“From the Outside In”
by Miranda Forman
Joshua Branson was the type of man who worked from the outside in. From his extensive undergraduate study of philosophy, he’d gathered that the Ancient Greeks were really all about promoting external beauty, which, when attained, would cultivate inner worth. This meant that Joshua Branson didn’t spend too much time on philosophy, nor too much time being nice to people. He could usually be found in the gym, or tweezing his unibrow. But no matter how much bicep he built, or how many hairs he plucked, he was really planning for the end times.
So when it came to building his dream house, Joshua Branson began with the wind turbine, which was far enough from his house to be discreet once the Apocalypse hit, but also close enough that Joshua Branson wouldn’t have to fight off too many zombies or viruses or crazed humans to complete occasional repairs.
Joshua Branson then installed solar panels on his rooftop for added energy. He figured that between the wind turbine and solar panels, he was covered whether it was a nuclear apocalypse, an asteroid, or if all the birds stopped flapping their wings and the wind permanently stilled.
He replaced the windows with bulletproof glass and carbon fiber bars (shipped to his door by USPS), reinforced the walls, doors, and flooring with steel (purchased on Amazon), and then set to work building the greenhouse in the basement, armed with artificial light bulbs and PVC pipe (eBay).
Working his way in, Joshua Branson purchased three suits of level IV body armor on Etsy, along with a hazmat suit he could wear over it, just in case. He had two wells drilled to different depths, twelve cubic feet of iodine tablets, and eighty Brita water filters.
Not to mention the canned goods, the medicines, the gasoline, the generators, the matches, the flint, and the weapons. Yes, Joshua Branson stockpiled weapons. Not just the typical explosive weapons, but also the wooden stakes, the garlic, and the silver bullets—you name it, he had it. One or two of everything in every room of the house, so no matter where he was, even in the shower, he’d be prepared to annihilate whatever came his way.
Once he was ready—once his peppers had sprouted, his chickens had laid their eggs, and his solar panels were all hooked up—he took himself off the grid. He disconnected the Internet, cable, and constructed a massive, insurmountable wall around his property. No one was going to get in or out.
So when the Apocalypse came, Joshua Branson was prepared. Whether it was zombies, dinosaurs, or the Black Death, Joshua Branson lounged completely untouched in his dreamhouse paradise.
But about four weeks after pretty much everyone else had been done in, little red bumps began to appear on Joshua Branson’s perfectly plucked and moisturized skin. They started on his legs, and they itched like the dickens. He couldn’t help scratching—the antihistamines and alcohol swabs just made it worse. Joshua Branson’s manicured fingers left deep gouges on top of his big toe, on his shins, and behind his knees, which evolved into huge unsightly scabs, and itched some more.
Then the red bumps crept up Joshua Branson’s toned butt and bronzed belly, and turned into bleeding mounds, and scabs, and scars. Joshua Branson began sleeping in his body armor, and when that didn’t work, he tried his hazmat suit. But no matter what he did, the red bumps crawled to his neck, face, and hands, and then sprouted on his feet again.
For months, Joshua Branson itched.
Joshua Branson couldn’t Google the bumps, there was no doctor, and he couldn’t identify anything else that was wrong with him. There were no bedbugs, and no mosquitos, just mysterious red itchy bumps that turned into bleeding mounds, and scabs, and scars, as he scratched them with his sculpted fingernails.
In the fourth month of battling the bumps, during a moment of clarity lying in bed clawing furrows in his sides, Joshua Branson suddenly realized that despite all his fortifications and precautions, his demise was inevitable. If this truly was the Apocalypse, the real McCoy, the final Day of All Days, then it was going to get everyone. It wouldn’t ignore one isolated dude in the middle of the wilderness. Joshua Branson was just dying the slowest.
Joshua Branson stared at his legs, poked at his burning scarred skin, and, a few months later, after almost a year of fighting these bumps, of isolation, and of rusty iodine water, he made a decision. Joshua Branson reached over, grabbed one of his weapons, and blasted a hole right through his head.
He never noticed the black speck on his neck, pinching him as it inserted its stylet through his epidermis. He never noticed his blood being pulled into the black speck’s mouth and gut. He never noticed the speck leap off him, catapulting itself impossibly high into the air, leaving behind only an awful itchy red bump.
“The Best Beer I Ever Had”
by Joel R. Burcat
Six hours of hitch-hiking had brought me from the city to Route 101 in Vermont, about forty miles from the Canadian border. I was alone in a desolate valley with only the grasshoppers to keep me company. Manure from the recently plowed fields filled the air, and it was ungodly hot for May.
According to my map, I was still ten miles and 2,500 feet in elevation from my destination, the Long Trail. The distance was nearly straight up and all road, not the cool of the mountain trail I desperately sought. I figured that if I walked the road, I could make the trail by twilight. I knew the trek, however, would leave me exhausted.
Instead, I waited. I held out my thumb and made my sweetest, I’m-not-a-serial-murderer smile as a woman in a white Impala sped by. Twenty minutes later I heard the distant murmur of a vehicle coming down the mountain and then spotted a vehicle making the bend on the hill. It was going the wrong way for me, but with nothing else to do, I watched as it approached.
At first, I saw a mirage shimmering in the heat waves. After a few moments, I could see the outline of a pickup truck. I thought the truck, which was still almost a quarter mile away, had bad paint on its hood, as the color didn’t match the faded red of the truck. Then I realized the hood had one of those large, Confederate flag decals. Odd, I thought. You don’t see too many of those in Yankee Vermont, even on pickups. A green Vermont license plate on the bumper came into view and, behind the driver, a gun rack and a rifle.
I glanced around. Was I nervous? I was alone with the strange truck sporting a Confederate flag, gun rack and rifle, coming down the mountain toward me. Maybe, a little.
Then I noticed that the truck had drifted, ever so slightly, across the dashed yellow line. It was maybe a thousand feet away and closing. I still had trouble seeing the driver, but his wheels were now well over the line and he was angling my way.
“Joe Asshole,” as I named the driver, was pointed straight at me.
I took a quick look behind me to see if there was room to escape. The berm, on which I stood, was soft and wide enough for a car. Behind that was a ditch full of cattails, skunkweed, and stagnant water. I figured if I had to, I could heave myself into the ditch and let him crash into my backpack.
Now I could see that the driver definitely was a dude wearing a baseball cap with a drooping yellow mustache and Duane Allman hair.
Duane Allman in a Confederate pickup truck with a gun was about to run me off the road in the middle of Nowhere, Vermont.
My bowels clenched as I watched the driver reach toward the passenger side of the cab. From my angle it looked like he was reaching for the stock of his rifle. Great. Maybe I could throw a granola bar at him before he ran me off the road and finished me off with his rifle.
Joe-Duane slowed from thirty to twenty to maybe ten miles per hour. He was nearly on top of me. His windows were wide open, and his radio was blaring Willie Nelson’s and Waylon Jennings’ then new song, “Good Hearted Woman.” Personally, I preferred Clapton at the time, but Willie and Waylon seemed perfect at that moment.
My legs were twitching as he came straight at me, when suddenly his left hand shot out of the window. Something about a foot long and glistening hung in the air from his hand for a split second. To this day, many years later, I don’t know what possessed me; but as he drove by, we executed a precision pass that would have made an Olympic relay team weep with envy. The baton was a bottle of Moosehead Ale, ice-cold, unopened, dripping with water, and covered with flecks of ice.
Duane never stopped. He immediately sped up and ran the stop sign as he turned and headed south on 101. He waved a short salute and disappeared.
Sweat gushed down my back. This was unreal. Did Duane Allman’s twin brother, driving a pickup truck with a gun rack, Confederate flag, and Willie Nelson theme music really just pass me an icy-cold beer on a country road in Vermont? The bottle was real.
Using my pocketknife’s bottle opener, I popped open the beer, put the bottle to my lips, and tipped it back. The cold beer filled my mouth, and I held it there for a long minute to let it settle into every pore. I savored it, then swallowed.
It was the best beer I ever had.