"An ELECTRIFYING story of survival . . . "
In his bestselling novels, The Borrowed World and Ashes of the Unspeakable, Franklin Horton showed us a nation facing societal collapse from a coordinated ISIS attack on the American infrastructure. Most of the country is without power, communication, and fuel. As a result of the attack, a group of business travelers in Virginia found themselves among the millions stranded on the highways with no idea how they would be getting home.
In this third installment, Legion of Despair, the country is teetering on the brink of anarchy. While one of the stranded travelers, Jim Powell, made it home and is working to establish a safe, sustainable enclave for his family, his co-workers Gary and Alice are not faring as well. After spending hundreds of painful miles dreaming of his reunion with his family, Gary arrives home only to find his family under attack. Now he must face the painful decision as to whether his family’s plan to bug-in is viable or whether they may need greater numbers and a better location to survive in this collapsing nation.
While Gary’s homecoming is bittersweet, he has at least found his way into the arms of his family. His co-worker Alice has awakened on the cold, concrete floor of a basement in Bluefield, Virginia. She is bound and chained to a support column. She doesn’t know if she will ever see her son or husband again. All she knows for certain is that the man in front of her has already brutally killed her friend, Rebecca, and unless she finds a way out, he will kill her, too.
Release date: April 8, 2016
Publisher: Horsemen of the Apocalypse LLC
Print pages: 280
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Legion of Despair
The past weeks had been difficult ones for the people of the United States. ISIS operatives had seeped through the borders and launched a widespread coordinated attack against the infrastructure of the country. Aided by radicalized Muslims living in plain sight, the attacks were swift and deadly, targeted toward producing long-term devastation.
Trucks bombs were detonated on bridges and in tunnels critical for the transportation of people and goods. Residents of San Francisco, New York City, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and the Hampton Roads area of Virginia found themselves cut off from the most used travel and supply routes. In the current economy, it was doubtful those landmark bridges and tunnels could ever be rebuilt.
Several mortar rounds led to the collapse of the Wolf Creek Dam in Kentucky and the unleashing of half a trillion gallons of water from Lake Cumberland onto the folks of Nashville, Tennessee. It was unknown at this point how many people lost their lives to the flooding. The loss of electricity restricted the flow of information, preventing many from learning they were even at risk until it was too late.
Knowing the reliance of modern America on the luxury of electricity, the grid was a primary target of the terrorists. They relished the thought of pushing America back to a prior century. Critical transformers at junctures in the grid were destroyed by explosives and weapons fire. There were no spares available. The transformers were custom-made in Europe and Asia specifically for their location within the grid. They could take up to a year to make, then they had to be transported via ship, rail car, and finally by a specialized trailer to the site of their installation. With dozens destroyed, it was unknown how long replacements would take. Some sections of the country could have to wait years to get their power restored.
With the failing of the electrical system came the unavoidable consequences of power loss. People lost heating and cooling, refrigeration, the ability to heat water and cook on electrical appliances. Those requiring electrical-powered medical devices in order to live were dying. Cities could no longer pump water into storage tanks, nor could they treat it to make it safe for drinking. Certain critical municipal functions could be run off generators, but for how long? There was no guarantee of a steady supply of either diesel or propane.
Besides the electrical grid, the other primary targets of the terrorists’ plan were the major refineries that turned crude oil into fuel. Utilizing portable weapons systems, the terrorists precisely dropped mortar rounds onto those facilities. The capacity to create fuel was destroyed, along with the existing inventory of fuel stored in on-site tanks. As this began to sink in, the president issued an Executive Order restricting all sales of fuel to the public. It was now only available to the military, law enforcement, and first responders. The president tasked state governors with this fuel seizure, utilizing their state troopers and National Guard troops.
The result of this fuel restriction was that millions of Americans found themselves trapped on the road. Those fortunate enough to be stranded on the beltways of their home cities faced potentially harrowing journeys home through unfamiliar sections of town. Those unfortunate enough to be traveling when they ran out of fuel were stranded along the interstate highways, at rest areas, and at truck stops.
One group of coworkers from Southwestern Virginia found themselves far from home on the day of the attacks. They were hundreds of miles away in the capital city of Richmond when they awoke to a power outage and only a vague idea of what had transpired overnight. There was a disagreement among the group as to the necessity of leaving town without attending the meeting they’d come for. Some felt that the terror attacks were just a bump in the road that would amount to little more than an inconvenience.
“We survived 9/11,” one of them said.
Without fuel and electricity, there were also those among the group who felt that there was the potential for immediate chaos and eventual societal collapse. They had little news to go on. Cell phone connections were becoming sporadic. Even if they could not agree on what the societal effects of such an attack might be, it was eventually agreed upon that they should at least all return home to be with their families in this time of national crisis.
As they started their journey home, they were at an interstate travel plaza when the Executive Order restricting fuel sales was announced. This resulted in a riot which left one of their group dead. When they attempted to escape the chaos of the travel plaza, a man attempted to carjack them and one of the men, Jim Powell, was forced to kill the carjacker with a pistol that he carried concealed, a strict violation of his employer’s policy. Unable to obtain fuel, their vehicle soon ran dry and they were forced to proceed on foot, leaving their useless car behind. They spent the night in a darkened, powerless hotel at a highway exit. The night was filled with the sounds of violence that further reinforced to some that societal collapse was a strong possibility.
In an effort to clean up the mess of stranded travelers abandoned along the highway system, FEMA established camps and ran buses in search of the stranded. Some among the group felt this was obviously the solution to their problem. They would go to the FEMA camp and wait for a bus ride home, courtesy of the government.
This contingent was shocked to find that this belief was not shared by all of those in the group. Jim, along with his friends Gary and Randi, opted to not put their fate in the hands of FEMA. Jim and Gary were both prepared and aware individuals who traveled with weapons and carried Get Home Bags just in case an event such as this were to ever befall them. Their plan was to go home along the Appalachian Trail and use its remote footpaths to avoid the more populated – and dangerous – areas between them and home.
Alice and Rebecca did not agree with this plan. They took a bus to the FEMA camp, where they remained until they realized that FEMA really had no plan for getting them home at all. FEMA just wanted them off the exits and out of the hair of the people living along the highways. It became clear to Alice and Rebecca that if they ever wanted to get home, they were going to have to leave the camp and find another way.
This was not a simple request. While leaving was not prohibited, it was not encouraged. No supplies or aid would be given to those who wanted to leave. Readmission was also forbidden. They were only able to leave by stealing some provisions and stowing away on a bus with another camp resident. However, they quickly learned that their new friend, Boyd, was not stable. His behavior was erratic and violent. After an argument, he killed Rebecca and fled in the night, leaving Alice alone on the road. In a cruel twist of fate, as Alice made it back to familiar territory she crossed paths with Boyd again, waking up to find herself tied up in his basement with no idea if she’d ever see her family again.
The journey undertaken by Jim, Gary, and Randi was no picnic. There were multiple violent encounters that left them changed from the people they’d once been. After several weeks on the road, they made it to Tazewell County, Virginia, each of them a harder version of themselves. Gary split off from the group at this point and headed toward his home. Randi and Jim proceeded together and it took them a day longer to reach Jim’s home.
Jim’s arrival home was not the idealized event that he’d imagined. Instead, he came home to find his family being victimized by Charlie Rakes, a prisoner set free from the local jail when the food ran out. Charlie had taken Jim’s mother and son hostage in an attempt to extort food from Jim’s family. Within fifteen minutes of arriving home, Jim had killed again, putting a round in Charlie’s head and leaving his body for the coyotes that haunted the perimeter of the farm. The next day, Jim was able to fill his diesel truck from the fuel tank on his farm and use it to return Randi to her family.
Throughout their journey home, each anticipated being in the arms of their family. Each had the dream of a reunion that shone like a beacon and kept them walking each long day through blisters, aches, sickness, and hunger. Each imagined a set of smiling faces that would welcome them home. They imagined rest and recovery, sitting outside in a patio chair regaining strength from the depletions and exhaustions of the road. Each had a fantasy.
No one found what they expected.
As Gary walked the last miles home, his hometown was as quiet as he’d ever seen it. It was the only small town for nearly an hour in any direction. If people wanted food, liquor, or building supplies this was where they came. It was always busy. There was always traffic. As a large coal town, it never closed. In the middle of the night, men in dirty work clothes with reflective safety stripes were driving service trucks, fueling up, stopping for cigarettes, or changing shifts. The sound of trains, the sound of coal trucks, were ever-present.
With the Executive Order that limited the available fuel to authorized emergency vehicles, most folks had already used up the limited supply they kept around their homes for mowing or running generators. Only a few vehicles moved on the streets now. There was a golf cart disappearing into a neighborhood. A shirtless man in shorts and flip flops rode a gas-powered scooter with a cigarette hanging from his lip. It was the kind of scooter that didn’t require a license and was favored by drunks who had lost theirs. In some ways the town had shifted backward a century, making it okay again to walk in the center of the streets or ride a horse through town. Yet the congenial atmosphere of those long-gone days, even the hectic efficiency of two weeks ago, had departed. Even the twenty-four hour grocery store was closed, as was every all-night convenience store that Gary passed.
When Gary was a child, his family had moved from their home into one a little larger in another part of town. Years later, he’d had the opportunity to go back to his childhood home. There was a sense of deep familiarity at seeing the home where he’d grown up, yet there was also a slightly alien feel, and the awareness that it was not his home anymore. Things may have looked the same, but they were different too. That was exactly how his town felt now. The same, with a disturbing undercurrent of… different.
Gary’s route took him through the downtown area where hundred-year-old brick buildings stood three stories tall. The upper floors were typically apartments. With no lights or any air conditioning, folks sat in backyards or brooded in shadowy doorways. Only the children seemed without worry, playing as children always do even in the worst of times. The adults had little to say. Some he passed met his eye or nodded, but none spoke. Even in this southern town where friendliness came naturally and everyone spoke to everyone, the people seemed dispirited. The state of the nation hung over everyone like a dark cloud.
Gary plodded the concrete sidewalk, seeing his town as he’d never seen it. The sound of his steps echoed between the buildings. After two miles, he crossed the railroad tracks and walked by the fire station. A group of volunteer firefighters sat in folding chairs in front of a garage bay. He nodded at them and they watched him pass, their conversation halting while they tried to figure him out. He wondered if they had the ability to respond to fires or if they were just unsure of where else to go. With no phones, unless they saw smoke they would not even have any means of being alerted of a fire in progress.
Beyond the fire station stood the vacant parking lot of a shopping center. A half-dozen kids were weaving on skateboards, feeling free to ignore the NO SKATING signs at this point. No one cared. They ignored his passing, which was the way he preferred it.
He approached the community food pantry and found it burned to the ground. He wondered why it had been burned. To conceal that the food had been stolen or run out? Perhaps it was because thieves were infuriated that there was no food left to steal. Gary recalled how this small town had seen so much change in his lifetime, from the boom of coal to the bust, yet they’d never needed food pantries here until recently. The media kept saying that the economy was recovering, but the lines at the pantry kept getting longer and longer and there was never enough food to give away.
Gary had not grown up with much money, but his family’s food pantry had been in the backyard. He and his brothers had to help his parents plant it in the spring and early summer. Then they helped water it when the days were hot and dry. They harvested it together and they helped preserve it for winter. It was what had to be done. It disappointed him that the once-proud people of his community now preferred this handout of stale and outdated food to raising a garden of their own. It was discouraging that such was the world his grandchildren would inherit.
He was less than a mile from his house when he could stand it no longer and the anticipation of his homecoming made him start jogging. His feet were so sore from the journey that it felt as if the small bones within his shoes were broken and grinding together, but he didn’t care and he didn’t stop. His pack pulled at his already aching shoulders and he felt lightheaded from burning more calories each day than he had consumed. Still he ran.
In ten minutes, he was at the foot of the driveway that his family shared with a few neighbors. He tried to continue running up it, but the half-mile road was too steep and he was too spent. He climbed as quickly as he could. In the years he’d lived here, he couldn’t recall ever walking this driveway and he was impressed with the effort it took. Halfway up, he was sucking wind. His legs were cramping and his side ached, but he knew the top of this hill was all that stood between him and his family. He started running again. He could not stop himself. Emotion welled up in him, threatening to spill over.
In the exhausting blur of his journey home, Gary had dreamt of this moment. There were many times when he, Jim, and Randi had sunken into the dark pool of their thoughts and he knew they were all thinking of the same thing: home. In his mind, he had pictured a reunion worthy of Little House on the Prairie, him ambling out of the woods near his home into a field of wildflowers and being spotted instantly by his wife. She would drop the basket of laundry that she was preparing to hang on the line and cry his name. He would step through the high grass toward his family as they spilled from the house.
He pictured his wife, his daughters, his sons-in-law, his granddaughters, all running toward him in slow motion, their arms outstretched, love radiating from them like a sunny day at the beach. He imagined he would shed his pack into the deep daisy-filled grass and run toward them. They would collide in an enormous hugging mass and his depleted body would absorb it all, the love he’d been missing on those hundreds of miles when all he could think about was the family he’d left behind. He knew it was a little sappy and over the top, but distracting the mind helped the body cope, and that was how he endured the many miles he’d come. It was one of the games he played in his head to make it home.
Gary had three daughters and two of them lived next door to him. He’d cut building lots off his larger parcel of property and gladly allowed them to build homes there when they were married. It was a small price to pay to keep his children and grandchildren within arm’s length. A third daughter had not yet married and still lived with them.
As he crested the hill, one daughter’s house came into view, then the next one, then finally his own. He stopped and panted, attempting to regain control of his breathing. His heart was pounding in his ears like an oncoming train. It would suck to make it this far and go into cardiac arrest within sight of his home.
He scanned the grounds of the three houses, looking for signs of life. The homes looked abandoned. There were no laughing children. Then he saw his son-in-law out walking around, an AR-15 cradled in his arms. Gary smiled.
“Will!” he called.
Will froze in his tracks, looking around. Gary yelled again and this time Will spotted him. Gary waved, wanting to make sure that the armed young man knew who he was before he started walking toward him. After a moment of shock came recognition. Will waved back and Gary started trotting toward him. He could hear Will shouting toward the house, but couldn’t make out the words.
Will must have been announcing his arrival, though, because the front door flew open and his family spilled out. It was like a hole punched in a bag of sugar, an unstoppable pouring forth that spread uncontrollably in all directions. They were all there, all the grandchildren, all the daughters, the young men who’d married his daughters, and finally his wife. While it wasn’t the bucolic scene that he’d imagined, complete with golden light, flowers, harp music, and a chorus of angels, it was still a beautiful moment.
He was home. He was finally home.
His youngest daughter reached him first and nearly toppled him over backward with a hug that was closer to a tackle. Gary shrugged out of his pack, dropping it to the ground. His daughter was crying and holding him tightly while his other two daughters plowed into them. They all sagged to the ground at that point, Gary smiling, his daughters crying, then Gary crying too.
At the rear of the pack Gary’s wife, Debra, approached with a granddaughter in her arms. Gary’s other son-in-law, Dave, was with her, carrying a child in one arm and leading another by the hand. As all the grandchildren got their feet on the ground, they joined the mass, giggling and laughing. It was more than music to Gary’s ears, refilling the void within him with warmth and life. It put back nearly everything that he’d left on the trail home. It filled the holes created by the death he’d both seen and the death he’d wrought. He felt himself becoming a human again, becoming all the things these people needed him to be.
Debra dropped to her knees, her face streaked with tears, a sob breaking loose despite all her efforts. Gary pulled himself gently free of his brood and crawled toward his wife. He took her in his arms and she lost all the composure she’d struggled to maintain in his absence. She no longer had to be the only thing that held this family together.
Throughout the reunion, Will, Gary’s oldest daughter Sara’s husband, stood back from the hugging mass. He held an AR-15 in a ready position and was nervously scanning the tree-line around the property. When Will turned his back to them, continuing his perimeter check, Gary noticed that he carried a pouch on his belt with two spare mags for the rifle. Anyone could sling on a rifle for looks, but the extra mags indicated the expectation of a possible fight that would precipitate the need for reloading. The rifle had been a present from Gary the first Christmas after Will had married into the family. The young man’s actions made Gary nervous. Will was not a high-strung kid. He was coldly practical. If he was concerned, there was a reason.
Lana, the oldest of Gary’s granddaughters, climbed into his arms and covered his cheeks in her little kisses. She crinkled her nose at him.
“You smell bad, Papaw,” she said.
Gary laughed. “I know, sweetie. Trust me, I know. I’ve not had a bath in a long time.”
He let her slide to the ground and she ran back to her mommy. Everyone laughed as she whispered to her mother, “Papaw’s stinky, Mommy. He need a bath.”
“Let’s move it back inside,” Will said. “We’ve been out here long enough. I don’t like everyone being exposed like this.”
Everyone groaned. It was a beautiful day and with the stress of Gary’s absence lifted from them, they were ecstatic and enjoying the moment.
Gary knew that Will must have good reason for his instructions. “Will’s right,” Gary said. “Let’s move toward the house. I’m starving and need something to eat.”
Everyone began happily strolling toward the house. Gary hung at the back, while Will continued to scan their perimeter, his weapon held at the ready. Whether it was from stress, sleeplessness, or something else, Gary had no idea, but Will was clearly ready to swing around and open fire at a moment’s notice. Something had happened in his absence. Will would not be demonstrating that level of paranoia if there weren’t a good reason.
“What’s been going on, Will?” Gary asked.
Will kept his eyes moving, his focus intense. He was tall and had never served in the military but was experienced with firearms. He’d trained with Gary on a regular basis. His movements were practiced and efficient. He scanned the tree line, the road, and then his eyes landed again on the backs of his family, silently urging them to pick up the pace and get inside. His attention never wavered.
“We’ve had visitors,” he said. “Folks on dirt bikes. They came up the driveway at first, like they were lost. They looked around and then they left. That was a couple of days ago.”
Gary could sense there was more to the story.
“That night, the garden got raided,” Will continued. “They took as much as they could carry and trampled most of what was left.”
“Dadgummit,” Gary said. It was about as close to swearing as he normally got. “That’s aggravating. Not just the theft, but the waste.”
“I know. There’s still a few things left but not much,” Will said. “The tomatoes in the planters didn’t get taken. It was too much of a coincidence, though, that those guys showed up and then the garden gets wiped out.”
“I’m guessing you didn’t have a guard posted?”
Will shook his head. “Up until that point we didn’t think we needed one,” he said. “We were just a few days into this whole thing and people were pretty much treating it like the aftermath of a snow or ice storm. Everyone was walking around socializing and the mood was halfway friendly, like a town sharing a crazy experience. Then the mood turned sour after the grocery stores closed and people realized this might be serious. There’s been a lot of shooting. It doesn’t sound like hunting, it sounds like gun fighting.”
Gary nodded. He’d seen the same thing happening during his travels.
“I thought I heard someone trying to break into the storage buildings last night. I shined a spotlight around but didn’t see anyone. First thing this morning we moved some of the important supplies out of the storage buildings,” Will said. “All that stuff is in the garage now. It’s a mess but it’s safe.”
Though exhausted, Gary tried to process what he was hearing. “So are you thinking this is all from the people on the dirt bikes or just different, random groups of people?”
“It’s hard to say,” Will said. “There’s a lot of people just wandering around for lack of anything else to do. Folks have been coming up here on the hill nearly every day. I think some of them are just casing the houses. They’re looking to see what we have that they need.”
“You really think so?” Gary said. He looked out over his property and that of his neighbors. They lived on a flat hilltop of about twenty acres. Gary had about six of those acres and had cut off one each for his married daughters. The remaining property belonged to the neighboring families. The road that came onto the property formed a circle, rejoining itself before going back out the way it came in. It would have been easy for those folks on dirt bikes to drive in and make the circle and then ride back out.
“I’ve never seen so many people walking around up here,” Will said. “I think some of them are just taking a shortcut out of the housing project back there. As for the others, I don’t know who they are or why they’re here, but they all have the same look, like they’re shopping for things they can use.”
Will kept scanning the woods. The kids were all inside now. Gary’s wife and daughters were filing through the door. With them no longer in the open, Will visibly relaxed. “The way that the guys on dirt bikes were stopping in the road and watching us, it seems like they were challenging us. It got to the point yesterday that I geared up and went outside with my AR. There were folks standing at the end of the driveway just looking at the house. I asked them if I could help them with anything. They never answered, just turned away and left.”
“You think those dirt bike riders took the food from the garden?” Gary asked.
“I think so,” Will said. “You can hear those machines running up and down the main road all night. I don’t know where they’re getting the gas to do that. I haven’t been able to buy any.”
“They’re not buying their gas, Will.”
“Of course they’re not,” Will replied. “I should have realized that. I’m just getting stupid with exhaustion.”
“Don’t worry about it now,” Gary said. “Let’s get inside and we can deal with this later.”
The evening with his family was beyond words. Gary’s wife and daughters prepared what looked like a feast after the deprivations of the road. Gary ate until he could eat no more, but it was not the food that fed him, it was the presence of his family.
Although Gary did not have Jim’s level of paranoia, he’d read all the same books Jim had read. The effect on him had been nearly the same as it had been on Jim. He long ago began making preparations in the way of storing food, water, weapons, and emergency power. Much of it was stored in the nooks and crannies of his home. Other items were stored in his various outbuildings. Still other items were stored in undisclosed locations because the items were expensive and he wanted to conceal the purchase. It wasn’t that he had any reason to feel guilty for making the purchases; they had the money. It was more of an issue that he was innately frugal and felt guilty about spending money. For that reason, some of his purchases were either disguised or hidden in plain sight.
Part of those preparations he made were in the way of long-term food storage. They had clearly not reached the point where it was necessary to dig into those supplies, though. They were still eating the fresh refrigerated foods and items from their everyday pantry. This was because, like Jim, Gary had installed a transfer switch on his house that allowed him to hook a generator up to run essential circuits, like the refrigerator and freezers.
While Jim stored his in an outbuilding and only brought it out when needed, Gary had gone the extra step of installing a permanent generator housing out back so that the generator could be left in place all the time. All Gary needed to do was go out back and start the generator, then flip a few breakers on the transfer switch to restore power to the circuits he wanted to energize. Gary had no long-term experience with this, but his theory was that alternating between running the generator for four hours and then letting it sit idle for four hours would keep the frozen food frozen and the refrigerated food cool enough that it wouldn’t go bad, as long as people stayed out of those appliances as much as possible.
Gary had explained his theory of generator operation to Will many times and was certain that Will had been responsible for doing this in his absence. Because of the items on the dinner menu, it had obviously been working. Gary reminded himself that he’d need to check the fuel supply later and see how it was holding out. He’d had intentions of purchasing a tri-fuel generator that would run off various fuel sources, but he’d never done it. He owned a gasoline generator, which had been substantially cheaper, and he stored cans of stabilized gas in his outbuilding to run it. He kept about twenty-five gallons at all times, rotating it through his mower or vehicles as it got old and replacing it with fresh.
Later, as they were cleaning up from the meal, Gary asked Will if they’d been maintaining a watch at night.
“Like I said, until recently, there’s not been any indication that we needed to. There just hasn’t been any trouble.”
“We’ll need to look at that,” Gary said. “It might be time to start one. We just need to be careful. With everyone scattered out over three houses, I don’t want anyone wandering around outside where they could be shot by mistake.”
Will nodded as he considered this.
“How’s Dave dealing with all this?” Gary asked.
“He’s doing pretty well,” Will said. “I don’t know if he’s completely onboard yet, though.”
“I’m not sure if he’s grasping the seriousness of it all. He’s still worried that he’s going to be fired for not showing up to work, even though there’s no fuel for getting there. You and I have talked about disasters ever since Sara and I started dating. We’ve always thought alike. Dave never had any idea how fragile things were until he and Charlotte got married and he started listening to our conversations. He’s trying but I think he might still be in shock or something. He just seems to think he’s going to wake up one day and everything will be back to normal.”
“There’s a lot of people that think like that. Had a couple on our trip. I’ll talk to him,” Gary said. “Check in and see how he’s doing.”
“That’s probably a good idea,” Will said. He looked at Gary seriously. “You know that I would kill to save anyone in this family. I would not hesitate to pull the trigger to save any one of them. I am not sure Dave is there yet.”
Gary yawned and rubbed his eyes. “I’ll have to deal with him tomorrow. I’m exhausted right now. I think I could sleep for a week.”
“Do you want to start a watch tonight?” Will asked.
“I’m not sure it would do any good tonight,” Gary said. “With us scattered out in three houses, we’d need someone awake in each house to cover all this ground. We’ll figure something out tomorrow. For tonight, everyone just needs to make sure their house is locked up tight and that weapons are as accessible as they can safely be kept. And no one should come out after we’re all home for the night. Like I said, I don’t want any friendly fire incidents.”
Not long after dinner, Sara and Charlotte left with their families. The children needed to be bathed with baby wipes and those tasks were best done while there was still some remaining daylight. After that, stories would be read and the children would be tucked in for the night. While Jim’s home in Russell County had a backup water source in the way of a spring, and had a well that could provide water under generator power, Gary really had no water source other than what they stored. Their property had public water which had saved the expense of drilling a well when he built the house. It had seemed like a good thing at the time. Then, as Gary started making emergency preparations a few years back, it began to seem like a liability that would be difficult to overcome.
For three years now, Gary had kept every two-liter soda bottle that had come his way. He carefully washed them, then refilled them with water and stored them in his basement. He had hundreds of them sitting on shelves with the fill dates written on them. His plan was to refill them when they got to be around five years old. There was no real science behind that number, it just sounded like a good idea to him.
He had also purchased a blue plastic drum in which he could store larger amounts of water. A hand-operated pump allowed him to pump water out when it was needed. He had the materials on hand to collect water from the guttering on his home too, but he’d never put the system in place. That would have to go on his list of things that needed to be done pretty quickly.
As he thought about the long-awaited fantasy of settling into his own bed that night, the thing that he wanted almost as much was to take a long, hot bath. If he had an unlimited supply of spring or even creek water he could have heated it over a fire and gradually filled a tub, just as people had done in the old days. Without any immediate idea of how he was going to replace the water that he used from his supply, Gary did not feel like he could do anything so frivolous. Feeling guilty and wasteful, he took a single two-liter bottle, poured it in a pot, and heated it on the burner of his gas grill.
He went to the nearest bathroom and lit a battery-powered lantern. By that light, he peeled off his crusty clothes and washed the miles from his body. It took a while. He continued scrubbing long after any dirt was gone, as though trying to scrub away the things that couldn’t be seen, the experiences he no longer wanted to have in his head. The bath did not help with that, though. Only time could wear such things away.
When he was done, he looked at the pile of clothes in the floor. He knew that he could never again wear them without remembering the smell of death on them and the images of where that smell came from. He emptied the pockets and removed the belt from the pants, carefully held the reeking pile of clothing away from his body and carried it out the back door to the fire pit in the backyard. There was a bottle of charcoal starter fluid sitting on a nearby pile of firewood. He squirted some on the clothes, then struck a grill lighter to it. As the flames rose, Gary imagined the whole nightmare of the past weeks rising into the sky with the black smoke. He wanted those memories to leave him but knew they never would.
While the physical trials of his trip home had been enormous, his group also found themselves experiencing additional stress from the lack of information. Rumors and conspiracy theories were rampant in everyone they spoke to. Even those with official connections to public information knew very little. Gary had thought constantly of getting home and digging out his Baofeng HAM radio and speaking to other HAM operators. In a disaster, they were always the most reliable source of information. No spin, no cover-your-ass denials, only pure person-to-person shared information.
Gary retrieved his Baofeng from the gun safe. He didn’t know why he kept it there, but he did. It was a $20 radio and he had six of them, but still that’s where he kept them. He turned the radio on and let the extended range antenna stick out the window and located a commonly used frequency in his area.
“CQ, CQ, calling CQ. This is WNFZ960. Whiskey-November-foxtrot-zulu-nine-six-zero.”
No one responded. He changed frequencies.
“CQ, CQ, calling CQ. This is WNFZ960. Whiskey-November-foxtrot-zulu-nine-six-zero.”
There was an immediate hit. “WNFZ960, WNFZ960, reading you loud and clear. Where you coming out of?”
It was strange that the person responding did not offer his call sign, so not wanting to be too specific, Gary responded, “Tazewell County, Virginia.”
“Well, Tazewell, you got Piney Flats, Tennessee, here.”
“How are things in Piney Flats?”
“We’ve had a lot of traffic. Folks west of us got a little scared that things were getting hot in Oak Ridge. You know, hot as in nuclear hot. People were trying to get away from anything nuclear in case the terrorists blew it up.”
“Did they?” Gary asked. “Did the terrorists hit anything in Oak Ridge?”
“No,” the man said. “I’ve spoken to someone that lives there in Oak Ridge and he says it was all just paranoia.”
“What about other nuclear sites?”
“There were some nuclear sites hit, but the folks I’ve talked to said there were no releases. Some of the plants got knocked offline and can’t send power out onto the grid, but there were no leaks or discharges that I’ve heard of.”
“That’s good to know,” Gary said.
“They did flood the shit out of Tennessee, though,” the man said. “Nashville is now Lake Nashville since they blew that dam.”
“I’ve been out of touch for a couple of days,” Gary said. “I’m just trying to catch up on what I missed. What’s your call sign, Piney Flats, in case I need an update in the future?”
“Just call me Jack,” the man said.
“Okay, Jack. I’m Gary.”
“Well, Gary, I wouldn’t be using your call sign anymore if I were you. Perhaps I’m just a paranoid old man, but considering the state of things, it’s probably best not to be broadcasting to the powers that be that you have a working HAM setup.”
“Surely no one cares,” Gary said. “There have to be a lot of sets out there, right?”
“Maybe no one cares,” Jack said. “Maybe they do. Maybe some sectors of the government thrive on chaos and they don’t want the sharing of news to dispel some of that chaos.”
That made sense to Gary. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll talk again.”
“Okeydokey,” Jack replied. “Take care of yourself and hang onto your scalp.”
Gary set the radio down on his desk. Tomorrow, he would inventory supplies. He would dig out his family band radios and make sure each house had one, talk to the neighbors about securing the road into their property, and try to figure out how they could set up a watch so that they wouldn’t be so vulnerable at night. For now, for tonight, he was doing nothing more than crawling into bed with his wife. Tomorrow was a new day.
As fantastic as his reunion with his family was, his reunion with his bed was also a special moment. His pillow remembered the shape of his head and his bed welcomed him like a long lost friend. As much as he’d complained about his sleeping conditions since Richmond, he hadn’t realized until just this moment how deeply and truly he loved his bed.
Before tucking himself in, he made sure his Glock lay ready on the nightstand with a flashlight beside it. He had retrieved his Smith & Wesson M&P-15 from the gun safe and it was propped against the nightstand too. He put the Baofeng earpiece in place and listened to the radio as he lay there in bed, hearing bits and pieces of regional news, filling in some of the gaps in his knowledge of the disaster. It was nothing that provided any comfort. Instead, it scared him a little. There was so much to do, so much to prepare, but his reunion with his bed – and the wife he’d finally come home to -- became all-consuming and he drifted off to sleep in her arms.
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