always fun up here. I feel like I’m one with nature, just another animal in the forest.”
A couple of hours and many drinks later, Mark ended up sleeping with Aubrey in her tent. It was a good night; one of the last normal ones.
Mark awoke the next morning to Alan yelling his name from outside the tent and shaking the frame. Aubrey moaned and rolled into a ball, covering her ears with her sleeping bag.
“I’m awake, I’m awake! Give me a minute,” he hissed at Alan. He got dressed and discreetly exited the tent, doing his best to not wake Aubrey, though he knew if Alan’s yelling hadn’t woken her up then nothing would.
“Hey buddy,” Alan said as Mark exited the tent, smiling at him knowingly. “We’re going to ride around the mountain and do some shooting, you coming?”
“Sounds good. Did you bring a gun I can use?” Though Mark had been in the army for four years, straight out of high school, he didn’t own any guns as they’d never interested him much outside of work. Luckily, his extended family had more than enough.
“You can use my old .22, I brought a ton of ammo for it,” Alan replied.
Quite a few of the other guys, including Travis, Mark’s cousin and a late arrival to the party, came along. They piled into Alan’s pickup truck after drinking their breakfast from the keg. Mark and Travis hopped onto the bed, while Alan, Jeff, Brandon and Kevin piled into the cab.
Alan was testing out his new AR-15, while Kevin favored his Winchester revolver. Travis had borrowed a double-barrel 20 gauge shotgun from Alan, and the rest had .22 rifles and a huge plastic tub full of rounds to share between them. Mark wasn’t very familiar with civilian guns, having only used them once on the last trip, but he figured out how to work the .22 after some brief instruction from Travis as they bounced along the mountain’s primitive roads. It turned out that a .22 wasn’t much different to an army rifle.
“I didn’t know if you were going to make it this year, no one said anything about it,” Mark said to Travis as they rode along in the truck bed.
“I didn’t think I would. My buddy decided he could cover me after all, at the last minute,” Travis responded, smirking at his luck.
Travis and Mark were as close as cousins could get. They’d gone to the same schools, from junior high through high school; they had shared a lot of classes and friends, and spent a lot of their free time hanging out together. They’d also both been in the army, Travis having joined the National Guard on an early entry program a year before Mark had followed and joined active duty.
“Well it’s awesome you were able to come, this trip is going to be epic. I don’t know if you heard from the guys, but I already got some action last night,” Mark said, grinning at Travis.
Travis raised his eyebrows and looked at Mark. “Bullshit. Who?”
“Aubrey, one of Debbie’s friends. Redhead. Don’t know if you’ve met her, we were already in her tent when you got here.”
“Nice, man, I know who she is. I saw her once at Tom’s house, she’s hot!”
Alan stopped the truck and leaned out the window. “Ground squirrel, my side.” He called back to Mark and Travis.
Mark saw the squirrel at the same time as Travis, standing about fifteen feet away from the truck looking at them curiously. It had no idea what hit it when both he and Travis opened fire at the same time, both scoring direct hits and shredding it into bloody pieces.
Things went on like that for a while, periodically switching who rode in the bed to shoot. After a few miles, they parked the truck and walked around a small meadow adjacent to the road, shooting at all the small game they could see—mostly ground squirrels, and the occasional rabbit. It was a monstrous (not to mention illegal) thing they were doing, and Mark knew that, but this was the culture of the family he’d been born into.
There were half a dozen felled and well-dried trees in the meadow that someone had left. “Awesome,” Alan said when he saw them. He immediately went back to retrieve his chainsaw from the truck and cut up one of the trees to use as firewood.
After an hour or so they headed back to the camp, everyone squeezing into the cab as the bed was filled with wood. The rest of the group came out to help stash the wood under a tarp lean-to, against a large tree next to the fire pit.
Tyler and Brian, two of Alan’s friends, started making a large scramble of eggs and sausage in a pan over the fire, and graciously offered it around. Most were drinking their breakfast from the keg and politely declined, though Alan and Jeff tried a bit, eating with plastic forks off of Styrofoam plates.
Carly, Cindy and Aubrey sat by the fire, chatting and sipping beers. Deciding that he’d look like a sleaze if he didn’t, and genuinely liking Aubrey, Mark went and sat by her, joining in the conversation. As they talked, they watched Tom and Drew digging holes at the edge of the creek, north of the fire pit. When finished, they dragged the three unopened kegs over and placed them in the holes so that the running creek water would keep them cool.
“I’m so glad that Debbie brought you, I haven’t seen you since that party over at her house,” Carly said to Aubrey. She was at that happy and overly complimentary stage of intoxication that seemed to last a bit longer with women.
“Yeah, I’m glad I came too. I didn’t have any plans for this weekend so Debs invited me out, said I might meet someone,” Aubrey said. She glanced at Mark and smirked. He noticed the other two girls were smiling as well, giving each other knowing looks, and he looked to the ground, his face flushing.
“We had such an awesome time last year, it’s looking like it will be even better this time around,” Cindy said.
“Yeah, last year was crazy. Remember when Travis climbed up on the boulder to pee and fell into that thorn bush?” Mark said, trying to talk himself out of his embarrassment.
Carly and Cindy laughed loudly. Aubrey smiled in the way people do when they know a story is going to be funny, but haven’t yet heard it. “He still had his dick in his hand and he was so drunk that he just kept peeing while lying on his back. He got it all over himself and had to swim in the creek to get clean,” Carly said, wiping a tear from her eye. Aubrey laughed.
“Ugh, I’d forgotten about that. That was so gross,” Cindy said, making a face.
“That didn’t stop you from making out with him later that night,” Carly shot back.
“I was drunk, Carly! I’ve hardly talked to Travis since then.”
“I’m going to go walk for a bit, the beer is starting to really hit me and I don’t want to be completely drunk before lunchtime,” Aubrey said, standing up.
Mark sat there for a moment, not knowing what to do, until he saw the accusatory looks Carly and Cindy were giving him. “I’ll come with you; I could use a walk too,” he said, standing up.
They walked in silence down a trail running alongside the creek. As soon as they’d gotten out of view of the campground, Aubrey reached for his hand, and he went along with it. Mark felt like things were moving a bit quickly, but he could hardly blame that on her; he’d been the one to start kissing her the night before.
“So, you work at the bank with Debbie?” he asked Aubrey, already pretty sure she did but trying to break the silence.
“Yeah, I started working there six months ago or so, she’s my best friend there. I’m new to Spokane and she’s really taken me under her wing, introduced me to her friends and stuff,” she replied cheerily.
“That’s really cool. I, uh, actually don’t know Debbie that well, but she seems nice.” She was actually nothing of the sort, at least to Mark. “Tom and I haven’t really hung out that much since middle school, or else I probably would have met you sooner,” Mark said.
“I’d have liked that,” she said, and rested her head on his shoulder for a moment as they ambled along.
After more walking and more small talk, they came across a large fallen tree that spanned the creek.
“I forgot about this, I found it last year! You can use it as a bridge to crawl or walk to the other side of the creek. It’s really wild over there,” Mark said, his arm now around Aubrey. She walked ahead of him and climbed up on the tree.
“Let’s go over and see,” she said, stepping up on it and starting to slowly walk toward the other side of the creek, balancing herself with her arms. Bold girl. I’m really starting to like her, Mark thought as he pulled himself onto the natural bridge to follow her.
When they got to the other side they walked through the heavy brush until the creek was out of sight. Thus hidden, Aubrey laid herself down on a heavy bed of grass, and Mark lay down next to her. They started kissing, and before long they were making love for the second time.
After they had finished, and managed to brush most of the plants and dirt from their clothes after putting them back on, they started to head back to camp. Aubrey was the first one over the tree bridge again, but this time slipped halfway across, nearly falling into creek. Luckily, Mark caught her and helped her regain her balance. The creek wasn’t deep enough—or the fall high enough—that she would have been in any danger if she’d fallen in, but it would have ruined the moment, and he felt like a hero.
On the walk from the bridge to the camp they held hands and she rested her head on his shoulder again. “Don’t you wish we could stay here like this forever?” she asked him.
Mark didn’t quite know what to say, but after a moment responded “Yes.” Aubrey seemed to be almost in love with him already. He wasn’t there yet, but he was starting to grow fond of her for sure.
When they got back to camp, Jeff grabbed Mark’s arm, saying “Where have you been, bro? We’re going to do some target shooting, Brian doesn’t believe that you could outshoot him.”
“Well that can’t stand,” Mark said. After giving Aubrey a peck on the lips and promising to return soon, they parted and Mark went with Jeff to where a bunch of the men were congregating at the back of Travis’ pickup. Alan’s friend Tyler was showing everyone a new rifle he’d bought, a Bushmaster .223.
“That’s awesome, Ty, but check out my new sidearm,” Travis said as Mark and Jeff walked up, lifting his shirt to reveal a pistol in a holster inside his pants. He took the pistol out and handed it to Tyler.
“Holy shit! Is that an HK-45? Those things cost like a thousand bucks!” Tyler said, turning the gun around in his hands and examining it closely.
“Yep, I bought it with my tax return. I’ve wanted one forever,” Travis said, grinning proudly. “I bought enough ammo to shoot for about a year nonstop, cost me almost as much as the gun. Want to give it a try?”
“Of course man, let’s set up some beer cans!” Tyler exclaimed, looking as giddy as a child on Christmas morning.
While Tyler and Travis went back and forth, seeing who could hit the most cans with the HK-45, Jeff introduced Mark to Alan’s friend Brian, who he had seen the day before but hadn’t yet been formally introduced to.
“So, your brother tells me that you’re the best shooter in your family,” Brian said, shaking Mark’s hand.
“I suppose so. I always used to screw around with BB guns when I was a kid, and then joining the army later on didn’t hurt,” Mark said.
“Are you down for a friendly competition? Maybe set some bottles on the road and see who can get the most in five shots?”
“Sure,” Mark replied. It sounded like fun.
After losing a game of rock paper scissors to determine who’d set up, Mark headed south of the camp to the edge of the road with a box of empty bottles, setting them up in a line. The road was about a hundred and fifty feet from where he and Brian were going to shoot from, which seemed like a good distance for the competition. Mark just hoped that none of the campers down the road drove by while they were shooting.
Brian shot first. After hitting the first two, he missed the last three of his five bottles. Mark’s turn came, and he promptly missed the first two bottles. He started to become a little anxious, but fought through it and hit the last three of his bottles.
“Shit man, you should have made a bet with me or something, you could have made some money!” Brian said after Mark’s last shot, laughing.
“It would have been too much like stealing,” Mark said, busting Brian’s balls. They would have gone another round, but they couldn’t find any more bottles. The remaining empties were aluminum cans, but they didn’t explode the way bottles did, and weren’t as much fun.
Everyone became bored after an hour or so of shooting and Mark, Kevin, and Brandon took out the disc golf discs that they’d brought. After some debate it was decided to have a distance throwing competition with the discs. Between the three of them, as they were all disc golf enthusiasts, they’d brought seventeen discs, so there were more than enough for everyone to play.
Tom and Drew joined in with the disc throwing, and Mark was introduced to the friends they had brought with them; Steve, Zach, John, and Brad. They all worked with Tom as electricians, and had come up for the party on his invitation. Steve had brought his wife Jenny, and Zach’s spouse Rena was also back at the campground; as Tom’s party had their own little kitchen and fire where they were making their food, Mark hadn’t seen much of them so far.
Mark got some pretty good throws in, enough that he was probably the second best, but he couldn’t beat Brandon, who threw a disc so far that he lost it in the forest across the road from the campground. “Jesus Christ, did you guys see that?” Brandon asked, after the disc disappeared in the distance.
“Yeah, that was a great throw, dude,” Alan congratulated him.
Everyone searched for the disc, but it had gone so far that they couldn’t find it. When they came back to the throwing area, the women emerged from between the cars that divided the campground from the throwing area, bringing more drinks along with them. Aubrey handed Jeff a beer, which he accepted graciously and proceeded to gulp down, thirsty from the day’s activities.
“Thanks, sweetheart,” he said, setting the empty cup down on the bumper of Travis’ truck. He hadn’t meant to call her sweetheart; that had been his pet name for his old girlfriend, Melanie. It seemed he was already reverting back into old habits.
“Don’t mention it,” she responded, giving him a sweet smile and then a peck on the lips. He was starting to fall for her already; he had a bad habit of falling for women hard and fast. She had a nearly perfect figure and a really pretty face, plus brains to boot. It was hard not to fall for a woman like that, and for some reason she was treating him like he was the one to chase, instead of the other way around. Mark thought that might have been what made him uneasy earlier, but now it was making him feel great.
He sat on the bumper of Travis’ truck with Aubrey, and together they watched the other guys throw discs while sipping beers. Mark got up and threw a disc from time to time, but mostly he sat making small talk with Aubrey and becoming increasingly intoxicated.
They called the game on account of darkness after Brandon threw another disc into the forest, and again no one could find it. “God dammit, we’re looking for it again tomorrow,” Brandon said when they decided to call off the search. “I’m not losing two discs in one weekend, those bitches are like fifteen bucks a pop.”
As everyone made their way back to the fire it started raining lightly. “God I hope this rain doesn’t get any worse,” Mark said.
“Don’t jinx it, remember two years ago when it rained nonstop?” Drew said, with mock superstition.
Mark must have jinxed it though, because the light rain quickly turned into a downpour. It was a pretty common occurrence at the campground, and almost everyone had brought rope and multiple tarps for such an occasion. Mark and Alan came up with a quick plan and the campers rigged tarps to the numerous trees scattered throughout the camp site with rope to create several large sheltered areas around the fire, with an additional tarp strung high-up over the fire to keep the rain from killing it.
After the shelters were set up and they were reassured the fire was still blazing, everyone continued to drink and mingle, huddled underneath the tarps.A few of the group headed off to Mark and Jeff’s tent to smoke some weed that Mark had brought up with him; everyone had pitched in some money before the trip and Mark had been able to get three ounces in a killer deal.
The huge cabin tent had more than enough room for the group as it had a polyester wall that could be zipped up or down to make two separate rooms or one large space. Jeff, Brandon and Kevin were staying in the rearmost room, so everyone sat down in a circle in Mark’s as yet unoccupied room by the tent’s door.
Mark took out a large pipe and stuffed it with marijuana. He took out his lighter, took a hit, and passed the pipe left to Brandon.
“Damn I hope it doesn’t rain the whole time, I wanted to play some beer pong tonight,” Brandon said wistfully after he took a hit, passing the pipe on. Tyler had brought a beer pong table but it was sitting out in the rain a little way away from the fire.
“We can still play, don’t be a wuss. We just need to rig another tarp over the table,” Alan said, giving that good-natured smile that let him call people names without them feeling insulted.
“Yeah, we should get some beer pong going, my new buddy Aubrey and I will kick your asses!” Carly said, giving Aubrey a fist bump then taking a swig of beer.
“Sounds awesome, I’m down,” Aubrey said enthusiastically. “I’m actually really good at beer pong, I found out a few months ago that I’m somewhat of a prodigy.”
“Let’s at least smoke some more of this first, I’m better at pong when I’m blazed,” Mark said, smiling.
Aubrey took only a small hit and passed it over to Mark, the pipe having rounded the circle. He remembered her mentioning earlier that she only smoked weed occasionally. Mark thought that maybe she was just trying to seem cool to him, that she hardly smoked at all, but she didn’t seem to mind that he smoked so he didn’t really care. He’d had girls try and tell him that he couldn’t smoke in relationships before, and he wouldn’t put up with that shit. Had Aubrey tried that, he would have politely distanced himself from her. If it was something dangerous he could understand, but he knew that weed wasn’t nearly as harmful as alcohol and cigarettes, and no one seemed to care much about them. He thought when women did that it was more a test to see if they could tell their man what to do for no good reason than anything else, and he was not the type to succumb to that.
The tent door suddenly unzipped and everyone looked over, paranoid from the weed. Travis’ head popped inside. “What are you guys up to?” he asked, and then sniffed the air. “Oh, doing drugs.” He rolled his eyes and popped his head back out of the tent, zipping the door back up behind him.
“Fuck you, Travis!” Alan yelled after him, laughing at the same time.
Everyone was used to Travis’ antics except for Aubrey, who seemed a bit uneasy about his sudden appearance, as if wondering if she were going to suddenly be arrested.
“Don’t worry about that, he acts like that sometimes,” Mark told her. “He’s a security guard who wants to be a cop. In high school he smoked weed like a chimney, but now that he’s quit he’s up on a high horse about it. He’d never narc, though.” That seemed to put Aubrey at ease.
They smoked two more bowls, and then Kevin remembered that he’d brought some weed brownies and grabbed them from Mark’s car. There was more than enough for everyone to have one, but the girls didn’t indulge. “I’m going to be really buzzing when this kicks in,” Jeff said as he finished his brownie.
Wanting to get the beer pong table set up before they started to feel too high to want to use it, they left the tent and set up another tarp. Tom and Drew come over to help when they figured out what was going on, eager to play too. It didn’t take too long and soon the table was ready and out of the rain. Drew began filling cups and arranging them on the table for the game. After some debate as to which team would go first, it ended up being Alan and Mark versus Carly and Aubrey.
Mark and Alan promptly lost, and had to give up the table to Zach and Rena, one of the couples in Tom and Debbie’s group. Aubrey and Carly were just too good, sinking shot after shot. Enjoying a little time by himself while Aubrey and Carly were dominating everyone at beer pong, Mark took the opportunity to drink several more beers, as well as taking a slug from a bottle of whiskey that Brian offered him, congratulating him again on his shooting earlier in the day.
Mark wandered back to the beer pong table just as Aubrey and Carly finally lost a match to Jeff and Zach, freeing her up. That was good, as he was starting to feel a bit left out after Aubrey’s long run at the beer pong table. “I’m on your team next time,” he told her as she walked over to him from the table, leaning in and giving her a peck on the tip of her nose. She smiled and blushed.
“Told you I was good.”
After waiting a few matches for an opportunity to get into the game, Mark and Aubrey played Travis and Craig. It turned out Mark’s game hadn’t improved since his last match, despite being more intoxicated. I’m better when I’m drunk. Aubrey made a valiant effort to play well enough for the both of them, but they lost on the last cup in a close game.
Most of the camp was congregated around the beer pong table, so many that Alan, Jeff, and some of the others strung up two more tarps to give enough shelter from the rain around the table. It looked like it would take a while to get back on the table, and they were starting to get tired, so Mark and Aubrey retired to her tent after refreshing their drinks. Later, Mark would reflect on how that day was the last of the good days.