Part Seven: And All the King’s Men
You’ve heard of writer’s block? We’ll I’ve had survivor’s block. Life has been … surreal. I hate using that word; it is so trite and meaningless almost because of how much it has been used. But that is the only word I can think of to describe how things have been.
One week I told myself, just one week. Surely I could hold on that long just to be sure, absolutely sure, that it was safe to go out. So of course logically I didn’t even last three days before I had to get out of my personal hobbit hole or go stark raving crazy.
I knew I was taking a chance - a huge one - but I couldn’t wait any longer. All of the logic in the world couldn’t change the fact that I needed fresh water, fresh air, and sunlight and so did Nydia and Neeno (Nydia’s nickname for the baby). Nope, I hadn’t named the baby yet. Every time I thought I just had to sit down and do it, all I could see was Mateo’s face and I broke down. I know it didn’t make sense but that is the way it was. I couldn’t name him Mateo Jr.; it hurts too badly and I don’t think Nydia would handle it well. She wanted to call him Angel which is a Spanish male name but for some reason I just couldn’t do it, not without Mateo. I knew he needed a name but for a while Neeno was all we needed. It’s not like there was anyone to record his birth.
More than the water, air, and light I mentally needed “out.” It smelled really bad in our hole. I knew it but my brain had kind of turned my nose off so that we could survive. At the first whiff of fresh air though I nearly gagged when I realized how bad our living quarters really smelled. I left Nydia and Neeno behind as I crawled through the “tunnel” and pushed the stove out of the way and climbed out and into the kitchen.
Everything was dark and silent. I had a moment of disorientation, almost like an attack of agoraphobia, before I got my bearings. I turned on the wind up flashlight and looked around. Some of my plants had suffered even though I had tried to set up a “greenhouse” but some of them looked like they were OK … not great, but OK. The house was humid and dank and I could see mildew beginning to grow in a few places. I knew I would have to deal with that soon enough but I was more interested in seeing if there was a world left outside. But first I pulled out the KFM and set it up.
No reading on the KFM so again I wondered if I had put it together correctly. I was just about ready to pull the first panel down and see what was going on outside when there was a horrible BOOM!! I nearly panicked and ran back into the tunnel but then that noise was followed by … rain. Lots and lots of rain from the sound of it.
I nearly fainted in relief.
“Nonny!!” came the plaintive cry from the tunnel.
“Stay inside Nydia. It is just a thunderstorm. Give me time to check things out.”
“Hurry Nonny! Neeno is scared.”
It wasn’t Neeno that was scared, it was Nydia. It took time but I removed the last covering I installed and tried to look out but all I saw was blackness. It didn’t make sense. Cautiously I opened the door and walked out into … the night. Somehow during our time in our shelter I’d managed to lose enough time that I’d gotten our “days” and “nights” mixed up. The rain fell in torrents so exploring was impossible but I did feel a definite chill off of the rain that signaled a change in weather was coming.
I tried to see beyond the screen cage that surrounded the pool and lanai but the night and storm was impenetrable. But the air was fresh and I went back to the shelter and got Nydia and the baby and let them sit in the open house for a while. The rain, despite its fierceness was soothing and soon we all three dozed. Neeno’s demands woke me up in time to see the first pinkish rays of sunlight creeping into the sky. It was definitely cooler than it had been but I figured it was just an early cool snap.
I had to crawl back into the “shelter” to get to our supplies and I vowed it would be the last time I had to do it quite that way. As soon as Nydia and the baby were taken care of I cleaned up in the family room – thank goodness for ceramic tile floors – and laid a relatively clean blanket on the floor. Nydia played, Neeno slept, and I checked over the house since I was still somewhat afraid of going outside. It would take some time but it looked like all that the house needed was a serious cleaning. Everything would need to be scrubbed because of the mildew that was trying to take hold here and there but I knew with enough elbow grease I could get rid of it.
After the house I had to force myself to try the outside again. I didn’t get it. I’d been cooped up so long that I was going stir crazy. I broke the one week wait promise that I had made myself because I needed out. Now I was out and every time I got near a exterior door or window I got the heeby-jeebies. It didn’t make the least bit of sense to me at the time.
I pulled the covering off the door to the lanai once again and opened the door. I nearly screamed at how bright it was. After living in near darkness, only supplemented by meager wind up lights, the sudden brightness of the full sun felt like a nail to my optic nerves. It took over thirty minutes for my eyes to adjust and when they finally did all I could do was stand there with my mouth open.
The pool was green; the pump was running … the solar cells had continued to work so I assumed they’d been protected enough that the original flash hadn’t hurt them any. I ran over to the pump and threw it off real quick when I realized that the filter was way passed needing to be cleaned. I put that down on my list of immediate things to do. The screen had a little bit of debris on it but not enough to tear it which I thought was a blessing. Through the screens I could see that the grass in the yard was waist high. The plants on the lanai had fared about as well as the ones in the house had; not great but not bad either.
That was about as much outside as I could take. I turned to come back inside to find Nydia standing there on the stoop staring at me.
“Want to see everything?” I asked her.
All I got was a negative shake of the head.
To that she nodded her head in affirmative. Seems like I wasn’t the only one having trouble adjusting.
I came back in and aired out the house a little and worked at getting the shelter aired out. I didn’t want to sleep in there any longer but when it came right down to it I felt safer there than any place. It wasn’t logical given that it was no longer very healthy and I made a vow … only one more night.
Broke that vow too, it took me three before I felt I had the house in sufficient shape – not to mention my own brain in sufficient shape – to exist outside of the shelter. We moved back up into the hidden room. The air was certainly better though it did take Nydia and I both a while to get used to the night noises that seemed overly large after living in the silent and nearly total dark of the shelter.
Nydia, Neeno, and I existed. We got up in the mornings … no more night crawling for me with an infant to care for … worked throughout the daylight hours and when it began to darken I would bring the children inside, close the security doors, and we would eat our dwindling supply of food. I could record the minutiae of our lives but there really wasn’t that much to it. I was focused on three main things … water, shelter, and food. And it was in that order.
Every day I thanked God that the solar set up for the well and pool continued to work; without those I would have been forced to exert even more effort to collect and purify the swamp water. After drawing the water that we would need for the day and/or refilling the pool as necessary I started cleaning and gardening. The pool was brushed down every day and the filter cleaned as necessary. I still had a ton of salt to keep the pool chlorinated but it had been a royal battle to get the algae out of it when we had first exited the shelter.
After the pool came the house. Bleach was a thing of the past, all I could do was boil water to sanitize everything. It meant cleaning more often and it made me appreciate the things that I once took for granted that were gone. Bath soap was dwindling as well even though I had once thought I had had enough to last a lifetime so we bathed every day just to fend off the dirt.
I did my best to reclaim our yard. My flabby muscles became taught once again as I used the swing blade and whatever other took I could find to cut the grass and clear the boundaries of the property. I did my best to finish the raised garden spaces while continuing to exploit my container garden.
In the evenings I took care of our clothes and taught Nydia to read and do her sums. As a treat one night I hooked up the small portable TV/DVD player to a battery and put in a disk that had once been her favorite. It was a miserable flop. The pictures on the screen were now as disconnected from our reality as it was possible to be.
It had been weeks since we had exited the shelter and I had neither seen nor heard a single human being. Even more than that I hadn’t heard an engine of any type; no motors, no planes, no nothing. Even more odd was that I had seen very few animals. Birds yes, thank goodness, or we would have been carried off by the insects. The owls that had lived behind the barn were still there. I would watch them swoop down on the occasional black racer or swamp bunny that had gotten brave enough to venture out of the overgrowth that surrounded us and continually threatened to overwhelm us. Felines I had only seen one of and when it had seen me it streaked off like the hounds of hell were on its heels. Of dogs I had not seen one, and nothing larger either. Even though we lived in a suburb on quiet evenings you could still hear the sounds of the cattle that were kept in a field just a mile away as the crow flies … or as it once flew.
When we had first gotten out of the shelter I had thought that surely someone would come eventually. The military maybe or the National Guard would want to know what was happening, to see who was still here. I used to listen to the radio trying to discern something purposeful and intentional in the static but there was nothing. Eventually I stopped listening to the radio because it was a drain on our power and one of the batteries had already died and couldn’t be revived. I told myself that it didn’t matter anyway, no one was coming.
And eventually I started believing that too. I stopped looking down the road wondering when someone would come, if something would come. I only stopped if an odd noise caught my ear, but the first thought in my head was no longer that it was a human made noise. I even got to a point when I made peace with the feeling that Mateo was simply not going to come … not because he didn’t want to but because something prevented him. I didn’t even wonder if it was death, I simply released him to whatever the truth was. It wasn’t his fault that he wasn’t here.
A grown man would certainly have made it difficult for us. Our supplies were dangerously low and I had started rationing them and putting a lot of effort into our garden. I was feeling more confident as the weather cooled and the plants that I managed to get to come up didn’t look so pathetic. The cooling was earlier in the season than it normally was but I put that down to just a normal fluctuation.
Then one night the smell of smoke woke me up. At first I was incredulous and thought, there was no way I could have forgotten to put out the grill from where I had boiled water for our evening baths. I crept downstairs and the smell was even stronger. I followed it to the chimney where no fire had been lit in over a year … but the smell was definitely strongest at that point.
A small part of me started getting frightened. I went out the back door and as soon as I stepped outside I was nearly gagging. It looked like whisps of fog floating on the breeze … but there was no breeze. I ran to the front of the house and that small frightened part suddenly grew into a giant. Off in the distance I could see a glow … where no glow should have been. I ran back inside, up the stairs and tore off the covering and opened the shutters of the hidden room. I was looking at one of my worst nightmares.
“Nydia! Nydia! Wake up love. You need to help Nonny. Grab your backpack … yes, the special one that we always keep packed. Come on doll baby. Now get dressed and … yes, yes that’s right, just like we practiced.”
I grabbed my back pack and the one that we had made for Neeno and I hurried all three of us down the stairs. I threw what food that was portable into a gardening wagon that I kept to help move things around. By the time I was done with that the smoke in the air was even thicker. I was afraid that I had left it too late. There was no going left of right – up or down the street – that wouldn’t gain us anything; it was the swamp or nothing. That’s when I realized I wouldn’t be able to pull the wagon through the swamp.
I nearly panicked but was saved once again as an idea sprang into my head. In my cleaning I had opened the barn back up and it was only locked with a chain. After I had gotten in there I found what I wanted in seconds but it took me nearly five minutes to get it down; Mateo’s old canoe. I prayed that it had no holes and God heard me.
I loaded the food and then Nydia into the canoe and then put Neeno into Nydia’s arms. The smoke was thicker than ever and I was terrified that their little lungs wouldn’t be able to handle it. I ran back to the house and grabbed a sheet, through it in the pool and then ran back out to them and laid the sheet over them. It afforded two advantages; it helped keep the smoke off of them and out of them and they didn’t have to see what was happening.
Saying another prayer I started walking, pulling the canoe behind me. For the most part the water got no higher than my hips but there were a few times when I was swimming. In the dark the only thing that gave me directions was that the light was coming from behind me. I finally beached on a small island in the middle of the swampy area and pulled the canoe up. When I pulled the sheet back I saw that both Nydia and Neeno were asleep. Thank the Lord for the ways of children. Had they been awake they might have tipped the canoe.
We stayed on the island for a miserable two days, but eventually I had to know what had happened. The trip in reverse seemed even longer and somehow worse going back. I had no hope, I just needed to know and to see if there was anything that I could salvage of the garden.
But I was shocked to see that the house, though covered in bits of ash here and there, still stood. The smell of burned wood was strong so I knew that the fire damage couldn’t be that far off and sure enough as I had become brave enough to leave the yard for safety’s sake, I found I was brave enough to explore to see where the fire had stopped.
It hadn’t stopped. It had turned. I reached the subdivision that was to the east of the house, only there wasn’t a subdivision, only the twisted carcasses of the houses that once stood there. I couldn’t see the other side of the damage. I had no idea how far it went. It had come close, of that there was no doubt, but not close enough to do us damage.
Life returned to “normal” … or at least the version of normal that we’d been living since we exited the shelter. I was getting comfortable. There was a routine to life that was soothing. I put everything I was into this life. There wasn’t even any grief for my different “old lives” as there had been in the past. I could look back and see a clear delineation for each incarnation of me … getting Hank out of my life, the short time I was a teacher, becoming “Nonny”, losing my parents, becoming Mateo’s wife, the world becoming a basket case, losing Mateo and then learning to live without him, entering the shelter and one person and exiting it as yet another version of me. Each incarnation had forced me to peel away a layer. What I was at that time was basic, almost primitive. The children and my faith were quite literally the only things that got me up in the morning and reminded me to breathe … and I was fine with that.
Day in and day out … until …
Isn’t there always an “until”? I heard a sound. I lifted my head and looked around. Nothing. I went back to my work which that day was trying to lay a straight row so that I could plant another succession planting of I forget just what. I was in a sweater too large for me despite the fact that it was my own. Nydia was outgrowing her clothes; I had the exact opposite problem. The only halfway normal sized thing about me was my chest these days and that is because I was feeding Neeno. Even my pre-pregnancy clothes seemed to no longer fit well. I had done my best to sew rompers for Neeno but it wasn’t easy. I used bits of my clothes, bits of Mateo’s clothes, I cut sheets up for diapers and shower curtains for hold the mess in until I could change him.
I had just shrugged the sweater a little tighter against a sharp breeze when I heard the noise again. It sounded like something had hit the front gate. I had no sooner made the decision to go see what it could be when four soldiers came around the side of the house.
I ran towards the children when a voice said, “Hey! Hey lady!! It’s OK … really!! We’re not gonna hurt you … or the …oh my God … Sarge! … Sarge! There’s a couple of kids too!!”
“I can see that Neils so calm down so that the lady doesn’t think the rest of us are as crazy as you are.”
I knew that voice. “Hi. Remember me?”
It was Sgt. Tag and it looked like she had another puppy to replace Decker. Seeing her, as shocking as it was, made me stop and nearly laugh.
“I swear, I couldn’t believe it when I saw it on the vid for myself …,” Sgt. Tag said unusually emotional. She came up and bear hugged me before I even realized what she intended.
I finally found my own voice, “Couldn’t believe what?”
“You really have no idea what has been going on?” she said what looking at me suspiciously.
I turned to Nydia who was peeking out from behind me and said, “Sweetheart, do you want to go play …”
Well, that was definitive, she didn’t want to move away from me at all.
“It’s all right. I can spell if need be as you will recall.” Sgt. Tag said with a misty look to her eyes.
“Do you mind if my men look around?” she asked. At my sudden tensing she said, “Just around the yard, take a few samples, that sort of thing. You might hear two other groups, one at either end of your road, moving around in the tall grass and doing the same.”
“Tell them to watch for ticks.”
“Do we know about ticks?”
The young man turned every shade of red known to man. “Yes ma’am. We know about ticks.”
She smiled at me. Poor kid. She’d definitely taken him under her wing and was trying to toughen the puppy up.
“So, how much do you know about what has happened.”
Being careful with my words while trying to keep an eye out on what her men were doing I responded, “What I think happened was a bomb of some type was dropped to the south of here.”
She nodded. “Your thinking is correct. Let me go back a ways however. When we left you there were still pockets of people all around here, quite a few actually; nowhere near the population that used to live here but no small number either. The heavy bombing scared off quite a few but not as many as you would have thought it should have. As supplies dried up and people realized no one could come to the rescue of such a large population of people even the gangs began to leave town if not outright die off. People started to migrate out to the rural areas. Not to be sacrilegious for whom it matters but it was worse than the Trail of Tears. Between armed insurgents and the gangs herding people along the bodies started stacking up like cord wood along every major corridor. The only difference was that people chose to start down the road … it was once they got on it that they lost most if not all of their options.”
I nodded my understanding of what she was trying to draw a picture of.
“Then came the rumors. Did you hear any of those?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that so I got as close to the truth as I could without giving away anyone in particular. “I ran into a couple of people that tried to get me to leave. I was too pregnant to be out on the road. I just decided to make the best of it here. At least here I knew I would have a roof over my head and my garden to feed us with.”
“You woman, a small nuclear device was detonated on a boat a little south of the mouth of Tampa Bay.”
“Sure, I saw the flash.”
“You saw …?! Let me see your eyes,” she demanded.
“Not directly,” I said, pulling back away from the hand that would have grabbed my chin. “We were out back here. It was night. There was a flash and we were in the shadow of the house. I dropped, tucked Nydia under me, and then we ran for the house.”
She sighed. “I am not calling you a liar but … you realize how difficult this is for us to believe?”
Confused by her tone I said, “Not … not really.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “Do you happen to have a fall out shelter in that house?”
Slowly I answered, “It was a homemade one.”
Her eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Would you allow me to see it?”
The thought of her and those men in the house terrified me. “Only me … I just need to verify what you are telling me. My word will be enough to satisfy the loony docs that are chewing at the bit to know how you … and two children … are the only souls around for miles when this area has been repeatedly swept.”
“I haven’t heard any motors, not since I came out of the shelter.”
“You wouldn’t have. The sweeps were conducted by unmanned drones taking aerial photos.”
“Then how come you are here now?” I asked.
“We were examining photos of the fire when something caught Neils eye.” I looked over at the young man and watched his ears to the color of an old fire engine. “It was an anomaly. He brought it to me. I compared it to our old surveys and … I just about dropped my teeth thinking that I couldn’t be thinking what I was thinking. There are very few legitimate coincidences in this life. Now, I really would like to see this shelter of yours.”
Feeling caught between a rock and a hard place I decided to take her as far as the kitchen and explain things. I’d already dismantled a lot of it but she would still be able to see the basic structure.
When I was finished we walked back outside and sat on the concrete garden benches. She was silent so long I grew worried. When she finally spoke her voice was gentle, “The baby was born in the shelter?”
“That first night. I guess … well, it must have been the shock. I was near my time but other things had my attention. It kind of caught me off guard.”
“Labor always catches you off guard. May … may I hold him?” she asked quietly.
The tone she used startled me. “What’s his name?” She was as gentle with him as she was loud with her “boys.”
“Neeno … that’s all we are calling him for now.” I wondered if I should ask but finally had to. “Sgt. Tag? What of your family?”
I saw her swallow and knew it would be hard news. “One of my … my daughters. Some contaminated items made it through inspection. She isn’t sick … not yet. They don’t know how … how long though. Could be years … could be days. We’ll … we’ll know when we know basically.”
“Can’t the doctors tell you anymore than that?”
“She’s been triaged. Anyone with an exposure rate in excess of their guidelines is put on triage. I’m sorry, but I can’t even get a doctor out here to …”
Worried that she thought I expected someone to rescue us I said, “Oh … don’t. Really … it’s OK. I’m sorry if I made it sound as if I expected anything.”
She gave me a long, intent look. “No. You aren’t the type to expect a hand out.” She gave another sigh as she handed Neeno back when he started to fuss for his dinner. She told the “boys” to keep their eyes in their heads and to look the other way and I put Neeno to eating.
“Now,” she said going back to her more no-nonsense brusqueness. “What else do you know since the explosion?”
“Nothing. I finally had no choice but to come out. The shelter wasn’t … hygienic … and we needed fresh water and air. I was going a little more than stir crazy as well. You people are the first live thing I’ve seen bigger than a swamp bunny since before the night the bomb exploded.”
I could see the wheels spinning in her head. “No large animals? No humans? What about cats … and dogs?”
“None of the above.”
“Well, that stands to reason all things considered I suppose.”
I looked at her trying to understand what she meant. “Let’s see. It was a smallish bomb, I won’t go into details as I doubt they’d mean much to you; suffice it to say that it was bad, but nowhere near as bad as it could have been. When the bomb exploded at the mouth of the bay … you have to understand, it wasn’t the first or the last that was detonated around the world.”
I was shocked. I had only been thinking of my own situation. I hadn’t had the energy … really hadn’t dared to find the energy since my own situation was so precarious … to think about the rest of the world. Now Sgt. Tag’s words stung me, making me feel thoughtless and selfish … and bringing niggling doubts once again about Mateo’s survival.”
“How … how many?”
“Over two dozen in this country alone, but they were relatively small devices with only localized effects. And compared to what happened in Europe and Asia we got off lucky,” She shook her head. “We’re hurt, make no mistake about that. There were already infrastructure failures but we had options; all we needed to do was reopen the fuel and supply pipelines and get the plants back up and running. But the bombs … they destroyed the facilities. Now it isn’t just a matter of re-opening … we have to relocate and rebuild. The nuclear power plants are in the best shape but it will take a while to get them fully operational again after the partial shutdowns that became necessary. Building new plants … well, imagine having to build the infrastructure of basic manufacturing of steel, plastics, and electronics before we can even begin to plan on any new structures.”
I shuddered at the magnitude of the challenge she was describing. “You said … other places were worse.”
“The Middle East basically tore itself apart. No one understands it but somehow Israel has survived with only token damage. Some of the settlements in the Gaza Strip are toast but the country itself is intact from the ground to the government. But as you can imagine they are extremely paranoid at the moment and no one is going near them figuratively or literally … they’ve got an itchy trigger finger. They are barely responding to any communications from outside their country and with the extreme conservatives in control … we are giving them all the space they want,” she said with a humorless smile. “Egypt has also closed its borders. The Aswan Dam was badly damaged by Palestinian militants in a backlash for the border closing when things got hot between Hamas and Israel. The Jordanians and the Egyptians are the only two countries in that area that are making any approaching sense and that is still not saying a whole lot. The Saudis are in disarray. Personally many of us think certain families and who they support have come home to roost and there are a lot of internal power plays coinciding with damage to their own infrastructure. Certainly the country’s overall wealth has disintegrated in direct proportion to the worldwide economic depression we are now in.”
She took a sip of her canteen before continuing. “Of course when the Middle East blew it started drawing in neighboring regions. Eastern Europe, parts of Russia, parts of China … big ones flew in the skies over there. The devastation is incalculable. In Western Europe France completely imploded as did parts of Britain … not from nukes but from their immigrant populations.”
“What about Africa?”
“Good questions. Frankly I don’t know. Nearly the entire continent has gone dark and silent. Like I said, Egypt is OK but the rest of northern Africa is going tribal. South Africa is a huge battle ground as those dissatisfied with the status quo on both sides make their move. Some of us think China is making resource grabs as they attempted to in Australia but there has been no official confirmation of this. There isn’t a thing we can do about it however. Just like the Koreas … let them tear themselves apart, it’s not our problem.”
“No one is asking the US for help?” I asked thinking how unusual it would be for our government not to be trying to help rebuild the destroyed areas.
“Of course they are, don’t be naive. But we aren’t in any shape to help … and frankly the majority of those that are having their voices heard by the government don’t want to help any longer. That is making the beggars scream in anger at us for suddenly doing what they asked us to do in the past … leave them alone,” she snorted. “When we pulled our troops out of Afghanistan to protect our own borders we dumped everything we had left on every suspected target on the books. All of our remote teams around the world were give the green light to take their targets out … and most did so with at least some success.”
I didn’t care for the cat-who-got-the-cream look that Tag had on her face. I understood it but I didn’t want to get drawn into what it meant. On the one hand it was good that we got some of our own back after have to be so careful over the years … on the other hand at what cost to our own morality.
“What about Congress? What are they doing to …”
She stopped me with a look. “You’re not listening girl, things are in the toilet and changes have been made. We got as many members of Congress out as we could before the stinky stuff started flying in earnest but not many. Some refused to leave their families. Some were taken out in explosions. Some were assassinated by their own constituents. Some just decided they were too old to fight and took their own way out. ‘The President’ has changed at least four times since all this began. I don’t even know who is filling that position right now, probably just some figurehead to hold the slot. We’ve got a functioning government that is run along Constitutional lines, but the Presidential powers … all national government powers … are put in check by state rights and responsibilities as well as the military hierarchy who are the primary lines of repair and provision at this time. The national government is handling the orders to re-establish interstate travel and commerce and is maintaining the military. The military is in charge of protecting our national boundaries, dealing with any incursions of international forces, and re-establishing communications with our allies. Anything more than that is handled at the state level. Intrastate commerce and defense is being handled by each state’s National Guard. The national government does try and act as go between with the states when issues of refugees come up, but only if the states involved can’t come to some kind of understanding. Naturally, some states are handling things better than others. Florida has her problems but we are doing fairly well all things considered. Speaking of, I’ll do my best to get you some supplies but it may take time.”
I was overwhelmed with information but I knew that if I didn’t stop her, Tag would take over and the last thing I wanted to do was to lose control of what little bit I had. “I don’t recall asking you for anything.”
“Don’t get snarky with me girl. God may have sent the crows to feed Elijah but all you’ve got is me.. And you will let me help you … if not for your own sake then for your two little ones.”
Despite my best effort to deny her all I had to do was look down at Nydia and Neeno and I knew I would have to swallow my pride.
I was on the point of agreeing when the young man named Neils ran up. “Sarge, trouble at the Outpost. They need us back asap.”
They left so quickly Tag and I never finished our conversation. I realized I hadn’t even thought to ask them where they were stationed at. The rest of the day seemed flat and unsettled. That night it took me a while to settle down as thoughts I would rather have not thought kept flittering through my head. For the next several days it was the same but as time passed the appearance and then disappearance of Tag and her men faded like it had been nothing but a daydream.
Three weeks went by and then I looked up as a sound like a mosquito caught my ear. It was a small plane circling high in the sky and then taking off to the north, eventually disappearing behind a few puffy clouds that presaged rain. At least I could finally tell myself that I hadn’t imagined it all, that there were still other people in the world.
Another month and the weather was definitely cooler than it should have been. Nydia and the baby spent most of their time in the house near the fireplace. I began to worry that the citrus would freeze before I could harvest it. My bananas were definitely in trouble. I harvested three stalks in October but none of the other blooms ever made fruit.
I gave up planting anything but the coolest weather crops outside and had to keep the heat lamp running every night in the greenhouse; another serious drain on the energy I collected. The cloudy skies also caused me to cut back on all but the most essential power use. Keeping the wood pile filled drained my personal energy supply. Cutting wood was hard work and that is what I was doing when I heard an awful noise out front.
Getting over the shock and finally recognizing Pvt. Neils allowed me to calm down.
He could tell I was not happy to see such a group of men and he removed his hat and said hurriedly, “Ma’am, Capt. Tag sends her best.”
“Capt. Tag? I thought she was a sergeant.”
“Yes ma’am and she probably wishes she still was. She turned down all of the field promotions she was offered for as long as she dared but when they set up the big refugee camp she got her own quarter and brought her family down to live with her. She sure doesn’t like being tied to a desk all the time. Where would you like us to unload this stuff?”
“What stuff? I can’t take that! I didn’t ask …”
“Ma’am, please don’t. Capt. Tag promised a month of hell in the refugee kitchens if we didn’t get this to you and make sure you took it. You wouldn’t want that would you?”
Neils and all five of the men with him turned eyes on me that would have made a cocker spaniel jealous. Honestly, Tag was a horrible manipulator, sending a bunch of puppies to do her dirty work because she knew I wouldn’t kick them. They unloaded “the stuff” where I told them to and they also helped drag some fallen limbs from around the neighborhood and cut them up before leaving. After they left I found a note from Tag.
I would have brought this stuff myself to fulfill my promise but as Neils has no doubt blabbed my responsibilities have increased. The only real compensation is that my time with my family has also increased making it all worth it.
A word to the wise, the situation remains fluid in the state. Do not fail to maintain your situational awareness. Just because you don’t see other people in your area does not mean that they aren’t moving through there though I have no data on any permanent camps or settlements.
Our scientists say it is unlikely that North America will feel a full nuclear winter but a disruption in normal weather patterns, similar to the one caused by historic volcanic eruptions, is already occurring. The change in weather has contributed to a large stream of immigrants leaving the north heading our way thought every state has their own border crossings that slow the waves down to trickles. Lack of services along the way also leave those few who survive the trek to make it this far in poor condition.
We may also see further incursions from international refugees from the island nations and from parts of Central America. The boat people are in even worse condition than our own and worse, more prone to desperate acts.
As far as the contents of this shipment, I can see your face as if I was standing there beside you. This amounts to the same as the state is providing other refugee outposts so don’t get bent out of shape. Making sure you are able to stay where you are means a lighter workload in the camps so it all evens out in the end. There is no need to go into it further; it is little enough as it is and doubtful under current conditions that we can provide more.
As winter closes the northern travel routes and the influx levels off or ceases I will try and send another team to check on you. I may also ask that you provide them with suggestions for setting up individual homesteads like your own so that we can try and empty some of the refugee camps. Too many people on top of one another reminds too much of the FEMA camps and I refuse to run one of those hell holes. The west and northeast coast states may find them useful them but it is the wrong fit for the personality of our people here in the south.
God Bless and Keep Your and Yours,
I folded the letter up and stuck it in my apron pocket smiling despite myself. Tag reminded me of the girls dean at my highschool. She’d snarl and snap and most people thought she was a nasty old gator, but I knew for a fact she’d also take the head off of anyone … student or staff … that she thought was taking advantage anyone in her care. Why or how Tag had come to think of me as one of her responsibilities I didn’t know but I was beginning to think that maybe I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and just accept that some things happened for a reason.
What Tag called “not much” took up a good chunk of the lanai. I hadn’t let the men in the house, I did have some boundaries that I wasn’t too crazy about giving up and the house was sacrosanct. I began to inventory the jumble of items and realized that if I was careful and used my existing supplies this could easily get me through to the new year and a little on the other side giving me time to see whether the citrus crop failed and whether I could grow enough fresh to provide for us when, as was inevitable, all of the other supplies eventually ran out.
There were drums, barrels, buckets, and burlap bags and they all took some ingenuity on my part to get into the house and put away. There was a large drum of dried corn kernels and a smaller drum of wheat. There was a large plastic barrel of oat groats, a smaller one of rolled oats, and another small one of barley. There were plastic containers of dried fruits and veggies and several burlap bags of dried beans. There were six gallon buckets of salt, dried potato flakes, some kind of 9 grain cereal, and what looked like some kind of dried fruit and granola mix. There was a small drum of light-colored, sticky stuff that turned out to be corn syrup and another of the same size that was some kind of thick, dark molasses. I noticed there were no seasonings but there was a drum of vegetable oil and a couple of buckets of lard. There were also two large buckets of peanuts still in their shell that would give me both peanut butter and fat, both of which were very low in the supplies I had been able to save. The last two items were the smallest yet were the most difficult to get into. Each box had multiple layers of tape over a protective waxed paper cover. The first one held jerky and sticks of dried meat, heavily salted but so good that I couldn’t resist tearing a piece apart and sharing it with Nydia. The other box held two large blocks of baker’s chocolate, powdered cocoa, some waterproof matches, a pamphlet on collecting and purifying water, some coffee filters (though no coffee), a nalgene water bottle and filter and a small cone of brown sugar and bottle of creamer.
I was thankful for all of it but I also tried to look at it with an eye to what was missing to make it a more balanced food supply for a group of people and when I did that what was missing was obvious. Except for the bottle of creamer there were no dairy products … no dried milk, no cheese, no cheese powder, no powdered eggs, etc. Thanks to the buying spree that Mateo and I had gone on … oh how long ago it seemed … I still had plenty of dairy products left but they wouldn’t last forever and it looked like I couldn’t really count on trade to provide the deficiency.
Seasonings was another deficiency I noted but anyone with access to some herbs could fix that if they were willing to learn how to use what didn’t come from a bottle on the grocery store shelves. My potted and planted herbs were the only thing that hadn’t suffered at all while we were in the shelter. Some of them even seemed the better for me leaving them alone. I did occasionally have to fight the gopher tortoises for the battles weren’t frequent enough to bother me … besides turtle soup wasn’t bad at all when you were hungry.
There also wasn’t any rice which really surprised me although if the Gulf Coast had been hit maybe a lot of the year’s crop had been contaminated or something. The dried fruits and veggies also wouldn’t go very far if I used them as is rather than mixing them up with other things. The dried meat would barely supplement the protein provided by the dried beans. I definitely needed to come up with some kind of plan for placing my dwindling supply of animal protein. It looked like more aggressive hunting was in my future, assuming I could find anything to hunt … turtles were easy and plentiful as were bunnies but neither was something we could survive on long term.
I was beginning to think that the reason that I wasn’t seeing any larger animals … or dogs or cats … was because people had eaten them. I know that seemed gross at first glance but I knew that both dog and cat was featured on the menu of some foreign countries as a common item. I was lucky that I hadn’t run into any gators in the swamp but that didn’t mean they weren’t in there, just that I hadn’t seen them. Hunting gator though wasn’t something that I thought I was capable of, at least not at that point. What I really needed to do if I wanted to be self sufficient long term was get my own domesticated animals … chickens, goats, cows, pigs … or at least one of those.
For the first time in a long while I was finally doing something besides just existing and trying to survive for the short term. I felt energized. Looking up I saw the wispy clouds that had been there earlier had turned into real thunderheads. I hurried to finish bringing the supplies in off of the lanai so that I could clear the screens off the rain barrels and bring in enough wood so I wouldn’t have to light a smoky fire tonight or in the morning.
Even though I was hurrying I felt myself smiling, not even the storm on the horizon had the ability to bring me down this time. And when the first fat, cold drops started to fall my little family was snug inside and a filling soup was simmering on the fireplace. Nydia seemed to sense my change in mood and reflected in her own. Even Neeno seemed to guzzle his meal with more gusto than he had recently. It was as I was putting them to bed that I casually glanced at the calendar and realized that Thanksgiving was only a few days away. This gave me another goal to work towards and after that was Christmas.
As I lay my own head down I realized what had been missing and was again in my life. Humpty Dumpty may have fallen off the wall so badly that none of the king’s men could put him back together the same way ever again, but life did go on. But I had finally found what I had lost … hope. I had hope and with hope the possibilities for the future were only limited by what I could imagine.