We rolled in mid winter, somewhere around February. Montana wasn't somewhere we'd stopped before but Jackson kept on urging us to "Go north". It was late afternoon when we saw the billboard, the ad long gone and replaced with "Paradise this way" written in red spray paint. We stopped at an unassuming exit and debated it a bit. Jackson wanted to go but Shelby thought we should pass it by. She was the cautious one out of us all, which makes sense considering. I told her we'd just go check it out and besides, Zack wouldn't be up anyhow. We'd learnt that freezing stops 'em by then. She reminded me that Zack wasn't the only one we needed to be careful of. She was right, roving gangs were common and we'd seen a few in our travels. Mostly they'd let us go but sometimes things got a bit unpleasant.
But you went anyway?
For every wild group, we found ten normal people like us. Survivors camped out in some of the most ingenious places. We traded supplies but also knowledge which was what we were all hungry for. Jackson and I were still searching for our families and after being out of the loop for so long we felt like we needed to make up for lost time information-wise. So we went down that road and into Paradise.
It's a wild place, not one you would assume people actually lived in. What we saw first was the beginning of the clearing, about twenty miles in from the road. The tree cover got sparser and sparse until it all of a sudden stopped at this wide feild. Everything was buried under a few feet of snow so we couldn't see the plowed fields or the crops sleeping under the ground, it just looked like a wasteland. All that was visible in the middle of all that white was this greying barn up the hill aways.
We couldn't see anyone so I got out and hollered. After our first encounter with a group of less than savoury gents out near California, we knew how to approach the situation. I presented myself because I was the biggest and the oldest. Sometimes that was all you needed to deter a would-be attack. Jackson sat in the driver's seat with the shotgun in his lap and Shelby hid in the backseat. After the encounter in Wyoming when this group of men tried to get us to trade her for free passage she was understandably nervous about strangers.
Did that happen a lot?
Sometimes. I mean we were all in crisis mode but some people took it father than others. There's really no criticizing anyone else because you can't know exactly what they went through. I mean, now they're calling it a war and that's exactly what it was. But it wasn't just a war against Zack; it was a war against ourselves. We found ourselves battling hunger, fear and illness but the biggest battle of all was against our fellow humans. People came out of that war warped remnants of who they were before. There was no method to it, and no manner of passing judgement against those who fell past humanities reaches. When the going gets tough you have to get tougher and that's hard. What's harder still is trying to rehabilitate now that the war's over. Restabilising government and civility was near impossible and still is in plenty of states. People went wild and some want to stay that way.
Why do you think you didn't?
Go wild? I had something to stay sane for. Not only was I searching for my family but I had two kids who depended on me. I said before that I never meant to be a leader but that's what the war forced me to become. When people need you, when they count on you to be there, you learn how to be. One look at Shelby and Jackson on our first night out and alone and I knew I'd have to step up and be a leader.
And that's why you got out first.
Huh? [Looks confused]
Of the truck. In Paradise?
Oh. [Chuckles] Yeah I guess it was. That primal instinct to protect those who need it.
Anyway so I step out and it's weird because it's super quite. I mean we were coming from down south where the wail of Zack is pretty much constant but this silence, it's like a wall ya'know? Like the silence is somehow occupying physical space. Then I hear them coming from the trees. About a half dozen guys, no older than us, carrying an assortment of makeshift weapons. So I hollar at them that I see them and they fall back into a loose sort of semi-circle maybe a twenty yards from the truck. One of them steps forward, this bulky dude with a plaid hunting jacket. He asks if any of us have been bitten and so I say no. Then he asks if we're carrying any infected with us. Now that might sound like a stupid question but during the war it wasn't. People didn't understand Zack back then, though there could be a cure or something. You'd see them all over, sometimes with the infected in crates, other times locked away in the garden shed. Once we encountered a group that had one on a leash, like a proper dog leash. The mouth was stuck shut and it wore a mask, like one of those hockey goalies. The things people did… [Pause] But anyways I said no and after a few more question they escorted us to their camp. We had to leave the truck at the opening of the clearing, beside a few other beat up vehicles. And so we walked the half mile up to the barn.
Outside there were fire pits and drying lines for clothes but we went past all that right inside. That's where we saw the what I thought to be an apparition. A girl, no older than nineteen with long black hair and a patient , was gazing down at an infant swaddled in her arms. Now, don't get me wrong, I don't subscribe to those folks who think that Zack's the second coming. There's nothing holy about those monsters.[Takes on a wistful tone] But right there,in that moment, I could have sworn I was staring at Madonna and child. The light coloured her face so softly and baby barely even mewed as rocked it gently, it was so different from what we had known for the past year that I almost fell to my knees and cried.[Pause]
In that barn, on that cold day in mid winter I found for the first time, belief that the war would end. Seein' that baby, not knowing how much shit the rest of the world was in, just happy to be bundled up and warm, helped me see a brighter future. We would survive and we would come out on top. We had to, for the ones we had to protect.