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Disasters in a Jar, Book 3 - Jessie's Last Signal

Disasters in a Jar, Book 3 - Jessie's Last Signal

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Jessie, a veteran with PTSD and an alcohol abuse problem, fends for himself in a post-collapse Alabama fraught with poverty and corruption.

As he struggles to sustain himself in an abandoned railroad signal station, he learns of a group of orphaned kids living in the forest nearby.

Despite his wish to remain isolated, he finds himself caring about them, acting as their silent protector.

He fends off a biker gang and a group of untrustworthy guards using his skills as an Army electrician.

The kids do their part to watch out for him too. But when it comes to fighting the elements, they must decide to trust each other or face death alone.

Read Chapter 1

A gunshot sounded in the distance. 

Jessie ducked behind the bank of trees on his left and lost his balance, his feet sliding out from under him, and sending him skidding down an embankment. Mud and rubble churned up beneath his feet. He wasn’t so drunk that he couldn’t tell up from down, and he knew that, no matter what, his backpack had to make it to the bottom in one piece, so he held on tight to the straps over his shoulders, his elbows taking the brunt of the fall. His feet hit the ground at the bottom of the slope and toppled him head-over-heels into the dirt, his right cheek narrowly missing the metal railway tracks. 

He lay there for several moments, catching his breath. It whistled in his lungs these days, almost as loud as the whistling in his ears, like his body was setting up its own orchestra to keep him awake at nights. His heart thudded, da-dum, da-dum, the weight of his body pressing down on it, trying to bury it in the ground, keep it safe. Only, he hadn’t been doing that for a long while. 

A chuckle escaped his lips. It was his regular reaction to the fight-or-flight comedown, and now that the world was silent, he realized that the sound had come from somewhere in the city and nowhere near him. No doubt the guards getting trigger-happy with some folks trying to buck the system. Standard these days. It was why he avoided built-up areas. That and the fact that few folks had anything left to share, and what they did have, they sure as rainwater weren’t going to share with a vet with a chip on his shoulder and a beard that hadn’t seen a pair of shears in years. 

Hands parallel with his shoulders, Jessie pushed himself upright. The days when he could jog for miles, perform a hundred press-ups, and still have energy to spare were long gone. Did he miss them? He never thought about it. A lot had happened to get him to this railway track, and the best anyone could hope for these days was to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Some of the men he served with didn’t even have two feet. On a good day, he counted himself lucky.

Jessie shook his backpack. Nothing rattled, which meant that he’d probably managed to salvage his last bottle. He looked left and right along the derelict tracks. The wind had heaped trash and foliage and buckled cans along the rails, creating a landscape of faded color and shelter for the rodents who’d escaped town too. Jessie had done his fair share of sleeping in piles of trash. It wasn’t that bad once you dislodged the broken metal and shards of glass from under your back. Kept the wind off your body anyway. Anyone who said Alabama never knew the meaning of winter, hadn’t lived on the streets in the eye of a February storm. Those winds blew straight through a man like he was no more than a feather off the back of a swallow, turned fingers and faces to ice, and rattled jaws until they feared they’d end up toothless. 

Something scuttled across Jessie’s foot, and he raised a leg, shooed it away, not bothering to check if it was a rat or raccoon. Made no difference either way. He’d be fighting it for food at some point soon. The sole of his boot flapped loose, exposing black-nailed toes; Jessie set his backpack down on the ground, and retrieved a length of twine from one of the side-pockets, which he wrapped around his boot, securing it together temporarily. They weren’t his boots. The next pair wouldn’t be his either—possessions didn’t mean much when you were of no fixed abode.

He straightened and turned his face to the sky. The wind teased tears from his eyes. The fall down the embankment had ripped holes in the elbows of his camo jacket, the skin smarting from the bite of cold air. He felt bone-weary. The kind of weariness he recalled from war, when sleep was no more than closing your eyes for a few seconds while you walked, and nighttime carried more danger than daylight. Back then, he’d dreamed of home. A soft pillow, dry clothes, food that tasted of something, only when he got the chance to experience those things again, he found that his memories had been distorted and they didn’t live up to his expectations. Now, he’d be happy to get out of the wind. 

Jessie followed the rail tracks. No worries about getting killed—the trains had stopped running long ago when the economy crashed, and the politicians charged with protecting the people looked after themselves instead, leaving the population to clear up their mess. He found a long stick and poked the brush with it; he wasn’t searching for anything, but you never knew what you might find, and some of his best meals in recent months had been found hidden in a pile of mulch. He gave no thought to how cans of non-perishable foods came to be sitting on a roadside or propping up a rail track. Finders, keepers. That’s what his brother used to say when they were kids, and it kinda stuck.

The stick prodded something hard. A bottle? Jessie crouched by the side of the track, his broken shoe snatching on gravel and grit, and investigated. Turned out it was an empty bottle, the Jack Daniels label mostly rotted away. He unscrewed the rusty lid and inhaled. He couldn’t tell if the aroma had lingered or if it was all in his head, but either way, he saw the tremble in his hands and pulled the bottle out of his backpack. One swig. One swig and he’d keep walking, get out of the wind, and find himself somewhere to hole up and enjoy the rest in peace.

Two mouthfuls later, Jessie resumed his journey, the burning in his throat keeping him warm from the inside out. He cleared his mind. Maudlin thoughts never did anyone any good. As usual, a tune popped into his head, one that he could sing from first word to last, one that he recalled was always playing on the jukebox in his local bar around the time the landlord started saving his seat in the corner where he could keep an eye on the door. ‘Rhinestone cowboy’. He could almost smell the tang of wood polish and stale beer. Funny how that was the memory that brought him the most comfort some days, like his safe place, the wall behind his back and a pint of beer and a whisky chaser in front of him. Almost pictured himself as the cowboy in the rhinestone-studded jacket.

Jessie grinned to himself. He wasn’t doing so bad. He had clothes on his back and a bottle in his bag and the freedom to roam wherever he chose. 

Smoke curled up into the murky sky ahead of him, blending in with the gray clouds the higher it rose. He’d been seeing more of that recently. Smoke. Folks setting fires along the way to wherever they were headed. He couldn’t tell if the fires were driving folks out of town to give the guards free reign over whatever was left these days or driving them into town so the guards could harness more manpower. Keep things ticking over. He’d spent many long, sober days wondering how and when the people assigned to keeping others safe had suddenly become the ones to be avoided. Were they proud of themselves? It was just another thing he no longer had the energy or the inclination to dwell on.

His mom’s voice sounded in his ear. You’re always judging folks by your own standards, Jessie. It’s admirable, but you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment.

One eye on the smoke, Jessie kept walking. It was far enough away that it wouldn’t affect him, but it kept him focused. He’d go so far, and then maybe change course, steer as far away from it as possible; no point making life any more difficult than it needed to be.

He lost track of time walking along in his star-spangled rodeo, so the signal station crept up on him like a wild animal rising out of the foliage. He stopped on the tracks. Listened. The building looked intact; the supports still sturdy enough to keep it up above the ground where it could best service the railway. Even the stairs looked as if they’d survived the weather conditions over the years. 

But he wasn’t barging in there like a kid in a candy store. He wouldn’t have been the only hobo wandering along these parts, and he’d learned not to go treading on anyone’s toes. Instead, he crawled into the brush and waited. Alert. It never left a man, this ability to sit and watch and observe, motionless, silent as a statue.

He didn’t know how long he sat there, but he sensed no one had claimed the station for themselves. With the notion that this was his lucky day, Jessie climbed the stairs, noting a few patches of rot, not enough to soften the steps but enough to house a few woodlice and critters, and tried the door. It was locked. Or stuck. A quick glance behind him, and Jessie kicked the lock, the door bouncing inwards on its hinges. 

Inside, the room smelled musty. It must’ve been abandoned long before the economy collapsed, when things were already starting to turn sour, and folks were learning to survive in ways their grandparents and great-grandparents had been forced to exist, only without the sense of community spirit. But there were no signs that anyone had been there before him. No empty bottles. No rotting wrappers or mice droppings or crumpled cans. 

He peered out the grimy, weather-stained window. The station was in the perfect setting, with the rail track affording him views left and right, and the forest protecting him from anyone heading out of town. If he fixed the door so it looked like it was still locked, he’d be safe enough. All this time, and no one had claimed it, perhaps it had had his name on it all along, just waiting for him to stumble down that embankment and happen upon it on this day, at this time. 

Fate wasn’t something that Jessie wasted much thought on. Things happened. Some were your own doing, and others came along and caught you unawares because you had no control over them. But he felt good here. Not safe exactly—he couldn’t recall the last time that word had a place in his vocabulary—but welcome. Like the signal station had been waiting for him.

He found a spot on the dusty floor and sat down with his back against the wall. Pulling the bottle out of his backpack, he held it up and inspected the contents. Three-quarters full. It would see him through the night anyway. Jessie tipped his head back and took a long glug, then he closed his eyes and waited for the liquor to hit his veins.

What are Cozy Apocalypse Books?

  • No gratuitous violence or sex scenes
  • No foul language
  • No weaponry lists or zombie gore

Main Tropes

  • Survival After the Fall
  • Forming New Family Bonds
  • Thriving After the End
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