Excerpt: Chapter 1 of HOOD

Excerpt: Chapter 1 of HOOD

The time has come.

*Loads & cocks rifle, serious man-face*

LET THE SHARING… BEGIN!

For all of my fans.. You’ll know this stuff. For people new to my work.. Enjoy this delicious free sample!

pickering hood

Chapter 1 – Campfire

Shenandoah Mountains, Fringes of Kaiser Territory, Formerly Virginia

The iron sights of Hood’s AK-47 lined up perfectly between each other, trained on the dark-haired man in the muted blue of predawn light. Something was wrong. This man wasn’t some lost wastelander. Any loner with sense would’ve given their camp a wide birth. There was an undeniable purposefulness to this man’s approach—he was looking for them. Hood’s heart sped in his chest as his breath quickened. The Kaiser knows we’re here. How many more are coming? The image of a host of the Kaiser’s soldiers waiting in the dark mountain woods set his mind ablaze. Focus. Hood took a deep breath of crisp woodland air to level himself. The man hustled to the next tree and crouched down behind it, leaning over to peer around the mossy bark towards the campfire up the hill. No one else followed behind him. Maybe he’s just a scout.

The man’s chest rose and fell quickly as he closed his eyes, pistol in hand. He switched hands on his pistol, wiped his palms on his pants. He doesn’t want this. He’s just like you. The thought surged into his mind unabated. Hood tried to cast it out, focused on keeping his aim true. Just turn around and go back, Hood pleaded. He had a perfect shot from his flanking position up in the tree, but his finger stayed still on the trigger.

You have to shoot him.

Hood chewed on the salty pull string of his well-worn hoodie, breathing in deeply and holding the air in his lungs as he squeezed the trigger on his rifle nearly to the firing point, keeping the sights steady.

The man stood up straight against the tall oak, steeling himself. He turned and dashed towards the camp. Hood kept the sights stable on him as he moved. A loud crack split the air from his rifle, a casing flying out of the chamber and down onto the forest floor below. The man cried out, then collapsed into a heap. He writhed on the ground, clutching at his shoulder. Hood let the air out of his lungs, running his hand through his short messy hair. You had to do it.

The air split with another gunshot, and the man lay still. Hood knew it was coming, but hoped it wouldn’t. Whiskey didn’t take chances. Hood should have just killed the man himself rather than leaving him to suffer before Whiskey finished it. You can’t let it all weigh you down—they were Ian’s words in Hood’s head. It was a resounding memory, but it meant something much different when Ian said it years ago—brotherly words of advice on love. He wished more than anything Ian sat beside him in the tree. Somehow, it would make all of this easier. I know you’re still alive out there. I can feel it.

Whiskey’s broad, tall frame appeared from behind a nearby tree. He moved slowly with quiet steps towards the dead man with a lowered pistol at his side. He wore his usual stoic expression—it was surrounded by short cut black hair and a scruffy beard with a gray patch on his chin. A police issue black flak jacket rested over his dirtied, tan long-sleeved shirt. He always wore it with the sleeves rolled up. He should just cut the damn things off.

The distant cracking of more gunshots followed. Two, three, four, five-six-seven. Then silence.

That didn’t go cleanly.

Hood whistled a melodic bird call. A similar one returned—so Billy had taken out whoever else was attacking. Whiskey was crouched down low, waiting for anyone else to come. The seconds dragged on, Hood straining to hear any sound in the dark woods. The forest sat still, save for the leaves of the trees rustling lightly with the wind. They must’ve just been scouts. Hood laid the worn black metal body of his rifle across his knees and bowed his head. This is the way things are. You have to accept that.

“Why didn’t you make the kill?” Whiskey asked, his voice familiar, slightly southern.

“I missed.” Hood slung his rifle over his back and dislodged himself from his foothold in the tree, swinging down from one branch to another.

“Like hell you did. You can’t change the way the world is, kid. You’re wasting your talent. And our ammo.”

“It just doesn’t feel right.” Hood landed on the forest floor, bouncing up to a standing position. He looked over at the dead man lying in the grass.

“I ain’t sayin’ it’s easy, but it’s them or us. You know that.” Whiskey stared off into the woods in the direction of Billy’s post. “I’m gonna check on him. Head back to camp and get something to eat.”

Hood couldn’t move, staring at the dead man in the wet grass. A memory of the old world flooded his mind:

The sun was going down in the country, Hood, Ian and their sister Taylor taking turns shooting their uncle’s compound bow at a fake-deer target pincushioned with arrows.

“Do you think you could kill someone if you had to?” Ian said, releasing his shot to the sound of a satisfying thunk. The orange sunlight illuminated his short blond hair.

“Who is it you’d have to kill?” Hood said, taking the bow and nocking an arrow.

“You don’t know. You just know its either you or him.”

“So it’s a guy, then?” Taylor asked, shielding the setting sun from her eyes. Her phone dinged a text message tone in her pocket, unattended.

“Does it matter?” Ian said.

“Of course it matters. What if it was a girl you guys had to shoot?”

“I kinda feel bad just shooting this thing.” Hood aimed carefully, releasing the bowstring. The arrow snaked through the air and thunked an inch from the bull painted on the midsection of the fake deer.

“For feeling bad, you’re pretty good at it,” Taylor said.

“The way I see it, you don’t know if the guy is good or bad. But we know we’re good,” Ian said.

“Just playing devil’s avocado here, but if we shoot the other guy, are we still the good ones?” Taylor said with a smirk.

Ian laughed. “We can figure that out while we’re still alive.”

Hood gnawed his lip. He missed that life so much that the memories had become more bitter than sweet. Part of him wanted to forget. He would do anything to have Ian, Mom and Dad with them in this brutal new world. It would make it all bearable. Family against the chaos. He thanked whatever god would listen every day that he had Taylor. He only wished he could tell her they were alright. She’d be worried back in Clearwater, holding down the fort until they returned with the supplies they purloined from the Sheriff.

Only a few years ago Hood had been in college, skipping classes about the history of war and the rare revolutionaries like Gandhi who stood against it. War and death were distant concepts. Now civilization was a memory, and war was a part of life.

A squirrel ran down a nearby tree, darting through the grass and away from Hood before scrambling up the bark of a tall maple. Hood’s shoes tread softly on the wet grass as he moved toward the man’s body. He held the worn grip of his rifle, but kept it at his side. The corpse lay sprawled face-down, blood seeping into the dirt. The dead man was much taller than he’d looked from a distance. He was recently shaven, and his backpack sagged over the back of his head. Hood knelt down, opening it. A book, of all things, sat inside. He pulled it out, inspecting the blank black cover before flipping through the pages. It was hand-written. He tucked the book into the back of his pants, and removed the man’s backpack.

What kind of person were you? At the very least, the type to keep a journal.

The guy wouldn’t be doing any more writing. Hood grit his teeth.

He kept the rifle in hand, headed back towards the campsite. From the other direction in the woods, he could hear the murmuring voices of Whiskey and Billy.

Hood walked up the sloping grass to their camp in the wooded foothills, the fire flickering outside the small, red oak cabin. He tossed the backpack onto the ground near the concrete slab the cabin rested upon. Doug and Tommy sat in folding chairs around the campfire, passing a flask between them, rifles at their sides.

“Kaiser’s men?” Doug inquired.

“Yeah, a few of them. You two take watch. I’m sure Billy could use a break too.” The two of them rose to their feet with some effort, Doug stretching wildly.

“Damn, shift starts early, huh?” Tommy smirked. The two of them turned and headed northwest, in the direction Hood had come from. Tommy shoved the flask into Doug’s midsection.

Whiskey and Billy emerged from the trees into the firelight. Billy was dripping blood from his left hand, which he held tight in his right.

“Oh shit, Billy Red’s got some red on him!” Doug shouted as they passed by. “One of the bastards tagged you, huh?”

“Shut the fuck up!” Billy shouted, grimacing.

Hood moved to meet them halfway. Billy stared nervously at Hood with sharp blue eyes. He pulled his hand away, revealing the bloody hole in his left palm as his hand quivered uncontrollably. Hood flipped it around to the other side, saw the exit wound.

“You’re lucky. It went clear through. Get the iron ready,” Hood said.

“Oh fuck me, this is going to hurt.” Billy bared his teeth as he stared at his bloody hand.

Hood clapped him on the shoulder. “Just don’t think about it. And you might want to start drinking now.

Before Hood had finished speaking Billy had snatched the bottle out of Lucky’s hands as he sat beside the fire. The two of them immediately started to argue, Lucky ranting about how searing wounds shut did more harm than good. Billy was having none of it. Not like Lucky was a doctor or anything, he just didn’t want to give up his booze. Really, none of them were. It was a sore area of need, one they couldn’t easily remedy. They didn’t find many doctors wandering the mid-Atlantic countryside these days.

Whiskey put an old iron rod into the fire, shaking his head. Joey and Wedge plodded out of the cabin with a squeak of the screen door, unmistakably hungover. Ever since they had found a case of vodka on the last raid, this had been a regular occurrence.

Hood walked back towards the cabin, but Whiskey held an arm out, stopping him.

“You all right, kid?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Hood ran his thumb over the sights of the rifle hanging at his side.

“The number of people we’ve killed is never gonna get smaller.” Whiskey held his gaze. He had a fatherly look on his face, whether he knew it or not. “Just remember who we do this for.”

Whiskey would make a good dad one day. If that was ever a possibility, the way things were now. Another guy might have found it uncomfortable, but Hood was glad Whiskey and Taylor were a couple. Under the circumstances, it only brought Hood and Whiskey closer. It’s not like they had a hell of a lot in common other than they both fought to keep Taylor safe. Along with all the other people of Clearwater.

“I’m fine. I’m okay.”

Whiskey’s stern gaze lingered on him for a moment before he turned and walked to the fire to check the iron. Hood opened the screen door of the cabin and went inside. Whiskey was used to the darker side of humanity. He had been a cop for a long time before the collapse of civilization. The idea of someone trying to kill you wasn’t foreign to him.

The poorly made, wood-framed couch and empty spaces on the floor were covered in bedding. Hood ambled slowly to the kitchenette, grabbed some salted jerky from a jar and chewed on it. He picked up the pan on the stove, scooped a few cold beans from the bottom and ate them while staring at a dark knot in the red woodgrain of the wall.

If a bear or a wolf came out of the woods he’d shoot it to stay alive. If a tree was going to collapse on his house he’d cut it down. If a pack of the Kaiser’s men snuck towards their camp, he had to gun them down.

If they were all merciless killers it would be easier. Hood knew by now many of them were regular people just fighting to survive. Being a part of the Kaiser’s army was the only chance for survival for countless refugees.

Maybe to them, Hood and Whiskey and the Clearwater crew were that bear in the woods.

Hood lay down on the couch, staring up at the defunct ceiling fan and the stained wood boards it was mounted to. The dead man’s journal jabbed him in the back. He pulled it out of his pants, running his hands over the soft faux leather cover before opening it. The orange light from the campfire came in through the window. He could clearly read the man’s surprisingly good handwriting. He opened the book to the first entry.

Maybe some other civilization will find this book some day and marvel at our great tragedy. I don’t know why else I would bother to write this. I guess it’s some kind of catharsis. It’s been two years since the nukes and the chemical weapons destroyed our country. One day you’re grocery shopping, the power cuts off. Everyone shrugs nervously and goes home and waits for it to come back on and it never does.

The weaponized virus or whatever the hell it was that made people into wild animals—that was what really ruined everything. Someone had the clever idea to call it the red death. It’s catchy, I’ll give them that. Most of the infected are gone now. Now the survivors just have to stop killing each other. Not like humanity’s ever been able to do that.

I’m writing this because Bob is dead, and I have no idea what to do anymore. I have no one to talk to that I really trust. The Kaiser’s officers are ruthless, and most of the other people are too afraid to go against them. Everyone stays in their lane, even if that lane is fucked.

One such ruthless asshole of the Kaiser’s they call the Sheriff sends us out to take out U.N. remnants. I don’t even know why they want them dead. They’re so pathetically weak, just trying to survive like the rest of us. We fight rangers of the Sons of Liberty more often than not. They’re the real threat to the Kaiser’s dream of a new country. That’s the idiotic party line the officers keep spouting. Honestly, I wish I could fight for the Sons instead. Supposedly the Crusader united the entire New England region under the banner of the Sons shortly after the fall. Though who knows, the Crusader might be as much of a self-righteous psychopath as the Kaiser is. People who’ve been here longer than I have said the Kaiser seized control over the mid-Atlantic region in only three months. Three goddamn months. The whole world has gone to shit.

I have to keep Danny and Kim alive. With Bob dead, I’m the only one left looking out for his kids. I never wanted to have to do that. That’s why I never had any goddamned kids of my own. But they’re good kids. They don’t deserve this shitty world.

Hood let the journal rest under his nose, his hands starting to sweat. You killed a good man today. You killed him because he happened to be on one side and you happened to be on the other. You did it because you had to. But it doesn’t change the fact he’s dead. Now those kids are alone. The chemically treated paper had a sweet, nostalgic smell, one that reminded him of lying on his childhood bed reading fantasy novels as he wished he were on some grand adventure. He heard Whiskey’s voice in his head. Don’t do this to yourself, kid. You’ve gotta let it go. His hands acted on their own as he skipped ahead to the latest entry.

Just got our marching orders. I’m to go with Don and George to sneak into the camp of this country-ass gang that’s been raiding supplies from everyone. The Sheriff says it’s a skeleton crew, and we can take them by surprise. I don’t like it. It doesn’t make that much sense, and it seems an awful lot like a suicide mission. But I don’t have much of a choice. I should’ve kept my goddamned mouth shut. He probably knows I haven’t been too happy with this bullshit they’re making us do lately. I wish there was a way I could get Danny and Kim out of this disaster. Part of me wants to just run off. But lord knows what they’d do with those kids. God, you miserable prick, just give me a way out of this.

Hood exhaled slowly, closing the book. Every fight Hood won was someone else’s loss. Whiskey said it was us or them. The whole world thinks it’s ‘us or them,’ though.

Hood could justify killing an evil man, if he had to. But this man? He felt a closeness to him in reading his raw thoughts. He could’ve easily been one of their crew.

Hood wanted no part of this war. All he wanted was peace and quiet with his family, and maybe to find a girl who lived like the world wasn’t in ruins. That’s a greedy thought in a world like this, though. He’d be happy with peace alone. Not that it would happen. He dreamed that Ian and Mom and Dad would just show up at Clearwater one day. But back in reality, all he could do was protect his sister and pray his family was still alive out there.

Billy’s screams and curses reverberated through the walls of the cabin, interrupting his musings. Hood was glad he’d never had to sear any wounds closed with the iron.

The screen door creaked open and the main door swung in with a crash.

Billy’s blue eyes were wide behind unkempt brown hair. He held his left hand in his right like it was a sick bunny.

“I NEED SOME BOOZE!” He shouted, hurling bedding and clothes every which way with his right hand, desperately digging for someone’s stash.

Hood laughed, knowing full well Billy didn’t want to hear a damn thing he had to say. He sat up slowly to make his way out of the cabin.

Lucky was standing over the campfire trying to ignite the end of his hand-rolled cigarette. The orange glow lit up his round, olive face and the flames reflected in his dark eyes.

Whiskey leaned back into the folding chair, crossing his arms and gazing absently at the dancing fire.

“You guys aren’t going to give him any?” Hood said, nodding towards Billy in the cabin.

Whiskey hmmphed. “He already drank half of mine. Crybaby. I ain’t giving him no more.”

The fire crackled and popped as one log broke into two and fell into the embers below. Hood sat down on a tree stump and basked in the heat from the fire. It was a subtle comfort, but it was something. The three of them stared at the flickering flames, the occasional pop and crack accompanying the birds starting to chirp in the distance. The smell of burning pine brought Hood back to the old world again; he and Taylor and Ian as teenagers sitting around a bonfire at their cousin’s house in Maine, roasting marshmallows on metal shish-kabob sticks and talking about their future in a world that still had one.

Billy emerged from the cabin with another creak of the screen door. He walked over to a folding chair and plopped down, an entire bottle of vodka in one hand. He unscrewed the cap with his teeth and spat it into the dirt, taking a deep swig.

“Man, this is boring,” Lucky said, leaning back and puffing smoke into the air.

“Here, let me shoot you. It’ll keep you distracted.” Billy pulled out his pistol and pointed it at Lucky, who flipped him off.

“Why ain’t we found any stand-up comedians from back in the day?” Lucky said, spitting out some tobacco that had made its way out of the butt of the cig.

“Well damn Lucky, isn’t that why you’re here? I mean, you couldn’t shoot a waster that was listening to the barrel of your gun to hear the ocean,” Hood said, aiming a finger gun and biting his lip in mock consternation.

“Hey, fuck you, I got bad depth perception, all right?”

Whiskey snorted. “Bad depth perception? That’s a new one. I always thought it was on account of you being about as jittery as a cat in a washing machine.”

“Y’all are just jealous of my devilish charm and good looks,” Lucky said through the cigarette, each breath punctuated with puffs of smoke. “You’re lookin’ at a superior male specimen, fellas.”

“Male specimen, my ass,” Whiskey grumbled.

Billy came up for air with a sigh, in between swigs from the bottle he clutched to his chest. “Seriously though, anyone know any new stories? I could stand to be distracted.”

“I’m not sure we haven’t heard every true story and twice as many made up ones at this point,” Whiskey said, unscrewing the top of his flask and taking a drink. Hood smacked him in the knee and beckoned it over with two fingers. Whiskey handed the flask off to him. Hood tipped it back, holding his breath to keep the taste but not the burn.

“Yeah, actually, I got one,” Hood said wiping his lips on his knuckles. He looked down at the stainless steel flask, a smile growing from the fond memory. “It’s from high school, actually. You aren’t gonna believe it’s true.”

Hood looked up at the three of them. Billy and Lucky stared back, attending to their bottle and cigarette respectively, while Whiskey kept staring into the fire. Hood handed the flask back to him, breaking his reverie.

“Well shit, don’t keep us in suspense,” Billy said, resting the bottle on his knee.

“Bet a bottle it’s another one about his adopted brother Isaac or whoever,” Lucky pointed at Billy.

Hood picked up a pebble and threw it at Lucky over the fire. Lucky snatched it out of the air, and jumped to his feet in a crane stance.

“You see that Mr. Miyagi shit? Like a ninja, son!”

“Congrats you caught a rock, sit down and let him tell the damn story,” Billy grumbled.

“Nah that’s cool, Lucky wants to practice his Tai Chi,” Hood said.

“Stop being an asshole,” Billy gestured at Lucky with his bottle.

“Don’t get all butthurt. Go on, tell your fuckin’ story,” Lucky sat down, pulling the cigarette out of his mouth.

Hood rubbed his palm with his thumb, launching into the saga. “So yeah. Way back in high school Ian was all about this girl Deirdre Connelly. Ian’s the kinda kid who was single-minded in his focus. She was a pretty girl, but spoken for all through high school until senior year she and her dude broke up. She skipped class one day, apparently getting pretty high and sexting Ian with her address, saying her parents weren’t home. Problem is, his teacher saw him on his phone and took it away, giving it to the front office for my mom to pick up. . .”

Lucky had perked up at the mention of a pretty girl and sexting, taking a strong pull from the cigarette as he watched intently. Hood chuckled to himself remembering it. The memories almost didn’t feel real, like it was a different world.

“Anyway, so Ian obviously isn’t going to let this stop him. He sneaks out at lunch, meets up with this chick he knows who’s a makeup artist at the mall. They come up with a plan, and they go full Mrs. Doubtfire, turning Ian into my mom. I mean full-blown: dress, stockings, heels, wig, makeup, everything. I swear, it was pretty goddamned convincing. He strolls right into the front office claiming to be Mrs. Huntington, there to pick up her son’s phone. He had the voice pretty good too. Unbeknownst to him, I had just got caught drinking cheap vodka in the bathroom and they decide that while ‘my mom’ was there, they should take me to her for discipline. So I’m in the front office and I see him all done up. Immediately I lose it, I’m howling, dying, I can’t help it. Afraid his cover is going to be blown, he launches into a rant about me being more responsible and taking away my phone and X-box and grounding me and how mad my father is going to be when he finds out, and the whole time I’m in tears. Someone finally musters the nerve to question Ian’s facade. Ian tries desperately to whisk me and his phone away but is caught when the Dean calls my mom’s cell. Ian was so pissed I thought he was going to kill me, but I didn’t care, it felt like the best day of my life. The dean rambled to us about integrity and the whole time I couldn’t stop laughing and Ian wanted to stab me.”

Hood drew the story to a close, staring off into the fire.

“Well?” Lucky said, staring at Hood. “Did Ian bang that chick?”

Hood shook his head. “You’re an idiot.”

“Don’t leave it like that, douche! Tell me what happened!”

“Yes, you moron. They hooked up on and off all through senior year. It was a huge dramatic pain in the ass. Not exactly a limited-time-offer.”

Whiskey shook his head, wearing a slight grin. “That’s some funny shit. How come you never told that one?”

“I guess I normally don’t think about high school much. But I just remembered it.” Hood leaned back, the fire so warm it felt like it was burning his face. Maybe it was partly the liquor.

“High school huh. I bet you were one of those swoopy-haired kids who listened to that weepy ass music all the time,” Lucky said, staring down Hood for his reaction. Hood didn’t dignify it with a response, giving Lucky the finger.

“Who the fuck’s Mrs. Doubtfire?” Billy said, blinking slowly.

Whiskey snorted, rubbing his forehead. “Goddamned kids.”

The fire had died down suddenly. The glowing red chunks of wood lay broken atop each other, glowing suddenly brighter as a gust of wind blew smoke and ash towards Hood. The leaves on the trees swished softly. Lucky tossed the cigarette butt into the fire. Billy was swaying in his seat.

“Should I get more logs?” Lucky asked no one in particular.

“No. We’re going to pack up and head home. The Sheriff will know we’re here for sure when his men don’t come back. He’ll tell the Kaiser by tomorrow or the day after. I want to be gone by then. They’re not too happy with us raiding that stockpile, so we should take the supplies back to town and lay low,” Whiskey said. A look of exhaustion hung in his eyes as he stared at the embers.

Hood was sure he knew what he was thinking: That sooner or later they were going to piss off the Kaiser enough that he wouldn’t be able to ignore them anymore. But they had little choice. Hood knew just as well as Whiskey how much the town needed food, water, gasoline, and every little thing in between. They had a long way to go before they could learn to farm enough food to support themselves, let alone find a way to sustain every other need.

“Well, shit. You ain’t gotta tell me twice. I’m sick’a this busted-ass cabin,” Billy slurred, standing up and moving towards the house in one motion. His foot caught in the legs of the folding chair and he slumped into the grass with supreme drunken inelegance. The airborne bottle of vodka thunked into the grass in front of him. Lucky exploded off his seat, howling in laughter, berating Billy loudly between breaths.

“Damn dude, you all right?” Hood said, trying to suppress his own snickering.

“Changed m’ mind, I’m jus’ gonna lay here awhile,” Billy said, the side of his face pressed against the grassy earth.

Hood looked over at Whiskey, grinning. Whiskey shook his head in annoyance, but couldn’t suppress a smirk. He stood up, hands pushing himself up from his knees.

“Well Lucky, that leaves you to get the trucks out of the hiding spot. Come on, we got to get movin’.” Whiskey stretched his right arm behind his head.

Lucky complained loudly about Billy’s drunken stupor as he stomped off down the hill. Whiskey made the rounds and gathered the crew from out on watch. Everyone started packing up the supplies and loading them into the trucks Lucky parked by the cabin.

All Hood could think about was the dead man and the kids he wouldn’t be able to look after. He hadn’t had many choices. Very few people did anymore.

Hood believed completely that Ian and his parents were still alive; what would they do to protect each other if they lived under the Kaiser’s rule?

Morning light had broken through the trees and onto the dirt road by the time Hood and Whiskey headed off with a truck laden with supplies. It shed clarity on an unpleasant thought.

One day when I look down the sights it might not be a stranger I see walking through the woods, gun in hand.

 

If you’re interested, check out the full novel on Amazon!

See you space cowboy,

Evan Pickering

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