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The Carpenter Papers, Volume 1: The Approaching Storm
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  1. #1

    The Carpenter Papers, Volume 1: The Approaching Storm

    The Carpenter Papers, Volume 1: The Approaching Storm

    Forward

    A Forward by Walter Stone Hines, Professor of History, History Department Chair, The New Yadkin College, Yadkin College, North Carolina



    In a world still recovering from the effects of the Second Dark Age, you may wonder how we can spare effort for such things as History. A better question is "How can we not?" The George Santayana quotation, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." must ring true with us, the descendants of those who survived the Second Dark Age, lest our descendants find themselves in a Third.

    At least a few of our forefathers must have been concerned about history, since they left diaries, journals, books of observations, maps and even poetry as their legacy to an uncertain future. More than a few begin with "I hope that someday someone will find this". Far too many end with thoughts that their end is near, and they would try to protect and hide their work "in hope that someone, someday, will find it." Some have been handed down, generation to generation, like family Bibles, while others have been found by those who work to reclaim this continent.

    One family that devoted great efforts to chronicling their struggle for survival was the Carpenter family. Residents of the Yadkin College area, they survived the decline, the hard times of The Second Dark Age and are now helping rebuild both the local community and the State of North Carolina. During this entire time, various family members recorded their experiences, thoughts and hopes. One of the founding families of The New Yadkin College, they have generously allowed historians such as myself to invade their privacy and read these works.

    The story that the Carpenter Papers, as we historians have come to call them, begins in the 1960s AD and continues to the present day. Told from many different viewpoints,in many different ways and with many different voices, the Carpenter Papers are an important source of information on the history of the Yadkin College area for a period covering over 300 years. As I write this, various Carpenters continue adding their words to the collection for future historians to reference.

    This urge to write seems to be a Carpenter family trait. Starting with the author of the first journal, Thomas Wilson Carpenter, generations of the Carpenter family have committed their stories to computer, then paper and now computer again. In doing so, they have documented the large pictures and small works of history, as well as their own fears and aspirations. As historians and human beings we owe them and those like them, who took (and still take) time to perform this service, a debt that we can not repay.

    We of The New Yadkin College and the Yadkin Publishing House are honored as well as pleased to present the Carpenter Papers to a larger audience. Beginning with this volume, we hope to bring out one or two volumes per year, bringing this wealth of knowledge to a wider readership. We start with this volume, The Approaching Storm, which contains a selection of the writings of Thomas Carpenter and his children, Thomas Jr., Anne, Jeremiah and James along works by Thomas's wife Sarah and Anne's husband, William (Bill). Future volumes will contain writing from these Carpenters as well as their descendants. We hope you find reading them as interesting as we have.

    Walter Stone Hines
    in residence at The New Yadkin College
    March 6, 2321 AD

  2. #2
    November 8, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 43
    High temperature: 61
    barometric pressure: 30.10, falling overnight
    morning sun, afternoon clouds

    Deer hunting with Walt today. The weather was cooperative. The man is a hoss, even at 69. The way things are going, I just hope to see 69--years, you dirty-minded brain!

    Took three deer, one by accident, sort of. Not going to turn that one in; we need the meat.

    Walt was just a bundle of joy today. He had heard about...


    From the journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter, II



    November 8, 2008
    Yadkin College, NC


    Breeeep, breeeep, breeeep, breeeep....

    Tom Carpenter swatted at the alarm clock, then opened one eye. 4 AM.

    Sarah, his wife, shifted beside him in the bed and was still. For the umpteenth time, Tom wondered how the woman could sleep through an alarm clock. Well, nothing for it. He needed to be up and in his deer stand before dawn.

    "Needed to be". He didn't like that thought. Before, it was always "wanted to be". If he missed a day of deer season, well, then he missed it. There were other things in life, even if he did enjoy hunting. Not so now.

    Work had been slow lately, and even though the bank accounts were still pretty healthy, he knew that they were like a well--if too much was pulled from the well, it'd eventually wind up empty.

    Nothing for it. Tom stretched, then stretched again, sat up in the bed and pulled back the covers. The air was cool in the room, but not cold. Thank God for the big soapstone stove in the great room. Pack that bad boy full, damp it down a bit, and the house stayed warm for the entire night. Handy.

    He stuck his foot into his mocs, stretched again, then walked into the bathroom. Closing the door, he turned on the light and squinted at himself in the mirror. Ack--morning.

    At age 34, Thomas Wilson Carpenter had never learned to be a morning person. A computer geek by trade, he was more disposed to late nights than early mornings--unless the early morning was just an extension of the late night. Today, though, he had to be a morning person.

    After a shower and a shave, Tom dressed for hunting. Long underwear, field brown Carhartt bibs and Timberland boots, topped with a t-shirt, long underwear shirt and a wool shirt. Tom smiled, thinking of his grandfather. When he was a kid, Tom would watch the outdoor shows on TV with the older man, who never failed to remark that "When we went hunting, we didn't have camouflage clothes, camouflage makeup and deer piss to mask our smell. You couldn't hide in a tree and wait for a deer to walk up to your bait field so you could shoot him. You had to know how to stalk. You had to be a hunter!"

    Tom smiled again. Grandpa would say he was cheating, using a stand today. But with Grandpa, hunting had always been about sport and a way for the family to spend time together in the outdoors his Grandpa loved.

    Today, it was about meat. The Carpenter freezer was low on meat. They would need meet to get through the winter. Chickens were fine, but occasionally you wanted a burger or a steak or a roast--anything that didn't grow up wearing feathers. Meat in the grocery stores was getting scarce and expensive. Considering that well, Tom had decided that deer meat would fill the freezer just fine, thanks.

    Turning off the light, Tom waited a few seconds for his eyes to readjust a bit to the dark. Opening the door, he walked through the bedroom and down the hall, checking his daughter's crib in her room and his son's bed in his room. Little Anne was fine, but as usual, young Tom had rolled out from under the covers, and was curled up in a ball. Tom covered him up. He'd be fine--he was growing up to be a tough little boy.

    Walking through the great room, Tom stepped on something but caught himself before his full weight broke the toy. It had to be a toy; it always was. He used his foot to move it aside and continued to the kitchen. Turning on the light, he debated turning on the small TV on the counter, deciding against it. Today's dose of bad news would just have to wait until the drive down the road to the field.

    He walked across the kitchen to the window and parted the curtains. Looking across the field that separated his land from Walt Johnson's, he could see lights on and smoke coming pretty much straight up from the chimney. Good, the wind was down--that would make things a lot easier.

    Tom turned on the light over the sink. Opening the refrigerator, he poured a glass of tea and grabbed the bacon. Putting a cast iron frying pan on the stove, he lit a burner and threw in enough bacon to make two big sandwiches. Bread went in the toaster.

    Two cats, one gray and one gray tabby, started to circle, smelling the bacon. "Well, there are my little vultures. You two sleep OK last night?" Big yellow eyes looked up as if to say "Well of course--we're cats."

    Taking the bacon from the pan, he put one piece aside, then split the remainder and put half on each piece of toast. Putting two more pieces of bread in the toaster, he broke up the single piece of bacon, put it in two kitty bowls, and put it on the floor. Cats cared for, he took the finished toast and finished his sandwiches.

    Sandwich in hand, Tom got together a snack just in case the hunt dragged out toward lunch. A can of vienna sausages and a pack of crackers went into the day pack, along with a wet washcloth in a ziplock back and a thermos of tea. He sat the pack in the corner near the door, near the cased rifle he would use today. First sandwich finished, he took a drink of tea and started on the second sandwich. When it was done, he finsihed the tea, then walked quietly back to the hall bathroom and brushed his teeth. Then it was back to the kitchen to empty the litter box.

    That done, he grabbed a heavy jacket from the peg rack beside the door and put it on. His "ugly hat", as Sarah called it, topped the ensemble. Ugly, but warm--the ear flaps were a wonderful feature if the wind picked up. Day pack on his back and gun case in hand, he stepped out the backdoor onto the enclosed porch. Locking the kitchen door, he stepped outside into the cool air. Checking his watch, he saw it was 5 AM.

    He walked across the yard to the big pole shed that served as garage. He put the pack and gun case behind the seat of his Chevy pickup, then put the key into the ignition and turned it on. Knowing it would take a bit before he could crank the diesel, he went back to check the hitching on the trailer that held a Honda 4-wheeler and a small trailer. Satisfied, he climbed back into the truck cab, noted that the warning light was off, and started the truck. After letting it idle about a minute, he released the brakes, then hit the panic switch on the electric trailer brakes. Goosing the throttle a bit, he heard the trailer wheels being pulled, locked, across the gravel of the shed floor. He let off the panic switch and pulled slowly down the driveway. At the end, he turned toward Walt's house.

    Pulling up the long driveway, he pulled into the circle behind the house, set the brakes and got out, leaving the truck running. As he rounded the front of the truck, Walt was already out of the door, his old 30-30 Marlin lever action in his hand. He didn't have a pack, but Tom knew that Walt habitually carried all his needs in the pockets of his old hunting coat.

    Walter Johnson was 69 years old, but looked like he was in his early 50s. Tall and solidly built, he was getting a bit of gray around the temples. A good looking man, he attracted the attention of many of the unattached older women in the area, along with the interest of some younger women and a couple of attached women as well. Walter enjoyed the attention of the ladies and hand no qualms about enjoying their company, but he had no intention of marrying any of them. He had been a bachelor since his wife Alice had died of breast cancer in 1991. Walter had loved Alice fiercely.

    "Morning, old man!" called Tom.

    "Morning, you smart-alec kid. Ready to go get some meat?"

    "Sure am. I just wish the deer would learn to keep decent hours. I hate getting up this early."

    Walter snorted. "You may as well get used to it. Did you hear the news yet?"

    "No, I didn't listen this morning. It's Saturday--how bad could it have gotten overnight?"

    Walter snorted again. "I keep trying to teach you, but it's like talking to a brick wall. Any time the government has bad news to hand out, they'll do it at 5 o'clock on Friday afternoon, knowing the lazy Washington reporters will have already left, and that the public will have the weekend to get over it."

    They climbed into the truck. Tom said "So what is it this time?"

    "Fuel rationing."

    "What! No way--they can't do that!" exploded Tom.

    "They can, and you know it--and they have. Oh, they're not calling it rationing, and there aren't going to be any sort of ration books, but it's still rationing. The government is calling it 'ensuring the fair distribution of energy to all our citizens and businesses' or some such BS. At least this time they've given us something better than 'oil crisis' to call it."

    "This time? What do you mean, 'this time'? They've done this before?"

    Walter looked over at the younger man. "You know, kid, you're a smart fellow, but in some areas you're dumb as a post. Haven't you studied 20th Century history? What do they teach in college these days?"

    "As you well know, I haven't seen the inside of a college classroom in 12 years. I have no idea what they teach in college these days." Tom loved to tweak Walt.

    "You know exactly what I mean. 'Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.' That's Santayana, you uneducated oaf. If you haven't learned your history, you're sure to repeat it--and apparently, you haven't learned yours. By the way, are we just going to sit here idling out your fuel, or are we going to go down to Buck Thompson's field and get us a couple of those deer that have been helping themselves to his corn crop all season?" Walt could give better than he got, considering he was a retired lawyer with a degree from Duke University.

    Tom grunted, and put the truck in gear for the short drive to the field at the Thompson farm that seemed to be attracting the most deer in the last week. As he pulled onto the blacktop road, he looked over at Walter, who was packing his pipe. "OK, educate me. What did you mean by 'this time'? How many times has this happened?"

    Walt lit his pipe, then opened his window several inches. "Well, by my count this is three, though you could make a reasoned argument that what's happening now is just a continuation of the second event. The first was the 'oil crisis' of the mid and late 1970s. Gas and diesel doubled in price; natural gas, propane and home heating oil up nearly as much. Started when OPEC--you do know who OPEC is, right?--decided to punish the United States for its support of Israel. At least that was the story we all received through the media. There are persistent rumors, supported by some evidence, that this was actually orchestrated by the large oil companies, working in league with OPEC, to drive up the price and line their own pockets. Caused all sorts of economic hell for years. But you're too young to remember that. I would assume your Grandpa had told you the stories about it." Walt looked at Tom for confirmation.

    "He mentioned it, but he didn't act like it was a big deal. Just another thing to deal with."

    "Well, that does sound like your Grandpa. He 'dealt with' things all is life. Never let anything get him down for long. He's a hell of a man."

    Tom smiled. "Yes sir, he sure is." He looked thoughtful. "I suppose the second episode was the winter of 05-06, right? The aftermath of all the hurricanes?"

    Walt smiled. "Give the boy a prize! You nailed it. Prices nearly doubled again, with gas going to $4.50 a gallon, diesel more, and everything from soup to nuts going up as well. You know what that's done to the economy--you've suffered because of it in your work. Our whole economy has went to hell in a handbasket and it doesn't look like it's going to improve any time soon. This 'fair distribution' is likely to be anything but, and can't possibly help things out economically. It'll just distort the market even further. The government and thus the military will get all the fuel they need to prosecute our 'Forever War on Terror', the oil companies and producer nations will get richer, everything we buy will get more expensive, jobs will keep going away, and I suspect a lot of people will find themselves cold, hungry and in the dark. They won't stay that way happily--and God alone knows what they'll do to try to remedy their situation."

    Tom turned the truck to the left onto a large graveled driveway leading into the woods, now stark since the leaves had fallen. "Well, aren't you just a ray of sunshine on a cold November morning."

    The truck stopped at a locked gate. Tom and Walt got out and walked back to the trailer. Walt stopped and looked Tom straight in the eye. "Son, we've talked a lot about the possibility of 'bad times coming'. You know that I'm a closet survivalist, and I know that you, your grandfather and your family are as well. We've all moved here, as far out of town as we can get without going a way back up in the mountains, because we know what will happen in the cities, probably the towns too, when those bad times arrive. I'm deathly afraid that sound we're hearing is the 'Bad Times Express' pulling into the station with a big load of hurt."

    Walt pulled the pin from his side of the trailer ramp, and Tom pulled his. They gently dropped the ramp to the ground, trying not to make any loud noises. Dawn would be there soon, and they wanted nothing to spook the deer. They walked up to the cab of the truck. Walt retrieved his Marlin, while Tom opened the case and took out his Savage 110, chambered in .308 Winchester. He worked the bolt, and feed 5 rounds into the magazine. He then chambered a round and set the gun on safe. Shouldering his day pack and rifle, he moved toward the gate. Walt worked the lever of his gun, and Tom heard the metallic snick of the safety as Walt set it. Neither man said anything. They were hunters and the time for talk was past.

    Walking down the driveway, the arrived at the area they had scouted earlier in the week. Tom mounted a big oak to his previously set up tree stand, while Walt went into his deer blind about 50' to the left. Both were at the edge of a field that was perhaps 10 acres in size. At the left edge, from their location, was the bank of the Yadkin river, hidden behind 200' of trees. On the right and in front of them stretched trees. More trees were behind them as well. Tom checked his watch--5:30.

    From their scouting earlier that week, they knew the deer would move out of the trees on their right, and browse the missed corn on their way to the river for a morning drink. Left alone, they would come back into the field and eat some more, moving into the trees as the sun rose above them, spending the day in their protection. Dusk would see a similar pattern. They had seen the tracks in the field--all over the field. Buck Thompson's farm had fed a lot of deer that summer, and he wasn't pleased with that fact. He needed that corn for his cattle this winter. He wanted the deer gone. He had already bagged his season limit of two, so he said. Tom suspected he'd bagged more, but he wasn't about to contradict the man who was allowing him to hunt his field.

    By earlier arrangement with Walt, Tom would take his shot at deer further in the field, since he was shooting the longer range .308--and since he was using a scope. Walt, with his shorter range 30-30, iron sights and older eyes, would take the closer shot. The plan was to let the deer get into the field, then on Walt's signal--a squirrel bark--they would both pick a target, count to 3 and fire.

    Time passed, and the light slowly came up. Deer started moving out into the field, from the right as they expected. There was a kink in the plan, though, as all the deer were close to Walt and Tom's camouflaged positions. Well, thought Tom, I guess I'll get an easier shot. He started watching one particular young buck that he thought would make tasty eating. He slowly slid his rifle into place and eased the safety off.

    "Bark bark bark." One, two, three--the rifle bucked against Tom's shoulder. He started to work the bolt, and heard Walt's rifle speak. He could see his deer, just standing there as if rooted to the spot. Walt's rifle spoke again. Tom completed his bolt throw, aimed, started squeezing the trigger--and the deer dropped in place. He set the safety, and scanned the field. Two deer down.

    "Damn!" Tom heard Walt swear in his blind. He smiled, slung his rifle across his back, and made his way down from the stand. By the time he was on the ground, Walt was out of his blind.

    "There is no way I missed that first shot! No way in the world!"

    Tom kept smiling. "Well, those eyes are getting a bit old..."

    Walt glared at him. "I think they aren't that old--that deer was only 75 yards. I guarantee I hit him."

    "Well, let's go see." Tom walked out into the field, being careful to make plenty of noise, just in case some idiot was trespassing on the Thompson farm. He didn't think he looked like a deer, but this early in the season, a lot of people were trigger-happy.

    Tom found his deer. 6 points; probably will dress out at 100 pounds or a little over, he thought. If I can get one more that size, we'll be in good shape for the winter.

    Walt, standing beside his deer, called out. "Tom, come over here." Tom walked over. "Look here." Walt had a flashlight shining on the ground, 25' from his deer. There was a blood trail. "I told you I hit him. He moved so fast I couldn't get a second shot, so I shot another, just in case." He pointed to the other deer. "Got him with a quartering shot--in behind the left front quarter, out the right side of his chest. He took about 4 steps and dropped."

    "Nice shooting Walt, but what if you've killed two deer? You can take two in the season, but not on the same day--what if the game warden catches us?" Tom could see his gun, truck, trailer and ATV being confiscated, and them both being arrested.

    "If that deer ran that fast, he made it to the trees and out of sight. Besides, we're on private property, and the wardens will all be down in Uwharrie in the mornings this early in the season, looking for fools. Probably find some, too." Walt smiled. "Go get the 4-wheeler and the trailer. I'm going to track the other deer a ways and see if I can find him. Get these two in the truck, then come back and look for me. I'll signal you."

    "Walt, what are you doing? We have our two deer, let's get them and get out of here."

    "Young man, I've been hunting these woods longer than you have walked this earth. I know how things work around here. I also know that you're running low on meat, and that you don't really have the money to spare to go to a store and buy it--if you could find any worth buying. Shut up and do what I tell you, and we'll all have full bellies all winter."

    Tom shut up and did what he was told. By the time he returned with the ATV, he could see a light blinking at him from back in the woods. Knowing there were some deep ditches to keep the field drained, he retraced his path to the track that ringed the field and set out for the blinking light. He arrived to find a grinning Walt.

    "Look at that--a perfect shot and the damn thing ran a quarter of a mile to the tree line. What an amazing animal!"

    Tom shook his head. What was Walt thinking?

    They loaded it into the trailer and made there way back to the truck. It was well past dawn, and Tom expected to see a game warden show up at any second. The men worked quickly, getting the third animal in the truck and covering it with a tarp. The ATV was loaded on the trailer and the guns unloaded and put in the truck. Tom backed and filled a couple of times, got turned and headed for home. He spent more time watching the rearview mirror than watching the road, or so it seemed. They pulled back into Walt's driveway and around to one of his outbuildings. Nominally a barn, Walt used it to dress cattle when he raised them. It worked fine for deer as well.

    Dropping the trailer, Tom backed the truck into the open door until it was half in the building. Walt tied the back feet of each deer together, and hooked them to one of several trollies that ran on a steel beam along the ceiling. Tom pulled the truck out, then backed it into the grass. Using a hose, he washed the blood out of the bed. Thank you, Rhino Liners! He then got the ATV off the trailer, and washed out the trailer used to haul the deer.

    When he walked back into the barn, he could smell the deer guts. Working quickly, Walt was already nearly done gutting the first carcass. Tome started on the other end, and they met in the middle.

    "We'll use your backhoe to bury the mess--think we can get it all in that little trailer?" Walt asked.

    "It should fit. I want the heads on the bottom so no one can see them."

    "Tom, stop being paranoid. We won't get caught, and if we do, I'll handle it."

    "Handle it how, Walt? You might be a lawyer, but this is a pretty cut and dried case. I don't think it can be 'handled'."

    "You've got a lot to learn. Remember how long I've been hunting here? You don't hunt that long and not learn how to square things with a warden if something...untoward...happens."

    "You're talking about bribery!"

    "Well, I wouldn't call it bribery. More like a salary supplement."

    Tom sputtered. "You're kidding me! You'd try to bribe a game warden? You're nuts!"

    "No, I'm not kidding you; no I wouldn't 'try'. I'd succeed. Oh, and I'm not nuts either. Tom, you grew up around here, but you were gone a long time making your fortune. Things changed while you were gone. They changed a lot. Game wardens have always been under-paid, and it's worse now than it ever was. But you notice we still have plenty of them working, right? Why do you think that is? It isn't the princely salary they make, I can assure you. But the bribes, plus the occasional gun or ATV or even truck that falls off the evidence sheet--well, I can tell you, those make up for a lot. A whole lot."

    Tom felt his mouth hanging open. He'd been back home for several years, but he'd never heard any of this? How blind was he? What else had he missed?

    Walt continued. "Tom, you're a good kid, and your Grandpa raised your right. So right that it never occurred to you that people you know, trust, have faith in, can have feet of clay. The world has changed, and not for the better. Until lately, you've been insulated from it. Partly because as some sort of computer uber-geek, you do things we mortals can't, and you've get paid big money for doing it. That money has insulated you to a large extent. So has the fact of being James Marshall Carpenter's grandson. Now, those things are going to work against you. People will believe you still have money, and if things get even half as bad as I fear, they're going to try and relieve you of it."

    "Now I know that you're running low on money, and that the work has dried up. That puts you in the same boat that we all have been in for a while. That's why we were out killing deer this morning. We both know this wasn't a fair hunt--we ambushed the deer. You, your family and I all need to get our pantries full for the winter. That's why we all, including your old Grandpa and Grandma, had big gardens this year, and why we bought up so many Ball jars, lids and rings. It's why we all worked our tails off to get it harvested and preserved."

    "All our talks about 'bad times'--Tom, they're here and they've been here. They're just now getting bad enough for you to notice them, out there past your computer screen. That's our fault, all of us older folks. We should have took all you younger people in hand years ago, and made you see. Maybe we were fooling ourselves and subconsciously hoping things would get better. But they're not, and we'd all better get our act together soon. That includes learning how the world really works in the here and now. This morning's been your first lesson. I'm sorry it's been such a shock."

    Shock? Shock? Tom felt as if he'd been hit by a runaway train. What had he missed these past few years, immersed in his world of networks, software and business cases? A lot, it seemed.

    "Tom? Tom!" Walt whistled. "You with me, boy?"

    "Huh? Sure, Walt, I'm right here."

    "No you weren't--you were a million miles away. You had that same look you get when you're having one of those 'a-ha moments' I've seen you have working on a project."

    Tom blinked. A lot of things seemed to be a lot clearer to him than they were last night. Things he had seen people doing, things that didn't make much sense at the time, now seemed quite clear.

    "Walt, we've still got a lot of butchering to do. We'd better get to work, or we'll be here all afternoon." He picked up a large knife. "How about we butcher one completely, take the steaks and roast from one and grind what's left plus the other deer for burger? Then we can split it up. The ought to be enough for me, you and my grandparents. You got enough beef fat for that?"

    "Plenty." Walt looked at Tom closely. Tom started butchering.

    They worked in near silence for several hours. Sarah came over after feeding the kids lunch and getting them down for naps, bringing lunch for the men. She saw three deer heads, but asked no questions. She cast Walt a side-long glance, which was noted with a wink. She relaxed a little.

    "Babe, could you crank up the Kubota and drive it over here? We're going to have to get rid of this mess pretty soon, and I don't want to clean up just to drive it over." Tom looked over at her, blood up to his elbows.

    "Sure hon. You want some help?"

    "Nah, we've got this covered. But get your vacuum sealer ready, because we've got a lot of meat to put up. Got enough bags?"

    "I bought a case last week, and we have part of the last case left. That should be enough, even with all this meat."

    "OK. Let's get moving or we'll be at this all night."

    Sarah smiled and blew him a kiss. Tom smiled back, and Walt laughed.

    "Old man,", Tom said, "I've been thinking..."

    Edited for spelling. I knew this should have set for a while before posting.
    Last edited by The Freeholder; 10-08-2005 at 10:44 PM.

  3. #3

    Chapter 2

    November 19, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 31
    High temperature: 56
    barometric pressure: 30.26, steady
    sunny, a few scattered clouds

    Completed our household inventory, after much nagging from Sarah to help her get it done. She's driving me crazy with the constant "We need to buy this." and "We need to buy that." I don't think she realizes that I don't bring in the money I did a few years ago. I know things are going to get bad, but I swear the woman is planning on restarting civilization! Somehow, I just can't believe things will get that bad. Depression bad, maybe. End of the world bad--not hardly.

    The Entex job is going well. I'm glad they decided to go ahead with the next phase of their forecasting software rewrite. This will mean a minimum of several thousand bucks in analysis and design time. Of course, I expect them to send it offshore to code, grumble, grumble. It wasn't that long ago when this job would have paid several tens of thousands of dollars, since I would have gotten the coding as well--GRUMBLE, GRUMBLE!

    At leastt I won't have to travel to their site to at all to do the work. Given the fuel situation, they've finally decided to get into the video conference thing in a big way, and I can now get everyone I need via video. Sweet, sweet, sweet!



    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    November 20, 2008
    Yadkin College, NC

    "OK, that's the last of it. Your inventory is done." Tom sneezed. "And I need something for my allergies. Those boxes were pretty dusty." Another sneeze.

    Sarah held out her hand. "Let me have it and I'll get it keyed in. You go find something for that head. The last thing you need is a sinus infection--especially since you have some paying work for a change." She smiled and winked.

    Tom headed to the hall bathroom for an antihistamine. She was right--this was the first work of any consequence since July--he couldn't afford to be sick. The occasional day's consulting simply didn't keep up with expenditures these days.

    He thought about those expenditures. Sarah had been spending like they had a money tree--or at least a large bush--since they had moved back home to North Carolina from California in early 2001. Some of it, like the land, the house and the outbuildings, he couldn't argue with. A family needed a place to live.

    Tom shook his head, remembering how the local contractors had all looked at them like they were insane. "Poured concrete in foam forms? Steel trusses and concrete for the floor? Metal roof? You folks like living in a warehouse?" Taking their cue from the comments, they had gotten in touch with commercial contractors, who had experience with many of these materials. After auditioning several, they had settled on Davie Steel Erection, a company that had enough contacts with the various trades to round out the list of needed sub-contractors.

    Against all advice, Tom and Sarah were their own general contractor. Given that both of them had project management experience, and that the folks from Davie Steel were happy to offer advice, the house went smoothly. While some time was lost to wet weather in the spring and early summer, the majority of the summer and early autumn was drier than normal, and the house was dried in by the time the rains started again in early October.

    Tom and Sarah had done a number of unusual things building their new home. The concrete used was considerably stronger that usually used in this type of construction. The house had a basement, which while not odd in itself, was somewhat unusual for their immediate area. Electrical wiring was done to commercial standards, completely in conduit, and parallel conduit for a future 12v wiring system was installed at the same time. Provision was made for a large backup generator fueled by propane. Propane also fueled the furnace, cook stove and water heaters. Water was heated for the kitchen and each bath by large demand water heaters, which saved considerable money on fuel, as water was only heated as needed.

    To feed them all, a 2000 gallon propane tank was placed some distance away from the house. Sarah convinced Tom to get such a large tank by arguing that they would only have to fill up once a year or less, and could take advantage of low prices by "stocking up". Tom, worried about having so much explosive fuel close to their house, had a 3-sided reinforced concrete revetment built, with the open side pointed away from the house. It was disguised with soil bermed against the walls, and look like a small hummock at the edge of the woods, almost a hundred yards from the house.

    Even with the poured concrete exterior walls, an interior room, nominally meant as a hobby room, was built to double as a safe room, with a wood-clad steel door and a solid reinforced concrete ceiling. To support the weight, a similar room was built in the basement, directly beneath it. At Sarah's insistence, ducting was run from this room to the outside. "I might decide to make it a laundry room sometime."

    For Tom, the house was wired as a "smart house". Telephone, TV cable and Category 6 network cabling ran from a central point in the basement mechanical room to every room in the house.

    Other features, such as tubular skylights, laminate floors and chimneys in the great room and the kitchen, ran the price of their new home up quite a bit. However, having come from an overheated real estate market, they had plenty of cash to spend on the house, and were determined to spend it, since they would have to pay taxes on whatever wasn't spent.

    To finish off the money, a large pole barn, which would serve as garage for all their vehicles, and a large concrete block building, which they called their "barn", were built.

    After the house was complete, Sarah went furniture shopping with some of Tom's "tech bubble" money. Tom had been one of the fortunate souls who had not lost his shirt when the startup company he had worked for since graduating from NC State University in 1998 folded in early 2001. He had sold his stock in early 2000, near it's peak price. He figured that while they had a good product, it wasn't any better than any of it's competitors, and given their small size, he just didn't believe they could effectively compete All his coworkers laughed at the time, but it wasn't long before they stopped laughing as the company was bought at a cut rate price when, tech bubble collapsing in earnest, their venture capital partner retrenched.

    Luckily, living in the middle of what had been the largest concentration of furniture factories in the country, good furniture, while not cheap, wasn't as expensive as in San Diego. Sarah shopped carefully, buying mostly solid wood furniture. In a few months, Sarah had created a modern version of an old farmhouse. It suited them both.

    After Thomas Wilson Carpenter II joined the family, Sarah went on what Tom considered a "Mommy binge". The large pantry in the kitchen was filled with all manner of food, and in quantity. A garden was started, and canning supplies bought. The hobby room sported a new sewing machine that could do everything except wear the clothes. Sarah took classes at the local community college on all sorts of handicrafts.

    By this time, Tom had hung out his shingle as a free-lance computer consultant. It enabled him to set his own schedule to a large extent, and his old contacts in the high tech business brought in more than enough work to pay the bills. For a while, his bank and brokerage accounts grew at a comfortable pace, and he had the pleasure of being able to see his son any time he wanted by just walking down the hall.

    Tom shook himself from his reverie, grabbed an antihistamine from the medicine cabinet and washed it down with water from the tap, then walked back to the hobby room. Sarah was busily typing away at her spreadsheet, singing softly to herself.

    Hearing him walk into the room, she said "You know, after looking at all this, there are some things we really need to take care of soon."

    Tom grimaced. "Sarah, you know we really ought to save a little money for a rainy day. I'm going to have a nice check or three from this Entex work, but at the rate you're--we're--spending it, it won't last long." He waited, wondering if it would be one of those Irish red-head explosions or the stoney silence.

    Sarah saved her spreadsheet, then turned around and looked up at her husband. "I love you," she said. "But some days, I have to wonder why."

    "The Irish red-head," Tom thought to himself.

    "Sweetie, we need to have a little talk. I thought that Walt had finally gotten through to you a couple of weeks ago, but I guess he only accomplished a temporary repair. You're back-sliding on me."

    Tom was surprised, but held his tongue. It wasn't silence, but it wasn't the IRH, as he thought of it, either.

    "I know that you feel like you've had to humor me with my 'Mommy complex' as you call it..."

    Ouch. He didn't know she'd ever heard that. He'd never said it to her face. "Oh boy, am I in for it now!"

    "...but you've been a real sweetheart in going along with it. I appreciate that--it's one of the many reasons I love you." Sarah smiled again.

    "I know that I've spent a tremendous amount of money, especially this week. I don't think you even realize how much I've really spent, but you will when the credit card bills and the delivery trucks start showing up--making the assumption either does. How much room is left in that building, anyway?"

    Tom blinked, then asked "How much are we going to need?" He wasn't sure that he wanted to know the answer.

    She turned back to the computer and opened another spreadsheet. "Well, let's see. I have 2 years worth of dehydrated/freeze-dried/retort packaged/whatever food for 8 people on order. That's the biggest item, at least in cost. I have several cases of toilet paper, paper towels and other assorted paper products coming. Those will take up a lot of space. A fair amount of medical supplies, but those aren't too bulky. Some books on various subjects. DVDs, both entertainment and educational."

    "Solar panels and associated stuff. I got a really good deal on those--a closeout. A lot of ammunition--Walt actually placed that order, since he was ordering ammo and some rifles with his Curio and Relic FFL. We'll have to pay him for our part of the order." Sarah smiled yet again.

    "Then there's the stuff we need to go to Lowes and the hardware store and buy. Nails, screws, some more tools, hardware cloth, little things like that."

    "It shouldn't take up too much room, if we rearrange the basement a bit."

    "Oh, and we're going to have a vapor-safe gas storage cabinet delivered, but that can live out with the propane, I think. We'll need to pick up some of 5 gallon gas cans. Maybe some of the blue ones for kerosene, too. And stabilizer--can't forget that. More for the Lowes list."

    "There will also be some things from Lehman's coming in. Lamps, gristmill--general home and kitchen stuff."

    Tom swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. He was trying to mentally add up the damage, but he didn't know what some of these things cost. It had to be a lot--was anything going to be left?

    Sarah kept talking. "We should still have some money in the bank, and we haven't even touched what you're going to earn. If our luck continues to hold, we should run out of money about when we run out of time."

    Tom finally found a voice. "Run out of money? Sarah, have you went crazy? What will we do with no money? There are bills to pay, things we need to buy. We can't be broke, not in this economy!" Tom's mind raced--maybe some of this stuff could be returned....

    Sarah looked at him. "And no, we're not returning anything. I can see that thought in your head, and you'd better get rid of it right now!"

    "Tom, honey, baby...don't you understand? It's happening all around us--our civilization is imploding. The economy is collapsing while we sit here and argue. Depending on how bad it gets, what we have is all we'll have--maybe for a long time. We may be more or less on our own, and we don't know for how long. Don't you want to be ready?" She looked up at him, waiting.

    "Sarah, I thought we were pretty prepared already. We had stuff to handle storms and power outages, even a period when work was slow and money was short. You sound like you're planning on outlasting the end of the world."

    "Exactly. That's exactly what I'm planning. While you've been zoned in on your Entex stuff--and God knows why any company is working on something like this now--I've been paying attention to the news. Not just the regurgitated pap that's on TV, but the news via shortwave and on the Internet. Tom, I know you didn't pay attention to how bad things have gotten over the last couple of years. You were busy with your work, and I didn't begrudge you that. But in the last few months, things have started to seriously slide, and the last few days I have really gotten scared. Did you know there have been riots--food riots, Tom--in Los Angles, Chicago and a few other big cities in the last few days? That trucks are being attacked and pillaged on the highways? That the governor of North Carolina had to call out the National Guard to help the Charlotte PD keep the peace? Had you heard any of that?"

    "Uh, I think I read about a riot in Miami, but I didn't hear anything about it being a food riot..." Tom's voice trailed off. He'd never been very interested in the news, not outside of how the weather would be tomorrow.

    "Tom, you've went through a lot of the past few years with blinders on, and if you don't get them off right now, you're going to wind up getting us--you, me and the kids--hurt, or maybe dead."

    "Right now, we're being given a gift that we never should have expected. It's a gift of time that we can use to get a few last minute things accomplished. If things just halfway hold together for a few more days, we're going to get a lot of things that will see us through what's coming. We need those things. We should have done them sooner. We were foolish--incredibly foolish. But we might not have to pay a price for it if we can just get a little bit of luck."

    Tom considered what she had said. He just couldn't believe what she was telling him. He didn't doubt what she said about riots, but there had been riots before. He could remember the riots in Los Angeles when those cops who had beaten up that guy, Rodney King, got off in court. His grandfather had told him about the race riots in the 60s. And the economy had been bad before--even Walt had mentioned the 70s and the problems that related to that. But things always bounced back, right?

    Tom tried to pick his words carefully. "Sarah...I know you believe that times are going to be very hard. I guess for a lot of people, they already are hard. You know, Jayne's husband John was out of work for a while last year, but he got another job. And my work is showing signs of picking up--I think Entex is just the first contract. There are bound to be others soon. I just don't think things are going to be that bad. Maybe it'll be a bad winter, even a bad year or three, but it's not going to be the end of the world. We'll all pull through, just like always."

    Sarah looked at her husband. Something had to be done--the man just didn't get the joke. She thought carefully before she spoke again. The silence stretched, and she could see Tom getting nervous. She spoke.

    "Tom, we seem to have a big difference in perception. I think I'm right; you think I'm being paranoid..."

    "Now Sarah..."

    "No, Tom, please let me finish. You might not use that word, but I will. You're uncomfortable with what I'm trying to do. Believe it or not, so am I. I hope that I'm wrong, and that nothing bad happens. Maybe we won't need these things--but maybe we will. My question for you is 'Can we take the chance of needing and not having?' Tom, I see what I'm doing as insurance. Life insurance, in a way. I'm trying to insure that you, I and our children can have lives."

    "Most of what I'm buying we'll use no matter what happens. Even the storage food can be eaten. If we don't want eat it, we can donate it to the next Hurricane whatever relief effort and write it off on taxes."

    Now she was going to go out on a limb and start sawing. She hoped that she knew her husband as well as she thought she did.

    "I'll make a deal with you." She pointed to the list on the screen. "This is a list of most of the things I think we still need. It isn't everything I want, but it's most of it. My estimate is that its total cost is less than $1000, exclusive of the gas to fill the new gas cans. You let me buy that, and the stuff I've got on order--then I'll stop. No more buying, except groceries and the usual stuff. I'll be a good girl and try not to obsess on the subject."

    "You go shopping this afternoon and buy everything on this list. Call Walt and take him too--I'm sure he'll want a few things as well. Take some time and go buy yourself a new 'toy'--I won't make any objection to it, no matter what it is." Sarah clicked on the print icon and the printer began to hum.

    Tom looked at her. "How's this a deal? You get all the stuff you want, and I get one thing, and you've already spent all the money. I'm getting the short end of the stick on this." Tom sounded a little angry.

    "Not good. Time for the trump card," she thought. Sarah got out of her chair and took three steps to her husband. Wrapping her arms around him, she wiggled just a bit in the right place. "Persuade Walt that he'd like to play grandfather tonight and have some overnight visitors. I'll have their things packed up and have them fed by the time you get back. Then you and I can have supper and...desert." She looked him in the eye and winked.

    Tom smiled at her. She was playing him, he knew it and she knew he knew it.

    "It's probably going to be an expensive toy. No matter what it is, I don't want to hear a word."

    "Not a word, baby." She wiggled again.

    "I guess I'd better be calling Walt." Tom gave her a through kiss, patted her backside, took the pages from the printer and walked down the hall, shaking his head.

    Smiling, Sarah went to the great room to check on the kids. She knew she had just used a cheap trick, but she had to diffuse the argument somehow, and it had worked. Besides, they both needed some time alone, and Sarah's libido was starting to get back to normal after Anne's birth.

    Entering the room, she saw Little Tom, who was 2 1/2, playing with his blocks, building and demolishing things. Anne, at 4 months, was perfectly happy in her swing. It took quite a bit of time to keep up with them, but Sarah loved her kids.

    Sarah smiled down at them. "Hey you two, how about some lunch?"

    "OK, Mommy!" Little Tom was very enthusiastic about his meals. If he kept growing, he wouldn't be "Little" Tom for long.

    Sarah bent over Anne. "And how about you, little miss?"

    Anne smiled and gurgled in reply. Sarah stopped the swing, unstraped her and headed toward the kitchen, Little Tom in tow.

    Tom was hanging up the phone as she walked in. "Walt's up for the trip, but he said to be sure to carry a pistol and put a rifle and ammo in the truck. I wonder what's up with that?"

    Sarah was pretty sure what was up, but she didn't want to reopen the discussion in front of the kids. "Walt's a cautious man by nature. All things considered, it can't hurt to be ready, just in case you run into trouble." Sarah wondered how she could persuade Tom to stay home, or even if she should. Walt surely wouldn't go out, even armed, if he expected serious trouble. Would he? Too late now.

    "Well, I'm going to go a couple of guns and get moving."

    He went toward the hobby room, where the closet served as a gun safe. Inside of the solid concrete walls and heavy door, a simple deadbolt lock secured the closet. He took his key, unlocked it, and looked at the shelves. Picking up a Springfield XD-9, he picked up the appropriate magazine, already loaded, and slammed it home into the magazine well and laid the pistol back on the shelf. Tom held a North Carolina Concealed Carry Weapon (CCW) permit, which he had gotten primarily to avoid Brady checks at gun shows. Selecting a holster, he slipped it onto his waistband, then picked up the pistol, worked the slide, and placed it in the holster. He knew his barn jacket would cover the gun nicely. Tom rarely "carried", but as a long time gunny, he knew the drill.

    He picked up an M-1 carbine and slipped a loaded magazine in its well. He then slipped two more into the magazine pouch on the stock. Slinging the gun over his shoulder, he locked the door and went back to the kitchen.

    Sarah was feeding Anne some milk with a bit of cereal mixed in, while Little Tom worked industriously on a PBJ. Tom smiled, patted his son on the head while avoiding a sticky hand, grinned at Anne and blew a kiss to his wife. "It's just now lunch. Walt and I may eat a bite somewhere, do the Lowes run and stop wherever else we need to, and be back before dark. I've got my phone, so call if you need anything."

    "We'll be fine. Enjoy your afternoon, but be careful, OK?"

    "Always am." Tom smiled and walked out the door. A couple of minutes later, she heard his truck start, and heard the gravel crunch as he went down the driveway.

    Finishing up feeding the kids, she cleaned up Little Tom and let him go back to his blocks while she cleaned and changed Anne. Dry and with a full tummy, Anne decided that a nap would be just fine with her, and didn't fight going to her crib.

    Little Tom was more difficult. He didn't want a nap, and had to be threatened with a spanking before he would go to his room. Sarah went back to the hobby room to work on her inventory some more, but had to get up and chase Tom back to his bed twice before he finally went to sleep.

    Anne saved her work and logged off the computer. Going back to the kitchen, she opened the freezer and took out a small bag. Grabbing her coat off the pegs by the door, she pulled it on and went outside.

    The day cool, but seasonable. The sun shown through a few clouds, warming her as she stood on the steps that lead from the enclosed back porch. Taking the package from her jacket, she opened a ziplock back and took out a pack of cigarettes.

    She smiled, then took out one and lit it. Tom didn't approve of her smoking, but since she didn't smoke much, rarely smoked in front of him and never in front of the kids, he tolerated it. She looked at the pack, still half full. Well, at this rate, she'd need another, oh, in the spring sometime. She frowned, wondering if there would be any "stop and robs" open by spring.

    She didn't know why she smoked, but she knew when--usually when she was worried. Today, Sarah wasn't just worried. She was terrified. She was terrified that despite everything, she had forgotten something, or that the things she'd ordered wouldn't arrive before civilization took the last train for the coast, or that what she was contemplating just wasn't survivable.

    Sarah walked around the front of the house and looked across and down the road at the house on the other side. Alice Moorefield, a recently retired teacher lived in that white house across from Walt Johnson. Wagging tongues said that she and Walt were having a fling, but who knew--or cared. Walt was still an attractive man, and Sarah thought that as long as it had been since his wife had died, he deserved some joy in his life. If Alice could give it to him, so much the better. Alice was a nice person.

    Sarah continued her walk, stopping to check the locks on the outbuildings. Finishing her cigarette, she walked back to the house, went inside, closing and locking the door behind her. Born in the city, she had learned that habit early and practiced it religiously.

    Two pairs of eyes watched the house from the tree line across the road.

  4. #4
    November 22, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 28
    High temperature: 47
    barometric pressure: 30.59, steady
    sunny, a few high clouds


    My God, I'm so tired, but I can't sleep. So instead of trying to sleep and having nightmares instead, I'll get the last couple of days out of my head and into this journal of mine, just to see if I can make some sense of what's happened.



    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    November 20, 2008
    Yadkin College, NC

    Tom pulled up to Walt's back door just as the older man was coming out. He had a daypack on his back and was carrying his Marlin 30-30. He walked over to Tom's truck, opened the rear door of the crew cab and flipped back the blanket that covered most of the back seat. Eying the M-1 Carbine, he looked at Tom and said "Boy, don't you own a real rifle?"

    He flipped the blanket back down to form a buffer between his gun and Tom's, laid his Marlin on the seat, flipped a piece of blanket over it, then took off the pack and put it on top. Closing the door, he opened the front door and climbed in.

    "You know, that antique 30-30 isn't exactly an Evil Black Rifle. Besides, I happen to like that gun, thanks so much."

    "That 'antique', as you call it, is my Politically Correct Urban Assault Rifle. It attracts less attention, especially this time of year, than most guns. I like your M-1, but it'll attract attention that mine won't, and today that may be important. Besides, if it comes down to cases, you may find yourself outgunned. Did you bring more ammo besides the 45 rounds I saw?"

    "No."

    "Humph. Well, since we have to get more ammo, let's just stop back at you house and get a bigger gun, too."

    "Walt, I don't think there's any need in that. Even if we do run into something--which I don't think we will--we're going to be a lot better trying to get the hell out of Dodge than fighting a firefight with just two men."

    "You may not be as dumb as you look after all. Alright, drive on. But next time, bring one of those HKs of yours, and at least 5 magazines--got that?"

    "Yes sir, sir. As you say, sir." Tom threw Walt a simulated salute.

    "No respect for your elders." Walt smiled. "So where are we going besides Lowes, and why are we even going there?"

    Tom turned down the road, heading to Highway 64 and Lexington. "Sarah is having an anxiety attack over things we don't have handy if the world comes to a sudden and unexpected end. I have about 2 pages of stuff she wants me to bring back. I thought we might catch lunch on the way, and I was thinking about going down to Mother Goose's for a look around. She said I could have a toy, plus I want to fill up the truck if I can. They have the best diesel around, unless I want to go halfway to Salisbury."

    Walt nodded. Sarah had talked to him nearly a week ago, asking his advice on what else she and Tom needed to have if things went as badly as they seemed headed. Walt had been quite impressed with what she had done on her own. With the exception of stocking up on fasteners and such, he had really had only one suggestion--lots more ammo. Sarah had been quite receptive to that. He wondered what Tom would think when a pallet or so of ammo showed up on the back of a motor freight truck. The boy liked doing most of the things that would keep him alive when the time came, such as shooting and farming. He just didn't have the right mindset. Yet.

    "Tom, did you ever get that backup generator for your house? The one the pad and the gas line were put in for?"

    "No, I've just got that Honda that we used during construction. Those big ones are awfully expensive, and they go through a lot of propane. Sarah said she'd ordered some solar panels and such, so I think we'll be fine. It's not the end of the world, despite what she thinks."

    Walt glanced sideways. Tom was what, 32 now? "He might be a man in years, but he still spends too much time thinking like a kid," thought Walt.

    "Well, if she did that we may want to buy up a bunch of 12 volt stuff at Lowes. That way you can use the solar directly, rather than using an inverter and suffering the power loss that goes with it."

    "May as well--we'll be broke soon anyway at this rate. Then when they turn the lights off for non-payment, at least we can still see at night."

    "Tom, you may as well spend it now, while you still have it to spend. What's the inflation rate up to these days--almost 19% if I recall correctly?"

    "It's not that much. The last numbers I remember were about 7 point something percent."

    "That's what they call the 'core rate'--the number they use to help sugar-coat the truth. It excludes food and fuel. Do you know anyone who doesn't eat or use some sort of fuel?"

    "Well, no, but..."

    "No 'buts', boy. You listen to me. Inflation is the hidden tax we've all been paying since they took us off the gold standard and started backing our currency with the pretty phrase 'full faith and credit of the United States of America'. Go out on the Internet and find one of those calculators that tells you that a dollar now buys what you bought with a quarter in 1950. And notice that very few of them can do the math before 1900, and most of them can't do it before 1933 or 34. Know why? There wasn't inflation before that. Not inflation that we would recognize, at any rate."

    "Now, we're getting hammered by the inflation tax every month, and I suspect it's only going to get worse. Get you money out of a currency that's inflating itself to uselessness, and put it into tangible goods while you still can."

    Tom stifled a groan. His Grandpa had given him the same lecture more times than he cared to remember. "Walt, I've heard all this before. But prices go up, wages go up, and it winds up being pretty much of a wash."

    Walt sighed. "Oh, really now--you think it's a wash? I'll tell you what. When you get home, you look up the rate of inflation for the last 25 years, or however long they've been using that core rate fiction. Then look up the percentage increase of overall wages during that same period. You may be surprised."

    Tom turned the truck left on to Highway 64. He didn't want to start an argument with Walt--he really needed him to babysit tonight. Time to change the subject. "So, old man, what's for lunch?"

    "How about barbecue? I haven't had any in a while."

    "That'd do. It's on the way at any rate."

    "Well, by the time we get there it'll be lunch, so let's eat first. Then we can hit Lowe's, Mother Goose and home. I want to be home before dark."

    "Works for me." Tom reached for the radio. "Let's see if we can find some something to listen to." Tom thumbed the controls on the steering wheel, searching for some music. Setting on one of the local country stations, he and Walt continued east toward Lexington.

    As they passed Highway 52, Walt pointed to the right. "Look at that--the drug store burned down."

    Tom slowed the truck and looked. The store was nearly gutted, most of the roof had collapsed, and the parking lot was littered with debris. "Man, that's a mess."

    Walt looked at him. "Have you heard anything about this?"

    "No, but I haven't been listening to the news much. I guess I need to get in the habit."

    Walt arched his eyebrows, but said nothing. Tom continued toward town. Both men were quiet.

    Turning off the highway onto Center Street, Tom rounded a turn to be met by a roadblock of Lexington PD and Davidson County Sheriff deputies. A deputy raised his hand to stop them. Tom noticed they were also being covered by shotguns and M-16 style rifles.

    "Well, this is new," said Walt. "Look how the roadblock is facing both directions. Odd."

    Stopped, Tom thumbed the window control and put both hands on the wheel. The deputy approached, hand on his pistol butt. Tom noticed the safety strap was off, and said nothing.

    "Good morning, sir. I need your license, registration and what your business in town is today."

    "Sure thing deputy, but per state law I'm required to inform you that I have a CCW and I am armed." Before the deputy could say anything, Walt spoke up. "That goes for me as well."

    The deputy's reaction startled them both. Pulling his gun as he backed up, he yelled "Guns in the truck! Guns in the truck!"

    Walt spoke quietly. "Tom, whatever you do, don't move.

    "No shit I'm not moving," he said without moving his mouth.

    By now, the truck was surrounded with deputies and police, all with their guns drawn and pointed at the cab. "Driver! Get out of the truck, hands in the air! Do it now!" Whoever was yelling sounded a little panicked.

    Tom moving with exaggerated slowness, opened the door and very carefully stepped out of the truck. He forced a smile onto his face, but said nothing.

    "Kneel on the road, facing the truck! Do it!"

    Tom turned, and then knelt.

    "Passenger! Get out of the truck, hands in the air! Do it!"

    Walt complied. "Now kneel on the road, facing the truck!" Again Walt did as instructed. Quickly, each man found himself none too gently handcuffed and searched. Tom was relieved of his XD. As a deputy help up Walt's Colt Single Action Army, he laughed. "Old fart's thinks he's a cowboy!" Some of the other officers laughed with him.

    Tom couldn't see Walt, but he expected the older man was seething. Walt had been a member of the Single Action Shooting Society as long as Tom could remember, and could put all 6 rounds of .45 Long Colt on target in a little over 2 seconds. Cowboy! "I bet these idiots couldn't even handle that gun," he thought.

    Most of the officers had holstered their guns or had their long guns pointed at the ground, but one officer kept a gun Tom and another on Walt. Another frisked them, removing their wallets. He walked behind the barricade of patrol cars.

    "Officer…..." Tom began to say.

    "Shut up. Don't speak or I will personally kick the crap out of you, asshole."

    "This isn't going well at all," thought Tom. What's happening around here?

    A few minutes passed. A black Ford Crown Victoria came over the hill and pulled up behind the barricade. A heavy-set man got out of the car and started toward the officer holding their wallets. On his way, he looked at the truck, then at the kneeling men. He stopped and looked again.

    "Walt Johnson, is that you?

    "Sure is, Hollis. That's Tom Carpenter, Jim Carpenter's grandson, on the other side of this truck" For the first time since this had started, Walt grinned. "Tom, meet Sheriff Hollis Allgood."

    The man's face turned red. He walked quickly over to a Lexington PD lieutenant. Neither Tom nor Walt could hear the conversation, but from the expression on the lieutenant's face, he wasn't enjoying his part in the discussion. Tom thought he heard the word "Cambodian", but he wasn't sure. However, he was sure his knees were starting to get sore from kneeling on the asphalt. He wondered how Walt was doing.

    Finished with the lieutenant, the man removed the wallets from his hand and walked toward Walt. "Get these men on their feet and get those cuffs off now! What the hell were you thinking? And get over here and apologize, unless you want to be out of a job."

    Tom was able to rise to his feet on his own, but Walt needed a little assistance from Hollis. A Lexington officer removed their cuffs, then retreated to the relative safety of the group. The big man talked to Walt in quiet tones. The sheriff turned toward the barricade and shouted "Where are these men's guns? I want those guns over here right now." He looked around, then his gaze found a target. "Lieutenant, either get over here or get gone, and I mean right now."

    As the lieutenant approached Walt, a sheriff's deputy approached Tom. He held out Tom's XD and the magazine. He spoke quietly. "The slide's locked and the weapon is clear. I put the round back in your mag. I'm sorry about all this. Some of these guys are a little...jumpy."

    Tom took the gun, slapped the magazine in, taped again to be sure, then released the slide. He checked the round chambered and cocked indicators. Satisfied, he holstered the gun. "Thanks. Jumpy--why?"

    The deputy glanced around, but attention was focused on Walt, the lieutenant and the sheriff. "We has some trouble 2 nights ago. You haven't heard?"

    "No."

    "You know we've been having problems with Cambodian gangs for years, right?" Tom nodded.

    "Well, 2 nights ago, one gang decided the time was right to finish one of the other ones off. Pretty sophisticated op, by their standards. They hit 4 houses pretty much simultaneously. AKs--real AKs, full auto--and hand grenades. Pretty serious stuff. They made a general mess before we could get enough men together to even think of doing anything. Brutal--survivors in the houses were butchered. And I do mean butchered--they used machetes."

    "Good Lord. What were they thinking?"

    "Who knows? Maybe they thought that things had slid enough they could get away with it. They were wrong. The SWAT team was doing some training that night, and we got there pretty fast."

    "You're SWAT?" asked Tom.

    "Yeah, 2 years now. Anyway, we got there in time for the big finish at the fourth house. Those folks had made a fight of it, and there was quite a little firefight going on. We were able to hit the first bunch in the rear, then we came under fire from them and the house. By the time time was over, we had killed or incapacitated all the bad guys outside, but we lost 2 of our men doing it. We belive several occupants of the house beat feet and got away in the confusion. So did some of the bad guys who had attacked the other houses."

    Tom looked at the man's uniform. His name tag said "Dean". He filed that piece of information away for future reference. "So, Deputy Dean, DCSO lost 2 men. What did the bad guys lose?"

    "We also had 5 wounded, but thank God for body armor. The Kkmer Kings, the ones in the houses, lost a total of 14 men, 6 women and 3 kids. The other gang, they call themselves Cell 14, lost 18 men. Those are the dead. None of the Kings in the first 3 houses made it, but we did pick up 4 from Cell 14 that were wounded. Three Kings in house number 4 survived. We don't know how many from both sides escaped."

    "Where did they go?"

    "Scattered. We know some of them made it out of town in stolen vehicles. Some were on foot. We've captured a few, but I'd bet we missed a lot more. Since then, we've been manning roadblocks, trying to catch any making their way out or any trying to come back in and finish their fight. So far, we've caught exactly none--unless we count you guys, and I don't think we're going to do that." He looked toward the sheriff, the lieutenant and Walt, all still involved in apparently serious conversation.

    "So what was special about us? We're about as whitebread as it gets."

    "Like I said, these guys are jumpy. Most of them have never been in a real fight, and they're scared. The Lieutenant was on duty that night--one of those men was his. He isn't taking it well."

    Tom nodded. He'd never been in the military or seen combat, but he knew plenty of men who had. None of them could explain what it was like--they''d just tell you, "You had to be there." He could figure how the lieutenant felt.

    Tom looked at the deputy. "My guess is that you have been in combat, correct?"

    "Correct. Afghanistan, then Iraq. Left on 2005. Wound up here--somewhere quiet." He smiled. "Or at least it was."

    "Family here?" Tom asked.

    "Nah, I'm from Yankeeland, in case you missed the accent. Pennsylvania." He smiled again. "Of course, I have met a few of your 'Southern Belles'. Who knows--we all live long enough, maybe some family will accept me as an appropriate husband for their daughter."

    "Oh, it's not that bad these days. Why, my sister married a Yankee from Ohio, and we only stopped speaking to her for 5 years." He smiled.

    Deputy Dean smiled and stuck out a hand. "John."

    Tom took the hand and shook it. "Tom. Pleased to meet you."

    Sheriff Allgood walked up, trailed by Walt. "Well, I'm glad to see we're all making friends here. Tom, I've never met you, but I know your grandfather. I know this other guy too," he gestured at Walt, "but your granddad is one of a kind."

    "Thank you, sir. I'm rather fond of him myself."

    Walt spoke. "Tom, we may have a problem. It seems..."

    "I've heard, Walt. Deputy Dean's filled me in."

    Sheriff Allgood spoke. "Well, what you don't know is that just before this, I was putting together a group to patrol out your way. It seems some of the participants in the other night's festivities may be in your neighborhood. I've got a report of a home invasion nearby. Neighbor discovered the bodies this morning."

    Tom's stomach tightened into a small, hard knot. "What time?"

    "After you left for town. It wasn't your family."

    Tom reached for his phone.

    Walt spoke up. "I'm ahead of you, boy. She isn't answering, either the house phone or her cell. Probably nothing, but the sheriff here has offered to go help us check it out. I think we need to take him up on his kind offer."

    Tom was moving toward the truck. "Then he better get a move on. I'm out of here."

    --------------------------------------

    Sarah checked on the kids, then returned to her inventory. With some luck, she could be done in time to do some reading before the kids woke up from their nap.

    Working away, typing and clicking, Sarah thought she heard a noise outside. She stopped and listened, but didn't hear anything else. Returning to her work, she heard it again. The back door was rattling.

    Sarah knew no reason for the door to rattle. Tom and Walt both had keys, and so did Tom's grandparents. Any of them would simply have unlocked it and walked in, calling out a "Hello" as they came. The door fit tightly in its frame, so it wasn't wind. Sarah rose from her chair and started toward the kitchen. Stopping, she reconsidered and went the opposite direction, toward the master bedroom.

    Sarah kept her XD-9, a twin to Tom's in the drawer of her nightstand. Tom thought it was excessive, but Sarah had grown up in the city, and had a city girl's outlook on life. The police would probably be too late to do anything but help clean up.

    Sarah opened the drawer and picked up the gun, pulled the slide back and let it slam forward. Hitting it with the heel of her left hand, Sarah noted the indicators showed chambered and cocked. Sarah held it in her right hand, straining to hear. Nothing. She moved to Tom's side of the bed and picked up the phone. Dead.

    She reached for her cell phone, and remembered it was in the kitchen on the charger. "Great, just great. The battery's always dead when you need it." she thought.

    Sarah's father had been a great believer in armed self defense, and had spent a lot of money having his family professionally trained. Sarah had kept up that training as best she could. She quartered the bedroom door, then quickly worked her way down the hall. She quietly closed and locked Anne's door, then Little Tom's.

    She heard glass break in the kitchen. Moving quickly down the hall, she quartered the kitchen door. One man, arm crudely bandaged, stood in her living room, amid the broken glass from the window. He was helping another through the window. The wounded man appeared unarmed. but she could see an AK-pattern rifle in one hand of the other man, who was now halfway through the window. The men looked Asian. Who were they?

    Time slowed. Sarah thought, "In North Carolina, if someone is breaking into your dwelling and you reasonably belive they mean to commit a felony, you are within your rights to use lethal force to defend yourself. That's the law."

    Neither man had noticed her so far. "Front sight, front sight, squeeze..."

    BANG. The 115 grain jacketed hollow point, propelled by the +P loading, hit the man climbing through the window just under the left arm.

    "Front sight, front sight, squeeze..."

    BANG. The second round hit him in the chest as the momentum of the first round partially stood him up and turned him. His mouth opened and blood spilled down his chin. He started to sink toward the floor.

    Sarah saw all this and shifted her aim to the other man, whose hand had miraculously grown a pistol. The muzzle looked like a tunnel entrance.

    BANG. Sarah reeled back with the impact of the bullet.

    Returning her sights to the target, Sarah thought, "Front sight, front sight, squeeze..."

    BANG. "Center of mass," she noted

    "Front sight, front sight, squeeze..."

    BANG. Again.

    Sarah was astounded to see that the man was still standing. Shifting her aim, she repeated her mantra of "Front sight, front sight, squeeze..."

    BANG. Blood, bits of bone and brain splattered the unbroken part of the window. The man stood for a split second, then fell.

    Perhaps 2 minutes had elapsed since Sarah first heard the noise at the door. "Maybe less," she thought. "Time flies when you're having fun" she said quietly, to no one in particular.

    She could hear Anne crying in the background. "I have to go get Anne," she said aloud. But her body wasn't obeying her mind. She looked down and saw a red stain spreading in her shirt.

    Her vision was narrowing, and her mind felt like mush. "Blood loss, or shock, maybe." The XD slipped from her hand and clattered on the floor. Sarah sagged backwards, hit the wall and slid down it. A smear of blood marked her path to the floor.

    "The kids..." was her last coherent thought before the darkness came.

  5. #5
    November 22, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 28
    High temperature: 47
    Barometric pressure: 30.59, steady
    sunny, a few high clouds


    Sarah had put up one hell of a fight.



    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    November 20, 2008
    Yadkin College, NC

    "You might want to avoid passing the sheriff."

    Tom eased off the accelerator, if only fractionally. The speedometer of the truck hovered around 80. It seemed unendurably slow.

    "Walt, try the house again, will you?"

    Walt nodded. "Sure." He hit the speed dial on his cell and listened to the phone ring on the other end. He hit the "end" button and wished for the 4th time on this trip he had something different to say. "No answer."

    The truck started to speed up again. "Easy, boy. You can't do anyone any good if you don't get there."

    "Damnit, Walt, we're talking about my wife and kids!"

    "True enough, but you have to keep your wits about you. Otherwise, you're not a help; you're a hindrance."

    Tom nodded but didn't speak. Walt was right, but how do you keep calm at a time like this?

    "OK, Walt, so what's the plan?"

    "I have no idea. This is Hollis' show. Follow his lead."

    "That's not exactly what I had in mind."

    "And just what did you have in mind? Going to bust in, guns blazing? This isn't a John Wayne movie, junior. People get killed that way, and it usually isn't the bad guys. We've got a goodly portion of the Davidson County SWAT team with us. They're better trained than we are for this sort of thing. Let's wait and see what they have to say about this."

    "Well, we're going to see what they have to say soon." Tom was on the brakes, hard. The sheriff took the turn toward Tom's house fast. Tom took it just as fast. Walt could feel the truck's rear end nearly breaking traction. "Well, it's been a good life," he said to himself.

    The last turn to Tom and Sarah's was taken much slower, and with the sirens and lights off on the cruisers. The sheriff's car slowed to a stop just within sight of its destination. The door opened, and the sheriff emerged, binoculars in hand. The other two cars passed Tom and stopped beside the first, effectively blocking the road. Tom threw the truck into park and bailed out the door. Opening the rear door, he flipped back the blanket, moved Walt's 30-03 and retrieved his M-1 Carbine. Pulling the cocking handle to the rear, he let it slam home and set the safety. Walt got out somewhat more slowly.

    "Wait a second and let me get my gun."

    "Come on, come on!" Tom was walking quickly toward the assembly of DCSO officers, all out of their cars and looking toward his house. Deputy Dean heard his voice and turned.

    "Keep it down, and be careful with that thing. We don't need an ND to announce us." He looked more closely at the M-1. "What, you don't own any real guns?"

    "What does everyone have against my gun? It's a perfectly good gun."

    "Sure it is, at short range. It makes a nice substitute for a pistol, but a poor substitute for a rifle. But I guess you're going to have to dance with your date."

    Walt walked up. "Hollis, what's your take?"

    "Nothing moving, no one in sight. Door's closed; no windows broken that I can see."

    Tom asked, "Can you see the pole barn? Is her Jeep there?"

    "Can't get a good look. I can only see one end, and it's empty, best I can tell. Does she park at the end?"

    "No, in the middle."

    Sheriff Allgood motioned Dean to him. They conversed quietly, but intently, for nearly a minute. Dean gestured to the woods behind the house, then the road, then to Tom and Walt. The sheriff nodded.

    "OK, boys, here's our plan. It isn't much, but it's what we've got. Walt, we're going to pull the cars back over the crest of the hill. Stay with mine and listen for us on the radio. We're going to move down the wood line to a position behind the house. Using the buildings as cover, we're going to move as close to the house as we can. When we get there, we'll radio you. You answer us, then you get to play decoy."

    "Tom, you and Walt get back in the truck and drive slowly down to the house. Pull off across from the house, open the hood and act like something's wrong with the truck. Keep the long guns in the front seat. When you get out, pull them out and lean them on the side away from the house. Keep an eye on the house. If anyone comes out toward you, stop them. If they look like Cambodians, shoot first. I'm serious--these guys are stone killers. Get them first."

    Tom and Walt both eyed the distance to the house. 125, maybe 150 yards. "Tom, can you hit something at that range with that gun?"

    "Again with my gun. I've practiced with it up to 200 yards. I'll hit what needs hitting--no problem."

    "Just asking."

    Getting back into their respective vehicles, they backed up the road until they were just out of sight of the house. Before getting out, the sheriff made a radio call.

    "I've called for backup and and ambulance, just in case. It'll take a while. The only backup I can spare is all the way in Southmont, and the ambulance is in town. We haven't been answering calls in the county since the other night--thought it might be too dangerous."

    "Alright boys, let's get going. Walt, radio's all set. Boys, we're going to move into the woods, then go as fast as we can to the house. Stay far enough back that you can't be seen. Tactical intervals."

    The sheriff and his deputies all jogged off toward the trees. Tom was surprised at the man's grace, considering how big he was. "Good moves for a big fellow," he said.

    Walt laughed. "He was a pro running back in his younger days. Played 4 seasons with the Panthers before he was traded. He like the area and decided to come back after his playing days were over."

    "How he'd get to be sheriff? Seems like an odd job for a football player." Tom watched the men disappear into the woods. It was 700 or 800 yards to his house, he thought. How long will it take them in those woods?

    "His father was an FBI agent, back when being in the Bureau was something to be proud of. Hollis idolized his dad, and decided that he would get into law enforcement. Unlike most pro athletes, he had the good sense to live wisely when he was making good money, and didn't have to worry about making a living. So he did his Basic Law Enforcement Training, and spent a couple of years here and a couple there learning his trade."

    "After Sheriff Hege's departure, he ran for sheriff in the next election. Kind of interesting, because no one admitted supporting him. He ran a pretty low key campaign. The interim sheriff refused to debate him, and probably outspent him 5-to-1. Hollis must have struck a chord, though, because he won 52% of the vote. Upset a lot of local politicians, that did."

    "When he took office, he cleaned up the department--made it back into a professional organization the county could be proud of. Long time since it's been that. Won reelection handily the first time, and just won again. He's a popular fellow. The judges and lawyers all respect him and his men love him. Bad guys are scared of him--he can't be bought and he can't be scared."

    "Sound like you like him too."

    "I do. Knew his Dad back in the day. Hell of a guy. He died when Hollis was in his senior year of college. Killed by a drunk driver going home from one of Hollis' games.

    "I guess that was pretty rough."

    "It was that. Hollis nearly managed to get thrown out of college and ruin his chance at a football career. Luckily, his girlfriend was able to get him straightened out. He graduated, got drafted in the second round by Cleveland of all teams, and the rest, as they say, is history. Married the girlfriend, had kids, had his career. And now, he's out there in those woods somewhere, and I wish he'd hurry up and get where he's going."

    As if on cue, the radio broke squelch. "Walt, we're here. Acknowledge and move."

    Walt reached into the car, picked up the mike and pushed the transmit button. "Acknowledging you're in position. Moving now." He threw the mike back into the car and looked at Tom. "Show time."

    They got into the truck, careful to place the guns where they couldn't be seen, and started down the road. Pulling off the side of the road across from his house, Tom got out of the truck, opened the hood and peered intently into the engine compartment. Walt got out of the truck and walked to the front. He acted like he was looking at the engine, and even reached in to jiggle something. Tom could see his eyes watching the house.

    Tom went back to his door and pulled the two long guns out, shielding them from view with the body of the truck. He set them upright at the front fender. Then he risked a look directly at the house. Nothing seemed out of place. He looked into the engine compartment as well, but stood so all he had to do was raise his glance to see the house.

    A minute passed, then two. "Walt, what's taking so long?"

    "Boy, just accept that the fact you don't hear guns is a good thing."

    The front door of the house opened, and a deputy walked out and whistled loudly. He motioned them toward the house and went back in.

    "Come on, Walt! Get in the truck!" Tom was moving to the driver's door.

    Walt moved in the same direction, grabbed the two guns and continued to the rear driver's side door. "We might want these," he said as he got in the back seat. "Get moving."

    Tom gunned the truck into a U-turn and then into the driveway. Dust flew as he closed the distance to the house. He skidded to a stop and ran to the front door. As he pounded up the steps, the sheriff blocked the door.

    "Get out of the way!"

    "Not yet. We need to talk." A siren could just be heard in the distance.

    "What's going on? The kids--Sarah--what's happened?"

    Sheriff Hollis Allgood put a hand on Tom's shoulder. "Your kids are fine. The boy is scared, but OK, and I think your daughter was asleep until we went into her room. They're both just fine."

    "Where's Sarah? What's happened to my wife?" Tom could feel himself panicking.

    "From a quick look, it seems two of our Cambodian gang-bangers broke out a kitchen window. Your wife caught them in the act. She was armed, and so were they. She double tapped one of them, and Mozambiqued the other. Somewhere in all this, one of them got her in the shoulder with a .40. It's a bad wound--lots of damage. I think it may have nicked an artery or something."

    "Tom, I'm sorry, but your wife didn't make it."

    Walt caught Tom as he fell.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------

    Walt and Hollis carried Tom into the house and laid him on a sofa in the great room. The air smelled of blood and bowels.

    "Hollis, how did she die?"

    "Just like I said, Walt. The lady's a hero--she probably saved her kids. One of those dead guys is Bora Sambath, or at least we think that's who he is. His head is a little...distorted. He was the leader of Cell 14, and some serious bad news. We've been trying for years to pin something on him, but he was always too smart and too careful."

    "She wasn't..."

    "No!" said Allgood emphatically. "Come in here and let me show you."

    Walt and Hollis walked to the kitchen. To Walt, it looked like slaughtering day. Blood, various other fluids and pieces of flesh and bone were on the walls and the floor.

    "Dean, the ambulance will be here in a minute. Go meet them, and bring them in the back door. Send one of the paramedics in the front to check on Wilson. He passed out when I told him the news. Can't say I blame him."

    Deputy Dean looked toward the door that lead toward the great room. "I'll check on him on the way out."

    Walt was squatting next to Sarah, who was slumped against the wall in a pool of blood. Her eyes were still open. He reached out and gently closed them. He stood, eyes full of tears.

    "Walt, I'll be honest. I can't spare the manpower to do a proper investigation here. Given what I can see, this is a righteous shooting. The DA will see it that way too."

    Walt looked at the sheriff. "I'm sure he will." He looked at down at Sarah. "She was 35 on her last birthday. We had a big cookout."

    "Walt, I doubt that any of my men could have done what she did. I mean it when I say that. She must have been a hell of a lady."

    The tears ran down Walt's face. "You'll never know."

    ----------------------------------------------------------

    Tom and Walt sat on the sofa, side by side, each in his own world. Alice Moorefield had been brought from her house and the situation explained. She and a deputy had packed clothes, toys, diapers and other assorted kid supplies. She had taken those and the kids and been driven back to her house. The kids were frequent visitors there, and loved their "Aunt Alice". They'd be OK for now.

    The sheriff came into the room. "We've done a good sweep of the area--I've pulled in everyone I could. Looks like they stole a car in town, and ran it out of gas on a back road. I guess this was the first promising house they saw. There's no sign of any others."

    Tom looked up at him, but said nothing. He didn't seem to comprehend what the sheriff was talking about.

    "Excuse us, sheriff." A paramedic was behind him, pulling on a stretcher.

    "What are you thinking? Take her out..."

    "No," said Tom. "I'd like to see her."

    "Tom, maybe you should wait..."

    "No. I want to see her, just like she is. I want to remember this."

    Hollis looked at Walt, who simply looked back. Tom stood and took a deep breath.

    The sheriff stepped aside and said "OK, guys, bring her in. Gently, please."

    The paramedics wheeled the stretcher into the middle of the room. Tom approached slowly. He lifted the sheet and looked at the face of the woman he had loved for the last 8 years. He stroked her hair, then bent and gently kissed her lips. Straightening, he cupped her face in his hand. "Where was she shot?"

    "Left shoulder," said the senior paramedic. He reached over and turned down the sheet. the wound was ugly. Tom looked at it a moment, then bent and kissed her again. He straightened up and covered his wife with the sheet. "Thank you, baby."

    "Sheriff, I'd like to see the...where it happened."

    "Sure, Tom, but it's pretty...messy. Maybe we ought to see about getting it cleaned up some..."

    "No. I want to see it just as it is."

    "Sure, Tom. As you think." He motioned Tom to follow him. In the kitchen, he again gave Tom the sequence of events, as much as he was able to reconstruct them. Tom followed his hand as he pointed to the dead Cambodians. He saw where Sarah had stood, been hit and had slid down the wall. He saw the congealing pool of blood where where she had bled to death after being shot.

    "Thank you, sheriff. I'm going to step out back for a minute if you don't mind."

    "No problem. We're going to get the bad guys out now."

    "OK." Tom walked through the kitchen door, across the porch and out the back door.

    It was getting late, and the sun was almost below the trees. "Be cooling off quick, now," thought Tom. He walked out into the yard, then over to a large oak tree. Standing beneath it, he looked up toward the sky.

    "Lord," he prayed, "it's me. I guess you figure I need something, since I never speak to you unless I do. I would ask for my wife back, but I know you don't answer that sort of prayer."

    "Instead, I'm going to ask you to look after Sarah. She was a wonderful person and a good mother to her kids." Tears overflowed his eyes and ran down his face. "I'm also going to ask you for strength--I'm going to need it to tell her parents and the kids. I'm going to need it to see us through the next days and months. I'd don't know how I'm going to do this, but I'd appreciate any help you can lend. Thanks."

    Tom wiped his eyes, and walked back to the house. Going in the back door, he skirted the men loading the dead Cambodians onto stretchers and went toward the great room. Walt was talking to his grandparents. They all looked at him.

    "Oh, Tom," his grandma cried as she moved to him and gathered him to her. "I'm so sorry, so sorry. Oh, poor Sarah...." Tom hugged her. His grandpa moved over, and laid a hand on his shoulder.

    "Tom, are you OK? There isn't much we can say except how sorry we are. What can we do?"

    "I'm OK, as much as I can be, anyway. There's not much to do right now. They've already taken Sarah...Walt, where did they take my wife?"

    "They've taken her to Piedmont. I knew that's who your family usually goes to at...these times."

    "That's good, Walt; you did good. Thanks." Tom looked at his grandpa. "Grandpa, there isn't anything to do. Alice has the kids, and she'll keep them for me for a day or two. That's covered. I guess after everyone gets out of my kitchen, I'm going to cover that window and try to clean up the mess."

    Everyone looked at Tom, but it was Walt who found his voice first. "Tom, do you think that's wise? I mean, perhaps..."

    "Walt, I don't know if it's wise or not, but I'm doing it, and I'm going to do it myself. I have plenty of gloves, bleach, paper towels and whatever else I need. I'll be careful."

    Tom released his grandma and squared his shoulders. "Sarah always kept a very clean and neat house. One of the last things I can do for her is to clean up the mess to her satisfaction."

    "Tom, let us help," said his grandpa.

    "Thanks, Grandpa, but no. I need to do this myself."

    "That's fine, Tom, but we'll wait here while you work. If you decide to change your mind, we'll be handy."

    ---------------------------------------

    Tom walked into the kitchen. The paramedics had gone, taking the bodies of the dead Cambodians with them. Most of the deputies had left, leaving Sheriff Allgood and Deputy Dean. The two men faced Tom.

    Tom opened his mouth to speak, but Sheriff Allgood held out a hand. "Tom, from a crime scene perspective, we're done here. While I've got my people out here, we're going to go to the other scene and take care of business there. However, I feel you and I have some...personal...business to attend to."

    "I'm going to tell you, I really wish I had gotten to know your wife. She must have been some woman--some woman indeed. I'm sure it's scant comfort, but if she hadn't shot these two, I doubt she or your kids would have survived. We can't even guess at how many people they would have killed elsewhere if they hadn't been stopped here. There are people out there who owe her their lives, and they'll never know it."

    "John and I have been talking...why don't you get your kids, and come into town for a few days? I'll round up some people and we'll get this place patched up for you. We'll get this mess cleaned out, too. After...well, after the funeral, then you can all come home and try to put this behind you." "As much as you ever can," he added silently.

    John spoke. "My wife and I have a spare bedroom. It'd be a bit tight for you and the kids, but we'd be happy to have you."

    Tom swallowed and thought. "Gentlemen, I thank you for the offer, but I'm going to stay here. I want to get this window covered up for now, and I want to clean this mess up. Don't ask me why, but it seems to me that I ought to do it myself."

    "Now, Tom, I don't think you're ready for that. You have no experience in cleaning up after a crime, and there are..."

    Tom cut him off. "Sheriff, I appreciate your concern, but I have some understanding of blood-borne pathogens and how to neutralize them. I have everything I need on hand to do the work safely. My grandparents are going to stay for a while, and I doubt you could move Walt with anything less than a bulldozer."

    "I'm not stupid enough to tell you I'll be OK, but I'll be alright. Really. This is our...my home, and I intend for it to stay that way. If I bail now, I may not come back. I have to stay here and I have to do this myself. I don't expect you to understand; heaven knows I don't. But I'm here, and I'm going to stay here."

    The sheriff looked at the deputy, and then looked at Tom. "Well, I sure can't make you go, and I wouldn't if I could. Sometimes a man has to do things for himself."

    "I'm going to pull men off the roadblocks and restart the rural patrols. We've lost enough citizens already--maybe we'll find what's left of these freaks before they get into anyone else's home. I'll have them drive by a few times. If the lights are on, don't be surprised if they knock on the door. Most businesses are closed right now, and they might want to borrow your facilities, if you catch my meaning."

    "Sheriff, you and your men are always welcome in my home. Anytime, lights or not."

    "Thank you, Tom. I'll try not to be a stranger, either. Now, I'm going to go speak to your grandparents and Walt, and then we'll be on our way. Your phone is working--call if you need us." He handed Tom a business card. "Cell number is on the back. It stays on 24 hours."

    "Thanks. I'll be seeing you, I'm sure." He shook the sheriff's hand, then the deputy's. "Be careful."

    "We will, Tom. Be seeing you soon," said John.

    The two men looked at the newly widowed man a brief moment, then turned and left. Tom closed the kitchen door quietly. Even with the wood stove going, the open window was going to let out more heat than could easily be replaced. Tom figured that his first task would be to cover it.

    He went out to the block building and retrieved a roll of plastic sheet, some duct tape and a staple gun. Walking back into the house, he unrolled a few feet of plastic and cut it off with his pocket knife. Triple folding one edge, he stapled it to the top of the window frame. He noticed a few spots of blood on the frame, but decided to deal with them later. Folding each edge in turn, he stapled the remaining sides. Then the roll of duct tape was used to fully seal the edges. "At least it keeps the worst of it out," he said out loud.

    Laying the materials on the kitchen table, he reopened the door to let the room warm up. Going to the great room, he found it empty. He could, however, hear voices down the hall. He found his grandparents and Walt in the hobby room.

    "It looks like she was in here, working. She had some sort of inventory on the computer...." His grandpa seemed to not know how to finish the sentence.

    "She was really worried about surviving what she thought was going to be bad times. I wish I had taken her more seriously--maybe this wouldn't have happened...". Tom started to tear up, and he could feel his emotional control slipping away.

    Walt stepped in fast. "Horseshit, and we all know it. There is no way that your believing or not believing her had anything to do with this, or with your decision to go to town. Tom, sometimes bad things happen. We don't know why, and it isn't our place to know. Someone else handles that." He glanced upward meaningfully. "It's our job to keep pushing forward, no matter what."

    "You have yourself, and more importantly, 2 little kids to care for. You need to keep that foremost in your thoughts."

    "I know, Walt. But you can't help thinking."

    "True enough--it's the nature of man. But sometimes, thinking can be a bad thing, especially when it turns to self-recrimination. See to it that doesn't happen to you."

    "I'll try, Walt." He didn't speak for a moment. "I had came to see if I could get anyone something to eat or drink--I think we all missed lunch."

    There was a knock at the front door. Everyone looked in that direction. Unholstering his pistol, Walt motioned for Tom to do the same. He motioned for the others to stay in the room, then whispered to Tom, "Let's move quietly down the hall. I'll cover the door, you check and see who it is."

    Tom exited the room, and moved to the far side of the hallway. Walt took the near side, and together they moved down the hall. The knock came again. Tom peeked around the corner toward the door, then looked back to Walt, who had his gun pointed just to Tom's left. Walt motioned him forward. Tom slipped quietly to the door and looked out the peephole. He visibly relaxed. "Walt, it's Alice."

    Tom holstered his pistol, then opened the door. Alice Moorefield stood in front of him with a wrapped plate, piled with something, in her hands and a pitcher at her feet. "I thought you boys could use some food," she said, pushing him aside on her way through the door. "Thomas, please bring that pitcher of tea in."

    Tom smiled. Once a teacher, always a teacher. He picked up the pitcher, then stood and looked at the front yard and the neighboring fields. Closing the door, he turned. Alice stood in front of Walt, one eyebrow arched.

    "Walter, why do you have a gun out?"

    "Alice, in case you missed it, there was some trouble this afternoon. We thought it best to be prepared."

    "Hm-m-m, I suppose you're correct. I guess that means you'll want me to go armed as well?" She could arch her voice as well as her eyebrow.

    "I think it would be prudent, yes."

    "Good. I'd hate to have you think I was some panicky old woman." Balancing the plate in her left hand, she pulled up the right side of her coat. On her hip was a dark blue 1911 pistol. Tom noted it was in Condition One--cocked and locked. Mrs. Moorefield had not come to play.

    Smiling, Walt said, "You never cease to amaze me with your good sense."

    Alice favored him with a smile of her own and turned to Tom. "Thomas, the children are fine. I called Mary Alice to sit with them a bit while I brought you some sandwiches and tea. There's enough for several. I thought your kitchen might be unusable for a time."

    "That's very kind of you, ma'am. I'm not really hungry, but I think the others might be." He looked toward the hallway. "Grandpa? You can come out now."

    "Don't raise your voice, Thomas. It's rude."

    "Yes, ma'am."

    Tom's grandfather, James, and his grandmother, Hannah, entered the room. "Alice, it's good to see you."

    "It's good to see you too, Mr. Carpenter." She turned to Hannah. "Mrs. Carpenter, I hope you're holding up well?"

    "I am, thank you. It's just so sudden--these things always happen to 'other people'. You're not prepared for it when you're suddenly one of those 'other people'."

    Tom really did not want to have this conversation, or even hear it. He was going to be as polite as possible, but he really didn't want people around. "Folks, why don't we use the dining room? I'll go get plates, glasses, ice and such."

    "I think that's a great idea," said Walt. I'm a little hungry myself. Jim, can you see the ladies to the table?"

    Taking his wife's arm, James Marshall Carpenter used his best "judge voice" and said "Ladies, if you will accompany me...."

    When they were out of the room, Tom looked at Walt and spoke softly as they walked to the kitchen, "Thanks, Walt. I'm trying to be nice, but I really just don't want a whole bunch of people around right now. I'd rather just do what I need to do and be alone. I want to think."

    "I understand, boy, I understand. Let's get the dishes and get back in there before they get impatient. I don't think the womenfolk need to see this." He swept his hand around the kitchen. "Let's feed them and get them home before dark."

  6. #6
    November 24, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 32
    High temperature: 51
    Barometric pressure: 30.48, rising slowly
    sunny, light NW breeze


    Sarah's funeral was this morning at 11 at the church. Reverend Washington preached a fine memorial for her. The ladies of the church laid out a spread for us after the service, but the socializing afterward was decidedly non-typical of any funeral I've ever attended.



    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    November 24, 2008
    Yadkin College, NC

    "Amen."

    Tom raised his head and looked around. The group of mourners at Sarah's grave was larger than he had expected it to be. Tom looked at the assembled people, knowing some, recognizing others and wondering who the rest were. Some looked back at him, some at the kids, and some studiously looked anywhere else. Understandable, he supposed, given the circumstances. After all, it's not everyday you bury a young mother, dead from a gunshot wound received while defending her children.

    "Friends," Alan Washington spoke in a loud voice. "Friends, the ladies of the church have prepared a meal for us in the fellowship hall. I understand that some of you are wary of...problems associated with traveling...but please join Tom and Sarah's family, share this meal and memories of Sarah."

    Some of the mourners looked at each other, obviously unsure of what to do. While it wasn't exactly dangerous to travel locally, you tried to do it in daylight and on main roads. You could almost see them thinking "Still, it's just after noon, and it won't be full dark until around 5, so we can take some time...."

    A few people made their decisions, and started to move toward the fellowship hall. More followed. A few nodded to Tom and made their way toward the parking lot. Tom, holding Little Tom's hand, walked over to Reverend Washington. Walt hung back a short distance, as did Alice, who was holding a sleeping Anne.

    "Reverend, that was a nice sermon. I'm glad that you were able to be here to deliver it. Sarah enjoyed coming to church--she always bragged on you as a speaker."

    "Tom, we all loved Sarah. She was an important member of our church family. Travel is getting difficult, but no so difficult I wouldn't have been here for her--and your family--when you needed me."

    "I appreciate that, Reverend. I'd like you to stop by the house after, and let me see that your gas tank is filled. Thanks to Sarah, we have extra. That'll allow you to continue your ministry for us and your other churches as well, at least for a bit longer."

    Yadkin Valley United Methodist Church was one of a number of small Methodist churches still practicing the old Methodist tradition of the "circuit rider"--a minister who went from one church to the next, in a circuit, holding services as he went.

    Yadkin Valley had the good fortune to have been on two circuits, and as such had been able to hold services 2 weeks out of every 4. However, the slowly failing economy, coupled with the high price and decreased availability of fuel, had cost them the services of one of their ministers. Services were now every fourth week. The lay leaders organized services on the off weeks, but the congregation was very attached to Reverend Washington, making sure he always had the fuel to get to church on the appointed Sunday.

    "Thank you, Tom. I have to admit that it's getting harder and harder to make my circuit and visits I need to make. They've cut back the hours on my day job again. With Madeline totally out of work we're just barely getting by."

    "No problem at all, Reverend. Maybe I can do a bit more for you, to help out, if you'll accept it. Now why don't we all go get us a little lunch? I'm sure the kids are hungry, at least." Tom hadn't eaten much in the last few days.

    He looked over his shoulder. "Walt, you and Alice come on with us. We need to get these kids fed."

    "Right with you, boy. Your grandparents took the camera and went on ahead."

    The small group worked their way around the front of the church. "Tom, with travel being the way it is, I can understand her mother's inability to be here for the service. I'm concerned about her. Having your only child die is hard, and it's compounded by missing her funeral--no matter how good the reason. How is she taking this?"

    "Well, about as well as you'd expect. She's pretty torn up, and even more torn up that she couldn't be here. A year, heck, even six months ago, she'd have hopped a plane from Florida and not thought a thing about it, except for the security hassles." He shook his head. "Now, flying's back to being a way for rich people to travel--if you can find a flight at all."

    "That's why we had the video camera off to the side--she wanted to be able to see the service, and I couldn't figure out any other way to do it. I hope it didn't weird too many people out."

    "If it did, I hope they have the decency to keep quiet about it, " muttered Walt.

    Alice swatted at him with her free hand. "Walter, you be nice. This is a church."

    "Tom, I think it's wonderful that you can still think well enough to come up with any solution to the problem. If I lost my wife..." the reverend trailed off.

    "Reverend, it might sound funny, but right now I'm doing pretty good. I think after things calm down, maybe it'll hit me. Right now, there's too much to do to have time to feel sorry for myself. Aside from that, I'm awfully proud of my wife. To have the courage to stand up to 2 armed men, at not much more than arm's length, knowing that they probably mean to kill you--or worse, and stopping them both--well, I knew she was special."

    Reverend Washington nodded. The group finished the short walk to the fellowship hall in silence.

    --------------------------------------------------

    The fellowship hall was crowded, as most folks had opted to stay, not only to eat lunch, but apparently to talk. More than a few wanted to talk to Tom. Most just wanted to tell him how sorry they were. A few offered help with the kids or things around the house, and Tom gratefully told them that he would probably take them up on their offers.

    A few conversations were more serious.

    Hollis Allgood was the first. "Tom, I just wanted to tell you again how sorry I am about your wife. If it's any comfort, it looks like most if not all of the remainder have been either rounded up or killed. That means 2 of our Cambodian gangs are pretty much finished. Now if we could just get rid of the rest."

    "Was anyone else hurt, besides Sarah and Mr. and Mrs. Walsh?" Reed and Elizabeth Walsh, a retired couple, had been killed in their home a few miles closer to Lexington the same day. Their car was missing.

    "Unfortunately, yes. A man, his wife and 3 kids killed near Mocksville, car stolen. They got that bunch in Winston. A young girl raped and murdered near Spencer and 2 Charlotte police officers killed trying to stop the suspects. South Carolina troopers finally got them. Asheville PD got the Walsh killers when they stopped for gas. Killed all 3 when they resisted. Took 2 wounded, one seriously, in the fight. The resistance was apparently pretty stiff--some of the gas station burned in an explosion. They think a stray bullet sparked that. Several armed robberies along the major highways out of the area. Of course, the way they were armed and as desperate as they were, I'm surprised things weren't worse."

    "Damn," was all Tom could say.

    "Yeah, but for now things are pretty quiet here. I'm betting that won't last long. The remaining gangs will start jockeying for turf, and then with the issues caused by the economy, the loss of jobs, the lack of certain goods in the stores and so on. I'm afraid it's going to be a long and probably interesting winter. Interesting in the 'old Chinese curse' sense, that is."

    Hollis and Tom talked a few more minutes, mostly about the weather, the coming winter and how people were going to cope. They both agreed that they needed to talk again later, and Hollis made way for the waiting others.

    Tom talked to some several other people while he "helped" Little Tom eat and tried to entertain Anne. After expressing their condolences, many asked about his sister and brother-in-law in California, his brother who was serving in Iraq and Sarah's mother. Tom patiently explained to each that his sister and brother-in-law were fine, that his brother was well the last time he had heard from him, and that Sarah's mother was holding up. Yes, he had been in touch with all of them, although he hadn't heard back from his brother, who was currently in the field with his unit. Yes, it was a shame that they couldn't attend, but times were hard and likely to get harder. Yes, I'll be sure to pass your condolences along to Sarah's mother.

    A bit later, John Dean stopped to talk. After asking how Tom and the kids were doing, he asked about any small farms that Tom might know of for sale in the area. He was concerned that town might not be the safest place if things got really bad. Tom told him he didn't know of any, but that he would keep his eyes open. He also reminded John that they were only 10 miles out of Lexington and 18 from Mocksville. John's reply was that it was better than 1 mile from "gang central". Tom wondered if John might not be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, given recent events.

    The next conversation struck Tom as more strange than serious. Victoria Overly, a rather attractive woman he knew lived in the area, came up to him while he was feeding Anne.

    It started out normally enough. "Tom, I'm so terribly sorry about Sarah. I know how traumatic this must be for you. How are you and your children?"

    "Well, Ms. Overly, we're doing about a well as you might expect. The kids aren't old enough to understand it all, and I don't think it's fully sunk in, as far as I'm concerned."

    "Please, I'm Victoria--Toy to my friends. Tom, if there's anything I can do to help out, I'll be happy to. I can help you take care of your children, or cook you a nice hot meal. And I'm a very good listener."

    "Ah, thanks for the offer, but we're coping pretty well right now." Tom was a little surprised. He hardly knew this woman enough to say "Hello,", but here she was offering to cook for him and listen to his problems? Wasn't that a little weird right now? "Walt and Alice have been a big help, and then there's my grandparents and Mary Alice Wilson. I'm sort of blessed with help right now."

    She slipped a piece of paper into his hand. "Well, any time at all, Tom. Any time at all."

    Tom looked at the paper, which had her name and phone number on it. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear she was angling for a date," thought Tom. "Weird."

    --------------------------------------------

    After caring with the kids, Tom sat and looked around the hall. It seemed there were a lot of intense conversations going on. Hollis talking to Walt, Mary Alice with Tom's grandparents, Alice with some of the church members he didn't recognize and various other small groups. Reverend Washington saw him looking about and made his way over.

    "Tom, let me watch the kids a while. You get something to eat."

    "Thanks, Reverend, but I'm just not that hungry. I haven't had much of an appetite the last few days."

    "I imagine not, but you need to eat something. Go get a few nibbles and see if your appetite wakes up. At least get something to drink. I've got the kids."

    "Well, I could use something to drink, and I really need a bio-break. I'll be back in a few."

    Tom walked down a hallway to the restroom. Biological needs taken care of, he made his way back to the food tables. There was a lot of food here, and he wondered who had bought it all. Many of these folks were retired, and they were on a stricter budget than he was. "Awfully kind of them," he said to himself.

    Looking at the tables, he saw some sausage balls. He took a plate, a napkin and some plastic silverware and took a couple. Then he got some vegetables and some dip and a couple of finger sandwiches. Taking a glass of sweet tea from a white-haired lady he recognized but didn't know, he walked over to an empty table and sat down. He looked at his food for a long time.

    "Penny for your thoughts." It was his grandmother. He turned and smiled, then stood. "Hi, Grandma. Would you like to sit?"

    "Only if you answer my question."

    "Well, I was thinking that I am going to be eating a lot of meals alone, except for the kids." He tried to smile, but failed to carry it off.

    "Tom, you're going to miss her, and miss her every day of your life--that's a fact. But time will ease the pain for you, and you have your children to look after. Before you realize it, they're going to be grown up and you'll be missing them too. It's the way of life."

    "Grandma, do you still miss my Dad?" Tom father, named James Marshall Carpenter II after his father, had been killed, along with his wife, when Tom was 6.

    "Every day. It doesn't hurt like it used to, though, and I thank God for that blessing." She looked at Tom intently. "Tom, you will never get over this. What you will do is get past it."

    "Right now, I sort of wonder about that."

    "It's good that you do. Healthy. Lord knows it's a tremendous shock to us all. Most of what I can remember about that day is me babbling like a fool about how sorry I was. But so far, I think you're doing well, and you'll do a bit better each day. Eventually, you'll have entire days where you only think about it a couple of times, and those won't be as hurtful to you as they are now."

    "Grandma, I can deal with the days. It's the nights that are hard--and long. I can't sleep, and if I do, I have nightmares. I can't really remember them too well, but I know they're violent and people die in them."

    "Your mind is trying to work this out. It's too big for you to digest, and your subconscious mind is trying mightily to do so. Eventually it will, and the dreams will stop. Mostly."

    "Mostly?"

    "Mostly. Your grandfather has never told you this, and neither am I," she looked at him sharply. "He still has nightmares from the war. Not often, maybe once every three or four months. And that was over 60 years ago."

    Tom didn't know what to say to this revelation. He knew his grandfather had been a Marine in World War II and had fought in several campaigns in the Pacific. However, his grandfather never really talked about it, and it was an unspoken family rule that it was never mentioned.

    Tom shook his head. "I didn't know."

    "And you still don't. I'm telling you this so you know what to expect. There are many things that happen in life that you can get over, and some that you can only survive and get past. Losing a wife or a husband--or a child--is one of those things."

    She put her arm around him and smiled. "Where are my great-grandbabies? I haven't seen them lately."

    "What do you mean, 'lately'? You saw them an hour ago."

    She looked at him. "You might want to check your watch--it's nearly 4 o'clock. People are starting to leave."

    Tom looked around, and saw the crowd was indeed thinning. Most of the people left he knew well, or at least knew who they were. Most of the church folks were gone.

    He looked down at his plate. He hadn't touched it. Well, he really wasn't hungry anyway. He made himself eat the sausage balls, drank some tea, then got up and threw the remainder in the trash. "Shame to waste good food," he thought. " Probably really are starving people who would like to have what I just threw away."

    "Well, let's go gather up the kids and get back home."

    Walking with his grandmother to Reverend Washington, Tom said "Reverend, I apologize--I didn't realize how late it was getting. We need to remind these people that it'd be a good idea to be home before dark--just in case."

    "Oh, all of those folks have let already. The rest of us were all waiting for you."

    Tom colored. "Reverend, I didn't realize the social niceties meant that people would be waiting on me to leave. Let me get the kids and let's get moving. We still need to get you some gas before you go on your way, and let these folks go home."

    Allen Washington laughed. "Tom, that isn't it at all. If you don't object, we want to go home with for a...group discussion. A lot of people have been talking today, and it seems many of them are concerned about the same things. If you can stand our continued company, we want you to volunteer to play host--you have the biggest house."

    "Huh?" Tom was confused. "Discuss what?"

    "Tom, a lot of us view the...events of the past few days...as...something of a precursor of what is to come. The people left in this room," he gestured, "have all sorts of different skills, backgrounds, experiences and 'connections'. Some of them have been thinking about these things long before...well, long before Sarah's death brought them into sharp focus."

    "You've known a lot of them for some time, and the rest live nearby. A few, such as me, have always thought we might like to live around here. We all feel like the time is right to start discussing these things with each other. Time may well be short, and we all feel dark days are coming. Many of us who knew Sarah through church know that she believed this as well."

    "Tom, let me ask you--do you think that things are going to get worse? I'm not talking worse as in a recession or even a depression. I'm talking worse as in a collapse of civilization--a new Dark Ages. I'm talking a collapse of government, of our economy, of the world as we know it."

    "Reverend, you sure know how to take a man's mind off his troubles." He looked at Anne, asleep in her carrier, and at Little Tom, who was being roughhoused in the corner by John Dean.

    "Look, I was pretty skeptical of some of Sarah's notions about storing things against some undefined "bad times". But I've been going through her lists and surfing her bookmarks. I've had some extra time since I haven't been sleeping too well lately. Reading what some of these people have been talking about on these web forums isn't helping, I'll have you know." He smiled ruefully.

    "I'm starting to understand better what she was so concerned about, but I still have a hard time grasping how our entire civilization can collapse. I will admit that things are starting to happen that seem to be heading in that direction, though. Who would have ever thought about open gang warfare in Lexington. In Los Angeles, sure--that crap happened all the time. But here? And fuel rationing? What's next--food?"

    "Tom, it's hard to believe because it's uncomfortable to believe. Many people still don't believe it, and they won't ever believe it. They're absolutely sure that 'Things will always turn out OK.' And while it's not a sure thing that a collapse will come, if it does, those people will die still not believing what is happening to them." Alan Washington shrugged. "We can't do anything for them. But we can do for ourselves and our neighbors."

    "Tom, this little area is blessed in many ways. For all our closeness to big, crowded places like Greensboro, Winston Salem and even Charlotte, we're still old-fashioned, small town rural America in a lot of ways. We know our neighbors. We go to their kids ball games because our kids are playing too. You coach the T-ball team and I coach C-ball. It's a lifestyle that's vanished in the cities and a lot of the towns. "

    "Rural America has always known that bad times happen every so often, and we've always depended on each other to get through them. Ask your grandparents what it was like when they were younger. I wasn't around for it, but I know how things were after you mother and father died. Their friends and their neighbors pitched in and helped out, just like they are doing for you now. Some day, you'll pitch in and do for them when they need it."

    Tom's grandfather had approached while the reverend was talking. "Tom, he's right. A lot of people pitched in and helped us out. At that time, I was still new on the bench, and your grandmother was still a working nurse. Suddenly, we had 3 kids, one still in diapers, to raise. Our neighbors helped by looking after you during the days--and they wouldn't take a penny for doing it. As long as we kept them in baby food and diapers for Jayne, they were happy to help. Why do you think you have so many 'honorary' aunts and uncles? For years, you three were the neighborhood project. All of their children had grown up, they missed having kids around. Never understood why, myself." His smile turned into a wince when his wife elbowed him in the ribs.

    "Over the years, we've done things for them, not so much in return, but because that's what you do for neighbors and friends."

    "But ever since you moved back home, it's almost like you've been holding us at arm's length. Oh, you come see us, you go hunting with Walt and you occasionally go to church..."

    "Very occasionally," said the reverend.

    "Indeed...but it's almost as if a part of you is still in California, working in that tech company. You need to finish the move home. You need us," he gestured toward Anne and Tom, "and we're going to need you."

    Alice took a turn. "Thomas, I see you have that 'deer in the headlights' look I've so often seen from unprepared pupils. Do you have anything for us?"

    "Good grief, is the whole room listening in on this?"

    "Pretty much," chimed in Walt. "Heck, I'm enjoying it!"

    "Walter!" Alice shot him a look that should have killed.

    "Alice, it's OK. I know he's picking at me. I guess between building the house, trying to make my work pay, and the kids, well, I've been...off somewhere else. Sarah keeps...kept...me 'plugged in' on what was happening, and she did a good job. Maybe too good. She insulated me from the real reasons why we moved here instead of somewhere else."

    "And those were?"

    "We came here because it was home."

    His grandmother reached out and cradled his face with one hand. "Welcome home, Tom."

    --------------------------------------

    Tom parked his truck in the driveway close to the house. The caravan of cars from the church we all pulling into the drive, trying to arrange themselves so that they didn't block each other.

    "Good thing it's been dry; they're going to be all over the yard," Tom said to a yawning Little Tom. Anne had fallen asleep on the drive back. Unlatching Tom from his car seat, Tom said "OK, buddy, you need to walk. I have to carry your sister and the bag." He shouldered the day pack that held all the kid's traveling needs.

    "'K." He stuck a hand up for Tom to hold. Tom looked at his son for a second, then took his hand and led him to the back door.

    Unlocking the door, he walked across the enclosed porch and unlocked the kitchen door. Flipping on lights as he went, he went to Anne's room and put her, still asleep, in her crib. Taking Tom to the bathroom, he helped him undress and take care of business. He could hear the others coming into the house as he worked.

    Mary Alice Wilson tapped on the door. "Tom, I can help the kids. You go tend to your guests."

    "Well I was just..."

    "No, I've heard most of this before. My husband and I, well, let's just say I know what you're all going to be talking about, and I'll catch up with you in a bit. These kids are tired. I'll get them cleaned up, fed if they're hungry and in bed. I won't be that far behind you."

    "But I need to start taking care of them myself. I can't depend on you and Alice forever."

    "Nonsense. Now shoo!" She motioned him out of the bathroom. "Tommy, let's start getting our clothes off..." She guided Tom to the door, pushed him through and shut it behind him. "Check the baby on your way down the hall," was the order through the door.

    "Yes ma'am." Tom walked back to Anne's room and looked in the door. She was still asleep. He decided to leave her be and see what was going on up front.

    In the great room, his grandfather had opened the dampers on the woodstove and refilled it. "Tom, do you have any spare chairs?"

    "There's a couple of wing chairs in our bedroom, and a couple of office chairs in the hobby room."

    "Those'll do for a start. Any more?"

    "Uh, no. We've never had this many people in the house before."

    "Well, we'll just have to make do."

    Tom smiled, remembering what Walt had said about his grandfather. He went into the kitchen, where the ladies were raiding his refrigerator, fixing drinks and generally enjoying themselves. With this crowd, he was glad the old tradition of bringing food to the home of the deceased was still practiced here--otherwise, someone would be going hungry.

    "What can I do to help?"

    "Not a thing," said a smiling Victoria Overly. Tom hadn't seen her in the group at the church. "Between what was left here and what we brought from the church, we have plenty of food and all the drinks we need. You just trot off and we'll have a little buffet ready in a few minutes."

    "Ah, sure."

    "Well that's a fine how-do-you-do," he thought. "A man can't even help in his own house." He wandered out the back door into the yard. It was dark and getting cold quickly. He looked up at the sky. It was clear, and the stars were coming out. He hadn't seen the weather, but he expected a cold front had moved through. It'd be pretty cold by morning.

    He counted an even dozen vehicles besides his own. Two were Davidson County Sheriff's Department cars, while the other were a mix of pickups and cars. Most of the men were standing among them, talking.

    "Did you get thrown out too?" You could see Hollis Allgood's smile even in the dark.

    "Yep. It would seem I'm not needed. Mary Alice even took the kids away from me."

    "Join the club. We were sent outside until supper is ready. I hope it's ready soon--this suit jacket isn't quite warm enough for this weather."

    Tom noticed Reverend Washington. "Reverend, I promised you some gas. If you can pull up to the building over there, I'll make good on that."

    "Tom, I won't hold you to it, but thank you for the offer."

    "Now it's my turn to throw my weight around."

    "You're too skinny to do that. Haven't you been eating your Wheaties in the mornings?"

    Tom looked in the direction of the voice. "Walt, you're just too full of yourself." Turning back toward the minister, he said "Reverend, I insist. Please accept it as a 'love offering' if nothing else."

    "Tom, are you sure you can spare it? Fuel is getting harder to get, besides expensive."

    "Gas is one of those things Sarah made sure we keep plenty of. Even if it take 40 gallons, I'm not going to really miss it. Please."

    Reverend Washington pulled his old Mazda pickup truck to the building. Tom got a funnel and a little over 15 gallons later, the truck was full.

    "Tom, I thank you. The little truck is pretty good on gas, but it's getting harder and harder to find the money to fill it up."

    "I understand. Reverend..."

    "Tom, please call me Alan. I enjoy my calling, but being called 'Reverend' every few seconds just feels wrong to me."

    "OK...Alan. But you may have to be patient until I get used to the idea. Anyway, you said something earlier about some people who didn't live in the area wanting to move here. Were you speaking for yourself?"

    "To some extent. For me, the commute to the Ingersoll plant in Mocksville would be about the same, but we hope Madeline might be able to find some work. Then there's Deputy Dean, who's interested in moving out of town."

    "Do you have a place picked out? Can you sell your house?"

    "No particular place picked out. AT least there's nothing to sell--we rent. We sold our house last year and rented a place. It was cheaper for us, plus the money from our equity has helped tide us over. There's still some left, just enough to get moved if we're lucky."

    A voice called from the house. "All you men, supper is ready."

  7. #7

    Chapter 6

    November 24, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 32
    High temperature: 51
    Barometric pressure: 30.48, rising slowly
    sunny, light NW breeze


    Hollis Allgood was just full of good news at his "little" meeting this evening. He thinks things are going to be at least as bad as Sarah thought, maybe worse--he wasn't very positive at all. I'm going to have to review her work with an eye toward increasing our supplies if possible. This may really get very, very bad, and I don't want to get caught short.

    I'm just thankful I don't owe any money and that I still have some money in the bank to work with. Now I just have to hope I don't run out of time.



    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    November 24, 2008
    Yadkin College, NC


    The make-do supper over, dishes and silverware clinked and rattled as they were gathered and loaded into the dishwasher. When that was full, the rest were rinsed, then stacked in the sinks.

    Tom and his grandfather were moving the chairs from the kitchen and dining room into the great room. "Grandpa, what's this all about? I was sort of hoping that I could just have a quiet night with the kids. There isn't much left up here right now," he said, tapping his head.

    "That'll have to wait for tomorrow night, or even later, I'm afraid. I'm not sure exactly what we're going to be talking about. Hollis obviously has something he wants to talk about--he doesn't normally talk for his own entertainment. If I had to guess, he's heard some things he thinks we ought to know. To me, the question isn't that he wants to talk, but he wants to talk to us. Why us?"

    "Well, it doesn't hurt that you and Walt have known him for quite some time now."

    "True enough. You know, right now my biggest interest is what sorts of things is he hearing through his grapevine? I know what's coming through mine, but I want to hear about his and see how they compare."

    "What are you hearing?"

    "Things aren't going very well right now. It may or may not be in the sights of the major media outlets, or maybe they're keeping it quiet. The independents are making it sound pretty bad, especially in the big cities. Of course, they may be overstating things, but some of it borders on collapse. I've been listening in on the ham bands, and some of what I hear is downright frightening. Perhaps Hollis will be able to tell us..."

    "Tell you want?" Hollis Allgood, all 6'4" of him, walked through the door.

    Tom sat the chair he had down and looked at him. "What's going on. I'm just a little curious why I have a house full of people tonight. Grandpa says things aren't going too well out there in the great big world, and I wonder if this has something to do with that."

    "Well, Tom, it's no big mystery. I'm going to be making a number of these...off-the-record visits...with various folks around the county. The county commissioners don't want some of the information we have made public, but I think they're full of it. The citizens of this county are going to need all the help they can get, while they can get it. If we wait too long, we run the risk of our window of opportunity closing. Withholding information may well get folks killed. There's already been enough of that."

    Tom's curosity was piqued, but he didn't have time to pursue this further. People were coming into the room and taking their seats. He took one of the last comfortable chairs, which was uncomfortably near Victoria Overly. He thought about moving, but was surprised when she paid him no attention at all. He decided to keep his seat.

    Hollis stood in a small clear space near the wood stove. "Folks, I'd like to thank you all for being here, and I'd like to thank our host, Tom Carpenter, for allowing us to intrude on him at this time." There was a mummer of agreement. "Tom, we all share your grief, and you hope you'll accept our help as you need it."

    Tom semi-smiled and nodded to the assembled group.

    "Honestly, I'm sort of taking advantage of all of you to save myself a trip later. I'm planning on having a number of these little get-togethers with folks like you all over the county. I believe my counterparts, the chiefs of police in Lexington and Thomasville, are planning on doing something similar. By doing this, I'm going against the wishes of the county commissioners, but I'm not too worried about that. You people elected me, not them, and I think there are things you need to know, and you don't need to find them out after it's too late for the information to do you any good."

    "Now I'll warn you that some of this is supposition on my part. I'll try to note those things when I hit them. Most of it is information that has come my way through various sources that have to do with my job. I consider it pretty accurate."

    Raising his voice just a bit, he said "To put it bluntly, we are undeniably in the midst of hard times, and I think they're going to get harder--maybe a lot harder, and probably more dangerous as well. We all need to be ready for that. We may not have much time to get ready." He looked at the assembled group. No one seemed shaken by his blunt assessment. "So far, so good," he thought.

    "We all know the basics. The economy has been bad for a while. Around here, the last recession is still going on, and has been getting worse for some time. A lot of people are out of work or working short hours. People are losing cars and houses. Gas and diesel are in short supply and getting more expensive by the day. It looks like there'll be shortages of natural gas and home heating oil. The price of any energy, whether it's gas, propane or what have you is going to get even higher than it already is. The grocery stores aren't as well stocked as they used to be and the prices are through the roof, and so on. Some things you just can't find in the stores any more--tried to buy fresh veggies lately? You can't--wrong time of year. The stuff we were importing from overseas a couple of years ago? Well, it's still over there. It's not even cost effective to bring things in from Florida or California any more."

    "In a few of the big cities, there've been riots. These aren't the usual BS riots, either, where people are just looking for an excuse to steal and be destructive. These are riots over food and energy. There isn't enough to go around, it's getting expensive, and the people on the short end of the stick don't have enough money to buy it even if they can find it. This makes for a lot of angry people, and they want 'someone' to do 'something', even though it looks like there isn't much that can realistically be done. To make matters worse you have criminal elements trying to use these riots as cover for their activities. Put all this together, and being a cop in a big city is getting to be an...unpleasant job."

    "Here, of course, we've missed the riots, but we have the shortages. In addition, we've had issues with gangs." He looked at Tom apologetically. Tom simply nodded. "We think that's under control for the time being, but I can tell you it won't last long. The gangs have been trying to move into small towns for years, and with most police agencies having their hands full and their budgets cut, they seem to think this is the time to move big. Unfortunately, they're more right than wrong about that."

    "We've sent a huge part of our manufacturing base overseas and put a lot of our people out of work. The ones who have found jobs haven't found ones as good as they had--the numbers show that many of them are working at jobs that pay one-half or so of what they used to make."

    "A lot of younger folks, coming out of college or tech school, aren't able to find a decent job in the field they trained for. Some aren't finding jobs at all, and since they're up to their ears in student loans, their families are the ones trying to find money to pay for them. Some are just going ahead and declaring bankruptcy right off the bat."

    "Johnny Thompson," someone said quietly.

    "Too many people owe too much money, and they can't keep up those 'easy monthly payments' for much longer. They've drained what money that had in the bank and their retirement accounts--if they were lucky enough to have one--and they're wondering how they're going to manage. They've tried to sell those expensive homes and the bass boats and the other toys, but no one's buying. They can't afford their 'lifestyle' and they can't get rid of it, either."

    "Because of that, the banks are finding themselves owning more houses, more cars, more boats, more of everything. And they don't want them--they aren't car dealers or real estate agents. They've tried some creative things, like refinancing people into 'interest only' loans, but that hasn't worked very well. Those just bought time--it didn't fix the problem."

    "So they've been forced into foreclosures. The banks don't really want this stuff--they can't sell it either. Add to that the fact that the uncollectable loans hurt their bottom line, and you have a recipe for bank failures. If this keeps up, I think some of the smaller ones may go under. If it keeps up for long, bigger ones will go under. I don't see anything to tell me that it won't keep on."

    "Domestic violence calls are through the roof. Alcohol and drug arrests ditto. Every kind of theft you care to name is going up like a rocket. The people we cops are seeing aren't our usual clientele--a year or two ago, these folks were just like you. Now, they're stealing to make house payments--or just to eat."

    "Our government keeps on borrowing and spending like there's no tomorrow, although I can't figure out how they keep getting anyone to loan them money, given the size of the national debt. No matter how you feel about it, the war in Iraq is expensive, and that cost, added to all the social programs and 'entitlements', has put us so far in the red we're drowning in red ink at the Federal level. At the state and local levels, various government services have been curtailed if not canceled outright due to a lack of funds--people who don't work don't pay taxes, and North Carolina is constitutionally mandated to balance their budget every year. We're getting smaller government--the hard way."

    "The Baby Boomers are starting to retire, and that's putting more stress on the federal budget. They've raided the 'trust fund' for so long, it's nothing but a box full of IOUs."

    "Inflation is high, and shows no sign of easing off. If the government would turn off the presses at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, it might help. Then again, it might not. I''m not an economist. Al I can tell you is that my check doesn't go as far as it used to, and I'll bet neither do yours."

    Heads nodded.

    "We've also began having various sorts of 'rips' in the social fabric. Our gang problems of the last week have been played out in a number of other places, usually larger and more deadly. Word through the law enforcement networks is that cities like New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angles have areas that their police go into in force--or not at all."

    "You've heard about the food riots when shipments have been delayed. What you haven't heard is what caused the delays. Occasionally it's been fuel shortages, and a couple of times it's been wildcat truckers strikes. A disturbing number of delivery interruptions have been caused by sabotage, and there have been several instances of what appears to be widespread tampering with the food supply--poisoning and so on. We don't have a clue what that is about. But the biggie is hijacking--stealing food to sell it on the black market--yes, we're developing one of those--to people who still have money."

    He looked around the room. He had their attention--the looks on their faces ranged from shock to grim. He continued.

    "It gets worse. There have been electrical outages that were definitely caused by sabotage. We can say that because high voltage transmission towers generally don't blow themselves up."

    "There have been a number of attacks against other infrastructures, especially our communications. Hackers have been attacking sites all around the Internet. They're not after anything out of the ordinary, but the number of attacks is way up."

    "There have also been a number of what appear to be assassinations of various lower- and mid-level government employees. Out west, a rather large number of Bureau of Land Management folks have turned up dead, with their equipment missing. There have been some FBI and ATF agents killed in other places. Other agencies, most of them being involved in some sort of regulatory work, have also lost people. There've also been a few judges killed."

    Tom heard a voice say "Unintended consequences."

    Hollis suddenly looked very tired. "Maybe. It has some of the hallmarks, but no one is sure yet. Could be they just don't want to admit it to themselves. I don't know on this one."

    Tom was confused--unintended consequences of what? Tom made a note to ask some questions later.

    "Word on the street is that a lot of the illegal Hispanic population is moving back south. It does seem, at least around here, that the Hispanic population has shrank a bit, but there's no real way to tell for sure."

    Another voice muttered "Rats fleeing the sinking ship."

    Hollis quickly continued. "There is some good news. We've received word that most of the National Guard units that have been federalized are going to be sent home and returned to the control of their state governors. This is following some pretty intense lobbying by those governors. I also suspect that it's also in part to reduce the Federal payroll without angering the unions. Of course, the down side is the reason the governors want them home is so they can use them to beef up their police forces."

    "Does that mean we're pulling out of Iraq?" The speaker was Melissa Chapman. She and her husband Joshua lived on Highway 64, not too far from Tom.

    "I don't know. The Iraqis still aren't completely in control of their own country, although they're making steady progress. If I had to make a guess, I'd guess that they better make faster progress, because I think we're not going to be there in force much longer. It's costing us too much in both blood and treasure, and I think the political will to continue the war is fading fast. We're finding ourselves in a situation where we've got our own problems to deal with, and the hell with the rest of the world."

    "Localizing this down, here's what we're looking at. Jobs--any jobs-are going to be scarce. Count yourself lucky if you have one. All sorts of fuels will stay in short supply, and I expect them to be in shorter supply and even more expensive than they are now. Keep your tanks filled, and if you can get some extra, do it. We're starting to see tanker trucks getting hijacked too."

    "I think food supplies will still be in decent shape, but the price is going to go up further. Not only because of the fuel price increases, but because trucking companies are starting to hire men to ride security in the rigs. Usually it's just one in the cab, but high value cargos are starting to get escorts in separate vehicles. It's expensive."

    "We can expect the price of everything to start going up, and going up a lot, soon. These costs will be passed along to us. No matter what it is, I expect the price to go up, and go up fast and quick. Those of you who can may want to stock up on any and everything you can think of. Me, I'm going with food, fuel, and ammunition."

    Hollis looked at the people around him. "From the looks on your faces, I've probably told you about all you're prepared to handle. I know it's a shock. But bear in mind I'm not telling you the world is going to end tomorrow..."

    A voice Tom didn't recognize interrupted. "Yeah, it's going to take a week or two." There were a few strained laughs.

    "Maybe, but I think not, at least not any time soon. I think what we're seeing is a prolonged period of serious economic trouble, compounded by our own foolish decisions in years past. If we don't suffer any big breakdowns, such as widespread lawlessness, we should eventually see a new 'normal' assert itself. I won't speculate on what that normal will look like, but I believe we will reach some sort of an equilibrium. The human race is a pretty resilient bunch. We won't all just lay down and die."

    Tom's grandfather spoke. "Hollis, you say if we don't have any big breakdowns that things will eventually work themselves out, so to speak. Do you think that big breakdowns can be avoided? It would seem to me that as the smaller items add up, the chances of a big problem become more likely. For example, the failures of the smaller banks you hypothesized--those could cause a loss of confidence in all banks, which could lead to runs, which could lead to a collapse of the entire banking system. If that happens, you can forget keeping things under control--panic will be widespread and nearly instantaneous. If they try to put limits on withdrawals, the same thing will happen, but in slow motion."

    "Judge, things like that could happen. The problem is that none of us have a crystal ball, and we simply don't know what will happen. We can only try to prepare for what we can be pretty sure is coming, and then prepare for other things you think might happen as you can. I don't think you can ever be prepared for everything."

    "All of us law enforcement types have discussed this, and we've all reached the same conclusion. I think that our best hope in weathering this is to maintain at least a facsimile of public order. If we can do that, we'll be in far better condition to do what needs doing--whatever it might be."

    "I also think that we need to have a spirit of cooperation between neighbors as much as possible. That's why I'm here tonight. I'd like to see small groups start forming all over the county. Those groups will act as support for their members, helping them with whatever needs they have and being helped in return."

    "You're not talking about some sort of armed enclaves, are you?" Tom recognized Walt's voice. "Fort Apache was a movie."

    "Not really, Walt. Besides, you folks are too scattered to build a wall around yourselves and hide behind it. No, I'm thinking something like a 'Community Watch' with an attitude. I think what we can do is deputize a lot of you to give you some legal standing. We'll give you some very basic training in common police procedures so you can help us out without getting yourselves in trouble, legal-wise. What I'm thinking is that you identify the trouble, contain it and call for backup. My boys show up and we all finish the job together."

    "So the sheriff's department is going to become some sort of quick reaction force?" The "unintended consequences voice asked from the back of the room. "That sounds like you're expecting the need to be one, and pretty often."

    "To some extent, yes. We'll still have some men on patrol. They'll concentrate on areas where watch groups don't exist. And of course, we'll handle the jail. I expect that to become a much larger job soon."

    Hollis looked at the people in the room. Their faces were worried. "Look, folks, I know you can do this. Organize among yourselves as you see fit. If you all want to try using cell phones to communicate, fine. If you want to organize regular neighborhood patrols, fine. You want to go armed--and I recommend you do--you won't get any static from us. Do what you think is necessary, and what you feel you can support yourselves. We don't have manpower to be there all the time for your protection. It's a sad fact, but it's the truth."

    Victoria Overly spoke up. "Sheriff, it sounds good until you consider the situation out here. Look around this room--just look. I hope no one here is offended, but a lot of the people here are...not as young as they used to be. Then you have people like Tom and me with kids and no spouse--our time to help patrol is pretty limited. People who still have jobs can't miss work. I just don't see how you can make this work."

    "Toy, that's why I'm saying do it as you see fit. Maybe you don't do any sort of regular patrolling. Maybe you do it by vehicle, or horseback, at random intervals. Maybe you each harden your house, and coordinate a response from your neighbors if you put out a 'Mayday'. There's a million ways to work this out, and each group in the county will come up with one that works for them. But no matter what, you're going to have to take more responsibility for your own protection."

    Glenn Carrick stood up to speak. Tom knew Glenn, since he was Mary Alice's next door neighbor. Glenn was a slow, steady sort of fellow. "Sheriff, it sounds like you're telling us that, at least in large part, we're going to be on our own, mostly, as far as self-protection. Now I don't like that, but I can handle it. My question is this--what are we protecting ourselves from?"

    "Mr. Carrick, right?"

    "Call me Glenn."

    "Thanks, Glenn. Right now, I think what you're going to be facing is pretty much the same thing you've always seen out here. You'll have the opportunistic thieves who break in and steal the TV. You'll have the outside thefts--I'd watch my fuel especially. The thing is, I expect that you'll see a lot more of them, and the people committing them will be more desperate. It's possible we could see repeats of what happened last week."

    Everyone in the room looked at Tom, then quickly looked away. Tom tried to pay it no attention--he knew he was the 800 pound gorilla in the room. He couldn't help it.

    Hollis noticed the looks, and continued quickly. "But you can't rule out anything except invasion by space aliens." The sheriff's joke got more laughter than it deserved, but it had the desired effect.

    Another voice--it sounded like Jason Smithfield--spoke up. "So you think we can carry on our lives pretty much as usual?"

    "Within limits, yes. But what you consider 'usual' is going to change. You should make adjustments to your lives to deal with what's going on. Go armed if you have a gun and are confident using it. My people are being briefed on your right to open carry in this state, and I'm rushing concealed carry permits as fast as I can if you'd rather not open carry. Be aware of what's going on around you--is that car you don't recognize making the 5th pass by your house in the last hour? If it is, you need to have a plan to do something about it."

    Tom's grandfather stood. "Hollis, it sounds like we're going back to something out of the Old West--no law west of the Pecos and all that. You can't be everywhere. The police never have been able to be everywhere. But what help can you offer us?"

    "Judge, I'm glad you asked. There's quite a bit we can do to help. First, we can walk you thorough all the 'tied and true' things, like trimming bushes around the house so that intruders have no place to hide. I'd suggest some of you with very landscaped yards might want to consider moving some of you bushes, so you can see further from your house."

    "Jesus, you're telling us to construct firing zones?" Again, the voice from the back of the room.

    The sheriff grimaced, then continued. "We can help you with some basic firearms training. I have several certified firearms instructors in the department. We also figured on providing each group with one or two of our old VHF radios for direct communication with the department. We're using the new 800 MHz system, but the old system is still there and still works--we test it every so often. There's other things as well, and we can talk about those when you're ready."

    Victoria spoke again, "Sheriff, you said the guard is coming home. Can't they be used to help patrol?"

    "I'm sure they will be, but I imagine it will be in the larger towns and cities that have been hit the worst by the rioting. As bad as things got last week, we've gotten off lightly so far. Of course, I don't know anything for sure. Personally, I hope our unit comes home and stays--we could use their expertise."

    Lexington's National Guard unit was Echo Troop of the 4th Cavalry Squadron. Roughly 160 men, they were trained as scouts. Their knowledge, enhanced by their time in Iraq, could be a lot of help. Their armored vehicles and weapons would definitely be invaluable if things happened to get really bad. Of course, that was if they were allowed to stay home.

    Glenn spoke again, although he kept his seat. "So what do we do now?"

    "Glenn, everyone in this room, plus your neighbors who aren't here, need to start working together on a plan. For right now, it doesn't have to be perfect, or even good. But you need to get started while things are relatively quiet--you don't want to be trying to figure this out in a hurry when things are going to Hell all around you."

    Tom decided to get into the discussion. "Sheriff, that sounds smart to me." He stood up and turned to face as much of the room as possible from his seat. "Folks, I don't know who has considered it, but Thanksgiving is this Thursday. Is anyone here planning on traveling for more than the day?"

    Heads shook, but no one answered in the affirmative. "How about the Black Friday sales--anyone going to those?" A few hands, mostly women but a few men, went up. "Well that's not good," he thought.

    "What about Saturday? Will everyone be around Saturday?" Heads nodded 'yes' again.

    "OK, let's go with Saturday. I'll offer up my house for the meeting place."

    Hollis broke in. "Folks, that's a good offer Tom is making. Can you take him up on it--say 10 AM?"

    A brief murmur went through the room, then all of the heads shook 'yes'. For the first time, some of the faces looked scared.

    "Well, then, I guess I'm done talking. Can I answer any questions for you?"

    No one spoke. Several looked like they might speak, but just couldn't find any words. Was the world ending? Were they going to freeze in the dark, or be killed by gangs?

    Victoria Overly was the one who finally broke the silence. "Sheriff, how bad do you think things will get? I mean, really?"

    Hollis Allgood looked at her, then at the rest of the room. Had he failed to communicate the message to these people, or was it just bigger than they could handle, presented in one big storm of information? He had to try again.

    He looked her straight in the eye. "Miss Overly--Toy--I think they'll be at least as bad as I'm saying. I'm afraid they'll be much worse." He looked at the rest of the room. "I didn't want to overstate things, because I was afraid I might frighten you into paralysis--and you can't afford that. What I've outlined is not my worst case scenario, but my best case scenario."

    "People, we're on our way to Third World status, if we're lucky. If not, well," he paused. "Imagine Europe around 1000 AD, but with modern weapons."

    Hollis Allgood, sheriff of Davidson County, North Carolina, walked over to Tom, and shook his hand. Nodding at Tom's grandfather and Walt, he went toward the kitchen.

    In a moment, they heard the door quietly open, then shut. A minute later, gravel crunched under tires.

    No one said anything.

  8. #8
    November 27, 2008

    Well knock me over with a feather. We've only been in-country for 11 months, and now we're told to pack up, road march ourselves to Kuwait City, load the equipment on a boat and ourselves on a plane and de-ass the AO. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Then we find out why we're leaving. The Col. gave us the word about what was going on back home. I don't like what I heard. It sounds like we bailing out. I'm not sure the Iraqis are ready to completely shoulder the load. They've come an long way since 2003, but trying to put together a functioning country out of ruins and with enemies on 2 sides--outside and inside? I don't know that they can do it without help, or at least our presence to keep things honest.

    With the Capt. in the hospital, I'll have to get the troop ready for the move. At the same time, I'll have to arrange transport for Farrah and her family. That won't be easy, since she absolutely refuses to consider going home with me when my tour ends. Maybe she'll see the light...



    From the Daybook of James M. Carpenter III


    November 27, 2008
    Camp Junction City
    Ramadi, Iraq


    "We need to be in Kuwait City by 1200 on 12/4 so our vehicles can be loaded onto the sealift. Calculate your schedules accordingly. I want all operational and contingency plans on my desk at 0700 tomorrow."

    "Gentlemen, that is all."

    Everyone in the room stood quickly to attention as the brigade CO stepped off of the elevated podium and left the room.

    "Exit, stage outta here!" said Lt. Ron Essick, as soon as the coast was clear. He had a smile on his face a yard wide. "Goodbye Sandbox, hello North Carolina!"

    "Shut up, idiot." Lt. James Carpenter, XO of Echo Troop, 4th Cav said as quietly as he could. "The Old Man sounds like he thinks this is some serious shit. We're jumping from one war to another."

    "War? We're going home, old buddy. You know, home? Where you don't have to ride around in armored vehicles and carry your weapon all the time? Where you can have a beer after work? Women who don't wear cammo? Home, remember?"

    Jim pointed Ron toward a door of the briefing room. "Outside."

    Jim glanced around him, but nearly everyone seemed to be in Ron's euphoric mood. Most faces wore a smile, and you could hear snatches of the same sort of things Ron had said. Very few of the assembled brigade officers looked troubled.

    Outside the trailer that housed the brigade briefing room, Jim hustled Ron along a slightly different path than they'd normally take to their troop's area. "Didn't anyone in there except me hear what the CO was saying? We're being sent home early to help state and local authorities 'maintain public order'. Man, they're rioting in LA, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami and a bunch of other cities, and we're going home to stop them."

    Ron smiled again. "Relax, old buddy. We won't be home for over a week, probably more like a month. By that time, the cops will have this all settled down. Then if we're lucky, we'll at least get some leave at home before we come back. If we get really lucky, we don't come back."

    "I expect we're going to get really lucky, then. No one takes the heavy equipment back when they rotate out, and no one rotates out early. We're doing both, and that can only mean one thing--not only do we go home and stay there, but no one is replacing us."

    "Great! That means the Iraqis are ready to take care of themselves."

    "Oh really? We were working with some this trip--how ready are they to go it alone, no help and no backup? They've still got a long way to go in this soldier's opinion."

    "Well the must be enough somewhere, right? I mean, even our new President says we aren't going to leave until the job's done."

    "Believe that if it makes you comfortable. I'm not so sure we're done here. But either way, that doesn't make a damn." He pointed to Ron's chest. "Look, you head back. Tell Top that he needs to prepare for the road march to Kuwait City, and maintenance has 48 hours to have the vehicles ready. Fix what has to be fixed, patch what can be patched, and scrounge up enough lowboys to carry the rest."

    "What about you, oh great and wise Executive Officer? During the unexpected absence of our Captain, you are the Exalted Chief Cheese, responsible for all. You ain't going to help out?"

    "I'll be about 20 minutes behind you. I need to make a couple of calls."

    "Ah, yes, our lady friend. You think you can get her to sully herself by following you home, infidel? Why, her father and brothers will..."

    "I'm going to try and get them all to go. They've cooperated with us, and everyone knows it. If things go to shit again around here, they won't live a week. If we're bailing on the Iraqis--and my bet is that we are--I'll also bet we're going to leave a lot of people behind to die. I'm going to try and save a few."

    "And a certain fair skinned, dark-eyed maiden is among them?"

    Jim grabbed his friend by the shoulders, turned him in the correct direction, then shoved. Ron looked back, and Jim smiled.

    "I hope she will be."

    ------------------------------------------------------

    "But Farrah, you can't stay! You know what the crazies will do to you and your family if they get control."

    "I know your military is in pretty good shape--but you're betting your life--your family's lives--that they are ready to go it alone. Some of them are, but not all of them."

    "Yes, it's my opinion, but it's an informed opinion."

    "At least agree to consider it. I won't be leaving for at least 2 days, maybe 3. Talk to your family. Please."

    "I understand your point, but it was over 200 years ago! I know--'Patriotism has no limits'--you've said it often enough. I suppose you're right--if my ancestors had cut and run, there wouldn't be a United States. But I still say this is a different situation."

    "Will you at least consider it? Yes, I have a friend at the embassy that can get visas--they'll be tourist visas, but at least we get you in the country. When things go bad over here, then you can all apply for asylum. If they don't, well, we'll deal with that then."

    "OK. Look, I have to go now. Please promise me that you'll think about it. I'll try and call you tomorrow."

    "I love you..."

    1st Lt. James M. Carpenter III hung up the phone, then opened the door and stepped out of the booth. "I guess I don't need to make that second call after all,", he muttered, and headed quickly toward the troop area.

    -------------------------------------------------

    "Sir, we're going to need more transporters than that. The M1s all need to go on transporters, or they'll never get there. They've been through hell, and they need major overhauls. We can't do enough in 48 hours to get then all the way to the coast. We really ought to put all the Brads on transporters, too. They aren't in much better shape." First Sgt. Wilson Owens was shaking his head.

    Jim shook his head as well. "Top, I understand, but this is a 'hurry up op'. I'm not sure I can get any transporters, let alone," he hesitated, counting in his head the remaining tracked vehicles, "14 of them. We aren't the only units pulling out. From what I understand, all of the Guard units have been ordered home."

    "Jesus, sir!" Owens blurted.

    "You can say that again. Keep it quiet, even though it'll get out soon enough. Things are bad back home--worse than we're seeing on the TV and hearing on the radio. Higher isn't being specific, but it sounds like they've lost control of some of the cities."

    Owens blinked. "'Lost control', sir? How do we lose control of our own cities?"

    "My guess would be gangs, although it could be large mobs as well. Like I said, higher isn't telling us much except 'Jump!'. You know that drill."

    "Yes, sir. How high and how far." Owens was in obvious thought. "You think we have 48 hours, right? If we work most of the maintenance men pretty much the whole period, and I can get some more men to do the easy stuff, maybe we can get them patched up enough to get to the coast. Maybe. The men can catch up on sleep on the way."

    "Good--get them on it. And I want you to make sure we have plenty of ammo--full combat loads on all the tracks and as much smaller stuff as we can make room for. Be sure to get plenty of those old LAW rockets, and be sure we have plenty of thermite and C4. Plenty of water and rations. And full fuel loads. Be sure the tankers are full, too."

    "Thermite and C4?"

    "If we have breakdowns, my bet is that there won't be any vehicle recovery going on. We'll destroy them where they break."

    ------------------------------------------------

    "So, Jimbo, is Mrs. Carpenter going to be going with us?" Ron looked up and smiled as Jim walked into the office they shared. Even with the CO in the hospital, Jim still worked from his old office.

    "I don't think so. She seems to have some romantic notion about this being her country and she's going to fight for it against the Jihadis."

    "I take it you're not OK with that?"

    "Ron, I don't mind a challenge, but I think her family's on a suicide mission. This country isn't ready to stand on it's own feet yet."

    "Don't think so, huh? I hate to disagree with The Grand Poobah, but I disagree. It's time and past time that the Iraqis stand on their own two feet. We've been propping them up for the last 2 years."

    "Yeah, but they still need propping up."

    "Maybe, maybe not. One thing's for sure, they're going to get dropped in the deep end of the pool in a week or three or four, and they going to have to sink or swim. I think they'll swim. It may not be the stroke we'd have picked for them, but I think they'll get back to the side of the pool OK."

    "I hope you're right. A lot of people's lives depend on it."

    Ron didn't have an answer for that.

    -------------------------------------------------
    November 29, 2008

    Word came down--we pull out tomorrow. Time to head for home.



    From the Daybook of James M. Carpenter III


    November 29, 2008
    Camp Grayson Hughes
    Ramadi, Iraq


    "Farrah, I didn't call to argue. We pull out at 0600 tomorrow morning. I take it you're staying here?"

    "OK. It sounds like you've all made up your minds. I wish you good luck. If you change your mind, email me at my Gmail address. I'll be sure to check it before we board the plane."

    "It's OK, I need to check it anyway. I haven't had time since this whole thing started."

    "Look, email me once and a while anyway--just to let me know how things are going. Maybe when things calm down, you can come to the States for a visit."

    "OK. Look, tell everyone to keep their eyes and ears open. You have the weapons I got for you, so you should be able to take care of yourselves."

    "Goodbye, Farrah. I love you...."

    Jim hung up the phone. "...you should be able to take care of yourselves," he heard in his head.

    Sure--until the ammo runs out.

    ---------------------------------------------------

    The road march to Kuwait City was slow and dusty. The road wasn't packed with vehicles, but the traffic was steady, raising great clouds of dust. The few incidents of Jihadi activity along the route were met with overwhelming firepower, and it seemed that the message got through: "We're going home--mess with us and die."

    ---------------------------------------------------

    December 3, 2008

    We made good time, and only lost 1 tank and 2 Brads. There was a vehicle recovery operation ongoing after all, and they picked them up and delivered them to the ship. Everything is on board, and we'll be on a plane out later tonight.

    I got the shock of my life when I read my email...



    From the Daybook of James M. Carpenter III


    December 3, 2008
    Kuwait City, Kuwait


    Jim Carpenter read the message for dozenth time--maybe the two dozenth--he wasn't sure.

    "Sarah is dead? Shot in her own house?" That doesn't make any sense." Jim was talking to himself.

    Gang wars in Lexington? What the dickens was going on back there? Nobody mentioned problems in small towns.

    Doing some quick math, he decided that he could call home and only wake his bother a little early. He wanted some first hand information.

    Except the call wouldn't go through. It seemed that all the circuits were busy. Now that was odd. He'd never had a problem getting a call home before.

    Jim didn't like this one bit. But he wasn't sure what he could do about it. Returning his attention to the computer, he quickly composed a message to his brother, his sister and his grandparents. He wished he could make it a bit more personal, but he still had work to do. Capt. Maxwell was due to rejoin Echo Troop just in time to board the plane, and Jim wanted nothing left undone. Maxwell was Regular Army.

    He distantly noted that there was also no message from Farrah. He hadn't really expected one, but he'd hoped. Well, he'd just have to hope she was OK. Another thing he didn't like and could do nothing about.

    He wondered how many more times he would be saying that in the next few weeks.

    --------------------------------------------------

    December 3, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 25
    High temperature: 32
    Barometric pressure: 30.01, falling
    low heavy clouds

    The weather forecast is for snow, and I think they'll get it right this time. Early for snow, but that seems to be how our luck is running.



    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    December 3, 2008
    Yadkin College, NC


    Tom waved at the UPS truck as it started moving. Neither man in it returned the farewell.

    "Two men in a UPS truck--you wouldn't have seen that a year ago," he muttered. However, from the way the second man had not quite covered Tom with the AR-15 he was holding, the story was obvious. Either UPS trucks had been lost, or they were going to make sure they didn't lose any.

    He had also asked about Rudy, the UPS driver who regularly ran this route. Tom and Sarah had made Rudy's acquaintance during the construction of their home, and in the time since he had been a fairly regular visitor, bringing on-line purchases and packages related to Tom's work.

    "Don't know him," was all the driver had said. The "Don't care" portion was unstated, but unmistakable.

    Tom looked at the boxes. Eight in number, rectangular, and thin for their size, they had some heft to them. He looked for the shipping paperwork, but didn't see it. "Might be on one of the inner boxes." Stacked against the side of the back porch, he would have to move them all to look throughly. Well, he could do that as he moved them inside.

    Looking at on of the boxes, he noticed they were marked "Fragile". The shipping label was from "Wholesale Solar Inc." They were the solar panels Sarah had ordered. "Gee, that was fast. Doesn't go with the whole 'world's going to hell in a handbasket' bit, does it?"

    Looking up, he saw the truck in Walt's driveway, and more boxes, some small and apparently heavy, others that were long and thin, being unloaded. Tom shoved the paper into a pocket and headed to the building to get the hand truck.

    Opening up the building, he looked at several other boxes stacked off to one side, "Sarah's inheritance" was how he's come to think of them. The things she had ordered...

    Before she was murdered. For the hundredth time that day, Tom's heart sank. How would he raise his kids, earn a living and do all the other things that had to be done? There just weren't that many hours in a day. He couldn't keep farming the kids out to his grandparents and the neighbors, even though they all seemed to enjoy having them. Heck, he had some folks pretty much demanding a turn with them. But he knew he couldn't count on this much help forever. They were bound to get tired of providing him free daycare eventually.

    Grabbing the hand truck, he hustled back outside and got the first of the boxes. The sky was a uniform gray, and the clouds seemed to be getting lower. Well, the weather had called for snow.

    Taking the boxes into the building, he found a place to stack them so that they were all "This Side Up" and as vertical as he thought advisable. Not knowing how well they were packaged, he didn't want to take chances.

    On the sixth box, he found the paperwork. Opening it, he saw that what he had was 8 200 watt solar panels that had cost HOW MUCH! Quick mental math told him that he was still in decent shape money-wise, but damn!

    As he got the last box into the building, Walt was pulling up his driveway in his old truck. "Go get that hand truck of yours! This stuff is too heavy for an old man to carry!"

    "What stuff?"

    Walt smiled at him. "2 rifles and about 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Oh, and you owe me $2234.56. I'll take a check--I guess you're good for it, aren't you?"

    Tom sighed. This must be the guns and ammo Sarah mentioned. More mental math showed the bank account in decidedly worse shape than it had been a few moments before. "OK, hang on a second." He turned back to the building, unlocked the door and got the hand truck.

    "So what am I the proud owner of now? I have enough guns."

    "M-m-m, maybe true, but you don't have enough ammunition. Now, you have an extra couple of guns in a new caliber, and a much better supply of ammo. Be happy--it's going to be a lot better to have it and not need it..."

    "Than need it and not have it," said Tom, finishing the sentence for him. "I know, I know. So what sort of guns am I getting here?"

    "SKS carbines, good Albanian ones--they're just now coming on the market in quantity. God bless Communism, it's made it possible for us to have all the military guns and ammo we could ever want--cheap!"

    "Humph. Doesn't sound all that cheap to me." Tom replied as he started loading the hand truck.

    "Tom, remember that we don't know how long this will go on or how bad things may get. As long as the money holds out, we should all be stocking up on everything we can think of and have room for. Speaking of which, I'm going to put in another ammo order. Might even throw in a few more guns. Want in?"

    "Walt, I'm going to run out of money. I just got 8 big solar panels on the same truck this bunch of stuff came off of--8 big expensive panels. The charge controllers and so on are on the way and I've accounted for them, but I'm still going to have to buy batteries and spares, racking material and all the stuff to wire the house for 12 volt. I'm either going to have to stop spending money, earn more money, or start emptying my retirement funds. I sort of hate to do that."

    "Tom, I'm already working on emptying mine." Tom opened his mouth to speak, but Walt held up a hand. "I know what I'm doing. Some of what I'm buying can be converted to cash easily enough, and I'm still collecting Social Security and my pension from when I was a prosecutor, as long as those last. Everything I own is paid for, so my expenses are actually pretty small. All my money is going into food, medical supplies, guns and anything else I can think of--in other words, into goods. Have I mentioned I'm having one of those big Leonard buildings delivered in a week or so? Great place to store the things that aren't subject to go bad because of the weather. Oh, and I'll need to borrow your tractor. And you."

    Tom glared, then grabbed the loaded hand truck and grunted as he broke it back. "Well, Walt, I guess you know what's best for you." He started to drag the heavily laden hand truck toward the building, glad that the crusher run gravel of the driveway had compacted since it was laid. "Man, this stuff's heavy!"

    Walt grabbed the boxed carbines and followed. "Be glad we can still get it. Did you send in your C & R license papers?"

    "Yep, on Monday."

    "Good. Technically, the guns are still mine, but as soon as you get your license, we'll transfer them to you all nice and legal."

    "Thanks. I'd hate anyone to think I was some sort of gun runner," he said sardonically. The hand truck almost slammed forward. Tom looked around the building. "You know, I'm going to have to get some of this stuff better places to live. This ammo needs a better home, at least."

    "Not really, at least until warm weather. It's still in the original sealed cans, so except for heat, it's pretty much impervious to conditions." Walt laid the guns on a bench, and the pair went back out for another load.

    "Speaking of guns, boy, you are carrying a pistol these days, right?"

    Tom smiled, leaned the hand truck forward and pulled up the right side of his jacket to reveal his XD-9. He pulled up the opposite side to reveal 2 magazine in their carriers. "Yes, mother."

    "I wish you'd get something a bit more substantial. That 9 is a little small to my taste."

    Tom started to say that it had worked well enough for Sarah, but stopped. Maybe it had, maybe it hadn't. The bad guys were dead, but if Sarah had used more gun, perhaps she would still be alive.

    Instead, he said "Maybe, but I've don't care for the .40, and 1911s just don't fit me properly."

    "There are other .45s--every try any?"

    "Well, I tried Glocks, but I don't care for that "safe action" business. I tired Rugers, Taurus and Sigs, but they're all the same thing--the grip just feels too big. I've still got that Springfield 1911 I bought, but I don't care to shoot it. It's these small hands..." He held forth his hands. They were indeed small for a man, with slender fingers.

    "Well, the gun shows should start up after New Year's, if we're lucky. Why don't we get a few of us together and go to two or three and see what we can find. Springfield makes and XD in a .45, don't they?"

    "Yeah, the .45 GAP and the .45 ACP."

    "Well, I'd prefer to see you with the ACP version--I never saw the point of the GAP round, myself. And we're going to start you on some hand exercises--try to improve your grip strength. I've got some of those spring-squeeze things somewhere I'll loan you."

    "Fine, Auntie Walt. Whatever you say."

    Walt swatted at Tom. "Boy, you need to learn some respect for your elders."

    Tom raspberried him. Walt smiled.

    Tom saw a vehicle coming up the road. "Huh, it's the grandparents. They're bringing the kids back early." Just about then, he saw a snowflake. "Well I guess I know why--it's starting to snow."

    "Well let's get this stuff inside." Walt and Tom hustled the last 2 loads, and were just locking the building as Tom's grandparents' car pulled to a stop and the doors opened.

    Before Tom could speak, his grandfather said "Tom, have you checked your email today?"

    "This morning. Why?"

    "We got a message from your brother. He's on his way home!"

    "When...how? When will he be here?"

    "He didn't go into specifics, except to say that they had gotten ordered out of Iraq, had loaded all their equipment on a ship and and would be on a plane shortly. He doesn't know exactly where they were going to land, but he did say they had been told they were going home."

    "Well that's great! Let's get the kids inside and see what's in my inbox."

    ---------------------------------------------

    December 4, 2008

    Well, I guess when the Army says "home", they don't necessarily mean your home...



    From the Daybook of James M. Carpenter III


    December 4, 2008
    In the air somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean


    Capt. Maxwell stood at the front of the chartered Boeing 777, PA mike in one hand, gesturing for quiet with the other. When that didn't work, he bellowed "At ease!" into the mike. Silence reasserted itself.

    "I don't want any more complaining from you men. You're still in the US Army, and you will damn well act like it!"

    Telling them that instead of going home to North Carolina, the men of Echo Troop, 4th Cav were instead going to Ft. Knox, KY had not went over well--not that Maxwell had expected it to. That extra day in Kuwait, between loading the sealift ships and embarking the plane for home, had allowed the men time to check email, try to phone home and fail--damn the Army for cutting off the lines--and generally get very concerned about the situation in the States.

    He didn't blame them. He knew more about the situation than they did, and he was worried. At least his family lived on a military base that could be secured--theirs lived in cities and towns that were suffering through riots. For all he and they knew, some of their families could be dead.

    At least they had it better than the men in some units drawn from the larger cities. It was almost certain some of them had family members they'd never see again, and theyprobably knew it.

    "The time at Ft. Knox will be used to re-equip the unit, give you some refresher training on crowd control and maybe a little time for rest--if you're lucky. Within two weeks you should be on rail transport, with your equipment, going home."

    Ron Essick looked crushed. "Going to Charlotte is more like it," he muttered. Jim Carpenter elbowed him hard in the ribs. "Quiet," came from between his unmoving lips.

    "Those of you in the tank platoons," continued Maxwell, "will be issued Bradley AFVs in place of your M1s. Should you be needed for crowd control, these vehicles will be more suited to the task. Your M1s will stay at Ft. Knox for refurbishment and reissue at a later date."

    "That's all I have for you at this time. Platoon leaders, get your men some chow. After that, get some sleep." Capt. Maxwell hung up the microphone and returned to his seat in the first class section of the plane.

    "Come on, Ron, help me get the HQ platoon some food organized. I wonder what we have to eat?" They moved toward the galleys in the front, to be confronted with...cases of MREs.

    "Just f'ing great. I was hoping for airline food."

    "Haven't you heard, sir? Food's in short supply," said a sergeant that Jim thought he recognized as being from 2nd Platoon. "We get MREs instead."

    Jim smiled despite himself. "Sergeant, I guess you're right. Still, it's better than being hungry, maybe." Counting out the appropriate number, he gathered up as many brown bags as he could carry, motioning to Ron to get the rest. They made their way back to the HQ platoon's section near the back of the plane. Passing the MREs out, they listened to a chorus of complaints. Most centered around the idea that they would have to be eaten at room temperature.

    "Hey LT, don't these things have microwaves or something?"

    "Well damn," thought Jim, "I believe they do."

    "Give me those entrees, boys. We're about to find out!"

    Later, full of warm MRE (Jim still didn't want to think of it as "food"), the men played cards, some read, and others slept. He wasn't able to sleep, wondering what they would find when they reached home.

    Getting his daybook out, he wrote about his time in Iraq. Pausing only for rest room visits and another meal of MREs, he finally went to sleep about 8 hours after lifting off from Kuwait International Airport.

    He woke up when the plane started its descent into Louisville. "Man, you missed it," said Ron.

    "Missed what?"

    "We passed over Buffalo, New York on our way in. You could see smoke from the fires."

    "Fires?"

    "Yeah. Rumor Control says that they haven't been able to clear the snow this year, and it snowed something like 18" a day or two ago. They can't get fire trucks to some of the fires, so they just have to burn themselves out."

    "You're kidding me? What kind of town up North doesn't clear the roads of snow?"

    "One that's broke, man. Or maybe one where the nut cases are shooting at the trucks."

    Jim Carpenter reflected on that cheerful thought until the wheels touched down.
    Last edited by The Freeholder; 01-04-2006 at 06:11 PM.

  9. #9
    December 15, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 20
    High temperature: 34
    Barometric pressure: 30.16, steady
    partly cloudy

    Still cold. Temperature barely gets above freezing during the day, but the sun is helping melt the remaining snow and ice. Most of the main and secondary roads are fairly clear now; just the shady spots are still slick. The less traveled roads still have a fair amount of packed snow/ice on them.

    I suppose I should be grateful. 14" of snow in December--early December? Followed by a week of subfreezing temps? If I believed in omens, I'd be worried right now. It doesn't do stuff like this in this part of North Carolina. Well, not often, and never this early.

    The local news has a lot of stories about people having problems keeping the heat on, getting to the store for groceries and so on. They blaming the county, the city and anyone else in sight for the snow, the lack of plows and their own lack of preparation.

    I wonder what they'll have to say when it gets worse?



    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    December 15, 2008
    Yadkin College, NC


    Tom threw a couple of logs into the wood stove, closed the door, checked the dampers and closed the safety screen. Walking to the windows, he looked out across the front yard to the road. The snow was thin to gone in the open areas, but was still laying in the shade. The road was still just 3 wheel tracks where traffic past the house had managed to crush the snow thin enough that the heat of the day, such as it was, could melt it. At this rate, it would be clear by Christmas.

    Tom couldn't remember snow laying this long in this part of North Carolina since he was a young child. "Figures," he said to Little Tom, who was sitting in the middle of the floor playing with his blocks. "I could use some good weather and we get the longest-lasting snow of the decade. Cold to boot."

    "Daddy, snow's fun!" remarked his son.

    Kneeling down to the boy, Tom looked at him and said, "Snow's fun for playing, but Daddy has some work outside he needs to do. Hard to do in the snow and the cold."

    "But Daddy, snow's fun!" Little Tom insisted. Tom just smiled and sat down opposite his son. "Yeah, bud, I guess it is for you. It's a shame most of it's gone now. I kind of enjoyed going sledding with you two." He started stacking up the blocks. "It was almost like old times," he said quietly.

    The two played blocks for a bit, Tom stacking them up and Little Tom knocking them down. After a while, Tom got up off the floor and told his son, "Now you stay away from the stove. The stove's hot, remember? I need to go check the email."

    "I will, Daddy," said Little Tom.

    Smiling at his son, Tom re-checked the safety screen he had built from EMT conduit and chicken wire. It was ugly and a bit rough around the edges, but it used materials he had around the house, and it was some of the first real work he had done with his hands in weeks. It served to keep the kids away from the wood stove, and allowed him to do some other things when they were awake.

    Checking on his daughter, he saw she was still enjoying her afternoon nap. Tom reversed his steps to the study, taking his seat behind his computer. Tapping a shift key to wake it up, he entered his password.

    For nearly two weeks, Tom's routine had been to wake up before dawn, unable to sleep, shower, shave and then work for 2-3 hours on the Entex project. Eventually the kids would wake up, and he would get them dressed, feed them and play with them a bit before he took care of the household duties, such as dirty dishes, laundry and cleaning. Then he fed the kids dinner. After dinner, he'd put them down for a nap by turns--Anne first, then when she woke up, Little Tom. That let him have some one-on-one time with them.

    In between, he worried about the list of all the things he needed to do or buy. It was a long list, and the more research he did, the longer it got. To make matters worse, the weather had robbed him of any chance of getting outside work done--and a lot of the work was outside. Another reason to worry.

    Tom cocked an ear toward the great room, and heard the blocks tumble again. He tried to push his focus toward the screen in front of him.

    After they had both had their naps, Tom would fix some supper and get everyone fed. Then it was bath time. After that, the kids got to watch something on TV, nearly always a DVD of something kid oriented. Barney was making a comeback with the small set, and Tom thought he had most of the DVDs memorized at this point. At least the kids would be so zoned in he could finish any housecleaning that needed finishing. He hated using the TV as a "one-eyed babysitter", but he didn't feel he had a choice.

    Somewhere between 8 and 9, the kids would be ready for bed, and Tom was ready for them to be. With them asleep, he some time to work on the things he couldn't do with them awake. Around 11, he would force himself to the bed, watch the local news, then fall asleep watching one of the cable news channels. He had to do it that way. If he tried to go to bed like a normal person, his mind raced with unwelcome thoughts, and he lay sleepless until the wee hours.

    What surprised him was that he didn't need more sleep. Five hours, maybe six, was all he seemed able to take. Then he was back at it again.

    Checking through his email, he found several welcome messages. The first was from Entex. They had received the project and it met all the requirements, and they had credited his business account with the remainder of his fee. That was good news, since it meant that he had money to work with for now.

    The next was from his sister Jane, who was still in California with her husband John, a Navy officer stationed in San Diego. She was just checking in to let him know that they were OK, and that base security was keeping the riff-raff out. All the necessary supplies were being flown in or arriving via ship.

    She also said San Diego itself was in bad shape. A lot of Hispanics were trying to make their way south, and the Mexican government didn't want them back. They were guarding their side of the border pretty heavily, stopping the "returnistas" from crossing over. Of course, this human backup caused numerous problems on the US side of the border, ranging from litter and property damage to theft, robbery and other violent crime. The San Diego PD, stretched thin, was hard pressed to cope. Despite California's gun laws, many residents had managed to arm themselves, and confrontations were frequent. So far, it hadn't turned violent. The situation was, she said, "kinda tense, with an deep undercurrent of fear".

    However, some of the returnistas were quite knowledgeable about avoiding complications at the border. With the help of the same "coyotes" who had brought them into the United Sates in the first place, the smart ones were able to cross without undue problems. The Mexican government, as the US government before it, found that guarding the entire border was nearly impossible. It was like trying to hold a handful of sand--no matter how tightly you gripped it, it just leaked through.

    Tom smiled. It was all over the news--it wasn't just San Diego where this was going on--all the border states were seeing the same thing. With the US economy rapidly sinking into a depression, the demand for labor, cheap or otherwise, was drying up. The Mexican government was screaming for the US government "do something".

    According to the Internet grapevine, the government, or at least those in the government closest to the problem, were doing something--waving good bye as years of illegal immigration was reversed in months. Of course, the politicians had plenty to say about the situation. They expressed "concern" for the "plight of the immigrants", but that was as far as it went. They were liabilities now, and the politicians knew it.

    During a short stint doing contract work for Homeland Security, he had made the acquaintance of a number of folks in Customs and Border Protection. They had privately fumed at their inability to stop the flood of illegals. However, the powers in Washington had worked the system to make sure that the cheap labor/potential pool of voters continued to expand.

    What they hadn't counted on was their economic policies failing. With the hubris of those who believe they are all-powerful, they had continued artificially pumping up the economy with cheap labor from illegal immigrants, inflation, welfare programs and all the other tools they had used for nearly 50 years. They thought they could keep it up forever.

    Well, it was becoming obvious they were wrong. The house of cards they had built was collapsing fast. Tom mused how he had been a beneficiary of one part of the process, the tech boom of the late 90s. He hoped he could put the money to good use before it was worthless.

    Tom worried about his sister, but between distance and her absolute refusal to leave her husband behind, he could do nothing for her. He composed a message to her, bringing her up to date on things with the weather and the kids, and hit the send button.

    The next message was from the company that held his 401(k). They had processed his request to liquidate the account. The message was to confirm that they had withheld the estimated taxes, transferred the remainder to his bank account, how sorry they were to see him leave and so on. Tom opened a browser window, logged into his bank and checked his checking account.

    "Boy, doesn't that look like a lot of money," he said to himself. He already had plans on what to do with it--assuming there was time left to get it done.

    Tom smiled again. His grandparents would think he had lost his mind when they found out what he'd done. Well, they'd have get over it. Jim would be home soon, and he would need a place to live and supplies. Tom knew that Jim had a lot of stuff in storage, but doubted that it was everything he would need. Plus he wanted to have a place closer to him for his grandparents, and there was still stuff on Sarah's list that was yet to be bought. Then there was his own list, lengthening daily....

    Listening again, Tom could hear nothing from the great room. He got up and quietly walked down the hall. Sure enough, Little Tom had simply laid his head down when he was tired, and was asleep. Tom picked him up, and he stirred but didn't wake. Carrying him to his room, he laid him on the bed, and covered him with an afghan that his mother had knitted for him. He checked Anne again as he went by and went back to his desk.

    There was a short message from his brother Jim. He was busy, as usual. He wasn't sure when they would ship out, as usual. The higher ups kept saying "soon", but soon never seemed to arrive. Jim said the men were restless. They were getting a lot more news from home than they had in Iraq, and every day it got worse. There had been 2 desertions last week. One had been found dead in Louisville, apparently the victim of a robbery. The other was still missing.

    Checking down the list, he opened several emails from eBay. The results were mixed. He had won all the ham radio gear he had eSnipe bid on on his behalf, except one. That one made him angry, as it was the big transceiver he wanted for the upper bands. Next time he'd have to be more generous on the bid amount. At least there was plenty of it to be had. A lot of people seemed to be selling their backup rigs lately.

    The results on the rolls of silver dimes, quarters and halves were considerably less successful--he had lost nearly all of those, despite bidding what he thought was a good premium over the spot price of silver. Well, he had money to work with now. He could bid higher next time as well.

    Going to the browser window, he went to PayPal and made payments for the bids he had won. "Now if it all gets here," he thought.

    The last message was from the company that Sarah had placed the big food order with. "Due to recent large government contracts, there will be a substantial delay in the delivery of your order. We apologize for this inconvenience, and assure you we are working as rapidly as possible to ship your order."

    "Now, I wonder what sort of large government contracts they're filling?" mumbled Tom. He remembered some Internet rumblings he'd read about a week ago about the government placing large food orders, but no one had any hard information. Tom cynically wondered how many bunkers they had to stock.

    Tom listened to a noise from down the hall. Anne was starting to wake up from the sound of it. Tom signed off the computer and walked quickly to the kitchen to get a bottle ready. From experience, he knew as soon as the clean diaper was on, she was going to want to be fed, and she could be pretty insistent about that.

    Taking the bottle with him, he found Anne looking around. She cooed at the sight of her father. "Well, missy, you're in a good mood--that must have been one great nap," he said as he sat the bottle down and picked up his daughter. After changing her, he gave her the bottle, and she latched on hungrily.

    Walking down the hall to the great room, he sat down with her and picked up the TV remote. Flipping on the big screen, he punched in the channel for CNBC. Nothing new there; the circuit breakers had kicked in again and the market had closed down the maximum 1%. Tom wondered if anyone believed that the new trigger levels were doing anything other than prolonging the agony. Even the CNBC commentators had lost their ability to be positive, after nearly 3 weeks of unbridled bad economic and business news.

    Flipping to FOXNews, there was coverage of problems in various cities. Police were stretched thin but were able to contain them, the Feds were sending assistance and so on. Tom knew that things were worse than they were being told. The Internet was awash in the stories--too many for them to be "just stories". Besides, his grandfather's ham radio buddies had been providing emergency communications for a while now, and Grandpa was listening in on a regular basis. Things were sliding.

    The majority of people in the big cities were out of work, out of money and out of hope. They were scared, cold, hungry and angry. Essential services were failing. Worse yet, they were trapped and they knew it--airports and train stations were closed, and the roads blocked by the military. It's almost as if they were being...quarantined.

    Suddenly, Tom put it all together. The Feds had written off the big cities, and were trying to save what was possible of the smaller cities and towns. They would obviously trying to save military bases, such as San Diego and Ft. Bragg. They would also be attempting to preserve as much of the ground transportation infrastructure as possible, along with various important industries such as oil, coal, chemicals and agriculture.

    Tom couldn't quite bring himself to believe it--would the government actually write off millions of people? Reflecting on the idea, he believed they could make that kind of decision. They would see it as being "for the good of the country as a whole". He would have to snoop around the Internet and see if anyone else was thinking this. If this sort of thinking caught hold, some ugly things would start happening, and soon. He would also have to start watching for evidence...

    With a dry sucking sound indicating that Anne finished her bottle, Tom sat her up and burped her. He turned her around and sat her in his lap, facing out so she could see. He continued to flip channels. The time on the TV display was 4:42 PM.

    On his second time through the list, he heard tires crunching the gravel in the drive. Looking out the window he saw an unfamiliar car. Not interested in taking chances, he got up, switching off the TV in the process, and hustled down the hall with Anne. Putting her in her crib, he shut the door, then shut Little Tom's door. He took his pistol from the holster and passed a thumb over the rear. He could feel the raised pin indicating that it was cocked.

    He moved where he could see out the window without getting too close. No car. Moving to the back of the house, he saw the car, and Victoria Overly getting out. She was dressed in a waitress uniform. A young boy got out of the passenger door, and the two made their way toward the back door.

    Tom breathed deeply and holstered his pistol. He went out the kitchen door into the enclosed back porch, unlocking the door as they reached it. "Good afternoon, Ms. Overly."

    "Tom Carpenter, when will I get you to call me Toy?" She smiled at him. Tom was impressed--even dressed as a waitress she was a pretty woman. He immediately felt guilty for the thought.

    "Hello, Toy. I guess I'll get used to it eventually." Tom gestured to the boy, who seemed to be about 8 or 9. "Who's your friend?"

    "Tom Carpenter, I'd like you to meet my son, Caleb Overly."

    Caleb reached out a hand and said "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Carpenter."

    Tom took the proffered hand. "Hello, Caleb. With your mother's permission," he looked at Toy, "you may call me Tom."

    "Now Tom, I don't want him being familiar."

    "Toy, Mr. Carpenter has always been my grandad. I've never gotten used to it being applied to me, even when he isn't around. It feels funny."

    "Well, we'll let him try it on for size." She looked at him. "May we come in?"

    Tom blushed. "I'm sorry--social graces were never my strong point. Please..." He stepped back and held the door for them.

    As they opened the kitchen door, he could hear a wail of indignation from Anne, echoing down the hall. "Let me run fetch the baby. I stashed her in her room when I saw you drive up and didn't recognize the car."

    Tom quickly walked down the hall and rescued his daughter. Wiping her tears and jollying her up a bit, he cracked the door and peaked into Little Tom's room. His eyes were open and he was looking at the door. "Time to get up?" he asked.

    "Not really, buddy, but get up anyway. We have company. You need to potty?"

    The little head shook no. Tom, having learned this lesson previously, said "Did you wet in your pullups?"

    The little head shook no again. Well, he hadn't been asleep for long. "OK, let's go then." Little Tom followed him down the hall to the kitchen.

    "Oh, let me hold her!" Toy reached for Anne. "Please, please!" Tom surrendered his daughter to her. She gave the baby a kiss on the cheek, then turned to Little Tom and smiled. "Tommy, how's the big boy?"

    "I did good! I didn't pee in my pullups!"

    Tom looked down, shaking his head. Toy took the comment in stride, and said seriously, "Well, you're getting to be a very big boy. You look like you were asleep--sure you don't need to go now?"

    "Maybe a little."

    "Well, why don't we go potty. Then we can come back and have some supper." She looked at Tom. "The restaurant closed early today--not much business, surprise, surprise. There was a lot of food that was just going to be thrown away, so I grabbed it. I've got enough chicken and dumplings, green beans, fried okra and even some apple pie to feed us twice over. Hungry?"

    Tom felt his mouth watering. He had been eating from the freezer for a while, and he was about tired of it. He felt his stomach rumble, and hoped no one heard it.

    Toy did. She laughed, which Tom thought was a nice sound. "I'll take that as a 'yes'. Caleb, why don't you and Tom get the food in the house, and we'll go take care of business." She looked down at Anne, who smiled up at her. Sniffing, she said "I think someone has made a stinky. Did you do that?"

    Anne giggled. Tom said "Why don't you let me change her and you get the food?"

    "It's OK, Tom--I'm no stranger to messy diapers. Besides Caleb, I helped with my brothers and sisters, and I used to babysit. We can handle it, can't we guys?" She bounced Anne and looked at Little Tom.

    "Well, OK, I guess." Tom felt a bit nonplussed. The woman had a knack for taking over, didn't she? "Ah, the diapers are on the changing table."

    "We'll be fine. Now go get that food before it gets too cold. It won't taste as good if we have to reheat it." She headed toward the back of the house.

    Tom watched her leave, then looked at Caleb. "Is your Mom always so...so..."

    "Take charge? Yes. I think it's one of the reasons my Dad left."

    Tom looked at the boy. Yeah, he couldn't be over 9--10 tops. But he sure sounded older. "Caleb, how old are you?

    "Nine--but I'm smart for my age. I suppose with an IQ of 195, I'm smart for any age."

    Tom was taken aback. The last time his IQ had been tested it was 170. It tended to run high in his family, and Tom's was one of the highest. But 195? This kid was so far out on the bell curve he was in danger of falling off.

    "Yes, I guess you are. Well, it'll be nice to have someone around besides my Grandpa and Walt who can give me a good game of chess."

    "How do you know I play chess?"

    Tom smiled. The kid was smart, but he wasn't experienced--he'd given Tom the answer that he did play chess without realizing he had done so. "Well, it isn't universal by any means, but more often than not, people at the far end of the IQ scale play strategy games as a hobby. Chess is usually one of the first they learn."

    "And you would know this...how?"

    Oh God, he was arrogant, too. Tom had seen this before. It seemed when the really smart ones, the ones who grew up without being exposed to other kids like themselves, began to think they were really smarter than everyone else. Generally it was true, but Tom also knew that IQ wasn't everything. The kid would be a handful until he found that out for himself--or someone taught it to him.

    "Because our IQs are close enough to be unworthy of discussion, and I've got at least 20 years of education and experience on you."

    Caleb looked at him, unimpressed. Tom would have been surprised if he had done otherwise.

    "And now, I think we need to get that food in before your mother comes back and catches us goofing off."

    Tom walked out the door, not particularly worried if the kid followed or not.

    This would be interesting.

    -------------------------------------------------

    "Well, I have to admit I was getting a little tired of my own microwave cooking," said Tom as he put his silverware on his plate. "It's seems like a waste to cook for just me. Anne's a long way from solid food, and Little Tom hasn't developed a taste for 'real' food yet."

    "Tom, why don't you go out?"

    "Well. outside of the fuel and the cost, it's the trouble. I have to pack up all the kids' goodies, and that's a job in itself. By the time I get that done, I don't want to go."

    Toy turned to Caleb. "Caleb, I'm sure Tom would appreciate it if you could load the dishwasher while I help him get the kids' baths."

    "Sure, Mom. So what are the grownups going to talk about?"

    "Enough, Caleb." She shot him a look that was unmistakable.

    Standing, she got Anne from her high chair. "Tommy, are you finished?"

    "Yes."

    "Ready for a bath?"

    "Uh-huh."

    "Well let's go, then. Come on, Dad--I'm going to help, not do it for you!" She smiled at Tom again.

    Tom felt distinctly uncomfortable. What were the adults going to go talk about?

    ----------------------------------------------

    Tom knelt in front of the tub, bathing Anne in her baby tub. He had decided that he would rather bend over the tub and not have to clean up so much mess, than do it the way Sarah had, using the kitchen table, being able to stand up, then spending 20 minutes drying the kitchen. Anne was always a messy bathe, and she was particularly enjoying this bath, splashing as much of it as possible on her father. For the third time, she managed to catch him in the face with a splash--a big one this time. From his perch on the toilet, Little Tom laughed at his dad.

    He was starting to wipe it on his sleeve, when Toy's voice said "Wait." She reached over from her seat with a towel and wiped his face.

    "Thanks."

    She looked at him. "I want to apologize for Caleb. Sometimes he's too smart for his own good. He has a really high IQ, and he thinks he smarter than everyone else."

    'He told me. I think he was taking my measure--trying to see how I would react. I sort of stomped on him a bit."

    Toy looked at him sharply. Tom continued, "Look, I have an IQ of 170 or thereabouts. I haven't been tested in years, so I don't know what it is now. I don't really care--it's not that important as far as I'm concerned. I grew up in a house full of smart people--high IQs run in the family. My brother Jim is something like 170, and my sister Jane is 180, if I remember correctly. Grandma and Grandpa are both around 160. My Dad was about the same, and I'm told my Mom was around 140 or 145. None of us kids were ever able to develop that "I'm smart!" attitude. We couldn't--everyone around us was just as smart as we were."

    Toy arched an eyebrow. "I bet that made for an interesting childhood."

    "Probably not the way you think it would. Sure, there was a lot of intellectual stimulation, and a lot of in-home education. Nerds that we were, we used to read the encyclopedia for fun. But I was taught early on that having a high IQ doesn't really mean squat. You can have an IQ of 200 and still be a totally worthless human being. What matters is what you do with it. I can still remember my Mom saying to me 'Tom, what good is being smart if you don't use it intelligently?' When I was kid, it sounded funny. As I got older, I found she was right."

    "When I was working in California, I ran into a lot of people, guys mostly, that were like Caleb. Really smart, but never taught that a high IQ means nothing in and of itself. Arrogant asses who thought they were better than everyone else. I knew one who actually committed suicide when a research project he was heading for a startup didn't pan out--he didn't know how to deal with failure."

    "Tom, my IQ is only 125--I was tested in school too. I'm not dumb, but I'm not like you and Caleb. I grew up poor--I graduated high school, and was expected to get a job and contribute to raising my little brothers and sisters. I was stupid, and married the first guy that asked me just to get out of my parents house. My husband left me and our son--he said he was a 'freak'. I'm stuck working as a waitress to pay the bills. My son looks down on me. Sometime I think he hates me."

    "He has no right or reason to do so. He isn't old enough to be able to judge you. For all his intelligence, he's an inexperienced little kid. His doesn't know enough to make judgments."

    "Maybe so, but he's right. I could have done so much more, and I didn't."

    "You're being too hard on yourself. I don't think you're doing so badly. You're providing for your kid. You have a roof over your head and three squares a day. Clothes and a car to drive. A lot of people have a lot less, especially these days."

    "And I can't send him to the kind of school he deserves, because I don't have the money."

    "So? Do it yourself. You aren't stupid--homeschool him as far as you can. Take him to the library, or buy him cheap encyclopedias or college textbooks at yard sales. As smart as he is, he'll do a lot of the work himself."

    "But he's so much smarter than I am--I can't really teach him anything. He'll leave me in a cloud of dust."

    "Sure he will, after a while." Tom lifted Anne from the tub and handed her to Toy, who still had the towel in her hand. As she started to dry Anne, Tom emptied the baby tub and rinsed it. Setting it aside, he started a tub for Little Tom. "Look, your job is not teaching in an academic sense. He'll handle a lot of that for himself. You teach him how to be a decent person. Lead by example--show him how to use that intellect for something besides being a little prick."

    Toy looked at him. She said nothing.

    "Uh, me and my big mouth. I warned you, I'm not big on the social graces. I'm sorry I said that."

    She smiled ruefully. "He is, isn't he? Some days I've just love to spank him, he's so superior."

    Tom said nothing, knowing he'd dodged a bullet. Turning off the water, he picked up Little Tom and said "OK, buddy, let's skin those clothes off and get cleaned up."

    The lights went out.

  10. #10
    December 16, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 23
    High temperature: 35
    Barometric pressure: 30.22, steady
    partly cloudy


    The lights went off last night around 7 or so, and are still off this morning. No one is sure what's going on. The radio and TV stations that are on are broadcasting have very few details. What everyone seems to agree on is that it effects southern Virginia, nearly all of North Carolina, most of South Carolina and parts of Tennessee and Georgia. No one seems to know for sure why they're out or when they will be on.

    Land-line phones are still working for the most part. Cell phones are down. No surprise there, none of the cell companies have taken backup power seriously in years.

    All hell broke loose in town last night, right after the power went down. We aren't sure what started it, but there are plenty of people dead--a lot of them police. From the radio traffic, it sounds like there is still a little mopping up going on, but that the police and the citizens have things in hand. We're going to ride in and see how bad things are.



    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    December 16, 2008
    Yadkin College, NC


    When the lights went out, Tom was more annoyed than anything else. He fished out the Maglite Solitaire he habitually carried in his pocket out and handed it to Toy, then went to see what was going on.

    He slipped out the door, navigating by touch to his bedroom. Retrieving his Surefire light from the bedside table, he walked toward the kitchen. A crash from that end of the house stopped him. He tried to think--what should he do?

    Thinking for only a couple of seconds, he back-tracked down the hall to the bathroom. "Keep the door locked until I tell you to open it," he said to Toy, then reached behind, turned the lock, and pulled the door shut, cutting off her question.

    Where the hall opened into the great room, he drew his pistol and quartered the opening. He quickly checked the windows and door, which were all intact. Checking back down the hallway, he quartered the doorway into the kitchen. His flashlight found Caleb standing in the middle of a broken plate.

    Caleb started to speak, but Tom shushed him, then quickly checked the windows and door. Looking out the windows toward Walt's he saw a dim glow in one window. He couldn't see lights anywhere else in that direction.

    Aiming the flashlight toward a rechargable light plugged into the wall, Tom said, "Caleb, get that light. Keep it off until I tell you you can turn it on."

    "Why? The power's off. It's no big deal." Then he saw the gun in Tom's hand, and his eyes went wide.

    "Look, I don't have time to argue with you. I'm going to check on your Mom, then check the rest of the house and see what's going on. Do what I told you, and I'll explain later."

    Tom continued around the house, quartering doors and checking windows. Looking out each window, he couldn't see any lights. "Huh," was all the comment he could think of.

    Confident that it wasn't another attack on his home, Tom holstered his pistol, then walked down the hall and knocked on the bathroom door. "Toy, it's Tom. Everything seems OK."

    The door opened. "What was that noise? What happened to the power? Why did you lock the door?"

    "Caleb dropped a plate in the dark. I don't know about the power. I wasn't sure that it wasn't the house being broken into. Let me get you a better light, and you can finish Little Tom's bath. I need to figure out what's up."

    Tom went to one of the hall closets. On the top shelf were the things that he and Sarah had kept handy for power outages. Grabbing an LED lantern, he flipped the switch and was rewarded with a flood of light. He grabbed a second one, and switched off his Surefire.

    Entering the bathroom, he sat the lantern on the back of the toilet. "There you go."

    "Daddy, where's the lights?"

    "They went out, buddy. Something's happened to the power--I can't see a light on anywhere in sight. They'll come back on soon, I'm sure. Now you let Toy help you with that bath."

    Walking back to the office, he grabbed his portable scanner from the desk drawer. Turning it on, he found it was alive with traffic. Trying to listen, he went to the living room and checked the stove. He threw in a couple more logs, and opened the dampers a bit. Without the blower and the ceiling fans, he's have to burn it a bit harder to keep the house comfortable.

    He couldn't make sense of the radio traffic. There was so much traffic, the scanner was stopping on each frequency, then skipping only to the next one. There was no way follow a conversation in the mess. He started locking out frequency banks to eliminate some of the traffic. Finally, he was down to the Davidson County Sheriff Department, county EMS and the volunteer fire departments. Those 3 groups got the chatter down to something he could deal with.

    Listening to the reports, it seemed the power was off in the entire county. Davidson County's 911 Center had already been in touch with Rowan, Randolph, Forsyth and Guilford counties, and had discovered that they appeared to have a similar problem. No, no reports on why or when the power would be back on.

    Tom tried to remember which bank he had programmed the local utilities into. He tried the one he thought it was, and was rewarded with the Lexington PD's radio traffic. "That's not it," he said, and started to lock the bank back out, when he heard Hollis Allgood's voice.

    "It looks like the the bunch off of West 6th are moving toward the city cemetery. Units 202, 208 and 211 take up positions on the south side of 3rd Street. Unit 203, what's your status?"

    "Unit 203. It looks like the group east of Main Street are moving in the same general direction on their side. I've got 25, maybe 30 men, all armed."

    "203, get out of there. Pull back to East 2nd and find those Lexington units. Dispatch, I need Lexington PD and SWAT and I need them now."

    "Dispatch, acknowledge. Lexington PD is responding 2 units now--do you require more?"

    "Dispatch, I need all of them. Get someone calling up the off shifts and any reserves you can find. Can you get me an ETA on the SWAT boys?"


    Tom stood in the office, dumbfounded. What the dickens was going on in town? Only half watching where he was going, he walked back to the bathroom.

    Toy had Little Tom pretty much bathed and was rinsing him off with the handheld shower head. "I wish I'd had one of these when Caleb was small..." She was cut off when the scanner spoke.

    "100, this is 203. I've hooked up with Lexington, but there're only 4 of us. Shotguns and pistols--no rifles. What should we do?"

    "What's happening, Tom?"

    "Shush. It sounds like some sort of fight between the LEOs and two other bunches of some sort. I just started listening."

    "203, keep you heads down, and try to hide the units. You're way outnumbered. If they see you and start shooting, keep to cover and hold them back as long as possible. Dispatch, were is the SWAT team?"

    "100, they're trying to get everyone together. Last we heard was that only half of them have reported in."

    "We're out of time--tell them to bring what they've got. I need them on top of the jail building and the parking garage in sniper mode. We have to keep them out of the jail."

    "Roger, 100. This party is come as you are."

    "And lock down the department. Tell Lexington they'd better do the same."

    "Roger 100."


    Tom still couldn't figure this out--who was fighting who and why?

    "Tom, what's going on? Is it a riot?"

    "I'm not sure. It sort of sounds like somebody is trying to get into the jail, maybe."

    The phone rang. "Toy, can you get him in jammies?"

    "Sure, but..."

    "I have to get the phone." Tom hustled down the hall to the kitchen, turning down the scanner as he went. He answered on the 6th or 7th ring. "Hello?"

    "Boy, where have you been--I let the phone ring off the hook!"

    "Walt, I was at the other end of the house. Do you have a scanner?"

    "Now why do I want one of those?"

    "Great thing when you want to find out something outside of what you can see. Power's out all over, and it sounds like some sort of riot is getting ready to happen in town."

    "Well I know the power's out--any fool can see that."

    "No Walt, I mean all over--Davidson, Rowan, Guilford and Forsyth. Maybe more, but that's all I heard."

    "Hm-m-m. Now that's interesting. What would cause that, I wonder?"

    "I don't know, but there's more. There's a riot or something happening in town. It sounds like Sheriff Allgood is in charge, but he's on the Lexington PD frequencies. So are all his men. It sounds like they're trying to defend the jail, but it's pretty confusing."

    "What's going on now?"

    "I don't know--I turned down the volume so I could answer the phone. Let me check." Tom took the scanner off his belt, held it up close to the phone and turned up the volume.

    "...matic weapons fire! Dispatch, do you copy? We're taking automatic weapons fire! County 203 is down. Lexington 36 is down. Lexington 33 is pinned down by automatic weapons fire. We need help!"

    "33, this is 100. Where are you? We need a location!"

    "100, we're at 3rd and Main, behind the gas station. We're getting the hell shot out of us! We need..."
    Another burst of fire came over the radio, and the mike went dead.

    "33, this is 100. Status!" There was a pause, then again, "33, this is 100--status!" Gunfire could be heard faintly in the background each time the mike was keyed.

    "Walt, are you hearing this?! It sounds like a war's going on!"

    "Quiet, boy."

    "Dispatch, this is 100. I think we've lost the men on the east side of Main. We're going to make a circle west and take up positions along 2nd Street at ground level. You need to round up every man that can carry a gun and as much ammunition as they can manage and send them to block that group coming from the east and tell them to move fast. We're almost out-maneuvered here."

    "Acknowledged, 100. I'll get everyone on the way."


    "Tom, I want you to keep listening to this, but get off the phone and call your grandparents. Tell them to get to your house right now--and tell them to stop by Mary Alice's place and get her. I'm going to call her, then I'm going to get Alice and I'll be down there. You're getting guests. That damn bunker you and your wife built may just come in handy."

    "Sure, Walt. I'll get calling. What are we going to do?"

    "Hunker down, boy. We're going to hunker down and wait for daylight." The phone went dead as Walt hung up.

    "100, everyone that we can find is on the way. We're getting calls from citizens that want to help. I've told them to stay home, but they say they're coming anyway. You'll need to watch for them."

    "Roger, dispatch. Let 'em come, we're going to need all the help we can get. We were wrong about this, all wrong. There's way too many for us to handle."


    Tom turned set the lantern so he would have better light, and there stood Caleb. "Ah, hi, Caleb. Uh...why don't you go help your mother..."

    Caleb looked at him, but didn't move to leave. "Come on Caleb, she's going to want you with her."

    "I can help. I'm small, but I'm not dumb."

    Tom looked at him. The kid was right, up to a point. "No, you're not, are you? OK, Caleb, I'll tell you what. I needs an extra set of eyes. Go to the great room and open the curtains on the windows. I want you to keep watch on the road in front of the house, both directions. If you see any cars or any people moving out there, you need to sound the alarm. We're going to be getting company--friendly company--but I still want to know everything that moves. Stand back from the window so no one can see you. Can you do that for me?"

    "I can do that."

    "Good. You go watch. Take your flashlight, but try not to use it. I've got phone calls to make."

    ---------------------------------------------------

    It took Walt and Alice 10 minutes to arrive at the back door first, carrying blankets, pillows, flashlights and pistols. Their second trip from the truck they brought in long guns and a crate of ammo.

    "Well, that was quick. You guys already packed or something?"

    Walt snorted. "Tom, can you barricade those windows?"

    "I can close the blinds and the drapes, but I can't block them off."

    "Damn. I'd feel better if you had some sand bags or something. Well, it'll have to do."

    "Ah, Walt, the problem is in town. You think it's going to get out here?"

    "Boy, I just don't know. But we both know that some of the friends of Sarah's late visitors are in that jail. Who knows what they might take a mind to do if they get out? Speaking of that, what's the situation?"

    "The bad guys almost got across Main Street from the east. The cavalry got there just in time to stop them. Sounds like they may have hit several, but they've taken some casualties. Outside of vehicles, cover's kind of slim in that area. The group on 2nd Street is holding; no casualties so far. It sounds like the two groups are only loosely coordinated. If they get their act together and make a simultaneous attack, or they can get around the cops, it's going to get bad. It sounds like quite a few folks have showed up with hunting rifles and such, and that's helped even things up some. They're shooting through things to get bad guys."

    "Heh. Stupid gangbangers. They assume that because everyone in their neighborhood is scared spitless of them, the whole world is. Now let's hope they stay stupid."

    Caleb called out, "Tom, there's a car coming down the road."

    "Just one?"

    "That's all I can see."

    Walt pulled back the bolt of the SKS rifle he was holding, took a stripper clip from his jacket pocket and loaded it. "These are the old steel-cored ammo--haven't been able to buy it in years. Goes through quite a bit of stuff, if you get my drift."

    "My HK's in the corner, but it's probably the grandparents, don't you think?"

    "Probably, but I'm in no mood for chances. Get it and cover them from down the hall. I'll take it from here."

    Caleb called out again. "They turning up the driveway!"

    "Douse the lights!" Walt ordered. "Alice, cover the back--eyes sharp."

    Alice's voice called from the kitchen. "If you're waiting on me, Walt Johnson, you're waiting for nothing."

    "Atta girl, Alice. Toy, get all the kids into Tom's office."

    "But I can't see!"

    "Do your best and hurry--they're here. And take the scanner and keep up with what's happening in town!" Walt looked out a window for a moment. He moved toward the kitchen, and went out the door. Alice was sputtering behind him.

    Meeting James and Hannah Carpenter as they were getting out of the car, he asked "Where's Mary Alice?"

    "She won't come. She's worried about her cats in the cold if the power stays out."

    "CATS!" roared Walt. "Why in the daylights didn't you drag her over here?"

    "Walt, don't you think that maybe you're over-reacting a bit? There's no indication that this
    will progress further than town," said James.

    "And precious little that it won't if the police are killed or run off. James, we're more or less on our own--we can't call 911 for this one--they're busy right now. I'm worried that some of Sarah's visitors' survivors might decide to show up for payback."

    "Hm-m-m, maybe so. Well, at any rate, I brought our pistols, some sleeping things, a change of clothes each and our supper. We hadn't finished eating."

    "Anything good?" asked Walt as he reached into the car and began grabbing an armload of stuff.

    "Some of those deer steaks you got last month, salad and garlic bread."

    Walt shook his head. "I guess a man has to have his priorities."

    "I sleep warmer on a full belly."

    "Well, let's get all this stuff inside and move your car away from the house. Evening, Hannah," said Walt as he passed her on her way out of the house. "Sorry to interrupt your supper."

    "Humpf! Dragging us out in the cold, half-straved..."

    "Well, dear, at least you're not nearly naked as well."

    "James!"

    Toy burst out of the door, tripped and went face-first to the ground. Scrambling to her feet, she shouted, "They're bombing the county jail!"

    ---------------------------------------------------------------

    Caleb was back at his position, watching the up and down the road in front of the house. From time to time, one of the adults would get up, stand beside him for a time, then sit. At the same time, another would go to the kitchen and change places with the watcher there, or go to Tom's bedroom at the far end of the house and change places with that watcher. There was no set schedule, but everyone was awake and restless, except for Tom's children, who were asleep on the sofa, head to head. The scanner, volume lowered, provided no information to ease their minds.

    After the initial mad rush to the scanner, they had learned that it wasn't bombs, but rocket propelled grenades. "How the devil did they get RPGs?" Tom asked no one in particular.

    Tom's grandmother had answered that. "Good heavens, Tom. You lived in California long enough to know that gangs can get whatever they want, for a price. They wanted RPGs, they got RPGs." Tom couldn't see it, but he knew she had just shrugged her shoulders. "If there is a market for something, the market will be served."

    "But Hannah, you must admit that it seems a little less likely to happen here that a cesspool like California," replied Alice.

    Walt joined in. "Nonsense, dear. North Carolina is just a little behind the curve for such things is all. Our gangs aspire to reach the same highs in low as all of the 'big city' gangs." He snorted. "Now it seems we may have surpassed them."

    The target seemed to have been the roof of the county lockup, apparently to knock out the SWAT snipers. Partially successful, they were more successful in collapsing most of the wall they had hit, mostly due to the poor aim of their users. The wall had done the worst damage, but no one knew that for some time.

    As the night wore on and the police and their civilian "auxiliaries" slowly gained the upper hand, calls for ambulances went out. Casualties were noted as they were found.

    "Three dead bad guys behind the statue."

    "One badly wounded bad guy at Joe's--I wouldn't be in a hurry."


    Other reports were harder to hear.

    "I've found Danny Simpson--they damn near cut him in half. Can I get some help up here?"

    "Officer Marston is behind Cortland's Store--I'll need a body bag."

    "Has anyone seen 100?"

    "Have we located 100 yet?"


    -----------------------------------------------------------

    The word on Unit 100 came around 4 AM.

    "All units, this is Dispatch. It is my duty to announce End of Watch for Unit 100, Sheriff Hollis Allgood, December 16, 2008, 0358 hours. Dispatch clear."

    "What does that mean?" Toy's voice asked in the near darkness. The lights remained out as a precaution, and all that remained was moonlight.

    "It means, my dear," answered retired District Court Judge James Marshall Carpenter, "that the sheriff is dead."

    ------------------------------------------

    Light slowly began to fill the eastern sky. Toy took Caleb and Hannah had went to the bedrooms for some sleep. Alice snored softly in a recliner, a blanket loving tucked around her. Tom quietly opened the door of the stove and stoked it. Finished, he walked to the window and stood beside his grandfather. For a long time, they both looked toward the rising sun. Walt paced around the house, scanning out each window he passed. The kids remained on the sofa, still blessedly asleep.

    "Grandpa, now what?"

    "I don't know, Tom. It sounds like things are pretty much in control in town, but they've suffered some grievous wounds. Hollis' loss is going to hit a lot of people hard, but when they start totaling what this has really cost them, I would expect some sort of backlash. If I kept count correctly, I heard 17 dead and a similar number wounded. Some of those may die yet. At least emergency power at the hospital is working, so they have a chance."

    "What kind of backlash?"

    "Could be most anything along the lines of vigilante justice. Arrest everyone in sight that looks like they could be in a gang, run whatever group they think is responsible out of town at the point of a gun, or summary executions. Law enforcement will try to stop them I suppose, but they might not. They might just decide to be very, very human. Or, they might choose not to notice."

    "Things are changing Tom, and they're changing fast. Hollis tried to warn us, and we mostly ignored him. I'm sure some of us made a few trips to the store and stocked up on canned goods, and I know that you, Alice and Walt have been on the buying spree of a lifetime--finished off your 401(k)s yet?"

    "I...I...I didn't think you knew."

    "I didn't know, but I suspected. Both of those buildings of your are getting a bit stuffed, don't you think? And those two big campers were sort of dead give-aways."

    "They're not really campers, Grandpa. They're called 'park models'. Sort of like baby mobile homes. I got them down at Banker's Recovery Services in Salisbury for a song. It seems that a lot of RV dealers are going broke. No market for luxuries. They delivered them as soon as the roads cleared enough to get them here. I'm glad I had my 'parking lot' out back--they'd be up to the axles in mud if I hadn't."

    "Seems there's a lot of that going around these days. What's you plan for them?

    "Well, I have enough cinderblock left over from the house to undepin both. I bought 2 anchor kits. Properly installed, one kit should hold one down in a hurricane. I have more solar panels than I need, but not enough of the electronics or batteries. I'll need a bigger well tank, plenty of fresh water pipe, and sewer pipe and fittings. The well and the septic tanks should be big enough, if we're careful. I'll have to set the gray water drains to go to a dry well--I'll have to build that. Oh, and copper line and fittings for propane. And I'll need some mobile home skirting."

    "So you're planning on setting them up here, I take it."

    "Ah, yeah," said Tom a bit sheepishly. "I guess I never really answered the question, did I?"

    "Well, in so many words. Who do you plan on living in them?"

    "Jim will need a place to live when he gets back. I don't think he's going to want to move back into town, do you?"

    "Probably not, but don't you think that should be his decision?"

    "Sure, and it will be. I just wanted to be sure he had a place if he got here...late in the game, so to speak."

    "That's good thinking. I'm glad to see you're watching out for your brother. I suppose the other is for Jane?"

    "Well, not really. If Jane and/or John should show up, I planned on putting them in the basement. But I'm not really expecting them. I was hoping that you and Grandma would move in there."

    "Why's that?"

    "Well, I...ah...you'll..."

    "I assume that you're searching for a diplomatic way to say that we're no longer 'spring chickens' and we'll need some help?"

    "No, Grandpa, no! I'd just feel more comfortable if you were close by. It'd let us all save gas, we could all work on one big garden, maybe you and Grandma could help me with the kids...."

    James smiled. "All good reasons, son. All of us over on the hill have discussed this. None of us are as young as we used to be--more's the pity. Doc Williams has decided that he is going to try and make it to his grandkids' home in south Georgia. They want him to come, and he said he's getting tired of the winters. If he leaves soon, he should get there OK. Jerry and Frieda have decided to move to Mocksville with his brother and his son--they're going to double up on his farm. A couple of others are probably going to head out as well. Those are big old houses to heat with wood when you have to cut it yourself--if you have a stove and especially when you have to cut your own wood. Even though none of us want to act like it, we all are a bit 'long in the tooth', and we'll need the help of you younger folks."

    "So you'll come?" Tom hoped he didn't sound too hopeful.

    "We'll see what your grandmother has to say. It's her house. If we come, we'll need to mothball it as much as possible, and move as much of our stuff as we need. Those things furnished?"

    "Normally yes, but most of it's gone in these." They're pretty roomy--12x40, so you should have room for some of the nicer stuff. The appliances are still there, thankfully. One has a residential refrigerator, but one as an electric/propane RV unit--big one, though."

    "Well, that could come in handy."

    The light was getting brighter. Walt walked into the room. "James, I think a couple of us need to go into town for a visit. We need to know for sure how bad it is and what we can expect."

    "Walt, don't you think that could wait, perhaps until the power is back on? They may still be trigger happy right now, and that'll give them time to calm down a bit."

    "Maybe so, but I think the benefit of getting there before anyone else offsets the risk. I've been thinking a good bit tonight, and I think things are going to head south faster than I had originally believed. I don't know about anyone else, but Alice and I are still short a number of things we're probably not going to be able to get much longer. I want to get what I can get while I can. When the full impact of this starts to sink in, people are going to clean the stores out in a hurry."

    "I expect you're right, Walt. I hate to admit it, though. You realize there's no guarantee that anything will be open--especially now."

    "Maybe so, but I think it's worth a chance."

    Tom watched the interplay between the two old friends in wonder. They had known each other so long, and had so many experiences in common, they they were equally at ease discussing a ball game or the end of the world. Tom wondered if he would ever have a friend like that.

    His attention returned to the actual conversation when his name was mentioned. "Me, Alice and Tom, I think. One guards the truck while the other two...shop."

    "That sounds reasonable. Armed, of course?"

    "Heavily."

    "Tom, are you OK with going? There is some element of danger, and you are the only parent your children have. That needs to be a factor in your decisions."

    "Grandpa, if something happens to me, I'm sure you'll do as good a job raising them as you did with Jim, Jane and me."

    James Marshall reached out a hand and laid it on the young man's shoulder. "I think that may be the best compliment I've ever been paid. Thank you."

  11. #11
    December 16, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 23
    High temperature: 35
    Barometric pressure: 30.22, steady
    partly cloudy


    We're back from town, and it was a very interesting trip. There are some very upset people in Lexington...



    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    Approaching the outskirts of Lexington, Walt leaned over the back of the seat and pointed toward the Highway 52 ramp. "Turn here."

    Tom obediently made the turn. "Any particular reason we're heading to Salisbury?"

    "Just going part way. Judging from what we heard on the radio last night, I think we'd be well-advised to go south, then turn back north into town. That puts us pretty much on the far side of town from the fighting. Besides, the road is nice and open, and if they have anyone watching it, they should see us and we'll see them, both in plenty of time. We don't need any accidents."

    "True enough."

    "Keep an eye on the overpasses. If you see anyone on them, slow down and let's see what's going on. We can always go up the ramps, cross over and come back down. A cinderblock through a windshield can ruin your entire life."

    "Also true enough."

    There was very little talking. Tom drove about about 20 under the limit, looking ahead and to the sides. Walt and Alice also watched, and Walt kept an eye on their rear as well. They passed a few cars and truck, but nothing like normal traffic. Coming around the south end of town, Tom took the exit, then made the turn toward the hospital.

    "Now where are you going, boy?"

    "I'd just like to see the hospital. I think we can tell a lot about what's going on by checking it out.."

    "Well, I don't see how, but go ahead. Be careful--remember, we don't want any accidents."

    "I'm just driving by--I'm not even going to turn down the driveway."

    As they drove by, they noted each driveway had several large trucks blocking it, and three men guarding the vehicles. Tom didn't slow, but he did wave as he drove by. A couple of the men waved back.

    Alice said "It seems that they're a bit nervous."

    "Alice, I'd call it cautious. Something I think we're all going to get real good at."

    "Walt, do you suppose they had trouble this far down?" Tom turned back onto South Main Street.

    "Maybe. Anything could be happening. We'll find out when we get downtown."

    "I wish I had another scanner. We could listen in."

    "And if a frog had wings he wouldn't bump his butt every time he hops."

    "Walt, you're a regular font of wisdom."

    "Bah!"

    Tom drove slowly up Main Street. There was no apparent damage this far down, but it appeared deserted. No vehicles moved on the street and no one was in sight. He drove slowly, and everyone kept their eyes open.

    Getting closer to town, they saw a line of cars that completely blocked the street. There were figures visible behind the cars.

    As they got closer, Tom said "It looks like two rows, with a dogleg in the middle." He slowed to a stop several hundred feet back. "Now what do we do?"

    At the barricade, men began moving and weapons were pointed at the truck.

    "Tom, I think we need to start moving slowly forward--I believe we're making those fellows unduly nervous."

    "Sure, sure, no problem." Tom let off the brake and started rolling forward about 10 MPH. As he got closer, he could see a man with a bullhorn. He stopped and quickly rolled the window down as the man raised it to his mouth.

    "DRIVER! STOP THERE! EXIT THE VEHICLE WITH YOUR HANDS IN PLAIN SIGHT. COME FORWARD TO THE BARRICADE. ANY FUNNY BUSINESS AND WE START SHOOTING."

    "Well, he seems friendly enough," said Walt drolly. "Boy, you're on--talk nice."

    "Thanks a lot." Tom opened the door and stuck both hands as far in the air as he could. He stepped down from the truck and started to walk deliberately forward. He could see several rifles aimed directly at him. "These guys aren't kidding." he thought.

    About 20 feet from the barricade, a voice called "That's far enough. Who are you and why are you here?"

    "I'm Tom Carpenter. We heard what happened last night and wanted to come in and see what was happening."

    "We're not interested in sightseers here."

    "We're not sightseers--we all knew the sheriff. We'd just like to see if we can do anything."

    "If you wanted to help, you should've come last night. We don't need your help now. Get back in your truck and leave."

    "But..."

    "You've got 30 seconds to be on the way out of here, or we're going to open fire. Leave!"

    Tom stood there for a second, unsure what to do. Looking at the guns, he said "Yeah, sure, no problem. Maybe another day." He turned and walked quickly back to the truck.

    "So?" Walt asked as Tom jumped in. Slamming the door, he dropped the truck into reverse and started a 3-point turn.

    "Lexington's not open today. We need to get out of here before they decide to start shooting." He completed the turn and goosed the truck down the street.

    "What do you mean not open? It's a town--they can't keep us out!" Alice was more than a little indignant.

    "Yes, dear, they can--they have more guns and better cover."

    Alice looked at him, then shook her head. "It isn't right. They shouldn't be allowed to do this."

    "Alice, I don't think they're interested in what we think."

    Tom spoke. "You know, those guys at the hospital didn't seem quite so...belligerent. Do you suppose they might be willing to at least talk to us?"

    "Could be worth a try. Head over there and just roll up to their barricade--slowly."

    Tom turned back toward the hospital, then turned into the first driveway. Rolling his window down, he stopped well back from the barricade. One man stepped out and approached the truck. The others covered him.

    The man, dressed in a camouflage hunting jacket and jeans, walked well off to the side of the truck. Staying diagonally in front of it, he called out "Hospital's closed except for emergencies. No visitors until further notice. You got somebody injured?"

    Tom leaned out of the window. "No, we don't. We were hoping for some information on what happened in town last night. We got turned around up the street, and we thought you might be able to help us."

    The man sized up the truck and it's occupants. "Back it up and park over there." He pointed to the side of the driveway. He walked back to the barricade. Tom could see him talking to the others as he backed off the edge of the driveway.

    The man called to him again. "Get out of your truck--I'd rather talk in the open. We'll be covering you, so don't get any ideas."

    Tom called back. "Not a problem--we're just trying to find out what happened." He opened the door and stepped down. Keeping his hands away from his side, we walked forward to a point halfway between the truck and the barricade. He felt naked.

    The man walked up to him and stood a few feet away and to the side. Tom supposed that was so his buddies could have a clear line of fire. He didn't blame them.

    "You armed?"

    "Pistol in under my jacket, and we have long guns in the truck. We're not looking for trouble."

    "Maybe so, but keep your hands in plain sight anyway. So what kind of information are you looking for?"

    "We all live up 64, near the river. We heard all the shooting on the scanner last night, and we came into town to see what was happening. We heard the sheriff was dead--we knew him."

    "Who are you?"

    "I'm Tom Carpenter. That's Walt Johnson and Alice Moorefield in the truck."

    "Moorefield, huh? Used to be a teacher?"

    "Uh-huh. Retired a while back."

    "Go back and ask her to step over here."

    Tom was puzzled, and a bit alarmed. "Why?" he blurted.

    "Because she taught me English in high school. Her I know. If it's really her, then I guess we can talk a bit."

    Tom looked at the man. He wasn't sure if he wanted to turn his back on him, but he supposed they could shoot him just as easily in the front as the back. He turned and walked to the truck. "Mrs. Moorefield, he wants to talk to you. Says you taught him high school English."

    "Alice, I don't like this. Tom, why don't you get back in the truck and let's leave."

    "Because, Walt, those guys have some big-ass guns aimed at me, and I'm not planning on orphaning my kids just yet. I jump in this truck and they just might start shooting."

    "Walter, I'm supposed to be the old woman here, not you. Now let me handle this." She opened the door and got out, cradling her SKS in her arms. As she walked toward the man, Tom joined her.

    She looked him up and down. "Leonard Jarrett. 'Student of mine' indeed. As I recall, you barely passed my class."

    The man smiled. "Yes ma'am, that true. How are you, Miz Moorefield?"

    "I'm quite well, Leonard. How are things here?"

    "Not good, not good at all, ma'am. They just brought the last of our wounded in about dawn. I've heard that some died. I've also heard that they're short on stuff, blood mostly. It's been a long night here."

    "H-m-m. How many wounded, Leonard?"

    "I don't know for sure. Quite a few ambulances, some cars, one pickup with three or four in the back."

    "Leonard, how did you wind up here?"

    "Tommy," he gestured over his shoulder, "is a reserve cop. When he got called last night, I was over at his house. We'd been watching a ball game before the lights went out. I just figured I'd ride along, and one thing lead to another. Here I am." He shrugged.

    Tom spoke up. "Is there any way to get in town? We'd really like to help out if we could."

    "No way, unless you walk in through the woods or something, and I wouldn't advise that. Every road is blocked. I hear they're going to stay that way until the last of the gang types are rounded up."

    "What are they doing with them?"

    "I've heard they're shooting them."

    "DO WHAT?"

    "Look man, I don't know what you know about last night, but we've got a shitload of folks dead here, and those SOBs are responsible. This is twice, and there isn't going to be a third time--at least not for this bunch. As far as I'm concerned we ought to block off all the roads permanently. We've got enough troubles without letting every tattooed loser who wants to sell drugs in town just waltz in and set up shop."

    "Leonard, don't you think the police and the courts ought to handle this? Vigilante justice is never a good thing, no matter what the provocation." Alice seemed unperturbed.

    "Miz Moorefield, I'm told the jail has a great big hole in it where they shot rockets at it. Rockets! The courthouse and the sheriff's offices were ransacked when they got in there. The sheriff's dead, and so are a bunch of deputies and police. A bunch of folks who got caught in the middle are dead, too. No ma'am, they get what they've got coming. Make an example of them and maybe their buddies will stay away."

    "Well, Leonard, I hope you don't mind if I disagree. However, since I can't effect the situation, I think things will be best if we return home. Perhaps after things calm down we can come back. Thank you for talking with us."

    "Ma'am, I think that's an excellent idea. Please be careful--some of them are still loose."

    "Come along, Tom."

    Tom looked at Leonard. "Good luck, man."

    "Yeah, you too."

    Tom walked beside Alice to the truck, opened her door, closed it after she was in and went to his side. He looked back at the men at the barricade. They just looked back. He got in, started the truck and made a U-turn.

    "Walter, I think things are even worse than you thought." Alice looked thoughtful.

    --------------------------------------------------

    As they drove west on 64, conversation was sparse. Alice had filled Walt in on their conversation with Leonard. Walt had questions, most of which could not be answered.

    "I still think we should try some different ways into town."

    Tom looked at Walt in the rear-view mirror. "Walt--no. You want to come back, feel free, but I'm staying away for a while. These people are wound way too tight, and I'm not risking my life. I don't feel any urgent need to get all the gory details."

    "I agree with Tom, Walter. It's too dangerous right now. Perhaps in a few days."

    Walt glowered in silence.

    Tom drove a while. "There's an old-fashioned service station in Reeds. Grandpa knows the owner. Says he has a big generator--he can pump gas even if the power goes out. It's not too far out of the way--I'm going to go by and see if he keeps diesel. Probably isn't urgent, but it'd make me feel better."

    "Getting nervous in your old age?" Walt was being snippy.

    "We all have our security blankets. Mine's a full tank of fuel. Well, one of them, anyway."

    Tom turned on 150 and a half mile later was at a non-working traffic light. The station was obviously open. There were 2 big dually pickups, a Chevy Suburban and a car, each towing some sort of camper, lined up at the pumps. A smaller pickup, with a covered load in the bed and an equipment trailer, also covered, had apparently finished fueling and was in front of the pumps. The station was small, and the last two rigs spilled out into the travel lane.

    "Seems someone else knows about this place. I wonder who these people are?" Tom pulled behind the last in line, a large Buick towing a popup camper. From what he could see, they all had North Carolina plates.

    Three men were standing with a fourth, who was filling his pickup. They were talking, but seemed to also be keeping an eye on everything they could see. They eyed Tom's truck.

    Tom lifted a hand from the wheel in a wave. One man put two fingers to the bill of his ballcap in acknowledgment of the greeting.

    "OK, this may be stupid, but I'm going to go talk to these people."

    "Now why do you want to do that? Aren't you afraid they might shoot you?" Walt's mood was not improving.

    Alice turned and gave him a look that should have caused him to burst into flame. "Walter, I've heard enough of this nonsense from you today. You're acting like a spoiled child who didn't get his way. Enough."

    Tom had seen Walt like this a couple of times, and knew that he might as well ignore him. Walt was mad, and nothing but time would change that.

    "Walt, they just might, but I don't think so. They're watching what's going on around them, but they don't seem scared. I'm just going to move nice and slow, and we'll see how it goes."

    Tom opened the door and stepped down. He closed the door, making sure it slammed loudly enough that the men at the pump couldn't fail to hear it. It worked. They looked up at him. Two of them moved to separate themselves from each other a bit. No one reached for anything, but their jackets were open, and Tom thought he saw the butt of a gun in a shoulder holster inside one of them. Well, he didn't go out unarmed lately either. He walked a few steps away from the truck.

    Now that he could see down the line of vehicles, he could passengers in each one. He couldn't tell much about them, but he could see their shapes. A couple of the shapes moved.

    Tom smiled and walked slowly toward them men. They spread out just a bit more, and one put his hands on his hips, pushing his jacket back. When he did so, it revealed a holstered pistol.

    "OK, boys, show me yours and I'll show you mine," he thought. With an exaggerated motion, he used two fingers on his right hand to draw his jacket aside, revealing his pistol.

    "Fellows, I'm not looking for a fight--just some conversation if you would. News if you have it."

    The one with the shoulder holster said something softly and walked toward Tom. He stopped a few steps away, looked Tom up and down, then said "Are you from around here?"

    "I am--I live off 64, close to the Yadkin River." Tom stuck out his hand, but didn't step forward. "I'm Tom Carpenter."

    "I apologize for acting suspicious, but we live in interesting times. I'm Jeremiah Dodson--Jere to my friends.. My friends are Todd, Harry and Malcolm Robertson. We all live just outside Kannapolis." He stepped forward and shook Tom's hand. "Our families are in the trucks, and the car is the Robertson boys' parents."

    "That's Walt and Alice, neighbors of mine, in my truck. If I'm not being nosey, didn't you folks pick an odd time for a vacation?"

    "It isn't exactly a vacation--at least not a planned one. We just decided that the time was right to avail ourselves of a favor from an old friend near here. Things are...unsettled...at home right now. We thought spending some time away might not be the worst idea we've ever had."

    "I understand. Things aren't exactly normal around here either. We were pretty much ran off from Lexington this morning at gunpoint. They had some gang trouble there last night, and they're a little touchy."

    Jere took of his hat and ran his hand through his hair. "Yeah, there seems to be a lot of that sort of thing going on. That why we're taking our 'vacation'. Charlotte had some trouble last night, and some of it migrated up toward Kannapolis. We saw National Guard moving that way this morning. I'd read rumors of cities being closed off by the military--you don't hear anything about it on the regular news, but it's all over the Internet--well at least parts of it, at any rate. I called my buds here and we all decided to come visit our old friend and take advantage of his hospitality."

    "May I ask where you're heading?"

    Jere looked uncomfortable. "Well, I'm not sure that..."

    "Look, I understand," interrupted Tom. "I'd probably be the same if I were you. No problem."

    "Let's just say that if you live close to the river, I'd bet we're going to see each other sooner rather than later."

    Tom put 2 and 2 together. "Then I hope you aren't going to Cooleemee Campground. It closed a few months ago. As far as I know, nobody's up there."

    Jere smiled. "No, not exactly no one. The bunch of us have camped up there for years--we're 'condo campers' for the most part--tow it up in the spring, tow it back in the fall. We've known the manager quite a while. He's still there, keeping a very low profile. Look, now that you know where we're heading, I'd appreciate it if you'd keep it to yourself. I'd like to keep our little hideaway private."

    "Sure. But what's he doing up there with the place closed?"

    "The big company that owns--owned, maybe, who knows--the place owed him several months of back pay. You don't get rich managing a campground. Most folks that do it are what they call 'work campers'--they work in exchange for a place to park, maybe a few hundred a month in cash. Just enough to keep them going. It's not a bad life, in a way. Up until gas got so high and things started sliding, it wasn't bad at all."

    "Anyway, when they closed down it was right after the season had ended and all us condo campers had went home. They called him up the next week and said 'Close everything up, lock it all up and send us the keys--we're filing for bankruptcy'. Joe--that's his name, Joe--didn't take too kindly to the idea that he was going to get hosed for the money he was owed. He decided that since the place was going to be deserted, no one would notice him, especially if he stayed way off in the back, kept quiet and was circumspect in his comings and goings. They had a big propane tank to sell propane out of and a gas and a diesel pump for the trucks and tractors, with some fuel left in the tanks. Joe has this big old motorhome. It's a diesel pusher, has it's own generator and so on. He figured that since there was plenty of fuel, he could overwinter at the campground, then leave in the spring. He's set up to live in it full-time, so it's not a big deal to him."

    As Jere was telling the story, one of his friends had walked up and stood beside him. Tom nodded a greeting. The other man looked at him.

    "He called us and a few others that were regulars and told us what was going on. He was afraid the company would try to collect deposits for next season, and we'd get stiffed too. He was right, as it turned out. They tried it."

    "Nice folks," Tom said.

    "Yeah, real nice folks," agreed Jere. "When things started sliding, Joe called us, and told us that if we needed a place to bail out to, we could come hide with him."

    "Are you all prepared for that? It isn't Christmas yet, and it's already shaping up to be a rough winter. It'll be a long one, stuck in campers, won't it?"

    The other man spoke up. "Jere, who's your new friend?"

    "Sorry. Harry Robertson, this is Tom...uh, what did you say your last name was? I'm bad with names."

    "Carpenter." Tom held out a hand. The man ignored it.

    "Jere, I'm not so sure you ought to be telling a complete stranger about our business."

    "Harry, Tom lives on this side of the river. He's local, and we might need to know some of the local folks."

    "Still, I'd rather meet them a different way."

    "Harry, just how would that be? If you've got any suggestions, now's the time."

    Tom decided that he didn't want to get in the middle of a fight between these two. "Look, Jere, maybe your buddy here is right and..."

    "Oh, so he's Jere to you? And you've known him all of what, a couple of minutes?"

    Before things could go further downhill, the man at the pump called out "Harry, I'm full. You're up."

    Harry glared at Tom, then at Jere. He said nothing, but walked back to his truck.

    Jere shook his head. "I apologize for Harry, because he won't do it himself. He's always a bit paranoid, and all this has really torqued him up. He's usually a pretty good guy."

    "Look, you don't need to apologize. He has a point."

    "Maybe so, but I recognize your face. I may be horrible with names, but I'm excellent with faces. I've seen you a few times at the convenience store down by the bridge. I might not know you, but I recognize you."

    "Well, you definitely have me at a disadvantage. I don't remember ever seeing you."

    "I have this habit of blending into the background. It's a handy talent, sometimes. Anyway, you were asking about spending the winter in the campers. We're hoping we don't have to do that. We're all lucky and have jobs, at least for now. Our thought is to stay up here a few days or a week or two until things get back under control. It's the holidays, so except for Todd, work is slow and we can be away for a while."

    "So you think this will blow over in a couple of weeks?"

    "Not blow over, exactly. I'm looking for some kind of a short-term equilibrium--something that will let most of the activities like shipping goods and so on resume, even if there are some permanent changes. Sort of like a new 'normal' . We get that, and we can head back home."

    One of the other men walked up. He stuck out his hand and said "Malcolm Robertson."

    Tom shook the offered hand. "Tom Carpenter."

    "Pleased. I heard my brother. Sorry about that--he's wound a bit tight lately. He worries."

    "Thanks, but like I was telling Jeremiah here, no apologies are necessary. Times are kind of scarey."

    "Jeremiah?" Malcolm Robertson looked at Jere, an eyebrow cocked. "You must be slipping, old buddy. I never saw you fail to have anyone calling you Jere inside of a few minutes."

    "I think Tom was trying to be sure that another argument didn't start. Calling me 'Jere' is what got Harry started."

    "Oh, so he's on that 'Never trust a stranger' kick again. Charming, just charming. One of these days, someone is going to take offense when he starts acting like this and clean his clock."

    Harry yelled at the group. "Jere, if you can tear yourself away from your new friend, it's your turn at the pump." He got into his truck and pulled the rig forward, then got out and went into the store. As he went in, and older woman came out carrying a bag. She spoke to him, but he just walked by without speaking.

    Malcolm winced out loud. "Oh crap, now he's ignored Momma. When we get where we're going, she'll jerk him up short but good. Should be fun to watch--he's been begging for a whuppin' for days."

    Jere smiled. "Well, let me get the Burb filled up. We can pull over in that gravel lot across the way and finish talking. I want to hear some more about what's going on up here." He turned and trotted to his rig.

    "Maybe I ought to pull up as well," Tom said as the car and popup rig pulled off the road. I'm sort of out there on my own."

    "That's be a good idea, I think. I'm going to pull over across the road, and I'll get Harry over there. Maybe he'll behave. I'll get Mom and Dad to get out--that usually keeps him in check."

    "Look, don't cause problems in the family on my account. I figured out from Jere's description where you folks are headed. You're going to have some work setting up, and I don't want to keep you."

    "Hey, man, it isn't a problem. We can have these things set up completely in an hour. We've all trained our kids to help, so we have that 'division of labor' thing going. Kids are wonderful once the get big enough to work." He grinned.

    "Well, OK. But I really don't want to keep you too long. It gets dark early."

    Tom walked back to his truck; Malcolm walked toward his. Tom chanced a wave at the older couple, and was rewarded with smiles and waves in return. Opening the door to his truck, he was immediately under questioning.

    "Who are these people, and where are they from? Are they refugees or something? What was that one so upset about--I thought we might be getting into a fight."

    When Walt paused for breath, Tom broke in. "Walt, will you at least let me get out of the middle of the road?"

    Alice looked over her shoulder. "Walter, you really are behaving like a spoiled child today. Will you kindly explain what is wrong with you?" She continued to look at him, waiting for a reply.

    "I'm worried, that's all. Plus I didn't get any sleep and I'm cranky. I could use a trip to the bathroom, too. And I'm too old for this shit."

    Alice sniffed and turned around. "Mind your language. Behave, and you can have a nap when we get home. Maybe after that you can act your age."

    Chastened, Walt set back in the seat. "Wipe that smile off your face, boy."

    "I'm not smiling. Not me. No smiling here, no sir." Tom looked at him in the mirror and grinned. "They're from Kannapolis. They heading up to the campground, hoping to wait out the problems."

    "Campground's closed. Been closed for weeks--I heard they went bankrupt."

    "From what they tell me, you heard right. They know the manager--apparently he's still up there. The company owed him money and didn't pay up. He's taking it out in trade, so to speak. Invited these folks up when he saw things might turn bad."

    "Good luck to them, in those things. They'll be lucky if they don't freeze to death."

    "Don't bet your life on it. Remember, I had one in Cali when we lived there. I recognize the brands. That one the Suburban is towing is built for 4 season camping--extra insulation, storm windows, bigger furnace--all sorts of cold weather goodies. See how high it sits, compared to the others? You can ford streams while towing it. The other ones all have available cold weather packages available, as I remember, and I bet these folks bought that option. They'll be more comfortable than you think."

    "Not if they run out of propane for those things. And what will they do for electricity?"

    "The one I talked to the most said there's plenty of propane up there. And look at the top of his camper. Those flat things you can just see sticking out around the edge of the air conditioner--that boxy thing on top--those look like solar panels. The others have generators if they're smart. Even if they don't, they can use their trucks to recharge their camper batteries. Pain in the butt, but do-able."

    "Well, with each man having his own camper, they'll have plenty of room," Alice said.

    "I'm afraid it'll be tighter than that. They all have women and children with them. It'll be cozy, especially if the weather turns bad and you can't get outside much."

    Walt snorted. "Well, better them than us."

    It was Tom's turn at the pump. The Buick had pulled up enough that he could get to it, and the owners had gotten out and were talking to older man Tom recognized as the owner. Tom got out, started the diesel pump running, and got his tank filling. Then he walked over.

    The older man spoke first. "Hello, young Carpenter. You don't know me, but I know your grandfather, the judge. What brings you up this way?"

    "Well, ah, Mister, ah..."

    "Weathers." He pointed at the name embroidered on his jacket. "George Weathers." He stuck out a hand. "You can shake it today--I'm not turning any wrenches, so it's stayed clean." He laughed at his joke.

    "Mr. Weathers. Well, my grandpa had mentioned one time that you ran a real 'filling station' as he calls it, and that you even had a generator to run it when the power went out. I needed diesel, so I took a chance. Glad to see you sell it."

    "'Filling station'. Lord, I haven't heard them called that in years. You young people don't remember when that's all there was--you've grown up with convenience stores. Very convenient, as long as you don't need a flat fixed."

    The other man--Tom assumed he was Mr. Robinson--laughed too. "And I remember when they sold gas that was 32 cents a gallon, too."

    "Well, dear, those days are long gone. I'm afraid we may be lucky to find gas at any price soon," said the older woman, obviously his wife.

    Everyone nodded their head in agreement. Tom said, "Ma'am, sir, I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that you're Mr. and Mrs. Robertson. I'm Tom Carpenter. I live off 64 on this side of the river. I was talking to your sons just a minute ago."

    Mrs. Robertson chuckled. "Well, at least you tried to talk to them. I'll wager Harry tried to bite your head off. Wait until I get hold of him."

    "Well. ma'am, he was a little abrupt."

    "Abrupt?" asked Mr. Robertson. "Knowing my son, I'll wager he was something else that starts with an 'A'. That boy has always been twitchy."

    "Fred!"

    "Well, it's true. I never saw anyone who could worry as much."

    Tom glanced back at the pump and saw it had cut off. "Well, let me go finish filling up and pay the man." He gestured at the parking lot on the opposite corner. "Your traveling companion said we could all pull over there and talk a bit. He's wanting to know what's going on locally, and I'd like to hear more about what's happening in your area. The news doesn't seem to have as much news these days."

    "Well, I think there will be some news tonight," said George.

    "Why's that?" asked Tom.

    "You haven't been listening to the radio, have you? The President's going to make a big speech tonight at 8 about our 'current crisis'. I guarantee you it ought to be interesting".

  12. #12
    December 16, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 23
    High temperature: 35
    Barometric pressure: 30.22, steady
    partly cloudy


    We got back to my house in plenty of time to eat, get the kids settled for the evening and hook up the TV and satellite to the generator. I'm glad we went to the trouble, since we were finally able to get some hard information on what is happening.



    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    "Next thing you know, you're going to want to pop popcorn for the show," grumbled Walt as he settled into a chair. "This is going to be one of those 'Everything is just fine, trust us in government to take care of you' routines. Heck, they're the ones who got us into this mess--I sure don't trust them to fix it."

    "Popcorn--now that's an idea." said Tom. Raising his voice, he called "Hey! Anybody want popcorn to go with the Prez's speech?" He looked over at Walt and grinned.

    "Boy, one of these days someone's going to teach you to respect your elders."

    "Perhaps, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting if I were you". Tom's grandmother walked into the great room. "It's amazing how different it looks with the lights on."

    "Well, Grandma, I wouldn't get to used to it. That big genny drinks gas. We're going to cool off the refrigerator and freezer, watch the speech and run the stove blower for a while. When that speech is over, we're back to 1875 again until the power comes back on."

    Toy walked into the room holding Anne. "What time is it?" She handed Tom his daughter. "Here, Daddy, your girl wants to be fed again. I'll go get a bottle. How much?"

    "Eight ounces. I'd like to sleep for a while tonight."

    "Eight it is. How long until it starts?"

    "A few minutes. Hey Walt, you stole my chair. Grab the remote and get us going here."

    "That chair's too good for the likes of you." He picked up the remote. "Good grief, boy, how do you work this thing?"

    "Oh, right. Hit the remote power, then select the satellite power and turn it on. Then select the TV power and turn it on. Then pick your channel."

    "Couldn't you make it a little more complicated? This thing looks like a computer."

    "It is. It's an old handheld I had laying around. A little fiddling, some programming and ta-da! I have a true universal remote control. Runs everything and can be programmed to run anything. I also built in some learning subroutines, so as long as the original remote works, I can decode it and teach the universal how to imitate it."

    Walt shook his head. "Remind me to ask your grandfather if he ever figured out where he went wrong with you."

    "Went wrong with what?" asked James Carpenter as he walked into the room. "Why don't we turn on the TV?"

    "I would if I could figure out this blasted super-duper universal remote control that your grandson cooked up."

    James walked over and held out his hand for the remote. "What do you mean? This is as simple as walking out the door." He took the remote, turned it on, the powered up the satellite system. Then he powered up the TV and asked "Do we want the surround sound?"

    Walt sighed and got up from his chair. "Here." He pointed at the chair. "You sit. Obviously you belong here. You understand the fool thing." Walt went to the kitchen. mumbling.

    "What did I do?" asked James.

    "Never mind, grandpa. Walt's in a contrary mood." Tom glanced at the TV. "Turn the sound up, please. I think we're getting close."

    "...billed as a major policy speech, a sort of early State of the Union address. We have gotten some advance information on the content of the speech, which we have agreed not to make public. However, I can say that this is not a run of the mill presidential speech."

    "The President is speaking from an undisclosed location tonight, in keeping with the heightened security status of the last 24 hours. The "Severe Threat" level, indicated by the color red on the Homeland Alert Advisory System, indicates a high probability of terrorist attack. No reason for this unprecedented level of alert has so far been provided."


    Toy walked into the room and handed Tom a bottle for Anne. "Here you go, Dad. I couldn't find any burping cloths, so here's a clean dishtowel."

    "That'll be fine. What's Walt doing?"

    "Running an extention cord to the microwave. He said he wanted popcorn."

    Tom guffawed loudly, which caused Anne to cease her voracious attack on her bottle and start crying. "Tom, you scared her," said Toy reprovingly.

    Tom rocked and bounced the baby a bit, and got her to take the nipple again. "There we go."

    "I'm going to go tuck Tommy in. I'll come back for her in a minute."

    "Don't you want to see this?"

    "I'll be able to hear it just fine. It's late for the little man--he needs his rest."

    "Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States."

    The scene was a non-descript but well-furnished room that could have been anywhere. The camera was a fairly close shot of the President, who set behind a desk, holding a sheaf of papers.

    "Walt, your missing it."

    "I'll be there in a minute."

    "My fellow Americans. I come to you tonight from a secret location. I apologize for the 'cloak and dagger' aspect of this speech, but I'm convinced that, for the time being, it is best if those of us in charge of government functions remain in areas not easily located. I assure you that we will be back in our appropriate places as soon as possible."

    "We find ourselves in the gravest danger this country has faced since the dark days of early Word War II, days when victory seemed anything but inevitable. Once again, just as with 9/11, our country has been struck without warning by a terrorist enemy, and struck hard."

    "By now, many of you have heard rumors of large scale riots in major cities, food shortages, medical supply shortages, and of the inability of police to control the situation. I would like to tell you that these were all unfounded rumors, but they are unfortunately all too true. In point of fact, the reality is worse than the rumors."

    "The media, in an extraordinary display of cooperation with the government, has refrained from airing anything but approved stories on these events. During this period of silence, we, at all levels of government, from the White House down to the local level, have struggled to understand the events of the past few weeks. Tonight, I relieve all media outlets of their agreements to self-censor, and ask them to once again return to reporting the complete news."


    Immediately after the President finished his sentence, the screen went to a picture in picture. In the smaller picture, the President was displayed. In the larger picture, an image of a block of burning buildings came on. Superimposed in the lower right corner was the caption "Detroit, MI". A news "crawl" started up across the bottom of the screen. The President continued.

    We find ourselves engaged in battles across the country. It started out some weeks ago as a rash of seemingly unrelated hijackings, armed robberies and multiple murders. It has progressed to mass riots, gang violence on an extraordinary scale and a near strangling of interstate commerce. No area has been safe. While these events started in major metropolitan areas, small towns and isolated homes across the country have also become targets."

    "The perpetrators of much of this crime are street gangs. It is our belief that these gangs have, for reasons we do not fully understand, allied themselves with various Islamist terrorist groups from around the globe. They have assisted these groups in smuggling in operatives and weapons, helped them plan and carry out attacks, and used the resulting confusion to launch their own attacks for their own purposes."

    "In the process, over 4500 people have been killed. While nearly 1000 of these were terrorists or gang members, the vast majority are everyday people such as yourselves. Some of you watching tonight may have lost friends, neighbors or family members. Know that you do not grieve alone; America grieves with you."


    Walt walked into the room carrying a large bowl of popcorn. "And I'm sure the widows and orphans will be comforted by that thought."

    "Walter..." said Alice. The warning was clear. Walt took some popcorn from the bowl and handed it to her.

    "In addition to gang violence, we have at least 8 known terrorist incidents. The worst of these occurred in Chicago, where some sort of radiological weapon has been used. The weapon was not--I repeat, WAS NOT--any sort of fission of fusion weapon. It was not an 'atomic bomb'. We believe that the weapon was what is known as a 'dirty bomb'--conventional explosives used to disperse radioactive materials over a relatively small area."

    "Unfortunately, since there were high winds at the time of the detonation, the radioactive material has been spread over more area than we could have hoped. Those areas have been identified and quarantined, and we are providing everyone in those areas with decontamination, health and security services.


    Toy walked back into the room just in time to see pictures of the Chicago skyline. Some buildings were smoking. "What's Chicago doing on TV?" she asked.

    "Chicago's been hit by terrorists," said Alice.

    "Oh, no! What happened? Caleb, I think maybe you need to come in the kitchen with me." She extended her hand toward the boy, who had been sitting quietly on the floor, watching the TV along with everyone else.

    "Mom, I'm fine. I want to see this."

    "Caleb, I..."

    "Can we all just hush? The President's still speaking," said Alice.

    Tom spoke to Toy in a low voice. "He'll be fine. He can understand this, I'm afraid."

    Caleb looked at Tom without expression, then turned back to the TV. Toy said nothing, but reached for Anne.

    "She's not finished yet."

    "I'll finish for you."

    Tom was too preoccupied with the TV to notice Toy was upset.

    "...most widespread effects of terrorist attacks are currently being felt in the southern states, where widespread and coordinated attacks against the electrical generation and distribution infrastructure has lead to major power outages. Repairs are proceeding, and it is hoped that power will be fully restored by the weekend."

    "The weekend!" Toy nearly wailed the words. "But the pipes in my trailer will freeze! I don't have any way to keep it warm? What am I going to do?"

    "It hasn't been too cold--they probably aren't frozen yet. We'll go tomorrow and see if we can drain the plumbing. I guess you and Caleb are stuck staying with me."

    Toy looked at him without speaking. Caleb turned to look at Tom, and Tom winked at him. Caleb turned back to the TV. Toy took Anne and left. No one noticed the tears on her cheeks.

    "...will strike back at our enemies at the time and place of our choosing. In the meantime, I urge you to remain calm, and not take matters into your own hands. Our law enforcement agencies are fully capable of handling these situations..."

    "Well if they are, then why did those folks say they saw Guard units heading to Charlotte? And how do you explain James' unit's return to the US?" Walt asked.

    While my time remaining in office is short, I still have the duty to protect and defend this nation. In my capacity as President, I am taking the following temporary actions to help our country through this time of crisis."

    "First, as soon as order is reestablished in Washington, I will be calling the full Congress back from their holiday recess. Given conditions in the District, I expect that summons to go out between Christmas and New Years."

    "Second, I have ordered a complete return of all National Guard units deployed overseas to US soil. As soon as they are re-equipped and given some brief refresher courses in riot and crowd control, they will be returned to their home states and placed under control of their state governors to help reestablish local order."

    "Third, I am ordering the return of all possible Reserve and Regular military units to US soil. While this country has no intention of shirking its foreign obligations, for the time being our forces are needed here to help re-establish order."


    As the President spoke, the pictures shown as background continued to change. A plane crash site in Seattle, more burning buildings in various large cities, a pile of dead bodies on a street corner, police shooting at a building in New York. Maps used flames to represent areas experiencing problems. New York, Illinois, Florida, Texas and California all had large areas that almost appeared to be on fire. Other states, such as North Carolina, had fewer flames. Only a very few states in the western US had no flames at all.

    The popcorn bowl continues to pass from hand to hand. The President carried on.

    "Fourth, I am declaring that a state of martial law exists in the following cities: New York, Washington and the District of Columbia, Miami, Houston, Chicago and the surrounding areas, Detroit, Denver, Los Angeles and San Diego. More cities will be added if needed. In these areas, a dawn-to dusk curfew is in effect. Violators will be arrested. If they resist arrest, they will be shot."
    "Well, that's something new," said James.

    Tom wondered about his sister and brother-in-law. Were they still safe? He'd have to try and find out, but he didn't know how he could do it. The phones had failed while he, Walt and Alice were out earlier in the day.

    "Fifth, some of the disturbances have crippled our ability to move gasoline, diesel and heating fuels between the refineries and their points of consumption. Over the next week, a full rationing system will be structured and implemented. In the meantime, I have signed an Executive Order to institute a system that I hope will keep panic buying to a minimum. With the exception of over-the-road trucks, vehicles with license plate with the final number being odd may purchase fuel only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Those with even numbers may purchase fuel On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. If a plate ends in a letter, A, C, E and so on are considered even; B, D, F and so on are considered odd. All stations are ordered to close on Sunday. All purchases will be limited to 10 gallons."

    "Well, I'm glad I filled up the truck today...."

    "Additionally, I am asking all Americans to drive as little as possible, and to take every energy conservation measure they can, such as lowering their thermostats and using less hot water. We will have distribution problems for some time, but if we all cooperate and conserve, we can minimize the effects."

    "There will probably be other measures necessary in the coming days and weeks. We will keep you up to date if and when they become necessary."

    "Fellow Americans, while things are dark, all is not darkness. In the spirit that has made this country great for over 200 years, we will fight and, to quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 'gain the inevitable victory'. To do anything else would be unAmerican."


    The President's visage was grim. Tom couldn't recall the man ever looking so...angry, maybe? He couldn't read the expression.

    "Please stay tuned to your local stations for additional news and information. They will be your best source for continuing information. Please obey the orders of all law enforcement officers and any military personnel you may encounter during your daily business--they are there to guide and assist you. Keep your faith in your fellow man and your government."

    "Be assured that we will defeat this enemy on our soil, and that we will carry the fight to his home. The United States will emerge victorious and stronger than ever. May God bless America."


    The picture faded to black, then brightened as the network talking heads returned. "Grandpa, could you turn it down? I dont' think we need to hear this bunch," said Tom.

    "Well, as much as I hate to admit it, the speech wasn't just 'we'll take care of you'," said Walt. "It's a lot worse."

    "I concur. It doesn't add up." James looked at Walt.

    "Walter, what in the world are you two talking about? What doesn't add up?"

    Before anyone was able to speak, Caleb turned around and faced Alice. "Mrs. Moorefield, at a minimum, the President's death toll numbers are suspect. He noted that 4500 people had been killed in total, and that approximately 1000 of those were, shall we say, 'bad guys'. We know that at least 30, more like 50 bad guys have been killed in Lexington in the last 24 hours. Judging from the news footage, Lexington is just a small town in an area not very hard hit by violence. Yet Lexington would account for between 3 and 5 percent of the total number of bad guys killed? This sounds...unlikely."

    Alice looked at Caleb in shock. Then she glanced around the room. As she looked at Tom, he laughed and said "I told you not to underestimate him. That small body is holding a world-class mind. Good going, guy. I haven't seen this lady so flabergasted in a long time!" Tom looked at Caleb, and winked again. Caleb smiled--the first time Tom had ever seen him do so.

    Before Alice could regain her composure, James Carpenter jumped in. "Alice, the total numbers smell a bit fishy as well, and not just because of the issue Caleb has identified." He too looked at Caleb and smiled. "Did you notice that pile of bodies on the street corner? there were 25, maybe 30 bodies in that pile, as best I could tell. If the death toll is like that in very many places, they'll blow through 4500 in no time at all. I'd be surprised if they haven't already--this is something like the 7th or 8th week of serious disturbances, and it's been building since last winter."

    Hannah chimed in. "And he said he's ordering the National Guard home, but we know for a fact that at least some of the Guard was ordered home weeks ago. James has been at Ft. Knox for, what, nearly 3 weeks? We also know that they told him the stay would be only 2 weeks? Something isn't right there, either."

    "Well, the business about the the military doing law enforcement and relief work on our own soil doesn't sit well with me," said Walt. "I'm not talking about the Guard, because that's a part of their job--I'm taking about reservists and the regular armed forces. That worries the hell out of me. Don't even get me started on the martial law business. Have we ever even had martial law declared in the US?"

    "During the War Between the States," said James. "I believer there have been a few others, but I can't list them off the top of my head."

    Tom said "Well, what I noticed is that he didn't look...well...normal. I've seen him give a lot of speeches since he was elected, and he didn't look like he usually looks. I've heard people call it a 'smirk', but I've always just thought that he half-smiled at the most disconcerting moments. He was never in any danger of that tonight. He was almost deadpan delivering this speech." Tom stopped, than acted like he was going to continue, but didn't.

    "What is it, son?" asked his grandfather.

    "Well, I was wondering if maybe he was lying to us and knows it. Maybe he thinks it's for our own good, but he doesn't like doing it. I don't know...sounds pretty conspiracy theory-ish to me...."

    "Perhaps he isn't being told the full truth?" asked Hannah?

    "Hannah, he's the President of the United States--of course they're going to tell him the truth. They have to," Alice said.

    "Perhaps, perhaps not. Remember the intelligence problems before we went into Iraq. There's always been supposition that the President was deliberately mislead by various factions within his own administration. Suppose that's correct, and it's happening again--except this time he's suspicious," James said. "Or perhaps Tom is right, and he knows more that he is telling us, and that isn't sitting well with him that he can't tell us everything."

    "Or maybe he's just another in a line of lying politicians," Walt said.

    Caleb got up silently and went to his mother. The others had been so involved in their conversation, they didn't notice that Toy had quietly came in and sat down against the wall. Tears were running down her face.

    "It sounds like the end of the world." Her voice was steady, but carried a brittle note. Caleb sat beside her and put his head on her breast. She hugged him. "It's like Armageddon, or something." She sniffed.

    James Carpenter walked over to her and squatted down in front of her. You could hear joints popping as he did so. Tom reflected that his grandfather was a young 85, but was still 85.

    "Young lady, I don't think this is the end of the world, Armageddon or anything of the sort. If there has been a Rapture, then no one that any of us knows was taken, and I find that unlikely. No, I'm afraid we're just seeing the turn of another page in human history." He fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to her.

    Tom had gotten up and was at his grandfather's side. James started to get up, and he reached down to steady and assist him. "Thanks, son. Your old Grandpa is just that--old." He smiled.

    "You're required to stay around a lot longer, Grandpa. We're going to need you."

    "I'll do my best." He motioned Tom closer and whispered in his ear, "I think the young lady could use some company; maybe a stiff drink and a bed. Do you think you can oblige her?"

    "Sure. How about you?"

    "Well now that you mention it, I wouldn't mind a little something. Maybe we could all use some refreshments."

    Tom patted his grandfather on the back, then squatted down to Toy. "Hey, there--you OK?"

    "I'm better. I'm just upset. Things were already bad enough, and now this. Tom, I'm just a poor girl that can barely make ends meet--what are people like me going to do?"

    "Like people in that position have always done--you take it a day at a time. Now, how about you and Caleb help me in the kitchen? Grandpa would like a belt, and so would I. Let's get some drink orders and fill them. After that, I want to kill the generator. We're lit up pretty bright, and I don't want any visitors."

    Tom reached out to Caleb, but he stood up on his own. Tom helped Toy stand, and between them, they got everyone's drink requests. Going into the kitchen, Tom got out a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey while Toy got tea, a 2 liter Coke and the ice bin from the refrigerator. Caleb used a chair and was getting glasses.

    Tom poured 2 fingers of Beam in a short glass. "Grandpa takes his neat." He grabbed a couple of ice cubes, dropped them into a glass, and added another two fingers. "And one for Walt."

    Toy had poured an ice tea for Alice and a glass of Coke for Caleb. Tom looked at him and said "Caleb, could you take that ice tea on to Alice? I expect she's thirsty."

    Caleb almost rolled his eyes, but stopped himself and simply said "Sure." Taking his drink and the ice tea, he went to the great room.

    Toy asked "And what about you?"

    "I'm a heathen. Grab me a Moosehead out of the fridge. How about you?"

    "You wouldn't have any rum, would you? I don't care for whiskey."

    "Sure. You want a rum and Coke?"

    "That'd be wonderful. Easy on the rum, though."

    "Let me guess--you don't want to taste the alcohol?"

    She smiled. "I just don't want to get drunk. I don't drink much, and I'm afraid it'll go straight to my head."

    Tom made her drink and set it on the corner of the island. Grabbing his Grandfather and Walt's drinks, he walked toward the great room. Toy picked up her drink and followed behind, sipping it.

    "Are you sure I can't get you something, Grandma?" Tom handed his grandfather and Walt their drinks and took a drink of his beer.

    "No, I'll just have some water before I go to bed. And that's going to be soon--I need my beauty rest." She primped at her hair and smiled.

    "Grandma, if you get any more beautiful, Grandpa will have to start fighting duels to keep you."

    "No, I'm too old for such nonsense. I have a policy--no dueling after you turn 80. If they want her, they can have her."

    "James, you old coot! That's terrible--you wouldn't fight for me?"

    "Well, perhaps if it was early and I had a good night's sleep..."

    "James!" She smiled at him.

    Tom saw Caleb watching the interplay between the two with a puzzled look on their face. "Hey, Caleb. Let's go out on the front porch and check out the weather."

    Caleb looked at him curiously. "I'll need a jacket."

    "Nah, We're only going to be a minute or two. A little cool air will do us good."

    "My mother says I need to wear a jacket when it's this cold."

    "Toy, it just a breath of air--he'll be fine, right?"

    "Well, I suppose so, but don't keep him out in the cold too long. He's not used to it."

    "Not a problem. We're just going to have a look at the weather, then come back in. Come on, Caleb." Tom walked toward the entryway. Caleb followed tentatively. Tom looked over his shoulder. "Could you guys start shutting down the TV and stuff, and go ahead and dig out the oil lamps? I want to shut off the generator soon--we've already ran it longer than I had planned."

    "We'll handle it. Lamps still in that same closet?" asked Walt.

    "Yep. You'll have to fill them, though." He ushered Caleb toward the entry way.

    Out in the cold air, their breath fogged. Tom took another drink of his beer, then looked down at Caleb. "I saw you watching my Grandma and Grandpa picking at each other. You don't understand what was going on, do you?"

    "Not exactly. They weren't really fighting, were they?"

    "Oh no, not even a little. I suspect you haven't been around two people who have spent most of their adult lives together. There's an...interaction, call it, that you don't really understand if you haven't been around it a lot. When you haven't, it looks like arguing, but when you have, you recognize it for what it really is--two people who are very comfortable with each other."

    "Caleb, my Mom and Dad died when I was young. A drunk driver hit them on the 64 bridge over the Yadkin--knocked their car into the river. My grandparents raised me, my brother and my sister. That means they've raised not one but two families together. They've been married over 50 years, now. That's longer than you and I together have been alive. They know pretty much everything worth knowing about each other."

    "Uh-huh."

    "They can joke about things that would have a couple, one just married a short time, in a major argument. But they're not fighting. In a sort of odd way, they're actually showing each other that they love each other. It takes a lot of trust to let someone say those things and know that they aren't really serious."

    "OK." Caleb looked at him.

    "I just thought you ought to know that. You seemed to be a little confused watching them a few minutes ago. I thought I'd help you clear things up."

    "So that's why you asked me to check the weather?"

    "Yep. Just an excuse to get a minute alone with you and talk a bit."

    "Can we go in now? It's cold."

    "Sure. Just one thing. Anytime you want to ask me a question--about anything, feel free. If you don't want to ask in front of someone, just ask me if we can go check the weather. It'll be our little code. OK?"

    "OK."

    "Well, let's get on inside. It is a bit nippy out here."

    " I want to ask you something before we do."

    "Shoot."

    "Why do you care what happens to me or my Mom? You don't know us very well and we're not in your family."

    Tom blew out a long breath, appreciating the plume of condensation in the near darkness. "Well, Caleb, it's kind of a hard question, and normally, I wouldn't say it this way to a kid your age. But you're 10 going on 30 with that intellect of yours, so I'll lay it out as straight as I can."

    "First, you're a pretty good kid, and your Mom is a nice woman. If you're a decent sort of person, you were raised to lend a hand to people when they need it. It doesn't make any difference that you don't know them that well, or that they are or aren't in your family. As long as they are good people and they're trying to help themselves, you try to help too if you can. You and your Mom are good people. You've pitched in and worked last night and today, and your Mom has went out of her way to help me with my kids. Your Mom works hard to keep a roof over your heads and food on the table. Trust me, my sister did waitressing work, and it's work with a capital 'w'. You're good people, and I don't mind lending you a hand when you need it."

    "Second, you're neighbors. I could walk to your house in, what, 20 minutes? I could drive to it in less than 5. You know things are getting sort of bad out there, and they're likely to get worse before they get better. All of us out here that are neighbors are going to have to get used to doing for one another. It's going to be the only way we all get through this."

    "So you aren't interested in her sexually?" Caleb asked.

    Tom looked hard at the boy. "You may be 10 going on 30, but you're also very close to being over a line that you don't need to cross. But since you ask, no."

    "Caleb, your Mom's an attractive enough woman, and we're close enough in age that it's a possibility. But my wife hasn't been buried 30 days yet. I'm not interested in interviewing for the position."

    Caleb looked Tom in the eye. It was a little disconcerting. "I apologize if the question was inappropriate. I'm very concerned about my Mother's well-being. She's had too many men that were interested in her only because of sex. It's caused problems for us."

    "I can understand. However, I'm not interested in your Mother that way."

    "My Mom's interested in you. Not that way either, but she likes you."

    "Well, that's nice, but for now that's a subject for her and I to deal with if it ever becomes something to be dealt with. For now, you're butting into something that isn't your business. A man learns when something isn't his concern, and he leaves it be."

    "As you have noted, I'm not a man."

    "Maybe not right now, but you may find yourself thrown into the position all too soon. Now let's get inside. If we stay out too long, people will get a little more curious about what we're talking about than I'd like."

    "They know we're out here to talk?"

    "Sure--they're not stupid. It's what's called a 'polite fiction'--we all know what's really going on, but it doesn't need discussed. So we're checking the weather. It's like when a lady needs to go to the bathroom in a public place. She doesn't announce that she has to pee, she says she needs to 'freshen up'. She knows she needs to go to the bathroom, and you know it--but you don't discuss it."

    "It sounds silly."

    "Perhaps, but it's one of the many things that allow people to live together without friction. Now inside with you." Tom opened the door and motioned inside. "Hurry up, we're letting the cold in."

    "Actually, we're..."

    "I know, I know. Inside, before I call you a brat."

    "Thank you."

    "No problem."
    Last edited by The Freeholder; 02-10-2006 at 07:59 PM.

  13. #13
    December 17, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 19
    High temperature: 34
    Barometric pressure: 30.31, steady
    mostly sunny


    Another long night--at least this one wasn't totally sleepless. Grandpa, Walt and I were up, keeping watch and trying to plan out what we're going to do. We've all come to the conclusion that none of us are really prepared for this. We thought we were, but after we've all had time to think, we're starting to identify all of the holes in our plans.

    Right now, it seems we have more holes than plans.

    We've come up with ideas to fill the holes, but some of it depends on getting that "new normal" that Jere Dodson talked about. If we get that, at least for a while, we can do it. If we have to rely on what we have on hand, we're in trouble. At the very least, we need to be able to travel some distance to buy things (assuming they're available at all). With fuel rationing, that may be a little difficult. We're hoping when the power comes back things will normalize a bit.

    Speaking of in trouble, the county water system is out, so we're using the old pump. You forget how easy life is until you loose the power, running water and so on.

    About 4 AM, Toy came into the great room and found the three of us still talking. She had a snit and made all of us go to bed. She stayed up and kept watch, then woke us all up about 9 with breakfast cooking.

    The lady has her points.



    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    Generator off, the interior of Tom's house was dim, the only light coming from oil lamps. Realistically, there was plenty of light to see, but after the hours of electric light, it seemed dark.

    "Tom, what time is it?" asked his grandfather.

    "1875," sighed Tom.

    "What?"

    "Sorry, Grandpa. It's a joke I made with Grandma. I told her that after the generator was turned off, it was back to 1875 until tomorrow morning, when we run the generator again to let the fridge and freezer cool down." Tom looked at his watch. "It's a quarter 'til 10."

    "We ought to set up an overnight watch and get everyone in bed. None of us slept that well last night, and we'll need our rest. We have quite a few things to get done tomorrow."

    Toy yawned. "Well, Caleb and I don't need a hint. Alice and your grandmother are already in bed. Do you think we can we have that futon in your office again? It's actually pretty comfortable."

    "Consider it yours as long as you need it."

    "Thanks. Good night all." She put her hand on Caleb's shoulder. He shrugged it off and walked over to Tom.

    "Thanks. For everything."

    "No problem there, guy. Any old time."

    Caleb smiled at him, then walked back, took his mother's hand and they made their way down the dark hall. In a second, they were back.

    "We're going to need a flashlight." Toy sounded embarrassed.

    Tom looked around and found one of the LED lanterns they'd used last night. "Here you go. The batteries should have 2 or 3 long nights left in them at a minimum, but we might want to start conserving them."

    "Do you have any spare batteries? I have a few at home, if they're the right size."

    "I'm fine, but thanks for offering. Just trying to get in the habit, so to speak."

    "Oh. Well, good night again."

    "Night."

    Tom watched the two, silhouetted by the light, walk down the hall. He went to the stove, opened the dampers a bit more, waited a few seconds, then opened the door. Stirring the fire, he threw some wood in and shut the door.

    "Somebody remind me in a few minutes to damp it down just a bit. That thing can run you out of the house if you aren't careful."

    Walt, walking into the room from the kitchen, said "Hey, you might want to damp that stove down in a few minutes. I hear it can run you out of this house."

    Tom didn't say anything.

    "Well it isn't a great joke, but I thought it was a good one. What's got you down at the mouth?"

    Tom picked up a battery powered radio and started tuning through the AM band, hoping for news. "I wish I had a better radio--one that gets shortwave. I want to hear some news." After tuning through the band, he muttered "Well, this is a waste of time," turned it off and placed it on the table.

    "Walt, I've been thinking about the President's speech. The more I think about it, the more worried I get. There's something there that I can't quite put a finger on, but it worries me."

    "Tom, it's easy enough for me to identify," said his grandfather. "He was lying. You sit on the bench for 20 years, and you learn to spot these things."

    "What do you think he's lying about, Grandpa?"

    "Just about everything, I suspect. We've already figured out that his numbers are suspect, at best. I wonder about this 'terrorist' business as well. I suppose that gangs in the US might make some sort of common cause with terrorists, hoping to take advantage of the ensuing chaos. But most of them aren't that smart, in a strategic sense. Some of their leaders are masterful tacticians, but in my experience they couldn't think strategically if it meant their lives."

    "James, I don't usually disagree with you, and I won't disagree with your judgment the man was lying through his pearly whites. But I don't think the terrorist stuff was a lie. Based on what we've seen around here, well, it supports what he said. I think if he's lying, he's lying about the extent of the problem. I think things are much worse than he's saying, and he's lying to try prevent outright panic on the part of the population."

    "Think about it. He we all sit, and with the exception of young Miss Overly and son, and we're pretty well set up. We have heat, light, generators, food, guns, fuel--everything we need. Imagine what kind of shape she'd be in right now without our help. She'd be in an unheated mobile home, no hot food, no way to defend herself or her child, trying to see by a dying flashlight. You get hundreds or thousands of people in that condition, and you're going to have chaos. They're going to want the government to 'do something', and I'm not sure the government's in a state to do much right now. When they see that the government isn't going to do anything, things'll get ugly."

    "Now Walt, you don't know that. She may not have all we do, but I'd bet she's in better shape than that. She seems to be a pretty savvy woman." James looked at his friend.

    "How much would you like to bet? I have it straight from the source itself. The young lady and I were talking this afternoon--I was trying to get a handle on what she might need. It turns out she's damn near utterly unprepared for anything past a few hours of no power. She knows she ought to, but she doesn't have the money to do much past that. The way she talks, I'd say she does good to make her bills. I'd bet she's going to have a hard time this month--her pay's going to be several days short because of the restaurant being closed. Lord knows what's she's going to do about Christmas for that young boy of hers."

    "And I'll tell you another thing--I bet most young people are no better off than she is. As you get older, you seem to learn that you have to be ready for bad times. But at her age? Tom and Sarah were probably more prepared than 99.99% of the people their age. She is, unfortunately, a perfectly normal member of our modern society."

    "I hadn't considered that she was that bad off. She's never let on," Tom said.

    "She wouldn't--not to you at any rate."

    "Huh?"

    "She values your good opinion of her."

    "Huh?"

    "Tom, I think what Walt's trying to say is that the girl likes you. You haven't noticed? I thought I taught you to be more observant. She likes you, and she wants you to like her."

    "You mean she's interested in me romantically?" Tom sounded shocked.

    His grandfather smiled. "I don't know about romance, but she's interested, and so are several others. What I do know you'd better get used to it."

    "Why?"

    "Back in your great-great grandparents' day, maybe great-great-great grandparents, it wasn't unusual for a man, or less often a woman, to have several spouses. Not because of divorce, mind you, though that did happen occasionally. It was usually because of an early death--usually the wife. Childbirth was pretty dangerous back then, and a lot of women died in the process, or shortly after. A lot of the babies died too, but that's a different discussion."

    "Women lost their husbands to wars, industrial accidents, gold rushes or just because the men gave up and disappeared, leaving their wife and kids behind to fend for themselves. It didn't happen every day, but it happened often enough."

    "Life was dangerous for everyone. I'm 85, and I probably still have a few years left to me. Life's been kind to me--I've not had to work at heavy physical labor in dangerous environments every day, year in and year out. Back then, it wasn't like that except for a few of the very privileged. Take away our better food and medical care, and I'd have probably been dead decades ago." James shrugged.

    "There was also a lot of social pressure on single men and women of marriageable age to get married. It sounds odd now, but it existed, and it was a fearsome force. Probably caused a lot of miserable people."

    "Then there's the matter of necessity. A man who was widowed and left with very small children couldn't waste time finding himself a new wife. Love didn't have anything to do with it, as I understand. It was survival. The farm had to be worked, or he had to be at the forge, or in the mine or whatever it was he did to earn his living. If the kids were older, say 5 or 6, they could take care of themselves. But little ones had to be cared for."

    "Five or 6 wasn't little?"

    "Not then. Five or 6 worked in the fields, tended herds and so on. I recall reading a letter from a father living on the plains where he bragged about his son, who had walked two miles to a neighbor to borrow something or other, then walked back. The little boy was 3."

    "Ack!"

    "I'll agree that that was pushing it a bit. But times were different, and most people lived very close to the edge. But back to our original subject."

    "For women, it was worse. In a small town, there were few ways for a woman to earn a living and most of those ways no respectable woman would do, if you take my meaning. If the man was a decent sort, the woman probably wasn't overly concerned about love either. If the man in question was a good provider and didn't mistreat his family, is seems they figured they'd be better off with him than on their own. It was somewhere between difficult and impossible for a single woman to make it on her own."

    He looked Tom in the eye. "In other words, marriages of convenience happened--a lot."

    "Grandpa, you're not telling me that I ought to hurry up and marry Victoria Overly, are you? Sarah's hardly in her grave!"

    "Boy, hold your voice down. The girl may not be asleep, and I'll bet the boy is listening if he's awake." Walt glared at him. "I know your grandparents raised you better."

    "Walt, I am not interested in getting married!" Tom whispered, but the emphatic quality carried through anyway.

    "Well, boy, you aren't playing it smart as far as your kids are concerned. You have two very young children, and they deserve--no, they need--a mother. You're going to have a lot of work to do, just to keep everyone alive, well fed and safe if things go south. You can't do it alone." Walt was shaking his finger as he spoke.

    "Tom, your grandmother has gotten some 'inquiries' from some of her friends about your status. A couple of them have granddaughters or great granddaughters that are interested in the position of nanny, but another couple are interested in a more permanent position, if you get my meaning."

    "A lot of things are going to start changing quickly, and this is one of them. I know it sounds odd to you young ones, but you can't unwire millions of years of evolution. Unattached women will be looking for, for the lack of a better term, "strong mates". You don't have to do anything just now, but by spring you had better be ready, because if you don't call them, they will call you. Assuming the phones are working...." He looked thoughtful at that.

    "I don't want them calling me! I just want to be left alone to raise my children."

    "Boy, you just aren't thinking straight at all. How do you plan on taking care of your kids, installing solar panels, planting a garden the size you're going to need, keeping the house, watching for bad guys and so on and so forth?" Walt was shaking a finger at Tom. "Not to mention earning a living, if any of that computer work of yours should happen to come up."

    "I don't mind helping, and I know Alice doesn't. She loves those kids like they were her own. I know your grandparents don't mind helping. But all of us will have our own gardens to plant and so on and so forth. That's complicated by the fact we're a lot older than you--everything we have to do will take us longer. Us old farts can only do just so much.."

    "Walt's right, Tom. If things are as bad as we're suspicious they are, and if they keep getting worse, we're going to need to form our own community out here by the river, and it'll have to be big enough, with enough people with the right skills, that we stand some chance of making it."

    "Why do I have to be the first?"

    Walt smiled at him. "Luck of the draw, boy. Young enough and in the right place at the right time. Or wrong time, if that's how you want to look at it. Cheer up--when your brother gets back, that'll take some of the pressure off you. He's always had to fight girls off with a stick, and I bet now he'll need two sticks. If he even tries to fight them off." Walt smiled. "If I was him, I wouldn't be fighting them off, I'd be auditioning them, if you know what I mean."

    "Walt, you're a dirty old man."

    "Never claimed to be different."

    "Entertaining this may be, but I think we should table this discussion for now. We've given my grandson something to consider. Besides, we need to discuss more pressing matters."

    "Such as?"

    "Such as our supply situation. I've been going over ours in my head, and we've got some things we need to address. We never planned on anything like this. A few week or a couple of months, sure. Not this."

    Tom jumped in, relieved to be off the subject of marriage. "Grandpa, I've been doing the same, and I'm more than a little worried about my situation. I'm short on a whole lot of stuff. Or maybe I just feel short--I don't know, I've never thought a whole lot about this sort of thing. Sarah was the gloom and doom expert in the family. The only thing I feel like I've got plenty of is guns and ammo, and that's probably not right either. I probably only have enough of those to lull myself into feeling like it's enough. I don't know--I feel lost. There's so much we don't know. How do you figure out everything you need, maybe for the rest of your life?"

    Walt scratched his chin, then spoke. "Well, for what it's worth, Alice and I have been looking at our houses. Separately, we're short on a lot of things. We've concluded we'd do well to throw in together in my house."

    Tom smiled a bit, then needled Walt. "Well, Walt Johnson! Are you and Mrs. Moorefield planning on living together without the benefit of matrimony?"

    "Hardly, boy. Alice and I have known each other a lot of years. My Alice and I both knew her when she was Alice Richmond and we were all in school together. My God, that's been a long time ago. I remember when her husband Fred was killed in Vietnam during Tet. Those were some hard times for her."

    "Then when my Alice had breast cancer, she just jumped in and helped. When it was obvious they couldn't do anything for her, she decided she wanted to be at home, not in some hospital. Between the two of us, Alice and I kept her mostly out of the doctor's hands right up until the very end. She got to die at home, in her own bed, just like she wanted to."

    I spent most of the next two years drunk. No one around here wanted anything to do with me, and rightly so. I wasn't a very nice person. I hated the whole world, and everyone in it. Alice was the only person save your grandfather who would have anything to do with me. No matter how nasty I was to them, they never stopped visiting me, and Alice made sure I didn't starve to death. Eventually, I came to my senses. A few years later, Alice and I started keeping each other company."

    "Over the years, it's gotten to be something else entirely. We've talked about getting married for several years, but just never did anything about it. But now, like your grandfather said, things are changing. This is no time for anyone to be alone."

    Tom was chagrined. "Walt, I didn't know all that. Jeeze, I didn't only put my foot in my mouth, I think I found room for both. I'm sincerely sorry."

    "Don't be sorry boy. I don't advertise my past, and Alice is even more of a private person. But if you're going to be best man at my wedding, you have a right to know, I think."

    "Huh--what? But Walt, that place rightly has to belong to someone else who's known you longer."

    "Maybe so, but I want you to do it. I never had kids, and you're the closest thing to a son I have. I'd be honored if you'd do me the service."

    "But shouldn't Grandpa be best man? He's known you a lot longer than I have."

    "Can't perform the ceremony and be in the wedding party at the same time. You will perform the ceremony, James?"

    "Walt, it'd be an honor. About time, too--Hannah and I have been making bets for the past two years. Do you know have many nights out you've cost me?"

    "Well, in that case, I'd be honored to be your best man."

    "Thank you both. Now that we've all 'bonded', let's get back to our discussion. We'll let Alice plan the event. Have to be simple, though. A big wedding will mean a big do after, and one of the things she and I are short of is food."

    "Walt, that's impossible. I've seen both of your pantries, and I know you're freezer is full." Tom got a stricken look. "Your freezer--we have to get some power on it or all that meat's going to go bad!"

    "Already handled. I always freeze some big bottles of water in it, just in case something like this happens. Since it hasn't been opened, and the back porch is cold anyway, it ought to be just fine, a least for another day. Wish I had been smart enough to buy my own generator."

    "We'll load up mine tomorrow and run it down. We need to be sure it stays cold."

    "I'd appreciate that. But back to the food issue. James, how are you fixed?"

    "Well, we have the deer meat you brought us, and all the stuff Hannah canned this year, plus the stuff from the grocery store. We have stocked up on extra lately, things like beans, cornmeal, flour, sugar and that sort of thing. I'd say if we're careful, and maybe can supplement a bit with some hunting or fishing or both, we're good until the late fall at best."

    "That's about what Alice and I figured for us as well. Tom, your turn."

    "First, How's your freezer for staying cold, Grandpa? If we have to do Walt's, we ought to go take care of yours at the same time."

    "Well, I've lived a little longer than Walt, and I've learned a little more. While you were out running around this morning, I went over and ran my generator for a bit. Also checked the old wall furnaces. They aren't keeping the house warm, exactly, but they are keeping anything from freezing."

    "James, next time you go for a visit, it needs to be two people, both armed. I think that's going to have to become a pretty much rule from now on." Walt's tone indicated he was serious. "I saw people this morning who made me nervous. No chances."

    James nodded. "That new normal the RV people were talking about?"

    "Lord, let's hope not."

    Tom really didn't want to think about that for long, so he jumped in, returning the subject to food. "Well, let's see. My freezer is full. Mostly meat, but some frozen corn and some frozen strawberries, too."

    "Strawberries! Son, you've been holding out on us!" exclaimed his grandfather.

    "Well, I was waiting until Christmas. I thought they'd make a nice treat for everyone. Instead, I think we'll need them for you wedding reception."

    "Tom, that's very neighborly of you, and I appreciate it. Got anything else I can use? Oysters for the honeymoon, maybe?"

    Tom groaned and rolled his eyes. "Grandpa, hand me the trash can; I think I'm going to be sick."

    Walt snorted, James smiled and Tom groaned piteously.

    After another moan, Tom grinned at Walt and continued. "I don't know how many quarts of green beans and tomatoes we put up, but there's a lot. Pickles, peas, limas and some corn too. Don't know how the corn will do--it was an experiment. I've got 15 or 20 bushels of potatoes in the basement, along with a couple of bushels of onions. The fruit trees did really good, and we've got plum preserves, canned pears, apple sauce, sliced apples and apple jelly. We canned peaches we got at the farmer's market and made strawberry jam from strawberries we got there. Oh, and those old scuppernong vines way out back bore well, and I've got a several quarts of what I hope is scuppernong wine. That what we used for the grape jelly, too. It's different."

    "Then, of course we have stuff from the grocery store. Sarah always kept a fair amount of flour, sugar, corn meal, four or five kinds of beans, vegetable oil and a lot of other stuff. Oh, and spices. We have a lot of spices--and salt. Table and rock salt. And I have a few cases of MREs, just for emergencies."

    "Well, I know where I'm eating when we run out of food," said Walt drolly.

    "Well, Sarah didn't feel comfortable without a lot of food in the house, and I just went along with it--heck, we could always eat it."

    "Now, on top of that, there should be enough formula mix to take care of Anne until she's old enough not to need it. And several cases of toilet paper, paper towels and women's sanitary items. I don't know about diapers, though. If I have to, we do have a few dozen cloth diapers and the rubber pants, courtesy of some ecologically correct friends in California."

    "Damn." James Carpenter didn't swear much, so when he did it meant something.

    "What, Grandpa?"

    "Paper products. I never thought about that. You can do without paper towels, but toilet paper is a little different. And Kleenex."

    "Ah, I think I have a couple of cases of that, too. Oh, and paper napkins, paper plates and such."

    "Humpf. I guess we see who was the really prepared person around here." Walt frowned. "Tom, I really wish we still had that girl of yours with us. I get the feeling she knew more than the bunch of us put together."

    "It's OK, Walt. I wish she was around all the time." Tom's voice quavered.

    James reached a hand out and laid it on his shoulder. "Tom, it gets easier. Not soon, but eventually."

    "I wish it would hurry up. Sometimes I feel like I could lay down and not get up again. But then I think about the kids, and I know that they need me to be there for them. So I keep going."

    "That's the sign of a man, Tom. Trust me, I tried to lay down and die. You keep doing what you're doing, and it'll get better. It never goes away, but it gets where you can think about her without hurting. Really." Walt laid a hand on the other shoulder.

    "We'll see." Tom cleared his throat. "Look, we were talking about food. All of us have enough to get through the winter and to next fall at least. What's the problem? We plant our gardens in the spring, just a lot bigger than usual. We should still have two, maybe three months of food by the time they start bearing, right? We're golden."

    James shook his head. "Tom, I don't think it's going to be that simple. First, even though it looks like we're pretty well set for the next few months, what happens if your brother, or sister, or both put in an appearance? Sure, we'll all be glad they're here, but I suspect that won't have much in the way of food on them, so they'll have to be fed."

    "Second, the food we have won't go as far as we might think. Farming, and I mean real farming, and not gardening like we've always done, is hard work even with modern farm equipment."

    "If we have to go back to traditional methods, say mules and plows, it gets a lot harder. I remember working summers on my uncle's farm. You don't know about tired until you farm to really old-fashioned way. We'll work, because if we don't work, we won't eat."

    "Second brings up the third--we don't have the equipment to farm the old-fashioned way. We have your tractor and such, but what if it breaks and we can't get parts? Or we just can't get fuel? We need a fall-back, and I mean something better than hand tools. Does anyone here know where we can get mules, draft horses and the associated agricultural equipment? How to care for them? A good vet?"

    "Fourth, we have to worry about nature. Not enough rain, too much rain at the wrong time, hail, bugs, blights, fungus and a million other things can cost us part or all of our harvest. We'll have to plant every bit of land we can, hope it's enough, and be ready to sell or trade any excessive surpluses we have, should we be so lucky."

    "Fifth, we have a manpower issue. We old farts can't do the work you young people can. We can do things like cook, clean and watch kids to free you up, but there is only one of you so far, and there may not be enough of you to get all the work done if we wind up using the traditional methods. We'll try, but our capabilities are limited by our age. We need more younger folks out here. You, by yourself, can't do it all."

    "Sixth, we need seeds. We've always went down to the hardware, or a lawn and garden place, and bought seeds, onion sets, tomato plants and so on. And most of the time, they were what are called hybrids--genetically modified seeds. In normal times, that isn't a problem, but it is now. The problem with hybrids is that they don't breed true--if you save the seeds from hybrid tomatoes and try to use them the next year, you'll get some healthy plants, but mostly weak plants and poor fruit. The next year, I don't believe you'd get anything at all."

    "We'll need seeds from old-time, non-genetically modified plants. Where do we get them? I'm not sure I've ever seen them in a store. I doubt that there's enough old-time seed in this entire county to plant a decent-sized garden--no one's interested in things like that around here."

    "Well, James," said Walt, "you're sure know how to cheer a guy up."

    "Sorry, but if we mean to survive for the long term, we're going to have to be realistic--brutally so. We can't lie to ourselves that things are perfectly fine, or even just good, if they aren't. If it gets really bad--the government falls apart, mass chaos, refugees, banditry--you can bet that at least half of the population will be dead in 12 months. Maybe more. Throw in an epidemic or two, and it could be 2/3 to 3/4."

    "Grandpa, when you talk about old-timey seeds--could those be called 'heirloom seeds', maybe?"

    "I don't know. I just know we need non-hybrid seeds. Heirloom? I don't know--could be. Sounds right, I suppose."

    "There are two good-sized boxes out in the building that come from a seed company. Printed on the boxes it says they specialize in heirloom seeds. If that means they're these old-fashioned seeds you're talking about, maybe at least one problem is solved."

    "Tom, that wife our yours may have just saved us. Tomorrow, we need to find those boxes and see what we have. They may be our most precious commodity just now."

    "She was definitely ahead of any of us," said James. "If those seeds are what they sound like, they may be our salvation."

    Walt said "And we ought to give Tom a pat on the back. He may have started late, but he's made a few really important moves as well--I wish we had a dozen more of those miniature house trailers that you bought."

    "Why's that?" asked Tom.

    "Think about it. Me and Alice, we're basically right next door. You can see both our houses from here. But it's going to take more than just you, us, your grandma and grandpa and your brother and sister--assuming they get here--to plant and harvest--and more importantly, defend the planting and the harvest. I doubt that everyone wants to live cheek-by-jowl with each other, so that means we need more housing."

    "But Walt, we all have houses already. We use one RV for Jim and one for Jane, if she decides to come, which she won't--she'll stay with John. So Grandpa and Grandma get the other. We don't need any more."

    "Tom, let's assume that the government doesn't get things under control. Things start to slide faster and faster. The power goes out for good. Food's short. No law enforcement."

    "Talk about cheering people up," said James.

    Walt growled and continued. "As I was saying. People will get desperate, and desperate people can and will do anything. Throw in our criminal element, and we're going to find ourselves sitting in the middle of people who want what we've got, and won't have much compunction about taking it. Even if they don't kill us to get it, how long would we last without it?"

    "There aren't enough of use to defend this place. Add Toy, and we're still short. Get Jim and a wife for him and we're still short. Even add Jane and her husband, and we're still short. And where do we put the other folks with skills we need, like a doctor, or a blacksmith?"

    "Well, I'm feeling much better about things. How about you, Grandpa?"

    "Comedians. I think we need to start forming ourselves a community that's big enough to stand on it's own, but compact enough we can defend it. The way we're scattered about now, we're hopeless in terms of defense. They can pick us off one at a time."

    "Uh, Walt, that's great, but who do you have in mind for this?"

    "Well, Alice and I thought that our first recruit would be Pastor Washington. He's about your age, good shape and it wouldn't hurt to have a preacher about. 'No atheists in foxholes' and all that. We were thinking about putting him in Alice's house."

    "Well, that's one, I suppose," said Tom. "But who else?"

    "I don't know. But we're going to have to figure it out, and we'd better do it soon. If we fiddle and diddle around, we're going to be too late. And somehow, I don't think there's any medals in this race for second place."

    "Log cabins," said James. "We can build log cabins around the perimeter of what we're trying to defend. Use them as strongpoints, maybe. Each one can cover the ones on either side."

    "Yeah, that could work..." Walt looked thoughtful.

    Just then, Caleb same down the hall.

    "Caleb, shouldn't you be in bed? It's kind of late." Tom moved to get him back down the hall.

    "Something's wrong with the toilet. I flushed it, but the water isn't running."

    "You mean it's stopped up?" Visions of an overflowing toilet went through Tom's head, followed by visions of a septic tank that needed pumped.

    "No, it flushed fine. It isn't refilling."

    "Ah, OK. I'll check it in a minute. You get back to bed and get some sleep."

    "OK. G'night."

    "Night, bud."

    "Tom, I thought you were on county water," his grandfather said.

    "I am. Let me go see what's going on." Tom reached into his pocket for his Mini-Mag and walked down the hall to the bathroom.

    Entering, he didn't hear water running. He checked the bowl, which was clean. Taking the top off the tank, he could see that it hadn't refilled.

    "Well, this isn't good," he thought. Reaching over to the lavatory, he turned on the faucet. A bare dribble came out. "Definitely not good." He walked back down the hall.

    "So what's going on?" Walt asked.

    "Kid's right--no water."

    "That's not good." James looked concerned.

    "My thoughts exactly."

    "That old pump out back work?"

    "Sure, Walt. It's the old well from the old house. Sarah wanted me to put a pump on it because it would be a nice yard decoration..." Tom tailed off. "She was ahead of us again, wasn't she?"

    "Looks that way." Walt said and he and James looked at each other.

    "Well, there're a few gallons of bottled water under the sink for drinking. I'm going to get a bucket and fill the toilet tank."

    Tom grabbed a jacket from the coat tree in the kitchen. On the back porch, he grabbed a bucket that was used for mopping. Walking out into the cold night, he looked up at a clear sky for a few moments.

    Tom wiped a tear from his eye and started walking to the pump.

  14. #14
    December 18, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 21
    High temperature: 36
    Barometric pressure: 30.40, steady
    mostly sunny

    Very busy and very tired.


    December 19, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature:24
    High temperature: 41
    Barometric pressure: 30.45, steady
    mostly sunny

    Still busy. Maybe tomorrow.


    December 20, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 26
    High temperature: 44
    Barometric pressure: 30.58, rising slowly
    sunny

    Not today.


    December 21, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 27
    High temperature: 41
    Barometric pressure: 30.11, dropping
    cloudy

    If I don't miss my guess, it'll be rainy tomorrow. I'll catch up then.


    December 22, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 26
    High temperature: 34
    Barometric pressure: 29.66, slowly dropping
    rain

    The last few days have been busy and I'm so tired a good night's sleep just bounced off me. If this is what its going to be like, we'd better get some more people in here to help soon. A week or two of this and there won't be much left of me.

    We've worked our tails off while we had some decent weather. The first thing we did Thursday morning was to check those boxes of seeds. I hope God has a special place set aside for Sarah, because she saved us--again. The two boxes are a wide selection of non-hybrid seeds, plus several books on gardening and old-time agricultural practices. According to one of those books, The Encyclopedia of Country Living, if we get even decent yields, we can support 10 times as many people as we have right now, plus have some left over for animal feed or trading. Of course, I don't want to think how much work it would be to put all this land under cultivation. No way I can do all that myself without a tractor.

    We've closed down Toy's trailer, Alice Moorefield's house, Mary Alice Wilson's place and Grandpa and Grandma's house, and brought all the things we thought we'd really need, or would ruin in the cold, or we didn't want stolen to my or Walt's place. That took most of Thursday and a nice bit of the fuel in my pickup.

    While we were out, we checked on most of the close neighbors. We knew Mary Alice was out of town at her grandkids for Christmas. Alice has a key, so we went in and cleaned out the refrigerator (tossed all that) and drained the plumbing. Luckily, nothing had frozen. A lot of other people seem to be gone as well. No way to tell if they left for the holidays, because they were cold or what. We used my street key to turn off their water at the road, then opened the outside spigots. Without keys, that's about all we could do for them. I expect all of them will come home to ruined refrigerators.

    Friday and Saturday was 'get the park models set up' day. We put them near the house, but not right up on it. They're sited so each place can have a clear shot at each other, at Walt's, at Alice's and at my house. Still work to do (water and sewer will be the biggies), but it takes things we don't have, like pipe. I want to get the rest done ASAP, so that our living accommodations are a little less uncomfortable if the power doesn't come on soon, but until I can get the pipe, I don't know that anyone will want to use them for more than bedrooms.

    Sunday wasn't one of our best days. The plan was to go to Mocksville to find Alan Washington. It turned out to be a considerably different trip when we...



    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    Sunday morning had dawned cloudy with scattered showers. Being that it was Sunday and the weather was not great, everyone in the house had been a bit slower to get up and get going. They had planned this day to be a quiet one as much as possible--everyone was tired after several days of hard work. That changed after Caleb decided to flip on a radio and see if any of the local stations had come back on the air.

    WLXN, an AM station in Lexington, was on the air for the first time since shortly after the power had gone off. Usually on Sundays, their programming was a mix of religious broadcasts, but today was different. An unknown announcer was running a live show.

    Caleb walked into the kitchen, the voice coming from the radio bringing immediate silence from the assembled adults.

    "This is WLXN, Lexington. We'll be on the air today until 10 AM, then take a break until 3 PM. At 3, we'll be back on the air until 5 PM, bringing you the latest news and public welfare instructions."

    "WLXN is back on the air after a few days absence due to a diesel fuel delivery late yesterday. This will enable us to broadcast using backup generator power for 4 hours a day for the next several days. Based on the latest reports, the Lexington area should have power restored by Tuesday or perhaps Wednesday, and we'll be able to resume our normal operating schedule."

    "This is 1440 AM, WLXN, Lexington, North Carolina. Time for a news update."

    "Internationally, violence continues in many European cities, as riots continues for the 4th straight day. Overtaxed police and military are struggling to reassert control in Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin and other major cities across the continent. There are reports from several eastern European countries of military crackdowns on rioters, but those are unconfirmed at this time."

    "Many Middle Eastern nations are apparently descending into civil war as fundamentalist Muslims continue to battle moderates and secular authorities for control. Israel has warned all neighbors that it will not takes sides in any civil conflicts, but will treat any attack on its citizens or territory as an act of war. Israeli armed forces continue to be held in a state of heightened alert."

    "Thursday's Japanese earthquake has left 146 reported dead in the area of Kobe. A number of buildings are seriously damaged, but local and national authorities have issued assurances that the situation is well in hand. Japanese Self Defense forces have been deployed in the relief effort."

    "In national news, widespread violence is still taking place in many metropolitan areas. Hardest hit are Baltimore, Washington DC, Charlotte NC, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, and the entire southern California metroplex, from San Diego to Los Angles. Military troops from various bases have taken up positions around these areas to both contain the violence and assist refugees."


    "That's a considerable percentage of the population in those areas," noted James Carpenter, looking up from taking a sip of his coffee. "I wonder what the death toll is up to?"

    Tom, busily shoveling cereal into a very hungry Anne, commented "I suppose it depends on how well armed the gangs are. If they're as well armed as ours were, I expect the number is going to be pretty scary."

    "Other areas have not escaped violence. All large cities have experienced some level of gang- or terrorist-related violence, and numerous mid-size and small cities and towns have also been plagued with varying levels of mayhem."

    "In their latest press conference, FEMA officials say they expect the death toll to be in the low thousands, and discounted reports that it could be in the hundreds of thousands. FEMA spokesperson Marcia Williams said that such numbers are 'baseless speculation' on the part of 'untrained observers' and should be given no credence."

    "The White House has issued a statement that all necessary resources will be made available to FEMA and affected states and localities. The statement did not contain any details on what resources were being made available at this time."

    "The same statement also repeated that these attacks were being considered as an act of war by country or countries currently undiscovered."


    "I see the spin machine is in high gear," mummered James.

    "Reports on shortages of military manpower continue to surface. A number of states are reporting difficulties in mobilizing National Guard units due to the failure of many personnel to report when called up, blaming it on communication problems after the destruction of major telephone switching centers in New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Des Moines and other cities. The destruction of these centers seems to have been a part of a coordinated action designed to cripple US communications."

    "Well, it seems they've done a good job of it," noted Walt. "Toy, are there any more pancakes?"

    "Wait your turn. Tom hasn't eaten yet--he's been busy feeding Anne."

    Walt looked at Tom and raised an eyebrow. Tom favored him with a circumspect upraised middle finger. Walt smiled and winked, while mouthing the words "Told you so". Toy, facing the stove, missed the entire byplay. Tom and Walt missed the fact that she was trembling slightly.

    "In regional news, Charlotte, Atlanta, Columba and Miami all remain quarantined by military forces in an attempt to quell lawlessness that broke out shortly after the Southeast power outage began. Reports of robbery, looting, sexual offenses and murder are common among those who have been able to flee the cities. Military authorities have organized refugee camps near the cities, but supplies remain short. Some reports indicate that the condition in these camps is nearly as bad as that in the cities."

    "Many smaller cities are also experiencing similar problems, but have been able to handle them with their own resources."

    "FEMA and military forces, in concert with state and local authorities, are working to bring relief supplies to all those effected by the southeast power outages and subsequent rioting. Their efforts have been hampered by both a shortage of supplies and the magnitude of the need. In some areas, military forces have been forced to requisition goods from local warehouses and retailers in order to assure a fair distribution to all in need."

    "Officials have issued statements that all owners will be compensated as soon as possible for their goods and property, and have issued reassurances that the need for these actions is only temporary."


    Tom's grandmother Hannah was the only person to find her voice. Laying down her fork, she said "The United States Constitution. Void where prohibited." Sarcasm dripped from the words. "James and I fought for this country in World War II--now look what we're doing to ourselves."

    Her husband walked over and and laid his hands on her shoulders. He didn't speak.

    "Locally, Lexington continues to clean up after this week's gang-related crime spree. Funerals for the victims will wind up today, with the last, for firefighter Warren J. Kinlaw, held this afternoon at 3 at the First Presbyterian Church."

    "The search for gang members and their associates concluded yesterday, Acting Sheriff John Dean told reporters. Approximately 167 adults, 31 teenagers and 20 children have been killed or taken into custody. The 20 children are in the custody of Davidson County Social Services. A large amount of weapons, ammunition, explosives, drugs and cash has been seized."

    "Access to Lexington is still controlled, but controls have been relaxed due to the completion of the gang sweeps. Anyone who is not a Lexington resident and wishes to enter the Lexington City Limits must register with authorities at one of the 8 checkpoints currently allowing traffic into and out of the city. They will be required to check all weapons at the checkpoint, where they will be held until the visitor departs the city. Visitors will be issued a pass that will allow them free access to the city. The pass must be prominently displayed on the vehicle during the visit."

    "Currently visitors are allowed in Lexington between the hours of 9 AM and 4 PM. Those with emergency needs will be allowed in at other times on a case by case basis."

    "Acting Sheriff Dean reminds all visitors that these rules are strictly enforced, and violators will be arrested. He also wishes to remind all visitors that many of Lexington's stores, particularly in the downtown area, have been damaged or destroyed, and those that have not are operating without electricity. Most business are only accepting cash or checks drawn on local accounts."


    Toy walked over to the radio and turned it off. "I think we've heard enough." Her voice was shaking.

    Tom, finished feed Anne, was wiping off her face. Without looking up, he said "No, we haven't. Turn it back one, and let's see how bad it gets."

    "No!" Toy was nearly shrieking. "I don't need to hear any more!" Caleb went to his mother and tired to hug her, but she pushed him away. "Everything's falling apart around us, and I don't want to stand here and listen to the radio explaining it to me! I won't listen to it any more! You can't make me!"

    Walt walked up to Toy, who stood there, spatula in hand, wide-eyed and shaking. Taking the spatula, he gently moved her aside, flipped the pancakes on the griddle, and handed the spatula back to her. "Young lady, I expect better of you. Yes, things are bad right now, but believe me when I tell you that they can be much worse. Right now, we're all guests in this house, and we should act like it. Now we're going to turn the radio back on and listen to the rest of the news. If you can't handle that, or you don't want to handle that, then feel free to go out of the room, or leave altogether. None of us are going to have time for, or are interested in, histrionics."

    "Don't you understand..."

    Walt cut her off. "I understand just fine. You don't understand. Things are bad and likely to get worse if we don't get a whole sequence of miracles. Since I don't expect that much luck, I understand that we had better all better keep our wits firmly about us and pull together. There isn't going to be time to carry dead weight."

    Toy looked at him blankly. Then she laid the spatula on the counter and walked out the door to the porch. They all heard the outside door open then close.

    Caleb looked at the door, then at Tom. Tom looked back. "Caleb, I'm not going to go get your mother. I won't stop you if you want to, but I'm not doing it. She's a big girl, and she's going to have to deal with this. None of us can do it for her."

    "She's my Mom."

    "I understand. You do what you need to do. But if you go after her, wear your jacket, and take hers. It's chilly out there this morning. Take an umbrella, too. They're on the porch."

    Caleb nodded, and took his jacket off the pegs by the door. Putting it on, he took his mother's and went outside.

    Tom looked over his shoulder at Walt. "Still think I ought to marry her?" Taking Anne from her high chair, and checked Little Tom in his chair. Little Tom was still eating his oatmeal. "Good job, buddy. You're not wearing as much of it today." Tommy smiled at his dad and kept eating. Tom took Anne and walked down the hall to get her changed and dressed.

    Walt looked at James. "Well, I never claimed to be infallible."

    Alice crossed her arms and started tapping her foot. "Walter Johnson. What have you been doing? Are you matchmaking?"

    "Well, it's like this--James and I..."

    "Leave me out of this!"

    "Like hell I will! You're in this just as deep as I am. James and I were talking with Tom a few nights ago, telling him that he needed to think about how he could take care of his kids and his home and all his other obligations. Toy seems to be interested in him, and she's in a similar position, and we thought that..."

    Alice held up a hand. "Oh, Lord, spare me. Hannah, have we heard enough from this pair?"

    "Oh, I think so, unless we just want to rub it in a bit." Hannah smiled sweetly at her husband. "Do you have anything to add, my dear?"

    "Ah, no. I'll plead the Fifth."

    "Uh-huh." Hannah looked to Walt, then back to her husband. "This girl has problems of some sort, and we have no idea what they are. And you two geniuses are trying to push her and my grandson into a...a...a marriage of convenience? What were you thinking?"

    "Look, we didn't know..."

    "And you didn't think! I'll never understand men. You can plan for the end of the world, but when it comes to relationships and marriage...it seems that you put less thought into those than you put into buying new underwear!"

    "Hannah, that's enough. We..."

    "No, it isn't enough! It..."

    "YES IT IS!" James yelled. Hannah was taken aback. She couldn't remember many times her husband had yelled at her during their marriage. James continued in a more normal voice. "Yes, it is enough. Walt and I made a mistake. Tom tried to tell us, and we were too hard-headed to listen. But you aren't helping matters. Everyone of us is pretty tightly strung right now, and who knows how long things will go on like this. Maybe she does have some sort of issues, and maybe she's just upset about the fact that she's living on the sufferage of a man she doesn't know all that well. Instead of telling us what morons we are, why don't you go outside and see if you can help her?"

    Walt walked over to the sink, and getting a couple of paper towels and a gallon container of water, went to the table and started cleaning up Tommy. "Let's get you cleaned up and you can play toys in the great room--what'cha think of that?"

    "'K."

    "Hannah, why don't we go see how the girl's doing?" asked Alice as she got her coat off a peg. She held Hannah's out to her.

    James looked at her. "I'm sorry I had to yell."

    She walked over and patted his face. "It's OK. I can be a bit hard headed myself." She smiled. "Why don't you...I smell something burning..."

    Everyone looked at the stove. The forgotten pancakes were smoking on the griddle. James moved quickly, grabbed the spatula and flipped them onto a plate. Looking at the ruins, he held them out to Hannah. "Can you take these with you? I think they belong outside."

    ----------------------------------------

    Tom walked into the great room carrying Anne. Walt was on the floor, playing with Tommy.

    "So where is everyone?" He sat down in a chair, still holding Anne.

    "Well, Toy and Caleb are still outside, and your grandmother and Alice are outside talking to her. After ripping us a new orifice."

    "I heard. What burned?"

    "Pancakes. Your grandfather is cleaning them up, and probably fixing you a stack."

    Tom stood up and grabbed a blanket from another chair. He had become practiced spreading it one handed, and when it was mostly flat, he stopped down and placed Anne on her stomach. "How about watching her while I swallow some breakfast?"

    "Sure."

    "I was thinking--this afternoon, let's head to Mocksville and see if we can find Alan. We need to find out if he's interested in the position."

    "True enough. If he's interested, we'll need to scare up fuel for the trucks. Maybe we'll get lucky and be able to use our trailers and be able to get it in a single big trip."

    "Well, one thing at a time. No need to hurry things, wouldn't you say?"

    Walt looked at him a second. "You're right. Some things probably shouldn't be rushed, no matter what the circumstances."

    ------------------------------------------------

    Driving west on Highway 64, Tom and Alice encountered only 2 other vehicles. Passing through the small community of Fork, they saw small crowds at the volunteer fire department and the community center. Both groups looked unhappy, but peaceful. They were simply standing around, as if they were waiting for something to happen.

    "I wonder what that's all about?" said Alice.

    "Some sort of shelter, maybe? For people who don't have any heat? Or maybe a food distribution point?"

    "Perhaps," was all Alice had to say.

    Tom drove on. For the next several miles, they didn't pass a single moving car. Many houses they passed had smoke coming from their chimneys. They saw a few people in their yards, but for the most part it seemed that everyone was staying indoors. It started to drizzle, and Tom turned on the wipers. Neither driver nor passenger seemed to be interested in talking.

    Finally, Alice broke the rhythm of the wipers. "Thomas, we should talk about Victoria."

    "I'd rather not, if you don't mind, Miz Alice. I've talked about her enough the last few days."

    "I'm afraid that won't do--not now at any rate. Victoria is an issue that needs to be...dealt with."

    "Miz Alice, you know I'd never be intentionally rude to you, but my love life, and whether or not I choose to remarry--and when-- is my business. I'm more than a little tired of everyone offering their advice and opinions on the subject."

    "I wasn't planning on offering advice. I agree with you--you're grandfather and my fiancee were both well beyond the bounds of good taste in recommending that you remarry solely to have someone around to cook, clean and watch your children. If that's all you need, I think we can find you a suitable young woman to hire as a housekeeper. In these times I believe there are some local girls who would be happy for the work."

    "What we need to discuss is Victoria and her...outburst...this morning. What do you make of it?"

    "Not sure. Stress, maybe. Lord knows the last few days haven't been a lot of fun for any of us."

    "Your grandmother and I agree. Everyone has been more or less on edge lately, and someone had to snap first. Why do you think it was Victoria, rather than, say, you or me?"

    "Haven't considered it. I don't really think it's worth worrying about--we've got bigger problems to solve, and she seemed to be calmed down after you all came back in." He didn't add 'after an hour of talking her down', but he thought it.

    "That's true, but I do think that this is worthy of some of your time and mental effort. James and Walt are correct on one thing--the young lady does like you, and she cares deeply about your good opinion of her. She's very embarrassed by her actions this morning."

    "Miz Alice, you do realize that 'young lady' is 5 years older than I am, right? And as far as embarrassed, she doesn't need to be. Anyone with a brain knows that it could have been any one of us who broke first."

    "Then you might tell her that after we get back. You were a bit cool to her before we left, and that isn't going to help matters."

    "Sorry--I didn't mean to be."

    "Apologize to her, not me."

    "Yes ma'am." Tom kept driving. "How do I get myself into these things?" he thought.

    On the outskirts of Mocksville, they started seeing more activity. More cars moving, a open quickie mart with cars in the lot and then...a working stoplight.

    "Miz Alice, I do believe the people of Mocksville have their power back on."

    "So it seems. I wonder if this happened while we were driving?"

    "No way to tell. I didn't bring my cell phone. Maybe we can find a pay phone and try calling home."

    "We'll watch for one."

    Tom looked at the clock on the dash, noting that it was almost 1 PM.. "The next place we see that sells diesel, I'm going to stop. Maybe I can talk them into selling me some, even if it is Sunday."

    Tom struck out at his first two stops--it was Sunday, and fuel sales were not allowed on Sundays. His third stop was an old service station that he wasn't even sure was open. As he was pulling up to the pumps, and middle-aged man walked out of the office. "Need some gas?"

    "Diesel, if you have it."

    "Sure! Pull up to that pump over on the side. You want to fill it up?"

    "Uh, sure," said a confused Tom. He'd expected to have a hard sell just to get the 10 gallons he was allowed to buy at a time, especially since Sunday was the day that no fuel sales were allowed.

    "You look like you have a question," the service station attendant said with a laugh. "Ask away! Fuel's expensive, but I'll answer questions for free."

    "Well, you're selling fuel on a Sunday, and you're willing to fill up my tank without know how much I need. Can't you get in trouble for that?"

    "Maybe so, but I haven't so far. I don't think the government has any right to tell me who to, when or how much product I can sell. This is still a free country." He scowled. "At least for the moment."

    The man continued, "The way I look at it is 'Show me the law'. I haven't heard of Congress passing a law giving anybody the ability to start a rationing program. Hell, as far as I know there isn't even a declared national emergency that the president could use to justify an Executive Order. So I view it as more of a request--and it's a request I'm going to turn down. At least until I run out of fuel to pump, anyway."

    "You're about out?"

    "Getting close. I've taken some home for myself. The regular and mid-grade are gone. I've still got a fair amount of premium and diesel, though." The pump cut off. The display said 28.6 gallons, $174.43. $6.09 9/10 per gallon.

    "Wow!" said Tom. He'd figured it would be close to $10 a gallon by now.

    "Yeah, it's probably too low, but I'm holding my price until I sell out. After that...well, I've been thinking about retiring anyway, and this might be a real good time to do it, if you know what I mean. Somehow, I don't think selling gas and fixing tires and such are going to make a man a living much longer. I've got me a cabin up in the mountains on some land my family has owned for years. Me and the wife, we're going to load up my truck, hitch up the trailer, pile everything on and head out, just as soon as things look safe enough to make the trip. We're not young any more, but we're in good shape, and we're going to go where we can raise our own food. I think being able to feed yourself is going to be useful very soon."

    "You've had problems with gangs here, or just 'gittin while the gittin's good'?"

    "Mostly gittin.. We've had a couple of what they call 'isolated incidents' with gang types, but nothing major. What worries me is why it wasn't worse. The National Guard has set up roadblocks all around Winston Salem, and they're keeping everyone who was in there, in there. The gangbangers can't get here, at least not easily. But we can't get out, at least not on I-40. They're telling us all the interstates are now military highways, whatever the hell that means."

    "They're running patrols and convoys up and down I-40 and US 321 and 421. Supposedly they're keeping the roads open for transport traffic, but there seems to be precious little of that, at least compared to normal. Lot of military traffic, though. And local traffic? No way--we aren't allowed. Have to take the smaller roads out--they don't seem to be interested in those. Not yet, anyway"

    Tom nodded in sympathy. "We noticed that there weren't any roadblocks coming into town. Lexington has blockaded itself because they've had so much trouble."

    "So I've heard. I'd hate to be caught in a city or even a small town very shortly. You can't grow your own food because there isn't enough room. Water supply is iffy. I've heard that some local governments are confiscating food and fuel from the stores and people who have stockpiles so it can be 'redistributed'. There are rumors that some are confiscating guns. Nope, I think my cabin in the hills is looking better and better."

    As Tom was taking a wad of cash from his pocket, he was glad he'd had the foresight to take a large amount of money out of the bank a couple of weeks earlier. He'd worried that the size of the transaction would attract undue attention, but right now, he expected all those agencies had more important things to do. He stripped off 2 $100 bills and handed them to the man. The man took his own wad out, stripped off a twenty, a five and two ones.

    "I'll just round it to the closest dollar. At these prices, what's 50 cents?" He laughed.

    "Yeah, I guess you're right." Tom thought a moment. "Tell me something--what other stores are open in town?"

    "About all of them, but things are getting a little thin, especially if you want food. Guns and ammo aren't available--the Nasty Guards put a stop to those sales when they got here. Said it was for 'public safety'. Just another reason I'm heading for the hills."

    Tom was concerned. He and Alice were traveling with pistols and long guns, as had become their habit. "How are they on people traveling armed?"

    "Not thrilled with it, but they aren't doing anything like searches, if that's what you mean. Keep it hid and you should be OK."

    "Hidden? I don't get it."

    "No sense taking unnecessary chances, right? I don't think anyone is worrying about whether you have a concealed carry permit, but some folks are getting more upset than usual if they see a gun. Wussies. If they complain to those MPs, you can bet they'll do something, whether it's right or wrong."

    Tom chuckled. "I'll take that advice. Tell me something--what National Guard unit's here? My brother is lieutenant in the Guard. He was in Iraq, but supposedly they were coming home."

    "Your brother local--in the 4th Cav?"

    "Yeah."

    "Well, I'm afraid he isn't with this bunch. These guys are the 443rd Military Police--from up north somewhere, so I hear."

    "Well, I was hoping..."

    "I wouldn't get my hopes up too far. I've been able to talk to a few of these boys. According to them, the rumor is no Guard unit is being sent anywhere near their homes."

    "But I heard that all the Guard units were being returned to the control of their states?"

    "I heard the President make the same speech, but I wouldn't put much faith in it. Back when I was in the Guard, the word we got was is that if we were ever deployed to put down riots and such again, like they were in the 70s, we wouldn't be deployed close to home. The idea was that they didn't trust us to do our duty if it meant arresting, or maybe opening fire on, our family, friends and neighbors. Never heard much about it anywhere else, though, so maybe it was just another rumor. Who knows?"

    Tom scratched his head and blew out a breath. "Man, I hope that isn't true. We were hoping to get him home soon, before...well, before things get bad."

    "You may be too late. But like I said, who knows? Maybe things will work themselves out and people like me will have egg on their faces."

    "Yeah, maybe so." Tom was confused and worried. "Well, look, thanks for the fuel. We're going to get moving. I want to hit a few stores, and we have an old friend we need to look up."

    "Well, good luck to you. Grab some cans if you can find them and stop back by. I'll fill those up too."

    "Thanks, and good luck to you, too. I hope you make it to your cabin OK."

    Tom walked around the truck and got in. The man waved, and Tom and Alice waved back.

    Alice looked at him. "Thomas, is something wrong?"

    As Tom related the conversation with the station owner, he started the truck, pulled out of the lot and headed toward the big shopping centers north of the interstate.

    When he was finished, Alice asked "So do you believe what he said about the units being sent away from home deliberately?"

    "I don't know. It makes a kind of screwy sense, if you're into the conspiracy theories." He paused. "But you know, they said they were having a hard time mobilizing the remaining Guard units--people not showing up. But they also blamed it on poor communications."

    "Perhaps in the area affected by the power failure, but I don't think that explanation works for the rest of the country."

    "I don't know. The news said a lot of phone switching centers were down. I just don't know...."

    Coming up on the intersection of Highway 64 and I-40, Tom could see military roadblocks on the ramps. He drove by and tried without success to see the markings on the vehicles, but they were too far away to make them out.

    In another block, he turned into the big shopping center that held a Super Walmart, along with a number of smaller stores. Business looked good--the lots were packed. A steady stream of people were going in and out.

    "Well, it is close to Christmas..." he said hopefully.

    "Perhaps that explains it. Let's go inside and see if they have any pay phones."

    Tom go lucky and found a spot about halfway to the stores. They threw their coats over the rifles in the back seat and made sure their pistols were well concealed, then locked the truck and walked toward the entrance of the Walmart.

    Alice asked the greeter about pay phones, and was directed toward the customer service area in the front of the store. Taking one phone, she gestured Tom to the other. "Call your home and see if you can get through. I'll call the reverend."

    Tom fished for a quarter, then realized it was long distance to his house. "Spoiled by cell phones," he muttered to himself. He dialed '0' for an operator and tried to place a collect call to his home. The operator tied the call, but received an intercept message that the number was temporarily out of service. Tom thanked her and hung up.

    Alice had better luck, and was talking to Alan Washington. Tom stepped away from his phone and started watching the customers that were checking out.

    There was an eclectic mix of goods being bought. Some buggies were obviously full of Christmas presents, some with groceries and some were mixed. It seemed like business as usual, until Tom spotted two MPs off to one side. They were watching the crowd, but without any obvious interest. Standing guard, maybe? Tom tried not to be too obvious in his observation of them. None of the customers seemed to be paying them any particular attention.

    Alice finished her call and turned to Tom. "The reverend is interested. He said he would meet us here, but it will be 3 or 3:30 before he can get here. We have time--why don't we try some shopping?"

    She took his arm and turned him back toward the carts. Taking one, she motion him to take one for himself. ""Thomas, how much cash do you have with you today?"

    "I brought a thousand dollars, just in case anything was open."

    "Well, I don't have quite so much." She frowned. "However, if you notice, those people are using either debit or credit cards at the register. I suggest we preserve our cash and buy on credit."

    "Agreed. What are we buying?"

    "Use your judgment, but try to get things that will be unavailable if things are...interrupted...again. Grocery items, of course, will always be useful."

    "OK. Wait a minute," Tom said, and reached in his pocket for his wallet. Looking inside, he removed a key." "Here's a key to the truck. That way we don't have to try and keep track of each other."

    Alice arched an eyebrow. "Who taught you that little trick?"

    Tom grinned. "Grandpa--right after I locked myself out of a car when I started driving."

    She smiled. "Well, it will be handy today. We want to buy as much as we can. Fill up the entire truck if possible. Be sure to pick up a tarp and some rope, so we can fill up the bed. Of course, after we fill up the cab, one of us will have to stay with the truck."

    Tom nodded his head in agreement. They both headed into the crowd, and separated, intent on making the most of an unexpected opportunity.
    Last edited by The Freeholder; 03-14-2006 at 12:47 PM.

  15. #15

    Chapter 14

    December 24, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 21
    High temperature: 30
    Barometric pressure: 29.60, steady
    light snow

    Christmas Eve Day was great. First, we got some snow, so it's going to be a white Christmas. I wish the kids were big enough to enjoy this, but I'm enjoying it enough for all of us.

    Second, the power came on this morning. Thank God, because I really needed to do some laundry. Still no water, so I had to carry the water to the washer a bucket at a time. I'm going to have to see about an electric pump for that well in case the water fails again. And then how to hook that up to a generator in case the power fails again. More things for the "to do" list.

    Third, Walt and Alice got married today. I only "sorta" botched the toast. I hate being the entertainment at social functions. Maybe after today's performance, no one will ask me to be best man again. That would be a plus.



    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    "...I pronounce you man and and wife. You may..."

    Walt grabbed Alice, dipped her low, and kissed her solidly.

    "...kiss the bride." James Carpenter looked at the two for a few seconds. "Coming up for air anytime soon, Walt?"

    Walt stood Alice up and pulled away from the kiss. Alice swatted at him with her bouquet, smiling.

    The attendees applauded and laughed.

    "There may be snow on the roof, but there's fire in the furnace," was Walt's comment, made with a smile and a wink.

    James raised his voice above the din. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I give to you Mr. and Mrs. Walter Johnson."

    Reverend Alan Washington raised his hands for quiet. "If we may, let's offer a prayer." Respectful silence followed.

    "Oh Lord, look down on you servants Walter and Alice and bless this union between them. In a time of troubles and uncertainty, they have committed their lives to each other in a gesture of hope for the future. Bless and keep them and all of the company here assembled. Amen."

    A round of murmured "Amens" followed.

    Before more noise could begin, Tom jumped in. "Folks, the reception is now in progress. Food is in the dining room and your seat is where you can find it. Since there are only a few of us here, we're going to dispense with a formal receiving line--feel free to hunt down the happy couple and let them know what you think of their actions--at their age!"

    Laughter and a general movement toward the dining room ensued.

    Tom hung back, looking around Walt's living room. All the furniture had been moved against the walls or into other rooms to make the maximum possible space for the guests. Despite the worsening weather and the general uncertainties, a fair number of friends and neighbors had ventured out to attend the Christmas Eve nuptials.

    Besides Tom and his grandparents, there were the reverend and his wife, Don Hall and his wife Ellen, Jim McReady and his wife Wanda, Jason Smithfield and his wife Susan and Glen Carrick. Several older children scampered underfoot, while Tom's two younger ones, plus the infant son of Jim and Wanda were in one of Walt's bedrooms under the care of a young lady, a grandneice of one of his grandparent's friends, who had been hired for the occasion. A few others from the area rounded out the attendees.

    Absent, conspicuously so to Tom, was Toy Overly and her son Caleb. After he and Alice had returned from their Monday trip to Mocksville, they had found that Toy had taken her son and went back to her trailer, telling Walt and his grandfather that she "just wasn't comfortable accepting handouts" any longer. They had tried to stop her, but she was determined to leave. They also said she acted a little crazy, and had slapped and shouted at Caleb when he tried to persuade her to stay.

    Tom had driven to her trailer a couple of miles down US 64 toward Lexington. She had answered the door and rebuffed his attempted apology. She also turned down his offer of shelter until the power came back on. Tom was able to persuade her to grudgingly accept some food, a battery-powered radio and an LED flashlight with spare batteries, but not until she had promised to repay him.

    He put those thoughts aside and went into the dining room. Everyone was eating and laughing, and if it wasn't for the fact that most of the men and women were wearing sidearms, it could have been any of a number of small weddings he'd attended over the years. He looked for Walt and Alice, who were standing in front of the big double windows that served to flood the room with natural light--when the sun was shining. Today, they looked out over a snow scene. 3 inches had fallen starting about dawn, and flakes continued to slowly fall from the sky. The weather radio from Raleigh had called for 4-6 inches, and Tom thought it was going to have no problem reaching that.

    "Well, heck, at least we get a White Christmas," thought Tom. He walked over to the happy couple. After shaking Walt's hand, he awkwardly kissed Alice on the cheek.

    "What's wrong, boy? I know you've kissed a woman before," chided Walt.

    "Yeah, but she wasn't one of my old teachers. Walt, Miz Alice, just for the record, I wish you both everything good. We've been neighbors for a while, and known each other longer, and I'm just really happy to see you together."

    "Why, thank you, Thomas. You always were one of my favorites, even though we teachers aren't supposed to have favorites." Alice smiled at him.

    "Thanks, Tom. Here's hoping we're neighbors for a good while longer."

    "Amen to that." Tom shook Walt's hand again, then went over to the table, which was holding plates of various hors d'oeuvres. Taking a plate, he picked out a few things, then grabbed a napkin and a glass of punch and retreated off to the side. Munching on broccoli and ranch dressing, he wondered how much longer things that he'd taken for granted most of his life, such as fresh vegetables in the winter, would be available. Given they power had been out so long, he wondered how they even had it now.

    Taking a sip of punch, which was non-alcholic in keeping with Walt's long-ago swearing off the bottle, his thoughts turned back to Toy and Caleb. He'd checked the thermometer just outside his back porch before coming, and doubted it had moved much in the time since. "Probably isn't above freezing," he thought, knowing that as long as their trailer had been without heat, the temperature inside would be close to, if not the same, as the temperature outside.

    With proper clothing, he knew that a person could be quite comfortable in those temperatures, but he wondered if they had the right clothes. And what about enough blankets and so on for the beds--although if they were smart, they were sharing the same bed, conserving what heat their bodies produced.

    Checking his watch, he saw it was a little after 2:00. If this broke up soon enough, he was going to drive over there and check on them--maybe he could get them to come back. If nothing else, he had Christmas presents for them both, and he could make up a Christmas basket of sorts with some more food.

    "Penny for your thoughts." Tom turned to see Susan Carrick standing next to him. "Please tell me you're not standing over here being morose about Sarah. She wouldn't be happy if your were." Susan had been one of Sarah's closer friends in the area, despite a 20 year difference in ages.

    "Actually, no, I wasn't. It hasn't been that long, but with everything that's going on...."

    "So what are you thinking about?" After Tom had related a highly shortened version of the events surround Toy's arrival and sudden departure, Susan nodded. "I hate to say so, but that sort of sounds like her."

    "Why's that?"

    "Toy's had an...unpleasant...life, at least for the most part. Now, mind you, all this is from other people, and you know how gossip is." Tom nodded, and Susan continued. "Her dad left the family shortly after she born. Toy grew up on welfare, AFDC and every other government handout her mother could get. Her mom wasn't much, and after she started drinking, she got to be less."

    "She had a string of boyfriends, and supposedly one or more of them abused her and her daughter. When Toy turned 18, she left home, got a job and from what I've heard, was on her way to making herself some sort of decent life. Eventually she met a man, got married, then lost several babies trying to have a child."

    Tom nodded again, not knowing what to say. Susan carried on. "Eventually, she carried a baby to term--Caleb. Mommy and Daddy were ecstatic. Willie--that was her husband's name, Willie--had a good job in a furniture factory, and made enough money for her and the boy to stay at home."

    "One Friday night, they had went to town for dinner and groceries. On the way home, a drunk driver blew through a stop sign and plowed them. Willie was killed outright, Toy had some serious injuries, including some head injuries. Caleb was in his car seat and wasn't hurt."

    "Damn," was all Tom could say.

    "It gets worse. The drunk was her mother. She walked out of it without a scratch. They charged her with vehicular homicide and a bunch of other stuff--I think she's still in prison. Funny how life is--if you made this up and wrote a book, no one would believe it--it's too weird."

    Tom nodded some more.

    "The injuries, plus losing her husband--and the idea that the mother she thought she'd left behind being the one to kill him--really messed her up. Personally, I don't think the head injuries helped, either. She changed a lot. Usually she's just what you described--hard working, fun to be around. But every so often, she just loses it. She'll do crazy things, get in trouble, get fired from a job, whatever. Eventually she gets over whatever started it and picks up the pieces."

    "Anyway, I just thought you should know. I don't think she's dangerous or anything, but I'd tread lightly, especially if I were you just now."

    "On the rebound," said Tom.

    She smiled and laid a hand on his arm. "Tom, Sarah was a wonderful woman, and she loved you terribly, and I know you loved her just as much. She wouldn't want you to raise the kids and go through life by yourself. But Toy, well..."

    "Probably wouldn't meet with her approval?"

    "Well, no. Mine either, for what it's worth. You can do better. You know, there are a couple of women not that much younger than you, who'd..."

    "Be suitable? Susan, I appreciate what you're saying, but I don't want any matchmaking. Not now, anyway," he said thinking about his earlier conversation with Walt and his grandfather. "Maybe sometime, but for right now, I just want to be with the kids and not worry about that."

    "I understand, and I won't push. But the offer is open if you're ever interested."

    "Thanks," said Tom, and noticed his grandfather walking purposefully toward him. "Excuse me," he said to Susan and moved to meet him. "Saved by the bell!" he thought.

    "Well, best man, it's time for you to do your duty, and coincidently, move this thing along."

    "What duty?" Tom knew what his grandfather meant, and was dreading it.

    "The toast to the happy couple? You've been to enough weddings to know about that. Don't play dumb with me."

    "Can't somebody else do it--what about one of Walt's old lawyer buddies?" he said gesturing to a group off to one side. "I hate this kind of thing--I never know what to say."

    "Easy, Tom. It's not that big a deal. You get everyone's attention, then you tell them what a great guy Walt is, what a great gal Alice is and how happy you are to see them both together. Then you wish them good luck. Don't make it any more difficult than that, and you'll do fine."

    "But I'm not used to this!"

    His grandfather looked at him and frowned. "Tom, stop whining. You get up in front of a room full of business executives and pontificate on one computer thing or another. This is a group of people who you already know and who know you. You're not asking them for money, you're asking them to do something they're going to do anyway, which is to be happy for Alice and Walt. This isn't hard."

    "Well, I still think I'm going to blow it."

    "You'll do fine. Now you might want to get on with it. It's Christmas Eve, or will be soon enough. Folks will probably want to get going pretty soon." He walked toward Walt and Alice, who were talking with the Smithfields.

    Before Tom could pull his thought together, young Jessi Williams, who was taking care of the kids, pulled him aside.

    "Tom, Anne is awfully fussy. I've changed her diaper and fed her, but she's still not happy. And she's drooling all over the place! I've changed her top twice."

    Tom laughed. "It's OK. I think she's started teething again. She's been a little out of sorts for a couple of days. If you look in the diaper bag, you'll find a bottle of acetaminophen drops. I forget what the dosage is, but there's a little chart on the bottle. Follow that. She'll start getting sleepy in a while, though--always does. Added benefit." Tom smiled.

    "Oh, I was afraid she was sick. With everything you hear on the news..."

    Tom had heard the same news stories--dysentery, cholera, typhoid and other water-borne diseases had made appearances in many populated areas where the power had failed. "Yeah, I know, but remember--the simplest explanation that fits the facts is usually the correct one. In this case, I don't think she has some dread disease or anything. We've all been really careful about that."

    "Thanks. I'm sorry to bother you."

    Tom saw his grandfather motioning at him. "No problem, but I've got to go now, or I'll be in trouble. I have to propose a toast to the newlyweds."

    Tom motioned back to his grandfather. He stopped by the table with the punch, then moved toward the center of the dining room. There was some difficulty with this, as the room was fairly crowded. After a second, he decided that where he was would have to do.

    He cleared his throat and said, "Ah, folks, if I could have your attention for a second...". Those closest to him stopped talking and turned toward him, but his voice had not been loud enough to carry across all the conversations. "Well..." he thought.

    "AH, FOLKS! IF I COULD HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE!"

    He got it. The looks on some of the faces told him that he may have over done it.

    In a lower voice, he continued. "Sorry. I didn't mean to shout." He blushed. "I don't speak like this much, so I.... Well, anyway, I'd like to propose a toast to the happy pair, I mean couple. Walt and Alice have both been on their own for a long time, and...well, it's really good that they've found each other..." Tom looked at his grandfather for help. James simply smiled at him while motioning 'go on'.

    Tom could feel himself starting to sweat. "At any rate, Walt, Alice, we're all very happy for you, and we all wish you a happy and long life together." He raised his cup of punch and then downed it in a gulp. Everyone else politely sipped theirs and smiled at Walt and Alice.

    Tom hoped the floor would swallow him, but it didn't seem inclined to oblige. He decided to go outside and check the weather. If nothing else, maybe he could cool off.

    Heading out the back door of Walt's house, he could feel the deadness the falling snow brought to the atmosphere. It was after 2:30, and with the heavy clouds, it was already getting dark.

    The door behind him opened, and Jannie Hall walked out. She looked at Tom and laughed.

    "Thanks, I really needed that just now," Tom said glumly. "I managed to make a total botch of the toast thing."

    Jannie reached into a jacket pocket, took out a pack of cigarettes and lit one. Blowing smoke, she said "On the contrary! I enjoyed it tremendously. Don't get out much?"

    Tom remembered her from high school. She'd been two years behind him, and Tom hadn't really known her that well. Not very attractive, and sort of a loner as he remembered. The woman standing beside him didn't resemble that description in the slightest. Attractive with a contralto voice, she was dressed expensively and carried herself gracefully. Married, he'd heard, to some rich New York banker type. She'd been in town to settle her late father's estate, and had been stranded when the power had went out.

    "Apparently not as much as I need to. How about you?"

    "Oh, I get out all too much, or at least I did. My soon-to-be ex-husband made sure we were always seen at the right parties with the right people. Expensive people, expensive parties. At one time, I thought it was fun." She sighed and took another drag off the cigarette.

    "Good grief," thought Tom. "What is it that every woman in the world wants to tell me her life story these days?"

    "Ah, I guess it isn't fun any more?" Tom wasn't sure he wanted to know, but he didn't know how to gracefully steer the conversation elsewhere.

    "No, not for a long time now. And since business, along with younger women, seems to be his primary interests, I've become excess baggage. We're getting a divorce."

    "Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!" Tom could hear Robbie the Robot in his head. "I'm sorry."

    "Don't be. I think this, and my Dad's death, may be just what I need, in a kind of odd way. I'm going to remake my life, I think."

    "Uh, really?" Tom didn't like where he thought this was going, but didn't know how to change course. Well, maybe the wreck at the end wouldn't be too bad....

    "Yes, I am. Starting with these." She held up the cigarette and considered it. "You know, my Dad died of lung cancer. He started smoking when he was 14. I didn't start until I was 19 and in college. I'm not sure now why I did. But this is the last pack of these things I'm going to buy. I've been cutting back, and this pack was bought before the lights went out. When it's gone, I'm done with that habit. This was my first, and probably last, today." She looked at Tom. "How's that for a start?"

    "Well, I guess it's a good one. Bad habit."

    " Yes, it is." She changed the target of consideration to Tom. "How about you? Planning on any changes?"

    "I damn sure am, but I'm not discussing them with you." thought Tom.

    Aloud, he said "Not anything drastic for the moment. Just trying to keep things together for now."

    She took one last drag, then tossed the cigarette out into the yard. "Well, I'm aiming for something drastic. I may just keep Dad's house and move back here. Edward--he's the soon-to-be ex--is going to have to pay a sizeable settlement to make me go away quietly. That, plus my Dad's insurance, and I'll have a tidy little sum. I was a free-lance writer before my marriage. Maybe I can be again. I think I remember how to write, and I have plenty of material now."

    "Well, it's a great way to make a living, I guess." Tom was getting cold. "I'm going to head back in." He opened the door and almost started to go though. Motioning, he said "After you."

    "Thank you, sir. You're such a gentleman." She smiled, showing perfect white teeth.

    Tom decided that statement was better off with no answer.

    Heading toward the dining room, they bumped into Alan and Madeline Washington. "Reverend, you're leaving so soon?"

    "Well, it's getting dark, and the snow seems to be picking up a bit. I thought it might be a good idea to get on home."

    "You're probably right." Tom paused, then asked "You'll let us know when you're ready to move?"

    Madeline answered the question. "The day after Christmas. We've been packing the last few days, and there's not much left to do. Take down the tree and pack it, and we're mostly ready."

    "Sounds good. I'll round up everyone and have them there, say, 9:00?"

    "That would be great. Tom, thanks to all of you for this."

    "Hey, we look at it as enlightened self interest. We want to have a minister handy."

    "Well, still, I'm grateful. We were both getting tired of that place. The neighbors aren't the nicest people. And we miss having a house, even if it isn't our own."

    Tom had seen the apartment and the area it was in. He could believe that statement. Alan must have been hard up to move there. "Well, it may take two loads with all the vehicles, but I think we can do it in a day."

    "We have some time, but we want to be out by the end of the month."

    "Or sooner," added Madeline.

    "Well, I'll let you be on your way, then. See you in a couple of days." They shook hands and wished each other a Merry Christmas. Alan and his wife went out the door, and Tom turned to go back to the dining room.

    Jannie stood in front of him and raised an eyebrow as a question.

    "They're moving into Alice's house. He's the minister at Yadkin Valley, where we all go to church. His wife's out of work and he's on short hours. They need a hand, and we need them." Tom considered that he might be saying too much, and shut up.

    "You know, I haven't been to church in years...he seems like a nice man...do you think anyone would mind if I showed up on Sunday?"

    "Why would anyone mind?"

    "Well, I've been away for a long time, and...I'm not who I used to be. Most people are going to remember 'sweet little Jannie''. I'm not little any longer and I don't think 'sweet' fits, either."

    "You seem nice enough to me."

    She gave him a genuine smile. "Thanks for saying so, but I think you're wrong. Living in Manhattan can suck the humanity right out of you, and I'm afraid it may have done it to me."

    "Well, lucky for you, humanity regenerates."

    Jannie looked at him with a look Tom didn't recognize. Then she smiled a very small smile and turned toward the dining room.

    --------------------------------------------------

    Tom was sitting in his chair, watching 'Christmas in Connecticut'. He'd loved that movie for years, and watching it was a Christmas tradition for him. Sarah had never understood his attraction to it, but had always humored him by joining in. This was the first Christmas in many years that Tom had been alone for the holiday, and it sucked.

    He'd tried to get his grandparents to stay, but they insisted on going home. His grandmother was going to cook Christmas dinner and have a tree with presents for the grandkids, and nothing was going to spoil that.

    He looked at the small tree he had put up on a table. He'd been lucky on the several trips he made into the Mocksville Walmart, and had found plenty of gifts for his kids, his grandparents, Walt and Alice and Toy and Caleb. The presents almost overwhelmed the tree. He'd thought about the putting up the big tree, but it was a lot of work, and when he hadn't known if there would be electricity for the lights, he'd opted for the small tree he and Sarah had used one year when they'd spent Christmas camping. It had a couple of strings of 12 volt Christmas lights and plenty of small plastic ornaments. Sarah had laughed about that tree for years after.

    "Well," he thought, "at least the power's on." Checking the little person on his lap, he saw she was finally asleep. Pausing the movie, he carefully got up and carried her to her room, where he tucked her in. Checking in Tommy's room, he adjusted the sleeping boy's comforter--he wiggled a lot in his sleep, and had a habit of working his way out from under it.

    Back in the great room, he tossed some more wood in the woodstove and was sitting down when the phone rang.

    Tom listened to it ring, dumbfounded. He hadn't heard a phone ring in days, and it took him a second to realize he should answer it. He ran to the kitchen, where a corded phone hung on the wall.

    "Hello?"

    "Merry Christmas, little brother!"

    "Jim! Merry Christmas to you too--man it's good to hear from you! Where are you--what's going on--when are you coming home?"

    His brother laughed. "Look, I don't have much time, so we need to talk fast. I've arranged for all my men to make some calls home tonight and tomorrow, but the lines are jammed, and we can't stay on very long. I'm in Commerce, Georgia--it's northeast of Atlanta on I-85. We're stationed here providing security for a stretch of the Interstate. Don't know how long this is for, but I suspect a while, yet."

    "So it's true--the military is controlling the Interstates? Why?"

    "Supposed to be so we can assure freight transport throughout the southeast. Funny thing, though--there just doesn't seem to be that much freight--definitely less than I remember as normal."

    "Yeah, we heard the same from folks in Mocksville, They have some MP company garrisoned there, doing the same thing. They're also doing some guard duty type stuff in town--ran into a pair at Walmart, of all places."

    "We're doing some of the same here. Seems to be just a show of force, trying to keep things calm. Hell, it could be worse. Parts of the Third ID are quarantining Atlanta proper. That is turning into some messy work, between the gang sorts trying to get out to raise hell and the nice folks trying to get out to escape hell. It's pretty hard a lot of the time to tell one from the other, so they turn them all back. If they won't go, they have to force them, and I've heard they've had to open fire more than a few times. I can't blame any of them for trying to get out. I get the intel briefings, and it sounds medieval in there."

    "I'd figure it'd take more than just part of a division to seal off a town that big--how good a job are they doing?"

    "Pretty good. They have fly-fly boys to help, and those guys are quick with the chain guns and napalm."

    "Napalm!

    "This is some serious business. No one, and I mean no one, is supposed to get out. I'm pretty sure there is some leakage, but we learned a lot of tricks in the sandbox. The big boss says they stay in, so they stay in, mostly."

    "The big boss?"

    "The NCA--National Command Authority. Himself."

    "Oh."

    "Look, on to happy stuff. How are things there? Obviously your phone's working. I've been trying to call for 5 days now, and this is the first time I could even get it to ring. How are the kids, and grandma and grandpa?"

    "Kids are great. Little Tom asks about his Mom sometimes, like "Is she happy in heaven?" and such. I just tell him yes. What else can you tell a 2 year old? Grandparents are doing good too. They stayed here with me while the power was out, but it came back on this morning. so they're back at home. Grandma is determined to do the Christmas Dinner thing."

    "And how are you doing?"

    "Well, better. I have my moments, and tonight was kind of sucking rocks until you called. So when are you coming home?"

    "Hey, man, don't you know what it says on my uniform? 'US ARMY'."

    "So?"

    "It means 'Uncle Sam Ain't Released Me Yet.' I get to leave when the man says I can--and I don't think he's going to say so very soon."

    "Pity--we could use that strong back and weak mind around here."

    "I bet you could. How bad are things?"

    "Depends. Lexington got trashed, and they're keeping up roadblocks to keep out the undesirables. Mocksville seemed to miss almost all of it. We've not had any more problems out here. Main thing was no power, no phones, no water and damn few stores open. We've got power and now phones. They say water in a couple more days. I'm hoping after Christmas more stores are open, and some trucks start showing up. The bunch of us are on the buying spree from hell."

    "Buying what?"

    "Most anything you can think of, and in case lots when possible. Food, first aid supplies, office stuff, any and everything we think might be useful or hard to get. You ought to see my basement. I even bought another computer. Consensus around here is that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better."

    "You might be right. I've heard some things, but not on an open line--I've probably said more than I should already. Look, my turn's about up. Hopefully I'll be home soon, and I'll bring you all some late Christmas presents. Tell everybody I wished them a Merry Christmas--even that crotchety old fart of a next door neighbor of yours."

    "Hey, crotchety old fart got married--to Alice Moorefield!"

    "Good Lord! Well give them both my best, and wish Miz Alice my heartfelt regrets. Gotta go--Merry Christmas, Tom. You hang in there."

    "Merry Christmas to you to, Jim. Email if you can, or call."

    "Do my best--send anything to my GMail, I get to check it occasionally. Bye, little brother." The phone clicked, and the dial tone came back on.

    "Goodbye, big brother," he said softly. Tom paced the phone in it's cradle, and walked back into the great room.

    Picking up his holstered pistol from the chair-side table, he walked back to the kitchen for a coat, then walked back through the great room and out the foyer onto the front porch. It was cold, but the snow had stopped. Low clouds were lit in light reflected from the ground. It was almost odd to see lights in the distance again.

    He couldn't hear any traffic on the highway, either. All things considered, he couldn't blame people for staying home tonight. "This may go down as the weirdest Christmas on record," he said out loud.

    He looked at the luminous dial on his watch. 9:08--not late at all. Definitely too early to go to bed. When he looked back up, he could see headlights making their way down the road. As he watched it come his way, he wondered who the heck would be out this late in this weather. Toy?

    "Nah, couldn't be--not the way she's acting. Besides, she'll have power now so they've got heat and light." Tom was talking out loud. "That's getting to be a bad habit," he thought.

    The car slowed down and turned into his driveway. Tom was alarmed. He stepped into the shadows, reached under his jacket and pulled out his pistol. Whoever it was was being open about their approach, but since he wasn't expecting company on a snowy Christmas Eve, he was going to be cautious. Too late, he thought that he really ought to have a rifle. He remembered the old saying, "A pistol is what you use to fight your way back to your rifle, which you shouldn't have left behind in the first place."

    Damn, damn, damn! Well, he couldn't open the door to go in--the flood of light would be a dead giveaway. The car was nearly at the house, so trying to run around back was out. The car stopped near the front walkway, and the door opened. The interior light was enough for him to see...

    Jannie Hall. She reached into the passenger seat for a large handbag and a smaller brown paper bag. Tom holstered his pistol and stepped into the light. As she closed the door and turned, she saw him standing in the light and yelled "Hello! I brought some Christmas cheer--I hope you don't mind!"

    Tom used the time it took her to walk to the house to think. "You know, when I was young and single, I could never get a woman to look at me. Now all I want is to be left alone, and I'm tripping over them. How do I get myself into these things?"

    She walked up the steps to the porch and kicked the snow off her boots. Tom noted that they were Timberlands. "I hope I'm not intruding, but I was sitting there tonight, watching all the schmaltzy Christmas shows on TV and feeling sorry for myself because I was alone. I'm hoping you're alone and interested in some company. Were you standing outside waiting for some, or looking for Santa?" She smiled.

    Tom squelched an impulse to be excessively rude, and instead said "No, I was watching a movie, and got a call from my brother. After I talked to him, I decided I wanted a breath of fresh air. You had me worried at first when I saw you coming."

    "I'm sorry--if I'd known the phones were working, I would have called first. Invite me in, and I'll pour us a drink. I hope you like scotch. Dad was something of a connoisseur, and I found an unopened bottle of Highland Park."

    Tom opened the door and motioned for her to enter. She did, and he followed, closing and locking the door.

    "I'm not much of a whiskey drinker--what is it?"

    "It's a single malt scotch, made in the Orkney Islands. Pretty rich taste--a little goes a long way."

    Tom held out a hand for her coat. She set the bottle and her purse on a table, took it off and handed it to him. It was a Carhartt work jacket, and the outfit she was wearing was similarly utilitarian. She saw him looking.

    "Wondering what a snobby Manhattanite is doing in work clothes?"

    "Well, sort of. It's a big change from what you were wearing earlier. And I wasn't thinking you were snobby,", he added a bit lamely.

    She smiled, and Tom noted that she was very pretty when she smiled. "Yes you were, but you're too polite to say so. Pretty refreshing. People in New York aren't usually so nice--they'd find a way to tell you so, all the while sounding like butter wouldn't melt in their mouth."

    She continued, "I was visiting my Dad a year or so ago, when he was first diagnosed with cancer. I wanted to do some work around the house, but I didn't have anything to wear. I bought these, and just left them when I went home. You don't wear clothes like this in my social set." The way she said "social set" almost made it sound like she was swearing.

    She picked up the bottle, leaving her purse on the table. "This way?" she asked, gesturing toward the vaulted opening to the great room.

    "That way," confirmed Tom. "You make yourself comfortable while I hang these up."

    "Don't forget a couple of glasses. Ice if you want it, but Daddy would call you a heathen. None for me."

    "Sure thing."

    Tom went into the kitchen, hung her jacket, took his off and hung it as well. Rummaging about in the cabinets, he finally found the short glasses with the heavy bottoms he remembered coming with the last big set of glasses Sarah had bought. He thought they were at least close to the proper sort of glasses.

    "One drink, a little conversation and I'm going to tell her that I need to get some sleep because the kids get up early," he said to himself.

    He took the glasses in and set them on a table. "I need to check on the kids--I'll be right back."

    "I'll pour."

    "Make mine a small one--it's kind of late, and the kids get up early." He mentally patted himself on the back for working that in so smoothly.

    Walking down the hall, he checked Anne, who was sleeping soundly, and Little Tom, who had wiggled halfway out from under the comforter. Tom covered him up, and walked back down the hall. Jannie met him with a drink in each hand.

    Handing him one, she looked down and nodded. "Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?", she said, doing an exaggerated Mae West impersonation.

    "I generally don't get much more than arm's reach from a gun these days. I'll take it off if it bothers you," he offered.

    "Oh, it doesn't bother me--I'm my father's daughter. I used to go hunting with him when I was younger." She sipped at her scotch. "You really ought to try it," she said. "It's quite good."

    Tom raised the glass and took a cautious, and he hoped surreptitious, sniff. The smell was strong, but not unpleasant. He took a small sip and swallowed. "Yep, definitely liquor," he thought as the dark liquid burned toward his stomach.

    "What do you think?"

    "Well, like I said, I'm not much of a drinker, so I don't have much to compare it to."

    Jannie strolled across the space between them, taking a sip from her glass. Reaching him, she took his glass and set them both on a table. Then she stepped very close, wrapped her arms around him and kissed him.

    "So if you're not a drinker, how are you as a lover?"

  16. #16

    Chapter 15

    December 25, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 24
    High temperature: 30
    barometric pressure: 29.75
    cloudy, a few snow flurries early

    Merry Christmas! After a late evening, I got the traditional early start on Christmas Day with the kids. Tommy was really excited--he had me out of bed at 7. For Anne, it was just another day, but I bet it's different next year. At least I hope it is.

    Tommy seems to like his wagon the best so far. I told him he could use it to help around the house when it gets warmer--I remember doing that with Grandpa. I'd tag along after him, "helping". I imagine that sometimes he could have done his work in a third the time without my help...


    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter

    December 25, 2008
    Yadkin College, NC


    "What can I do to help?"

    "Know how to diaper a baby?"

    "Um, not really--but I've seen it done before."

    "O-o-o-K, how about you get Tommy dressed and into his jacket. I'll do the diapering."

    "Maybe you can demonstrate for me sometime?"

    "Sure, but not right now--we need to get a move on or we'll be late for Christmas at the grandparents."

    Jannie bent down to Tommy and said "Big boy, let's go get dressed so we can go get some more Christmas!"

    Tommy jumped up and started to bounce. "More presents! More presents for me!"

    "I should have never gotten him candy for his stocking," thought Tom as he took his stinky daughter to her room for a change and some clothes. He had let the kids play all morning in their PJs, and had lost track of time. "Now we're going to be late," he told a smiling Anne. She gurgled a reply.

    "Same to you, my drooling daughter," said Tom. He mentally reminded himself to pack some extra bibs and extra clothes for his teething little girl.

    Cleaning up Anne was a job. She'd been bathed last night, but after this poopy, she could probably use another one. "Note to self--cut back on the strained green peas." He had to use quite a few wipes, but eventually Anne was cleaned, powdered, diapered and dressed for travel. Putting her in her crib, he quickly packed a diaper bag, slung it over his shoulder and picked up Anne.

    Walking into the hall, he met Jannie coming out of Tommy's room. "Trade me. You get her into her snow suit, and I'll take Tommy and get him into the truck."

    "Sure."

    Taking Tommy by the hand, Tom went through the great room to the kitchen, grabbed a jacket and went out the back door. He had left his truck parked near the door, and had to brush some snow off to open the door. He told Tommy to stay put, then got in and started the glow plugs warming the engine. Getting out, he picked up his son and strapped him into his car seat in the back."

    "It cold, Daddy."

    "Sure is bud, but we'll have the truck warmed up soon enough," said his father as he got back into the driver's seat and started the engine. The diesel roared to life. Tom set the heater controls, then looked over his shoulder and said "Watch the truck for me, OK?"

    "OK!"

    Tom smiled as he went back into the house. Jannie had Anne and her purse and was trying to get her jacket on while holding the wiggling child. "Here, hold this," she said, handing him Anne and the purse.

    Tom nearly dropped the unexpectedly heavy purse. "What in the name of Pete do you have in this thing? It weighs a ton."

    "This and that, that being my Dad's old 1911 pistol and some spare magazines. Give me her." She reached for Anne.

    Tom raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. After last night, he suspected that this woman was going to be full of surprises.

    "If you can get her into her carrier," he said, pointing to the enclosed porch, "the base is already in the truck. It snaps in--she faces the rear. I have to get presents and a rifle."

    "Presents I understand, but a rifle?"

    "I don't plan on getting caught with my pants down."

    "I'll say," she said archly. Tom stuck out his tongue, passed her the child and flipped the strap of the purse over her shoulder.

    Tom was smiling as he went into the great room and started gathering presents. Last night had been fun, and he was enjoying the memory. Bag of presents in hand, he went to his bed room and grabbed his M-1 carbine. It had one magazine already in place, and two in the GI stock pouch. He removed the magazine, then worked the action to clear the gun. Pointing the carbine toward the floor, he pulled the trigger, then replaced the magazine. "Three ought to be plenty," he thought to himself, then stopped and grabbed the web gear with 8 more magazines in pouches. "Now that really ought to be plenty."

    Back down the hall to the great room, he deposited everything on the couch and stoked the woodstove. Picking everything back up, he went through the kitchen, opened the back door of the truck, placed the presents in the floorboard, checked Anne's car seat and shut the door. Opening the front passenger door, he handed Jannie the web gear and the M-1. "Nothing in the chamber."

    "Rule Number 1: A gun is always loaded." Jannie looked at him seriously.

    "Well, Dad taught you well, and you're right. I was just telling you that in case you needed it, you'd know to chamber a round. Nothing like being in a fight and pulling the trigger, just to have nothing happen'. That could ruin your whole day." He shut the door, then went back to lock the house.

    He didn't hurry the trip to his grandparents, even though he was running behind. While the main roads had mostly melted clear, most of the trip was on less traveled secondaries, which still had most of their snow intact. Being in a pickup truck, he knew traction in the rear was limited without a load. Tom had 4WD engaged in auto mode, but he also knew that four wheel drive didn't render you immune to the laws of physics. An old high school buddy had taught him one time that only amateurs ran in 4WD in this kind of weather, anyway. Tom could still hear him saying "If you're in four, and you get stuck, what do you use to get out?"

    Tom smiled, remembering Andy Wallace. He'd lost track of him after high school, and wondered what had ever became of him.

    "What are you smiling about?"

    "I was remembering an old high school buddy who taught me how to four wheel. We used to go down to High Rock Lake and play with these unholy four wheel drive pickups and Jeeps and stuff in the mud when the water was down. We had a lot of fun in those days. Most of us didn't have a care in the world back then."

    "I missed out on a lot of that kind of high school memories. I was too busy being miserable and writing horror stories. Ack."

    "Yeah, I remember you then. All those black clothes and black makeup. What the hell were you thinking?"

    "Oh, just a double helping of teenage angst."

    Tom pulled into the driveway of his grandparent's house. Dr. Williams' Chevy Tahoe was in the circular driveway, and he pulled in behind it. He had just getting out when the front door of the house opened, and his grandfather and the doctor came out.

    "I was wondering when you'd get here! Problems?" Jannie got out of her side of the truck, slinging the M-1 over her shoulder and holding the web gear. James saw her and said "Oh. Well, then."

    "Grandpa, you know Jannie Hall. She's staying at her Dad's place--got caught when the power went down. She's going to be here at least a few more days, at least until things get sorted out with travel and so on. I invited her to eat Christmas dinner with us--it didn't seem right to leave her alone on Christmas."

    "Indeed it isn't." He walked around the front of the truck and took Jannie's hand. "I hope you'll accept my sympathies about your father. He was a good man."

    "Thank you. I hope I'm not intruding on your holiday..."

    "Not at all." He released her hand and looked to Tom. "What can I help with?"

    "While you're on that side, could you get Anne? Tommy can carry the diaper bag--he likes to help. I'll get the presents."

    As they walked up the front steps to the porch of the old farmhouse that was his grandparent's home, Dr. Williams laid a hand on Tom's shoulder. "Thomas, how are you doing?"

    "Not too bad, I guess. I get a little better every day."

    "That's all you can ask for."

    Once inside the house, everyone took off jackets and hats and Tommy beat feet to the kitchen to investigate the cooking smells. Tom could hear his grandmother talking to him--reminding him the stove was hot, no doubt.

    Jannie asked for a bathroom to brush out her hair, and Tom directed her to the half-bath under the steps. Holding Anne, he followed his grandfather and Dr. Williams into the living room. Dr. Williams' wife Elizabeth rose from a chair and greeted them all warmly, the deftly removed Anne from her father's arms. "I'll take this little lady."

    The big Christmas tree was completely decorated and lit. "Grandpa, why did you and Grandma go to all this trouble? With everything else going on..."

    "We did this because we refuse to give into this situation. We may have to improvise and adapt, but I will be damned if I'm giving into it."

    "James, you watch your language in front of your great-grandchildren," scolded his wife. Hannah Carpenter walked into the room, wiping her hands on her apron. Tommy followed, munching something Tom couldn't identify.

    "Tom, you're a little late. Nothing's wrong, is it?"

    "No Grandma, not at all. As a matter of fact..."

    Jannie stepped into the room from the hallway.

    "As a matter of fact, I brought a guest. I hope you don't mind. Grandma, I'd like you to meet Jannie Hall".

    Tom's grandmother considered Jannie then said coolly, "Hello, Miss Hall."

    Jannie didn't miss the temperature drop. "Hello, Mrs. Carpenter." She looked very uncomfortable, which was something Tom hadn't seen from her. Tom's grandmother considered the younger woman with a look she usually reserved for something unpleasant on the sole of her shoe.

    Tom looked at the scene uncomprehendingly. He had never seen his grandmother act this way to anyone in his entire life. Glancing at his grandfather, he noticed that he, as well as the doctor, seemed to be intently examining the Christmas tree. Elizabeth Williams watched the other women, but Tom couldn't read her expression.

    Hannah turned abruptly from Jannie and announced "Dinner will be on the table in about 30 minutes. Tommy, why don't you stay in here with your Daddy, OK?" She gently guided him in Tom's direction. "James, can you help me with the bird?"

    "Certainly, dear." He nodded to the doctor. "Harry, why don't you and your wife fill Tom in on your plans?"

    "Is this about your trip south, Doc?"

    "Sure is. That's one of the reasons we're sharing this Christmas with your family--it'll may be the last one we get to see you in person. We'll be leaving tomorrow for our son's home in Mora, Georgia."

    "Son? I thought you were going to your grandson's?"

    "Well, I suppose I could--he has a treehouse he might let us use." The doctor chuckled.

    "Excuse me?" asked Tom

    "My grandson is only 12. Don't feel bad, your grandfather almost died when he found out."

    "I'll bet he did. So where is Mora? I've never heard of it. What's it close to?"

    "Nothing, really, which is why he and his family chose to live there. I used to think he was crazy, but it looks like he knew exactly what he was doing. He's the manager of the General Coffee State Park, which is named after General Sombody-or-Other Coffee, who was a hero in the War of 1812. It's a nice, quiet, small, town."

    Tom thought about Lexington, the stories on the TV and the radio and what he'd heard from his brother. "Sound like just what the doctor ordered. huh?"

    "To some extent. This is our home, and leaving it, especially now, is a little daunting. However, being near any large city is more frightening, and at least the winters are relatively mild. You find out the importance of that as you get a bit older," he said, rubbing his knees.

    "Doc, has Grandpa told you anything about what a few of us have cooking, so to speak?"

    "You mean your little community down by the river? He has, and I have to say it sounds interesting. if you can pull it off."

    "You know you and Mrs. Williams would be more than welcome additions. We need a lot of different folks and a lot of different skills, and a doctor and his nurse would be right at the top of the list."

    "We thought about it, but we've decided to go south." The doctor's reply was almost curt. Tom decided to take that as a hint, and changed the subject a bit..

    "I guess you've heard that you won't be able to take the Interstate south?"

    "Tom, I don't see that as a problem. Interstates have the bad habit of going through heavily populated areas. Right now, I think the last place I'd like to be is near a large city. We've worked out a route that will miss all the big cities, and we should be able to miss the medium size ones as well. Of course, that adds a lot of extra mileage."

    "How long do you think it's going to take?"

    "Well, normally, driving the Interstate, it takes a long day. All things considered, we're planing on three, maybe four."

    Tom nodded. That made a lot of sense. "Are you planning on staying in motels along the way?"

    "Oh, no. I should thank you for saving us from that. After you and Sarah told us how much fun you had camping when you lived in California, we looked into it, and we bought ourselves a small one. It's only 20 feet long, but it's got all the comforts of home."

    "Well, I wouldn't go quite that far," Elizabeth Williams said. "Like the realtors say, it's 'cozy'."

    "Oh, honey, it's not that bad."

    "Really? You try cooking in that itty-bitty kitchen."

    "Well, it is small, but it has a bed, a kitchen, small though my wife thinks it is, and a bathroom. We've got a small generator in case we need it, and I've gotten both propane bottles and the water tank filled. I think we should be OK for a couple of weeks, and there's no way it can take that long."

    "I'd be careful about making predictions like that." Mrs. Williams was obviously unhappy--everything about her radiated irritation with this subject. Maybe she wasn't to sure about the trip south?

    Tom toyed with the idea of trying to use the disagreement to change their minds about the trip, but he decided he wasn't that good. In his head. he could hear Clint Eastwood saying "A man's got to know his limitations."

    "Doc, I'm not trying to pry, but what about gas? That Tahoe's going to get mighty thirsty, especially towing a camper."

    "Well, that's why we're leaving tomorrow. It's the 26th--an even day. Our tag is even, so we'll be able to fill up along the way. We'll go as far as we can, find a place to park for the night, maybe even sit out the next day. We'll keep that up until we get there. I also have 25 gallons in cans to put in the back of the truck, for the generator and just in case."

    Jannie broke her silence. "Doctor Williams, what about trouble along the way? Aren't you afraid of, well, trouble?"

    Elizabeth shot her a look of heart-felt gratitude. "Oh ho," thought Tom.

    "I have my hunting rifles, my Dad's old Army pistol, and some ammunition. But I don't plan on getting close enough to any area where they've had trouble to have any problems. I plan on sticking to myself."

    Tom thought to himself "Great plan if you can stick to it. What happens when the bad guys decide to come visit out in the boonies?" But he kept that thought to himself.

    Jannie had no such problem. "Doctor Williams, I hope that plan works."

    "You don't think it will, Miss Hall?" He sounded condescending.

    "Great," Tom thought. "Grandma's already PO'd at Jannie for some reason, and now we're going to start an argument with their guests. This can't be good." He knew Jannie wasn't the type to take that remark without replying. He had to do something--anything.

    He jumped into the conversation. "Doc, I think what's she's saying is that with things being so unsettled, planning, especially when you're venturing into areas where you have little or no information on the conditions, is chancy. Two people alone, well, it won't take much to throw your plans into a cocked hat. Maybe you could wait until things settle down a bit before leaving. It'd be safer."

    Tom saw red rising our of the doctor's shirt collar. "Oopsie--wrong thing to say," he thought.

    "Look, I just talked to my brother last night. His unit is stationed in Commerce, Georgia. Give me a few days to get back in touch with him, and I'll get you some local information. Then you won't be going into the situation uninformed."

    "Tom, that's what I've been saying since this idea came up. We know, for certain, only what's going on around here, and I doubt we really know that. And now we're going to pack up this camper, load as much stuff as we can into it and the truck, and hie off to Georgia! This is crazy!"

    James Carpenter walked into the room, drawn no doubt by Elizabeth's raised voice. "Actually, 'near-suicidal' is my preferred term, but Harry isn't going to change his mind, Elizabeth, and you aren't going to let him 'hie off' without you. So there we are."

    He smiled at them all, then walked over to her and took Anne. "It'll still be a few minutes before dinner is ready. If we want to do some good, why don't we all put our heads together and go over the plan, find any holes we can and figure out how to address them?"

    That suggestion more or less settled everyone down, and until Tom's grandmother called out that the table was ready, a calm discussion about the trip kept them occupied.

    Walking into the dining room, they all saw the table, which was groaning with food. Tom wasn't sure where his grandmother had gotten everything, but every item one expected for Christmas dinner was there, right down to the pumpkin and apple pies for desert. Tom thought she must have cooked all night.

    James put Anne in her high chair and Hannah helped Tommy into his booster-seat equipped chair. James held Hannah's chair while Dr. Williams held his wife's. After a brief pause, Tom held Jannie's. As she settled into her chair, Hannah Carpenter said "Before you all think I was trying to do myself in cooking, a lot of this came out of the freezer or a can. I just didn't have time to do it the old-fashioned way this year."

    "Mrs. Carpenter, just having it at all is a real wonder. There's probably a lot of people out there who aren't having any Christmas dinner at all."

    Hannah looked at Jannie, a slight frown on her face. However, she said nothing.

    James took his place at the head of the table, looked at his wife and then at Tom. Winking, he said "Jannie, that's a very appropriate thought. You you mind sending it to Our Father On High as grace?"

    Jannie looked uncomfortable, but replied "Sure." After clearing her throat, she started.

    "God, we sit here, in the middle of plenty, but during a time of troubles. Some of us are far from what we've thought of as home and some are far from their destination. Some of us have suffered terrible loss." She sneaked a look at Tom, but his head was down.

    "But in the midst of this, we've all come together to celebrate Christmas, the birth of your only son, Jesus Christ, who gave hope to all the world. We pray that this hope is still available to us in this time of need, and that you'll look down on us with mercy and grant us strength."

    "Look down on us and guide us through these times. Bless this food, and let it nourish our bodies through these times, just as our faith in you will nourish our souls."

    "Amen."

    The remainder of those at the table mummered their amens and looked up.

    "Jannie, that was a wonderful blessing. He stood, and began to steel his carving knife.

    "OK, who wants the drumsticks?"

    -----------------------------------------------------------------

    Later, after the presents had been opened, trash picked up and exhausted great-grandchildren put down for a nap, the surviving adults sat down for some rest and conversation.

    "So, Doc, I guess there's no way you're going to change your mind about leaving?" Tom felt it was worth one final try.

    "No, I don't believe so. I'm flattered you all want us to stay so much, but I think our chances, assuming that things really do go to hell in a handbasket, are much better in Mora than here. This place is just too close to too many large concentrations of people for my comfort." He took a sip of his coffee. "I will miss you folks, though."

    "Well miss you too, Harry. I can't argue with the fact of our location, but I would argue that it won't be the problem you think it will," said James.

    "James, I think you're slipping. There are over 1.5 million people in this area, between Greensboro, High Point, Winston Salem and all the small towns in between."

    "Now let's assume that things get really ugly--the power is off more than on, food gets short, gas is nearly non-exisitant at any price and so on. Even if all of those people decided to come together, join hands and sing all 5 verses of 'Kumbaya', live together in peace and harmony, share and share alike--this is still going to be a bad place to be."

    He continued. "There isn't enough water available locally--by that I mean close enough to where people live to walk down and get some. To get enough, it has to be piped in from reservoirs miles away, filtered and pumped into tanks. Sewer is the reverse problem. No power, no water and sewer service. A lot of the farm land has been paved over or turned into subdivisions, so there's no place to grow enough food to feed everyone, even it the weather cooperates. Even if there was enough good crop land, there aren't enough people who know how, no fuel for the machinery and on and on. People will starve if food doesn't come from outside this area--and it won't. Remember, no gas."

    "Now get into the simple fact that the Kumbaya singing and sharing aren't going to happen, human nature being what it unfortunately is, you get to add in every manner of crime we've ever heard of, and some of our less endearing residents will probably invent some new ones just for the occasion. The police will be stretched thin, and eventually overwhelmed. Then you're on your own to protect yourself, your family and your property. When do you sleep or work the farm when you're spending a lot of your time on guard duty?"

    "Now James, you may be right--the population here won't always be this large if things go bad. Personally, I'd expect an 60-plus percent die-off within 36 months. Crime, disease and starvation will do that--probably in that order." He took another sip of coffee. "After that, the survivors might stand a chance of putting together some sort of working civilization. That's assuming that there is enough usable buildings, some fuel, maybe draft and food animals and so on. Big assumption."

    "But to get to that point, you're going to have to live through something that makes 'The Road Warrior' look good. When it becomes clear that you're still eating when your neighbors aren't, well, things probably won't be neighborly for long. I doubt few if any of us live to see what happens after the population has crashed if we stay here." He looked glumly into his coffee cup.

    "Harry, I still won't argue with what you say. As a matter of fact, I agree with you--assuming it gets as bad as all of us seem to fear. It could even be worse. My best guess is that in the big cities themselves the death toll will be 80 percent, likely higher. Cities can't live without inputs from outside their borders, and they aren't getting them. My suspicion is that they never will--not until they're as close to totally depopulated as they can be without actually going in, hunting down the survivors, and killing them. Of course, if the survivors can be provoked into take a shot at something military, then I expect they will be hunted down and killed." James calmly took a sip from his iced tea.

    "James, what are you talking about?"

    "Harry, you grew up on a farm, right?"

    "Yeah, sort of. My dad had a day job, but we lived on a farm, and we all worked the farm mornings, nights and weekends."

    "You ran cattle, didn't you?"

    "You know we did. As I recall, Dad hired you some during your summers home from college."

    "Indeed he did. Good man, your father. Tell me, do you remember what happened in dry years when there wasn't enough pasture for the whole heard?"

    "He's take some of the cattle to auction and sell them. Why?"

    "And what happened to those cattle?"

    "I don't know. I guess they were slaughtered. So?" Harry was starting to get annoyed. Everyone else was watching James, waiting for the next question.

    "So these unlucky cattle went to the abattoir because there wasn't enough food. You could say that this was done for the good of the herd, correct?"

    "Ah, I suppose so. James, where..."

    "Patience, young man. Now, as we lawyers like to say, 'A hypothetical': Suppose that you are in a god-like position and can see the entirety of the circumstances of the world. Suppose you've noticed that oil production is declining, weather patterns are shifting, food production is declining and those pesky humans are fighting amongst themselves for pieces of an ever-shrinking pie."

    "But you aren't a god. Instead, you're a well-connected person, an insider. And you and all the other insiders decide that, to paraphrase Lincoln, while they rather not have any have-nots, if there are going to be haves and have-nots, they're going to be a have--no matter what. You have access to the means to implement that decision. What do you do?"

    Harry looked very uneasy. "I don't suppose I could get a bigger pie, could I?"

    "Sorry, but bigger pies are not an option. Have or have-not? Those are your choices."

    "What if we all gave up a little--spread the wealth around as much as possible?"

    "Also not an option--you aren't an altruistic person, and this isn't an altruistic group. You and your friends will get yours and Devil takes the hindmost. Now, Harry, answer the question: Have or have-not?"

    "James, this is bullshit, and you know it."

    "Harry, I don't think so. I could be wrong--I may be misinterpreting things I'm seeing. I pray to God that I am. But my guess is that the 'Powers That Be" are doing something similar to selling off the cattle they can't feed."

    "James, I've never known you to be a tin-foil hat sort of person, but I think you've wrapped yourself completely up in the stuff. You will never convince me that our government is trying to kill off the population! That notion is the definition of fevered paranoia!"

    "Harry, hold your voice down--the kids are asleep. Now maybe you're right, and I've slipped a gear or three. But think about this--everyone in this room has noticed for a couple of years now that food in the grocery stores is getting a little thinner, and that some things are getting either hard to find, to expensive to buy or both--well, most everything is both, that's why so many people have taken up gardening again. Gas and diesel is continually going up, and now they're rationed. Tom, what did you spend for the last gas you bought?"

    "It was diesel, and it was $8.42 a gallon. I figured I was lucky to get it at all. A couple of the places I'm used to going are completely out, and they don't know when they'll get resupplied."

    James nodded, then continued, "See? Mark my words, propane, natural gas, kerosene and fuel oil will be rationed very soon. I'll be surprised if they don't eventually get around to rationing electricity. Even if they don't, we're all doing a self-imposed rationing, because we simply can't afford fuel. Hell, all of us are pretty well off, and we're hurting--how do you expect people that live paycheck to paycheck are doing?"

    "I suppose things are pretty hard on them."

    "Hard? Try impossible. Now you've also heard that the military has taken control of the Interstate system, correct?" Harry nodded. "Now they tell us that it's so supplies can get into the Southeast, and a reasonable person could see that. But why have they taken control of the Interstates all over the country--even out west?"

    "They have?" Jannie blurted out. "Why?"

    "An excellent question, but one we can only speculate on. Let's make things more fun. Tom, you mentioned that you talked to Jim last night. What did he have to say about what he was doing?"

    Tom related the conversation. James asked "So they're using air power to make sure that people--all people--who were in Atlanta stay in Atlanta?"

    "That's what he said. Napalm and machine guns. The whole thing was on order of the President."

    Harry stood up. "All of you are crazy. We're going through some hard times, we're fighting a war against terrorists, and now you two are seeing monsters under every bed! What's wrong with you people?"

    "Harry, we may be crazy, but you may be blind," said Hannah. "Willfully and stubbornly blind. We've had years of slowly building violence, some by terrorists, more not, that has cumulated in a terrorist attack that has killed or caused the deaths of, what, a hundred thousand people, perhaps? We've seen months if not years of things disappearing from our store shelves and prices always going up on what is there. The national news, which I think is being censored again, by the way, is giving us nothing of use, so we really don't know much about what is going on out of our area. So in the middle of this, you're going to pack up, pick up and drive out of here, leaving nearly everything you own, hoping for sanctuary in Georgia."

    "Thanks, Hannah," said Elizabeth. "I've been trying for two weeks to tell him this is...well, rash and impulsive. He won't listen to me."

    "Elizabeth, I have considered this course of action very carefully," said Harry.

    "Harry, I love you, but listen to yourself for a minute. You sound like a doctor--and I don't mean that in a nice way."

    Harry didn't reply. Instead, he glared at his wife.

    "Oh, and by the way, have you called your son to tell him you're coming?" asked James.

    "Well, I've tried, but I can't get through to him. I assume the phones still aren't working there. It's a small town, so they probably aren't high on the list for repairs."

    "When you assume, you make an..."

    "Yes, thank you James, I've heard the old saying. However, I prefer to be an optimist. It's a small town--the odds that the kind of violence you're talking about struck Mora are very small."

    Tom broke in. "But Doc, what about the trip? Let's say Mora's intact--nothing's happened there. But you've got to make a trip of what, 400 miles to get there? You're going to be taking all kinds of back roads where you aren't sure of the conditions of the road or the people and towns you'll be passing through with your nice truck and camper and your out-of-state license plates. And it's just two of you, by yourselves. If things go wrong, it's going to get very lonely, very quickly."

    "James, what is it with your family? I've known you for years, and I never knew that you were such a gloomy bunch."

    "Harry, it probably looks to you like we're deliberately overstating the hazards of the trip just to keep you here. We want to keep you here--as a doctor, and you, Elizabeth, as a nurse--you're going to be invaluable. People will fight to defend you because you are a doctor. That's before you get to you being our friends."

    "But I've been listening to my ham radio on and off since the power came back on. Tom's told you what his brother had to say--did you understand it? My own grandson is a party to the quarantine of Atlanta, and they're stopping anyone--everyone--who tries to escape. Resistance is met by the sort of force only the military can bring to bear."

    "Tom has told me that Sarah had went on a buying spree just before her death. A lot of that was food--freeze-dried food, MREs, that sort of thing. None of it got delivered--there were some "big government contracts" that had to be met."

    "Harry, there are some desperate people out there. They're going to be around every big city and every town. Look at what happened to Lexington. Some of those bastards escaped the first round and killed my grandson's wife. What makes you think you're immune to what's going on out there?"

    "I'm not immune, but I'm smarter than any criminal!"

    James looked at his friend and neighbor, then at his wife. Harry was defiant, Elizabeth looked resigned. "Then Harry, we wish you good luck, and I'm sure we'll all pray for your safe passage."

    Harry stood up and walked over to James. Sticking out his hand, he said "Thank you, James. We'll do the same for you."

    James rose and solemnly took the proffered hand and shook it. There was nothing more to be said.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------

    After the doctor and his wife made their final goodbyes, Tom and Jannie loaded the still sleepy children into Tom's truck.

    "We'll be heading up to Mocksville tomorrow morning to move Alan and his wife. Jannie's volunteered to watch the kids."

    "Who else is going?"

    "Walt and Alice. I have my big trailer, Walt has his, and Alan has his truck and a small trailer. Walt and I built some walls a while back that we can put in our trailers so we can haul more. We're going to make it all fit it those, and make it in a single trip."

    "Can you do that?"

    "I don't see where we have a choice. We don't want to spend the fuel for two trips--it's getting too hard to find. We'll just have to be very careful and pack it in tightly. From what Alan says, they don't have that much to move. If we have spare room, I'm hoping we can make a stop or two and buy more 'stuff'."

    "Can you get fuel tomorrow?"

    "No, it's an even day, and I have an odd plate. Walt is even, and I don't know about Alan."

    "Well, be sure Walt gets all he can. I'm getting awfully leary of things."

    "I understand--we've been Pollyannas for too long. It's getting to be time to hunker down for a while, I think."

    "You may be right. Be careful."

    "We're going armed, and keeping our eyes open. We should be OK."

    -------------------------------------------------------

    Nearing Tom's house, Tom looked at Jannie from the corner of his eye and asked "So, should I take you by your place, or what?"

    She chuckled. "What do you mean, 'or what'? "

    "Well, last night you said that you didn't want to be alone, so I didn't know if you still felt that way now or not. Of course, it isn't night yet."

    "Don't you start with me! I came over last night to f..." She glanced into the back seat at the children. "Well, you know what I came over to do, and you go me so drunk I passed out! I've had men try to get me drunk to take advantage of me, but I've never had a man get me drunk so he didn't have to!"

    "You know, Jannie, I like you, what I know of you. But it hasn't been that long since my wife was killed--I'm just not interested in that sort of thing. Besides, I was raised in a home that frowned pretty heavily on casual sex."

    "You really loved her, didn't you?"

    "I did."

    "I can't imagine what that must be like, to love someone that much. I guess she loved you back."

    "Yes."

    She sighed. "I thought I loved Edward. Maybe I did at one time. But now, the longer I'm away from him, and away from the city, the more I realize that I was doing everything I could to be someone else. And that someone was someone I'm not very proud of."

    "Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone can change."

    "Do you really believe that?"

    "I do. No one is perfect."

    "Would you mind going by Dad's place, and letting me check on things?"

    "Nope."

    "Would you mind if I stayed the night?"

    "Nope. The futon is right where you left it."

    "What if I try to get you in bed again?"

    "Well, there isn't enough left in that bottle to get you drunk again. Besides, you're probably wise to that trick. I guess you'll just have to take no for an answer."

    She reached across the cab and stroked the side of his face. "I will for now, but I might not always."

    "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

    "Or drive off the damn thing," he thought to himself.

  17. #17
    December 27, 2008
    Morale is fading by the day, and I can't seem to do anything to stop it. Iraq was bad enough--you could got shot at or blown up, and you had to put up with the damn sand and the heat and the cold and being away from home. Occupying our own country is worse, especially from a psychological point of view. We aren't being shot at (although I've heard other units have taken fire), but having to turn away refugees without help isn't setting very well with anyone. You see it enough days, and you don't see things getting better in any way, and it starts to get to you.

    I've heard griping about this for days, but the other night I got to experience it for myself. That one will never get written down, except to say that I didn't like it one little bit. I'm afraid that this will get out of hand unless higher decides to do something.

    Of course what could be done is limited. We don't have enough manpower--we know the quarantine leaks, and if we can't enforce that, how could we go into Atlanta and try to enforce order? We don't have enough supplies to make an impression on the need in the city. Right now, we're running short on some things ourselves. So we'll sit here and hope for a miracle, I guess.

    We're doing better than some other units, at least so far. I heard that Delta Troop had 3 desertions in the last week. We've just had a lot of PO'd soldiers complaining. Between the NCOs and me, we've kept a lid on the situation; but if something doesn't change for the better, we're going to have problems. I'm going to get some face time with the OM and see if he has any suggestions.

    That should be a pleasant experience.



    From the Daybook of James M. Carpenter III


    December 28, 2008
    Commerce, GA

    "Permission to speak freely, sir?"

    "Granted." Captain William Maxwell regarded his XO.

    "Sir, I understand these men are soldiers and have to follow orders, but this isn't Iraq. It's our own country. We were told we were going home--our home, North Carolina--to help out. Now we're in Georgia, enforcing a quarantine and watching things in the quarantine zone go from bad to worse. We don't render any real assistance, and we really aren't enforcing order--except in places that don't need help."

    "Sir, I've never seen morale this low. The NCOs and I have done everything we can to keep Echo together and on mission, but it's becoming a losing battle. Sometime soon, someone's going to break. When that happens, it'll spread from man to man and we won't be able to stop it. I'm trying to keep that from happening. I've used everything I can think of, and they aren't working any more. I'm out of ideas, sir."

    Maxwell regarded the young lieutenant without speaking. Carpenter stood his ground, looking at him. After several moments, Maxwell spoke.

    "Are you telling me, lieutenant, that you are unable to execute your duties as executive officer of this troop?"

    Carpenter visibly bridled at the suggestion. "No sir! I beg your pardon, sir; I thought I had made myself clear. I'm asking for my commanding officer's help in solving a problem that is beyond my experience."

    Capt. Maxwell looked at him and said nothing for several more moments. Jim was sure he had went too far and that Maxwell was going to verbally flay the hide off. He waited for it. "Hell, at least I might get to go home after the court martial and prison time," he thought.

    "Lieutenant Carpenter, I've watched you for some months now. You impress me as having the potential to be a good officer." Maxwell stopped speaking and regarded Jim.

    "He's trying to get me to say something stupid," thought Jim.

    "Thank you, sir."

    Maxwell waited a few seconds longer, waiting to see if there was more. Jim held his silence.

    Maxwell arched an eyebrow, then continued. "I find it difficult to believe that a young officer in my command would suddenly find himself at a loss to deal with a situation that he has apparently been handling with quite well. That leads me to a question--what's happened that you're convinced the lid is going to blow off the pot? You wouldn't be having a crisis of conscious for some reason, would you lieutenant?"

    Jim thought back to Christmas Eve.

    ------------------------------------------------------

    After calling his brother, he had decided to check on his men manning the roadblocks. Everyone was seriously PO'd that they were spending Christmas so close to home but so far from their families. That, combined with their concern about the safety of their families and the increasingly...distasteful...nature of their duties, was leading to the more than normal amount of soldierly bitching. Jim knew it was his job to defuse the situation before it turned into something more difficult to deal with.

    He had parted with some of his Iraqi loot, in particular a certain AK-47, in order to get the men a few minutes each on the phone to home. He wasn't worried about the gun--it was a court martial offense to have it, and he was having a difficult time keeping it out of sight. He was worried about the men's state of mind. He knew most of them and their families, and had few doubts that they were weathering this situation pretty well. He also understood that that was easy for him to believe that, and much harder for the fathers and brother who couldn't be home to enjoy Christmas and watch over their families. He made the trade with a commo NCO, and considered that he had come out well, since he got to talk to his brother.

    He drove the Humvee himself, allowing his orderly to have Christmas Eve to himself. At the third roadblock on his tour, he was talking to some of the men, asking about news from home, when an observer called out, "Movement front!"

    There was a flurry of movement as soldiers took firing positions. Jim crouched, M4 carbine at the ready. He heard safeties click off of several rifles. Other roadblocks had been attacked, and no one was taking unnecessary chances.

    "Looks like 4...no, 5. Three big, two small," said the observer. He was wearing night vision, and could see relatively clearly in the dark, even if it was in shades of green and 2-dimensional. "Three adults and 2 kids, looks like."

    The men relaxed a fraction, but only a fraction. These people were approaching from a quarantine area. It wouldn't been the first time people with children at their side had turned hostile to the 4th Cav troops when they found out there was no help for them from that source. They could also be sick. Typhoid, dysentery and other water-borne diseases were running rampant since water and sewer systems had stopped working. There were rumors of other diseases, ranging from some sort of "super flu" to unnamed plagues. Jim was pretty sure those were just rumors, but only pretty sure.

    At the sergeant's signal, a man hit a switch, illuminating some strategically placed floodlights. The sudden light illuminated the small group. They were a pitiful sight.

    A white-haired man was supported by two other adults, both female. He had a dirty, bloody makeshift bandage around his left leg. The two kids, probably about 8 or 10, each carried a plastic trash bag. They all looked pretty well used up.

    The sergeant's voice rang out. "US Army! Halt!" The group obediently stopped. One of the women shielded her eyes and peered toward the voice. The lights were placed so that she had little chance of making out the location of the speaker.

    She called out "We need help--two of us are hurt!"

    "You need to turn around. You're in a quarantine area--no body comes out, no body goes in. There are relief centers inside--one's about 4 miles back down this road."

    "Please! My father's been shot, and the wound's infected. The kids are hungry--you have to help us."

    Jim distinctly heard one trooper mutter, "This is bullshit."

    "Ron Jenkins always did have a big mouth," thought Jim. He and Ron had played baseball together in high school, and had double dated the MacKenzie twins several times. "But he's right. We're not doing anything for people like this."

    "We can't do anything for you. The Red Cross and some other charities have set up relief stations inside the zone, You need to go to them for help."

    The woman laughed. There was an ugly, nearly hysterical note to it. "You're kidding, right? Those places are deathtraps. They don't have any medicine--it's all been used up or stolen. The food's gone, too. We've just come from one down the road. They haven't had food in nearly a week."

    Jim had heard rumors that relief supplies weren't getting distributed very well, but he hadn't heard anything like this. Of course, he hadn't had any real contact with the civilians on the other side of the line, either.

    "Sarge, this is bullshit!" The same voice again, but louder. "This is the how many-ith time in the last few days we've heard this same story. These folks need help, and we can spare it."

    "Jenkins, shut your face. We have our orders. And we can't spare it--we're having our own supply problems."

    Jim decided to step in. "Sergeant, I want to hear some more of this. The intel may be useful back at camp," he lied. He wasn't sure why, but he wanted to hear what was going on inside the zone.

    "Sir, that's a dangerous, besides being against standing orders." The sergeant was Regular Army, TDYed in to help ease a shortage of NCOs in the troop. Jim had worked with him enough to know he was a stickler to orders and discipline.

    "I know." He took another look at the group before the roadblock. They didn't have any obvious weapons. "I don't see any weapons. Cover me--send out a man on each flank. They can keep a clear shot that way. I'll stay 10 feet or so back, so it they're sick I should be OK."

    "Sir, I don't like this."

    "Rank hath its privileges, sergeant. Make it happen"

    "Yes sir." He pointed at two men and issued instructions. They moved, quickly but silently, a number of yards to each side and then forward until they were in covering positions.

    "Well," thought Jim, "here goes." He moved around the side of the roadblock.

    "Sir, if anything funny happens, hit the ground. We'll handle the rest."

    "Sarge, I sincerely hope we don't have to 'handle' anything--but I'll try to remember that." He walked briskly forward, his M4 pointed at the sky. The safety was off.

    Reaching the group, he stopped about 10 feet short. "I'm Lieutenant Carpenter, 4th Cavalry. We can give you some help, but I'd like to know what's going on in the quarantine zone. Would you tell me what you know?"

    "Not until you take care of may father and my cousin's wounds. You do that, soldier boy, and we'll talk--some." The woman might have been pretty a few weeks ago, but now she was dirty and had a lot of attitude.

    "Well, I guess I would too," thought Jim. He examined them closely. They didn't look sick, just tired and thin. He made a decision. He wanted to hear what had happened to these people.

    "Okay. I'm not a medic, but I'll do what I can." He called out for someone to find the first aid bag and bring it up. Taking it, he safed his weapon and slung it across his back, then directed the women to sit the old man on the ground where the light could shine on the wounded leg. Obviously in pain, the man still tried to carry on a conversation.

    "4th Cav, huh? I was 1st Armored in my day. That was back in the 80s, when we were around the Fulda Gap, watching the East Germans and the Soviets."

    Jim cut the bandage off. It was a gunshot wound. From the looks of it, small caliber, high velocity. He probed gently, and the older man winced. "Hurts?"

    "Like a sonova. Got shot by some gangster-type--had an AR. I got him, though."

    "Got him with what? Are you armed?" Jim was a little worried at the revelation, but he kept cleaning the wound. "Too late now," he thought. He thought about his M4, out of reach behind him. "Stupid, stupid, stupid. They could engrave that on his headstone," he continued.

    "1911--tucked into the back of my waistband. Didn't want anyone to think we were threatening. We aren't, I suppose--out of ammo."

    "Uh-huh. Were did this happen?"

    "Close to Lawrenceville--that's on the outskirts of the city. We had ran out of food, and heard the Salvation Army had set up shop just inside the military quarantine lines. We used the last gas in the car to get there. Not a bad place, until the food ran out--got ugly real quick after that. I was dumb, and we stayed a couple of days longer than we should have, hoping more would show up. When the people started rioting, I decided we needed to get out. I've got a brother--owns a farm up toward Toccoa. I figured we could sneak out on foot. Got us caught by some of the local gang members instead."

    "Long walk with no food."

    "Better than sitting around hoping for something to happen. Besides, I've got my daughter--she's the bossy one," he gestured to the woman who had done all the talking, "a niece and two of my grandkids that I was responsible for. I had to try something. I hoped when we got out of town we might be able to buy something. I had some money hid. We gathered up everything that might be useful and started walking, staying off the roads as much as we could." The story was punctuated by grunts as Jim worked.

    Jim finished with the leg. "It's infected. I cleaned what I could, smeared on some antibiotic cream and bandaged it. It'll do for a while, but you're going to need more than I can do for you. It's going to take antibiotics, at least, to get that cleared up."

    "I thank you for the effort. Could you see to the girl?" He gestured toward the one who had been silent so far.

    "Sure. Where's she hurt?" He moved toward the girl--woman actually--and she shied away. He stopped, puzzled.

    "Lieutenant, the men that shot me raped her."

    "I'm sorry--I didn't know. I can't do much for her--I don't even know..."

    "What, squeamish, lieutenant? Don't worry, we've already cleaned up that part. You could look at the bite on her arm, though."

    Jim looked at the older man. "Damn, but these people were hard," he thought. Then he looked at his patient and smiled, trying to put her at ease. Carefully, telling her each thing he was going to do before he did it, he helped her out of her coat and cut off the makeshift bandage, finding a nasty bite wound on her upper arm. A chunk of flesh was missing. The "bossy one" was talking to her in low tones, keeping her attention off Jim and his actions.

    The man started talking again. "We ran into them at a looted store. We'd both had the same idea--see if anything useful was left. They got there first, and I wasn't careful enough going in."

    "They grabbed you."

    "Yep. Four of them. One of them kept us covered while the other three raped her, right there in front of us. The one watching us kept talking about what he was planning for my daughter and the kids. One raped was bad enough. I wasn't about to let that happen to all of them."

    "They had been careless--they didn't see any guns, so they thought no one was armed. Typical gang bully-boys. When he got distracted by the show, I kicked his legs out from under him. He shot me on the way down. I got my .45 out and shot him in the head. The other three were in no state to fight--one was holding her down, one was prying her legs apart and the other was on top of her."

    "You killed them."

    "Every damn one. I used to shoot IPSC matches in another life--and I'm still handy with a pistol."

    Jim looked at the man. "'Handy' is an understatement," he thought. He was curious about how matter-of-fact the man was about the whole thing. He told the story like he was talking about his last trip to the hardware store. It bothered Jim--shouldn't this guy be more upset?

    The man smiled. "They did help by turning her loose and trying to come toward me. Ten yards, maybe less--easy shots. The last one I practiced on a bit."

    "Practiced on?"

    "Shot him in the balls. He screamed to high heavens for a couple of minutes, until he passed out or died. Don't know which. I let him, which was stupid. It attracted attention. We had to run, as best we could. None of us had the presence of mind to grab their guns before we left. I should have just killed him, but I wanted him to suffer. I'm pretty sure he was the leader of that pack of animals, and he'd raped my niece. I wanted him to die screaming." The look on the man's face was frightening.

    But what gave Jim the willies was the matter-of-fact way these people were dealing with this. Like it was bad, but bad like having your car break down bad--not getting shot and being raped bad--not end of the world bad. Like it was just something else you had to deal with.

    Jim's face must have betrayed him. "Young man, if you've been in the military any time at all, you've seen combat. You aren't squeamish, are you?"

    "No, I've seen my share. Nothing like this, though."

    "You think I was wrong."

    "Mister, I'm in no position to judge." He finished bandaging the arm. "She needs better than I can do, too. A tetanus shot at least."

    His daughter spoke up. "We could use some food and water. The kids haven't eaten today--since yesterday for the adults. We drank the last decent water this morning."

    "Wait here. I can fix you up on that." Jim shouldered the aid bag and went back to the roadblock.

    "What's up, sir?" "What's the word?" "What's going on?" The question flew at him. He ignored them and scrounged in the backseat of his vehicle. Finding the case of MREs he stashed a couple of weeks ago, he grabbed it. Motioning with his head, he gestured to the case of water. "Somebody bring that and come with me."

    "Sir, while we're doing this, we're vulnerable," the sergeant said.

    "You're right. I need two men. We'll move them over there and let them eat. The two can cover them. Then we send them on their way. I'll handle that, you get the roadblock in operation. Pull in the covering men. I don't think I need them."

    "Sounds like a plan, sir." He gestured toward the two closest men. "Help the Ell-Tee."

    Jim and the two men went out and led the group off to one side. The lights went out. He took a lightstick from a pocket, broke it and shook. It was enough light to see, hopefully not enough to draw undue attention.

    "Eat a meal and drink. Take all you can carry. Go back and find a place to hunker down. If you try other roadblocks, you may get shot. If you try cross-country, you might get through, but you might get machine gunned from the air, too."

    "You couldn't just let us go on out, could you?"

    "No." Jim's answer was short.

    The man looked up from the MRE he was opening. "You have a problem with us?" He spoke without rancor.

    "Mister, to be completely frank with you, it bothers me how you're taking this."

    "You think we ought to be all upset and falling apart?"

    "Sir, I don't know what to think. I guess you've done your best."

    "No, I haven't. I should have been better prepared, and then I would have never gotten into this mess. My niece would have never been raped, and these kids would have never seen what they've seen. But we're going to keep on keeping on. That's something you learn to do when you've been poor. Something else you learn, and that's how to roll with the punches. For what its worth to you, I'm plenty torn up over this, but going to pieces won't save us. Never has, never will."

    "Lieutenant, for what it's worth to you, this family wasn't always like this. Not so many years ago, I had a good business, a nice wife and 3 great kids. Nice home, cars, all the toys. Then we lost it all. Went from being pretty well off to dirt poor in 3 months--I'll spare you the tale of woe. It killed my wife, and cost me my youngest daughter. She ran away and we've never heard from her again. My son is a Marine. He was in Okinawa, but God knows where he is now. All I have left is what you see here in front of you."

    "I've learned that being poor meant that you had to get hard, because a lot of things that would never happen to a rich man will happen to a poor one. And I also learned that all those do-gooders who make such a big noise about helping the poor don't really give a hoot about them--they're in it for their own reasons. Same thing for the 'victim's advocates'. To the cops you're just a potential criminal, and to everyone else you're an inconvienence, an uncomfortable reminder of what could happen to them, or just invisible."

    He looked Jim in the eye. "You've been more help to me than anyone in the last few years. I thank you for your help."

    "You're welcome." He hesitated for a minute, then motioned for the two men to head back to the roadblock. "Our people are spread a lot thinner further to the northeast. Stay off the roads and hide under something solid whenever you hear an aircraft. You might make it to where you're going that way." He looked at the kids, still devouring their meal, then turned and left without another word.

    Reaching the roadblock, he walked to his Humvee. Before getting in, he spoke to the sergeant. "Here's the deal--I was never here, and this never happened--got that?"

    "Crystal clear, sir. Pity you missed us on your rounds--we'd scared up some real coffee. Sorry you missed it."

    "I truly hate that. And sergeant..."

    "Yes, sir?"

    "Keep on handling these encounters with the locals as you have been. No unnecessary interaction."

    "Yes, sir."

    ------------------------------------------------------

    "Lieutenant, I asked you a question. You still with me?"

    "Yes sir!"

    "And...?"

    "Sir, every man in the troop has heard...stories...about what's going on in the quarantine areas. Gang violence, relief supplies stolen, refugees and disease. None of them say it, but I think they all keep seeing their own families in the same position. Rumor has it that the news is being controlled again. Supplies are short. They're getting nervous."

    "Perhaps you need to keep them busier so they don't have so much time to think," said Maxwell.

    "I can, sir, but the men will still see what they see from their OPs, and they'll still hear what people are shouting at them when they turn them away from roadblocks. And, sir, the men will still talk among themselves. No amount of extra duties, no matter how they are assigned, will stop that."

    Captain Maxwell stood up from his chair and walked around his desk. "No, I suppose it won't." Reaching the front of his desk, he leaned back on it and gave Jim an appraising look.

    "Part of your problem, Lieutenant, is that you're in a Guard unit. You grew up with some of these men, didn't you? Went to school with them, maybe played football or basketball with them. Got knee-walking, commode-hugging drunk with them. Went to their weddings. Hm-m-m?"

    "A-a-a-a-h, more or less accurate, sir."

    "Thought so. That's why the military has always made sure to create a separation between officers, NCOs and enlisted men in the Regular Army. It keeps these awkward relationships from forming. You see, Lieutenant, you're too involved with those men's lives. It's one thing for a commander to know that Private Smith is married and has two kids. It's entirely another thing when you're godfather to those kids. You may fail to order Smith to carry out a dangerous mission, because you're trying not to orphan those cute kids that you have spent afternoons playing with."

    Maxwell continued. "Of course, this is normal--really inevitable--in Guard units, especially ones drawn from smaller towns. And this same problem occurs over and over when they're deployed."

    Maxwell stood suddenly and moved much closer to Jim. "And are we sure this is all it is, Lieutenant? There haven't been any 'unapproved interactions' with the local population?"

    "No way will I answer that one truthfully, sir," thought Jim. "Besides, you already suspect the answer."

    "Not that I'm aware of, sir. There are, of course, necessary interactions when the men turn away people trying to get out of the area, however. I try to keep those to a minimum--tell them where the relief centers are, that sort of thing."

    "Good. Keep it that way." Maxwell moved as if to dismiss him.

    Jim cut him off. "Sir, do you have any advice on how to deal with the problem? Whether I'm too close to the men or not, I still have to deal with it."

    "Carpenter, you're simply going to have to stop being their old drinking buddy, and be the XO of this troop. You've got a couple of Regular Army NCOs--let them do the dirty work until the men get used to the idea. Distancing yourself from them just a bit will help them learn to view you as a commander rather than 'good ol' Jim'. It'll also give you some perspective on the subject when you aren't quite so close to them."

    "Oh yeah, right," Jim said to himself. "And when we finally get out of here and go home, they're all going to remember me as 'that jerk Carpenter.' No thanks."

    "I'll try to put that into action, sir. Thank you for the advice." Jim stood to attention and saluted.

    Maxwell returned the salute. "Dismissed."

    Jim executed an about face and strode from the office.

    Maxwell walked back behind the desk and sat down, suddenly looking very tired.

    "No you won't, Lieutenant. That'd be like asking the sun not to come up tomorrow," he sighed.

    Picking up the latest intelligence brief, which had been sent down from Squadron earlier that morning, he began reading. The Predator drones were not seeing as much of the wanton destruction and looting as they had a week ago, but that was because most of the stores had already been looted. People had organized themselves in some areas and were defending those areas, but that was rare. Most of the quarantine area was still chaotic. Interviews with civilians at the roadblocks were tale after tale of robbery, rape, murder and mayhem.

    Throughout the squadron, there had been 23 desertions in the last few days. More and more men were reporting to sick call with vague symptoms. Twice, men had refused orders to the point they had to be arrested. Alpha Troop had an NCO knifed in a fight. The unit's cohesion was breaking down.

    "It's one thing to fight a shooting war, and another to occupy a foreign country. It's damn different when you're doing both on your own soil," he thought.

    Captain Maxwell laid down the report and rubbed his eyes. It was too early to be this tired.

    ---------------------------------------------


    December 28, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 21
    High temperature: 29
    barometric pressure: 30.08
    cloudy, cold

    The weather is still miserable. At least it hasn't snowed lately. I can't remember a winter with this much snow since I was a kid. It seems that the weather is against us, too.

    Alan and Madeline are settling into Alice's old house. It seems strange to see people that aren't her going in and out, but I guess I'll get used to that.

    Alice and Walt are setting in to their marriage quite well. Walt came storming over last night after he and Alice had a fight. It seems that Alice doesn't think that ammo cans are proper living room decor.[/I]

    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter

    December 28, 2008
    Yadkin College, NC


    Tom finished changing a sleepy Anne and tucked her into her crib for a nap. She and Tommy had played pretty hard that morning--the Christmas toys were still holding their attention, which was a blessing.

    Tom walked down the hall and peeked into the great room. Tommy was laying on the sofa with a quilt over him, watching a Thomas the Tank Engine DVD. His eyes were very heavy. Tom knew he wouldn't last long either.

    "Good--now I have 2, maybe 3 uninterrupted hours," he thought to himself. Tom thought again about his grandfather and Walt's suggestion about marriage.

    "Well, I still don't want to get married, but I could sure use a live-in housekeeper," he said aloud. "I must be starting to get desperate--now I'm talking to myself!"

    Entering the office, he checked Sarah's computer. The phones had started working yesterday, and the Internet connectivity returned sometime overnight. When Tom had noticed that, he had launched a program that downloaded entire web sites and given it a list that he had configured earlier.

    Some of the sites didn't seem to be available. That wasn't surprising. As a matter of fact, he was surprised that the Net was working at all. With the destruction in the big cities, a lot of hosting facilities were probably gone, maybe for good. Same for the communications switching centers. He was determined to get as much as he could while he could.

    Turning to his computer, he checked his email, and was even more surprised--a message from his sister Jane was in his inbox. He double-clicked on it.

    Tom, I have to write quickly. The Navy and the Marines have decided that the bases at San Diego are 'untennable' as they put it, and we're all evacuating (yes, they've used that word) by sea and air. It seems we are bound for beautiful Hawaii and Pearl Harbor. I have to embark in a few hours, and I've still got packing to finish.

    The ships are going to be crowded. Luckily, most of the San Diego-based ships were in port when things started to get bad, so we actually have enough transport for all the important stuff. Us civilian dependants, being less important than say, fuel, are limited to a single bag of 50 pounds plus am extra 50 pounds per household. Actually, they're probably being very generous, considering. :-)

    We finally found out why all the illegals are trying to go home. Most of the areas further north have become decidedly inhospitable--welfare and social services have failed, and some, like Orange County, have started rounding them up and dropping them off on their southern borders. Word has it that they pointed the way south with gun barrels, but that could just be a rumor. No one is sure why this supposedly happened, or even if it did. But if it's true, it explains a lot of things.

    Other rumors are that some of the gangs in the bigger cities used the crisis as an excuse to settle some scores. If you can believe the stories we're hearing, a lot of people have been killed in places like Los Angeles.

    We've had people try to storm the gates and fences at the bases, and the Marines have been forced to open fire. A lot of people have been killed, but the perimeter has held, but just barely. I think that's what led to the evacuation--the realization we can't hold this place against so many outsiders.

    I haven't seen anything about this on the news. Of course, there haven't been newspapers in days, but none of the remaining radio or TV stations aren't airing any of these stories. About half of the stations are off the air now. Some were burned, and some just went off the air--I heard one go off in mid-broadcast. Funny enough, but they were broadcasting different news than most of the rest. Not sure about that either, but I have my guesses that I'd best keep to myself.

    I'll be taking my laptop with me, along with all the software CDs (Yes, I remember the lectures, big brother). Hopefully, I'll be able to get back in touch, either via email or by phone when we get to the islands.

    Love to Grandpa and Grandma and the niece and nephew. You guys be careful.

    J


    Tom read the message twice, then a third time. His grandparents were not going to be happy that Jane was going to be even further away. He wasn't, either. "We get Jim on this continent, and Jane takes off. You can't win," he said to the room.

    That aside, he was very intrigued with what she had to say about the news. They'd all been wondering if the news was being doctored, and this seemed to be a confirmation that it was, at least out west.
    He tried surfing out to various news web sites. FOXNews was offline, as was CNN. No network news was online in the entire US. "Well, that probably isn't too weird, considered," he muttered.

    Trying the BBC, he was surprised to get a 404 error. He tried several other large foreign news services, such as Deutsche Welle, the Times of India and Xinhua. He got 404s there as well.

    Trying a different track, he tried some of the non-mainstream news sites. WorldNet Daily, CNS News and Pacifica Radio News were all bringing up 404 as well. "Curiouser and curiouser," was all he could say to that.

    Picking up the phone, he called his grandfather. After reading him Jane's email, he had to read it to his grandmother as well. As predicted, neither were happy with this turn of events. After his grandmother stopped asking questions he couldn't answer, he asked to talk to his grandfather again.

    "Grandpa, have you been listening to any news on your shortwave?"

    "No, I haven't. It seems I've blown one of the finals in the old gal, and I don't have a spare. Unless I can find that tube somewhere, she's out of commission."

    "I guess you don't have a spare...?"

    "And I guess you never bought yourself a radio like I told you to, either? Although I should have bought one myself, as far as that goes."

    "I could kick myself. I was in Mocksville, and they have a Radio Shack. I just didn't think to see if they were open."

    "Well, put it on the list the next time we go to town. Check with Walt and the preacher. Maybe they have one."

    "I'll call. I'd love to walk over, but the kids are down for their naps, and I can't leave them alone."

    "I'll refrain from comment. Let me know if anyone has one. We need to find out what is going on."

    "Will do. Everything OK there?"

    "We're fine. It's getting a little lonely, though. Two more pulled out today, trying to get to family. The Watsons and Harold Farr."

    "Mr. Farr left? Grandpa, he's pushing 90!"

    "More like 92, if I recall correctly. But Harold has always been in very good shape for his age--takes after his parents. They lived to be 104 and 106."

    "But still..."

    "But nothing. Just like Harry Williams, they're doing what they think is best. Given all this cold and snow, I'd think about it if one of you kids had moved somewhere warmer. These old bones hate this cold and damp."

    "Sorry, Grandpa, but I guess you're stuck here. My offer of the park model in the back is still good, you know."

    "Sure it is--no electricity, no running water and no sewer. No thanks, we'll pass until you can get that done."

    "I worry about you and Grandma up there by yourselves."

    "We'll be fine. We're careful--I've taken to wearing my pistol again. Your grandmother thinks I'm having a second childhood. Or maybe a third." He laughed.

    "Well, I'll try to make a run somewhere to get what we need to finish the hookups as soon as I can. That way I'll have it when we get some decent weather."

    "Let me know if you need money. I'm still well set for cash, and I don't want it to go to waste."

    "I understand." There was a knock at the back door. Tom reached to his side, feeling for his pistol. "Grandpa, someone's knocking on the door. Gotta go."

    "Be careful, boy."

    "I will, but I don't think robbers knock."

    "Probably, but be careful. Call me later."

    "I will. Bye." He hung up the phone.

    Walking down the hall and passing through the great room, he peaked at the kitchen door. He didn't see anyone, but the knock came again, louder this time. It was at the outside door of the back porch. His hand moved to the pistol on his hip.

    Looking out the kitchen door, he saw Caleb Overly standing at the door, looking agitated. Tom opened the kitchen door, walked to the outside door and opened it. "Hey there, Caleb! How's it going--where's your mom?"

    Caleb launched himself at Tom, wrapping his arms around his waist. Tom could feel his chest heaving against him.

    Tom peeled the boy off and squatted down. Tears were flowing freely down his face. "Caleb, what's wrong? Where's your mother? What is going on?"

    "*sob* My *sob* mom's *sob*".

    "Your mom's what? Come one Caleb, tell me what's going on!" Tom was getting agitated as well.

    "Killed herself!" Caleb wailed.

  18. #18
    December 28, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 21
    High temperature: 29
    barometric pressure: 30.08, falling slowly
    cloudy, cold

    This has not been one of the best days. I'm exhausted, but there's no way I can sleep right now. I bet I'm going to pay for this kind of nonsense soon.


    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter

    December 28, 2008
    Yadkin College, NC


    "Well, normally we would hold her for the medical examiner. He'd send the body to Chapel Hill and in a few weeks they'd tell us that the cause of death was blood loss caused by self inflicted wounds. But, these aren't normal times." John Dean blew his breath out and ran his hand through his hair. He looked tired.

    "Meaning...?" Tom Carpenter asked.

    "Meaning that we aren't doing things the way we would have two or three months ago. So we're going to go with the obvious evidence and the word of her kid, declare this a suicide and be done with it. God, what it must be like to come in here and find your Mom like that."

    Tom had seen the scene. A tub full of bloody water, and Toy Overly slumped in it. He'd have that picture in his head for a long time.

    "Did she leave a note? Anything?"

    "Not a thing. She told him she was going to take a bath, went in and slit her wrists. After a while, the kid gets curious, checks on her and can't get an answer. He waits, keeps trying and eventually goes in. He sees that." Dean jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward the bathroom. "Hell of a way to remember your mother."

    "Yeah."

    "How's the kid doing?"

    "About what you'd expect. He's pretty tore up. Alan's in the living room with him."

    "No doubt. Look, Tom, I hate to pile on, but like I was saying, these aren't normal times, and I need a favor from you. A big favor, really. It's about the kid."

    Tom raised his eyebrows. "What kind of favor, exactly?"

    "Well, it's like this. Ms. Overly isn't the first person who decided that they...they were unable to deal with the current situation and decided to check out."

    To Tom, it was obvious the acting sheriff was uncomfortable with the subject. He felt sorry for the man. He didn't know him that well, but he had come to like the quietly competent man from "up North" who had been thrown into the deep end of the pool. "So there've been other suicides?"

    "Four this week so far--7 last week. That's more than the entire county in all of last year. Add to that the dead gangbangers from our episode a couple of weeks ago, the refugees that have died and just the 'normal' deaths..."

    "The what!? What refugees? Died why?"

    Dean looked an him, puzzled. "Man, where the hell have you been? We're getting people moving through, coming down the Interstate out of High Point, Greensboro, other places. A few from Winston, but the Army has that area tied down better. No one from Charlotte, which sort of surprises me. You haven't seen any up you way?"

    "Haven't seen a one." Now Tom was worried. What had they missed?

    "Count yourself lucky, then. The ones who have vehicles and gas pretty much pass us by--we've made it obvious we aren't interested in visitors. But there are more and more who are on foot, and those are a problem for us. Some are injured, most of them are just pretty pitiful, and a few are bad news. We've tried to help out what we can, but we're out of stuff to help with at this point. Some of them get upset, and a few threaten to come take what they want. We make it clear to them that won't work, and most move on. They grumble, but they keep going, thank God."

    Tom nodded for him to continue.

    "Well, lately it's gotten worse. We've had two groups act like they were going to move on, then they tried something. The first group was stupid--before they even got out of sight of the checkpoint, they tried to turn and rush it. Our guys were firing from cover, and it wasn't that big a group."

    "What happened?"

    John looked him straight in the eye. "They failed."

    Tom could find nothing to say.

    "The next group was smarter. Went on down the road, circled around, waited until dusk and tried to force a different checkpoint. We lost two men, two more hurt. They lost 7, and we went out the next day, tracked them down and finished the job."

    "O-O-O-K," said Tom slowly. "So what does this mean for our situation here?"

    "Tom, we're getting some goods and supplies in, but not much. It seems that the military has taken over distribution of goods, at least around here. We don't know that for sure and no one is telling us much. We're getting in some food, not nearly enough fuel, some medical supplies and so on. Some building materials, but not enough to repair all the damage. No guns, but some ammo--and we're really short on ammo. Lexington and the county have pooled theirs. Of course, they tell us we'll get resupplied 'soon'. I hope 'soon' gets here soon.

    "Thomasville isn't playing along?" asked Tom. Nearby Thomasville was slightly larger than Lexington, and quite a rivalry had developed between the two cities over the years. Tom found it hard to believe that it would extend into this sort of situation, but he knew how petty people could be.

    "Thomasville isn't doing much of anything except trying to stay alive. They're getting hit by three different gangs out of High Point, working together. Most of the north end of town is trashed; a lot of people are gone, dead or missing. They're managing to hold them just north of Main Street, but things over there are on a daily basis. For whatever reason, the military is nowhere to be found. The gangs know they can win if they just keep trying long enough--they only have to succeed once, while the defenders have to win every time. For our part. we're expending a lot of effort making sure they don't come any further toward us. Patrols and so on."

    "We're not trying to help out?"

    The acting sheriff looked at Tom and shook his head. "Nothing to spare for them. I don't like it, but we have to be realistic. We can defend, just barely and just for now, what we have. There's nothing left over to help Thomasville--they'll have to help themselves."

    Tom was stunned. Just how out of the loop were they, out here by the river? Why weren't they hearing about these things?

    "Anyway, we've got plenty of problems of our own besides defense--too many people, not enough anything to go around. If we could get the Army in here, it would help. It seems that wherever they are, the bad guys try to be elsewhere--and supplies flow in better, too."

    John rubbed his eyes and continued. "As far as the dead go, we're burying them as best we can. The funeral homes are out of embalming supplies, coffins and vaults, but they are still digging graves and conducting services for those that can pay or barter for their services."

    Tom nodded, wondering again how they had missed all this. Mocksville was having problems, but not like this. John had noted that where the Army was, things were better, and Mocksville had their detachment in place. "And here we are, in the middle, all by ourselves," he said to himself. "Easy pickings if someone figures it out."

    John had kept on talking. "Anyway, for everybody else, we've started a potter's field. The minister's take turns holding the service, but it isn't fancy. A hole in the ground and a wooden cross. Best we can do for them."

    Tom thought for a moment. He knew the funeral would likely help Caleb start dealing with his mother's death. "John, I think we can handle burying her."

    "Thanks. I didn't know her, but I'd hate for the kid to know his mom was buried with some of the sorts we've put in that place. And speaking of the kid..." John stopped, seemingly groping for words.

    "Go ahead. You just seem to be full of good news."

    "Tom, Social Services is pretty much done for--heck, they were pretty much useless before. But the job they had hasn't gone away. We've got kids from gangbangers, and those are a job in themselves--they've got all sorts of 'issues'. Then we've got some from some of the folks that died in the fighting, some from the refugees that have died, some that have been abandoned and two from a nut-case father last week. One of my guys shot the dad when he grabbed his 10 year old and started to slit her throat. Said the end of the world was at hand and he wanted to go to Jesus with his kids." He grimaced. "Freak."

    "I can take him, but the best I can do for him is a bead and meals in an old Dixie Furniture factory building. I know the kid's nothing to you, but could you take him in? We're trying to farm what kids we can out, sort of like a foster family sort of thing. County will provide health care--what they can--and a monthly ration of food for him. You being so far out, I'll try and get it set up so that it's delivered when we got someone out this way. Or you can come into town, and I'll try to scrounge you some fuel for the trip."

    "John, I don't know--I've got two little kids and problems of my own. I don't know if I can do this--the kid's going to need help, and I'm not a shrink."

    "No, but we don't have any of those either. Look, the kid needs some stability. He at least knows you. Take him until we can locate some family--she must have had some around here somewhere. When things get straightened out, we can get him to them. It won't be forever--help me out here."

    "Look, John, you're putting me in a bad position. I'm not heartless--I can't let the kid go into what you're describing--but I don't think I can take proper care of him either."

    "Look, Tom, everyone is going to have to pull together and everyone is going to have to do things they don't know how to do if we're going to get through this. I've got school teachers guarding roadblocks and grandmothers working as nurses. There are too many people and not enough of anything to go around. Families are doubling and tripling up in houses to keep warm. Some folks are skipping meals, and not to lose weight. Things are bad, and maybe going to get worse. Make a little part of it better, would you?"

    "John, we didn't even know any of this was going on--how did things get so bad in town?"

    "We got hit, and we aren't on the Army's radar since they aren't here, so we aren't getting much outside help. If our Guard troops ever get home, I think we'll be do better, but for right now, it's touch and go. Do the kid a favor and take him in."

    Tom felt like he was being manipulated, but he also knew that if he didn't go along with it, he'd hate himself.

    "Yeah, sure. I'll take him. I need to make a trip to town soon, and we'll work things out then."

    "That works." John started to walk out the door, then stopped and turned. "Tom, thanks. I owe you one, and so does the county. I'll see they don't forget it."

    "Thanks." For what that's worth, Tom thought.

    "And Tom? So does the kid." He walked out.

    -----------------------------------------------

    Tom backed his truck into the pole shed that served as a garage for his various vehicles. He looked at the fuel gauge, which indicated a bit above half. He knew that the additional tank he had installed shortly after buying the truck was still full, but he still felt that he needed to find fuel. "Half-full equals empty," he remembered his grandfather saying, and he'd always practiced that himself. It had saved him problems more than once.

    Grabbing his carbine and ammo belt, he headed toward the house. He'd dropped Alan and Caleb at the door and they were already inside. Several boxes of Caleb's personal belongings were in the bed of the truck, as was Toy Overly's body. Tom tried not to dwell on that part. Right now, he wanted to be sure Caleb was settled and check on his kids. He was met at the door by Tommy, with Madeline Washington, who was holding Anne, right behind.

    Tom used a peg by the door to hang the carbine and his ammo belt, then scooped up Tommy and gave him a big hug and a kiss. "Daddy loves you," he said as he held his son. Then he pointed toward the gun. "Remember, Daddy's gun is not a toy--hands off, right?" he said seriously to the small boy.

    "'K, Daddy," said the smiling child, happy that his father was home. Tom looked past him at the gun on the wall. He didn't like leaving loaded guns where the kids could possibly reach them, but if something happened, they weren't going to be of much use locked in a safe. John Dean's description of conditions in Lexington had him worried.

    He reached out a hand and brushed Anne's cheek. "And how's my sweet girl?"

    Madeline had been silent, but she couldn't contain her questions any longer. "Tom, is she really dead? How is the boy? What's happening?"

    Tom set Tommy down and held up a hand. "I need a bathroom break and something to drink. Then I want to check on Caleb and after that we'll talk."

    After relieved himself, Tom walked back down the hall to the office, which also served as a guest bedroom. Alan and Caleb were kneeling, and Alan way praying. Tom stopped in the doorway and bowed his head.

    "...and Lord, we ask that you strengthen both Caleb and Tom during this difficult time. In your Holy Name we pray, Amen."

    "Amen," said Tom. Caleb's smaller voice very quietly echoed the word.

    Tom walked over and sat down on the futon, facing Caleb. The boy looked exhausted. Given the shock, the long cold walk and everything since, Tom was surprised he hadn't collapsed. Caleb looked at him, and Tom tried to think of something to say.

    "Caleb, I'm sorry about your Mom. I know that's not much comfort, but I am. I wish I could have done something more to help--maybe this wouldn't have happened."

    Caleb looked at Tom, but he didn't say anything. His face was unreadable, the eyes red from crying.

    Tom realized the boy was spent. Emotionally, mentally and physically drained, he was beyond comprehending. "Alan, I think Caleb needs some sleep. Let's get this thing made up so he can get some," he said, gesturing to the futon.

    Caleb walked over to the futon and lay down before either man could move. They looked at each other; Tom shrugged and stood up. Alan took a throw from the back of the futon and covered him. Caleb's eyes were closed. Tom motioned down the hall.

    Alan followed Tom toward the kitchen. As they walked into the room, Madeline handed them each a glass. Tom took a long drink and sighed. Alan nodded. "It's been a long afternoon."

    "Hm-m-m." Tom took another long drink. "That's good tea, Madeline. Thanks. Where're the kids?"

    "In the great room. Tommy's playing with some toys and Anne is in the playpen. You know they need to spend some time with their father."

    Tom nodded and looked at his glass. "I know, but not tonight."

    "Hmpf." Madeline started tapping her foot. "Well? What happened?"

    "OK." Tom tried to remember the questions she had thrown at him as he'd walked in the door. "Yes, she's dead. Killed herself. Caleb found her. He's pretty messed up right now. He's laying down; hopefully asleep, and that's probably the best thing for him for the moment And now, Alan and I have a coffin to build." He set the glass down and looked toward Alan, who nodded.

    Madeline blurted, "What?!"

    "Things are bad in Lexington. We've been thinking that Mocksville was in bad shape, and figuring it was the same everywhere. Well, Mocksville may be in bad shape, but Lexington seems to be considerably worse off. They did offer to take her and give her a pauper's burial, but I thought she deserved better. They couldn't take Caleb either--it's long story."

    Madeline started to speak, but Alan held up his hand. "Tom's right, it's a long story. But right now, we have work to do."

    "You need to eat supper--I brought some food over and I'm planning on cooking for all of us. Caleb needs to eat too-when's the last time he ate?"

    "No idea. If you haven't started, then go ahead and cook. Just keep ours warm. We need to get at it."

    "At what? What are you two up to?"

    Alan looked at her. "I'm sorry, dear, I thought you understood. We're burying Ms. Overly. We have a coffin to build, then we'll have to clean her up and get her ready. We need to do this quickly, because there's no way to embalm her."

    He turned and walked toward the door, shaking his head. Tom followed, leaving Madeline standing in the kitchen, looking after them, speechless.

    ----------------------------------------------

    It was almost dark, but the coffin was finished. Both men possessed passable carpentry skills, and the work had went quickly and silently except for the sound of the tools. It wasn't pretty, but as Tom said to Alan, "It beats one of those fiberboard boxes I've seen used."

    Sitting on sawhorses, the plain pine box looked like something from a Western movie. It was unfinished, with rope handles. Inside, the men had scrounged the stuffing from some old pillows to cushion it. Pale blue fabric covered the cushioning--Tom's tent no longer had a rain fly. Toy's name was on the lid, pounded in with round headed silver upholstery nails.

    The coffin was still empty.

    Silently, the two men walked to Tom's truck and took down the tailgate. Gently, they pulled the body bag off, and carried her to Tom's outbuilding workshop. They laid her on a table that had been set up for the purpose.

    "Should we just put her in, bag and all? That doesn't seem right." Tom shook his head.

    "No, it doesn't. But we didn't think to bring any of her clothes."

    Tires crunched in the gravel driveway. Tom looked out and, in the failing light, saw his grandparent's car. His grandfather saw him looking out of the window, waved and walked to the building.

    Entering, he nodded to both men. "Madeline called. I see your finished." He stepped over to the coffin and looked it over. "Nice work, boys." Walking to the table, he asked, "Her?"

    Tom nodded.

    James Marshall Carpenter laid a hand on the bag and bowed his head. After a moment, he removed his hand and straightened. "Boys, Walt, Alice and Jannie should be here any minute. The women want to get her ready, so why don't we go to the house and let them have some room? I hear Madeline has cooked supper--pintos and cornbread with some venison steaks."

    Tom and Alan looked at each other, not quite sure what to make of the situation. While they had worked, Alan's wife had been cooking and organizing. Now, she and the other women in their lives would perform a final service for a neighbor that none of them had really known.

    The three men went inside to supper. On the way in, they passed the women on the way to the building. No one said anything.

    -----------------------------------------

    The next morning, Tom and Alan were up with the sun. Jannie had spent the night at Tom's and would watch the kids while he was gone. Meeting at Tom's garage shed, they loaded Tom's Kubota tractor on the trailer, and hitched it to the truck. Pulling it to the church, they dug Toy's grave, then parked it and the trailer behind the church. They drove back to Tom's where they found both women busy in Tom's kitchen, preparing breakfast.

    Tom walked over to the highchair, and used a towel to wipe his son's face. He smiled up at him, and proceeded to smear more oatmeal around his mouth with the spoon. Tom smiled back.

    Turning, he saw Alan looking suspiciously at a glass of something orange.

    "This isn't orange juice, is it?"

    Jannie snorted. "Are you kidding? It's Wal-mart's version of Tang."

    Alan raised an eyebrow. Tom reached out, took the glass and drank it down. "It's not that bad, as long as you don't expect it to taste like orange juice."

    Now Alan snorted. "I suppose we've seen the last orange juice for a while."

    "Who knows? Maybe. Given what I heard yesterday, I'm thankful to have this."

    After breakfast was over, Tom and Jannie took the kids into the great room to play. Alan and Madeline started washing dishes.

    "Alan, are those two becoming a couple?"

    "Could be."

    "I'm not sure I approve."

    "It isn't up to you to approve, dear."

    "Hmpf."

    "Where's Caleb?"

    "Still asleep."

    "We need to get him up soon. He needs to eat, and we need to get him dressed. I'll be performing a grave-side service for Toy at 1 this afternoon."

    "Do you think he's up to it?"

    "I don't know, but it's his mother. We need to let him say his goodbyes."

    "Are you sure about this?"

    "Not really. But I don't know what else to do."

    They finished the dishes, side by side, in silence.

    -------------------------------------

    The day was cold and threatened yet more snow. The group gathered around the open grave was small. Alan, with Madeline at his side, led the service as a few flakes of snow drifted down. Tom held Caleb's hand on one side; his Grandmother held the other. Tom's grandfather, three waitresses and the owner of the restaurant where Toy had worked, Walt and Alice, and Jannie and Tom's children rounded out the small group.

    Alan spoke of Toy and her difficult life, and of the need to keep hope alive, even when things looked dark. He kept the message deliberately short and simple, speaking not only to Caleb, but to all those present.

    While Alan spoke, Tom couldn't help but think about his short acquaintance with Toy, and if he had somehow contributed to her death. He didn't think so, but how could he be sure? The thought troubled him--what if something he'd done--or something he hadn't done--had led to her death?

    Caleb's attempts to pull his hand from Tom's grasp pulled Tom from his thoughts, and he quickly realized that his grip had tightened painfully on the young boy's had. Quickly relaxing it, he let the small hand go and placed his hand on Caleb's shoulder.

    Alan said a final prayer, then came and solemnly shook Caleb's hand. "May the peace of the Lord be with you, son." Caleb looked him in the eye, but said nothing. Shaking hands with the others, Alan wound up shaking Tom's hand last.

    "Tom, do you have someone who can take Caleb home? He probably shouldn't see the rest of the process."

    "He wants to stay and help. He was very adamant about it."

    "I'm not sure that's wise..." said Alan.

    "Maybe not, but I'm inclined to let him. I don't see how it can mess him up any more than he's already messed up, and the work might do some good."

    "Well, you're probably right about that. Did you bring him some work clothes?"

    "I did. They're in the truck with mine."

    "We can use my office to change." Two men and one boy retrieved their work clothes, and took turns changing in Alan's church office. Going behind the church, Tom cranked up the Kubota and drove it around to the small cemetery.

    Using the bucket, they rigged the coffin and lowered it into the grave. Tom backfilled it as gently as he could. When he was finished, he gave Caleb a shovel and rake so that he could smooth the grave. It took the boy quite some time to do the work, but Tom and Alan allowed the boy to do it the entire job without their interference. When he was done, a white wooden cross was placed at the head of the grave.

    It read:

    Victoria Overly
    1971 - 2008

    -----------------------------------------

    The next morning, Tom decided to make a trip to Mocksville. He thought it would distract Caleb for a while and he wanted to see how much fuel he could get. If anyone was still paying attention to the even day-odd day thing, it was his day, and the truck was feeling a bit light in the fuel tanks. He got everyone up early, wanting to get back well before dark. Caleb was a big help, watching the little ones while Tom cooked and helping Tom get them into the truck. Tom decided that having Caleb around, at least for a while, might be a good thing for them both.

    Tom finished strapping Anne into her car seat. He turned back to Caleb, who was awkwardly holding his M1 Carbine and cartridge belt. The boy looked like he was holding a poisonous snake.

    "Caleb, it's not going to bite you--I unloaded it before I asked you to carry it for me."

    "Mom always told me that guns were dangerous and I shouldn't play with them."

    Tom remember that Sarah had call times like these "teachable moments", and had told him that he should never miss one. "Well, here goes," he thought.

    "Caleb, your Mom was right--you should never play with a gun. Guns aren't toys, they're tools, and any tool, misused or carelessly used, can be dangerous. But that doesn't mean you have to be scared of tools. What you do have to be is respectful of them."

    "Oh."

    Tom tried another approach. "Caleb, are you scared of cars?"

    "Not really."

    "I didn't think you would be. You're familiar with cars and trucks. But you know that you could be in a wreck in one and be killed, right?"

    Caleb looked thoughtful. "Like your parents."

    "Just like my parents. But you notice that I have a truck and a car, and I drive them both. I'm not scared to drive them, but I am respectful of them and their power. A gun is the same sort of thing. Misused, or used with bad intent, people can get hurt. But used correctly, it can be a source of entertainment, a way to put food on the table, or used to protect your life."

    "But you said not to play with guns--how can they be entertaining if you can't play with them?"

    "How is TV entertaining? You don't play with the TV set, do you? You watch it, and it entertains you. With guns, it's kind of different, but it's kind of the same. It's play, but a serious sort of play. You're working to shoot more accurately, or from longer distances. You're learning, but it's a fun learning. Fun learning is a kind of entertainment."

    Caleb looked unconvinced. Tom decided to try a different angle. "Caleb, have you ever seen people who plant lots of flowers around their house?"

    "Sure. Mom did, sometimes."

    "It was a lot of work, right? You had to get the beds ready, go get the flowers, dig holes, plant them, keep them watered and fertilized, pull weeds and all that."

    "Yes."

    "But did you Mom complain about doing it?"

    "Not really."

    "That's because she found it entertaining. The challenge of creating a nice layout, of keeping it just so--it's something that adults come to enjoy. A lot of what are called 'the shooting sports', like trap and bullseye, are like that. They're a lot of work, but you enjoy the work. You don't do it because you're paid to, like a job. You do this because you want to."

    "So you like guns--you enjoy them?"

    "Sure. I grew up with them. They weren't a big mystery in my grandparents' house. If we wanted to see them, or go shooting, they would always take us. We learned to respect guns and the power they represent. But I also view them as a useful tool. You know my wife died, using one to defend herself and our children?"

    "Mom said she was killed, but not how. Somebody shot her?"

    "Yes, they did, and she died from her wound. But before she died, she was able to kill the men who attacked her. I believe she saved our children by her actions."

    "That makes her a hero, doesn't it?" Caleb asked.

    Tom was struck dumb. He'd never thought of it like that--Sarah as hero. He decided he liked the idea.

    "Yeah, I guess it does."

    -------------------------------------------------

    There was hardly any traffic on the trip up Highway 64 to Mocksville. Even in town, there was very little vehicle traffic. Many people were walking, some were riding bicycles, a few were on horseback and one family was on a golf cart, pulling a small lawn trailer behind. Tom was rather intrigued with that idea, observing to Caleb "You know, that might be a great compromise between speed and fuel consumption."

    "But what about horses? They just eat grass. Then you don't need fuel."

    "True up to a point, but horses doing much work generally can't eat enough grass to be well-fed. They'll need some amount of higher quality food, such as oats. I'm not a big horse person, but I know that you also have to do things like shoe them, trim their hooves and so on."

    "You have to find gas for a golf cart."

    "True, but even the way things are, gas is still easier to find than a blacksmith. Although that may not be true for long."

    "Things are going to get worse than they are now?"

    Tom thought he could detect a trace of fear in the you boy's voice. "Caleb, that's another of those questions no one can answer for sure." He glanced at the boy, who was watching him intently.

    "Even as smart as he is, he's still a scared little kid," Tom thought. "Well, that's fine, because I'm a scared adult. But he deserves the truth."

    "Caleb, I'll level with you. A lot of people think things will get better and we'll go back to normal. A lot of people think things will get worse. I don't know who's right. I can tell you that my wife thought 'worse' was likely, and she planned accordingly. A lot of my neighbors agree with her assessment, and they have done the same." He paused, and glanced at Caleb again. The 9-year-old was listening intently.

    "I never paid much attention to her or my neighbors. I thought they were a little crazy, but it was a harmless thing, so I just went along with it. After all that;s happened lately, I've changed my mind. What I plan on doing is making sure that, as much as possible, we all stay safe, healthy and well-fed if things do get bad."

    "Does the 'we' include me?"

    "Caleb, as long as you live under my roof I'll take care of you. Don't ever doubt that."

    "Thank you."

    "You're welcome. Now let's try our luck at this gas station. The truck needs fuel."

    Tom pulled into the first station he had planned on hitting. A few minutes later, he pulled out 10 gallons of diesel heavier, and his wallet nearly $90 lighter. "No wonder people are walking!" he said to Caleb. "But at least it hasn't went up too much more."

    Tom knew that in order to fill the truck up, both with fuel and with any supplies he could find was going to take most of the cash he had. No business seemed to be taking plastic, so cash was a necessity. He detoured off his planned route to a branch of his bank, hoping they were open.

    His luck held, and they were. Telling Caleb he would be right back, he took his 1911 pistol from his shoulder holster, and his Springfield XD-9 from his hip and laid them on the seat. Caleb's eyes widened.

    "Caleb, I can't carry my guns in the bank--it's illegal. I'm going to leave them here, but I want you to understand that you need to leave them alone. I'm not going to unload them here where someone could see. Can I trust you to not touch them?"

    "I promise," said the boy, regarding the two pistols from the far side of the cab. "I promise!"

    "Good." To himself, Tom thought "I'm going to have to get this kid over his fear of guns, and soon. I can't let him be afraid of them, especially if things do get bad."

    Tom opened the door and stepped down from the truck. He turned to Caleb. "Take my jacket and cover up the guns so no one can see them in here." He held up his key fob. "I'm going to lock you in. No matter what, don't unlock the doors for anyone except me. I mean anyone--even if you know them."

    "I can do that."

    "Good man." Caleb straightened up a bit and smiled for the first time in several days. Tom shut the door and hit the lock key, hearing the locks thunk.

    In the bank, he went to the customer service desk. The woman at the desk greeted him and inquired how she could be of assistance. "I need to make a large withdrawal from my money market. I'm finding myself spending a lot of cash these days."

    "Oh honey, I'm afraid most of our customers are finding themselves in that predicament these days." The woman, middle-aged, seemed quite friendly. "Can I have your Social Security Number and I'll pull up your accounts."

    Tom gave her the number and in short order she had his information on screen. Tom said "I'm surprised to find you open at all. With the Internet being so flaky these days, I don't see how you can function."

    "Oh, we're doing quite well now. Our bank hadn't converted to using the Internet for internal communication like so many of them have. I'm glad, because I've never trusted that thing. We did have some problems when we lost touch with our home office in Charlotte, but they had us back on line in a couple of days. Now, how much would you like to withdraw? I'll warn you, the banking regulators have instituted a $1,000 limit per week." She smiled up at him, waiting for a reply.

    Tom's answer was a bit slow in coming. He had mentally filed the first tidbit away as she spoke, wondering if the "couple of days" was how long it had taken for the bank to get their primary data center up and running after some problem, or whether it was how long it had taken for them to restore communications or get their hot site online. Either way, Tom had some experience with IT in the banking world, and he knew that in normal times, it wouldn't have taken that long to restore service.

    The second tidbit, tossed in almost off-handedly at the end, concerned him more--the banking regulators were imposing withdrawal limits? This was something new and disturbing. Even with the incessant Wars on this and that, Know Your Customer and all the other regs, there had never been Federally imposed withdrawal limits. And a $1,000 per week? Given the cost of fuel alone, that was almost unreasonable. Who dreamed that one up?

    "Ah, when did they start that?"

    "Why, they started that over a week ago, before Christmas. You've haven't heard?"

    "No, I hadn't, but I haven't been in a branch lately."

    She nodded sympathetically.

    "So if I wanted to close an account that had more than the limit in it?" That was what he'd had in mind, even though it would mean dealing with a rather bulky amount of bills.

    "In that case, we have to forward a request to the home office for approval. That takes 7-10 working days. When it comes back, then we can fix you right up. Now of course, if your account is really big, we may need to get the Army to bring us some more cash."

    He blurted "Army? Since when does the military deliver you money?"

    "It's the only safe way to do it these days, or so they tell us."

    Tom considered his options. The receptionist's news, relayed so blithely, bothered him. He was less than thrilled having his money stuck in the bank, especially when a complete fill up of his truck would cost about $700 at the current price. He wasn't thrilled about carrying a lot of cash either, but he saw no alternative, since debit cards and credit cards were apparently no good any longer. He also saw no way to get it all at once.

    "Can I get the $1,000 today, move some to my checking and file to close my money market? Maybe someone still takes checks."

    "We can do that." She opened a drawer, pulled out two withdrawal slips and a deposit slip and handed them across the desk, along with a pen. "If you'll fill those out, I'll email in the closure request."

    "No form for that?" Tom asked with a smile.

    "Not yet. With transportation the way it is, we do as much electronically as we can. That and faxes. Of course, we are a bank, so I bet we'll have a form by next week. " She seemed to be taking things in stride. Tom wasn't sure if he envied her or thought she was crazy not to be worried.

    As Tom started filling out the slips, there was a commotion behind him, and every head in the bank turned toward the door. Tom reached for his gun, then remembered it wasn't there. "Stupid concealed carry laws," he thought.

    A man, fairly well-dressed and obviously distressed, had slammed the thick glass door open against the door stop. He ran up to a teller and began fumbling with some papers.

    "My God--they're bombing the cities! I want my money!"

  19. #19

    Chapter 18

    December 31, 2008

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 27
    High temperature: 36
    barometric pressure: 30.22
    partly cloudy


    This whole situation is getting stranger by the minute, and I don't like one bit of it. People are getting scared, and scared people are dangerous people. I (well, other people too) have this feeling that things are starting to go downhill rapidly.


    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    December 31, 2008
    Yadkin College, NC

    The lady behind the desk sighed loudly. "Poor old Mr. Ross. He's been in a bad way for a while, and all this terrible news has just sent him over the edge."

    Tom noticed that none of the bank employees were acting like there was a big problem, so he relaxed a bit. "I take it this has happened before?"

    "Oh, yes. He was the manager of this branch until he retired a few years ago. It wasn't very long after that, maybe a year or two, before he was diagnosed with Alzheimers. It's really a shame, because he was always so healthy and vital. If you'll excuse me a minute, I want to call his wife--I bet he's snuck out of the house again, and she'll be frantic."

    "Sure, go ahead." He watched as a well-dressed woman came out of an office and approached the agitated man. Talking gently to him, she calmed him, guided him to a seat, then went and got him a cup of coffee. Sitting beside him, she drank from her own mug and talked quietly to him. If Tom hadn't seen the outburst of a few minutes ago, he wouldn't have given the scene a second glance.

    Tom heard the phone being hung up and looked back toward the desk. "She's on her way. She just missed him a few minutes ago and has been calling around, trying to find him. We were next on the list. He shows up here pretty regularly--I think it was because he worked here--sort of a homing instinct."

    Tom nodded. "Must be hard on her, dealing with this."

    "The woman is a saint. They have plenty of money--or at least the should--but she will not hear of putting him in a facility. She's determined that he stays at home as long as possible."

    "She must be some lady."

    "Oh, she is, she is. But enough of that--it's just too sad to dwell on. Now if you'll give me that Social, I'll help you get all this taken care of."

    Tom gave her the number, and in a few minutes she had sent off the request for the account closing. After that, it was simple manner to get his $1000--in nice, new, crisp $100s, he noted--tuck it into his wallet and be on his way.

    On his way out the door, the cheerful receptionist called out "Don't forget, we'll call you when the paperwork goes through and we've gotten the delivery of the money. Don't forget to bring something to carry it in!"

    Tom winced, hoping no one else heard, and told her he would. "Utterly clueless," he muttered once he was in the parking lot.

    Back at the truck, he unlocked the door and asked Caleb "So how'd things go?"

    "They baby was a little whiney, but I gave her a bottle and she's happy now."

    Tom checked, and sure enough Anne was busily draining a bottle. "Thanks. Good thinking on your part."

    "I used to babysit, to earn some money to help out."

    "Well, as long as you're hanging with me, it's a skill that's going to come in handy. Speaking of money, I bet you don't have any walking around money, do you?"

    "Walking around money?"

    "Yeah. You always need a few bucks when you're out walking around." Tom reached into his pocket and pulled out a small wad of cash. Caleb's eyes went wide, and Tom noticed. "What?"

    "I've never seen so much money!"

    Tom started to say that it really wasn't all that much, but he stopped. Maybe for someone like him, who had grown up with money and had always had good-paying jobs, the couple of hundred wasn't that much money. But for a kid like Caleb, whose mother had probably always lived hand to mouth, it must seem like riches beyond avarice. He peeled off a twenty and handed it to Caleb.

    "Here's an advance on your allowance. Remind me later, and we'll go over what you have to do to earn it."

    "Wow! What do I do with it?"

    Tom guessed this was another of those teachable moments. He probably should talk to Caleb about money, saving for later versus spending it all now and how to tell needs from wants. He noticed Caleb's eyes were glued to the bill in his hand.

    Tom decided that maybe teaching could wait. "Of course, since it is your first paycheck, so to speak, I might just go blow it on whatever."

    "Wow! Can we go to Wal-mart?"

    "Sure. I need to look for a few things anyway." Tom smiled to himself. It seemed that no matter what, a kid was a kid.

    ---------------------------------------------------

    Wal-mart had changed since his last visit, not quite two weeks ago. Tom cruised his buggy with Anne in her carrier while Caleb followed along with his own cart, Tommy holding onto the side. He marveled that never seen an open store with so many shelves bare--or so few customers--before.

    His first stop was the grocery aisles. As he looked over the empty produce section, which was visible from the entrance, he was comforted at the thought of the amount of food stored at his home. He also wondered if he would ever eat an avocado or a banana again.

    Hopefully, Tom trolled up and down the aisles, looking for things he could use. Some things, like soap and detergents, were still in decent supply, and he picked up a fair amount of each. On the other hand, most food items were totally gone.

    There were some canned goods, and Tom took the few that he thought he would eat. He was glad that his time in California had broadened his palate--not many people around here would eat artichokes, figs or dates. "Normal" canned goods, such as beans, corn, peas, fruit and so on, were totally gone. Also, there were no paper products of any kind. Tom had hoped for toilet paper for his grandparents, but that wasn't going to happen. He found a some unsweetened powdered drink mixes, and took them all. He had found several hundred pounds of sugar stored at his house, and again silently thanked his wife for her forethought.

    In the baking aisle, he had a bit better luck. There were a few 5 pound bags of flour and corn meal, along with plenty of baking powder. He picked up all the flour and corn meal and along with a dozen cans of baking powder. His grandmother knew how to bake, and he could ask her to teach him. Seeing some packaged yeast on the shelf, he threw that into the buggy as well. He knew that it was a necessary ingredient for breadmaking, even if he didn't know exactly why it was necessary.

    Spices were in excellent supply, and Tom took advantage of it. Salt, pepper, garlic, bay leaves--a supply everything he thought he might use went into the carts.

    Cooking oil was also in decent supply, and several gallons went into Caleb's cart. He was also able to find aluminum foil and ziplock bags. Trash bags were in short supply, but he was able to get enough for his needs. He mused that they probably wouldn't be throwing away too much anyway.

    Next on the list was baby goods. Tom found little to choose from. There were two packages of diapers in Anne's size, along with one of the next size up, and some baby wipes. All these went into Caleb's cart. Heading toward the grocery department, he found some baby food left on the shelves. He started picking out the kinds he knew Anne would eat. There wasn't much.

    "I wish I had a calculator. We only have so much cash."

    "One hundred ninety four dollars and thirty six cents, plus tax."

    Tom was dumbfounded. He managed a "Huh?"

    "That's the total of the items in our carts. I've been keeping up as we shopped."

    "You can do that?"

    "Sure, it's easy. You just..."

    Tom held up a hand. "Don't tell me. I don't want to know. Really."

    Caleb looked scared. "I'm sorry." He looked ready to cry.

    Tom quickly realized his mistake. "No, Caleb, no. I was joking. I'm sorry--I didn't mean to upset you. It's actually pretty cool you can do that."

    "People at school used to say I was a freak."

    "Yeah, I got that too, sometimes."

    "You can do it too?" Caleb brightened.

    "No, not that. My trick is a bit more unusual--plus I didn't discover it until I was in college."

    "What's yours?"

    "It's pretty odd. I can design databases in my head."

    Caleb gave him a blank look, waiting for more.

    "OK. Designing databases--good databases, ones that can grow and that make use of computing resources efficiently, is generally pretty difficult. First, you have to come up with a list of all the data items that you want to store, Then, there's a specific series of steps you go through in order to normalize a database. You start at what's called First Normal Form, proceed to Second, Third, Boyce-Codd, Fourth, Fifth, Domain-Key and Sixth, putting things in order as you go. Me, I usually design straight to Domain-Key, and I can do Sixth, but it's a bit of a stretch. That temporal thing can be tricky."

    Caleb blinked.

    "Uh, yeah. It drove my instructors in database theory crazy. They said 'no normal person' could do it. They took me to an honor court, and accused me of cheating. They didn't have any real proof, only their suppositions, and I beat them by demanding that they give me a design task. They had to come up with it, and I had to do it in front of them and the court. Eight big whiteboards later, they had to admit I could do it. I was written up in two scientific journals for it." Tom smiled, remembering the events.

    "I still don't understand."

    Tom laughed. "Don't worry about it. Neither does anyone else. I'm a freak of nature, just like you. You have to view it as not being a big deal. You can either let the fact you're so different bother you, or you can embrace your freakness and get on with life. Remember what I told you before--all that stuff really makes very little difference anyway. It's what you do with it that counts."

    Caleb nodded, obviously thinking over what Tom had said. "And did you do this database stuff at work?"

    "I did for a while, then I figured out that I could do better working for myself. I hire out to companies that need large databases designed. I design them, set them up on their servers, sometimes write some of the processing code."

    "Is it hard work?"

    "Not for me, but I do tend to keep weird hours. Seems to go with the territory. It always drove my wife crazy. She said it was like living with a vampire."

    Tom stopped, and looked down at the meager supply of baby food in his cart. There was no cereal, and he knew that he didn't have enough at home to last until Anne was on solid food. He wasn't sure how he would deal with this. "Another problem to solve," he thought.

    The little group moved on toward the auto accessories. He was able to get spare air filters and fuel filters for his vehicles, but no motor oil. Even stuff he would have never considered using was sold out. No fuel cans and no gas or diesel preservative, either.

    Sporting goods was also bare of most of the items he had hoped to find. All the freeze dried food, ground pads, camouflage hunting clothes, sleeping bags and tents were gone. He had really been hoping for some sleeping bags for emergency use. He was lucky enough to get two decent compasses, and picked up two waterproof match holders just because he could get them. He found himself wishing he had listened to Sarah more and had bought some of these things when he could have gotten "the good stuff" delivered to his door by the Big Brown Santa.

    The electronics department was a different story. There were still plenty of CDs and DVDs, and Tom picked out quite a number of them, along with a boom box and a portable DVD player.

    Caleb asked "Why are you buying those?"

    "Well, first, I'm getting them while I still can. The electronics come from overseas somewhere, and I'm betting that we won't be getting more in the near future. Second, we're going to be sticking pretty close to home for a while, and entertainment can be as important as food over a long period of time. Keeps up the morale," he said as he put a boxed set of the movie Serenity, retrieved from the bargain bin, into the buggy.

    "But if things are so bad, won't people need to be working all the time? My mom worked a lot." He looked down at the floor. "I got tired of being home alone."

    "Maybe, but right now there may not be any work for them. Since I work from home," he said, adding "when I have work," under his breath, "we're going to need these things, I think. I don't want you to get too bored if I should get busy. When I'm busy, it can be just as bad as being alone."

    Caleb nodded his understanding, and Tom looked around some more, hoping for some sort of shortwave radio. Not finding any, he motioned toward the sewing supplies. "Forward!"

    Once there, he picked up a large selection of needles and thread, along with various sewing gadgets.

    "You can sew?" asked a rather dubious Caleb.

    "Some. My grandmother made sure I could sew on a button or fix a small hole. I expect her or some of the older ladies that live around us can show us some of the other things." He looked at a sewing machine, but his budget simply wouldn't accommodate the price. He frowned. "Well, that's out of the question."

    "My mom has...had a sewing machine. Maybe we could get it."

    "That's a good idea, guy. Let's plan on going down to the trailer soon. We need to get the rest of your stuff anyway."

    "I don't have much."

    "Well, we'll get what you had. It's yours, and you should have it."

    They hit the non-perscription drug aisle, picking up vitamins, pain killers, first aid supplies and anything else that looked useful. Oddly enough, there was still plenty on the shelves. "People aren't thinking very far ahead," Tom said to himself.

    Caleb couldn't contain himself any longer. "Can we go check the toys? Please?" Caleb still had his money, and he wanted to spend it. The bare shelves didn't worry him.

    "Sure," replied Tom a bit distractedly. They started toward the toys. Tom was thinking. "OK, Lexington's hammered, and they've got no Army help. Mocksville's not hammered, they've got the Army standing guard, and Wal-mart is bare. There is gas and diesel, and plenty of what appears to be newly printed money. Put it together and you have...what? Some things get through, others don't. None of this is making a lot of sense."

    He couldn't make anything of it--he didn't have enough information. "Well, we'll just need to keep our eyes and ears open," he thought. "I need to know what is going on as much as possible. It's going to be important."

    Caleb was moving from aisle to aisle, obviously looking for something in particular. "What are you looking for?" asked Tom.

    "A football. I've never had one of my own."

    "Oh, you're in the wrong place. We need to go back to sporting goods." Caleb grabbed his buggy and started toward sporting goods.

    On the way, Tom saw the boys' clothes. "Hey Caleb, wait a sec. How are you fixed for clothes and so on?"

    "I've got some things." He seemed defensive.

    Tom arched an eyebrow and looked at him. "How many pairs of pants and underwear do you have?"

    "Uh," he replied.

    "How many? Caleb, I don't care, but I need to make sure you have enough clothes."

    "Two pairs of jeans, one pair of dress pants and maybe 6 pairs of underwear."

    "Definitely not enough. Come here--do you know your sizes?"

    "Not really."

    Tom turned him around, pulled out the back of his pants and looked. Then he looked at the tag in his shirt. "Take off a shoe."

    Caleb did so, and Tom found the size. "Wal-mart may not have the best clothes, but they aren't all that bad if you're careful. We're going to pick up a few things."

    Going through the racks and shelves, he found 3 pairs of jeans and one pair of some outdoorsy-looking pants. He picked out plain t-shirts in every color they had, then let Caleb pick out some long sleeve shirts he liked. They added underwear, socks, and long underwear to their buggies. Last they added some sweatshirts, a coat, gloves and a toboggan. Tom wondered aloud why there were still so many clothes left when so many other things were gone.

    Caleb looked up at him like he was a fool. "You can't eat clothes," was all he said.

    Tom was struck again--his family had never had to choose between clothes and food. Even now, he could still avoid the choice. Caleb and his mother had faced that decision constantly. "I never thought of that," he said.

    Caleb shrugged.

    Tom directed them to the shoes, where he found a pair of decent athletic shoes and a pair of pseudo-hiking boots that fit. He noticed some mink oil and silicone dressing on an end cap, which he added to his buggy. Looking at the rack, he added shoe strings and two tubes of shoe repair in a tube goop.

    "Hey, you never know, right?"

    Caleb looked at him and asked "Now can we get my football?"

    "Lead on, MacDuff!"

    Caleb rolled his eyes. "It's 'Lay on, MacDuff!', and it's said in the context of Macbeth inviting MacDuff to attack him. Do you want me to attack you?"

    Tom was abashed--shown up by a kid! "Uh, no. I thought it was 'Lead on'--I never was much on Shakespeare. Sorry."

    Caleb shook his head, and pushed his buggy toward sporting goods. Tom thought he heard him mutter something about 'unread heathens', and he smiled. The kid was something special.

    In sporting goods, Caleb picked out a football. Tom added a basketball, goal and net to his buggy as well. He had the stuff around the house to fabricate a backboard and post.

    "I don't have enough money," protested Caleb.

    "But I do. Think of it as a Christmas present. Merry Late Christmas!"

    "Thank you," said a smiling Caleb.

    "Not a problem," said Tom. He looked at his watch. "We're going to need to get a move...do you have a watch?"

    "No."

    "We need to get you one. And an alarm clock--the wind up kind if they still make them."

    "Why?"

    "So you know what time it is. It might not be important to you right now, but it will be sometime."

    Caleb was dubious again. "OK," he said, voice trailing off.

    In the jewelery department, Tom found Caleb a Casio solar and a wind up alarm clock.

    "Whew. We're going to be nearly broke. You still keeping score?"

    "Seven hundred ninety four and 76 cents. That includes tax on everything except the food.

    Tom nodded, still amazed at the kid's ability and happy that they still had a fair amount of money left. "It's funny how gas and some other things are going up daily, while a lot of the stuff in here is only up a little, or not up at all. I don't get it."

    "I don't understand," said Caleb.

    Tom knew the boy was talking about his comment, but he didn't want to go into it in depth, at least right now. "Neither do I" he said. "Now let's get out of here. I want to try a couple of other places before we head back home."

    They bantered with the older lady at the only open checkout. "Business isn't what it used to be," said Tom, gesturing around at the empty store as they reached the cashier.

    "If we don't start getting trucks, there won't be any business."

    "Where are they, anyway? I was told the Army was guarding the roads so the trucks could get through."

    "Well, maybe so, be we haven't gotten any trucks, Army or no Army. As far as I can tell, all they do is stand over there." She tossed her head to indicate 2 MPs, who were watching them without interest.

    "So you're not getting anything?" asked Tom, hoping that he was being subtle.

    "The last trucks we got were the day after Christmas. Two of them, and there should have been, I don't know, a dozen maybe. Here it is New Year's Eve, and still nothing." When she handed Tom his change, he noted that nearly all the bills were new. He checked her till before she closed it, and it contained lots of brand new bills.

    "Well, I don't know what to say. Things are better here than Lexington, if that helps."

    "It doesn't, but thanks for trying to cheer an old woman up." She reached out an patted his hand. "You take care of those kids, and have a Happy New Year, at least while you can."

    Tom smiled at her. "You too."

    "I'll try, sweetheart, I'll surely try. What else is there to do?"

    -----------------------------------------------

    After they had loaded their purchases in the truck and strapped the kids in, Tom and Caleb covered the bed with a tarp and started tying it down. "Is it supposed to rain?" asked Caleb, looking at the sky.

    "Not supposed to, but I don't want anything to blow out, and more importantly, I don't want people knowing what we have. There's no sense tempting anyone." Caleb nodded gravely.

    Tom and Caleb got in the truck and cranked it up. Tom eyed the fuel gauge. He would have to hit at least two more stations to have a full load--maybe three. Add to that at least one other stop, and they were going to be running late. Tom wanted to visit his grandparents and talk to them again about moving, and he wanted to be home before dark. It would be close.

    Tom hit the station at the Wal-mart, and was rewarded with another 10 gallons of fuel. Heading back down Highway 64 toward "Hysteric Downtown Mocksville", he hit another station and got 10 more gallons. Tom reflected that a lot of the fuel that was supposedly being saved was probably being used looking for more fuel. "Oh well, when did the government ever get anything right?" he thought.

    Turning left, he drove toward the town square, where the old county courthouse presided over a number of lawyer's offices and small businesses. He was hoping one small business in particular was open. Looking at the window as he parked, he couldn't tell if it was.

    "Caleb, I'm going to see if this place is open. If they are, I'll probably be inside a while. You stay here with the truck. The carbine is still covered up, and let's keep it that way. Keep an eye on the kids for me, and keep the doors locked. If you need me, beep the horn two or three times. If it's an emergency, just hold it down and I'll come running. Got all that?"

    "I got it. I'm standing guard, right?"

    Tom smiled. "You sure are. Now I'll be back as quick as I can." He exited the truck and locked the door behind himself. He mused briefly on how quickly the kid picked up on things, and wondered if he'd been that quick at that age.

    He walked up to the door of the Mocksville Gun and Pawn Shop. Closer to the windows, he could see that the lights were on. He tried the door and it opened, ringing the bell on the back as it did so.

    Herbert Johnson, known as Herb to his friends, had his back to the door. As he was turning, he spoke. "If you want guns or ammo, I'm out." Completing his turn, he saw Tom standing a few steps inside the door, and he grinned. "My, my, my! Where did you come from? I haven't seen you in quite a while." He walked out from around the counter. As always, he had a pistol on his belt. Unusually, he laid a shotgun on the counter as he stepped out.

    Tom walked up and shook the older man's proffered hand. He'd known Herb a number of years, and had bought several guns and a lot of ammo from him during that period. They had hunted together several times, and played some golf a time or two.

    "I'm in town on a buying spree. Sell me something." Tom smiled.

    Herb frowned. "I hope you aren't counting on guns or ammo--I was serious. I'm cleaned out."

    Tom arched an eyebrow. "I'm sure none of the stock made it to your house, huh old man?"

    Herb grinned. "My house, my daughter's house and a few select others. I sold what was left the first day after the trouble got bad. I considered if I even wanted to do that. Scared people with guns tend to be unhealthy to be around."

    "I know what you mean. Actually, I need some something you might still have. I need a shortwave radio."

    Now it was Herb's turn to arch an eyebrow. "Now really! You? You want a shortwave receiver? You've never been interested in such things. As I recall, you told me it was an old fart's hobby." Herb was a Amateur Extra ham, and he and Tom's grandfather were in the local ham club. It was through Tom's grandfather the he had met Herb in the first place.

    "Well, I do, I am now, and it still is. But Grandpa's has died. He thinks it may need some tubes or something. So, I need a radio."

    "Damn boat anchors will let you down every time you really need them, but they are an addiction." He motioned Tom to follow, and went over to some shelves on one wall. "I love those old space heaters too, but you need some reliable gear as well." Reaching out, he picked up a large radio.

    "This is reliable gear--a Panasonic RF-4900. Good receiver--all solid state."

    Tom eyed the unit, dubiously looking at all the buttons and knobs. "Looks a little complicated--I was looking for something simple."

    "I can be that, if you want. You don't have to do anything except turn it on, select a band and start tuning. But a little time with the manual, which I have, and you'll be amazed at what you can do with this unit."

    "I don't know...I really wanted simple. I was thinking just a small radio."

    "Tom, let me make a guess about something. You've been watching and listening to the stuff on the TV and the radio, right?"

    Tom nodded yes.

    "Thought so. But you're not sure you can trust what you're being told, and you want to get some news from 'out there'," he waved his free hand around, "so you can compare the two and maybe figure out what the truth really is."

    "Something like that. I'd also like to know what's going on elsewhere--are they having it as bad as we are?"

    "I don't blame you. That shows your smarter than a lot of the fools in this town. There are too many who are simply accepting what they're told. I think that's a dangerous course, and it's going to get them hurt, maybe killed, in the long run."

    "Yeah, but the radio is still..."

    Herb interrupted. "Yeah, it's still too complicated. I know, I know. Tell you what--you buy it for my price, and I'll throw in a little one like you're talking about. I got a decent one that came from Radio Shack. Nothing special, but it works fine."

    "OK. So what's your price?"

    "We'll discuss that in a minute. I also have a few other items you need, even though you don't know it." Handing Tom the Panasonic, he stepped to the next set of shelves and picked up another piece of equipment and turned to Tom.

    "This is the Kenwood TS-450. All the filters and mods already done. Heck of a radio. Those," he said, gesturing with his head, "are the matching power supply, speaker and antenna tuner. Antenna is out back. I had to leave the tower, but you can improvise one, I'm sure. It all came from the estate of one of our silent keys a few months ago." He put the transceiver on top of the Panasonic in Tom's hands. "I'd hoped to sell it to generate some cash for his widow, but she died a couple of months after he did. Poor old gal, I guess she just missed him that badly." He shook his head.

    "Whoa, wait a minute! I just need the shortwave!"

    "No you don't. Or maybe you do, but I'm betting you're going to need more before this is through. You just don't know it yet. Go put that stuff up on the counter. And check the street, will you? I don't want any undesireables sneaking up on us while I'm loading you up."

    "What's all this going to cost me? I don't have much cash left. And what about a license--all I've got is a Technician class, and that was to make Grandpa happy."

    "Don't worry. I plan on taking this out in trade. And worry about the license later. Get this stuff while the getting's good."

    Tom wasn't sure what Herb meant, but if it wasn't going to cost him cash, he'd play along and see what happened. He walked to the front of the store, set the radios on the counter, then went to the door and looked out. Caleb saw him and waved. Tom waved back. There were a couple of folks about, but it appeared pretty quiet.

    When he got back, Herb had a cardboard box in his arms. It looked heavy, so Tom reached out and took it--and nearly dropped it on the floor. It was heavier than he expected.

    "Careful--get the bottom. I need to get another box and split that all up. Carry it up front while I find one."

    Tom looked into the box as he walked. He saw a number of walkie-talkies, another radio, and a number of other parts that he wasn't sure of.

    Herb joined him with two smaller boxes. "I thought I would split this up by function." He reached into the big box and pulled out two small radios. "These are FMRS--Family Radio Service. Depending on terrain, you can get several miles." He put them in one of the smaller boxes, then placed two more pairs into it. Holding up some wall warts, he said "Chargers."

    Tom nodded.

    Herb continued. "This is a GE emergency CB radio--glorified handitalkie that they sold to carry around in your trunk in case you had an emergency. Poor timing. Cell phones were getting to be a big thing about the time it came out, and they never caught on. Comes with a case, antenna, everything you need. Range is a little limited compared to a full-size unit, but they do work, and they're handy as all get out." He picked up an identical unit, and put both in the box.

    Picking up the radio, Tom saw that it was larger and heavier than he thought. "That's where all the weight was," he said.

    "Yep. Ten-Tec 526. Arguably the best 2 and 6 meter base on the market. Built like a brick." He put it in the other box, then picked up two small radios, one in each hand. He gestured with them. "These are Yeasu VX-150s. Not the best 2 meter HT, but decent. I've got chargers for them as well." He put them in the box with the Ten-Tec. "Antenna for the 526 is out back, too."

    "What's all the other stuff?"

    "Various ham odds and ends, sure to be useful at some point. Trust me."

    "OK. I trust you." Tom looked at the older man, and waited until their eyes met. "This is a lot of stuff. A lot of very expensive stuff. Now I want to know what this is going to cost me, if not cash."

    Herb cleared his throat. "Tom, I wouldn't ask you this under normal circumstances. I wouldn't even ask now, except I have to, for my kids and my grandkids sake. Things are going to get bad in town, probably soon if we don't start getting supplies in." He grimaced. "This is the damndest thing I ever saw. I remember my Daddy talking about growing up during the Depression, and he never said anything about the grocery stores being empty. I checked around yesterday, and most of them are nearly cleaned out."

    Tom nodded. "I tried Wal-mart this morning. Got a few grocery-type things, and some other stuff. They're still pretty good on electronics, toys and clothes, but things like groceries and sporting goods are picked clean."

    "Yep. And if you try the Food Lion or any other store, you'll find the same thing. Mom and pops are wiped out too. Trust me, I've checked them all."

    Tom said, "But have you noticed that fuel is still in pretty good supply, even if they are rationing it? Most stations are open and have gas and diesel." A thought occurred to him. "Do they still have plenty of kerosene?"

    Herb nodded in the affirmative. "Seems to be plenty. I don't know this for a fact, but I think the Army got to the tank farms in Greensboro before they could be torched. I know that I see plenty of tankers coming into town."

    Tom arched an eyebrow. "Well, that's interesting. Have you seen any other trucks running around. The cashier at Wal-mart said they hadn't seen any trucks since the day after Christmas."

    "I don't doubt it. The boys in camouflage seem to be getting supplies, and I've seen armored cars at the banks, but I've seen very few trucks beside the tankers. Makes you wonder if they didn't get to the food as quickly, now doesn't it?"

    Tom remembered some of the things he had seen written on some Internet forums before the Internet became useless. "Or if they're simply sending it elsewhere," he said.

    Now Herb arched an eyebrow. "Why'd you say that?"

    "Something I read in a few places." Tom outlined where he'd ran into the original thoughts, and how they fit in with some of his Grandfather's ideas about "culling the herd". He finished by saying, "Sounds pretty paranoid, doesn't it?"

    "Maybe so, but it does fit in with some of what we're seeing." He shrugged. "Who knows? The important thing is that we have problems, and it looks like they're getting worse, not better. And that brings me to exactly how you can pay me for that gear."

    "OK, I'll bite. How am I supposed to pay for, what two thousand or so in gear that I don't know how to use and don't have a license for?"

    Herb looked uncomfortable. "Tom, I feel like I'm presuming on my friendship with your family, but I'm a little desperate. I need a place for my family--me, my wife, my daughter and her husband and kids, and my son and his girlfriend--to get out of town. I'm serious when I say things are going to get bad here. I figure we're a very few days away from hungry people getting desperate, unless we get quite a few tractor-trailers showing up soon. Can you help me out? We have quite a bit of stuff--we've been buying for months now. I started getting worried right after the first of the year, and was smart enough to start doing something about it. But I'm afraid if we stay here, and word gets out..."

    Tom finished for him. "You'll wind up feeding all the neighbors...or worse."

    "That's about the size of it."

    Tom thought for a moment. He'd known Herb for years and his grandfather had known him longer. Herb was a good guy, and his wife seemed to be a nice person, too. He didn't know Herb's kids--he'd said hello to them several times, but that was about it. He wasn't really sure that he wanted them in his neighborhood.

    "What do you have in mind? I really don't have any room. I've taken in a kid from this woman I sort of knew--she killed herself, and he had nowhere to go. I sure don't have room for your whole group."

    "What about a house for rent, or maybe vacant land? I have my motorhome, and we can get a truck and a travel trailer."

    Tom remembered the folks from around Charlotte who were on their way to the campground. But the campground was closed, and they were getting in because they had a friend who was, well, squatting there because he was owed money by the company that owned the campground. That wouldn't work.

    "Herb, I don't know what I can do for you. Heck, I'm trying to get my grandfather and grandmother to move into a park model..." his voice trailed off. "Herb, can you excuse me a second? If the cell towers are up, I want to make a phone call. Maybe there is something I can do for you."

  20. #20

    Chapter 19

    December 30, 2008
    Atlanta is done for. As far as we can tell without sending anyone in to see firsthand (something we can't risk at our current force level), the gangs and various other criminals are busy carving up the remains of the city. The decent people that are left are getting out of Dodge as best they can, and we're not trying to stop them. The only good thing about this is that while they're busy with each other, they ignore us.

    Disease is spreading in the "city" as well, mostly water-borne stuff. A lot of people that are leaving are infected, and spreading the wealth as they travel. Some of the country folk have taken to shooting at them as a warning to keep moving. We've heard that some may simply be shooting them. We've heard a number of third- and fourth-hand stories about that, but nothing we can act on. Or maybe nothing we should act on--who's to say?

    We're at least keeping the bad guys from roaming too freely in our immediate area. Of course, every time we fight, we get weaker. We've gotten no replacements since we've gotten here, and several units have been pulled out and sent "elsewhere". Wherever that's at.

    Supplies for the civilians are nearly non-existent, and we're short as well. Supply convoys are irregular, and have been for sometime now. Word is that they're being attacked on the highways. Since we're supposed to control all the Interstates, I simply can't see how that could possibly be the case....

    We've been ordered to recon the Interstate as far north as Greenville, SC. That's around 80 miles of highway, and I'm supposed to do it with an understrength platoon. No one is talking about why we're doing this.


    From the Daybook of James M. Carpenter III


    December 31, 2008
    near Anderson, SC

    Lt. James Carpenter stabbed the button on the Iridium phone as hard as he could, wishing it was a real phone so he could slam it down instead. Turning to the soldier in the back of the Humvee, he said "Higgs, try the radio again. This thing isn't working."

    "Did you try sticking the antenna out the window, sir?"

    "Of course I did!" snapped the lieutenant. He reconsidered his tone, and said "I don't think it gets far enough out to do any good. This thing only seems to work right when we're sitting still and I'm standing out in the open. I'm not quite ready to sit still just yet."

    The trip had been relatively uneventful. The road, which was supposed to be closed to all local traffic, was carrying some anyway, though it was sparse. Carpenter had decided that the risk of trying to run down each group was unwarranted, and let them go unmolested. Besides, what would he do with them if they caught them? Write them a ticket? For their part, the traffic ignored the Army as well, except for a few waves.

    They had stopped numerous times to check burned 18-wheelers, marking each to indicate that it had been checked, by who, the date and if any human remains were found. They'd only found the remains of 3 people in the 17 trucks they had investigated. It was hard work, because each stop meant a total dismount, a hasty perimeter defense, the checking of the wreck itself and and a sitrep to Echo Troop HQ.

    They had stopped other times to check out burned out cars and trucks. Those were another story entirely. A number people appeared to have been killed in their vehicles, then set on fire. The fires didn't leave much to let them guess as to why they were killed, but given what they had seen in Atlanta, no explanation was too far-fetched.

    However, a few miles earlier, the patrol had become eventful when a single bullet had pinged off the lead vehicle of his little convoy. No one could see anything in the dense woods that bordered the highway, and rather than risk any casualties, James had ordered them to hit the gas and get out of the area. He would have rather found the idiot who had shot at them and beat the crap out of him, but at this point it was more important to him to keep what was left of the platoon he was leading intact.

    He mused for a moment on the subject of the "platoon". At this point, it was down to 12
    men. There had been 38 men in the platoon when it had come home from Iraq. 26 men were now sick, dead, missing or deserted. At a fighting force, it was combat-ineffective, although that didn't seem to mean much to anyone at HQ.

    "I'll try, sir, but we're probably out of radio range."

    Carpenter nodded and turned back to the front. To himself, he commented that he would have to watch his temper--it was getting frayed. No matter what, he couldn't let that show. He had to hold it together for the sake of the men and the mission.

    A sign noted the Anderson, SC exit was a mile ahead. Time to check in with whatever unit was guarding this exit. Hearing Higgs still calling on the radio, he turned and got on his knees in his seat and reached into the back for the other radio handset. Loudly enough for Higgs to hear, he said "I'm going to contact the local unit. Are we still on freq?" Without interrupting his radio call, Higgs nodded and gave him a thumbs up.

    Carpenter took the handset and depressed the push to talk key. "Anderson exit, Anderson exit, this is Lt. James Carpenter, 4th Cavalry. How do you read, over?"

    Silence. He repeated the call. "Anderson exit, Anderson exit, this is Lt. James Carpenter, 4th Cavalry. How do you read, over?" There was still no answer. He repeated the call a third time--no answer. Something was not right--that unit was supposed to still be in place.

    Carpenter made a quick decision. "Signal a stop." The driver hit the brakes and began flashing his headlights. The lead Humvee's brake lights came on and it slowed to a stop, then reversed. Looking out the rear window, James saw the trailing vehicle stop about 100' back, and men spilled out, taking up defensive positions. Looking forward, he saw the same thing happening up front.

    "Higgs, off the radio and with me,", he said as he grabbed his M4 and opened the door. Scanning around, he didn't see anything suspicious, but he didn't like this. First that bullet, now no answer where there should have been one. Crouching beside the front wheel, he motioned the sergeants in command of each vehicle to join him. As the men reached him, Higgs took up his position, watching over them.

    "What's up, ell-tee?" asked Sgt. Brian Thomas. As the senior non-com left in 1st Platoon, he was the platoon sergeant.

    "Not sure. We caught that round a few minutes ago, and now we can't raise whoever is guarding the Anderson exit. Someone ought to be there."

    "Briefing said it's the 401st MP Company. Regular Army pukes." The speaker was Sgt. Andre Ray, who had been in the lead vehicle. Ray had an issue with the Regular Army. An Regular Army artillery unit in Iraq had screwed a fire mission, and two of his men had been killed as a result.

    Carpenter silenced him with a look. "Thomas, take two men and recon to the exit. We're going to pull up to that cleared area on the side," he said, gesturing ahead slightly, "and set up. Take one of the FRS radios and give us a sitrep." The FRS radios were strictly against regulations, but they were simply too handy to ignore, especially when the approved handhelds were mostly out of service.

    He nodded and looked back toward his vehicle. Waving his hand for attention, he held up one finger and motioned forward. Two men started forward, and one gestured the other back. Corporal Luis Ortega moved up quickly and hunkered down. Quickly briefed, Thomas and Ortega ran up to the first vehicle, grabbed a third man, then disappeared into the woods.

    He sent Ray back to his vehicle, and motioned to the trailing Humvee to follow. Pulling ahead, they formed a rough triangle in the clear space. Four men went into the woods to provide security from that direction, and the rest stayed behind the vehicles, watching and waiting. Taking advantage of the time, James tried the Iridium phone again. This time he was successful in reaching 4th Cav HQ. He made his sitrep to the bored-sounding communications tech, and was surprised to be told to "wait one".

    Shortly, the comm tech came back online. "Hold for The Six". A few more seconds and Capt. Maxwell, who was now acting as XO for the entire 4th Cav, was on the line. "Carpenter, under no circumstances are you to approach Anderson. That town is under quarantine. Some sort of major flu outbreak."

    James quickly covered the handset and said "Higgs! Get Sgt. Thomas on the radio and tell him to halt pending further. Tell him not to approach the exit or the town. Now!"

    Taking his had off the handset, he said "Understood. Do not approach. Should we turn back now?"

    "Negative," came the reply. "Find somewhere and settle in for the night. I want some eyes up there. What's your supply situation?"

    "Standard load, less what we've used so far." That was the answer Capt. Maxwell expected, and it meant 3 days of food and water, 200 rounds of ammo per man and that they had left with full fuel tanks.

    It was also a lie. Lt. James Carpenter had learned a number of things in Iraq, and one of them was that there was no such thing as too many supplies. His group had nearly 2 weeks worth of MREs, ammo and grenades crammed into every nook and cranny of the Humvees, a number of extra filled fuel cans, lots of water and anything else they thought might come in useful. There was barely enough room for the men in the vehicles.

    "Good. Find a place to set up a secure OP. If possible, overlook the town and the highway, but definitely the highway. Make contact every 6 hours and if anything unusual takes place."

    "Anything unusual?" thought James. "It's the end of the world--what qualifies as unusual today?" Into the headset, he said "Roger that. How long will we be here?"

    "Unknown."

    "Roger that. Any further?"

    "Negative. Out here." The connection went dead.

    "Out here," he said reflexively into the dead phone, shaking his head. "What's going on now?" he wondered to himself.

    Sgt. Ray asked, "What's the word, sir?"

    "We're going to find a place for an OP and settle in for a while." Handing the phone to Higgs, he said "Get Thomas on the radio and have him beat feet back here."

    "How long will we be doing that, sir?" The questioner was a Pvt. Harrison. He was new to the platoon. Originally in 4th Platoon, he was one of the 6 or so men remaining when 4th was split up to be used as replacements.

    "Don't know, trooper. Until they tell us different."

    The man nodded, taking the news without emotion. Harrison and every other man in the platoon--for that matter, every other man in the squadron--were tired, beaten up and played out. They were worried about their families and even more worried that they would never see them again.

    They had reason to be worried. The 4th had came home with nearly 800 men. The last roster James had saw carried slightly over 400, including the sick and the wounded. Almost half had died, deserted or simply were missing.

    They all watched the area around them, but saw no one moving. Soon, Sgt. Thomas and his team were on the radio, notifying them that they were coming in. Once they were inside, James took the sergeant off to one side.

    "How far did you get?"

    "Close enough to see the exit. It looked deserted. The on- and off-ramps are blocked with vehicles. No way to drive up any of them--they were pretty through. Bridge is blocked at both ends, too. No one in sight--there's a few businesses, but they look deserted. One's been burned out."

    "You didn't make any contact with anyone?"

    "No sir. Is there a problem?"

    James related the report about the quarantine and the flu, and their orders to find an OP and stay put.

    "Sir, does this whole thing strike you as kind of odd, even these days?"

    "Sergeant, nothing and everything strikes me as odd these days."

    The noncom nodded his understanding. "And we're going to do what, sir?"

    "Follow our orders--find an OP and get set up. Then we're going to exercise a little soldierly initiative and see if we can find out what's going on in that town. Let's get mounted up and find us a comfortable spot."

    The men moved their Humvees up the road to a spot just out of sight of the exit. James lead four men, split on both sides of the highway, toward the exit. The scene was exactly as Sgt. Thomas had described it. Looking through binoculars, he could see a sign propped up in the middle of the road, but couldn't make out the writing.

    Taking a man with him, he crept up through the edge of the woods that bordered the highway. Finally, he worked his way close enough to make out the sign.

    "QUARANTINE" was painted in red on what appeared to be an old political campaign sign. It was sitting in the middle of the road, weighted down by sandbags and cinder blocks. A crudely drawn skull and cross-bones was beneath the word. Scanning the area, he could see no sign of human activity. Some of the higher parts of the town, some buildings and a water tower, were visible over a small rise in the road. Looking away from town, he could see nothing high enough to allow them to look down into the town.

    He reached for the FRS radio, keyed the mike and reported what he could see. Silently, the two men lay on the cold ground and watched the area for over an hour. Still nothing moved. Using the radio again, he notified the others that they were returning.

    Back at the Humvees, he looked at the men gathered around him. Several were missing, guarding the perimeter.

    "What I can see looks deserted. No movement, no smoke, nothing in sight."

    "There should be people guarding the roadblock. Unguarded roadblocks aren't much good, sir," said Sgt. Ray.

    "Agreed. But if they're there, they're staying completely out of sight. They're either very good, or not there at all. I'm going to go with very good--I'd rather be disappointed than surprised. We're going to find a way around this, and come in from another direction. Hand me that map."

    Sgt. Thomas looked toward the west. "Sir, it's going to be dark soon. We're going to need to find a place to lager up, at least for the night. Night movement in this country might not be too healthy."

    "That's true enough. Anyone seen anyplace likely nearby?" No one had. Looking at the map, he said "Alright then, we'll have to move quickly. We're going to backtrack south and take the last exit. We can work our way around to the northwest, and come in on this road a few miles back. By that time, it's going to be close to dark, so we'll need to find somewhere to hunker down fast." As he spoke, he traced the route with his finger. Looking up, he asked "Everybody got that?" Heads nodded.

    "Good. Get the outposts in and lets do this thing. Eyes open, people."

    Moving quickly, the men got back on the highway, and drove back to the last exit. Engineers had trenched the ramps to keep civilian vehicles off the road, but someone had pushed in enough dirt that it was passable to their Humvees. From the wheel tracks, civilian trucks found it passable as well.

    Cautiously, the 3 vehicles worked their way around the route that the lieutenant had outlined. They saw some signs of life, mostly smoke from chimneys. At one house, closer to the road, they noticed a small girl standing with her nose pressed to the window. As they were passing, they could see her calling to someone in the house. A woman appeared, saw the military vehicles, and snatched the child away from the window.

    Further along they saw a burned-out mobile home. There was a group of people near an outbuilding in the back yard, huddled around a fire. When they saw the Humvees, they started waving frantically and running toward the road. The lead vehicle accelerated quickly, pulling out of the danger zone. At the same time, the FRS radio blared "Ambush left! Ambush left!"

    James looked at the group but saw no evidence of weapons. Grabbing a radio, he keyed it and said "Belay that! Lead, pull up and guard the road ahead. Tail, stop and overwatch us. We'll see what's going on." To the driver of his Humvee, he said, "Garcia, stop the bus."

    Garcia stopped, set the brake and exited the vehicle, M4 at the ready. James exited his his door, followed closely by Higgs, the radio operator. James' M4 was cocked on his hip, while Higgs casually aimed his over the heads of the small crowd. Seeing this, the people stopped, suddenly unsure what to do. One man at the rear started to back up, while a woman pushed a child behind her. The two men and woman in the front looked very unsure of what to do.

    James called out "You folks please stay right where you are. I'm Lieutenant James Carpenter, Echo Troop, 4th Cavalry Squadron. I'm here on a reconnaissance mission. Do you need assistance?"

    Quietly to Higgs, he said "Do you see anything out of place?"

    "Nothing so far, sir. We've got your back." Saying that, he checked his six.

    One man detached himself from the group and walked a few steps forward. His hands were at his side, but plainly visible. "We could use some food if you can spare it. We've been burned out." He gestured, slowly, at what little remained of the mobile home.

    "Keep me covered," Carpenter said quietly. He stepped our from the cover of the Humvee and walked toward the man. The man slowly walked toward him and they met roughly in the middle. The man, moving deliberately, stuck out a hand. "Randall Jameson," he said.

    James considered, then switched the M4 to his left hand and took the proffered hand. "James Carpenter. What happened here?"

    "Power's been out since the 15th. We'd been making do OK, but one of our kerosene heaters flared up when it was running low on fuel. One of the kids had left a blanket too close, it caught fire and..." he trailed off and looked toward the wreckage that had been his home. "That was almost a week ago. My brother, his wife and kids, and our cousin got out. My cousin's wife didn't make it. We lost most everything. There was some stuff we had stored in the outbuilding, and some other things we could use in our trucks, but most of our stuff was in the trailer. The neighbors have helped what they can, but everybody's hurting pretty bad around here. They've blocked off the town--said they were quarantining it because of some flu BS. They're just trying to keep all the food and stuff for themselves."

    "We can help you out some. Are you sure you're right about the town?"

    The man looked at him. "Sure I'm sure. The last time we were in town, maybe 10 days ago, we didn't see anyone sick. Everybody looked just as healthy as could be. Several of us from around here had went in town to see if we could get food, kerosene, batteries and stuff. They weren't real happy to see us. Gouged us pretty bad on prices, but we didn't have much choice, so we paid it. A few days later, some others went back, and they had blocked the roads off and put up a big sign. Shot at them when they got too close."

    "Uh-huh. How was he town doing, as far as supplies? Did they have plenty?"

    "Well, not plenty. Not a big selection of food--mostly canned goods and the like. But they had enough to sell, if you met their price. There'd been some trucks coming in with food, blankets and stuff. They weren't hurting, that's for sure." He kicked at the ground. "They're just greedy--hoarding it for themselves."

    "Has anyone tried to go back in the last few days?"

    "Not that I know of. Look, there's another bunch of you army guys there, and they're in on it. We've got some deer rifles, and a couple of guys have ARs and AK-type guns, but we can't fight those guys--they've got some sort of armored cars, and they don't play around. None of us is willing to get killed. We're just trying to hold on until the government gets here and straightens things out. That what you're here for?"

    James shook his head. "No, we're just checking the highway. We've been ordered to keep an eye on the town, but not to enter. It's quarantined because of the flu."

    "Mister, I'm telling you, there isn't any flu in that town. Those greedy sonsabitsches are just sitting on all the food and stuff, while we're out here hungry and cold and living in an outbuilding!" The man was getting upset.

    James glanced over his shoulder. Garcia had caught the tone of the man's voice, if not the exact words. He had squared up toward them, and his M4 was halfway to his shoulder. James' left hand, hanging at his side, extended out and swung slightly, parallel to the ground. Garcia stopped his move, but didn't stand down. Jameson caught the non-verbal exchange and suddenly was quiet. His mouth hung open.

    "It's OK, Mr. Jameson. My men are a bit on edge, but we aren't here to hurt anyone. We can spare you folks a solid meal, and then we're going to continue on. He counted heads. "Six of you?"

    Jameson's mouth snapped shut and he stared at Garcia. Garcia examined him dispassionately. He swallowed, then said "No, eight. My cousin's kids are in the building. They're both kind of sickly."

    "Oh crap," thought James, his mind on the flu in the town. "What's wrong with them?"

    "They both have asthma. The cold air makes it worse. We keep them inside. It helps some. They're about out of their medicine, so we have to be careful with them."

    Carpenter let out a silent sigh of relief. "We can't help you with that, but we can definitely feed them a meal as well. How about you wait here, please." Not waiting for a reply, he turned and headed back toward his vehicle.

    Reaching it, Higgs asked "What up sir? I thought that guy was going to take a swing at you."

    "No, he's just angry, hungry and scared. They got burned out; one woman died in the fire. They say the town isn't having a disease outbreak, but that they're keeping people out so they can hoard the food for themselves. Not sure about that, but we're going to feed them a meal and be on our way."

    "Sure they're worth feeding, sir?" He gestured toward them.

    "Higgs, I didn't hear that."

    "Hear what, sir? I didn't say anything. Garcia, you say anything?"

    Garcia grunted, and James smiled slightly to himself. Reaching into the back seat, he grabbed an open case of MREs. There were 5 meals in it, so he broke open another case and added three to it. "Keep me covered, just in case."

    "Sure thing, ell-tee. No problemo."

    Garcia, still on the other side of the Humvee, said "I heard that, redneck."

    "Learn to take a joke, wetback."

    Garcia laughed. His family had been on the northern side of the Rio Grande since the Spanish king had given them a land grant in Texas in the seventeenth century. Higgs' family had emigrated to the US in the early 1900s, nearly 300 years later. It was a running joke between the two. Carpenter shook his head and smiled. Anyone not knowing the pair would have assumed that they didn't get along. In reality, the pair were closer than most brothers. In Iraq, they had saved each other--and Carpenter--several times over.

    "Stow it, you two. Back to business." He hefted the box under his left arm and picked his M4 up with his right hand. He thumbed the safety off.

    Higgs was suddenly all business. "You expect problems, lieutenant?"

    "Let's say I feel more comfortable this way."

    "Lieutenant, if something feels wrong, just drop that box and hit the dirt so we can have a clear field of fire."

    "Nothing's going to happen, Higgs." However, he was comforted knowing that one of the best shots in the entire squadron was watching over him.

    He walked back to Jameson, who was watching him. He had to have heard them talking, but Carpenter was pretty sure that he was far enough away that he couldn't make out the conversation.

    Carpenter walked back to the waiting man. He held out the box of food, turning toward his right to place his carbine on the opposite side of his body from the man. "Here you go."

    Jameson reached out gingerly and took the box. Looking into it, he said "Huh--real MREs. We can stretch these into a couple of meals each, easy."

    "You've eaten these before, I take it."

    "No, but I've read about them. Lot of calories for a man that's fighting. We're just standing around, They'll stretch."

    "As you think, Mr. Jameson. We're be leaving now. If we can get you any more help, we'll be back."

    "You get them in town to let you in, and I'll bet you can get all kinds of food. We could use blankets and some sort of mattresses too."

    "No promises. Good luck to you and your family." James turned and walked back to his Humvee. Motioning to Higgs and Garcia, he got in last. Taking a radio, he keyed it and said, "Alright people, let's get moving. We're burning daylight."

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------

    James woke up to the smell of coffee. For a split second, he thought he was back at his grandparents house. Opening his eyes, he saw Sgt. Ray holding out a steaming canteen cup. Raising up on an elbow, he winced. Even with 10 or 12 layers of cardboard and a sleeping pad, the concrete floor was still hard. He was stiff.

    "Package says coffee. Tastes like mud, but it's hot."

    Carpenter took the cup. "Thanks." How'd the overnight go?" He knew nothing important had happened, or they would have wakened him.

    "Nothing much. We never saw any movement, any light or anything else in the direction of town. Didn't see anything else in any other direction, either. These people are either laying real low or they're gone. Did our sitreps. Nothing new from the major metropolitan area of Atlanta."

    Sipping the hot brew, James made a "Hm-m-m" sound. "You're wrong."

    "How's that, sir?"

    "It doesn't taste like mud. Mud would taste better." He sat the cup down on the floor, then worked his way out of his sleeping bag. Lacing his boots, he looked around the building.

    It had been an auto repair shop at one time, and apparently predated the Interstate by some decades. It must have belonged to the house next door, which was also empty--they were close to each other, and used the same materials. Both buildings were somewhat overgrown, but in generally good repair. They looked like they had last been inhabited a couple of years ago. The faded sign over the twin doors said "Jake's Garage".

    James could see Jake in his mind's eye. Nice fellow--lived next door to his business, raised his family, got old, eventually retired and then moved to a home, or maybe he got lucky and just died. There were similar stories all around his part of North Carolina. Small stores, garages, little car lots and so on. Empty and forgotten on the side of the road. James had always wondered about their stories when he passed them.

    He stood, stretched and picked up the cup. Cooler now, he drained in a a few gulps. "We got any food?"

    "MREs, lieutenant. Just like always."

    Carpenter grunted. MREs were nutritious, kept well, and would keep you going indefinately. They were also getting really, really old. He would kill for some real eggs and real bacon. And man, he'd really kill for real coffee.

    He decided to skip breakfast, at least for now. Handing the cup back to Ray, he reached for his field coat and put it on. Adding his pile hat, he took his M4 from where it leaned against the wall. "I'm going to check things out. I'll take another turn on the post."

    "Not your turn for a few hours yet, sir."

    "Maybe not, but I'm curious to see what's up in that town. If it stays quiet, we're going to creep down there later today."

    "Sure that'll be safe, sir? If there is an epidemic down there, we don't want to get caught in it."

    "We're not going to do anything rash. Just sneak down and look around. We're cavalry scouts--we do that sort of thing, remember?"

    "As you say, sir. More coffee?"

    "No, but if we've got something to carry some in, fill it up. I'll take it to the OP. I'm sure they could use some."

    --------------------------------------------------

    "Sir, we're here to relieve you," came the low voice of Pvt. Harrison. Garcia had already warned James of their approach. He checked his watch--10 minutes early. Right on time.

    James moved slowly back from the window he was using, so as not to draw attention form any watchers. The building was on the other side of the Interstate from the roadblock and signs that blocked the road to Anderson. You couldn't see the town very well, but anyone going out or coming in would be easily visible--providing this was their route.

    "Anything, sir?" asked Higgs.

    "Nothing as far as I can see, but that isn't saying a lot. If we really want to see this town, we need to move up past that roadblock. According to the maps, they're at the top of a little hill overlooking the town. Did you ask higher about a recon into town?"

    "On the last contact sir. Permission denied. 'Under no circumstances will you enter the town.'"

    James grunted. He had too few men to watch even the major routes into and out of Anderson, SC, and Squadron knew it. So if he couldn't do the job, what the dickens was he there for?

    "How far are we outside the city limits?" asked the lieutenant.

    "Not far. Looks like a half mile, maybe three quarters at most."

    "And wouldn't you suppose there's a 'Welcome to Anderson' sign at the city limits, Higgs?"

    "Probably, sir. There usually is."

    "Did you bring the extra radios?"

    "Right here, sir." Higgs held up the little FRS units.

    "Good." Looking at Garcia, he said "Sergeant, how about you and I take a little stroll up the road--or more accurately, up the roadsides?"

    Garcia smiled. "Works for me, sir. How far are we going to go?"

    "Until we can see better, or until we hit a city limits sign. I'm going to stay within the letter, if not exactly the spirit, of our orders. We stay out of town."

    "What time do we leave?" Garcia was action-oriented; the waiting that a cavalry scout must often do weighed on him.

    "I want to wait until late afternoon. We'll move behind the buildings and stay out of sight. Use the bushes and so on if necessary, but I don't want any watchers to see us. I'll take the north side of the road; you take the south."

    Garcia nodded. James looked at Harrison and Higgs. "You two are our backup. If anything goes wrong, we'll call for help. You call back to base for help, then you come bail us out."

    "Will do, sir," was the response from both.

    "Good. Now did you two bring some hot coffee and some food?"

    "MREs sir, like always."

    James groaned.

    ----------------------------------------------------------

    James lay on the ground and peered around the end of the brick wall that held the "Welcome to Anderson" sign. According to his briefing, Anderson, SC was a town of 25,000, more or less.

    It looked like it was less. Nothing living stirred. He had watched for nearly an hour and had seen no one.

    No one that moved, at any rate. There were a few huddled shapes. Some were propped up against buildings, a couple lay on sidewalks. James supposed they could have been asleep. The sun was still warm enough that a nap in it would be reasonable. Except he was pretty sure these people were dead. His first clue had been the crows pecking at some of the bodies.

    Anderson had probably been a nice place to live, before. Small, but not too small. You could tell it was a tidy town--the buildings were in good repair, except for a couple that looked recently burned.

    But now, it was a necropolis. James was sure that anyone there was dead. "What the hell kind of flu did this?" he wondered.

    Two armored Humvees sat in front of what seemed to be some sort of official building. No one could be seen, but the crows hopping in and out of the window of one told him that someone--or what was left of them--was at home.

    James was torn. He wanted to get into that town, but if his orders weren't enough to keep him out, what he saw was. He wondered if whatever bug it was could be in the air they were breathing now. If it was, they were probably all dead.

    The FRS radio bleeped it's call signal softly. James rolled sightly to one side and retrieved it from his pocket. Pressing the mike button, he said "Carpenter. Go."

    "Ell-tee, we just made the sitrep. The Six is not real happy with you. He said you are to pull back to the OP and stay away from the town."

    Carpenter swore silently. Just exactly how was he supposed to recon a town he couldn't approach?

    "Any reason why?"

    "Negative. Just stay further away from the town."

    James shook his head. None of this made sense, except in a nightmare. "Oh wait--that's what's going on here. A waking nightmare," he thought. Keying the mike, he said "Roger that. We'll be pulling back now. Expect me in one."

    "Roger, expect you in one. Any further?"

    "Negative. Out here."

    "Out here."

    James put the radio back. Then squirmed backwards. He supposed he could just stand up and walk--he doubted anyone was looking. But he had been a soldier too long to take anything for granted, so he squirmed.

    When he had worked his way back to where he could see Garcia, he pointed back the way they had came. He motioned that he would stay and Garcia move. They had come in by bounds; they would leave by bounds, each watching over the other's movement in turn.

    Eventually, they worked their way back to Harrison and Higgs at the OP. As they were removing some of their web gear, Harrison said "So they're all dead, sir?"

    "The ones I could see. Some signs of other bodies out of sight." He didn't elaborate on the subject. "No one moving. No sign of smoke from any kind of fire, and that would be odd if there were any survivors. I think they're dead, and anyone who survived long enough has scattered into the countryside."

    "That wouldn't be good sir. At least not if this stuff spread easily."

    "True, but nothing for it. If it happened, we can't change it." He paused. "Whatever it was seems to have worked pretty quick, at least that's my guess from what I could see. The town seemed to be in good order--no signs of panic or looting."

    Higgs grunted. "You got something to add?" asked James.

    "Sir, this would have to be one heck of a bug if it killed everyone, wouldn't it? Even the 1918 flu, even the Black Death in Europe--they left survivors."

    "Maybe so, but if it did, my bet is that they bailed out in a big hurry. Probably afraid they'd get it. For that matter, I'd almost bet they took it with them. For all we know they're scattered around on the other side of town, dead." James shook his head. "We'll likely never know what really happened here--it died with them." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the town.

    James' FRS bleeped. He took it and answered. "Carpenter here."

    "Sir, you need to get back here ASAP. The Six wants you on the horn 10 minutes ago."

    "Did he say what was up?"

    "Squadron's packing up and moving out."

    "He say what direction?" James didn't feel like trying to chase down the rest of his unit.

    "North, sir. They're coming north--to us."

  21. #21
    January 3, 2009
    The 4th rolled into our location in this afternoon. They were hit twice on the trip, but not badly--two lightly wounded. The bad guys were pretty much wiped out each time. It seems the roads are becoming less friendly in a hurry. I also wonder how desperate--or stupid--people are to attack a military convoy. It's not like they can actually win.

    We were a little surprised at how much stuff they brought with them. Not only did they bring all our gear, but everything else that they could grab, including a small tanker full of fuel and a half-dozen tractor trailers full of various and sundry. We'll be well-supplied for a while.

    They also brought the news as well, and it isn't good...


    From the Daybook of James M. Carpenter III


    January 4, 2009
    Anderson, SC


    "Russians!" Sgt. Andre Rey blurted.

    Lt. James Carpenter took his helmet off and rubbed his eyes with his free hand. Every time he went over this, he got the same reaction. It was getting old.

    "No, not Russians. Russian bugs. Ft. Detrick was able to type the bugs from Anderson as identical to some bugs the Soviet military biowar guys cooked up in the early 80s."

    The bug was a nasty one. It resembled influenza crossed with a hemorrhagic fever. Aerially transmitted, the infected died drowning in their own blood.

    "Sir, how the dickens did a Russian bug get to South Carolina?" asked Private Higgs.

    "We've known for a long time that various groups have been buying all sorts of military gear from the Russians. We know it was particularly bad during the period right after the Soviet Union collapsed. The thought is that someone, maybe in the Middle East, bought a bunch of biologicals. The theory is that 'somehow' our terrorist friends got some of them. Once you have the bugs, keeping them alive is high school biology."

    "Anderson isn't the only place hit. They have reports of 27 smallish cities hit by the same bug, or one that appears the same--they haven't been able to get samples from all of them. It's also been turned loose in at least 3 large cities--New York, St. Louis and Memphis. The loss of life has been high."

    "Very high", he thought. When Capt. Maxwell had briefed him on the situation, he had been shocked.

    "Carpenter, this stuff is evil. It's a flu bug, but it's worse than any flu bug in history. It transmits through the air on droplets of moisture, such as when you cough or sneeze. It's highly contagious--about sixty percent of those exposed will get it. Symptoms show within 24 hours of exposure--normal flu symptoms at first, turning hemorrhagic quickly. Of those who get it, 20% are dead within 36 hours, about 50-60% within 48 hours and about 75% within 72. If they last 72 hours, there's a good chance they will make a full recovery, although they'll be very weak and in need of help for 6-8 weeks. Anti-virals help, but the supply is limited."

    "Its saving grace is that it doesn't live long outside a warm body--8 hours at most. They think it can survive as much as 48 in a dead body--someone who died of it. After that, people can go in and clean up. Just for safety's sake, USAMRID is recommending that the bodies be cremated if possible; buried deep if not. They also recommend full hazmat gear for those doing the cleaning up after an outbreak. A strong bleach solution will kill it, so it's possible to disinfect areas where it's been."

    James had asked if those who didn't get it when exposed were carriers. The answer was "We don't know."

    "I won't lie to you guys. The mortality rate is 60%, maybe higher, wherever this stuff goes. In a city of 10 million, that means 6 million dead. If this stuff keeps going, we're looking at 180 million dead in the US."

    Sgt. Thomas looked at him. "How far has this spread?"

    "We're not sure. We know of 27 likely small towns about the size of Anderson. 3 large cities too, but we don't know how bad things are there. Things were already so bad that it's hard to tell."

    "So it spread from the towns to the cities?"

    "They don't think so. With the exception of one case, these all appear to be discrete events."

    Hicks joined in the questioning. "Sir, how'd they do this? Any why these little places?"

    "We don't know how. They could have sprayed it from low-flying planes, or could have just sprayed it from spray cans--no way of knowing. For all we know, they may have deliberately infected themselves and performed a Typhoid Mary routine. As for why, we think they hit small towns as well as cities in order to scare everyone. They know the people in small towns think that terrorism is a 'big city thing'. They want them to believe that there is no safe place--a 'no escape from Allah's wrath' sort of thing."

    "So what's the plan, sir? We here to clean up?"

    "No, we're not. The good news is we're on our way home."

    The cheers could have been heard in the town, if there had been anyone to hear them. That was the reaction every time as well.

    ------------------------------------------

    James, along with Garcia, Thomas and Hicks, went back out to the burned out home of Randall Jameson, where they were greeted warmly. James asked about their situation. Jameson had said they had decided to save most of the MREs for the kids, and that other than that, things were the same.

    "Well, you can all eat for a while," James had told them as the other men unloaded boxes of food from the deuce-and-a-half they had driven out from their camp. It was food, some first aid supplies and other odd and ends they had thought useful. Maxwell hadn't been too happy with the charity run, but he had grudgingly relented when he was told the full story. "Alright, do something for them, but keep it small. We have limits to what we can do, and we aren't going to be able to adopt every stray you run across," he'd said.

    James also told them about what had happened to Anderson. He outlined the safety measures for them, concentrating on how to clean up the dead bodies and the town. He also cautioned them that he thought it would be a smart move for a small group to go into town, get supplies, disinfect them, then come out of town and quarantine themselves for at least 72 hours before mixing back in among the full group.

    "Mr. Jameson, you and the folks around here have a good chance of surviving the rest of the winter if you organize yourselves, get in there and get the place cleaned up and organized."

    "Well, I don't know, it sounds pretty dangerous. You mean the Army's not going to help?"

    "No, Mr. Jameson, we're not. We're pulling out in a day or two, heading north for home."

    "You mean you won't be staying around to help us? That's not right--the government is supposed to help out during disasters."

    James looked at the man. "Jameson, let me explain this to you clearly. No, we're not going to help you clean up the town. We're also not staying around here to protect you, your family or your kids. Look, you have an entire town down there. All you people have to do is go salvage it. Do that, and you'll be better off than the poor bastards who had it before you."

    "And while we're at it, let me give you this piece of news--no matter how bad you think you've got it, it's worse everywhere else."

    He turned and motioned to his men to mount up. As they pulled away, he could see the man standing there in the midst of the stacked boxes.

    He had done what he could. They would survive or not. With that attitude, he figured the "not" was more likely. He thought about the kids, and what might happen to them if their parents didn't find some common sense and courage quickly.

    Garcia spoke to him without taking his eyes from the road. "It's getting to be a tough old world, huh, sir?"

    "Yeah, it is. And it's going to get tougher before it gets better."

    "Think he got the message?"

    "I don't know. Maybe, maybe not. But when he gets hungry enough, he knows where to go and what to do. I suspect that's more than a lot of folks know right now."

    ---------------------------------------------------

    The remainder of the day was spent in the company of the officers and senior NCOs of the squadron, planning the move north. The work was lead by Col. Heffron, the CO.

    "Gentlemen, we have been ordered to make our way home by the best means possible. Since we, like most units, were deliberately deployed in areas relatively near our origin, this is supposed to be simple and easy. At least that was the plan then. It may not be so simple now that the situation has degraded."

    "We will be on our own for this movement. We can expect no resupply, other than what we find for ourselves. As it stands, we should have enough fuel, food and water, even if it takes a week to get back home."

    "We're going to split most of the supplies so that each vehicle can stand alone if necessary. Any vehicle that breaks down and can't be quickly repaired will be destroyed in place, after salvaging everything we can. We're packed pretty tight right now, but that will improve as we use our supplies. We'll stay on the lookout for more transport as we move."

    "A big concern is those 6 big trucks. They're carrying a lot of supplies we will need when we get home. There is no way to split that up between our vehicles. We'll need to keep a close eye on them, being especially careful not to get them into any places we can't get them out of."

    "The plan will be to stay together--no splitting our force. Since we have nearly no intel on the situation we'll find as we move, I want us all close enough to defend ourselves with maximum firepower if necessary."

    "We'll be moving as quickly as we can, consonant with staying away from large population concentrations. We are not, I repeat," he said, looking directly at a certain Lieutenant, " are not stopping to render aid to anyone, unless they're military."

    "We will plan a route that avoids all areas with large populations. Intelligence is limited, but I believe it safe to expect that areas such as Columbia and Charlotte will be similar to Atlanta in terms of conditions. While we're still an effective fighting force, my goal is to get us home with no further losses. No fighting unless we can't avoid it."

    "Now, gentlemen, this part of the briefing stays in this room. When we arrive home, we will begin hardening, as much as possible, the towns of Lexington and Mocksville. That is the rationale for the order to return home, and it's why we collected every supply we could in those 6 trucks. While this is supposition on my part, it seems that the large cities are being written off as un-saveable. This fits in with what we saw in Atlanta--little relief assistance from the FEMA, rules geared to keeping the population from becoming refugees, and our subsequent pullout after a large part of the populace was either dead, dying or simply unable to get very far on their own."

    "While information from higher is very sketchy, we have been able to piece together a picture of what has happened to our country, using a shortwave radio that we picked up in Atlanta. It isn't pretty."

    "Our country has been the target of 2 waves of terrorist action. The first was the power outages in many areas of the country, which lead to the rioting and looting we saw in Atlanta and elsewhere. The second was the biowar attacks you've all been made aware of. In conjunction with these attacks, it appears that some of the less upstanding groups of our population have tried to take advantage of the situation for their own ends. In short, we've been attacked from without and within."

    "Casualties are high at this point, perhaps over 10 million already, although this is only an educated guess on our part," he said, gesturing at the "S" officers that stood near him. "We know this number will rapidly rise in areas where the breakdown of order has been worst, as various diseases, mostly water-borne, work their way through the remaining population."

    "Then we have the biowar attacks. We have no good information on the effects of these attacks, but the damage seems to be geographically limited--the bug kills so fast that, given the current situation, the infected aren't able to move around enough to spread it. However, we're estimating several million more dead as a direct effect of these attacks, with an unknown number dead because of secondary effects."

    "Most large and medium sized cities are hit hard. Power is still out in many areas, either because of the attacks or because of the rioting and looting. Smaller cities and towns are a mixed bag, but have fared better as a whole. While their situations are better , as stores of food and medicine are exhausted, things will get worse in those areas as well."

    "Other countries are also experiencing problems. There have been widespread terrorist attacks in Europe, along with unrest in the Muslim populations. Several countries, lead by Germany, have began mass deportations of that segment of the population. Results have been mixed as some of those populations have resisted the process by force of arms. Muslim areas of some larger German cities have been bombed by the Luftwaffe to break the resistance. Some areas of France have declared their independence of the French government and are trying to institute Islamic law. The French military is attempting to retake those areas with some success."

    A low murmuring could be heard in the room as each man talked to his neighbors.

    The Colonel glared and barked "At ease!" The room went quiet. Satisfied, he continued. "There are also problems in our late theater of operations, the Middle East. While open warfare has not broken out, it sounds like it's a only matter of time. The Israelis are facing sporadic fighting on their northern border, and a wave of suicide bombings has stirred the pot. Iran is making threatening noises that it will 'avenge' any attack on any Muslim country, and Israel has noted that whatever attack is visited on them will be returned in kind."

    James thought of Farrah, left behind in Iraq. He knew that in the event of any major fighting in that part of the world, it would spread like wildfire, and the ones who would lose biggest were the civilians. Why hadn't she left when she had the chance?

    "Asia and the Pacific are quiet, but very tense. They have been largely spared the terrorist attacks, however, the problems of the rest of the world will inevitably cause problems there. We expect expect China to make a move for Taiwan, using the rest of the world's problems as cover, but we've heard of no overt action so far. There are, however, rumors of PLA and PLAN readiness increases. We expect that the Taiwanese military is reacting in kind."

    "Central and South America are a mixed bag. An attempted coup in Venezuela has been put down, one in Argentina has been successful. The new Argentinian government has given the UK 30 days to leave the Falklands, or the Malvinas as they call them. The UK, after dismantling most of their military, is in no position to defend the islands, and an effort is being made to evacuate the population by sea. Other countries are reacting in various ways, some calling on the developed world to assist them during this crisis. We believe that assistance will not be forthcoming," he noted drolly.

    "Africa is still Africa. The situation there seems little changed from its usual level of chaos, violence, famine and bloodshed. They may be the luckiest of us all, since they're used to a world such as we appear to be facing."

    During his speech, the officers and noncoms in the room continued to cast quick glances at each other. Expressions ranged from shock and disbelief to anger and resignation.

    Heffron finished up. "In short, the shit has finally hit the fan, and it's splattered all over. How much has landed on our homes is unknown, but we're going to clean it up and keep any more from landing on them. However, in order to do that, we need to get home and we need to do it quickly. I expect plans on my desk by 0800 tomorrow. We will be pulling out at 0700 on 6 January, so calculate your timetables accordingly. Dismissed."

    James was sitting by his friend Ron Essick. Ron had been kicked up to Squadron S4, in charge of logistics. They hadn't seen each other much lately.

    "So, old buddy, we're finally going home!" Ron seemed as goofily enthusiastic as ever.

    "That's what it looks like. Can we make it--do we have the equipment and supplies for this?"

    Ron got serious. "We do, but we aren't going to be able to screw around. We'd better get there without trouble, or we'd better find some extra stuff laying around while we travel. If we don't, we may not have much left to work with when we get there."

    ----------------------------------------

    Two days into the move, it was slow going. They had worked their way well to the south and east of Greenville and Spartanburg, bypassing everything that looked like a town in the process. However, that made the routing of the convoy torturous. Some of the country roads were not meant for this kind of traffic, and problems with bridges that could not handle the big rigs caused a lot of delays. Thank God, their GPS units were still working just fine, and they had never once became lost.

    Three times in the two days they had ran into roadblocks. Once, it was simply a group of locals who were trying to keep strangers out of their little "wide spot in the road". Capt. Maxwell had come forward and negotiated passage with them. The locals weren't too happy about it, but looking at the heavily armed Humvees they seemed to realize that they had little choice.

    The second roadblock had simply been a bunch of cars jumbled in the road, tires flattened. Quick patrols of the area showed that no one was guarding the blockage, so a couple of the deuce-and-a-halfs we used to move the vehicles out of the way so they could pass.

    The third roadblock had been more troublesome. The men guarding it inexplicably decided to fight. While the fight was short, it cost the 4th one dead and two wounded. It cost the 9 men manning the roadblock their lives, as the lead element had simply backed up out of range and used their Ma Deuces and MK19s to demolish the obstacle.

    As they moved the blockage from the road, the men of the 4th had discovered the bodies of a man, two women and a child. They appeared to have been heavily abused before their deaths. Some of the men summised that they were refugees and had ran into the roadblock, which had been placed out of sight around a sharp turn.

    It was quickly decided that a message needed to be sent. The bodies of the 4 were quickly buried, while the bodies of the 9 dead men were quickly roped to posts salvaged from the remains of the roadblock. A piece of plywood was spray-painted and nailed to the top of two of the posts. As the 4th moved out, each vehicle that passed by could see it.

    "Dead bandits, courtesy of the 4th Cavalry Squadron"

    There was much hooting and jeering, and several men took pictures. As James' vehicle rolled past, Garcia noted, "Yep--getting to be a tough old world."

    ----------------------------------------------

    Their had been nearly no traffic on the roads they traveled--only a couple of cars and trucks, all of whom quickly pulled to the side of the road and watched as the convoy, who's guns never left them, passed them by. They saw signs of life at the various houses and farms along the way, but they didn't stop, and no one tried to stop them.

    It was late in the third day, and word had just been passed to find a place to lager up for the night. They had crossed back over I-85 between Spartanburg and Gafney, and where heading nearly north toward the South Carolina-North Carolina state line, and spirits in James' Humvee were high, even though they were taking their turn as the lead element of the convoy.

    As the convoy moved up Twin Bridge Road, James noticed that the areas to his left and right were large open fields with no nearby houses. Given the distance they could see, he decided that it would make as good place for the unit to spend the night as they were likely to find. Using his radio, he notified the HQ troop that he had found a place and would leave a Humvee there as a guide while he reconned ahead. Capt. Maxwell acknowledged the message and ordered him to stay south of the state line, which was about a mile ahead.

    "South of the line, huh, sir?" asked Sgt. Rey, who was driving for the Lieutenant.

    "That's what the man said. Of course, he didn't say we couldn't go right up to the line, now did he?"

    Sgt. Rey smiled. "No sir, he didn't. South of the line it is."

    Using an FRS radio, he ordered Sgt. Garcia to stay behind while he and Sgt. Thomas explored north. Moving up the road, they noted only a single subdivision on their left before they approached the border. The houses were new and the whole place looked deserted.

    Perhaps a hundred yards short of green road sign that marked the border, the two vehicles stopped, and the men dismounted. Looking around, they noted a single house to their left, just before the intersection that seemed to straddle the border. Darkness was coming, and it was quiet. They could hear birds and the wind, and nothing else. A slight smell of wood smoke was on the air.

    "Well, boys, that's home, or at least our home state. We're half way there, give or take. With some luck, we ought to be home in another couple of days, three tops."

    Higgs, who had been riding with Sgt. Thomas, said "Maybe so, sir, but we're on the wrong side of Gastonia and Charlotte, and we're going to have to give that whole place a wide berth, aren't we?"

    Carpenter pondered for a minute. "I image so. I'd be surprised if we don't stay west of Shelby, for that matter. Turn north around that lake--what is that one?"

    "Lake Norman," said Thomas.

    "Yeah, Lake Norman. Maybe parallel I-40, and come in through Davie County. Heck, we will probably be able to drop the Mocksville guys off on our way home."

    "That's suit me just fine, ell-tee," said Higgs, who was the only man present from that area. "I'm looking forward to seeing home again."

    All them men were silent for a minute, each looking north toward the state line.

    --------------------------------------------

    January 9, 2009
    Not near anywhere on the map except the SC-NC state line



    "You're still keeping that daybook of yours?" Lt. Ron Essick looked down at James, who had been writing in the firelight.

    "Trying to. Hard to do when you've got no time for writing." He closed the small book and slipped it into a pocket. "Pull yourself up a log and enjoy the fire."

    "Feels great, doesn't it? Sometimes I forget what it's like to be warm."

    "Yeah, but in Iraq we all complained about the heat."

    "And the cold, and the sand, and the crappy food, and..."

    James laughed. "Alright, alright--I get the picture. We're soldiers, and we complain about everything."

    "Yeah, we sure do."

    James looked at his friend. He was somber, which was utterly out of character. "What's up, guy? You look like someone just drank your last beer."

    "We've got a problem. Well, we sort of have a problem...I don't know. Things may be screwed up big time."

    James laughed again. "What was your first clue?"

    "No, I'm serious!"

    "I'll say you are. So what's happened this time? I don't think things are going to get much worse--after all, how do you top the end of the world, right?" James smiled at his friend.

    "It's not a joke, Jim. We've lost the NCA."

    "What do you mean, 'lost'? How the hell do you 'lose' the National Command Authority?"

    "Nobody knows, but I found out this afternoon that we haven't heard from them in 2 weeks."

    Now it was James' turn to be serious. "What do you mean, two weeks? We were ordered to head home, right? And we've been talking to Detrick, right?"

    "Talking to Detrick, yes--I was there for that. Ordered home, I don't know. I overheard the Old Man and Maxwell talking. They didn't know I was there. They were discussing possible routes around Charlotte, and Maxwell said something about being out of touch with command for two weeks, and how some hard intel would be a big help. He said we were wondering around in the dark without orders, without supplies and without a clue."

    "And what did Heffon say?"

    "He said that we'd have been in the same situation if we had stayed in Georgia, and at least this way we had a chance of getting home."

    "So you think we left our post without orders?"

    "I don't know--maybe. Maybe not--I don't know. What they were saying sounds bad, but I really didn't hear enough to know for sure if we were ordered home or not." Ron looked bleak. It didn't suit him. "What do we do?"

    "'We' don't do anything, except keep our mouths shut. You don't tell another living soul what you've just told me--understand? We don't know anything, and what you're telling me is a blind guess based on an overheard conversation where're you making some big assumptions on the background."

    "Sure, sure."

    "Ron, listen to me--rumors are one of the most destructive problems a combat unit can have. We both know that. Right now, these guys are all wired up on going home, and if you start this rumor--and that's what it is, old buddy, a rumor--you're going to distract them from the task at hand. That could have some bad results."

    "Look, we lost all the weak ones in Atlanta---the ones who weren't strong enough or disciplined enough. They did OK in Iraq, but here, they couldn't hack it. I think they couldn't stand the idea that it was their own country this time, and they bailed. Fine by me, I think we're better off without them."

    "Now we're down to that Army 'hard core' they love to talk about. But even the strongest men will break eventually. I don't know that word of this getting out would do it, but it might, and we can't take that chance. Even if it doesn't, it will weaken their resolve and reduce the cohesion of the unit. We don't need that. One way or another, one reason or another, we are going home, and we are going to have to be hard and strong in order to get there. Got that?"

    "Jim, you do realize we may not have homes left to go to, right? Even if we get there, and right now, that's a big assumption."

    "Ron, we're going to get there. I've got faith in the Old Man. He came through for us in the sandbox, and he'll come through again."

    "You don't understand. Sure the Old Man's a great guy and a good officer, but he doesn't piss diesel."

    "Huh?"

    "We're running low on fuel. That little tank truck, the one from the fuel oil company? Well, that's what it is, and we're running on Number 2 heating fuel, and we're about out. It wasn't full when we found it--we just let everybody think it was. We've fueled tonight, and we got maybe one more tank for each vehicle, maybe a little more. We're going to make a long detour around Charlotte, and we both know these uparmored Humvees get even crappier mileage than usual. If we don't get there soon, we're going to be doing the last part on foot."

    "I don't care if we have to low-crawl the last 10 miles, we're all going to make it home."

    Ron looked at his friend, then into the flames. For nearly a minute, neither man spoke. Ron finally broke the silence.

    "And what if we get home, and it's like Atlanta. Or worse, what if it's like Anderson?"

    "It won't be. You know those people--they've weathered the textile mills shutting down and the furniture factories being packed up and sent to China and PPG closing up and all the other things. As far as a lot of them were concerned, that was the end of the world. They'll be there, taking care of business as best they can, just like always."

    Both men wet back to staring into the fire, lost in their own thoughts.

    ----------------------------------------------

    January 10, 2009

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 34
    High temperature: 49
    barometric pressure: 30.20
    morning sun, high afternoon clouds

    Lord, I'm tired. No more so than anyone else, I'm sure, but it's been a long week. Thankfully, the weather has cooperated for a change this winter, and it's been sunny and mostly normal temperatures.

    On the plus side, everyone is moved. On the minus side, everyone is moved that will move. My grandparents will not listen to reason.

    The power is off again, and has been for the last three days. Of course, the phones are down and no Internet. I miss that. When it was working, it was like one last little bit of normal in a totally abnormal world. Even when it was only sort of working, you could make yourself think that things would get better.

    The last trip to Mocksville was scary. The MPs, the Mocksville PD and the Davie Sheriffs are the only thing keeping the place from going crazy. They still haven't gotten in any food, and people are getting hungry and desperate. Those who have a way out are leaving. The city and county government have gathered up the remaining supplies and are rationing them. That doesn't sit well with anyone, and there have been a couple of "incidents" at the distribution points between the police and the residents.

    Well, at least I got my money from the bank on the last trip. Not that it's going to do much good, with nothing left to buy.


    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    January 10, 2009
    Yadkin College, NC


    Tom felt strong hands on his neck, kneading. He hit Control-S to save his work, hit the suspend button and pushed his laptop away, let his head and neck go as limp as he could, and groaned. "That feels wonderful."

    "Go lay down on your bed and I'll give you a really good one."

    He reached up and patted a hand. "You know the answer to that."

    Talking as she worked on the knotted muscles in his shoulders, Jannie said "I suppose I should be happy that you'll let me this close. I don't understand you--I know you loved your wife. You wouldn't be much of a husband if you didn't, and everyone says you were a good husband. But you asked me to move in with you, then you keep me at arms length? What's up with this?"

    Tom patted her hand again, then pushed back his chair slowly. Standing, he took her hands and looked he in the eyes. "Look, we've talked this to death. I need help with my kids. You didn't have enough wood or enough food, and combining the two houses makes sense. Even if the good Reverend doesn't care for our living arrangements."

    "...didn't care for their living arrangements..." was putting it a bit mildly. Alan Washington may have been a Methodist, but he was a very old fashioned Methodist. When he found out what Tom had planned, he let Tom have a big piece of his mind. After that, they hadn't talked for two days, which was pretty awkward when the man was helping him move 4 families. He still didn't approve of Tom and Jannie's living arrangements, and he made no attempt to hide it, but he had stopped being such a pain about it.

    Tom's grandmother was also against the idea, but his grandfather was all for it. With most of the rest of the neighbors and friends not taking sides one way or another, the situation had settled into a sort of standoff--except in Tom's house. Twice he had woken up with Jannie in his bed, cuddling up to him. Twice he had found enough willpower to send her back to the spare bedroom. He wasn't sure if he could do it a third time.

    "Tom, it makes sense--even your Grandfather thinks so. He thinks you need a woman in your life."

    "He also thinks that this whole thing was some sort of government conspiracy to reduce the population so that the powers that be could live in luxury while the rest of us did the serf thing to support them."

    Jannie stomped her foot. "Did it ever occur to you he may be right about both things? When did these Islamic bastards ever manage to pull off something this big? I know you've been listening to that shortwave radio--you know they've hit other countries, and that they're fighting in Europe. Our government has become strangely silent for the last, what, two weeks? And the power is out again, and no indication when or even if it will be back on? And I saw what you were writing about Mocksville. Just how many things does it take to get you started thinking?"

    She was on a roll now. "And since when did children not need a mother? With all this going on, they need one now more than ever. And you, mister, you need a wife. You can't run this house by yourself. There aren't that many hours in a day."

    Tom found himself unable to argue against any of her points. That was the worst of it--she was right, and so was his Grandfather. But still, he just couldn't bring himself to do anything about it--it felt like he was cheating on his wife.

    Jannie was standing there, arms folded across her chest, waiting for him to say something. Tom didn't have anything to say. He shrugged and stepped past her, heading toward the kitchen.

    She stepped in front of him. "Oh no, you're not. We're settling this now, or I'm going back to my own house."

    "You're house is freezing right about now."

    "So? I've got a heavy sleeping bad of my Dad's and I still have enough wood left for a couple of weeks. I'd rather make do there than be somewhere I'm not wanted."

    "But I do want you here!"

    "Well you sure aren't acting like it!" Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes flashed.

    "You're beautiful when you're angry." The old cliche ran through his head. Man, where had that old line came from? But she was. She was actually beautiful most of the time. Tom hadn't figured out how she managed that, but she did. Sarah had been cute and perky and smiled all the time, but this woman was beautiful. He immediately felt guilty for thinking it.

    "Ah! I see that look on your face! You're feeling guilty! Good! You ought to."

    Tom groaned. "Look, I'm tired and I really don't want to have this discussion. I want to get something to eat and go to bed."

    "Good. I'll go with you."

    "OK. Let's go eat...wait a minute--you're not going to..."

    "Yes, I am. Either you're going to take me into your life all the way--tonight--or I'm moving out tomorrow. If you just want a maid and a baby sitter, I'll bet your Grandmother can find someone who'll come do it. As a matter of fact, I'm sure she'd be happy to."

    Tom admitted to himself that she was right--his grandmother would be more than happy to do it herself, if it meant moving Jannie out of the house.

    Jannie moved very close to him. She was tall, nearly as tall as he was. She reached out and wrapped her arms loosely around his waist. Tom was suddenly very uncomfortable--the room was getting warm.

    She looked him straight in the eye. "I'm going to say this once." Her voice was low, and he could smell her perfume. It was spicy.

    "I'm offering you everything I am, and everything I have. I'll keep house, raise kids, work a garden and cut wood if I have to. I'll stand beside you and behind you." She grinned mischievously at him. "I'll bend over backwards to make you happy--or forwards if you'd rather."

    Tom felt even warmer, and was aware that he was blushing. He also felt a certain impolite body part stirring.

    She moved even closer, and the stirring became...pronounced. She smiled. "I won't be jealous of a ghost. You loved her and you still do. That says a lot of good things about you. I know she'll always be in your heart, and I'm OK with that. Just make a little room in there for me, too."

    "I..." He found himself unable to finish the sentence, because he was being throughly kissed. When it was over, she pulled back a bit.

    "So what will it be, Mr. Carpenter?" She looked at him, no longer angry with him. "You need to make a decision, and time's almost out." She started humming the theme to "Jeopardy".

    Tom looked at her for a few seconds, then decided. "I guess I can eat later."

    She smiled, then disengaged herself from him. Turning off the lantern on his desk, she took his hand and lead him toward the bedroom.

  22. #22

    Chapter 21

    January 10, 2009
    We made good time today. Crossed into NC early and began working our way northwest. We're going to give the Charlotte metro area a wide berth. We've made contact with a few locals to see what we can find out, but no one seems to know much outside of "You don't want to get near Charlotte". While the stories vary, it's always variations on the theme of "Very Bad Things Happened In Charlotte". The power's been out for weeks everywhere we've been, no one travels much, so recent word from the area is unavailable. But it seems prudent to stay as far away from the area as we can.

    A lot of the people we see are obviously having a hard time of it--faces gaunt, low energy, many of them sick to one extent or another. We've started avoiding the obviously sick ones--no sense taking chances. The ones we've talked to we've slipped some MREs as a sort of "thank you", but I figure we're only postponing the inevitable for them. There's a lot of winter left, and I doubt most of these people make it through to spring. For that matter, what if they do make it to spring? They're not farmers, they probably don't have any seed or tools, and what do they eat until the first crops come in?

    I wonder if these people realize just how screwed they are?

    Even though we're deliberately trying to stay away from large concentrations of people, it's still surprises me how few people we're seeing. I've been through this area more than a few times, and there should be a lot more people around here than we're seeing. If nothing else, I'd expect to see more refugees from Charlotte, but we're not seeing them. Either they're smarter than I'd believe, or they just aren't there. And if they aren't there, just where are they?

    We have seen a few, however. You find them here and there, trying to make do with next to nothing. But again, nothing like the numbers I'd have expected to see. We've talked to a few, and it seems things got very bad very fast in the Queen City--as bad or worse than Atlanta. Most of the people we've talked to left early on, some of them with next to no preparation--just jumped in the car and drove as far as they could--which wasn't far for the one we're seeing. We haven't met anyone who said they got out after Christmas. As a group, they're pretty pitiful.

    I'm assuming whatever unit was working this area must have done their job well, and kept the place bottled up. But if we're all supposed to heading home, and they're doing it, then why aren't people getting out while they can? Are they too dumb to leave, or not able to make the trip?

    No one we've talked to seems to know squat, except to stay away from Charlotte.



    From the Daybook of James M. Carpenter III


    January 12, 2009
    northwest of Shelby, NC


    "Ell-tee, doesn't this seem a little weird to you? I know for a fact this area has a lot more people in it than we're seeing. Where the heck are they?" Sgt. Brian Thomas was talking, but his eyes were constantly on the move. He'd glance ahead at the road, out the driver's window, at the road again, out the passenger side, at the road again and repeat the process.

    "Not sure. Holed up in their houses, maybe. Or maybe they bailed out, trying to get further away Charlotte. I know if I lived around here I would have left just as soon as it was obvious that the power wasn't coming on any time soon. This close to a major city is unhealthy if things get really bad--remember Atlanta?"

    "I understand that sir, but we've seen almost no one, and the ones we see aren't overly interested in talking to us. And have you noticed the houses? No smoke from any of them so far--like they're deserted. Or dead." He said the last in a way that added "Tell me I'm wrong--please."

    "I suppose that's a possibility, but I think it's pretty unlikely they'd all be dead."

    "Unless those Ruskie bugs got spread around here, sir. You don't think..." He cut a glance at his passenger.

    Carpenter rubbed his chin--his beard was starting to itch. The water they had brought with them was short, and no one trusted the local sources--especially since they were out of purification pills. No one had shaved in 3 days, saving water. "Hm-m-m...I doubt it. We didn't hear anything like that about Charlotte, and in a city that big, it would have made news before it got so bad that the news couldn't get out."

    "At least, that how it should have worked," he thought.

    "But sir, if there were many people around, we'd see some sign of them, right? It's actually pretty decent weather, and people would be out getting wood or something. We should see them."

    James yawned. Sgt.Thomas was right, but he just couldn't see how worrying about it would help. Besides, he was dead tired and it was quiet enough that staying alert was difficult. Thank God they weren't in the lead element. He could get some shuteye. "Sergeant, I have no idea where these people have gotten off to, but look at it this way--we're not hitting any trouble, the roads are clear and we're making good time for a change. Enjoy the luck while it holds."

    He settled deeper into his seat and wedged himself into the corner it made with the door. Pulling his Kevlar over his eyes, he said "Wake me up if something interesting happens, huh?" He closed his eyes and was quickly asleep.

    -----------------------------------------

    "Ell-tee! Wake up!" James was being shaken roughly. "Wake up! We're in the shit!"

    James fought himself awake. The unmistakable "pops" of bullets hitting the armored Humvee suddenly had him completely alert, reaching for his weapon and trying to locate the source of the firing. "What happened?" he shouted. He looked out the windshield. The vehicle ahead of them was overturned in the road, and they were stopped just short of it. One man was slumped half out, blood dripping from his body onto the asphalt. Three other soldiers were taking cover behind it. Something was burning further up the column.

    Sgt. Thomas opened his door, which was on the side away from the fire. He got out and moved to the front of the Humvee, crouching behind the protective bulk of the engine and wheels. James tried to stay down, made his way over the hump in the middle of the vehicle and went out, head first, into the roadway. He broke his fall with his hands, skinning his palms in the process. "Should have left my gloves on," he thought.

    Righting himself, he heard the radio squawking. Reaching back inside just as a round starred the passenger side window, he grabbed the handset and pulled it back out the door to him. Moving to the front alongside Thomas, he put it to his ear, and could hear the CO passing orders, organizing an attack against the ambush.

    The sound of M-16 fire from the overturned vehicle ahead told him that someone had figured out that returning fire was a good idea. Others along the column picked up on it.

    He turned to Thomas, who was trying to see what was happening by looking under the vehicle. "It's an ambush," he shouted, immediately feeling stupid for stating the obvious. "The Old Man is organizing a counter attack. We're supposed to try and keep them pinned from the front."

    As he said the last word, a bullet passed through the hood of the Humvee, emerging a scant few inches in front of his face. He looked at the hole. "Too close," was all he could think.

    "Right!". Thomas flopped on his belly and wormed his way under the Humvee, taking cover behind the front tire. "Ell-tee, it looks like they're in a couple of buildings up ahead about 100 meters."

    His remark was punctuated by the "whump" of a grenade launcher. James looked back and saw the man who had fired it ducking back down. A second later, the sound of the round exploding reached them.

    "He missed! Short!" He rapped out a quick three-round burst with his rifle.

    The soldier had seen this as well. Loading another 40mm round, he moved back from the last place he had fired from. Popping up again, he quickly took aim and fired. As he was ducking back down, several rounds impacted the vehicle. Whoever was shooting knew their stuff--they had been waiting for him to try again.

    The explosion was more muffled this time. "Direct hit!" called Sgt. Thomas. "Right in the window!" He fired another burst. The volume of fire was steadily increasing, with the sound of automatic weapons adding to the noise level.

    James switched his M-16 to a left-handed hold, and peaked around the front of the Humvee. He could see the smoke and dust from the grenade still in the air. There were several small buildings in a cluster of the sort seen along many rural roads. Firing was coming from all of them.

    He raised his weapon, sighted into another window on the same side, and began putting round after round into it. Others were doing the same with it and other windows. James could see the rounds impacting the front of the building and windows shattering. Others were targeting the other buildings as well. The rate of fire from all the buildings was slackening as the occupants were forced to take cover from the heavier return fire.

    Suddenly, a building on the opposite side of the road belched smoke and flame. The sound of a second and larger explosion reached them. Flames were belching from several windows. Two burning figures ran screaming out a door and were quickly cut down.

    Shouts brought his attention back to the near building. He couldn't see anything, but the firing from the men around him had picked up dramatically. They had fire superiority, and it was starting to do the job on their attackers.

    Suddenly, a man popped up from behind a bush, maybe 30 meters from the building. He immediately attracted a large volume of fire, and dropped from sight.

    Rising to a crouch, James fired three rounds into the man's general vicinity, dropped his rifle to switch to a right-handed hold, and called out "They're running! Give us some covering fire!" Moving around the front of the Humvee, he saw Sgt. Thomas crawling out from underneath. He grabbed the back of his jacket and dragged him the rest of the way out and partially to his feet. "Let's go!"

    Several other men joined them. They ran to the nearest cover and sorted themselves out. Three men provided covering fire from that position as Carpenter, Thomas and 2 others made their move.

    One of the men didn't make it to the next cover. He fell in a heap, most of his head missing. The remaining men took positions and began providing covering fire so their comrades could move up. After repeating the process twice more, they found themselves a few yards from their objective. They took cover behind a retaining wall.

    James patted an ammo pouch, feeling for a grenade, then remembering he didn't have any. "Anybody got a grenade?" Two men held up the deadly green objects. "OK, you're our boys. We'll cover you--put 'em in the windows."

    "One, two, three!" By three, they all were standing, with James and Sgt. Thomas pouring fire into the windows. The grenades flew out, both finding their targets. "Down!" he shouted. He was the last man behind the wall.

    Two explosions boomed. "Move, move!" Sgt. Thomas shouted. Everyone rushed the building, making for the back door. It was open, pushed against the back wall. A dark-skinned man with an AK-pattern rifle staggered out. Everyone in the group opened up on him at once. He fell to the ground, riddled.

    Training and experience showed. Quickly organizing, the men burst into the building, finding themselves in what was apparently a storeroom. "Clear left!"

    "Clear right!"

    "Clear! Keep moving!"

    The building wasn't very large, but it had several small rooms, and each one had to be entered and cleared. Soon, they were ready to move into the front of the building. The door was locked.

    James kicked the door in. Three others moved quickly past him, but no shouts of "Clear!" came. Neither did the sounds of rifle fire.

    James peaked quickly around the door frame, then stepped inside. The three men stood together, their rifles drooping toward the floor. One leaned forward and vomited. James felt the bile rising in his throat, but swallowed hard. The smell was horrible. Then another man puked, and James couldn't stop it this time. They all staggered toward the door, retching.

    Chest heaving and clinging to the door frame, James could still see the room in his head. Several men hung upside down from the ceiling. At least, most of their bodies did.

    Laying on the floor were fingers, hands and arms. Torsos had been cut open, and the entrails hung out. Laying to one side was a set of bolt cutters and a chainsaw. Blood and pieces of flesh were on the walls and ceiling.

    -------------------------------------------------

    James' mouth tasted vile. He had washed it out from his canteen several times, and someone had given him a Coke they had been saving. He had shared it with the others who had been there with him. No one talked.

    They had set up in some of the buildings near the ambush site, after sweeping the area and setting up outposts. Everything was pretty well trashed, but enough furniture was intact that everyone had a chair to sit in. They sat quietly, each lost to his thoughts.

    In the next room, James could hear the voices of Col. Heffron, Capt. Maxwell, Ron Essick and one or two others. He couldn't quite make out what they were saying.

    Capt. Maxwell stepped through the door. "Lieutenant, would you join us, please?"

    James stood and took a second to gather himself. Capt. Maxwell turned, and James followed him through the door.

    Col. Heffron walked across the room and put out his hand. James took it. "How're you doing, Lieutenant?"

    "I'm a little shook up, sir, but I'm fine. Just caught me off guard, that's all."

    Heffron snorted. "Hell son, we knew what to expect and we about lost our lunches too. I doubt any of us forget this day."

    "Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir."

    The colonel took him by the shoulder and steering him further into the room. "So tell us what happened, from the top." James did so. There were a few questions to clarify some details, which he answered.

    Maxwell said "Well, colonel, that is pretty much the same story we've gotten from everyone else. The lead element goes by, then they hit us. Sounds like someone with some experience."

    Heffron nodded, then said "Or someone who got caught by surprise and then jumped up and opened fire in a panic. No matter, really--the effect is the same. What's the casualty report?"

    Maxwell spoke up. "Four men dead, 6 wounded. One Humvee and one truck destroyed. The supplies in the truck were lost as well."

    Heffron grunted. "Great. How about our attackers?"

    "We've found 18 bodies so far, and blood trails from several more. We tracked them, but didn't find any bodies. Per your orders, the tracking teams turned back after a few hundred meters." Maxwell closed his note pad and pocketed it.

    Another grunt. "And those poor bastards we found?"

    Ron Essick said "Two were Cleveland County deputies--we found their uniforms. One was a Shelby cop, and we're not sure who the other three are. No IDs in any of the clothes we think belonged to them. They were all crudely tortured to death. No bullet holes we can find."

    "Do we know who these 'people' are?"

    "Based on tattoos and some other things we've found, we believe they're gang members. They all appear to be Hispanic, for what it's worth."

    "Uh-huh. The three you can't ID--what race?"

    "Also Hispanic."

    "Hm-m-m. Any sign of anyone in the area--people who lived here?"

    "No, sir. We did find two bodies, both male, in one of the other houses, but they had been shot. Black males. We think they were trying to defend the place, judging from the evidence. Every house and building in the area appears to have been looted. Several were burned."

    "Any guesses where this bunch came from?"

    "Hard to say, sir, with any certainty. Best guess is Charlotte. But that's just a guess."

    "Great. So we're don't know if there are more of them?"

    "No sir, but of course prudence dictates we act like there are."

    "Indeed." Heffron mused for a minute. "OK, here's what we're going to do. We're staying here 24 hours to lick our wounds and bury our dead. Sweep every building and outbuilding and salvage anything of use. See if we can find some running vehicles and any fuel. No groups smaller than squad size, and no one more than half a click out. We'll move out early Wednesday."

    He turned to James. "Lieutenant, you've heard the plan. Get you men situated, then report back here in 1 hour for a full briefing. Send runners to the other units and relay those orders--no sense making everyone come here. That will be all."

    James straightened and raised a salute. "Yes, sir." Heffron returned the salute. James left the room. Heffron watched him leave, his face thoughtful.

    Heffron looked at Maxwell and Essick. "Keep him busy. This shook him more than he's admitting, or maybe more than he realizes." He scratched his chin. "For that matter, keep all the men as busy as you can. I don't want anyone dwelling on this."

    -------------------------------------------------------

    Their patrols had found more buildings where various sorts of torture and worse had happened. The worst was when they found the houses with the women and young girls. Those scenes were unspeakable.

    The men of the 4th were angry. The Hispanic males they found, 3 in total, were killed on sight. Two were already wounded, presumably from the initial firefight, and tired to make a fight of it. They failed. Another was shot while trying to surrender.

    When Colonel Heffron heard that later in the evening, he came storming out of his headquarters. He went from one group of men to another, forcefully reminding them that they were United States soldiers and that this sort of behavior would not be tolerated. He threatened to shoot the next man who committed a similar offense.

    Ron Essick had caught James shortly after his unit had felt Heffron's displeasure. "The old man's on a tear, isn't he?"

    "I know I'm a few pounds lighter, and my pants don't fit so well in the seat."

    "He's pretty pissed, but he'll run out of steam eventually, I hope."

    "He'd better, or he'll have a stroke or something."

    "He's right, you know."

    "Of course he is Ron, but the men were pretty throughly provoked. What's been done around here is worse than criminal."

    "True enough, but our being criminal in return isn't going to make things better."

    "Maybe, maybe not. Ron, things have changed pretty dramatically lately."

    "I haven't missed that." His voice was angry.

    "I didn't say you had," James answered as mildly as he could. "But put yourself in these guy's place--they know there aren't any police. They're fighting people who are demonstrably move brutal than the ones we fought in Iraq, and it's on our own soil. They're probably wondering if their own families are going through what these people suffered--before they were murdered. Our homes are too close to Winston Salem and Greensboro for comfort."

    Ron turned his head, coughed and spat. "I understand that, but are we going to be as much a group of animals as they are? It wouldn't speak well for us, now would it? The United States Army--judge, jury and executioners, all in one handy package."

    "Probably not, but if things are as bad as they look, I imagine all of us will have trouble living up to your expectations, old buddy." He took off his helmet, scratched his scalp vigorously, and settled it back on his head. "Man, I could use a hot shower."

    "I don't believe I'm hearing this! You approve of what they did?"

    "Maybe--I don't know. But I understand it. These men know what they saw, and they knew that there was no one else in a position to do anything about it. So they did something. Call it what you want, but those scumbags they killed won't kill anyone else."

    "How do we know they were guilty? The one may have been just trying to stay alive!"

    "Maybe. I imagine the gangbangers are thinking that same thing, more or less. Just trying to stay alive. We're strong and they're weak, so we live off of them. Darwin in action, you might say." He took his helmet off and scratched again. "Ron, I don't know that there is a good answer for the question you're raising. All I can tell you is what I think, and I think that justice is going to be a lot rougher for a long time to come. You can like it or dislike it, but I don't think you're going to change it."

    He put his helmet on and picked up his M-16. "Come on, let's go see what's for chow." Picking up his friend's M-16, he held it out to him. Ron Essick took it, quickly turned his back and walked silently away toward his vehicle. James watched him go, then shook his head and opened the door to his Humvee, rummaging for an MRE.

    ----------------------------------------------

    Their travel went fairly smoothly. They moved quickly when they could, slower when necessary. Turning toward the northeast, as they worked their way further from Charlotte they noticed more and more people. Each time they stopped for information, they heard that there were armed gangs further south and west, and people wanted to know if they were there to help them. Each time they said "no" and moved on.

    At the end of the day, they had reached an area south of Claremont, NC. After lagering in and setting their outposts, the officers gathered around a small fire at Colonel Heffron's Humvee.

    A map of the area was spread out on the hood. The colonel pointed out their situation. To the north was I-40. To the east lay the Catawba River, which straddled the Catawba-Iredell County line. It was a large river, crossable only at bridges.

    The problem was, which bridge? Following the river south, it quickly turned into Lake Norman. The only bridges were in the Charlotte area. In the immediate area, the only bridges were the I-40 and US 70 bridges. They could take NC 10 north to NC 16 and cross on that bridge, but it would add many miles to the trip.

    Capt. Maxwell raised another issue. "Sir, there's also the issue of fuel. That will add maybe a hundred miles to our travel distance, and we're short on fuel. We should be OK if we take a fairly direct route, but that far out of the way and we'll be walking before we reach our destination."

    Ron Essick spoke up. "Sir, perhaps we should move up closer to the crossings, and send out scouting parties and ask the locals what the situation is. That strategy has been working well for us so far."

    "True enough. However, I can't believe those two bridges aren't going to be dangerous. We've probably avoided major problems by staying off the major highways. I don't want to be on them, even for just a few miles to get across this river. Those roads will be natural routes for refugees and bad guys alike. And I definitely would rather people not know we're in the neighborhood--that would probably slow things down. Do we have any alternatives?"

    James spoke up. "Sir, we may. South of the 70 bridge, about a half-mile or so, there's a railroad bridge. Could we use it?"

    "We'd have to leave the civilian vehicles we've picked up," pointed out Lt. Essick.

    Heffron nodded and said "True, but we could drain them of fuel and parcel out what they're carrying among the Humvees and duece-and-a-halfs. OK, so we abandon the civilian vehicles. Can we get our vehicles across the bridge?"

    James answered. "Sir, we should be able to--we'll have to straddle the tracks and take our time, but it should be doable."

    Heffron made a decision. "We're going to move along this road," he said, tracing it with a finger, "staying south of the town of Catawba. We'll come up around this way," he continued tracing, "to this point. From there, we can closely observe the bridge. If we can't use it, we can make our way past the town, preferably unseen, to this point, where we can observe and cross the US 70 bridge."

    "Lt. Carpenter...." Heffron raised an eyebrow. "You're leading the scouting party. Take a squad and, let's say, 3 Humvees. Be sure you take at least one with Ma Deuce aboard. Time your run to bring you to the bridge around dawn. I want your report by 0800. I'll bring the rest of the unit up by 1000, we cross the entire unit by 1200, and then we get out of Dodge. I want to get far enough tomorrow that we make Mocksville and Lexington by the next day."

    After the briefing broke up, Ron caught up to James as he was walking back toward his men. "Hey, uh," he was obviously uncomfortable. "I just wanted to tell you that I, uh, I'm sorry about yesterday."

    "No problem."

    "It's just that, well, I just think that if we sink as low as they do, well, then, what makes us any different than they are?"

    "It's a good question, Ron. I wish I had a good answer for you." He held out a hand. "See you at the river."

    Ron took it. "Yeah, sure. Good luck. If you get lost, stop and ask for directions, huh?"

    James laughed. "Yeah sure. Let's hope that I don't need to, though."

    -----------------------------------------

    South of the rail line in the early light, James looked at the bridge through binoculars. Getting to the bridge had been easier than expected, and they were a half hour ahead of schedule. In a stroke of good luck, they had came across a grade-level crossing near the bridge that made the task of actually getting vehicles up on the roadbed simple. James hadn't mentioned it to anyone, but he had forgotten about that detail. He'd worried all the way to the bridge about how that could be accomplished.

    The bridge looked intact and unblocked. There were no guards, either. "Poor planning on the town's part," he thought. "This bridge is way too close to leave unguarded. Still, all the better for us."

    He turned and looked down the railway line into the town. No one was about, as far as he could tell. No people were moving, and no lights could be seen, but the slight tang of woodsmoke was in the air. There were people in the town for sure. He put down the binoculars. "Sgt. Garcia, take 5 men and set up a blocking position about 100 meters toward the town. Take both of the SAWs and stay out of sight. Be sure no one gets by you."

    "That include townies, sir?"

    "That includes anyone but our own people."

    "Yes, sir."

    "I'm going to radio back to the colonel to come ahead. I'll leave three men and a vehicle here, and take mine across the bridge as a test, just to see how this works. We'll set up over there to hold that side. When they arrive, let's get them across as quickly as possible. You and the men here follow up as rear guard."

    "Yes sir. Ah, sir, don't you think we ought to test this out before calling them up?"

    "Probably, but I don't want to waste time. If it doesn't work here, the plan is to move north to the road bridges, so we may as well have them moving now as later. We'll know what's up before they get here."

    Garcia nodded.

    "Alright guys, let's make this happen."

    Sgt. Garcia organized the group that was to stay put, positioning the vehicle with the .50 caliber machine gun so that it had some cover but was able to look down the line into the town. Taking his detail down the tracks, he placed his men out of sight in the brush on either side, waved back toward the bridge, then took his position.

    James got on the radio and made his sitrep. He explained the defensive setup, and how the main force could work its way around to a grade-level crossing near the river that would make mounting the tracks easier. He cautioned them that the location was closer to the town than he would have liked, and was told to "wait one". In a minute, Col. Heffron came on the radio.

    "Any sign of anyone?"

    "No sir, the town seems quiet so far, but there is evidence of habitation. I have a blocking force in place."

    "Good. We'll be on the way a fast as possible. Let's do this quickly."

    James acknowledged that, and signed off. Mounting their vehicle, they gingerly worked their way onto the tracks and began to move toward the bridge.

    As long as they were on the graveled roadbed, the movement was easy, if bumpy. However, when they reached the bridge, there was no gravel, and you could look between the ties into the river. The bridge had sides, so there was no real danger of running off, but still it was unsettling.

    It was also very rough going. The ties were spaced such that even the Humvee had problems. Slowly, however, they crept across. the bridge. Halfway across, the radio squawked. "Ell-tee, we have an audience."

    James grabbed the leg of the soldier manning the M249 in the roof hatch and got him down in the vehicle. He got up behind the weapon, braced himself and trained his binoculars back toward the town. In between bounces, he could see a group of people gathering near the tracks and pointing at them.

    The squelch broke. "Sir, a couple of them are coming this way."

    "Are they armed?"

    "Not that I can tell."

    "Don't take any chances, but see what they want."

    "Will do, sir."

    James continued to watch as they bounced along the bridge. He could see the figures of two people walking down the tracks. As they came off the bridge and back onto the graveled roadbed, he signaled a halt so he could watch closely. He could see one of his men, probably Garcia, talking to them. They were pointing north, then back to the town. The conversation continued for a few minutes, then broke up.

    Garcia came on the radio. "Sir, you aren't going to believe this."

    "Believe what, sergeant?"

    "Believe that the bridges across 70 are open. No vehicle traffic, no bad guys. They tell me that there are some people moving west but that's mostly on foot, and not many at that."

    James was dumbfounded. Ron had been right--they should have stopped and asked for directions.

    ---------------------------------

    James radioed the information in to an equally dumbfounded Capt. Maxwell. After a conversation with Col. Heffron, it was decided that the remained of the 4th Cav would work its way to 70 west of Catawba, and simply drive down the road and cross the river. James was to make his way to the highway and recon back toward and through the town before the main force arrived.

    After finishing his bumpy ride across the bridge, James found himself faced with a problem--this time there was no handy road crossing to get him off the tracks. Raised several feet higher than the surrounding landscape, he and his Humvee were stuck up there. He considered simply trying to turn down off the tracks, but a quickly aborted effort persuaded him that idea would probably result in an overturned vehicle.

    The map showed some sort of large facility beside the tracks, around a half mile further south. Bouncing their way along, they eventually found themselves a large deserted sand and gravel operation where they could easily get off the tracks. Breaking the locks on the gates to get out, they rushed quickly north to the highway.

    He checked in with Garcia, who reported that everything was quiet. He told him to hold that end of the bridge until he was sure this was going to work out.

    Turning west, they began to work their way back toward the bridges, running fast rather than carefully. As advertised, there was some foot traffic, a few people on bicycles and not much else. A few people waved, and one group tried unsuccessfully to flag them down. Crossing the river again was uneventful.

    Consulting his map, he noticed that 70 was actually well north of the town--out of direct sight, in fact. "You know, this might work out really well," he said to his driver, Pvt. John Dalton. Dalton hadn't driven for the lieutenant before, and wasn't sure what to say, so he said nothing. James smiled. "Come on, private, we're finally having some luck!"

    "Sir, the old folks say that's tempting fate."

    Laughing, James picked up the radio handset, made contact with the main force and gave them an update, He was informed that the 4th would be passing through Catawba to US 70. James was surprised, given all they had done to stay away from towns and cities, but the logic was driven by the map. It was either go through Catawba or detour some miles to the west to get on 70, and then be on 70 for a much longer time. The people seemed friendly, so it was through the town they would go. He was ordered to take his men down the main drag of the town, which happened to be the way to the highway. He was to have Garcia and his men and vehicles move to meet him, and together hold for the rest of the unit.

    He made contact with Garcia and explained the new plan. Garcia, a rock solid non-com, was nonplussed. "So where do you want us to meet you, ell-tee?"

    Looking at the map, James gave him an intersection. "Sir, I don't have a map. Where is that in relation to the train tracks?"

    James gave him directions. Satisfied Garcia understood, he signed off and watched the road and the trees for any signs of trouble.

  23. #23

    Chapter 22


  24. #24

    Chapter 22 repost


  25. #25

    Chapter 22 part A

    January 14, 2009

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 28
    High temperature: 44
    barometric pressure: 30.46
    mostly sunny


    The weather's been pretty much normal for a change, Of course, it seems odd not having snow on the ground. We're trying to get outside things done in case more nasty weather shows up. It means some long days, because there's a lot to do. Of course, we don't really have a lot of choice. It has to be done. At least we have some extra hands for a while.


    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    January 15, 2009
    Yadkin College, NC


    "Ow!" Tom bit his tongue to keep from swearing. That was the third time the wrench had slipped, and he'd promised himself he wouldn't swear any more--Little Tom had turned into a magpie lately--but his bleeding knuckles hurt.

    Walt's head poked out of the back door. "You aren't finished tightening up those clamps yet?"

    Tom took his abused knuckles out of his mouth. "Not yet. This isn't the right wrench and it keeps slipping."

    "Well, hurry up when you can. We still have a lot to get done today and it's already lunch time. And don't hurt that wrench. The hardware store's closed." The door shut.

    Tom shook his hand and returned to tightening the cable clamps. He wasn't thrilled with how they were rigging the solar panels--it was ugly and reeked of makeshift. Sarah would have hated it--she always like things "nice". But it was the best they could do with what they had on hand. Walt was right--you sure couldn't head to Lowe's these days if you needed something.

    Finishing the last outside clamp, he double-checked the clamps inside the newly built battery "house". They had built the small wooden structure just to one side of the back porch to hold the batteries that would store electricity for use at night or on cloudy days. Tom was going to put them on the back porch until he was reminded that batteries under charge out-gassed hydrogen--not the sort of thing you wanted in your house. Walt and Jannie were almost finished with the inside wiring. Their work was greatly simplified by the empty conduits he and Sarah had put into the house, just in case they had ever wanted to add a solar system to the house. Tom smiled at the memory of his wife. He could think of her now without feeling nothing but loss.

    Now it wasn't a case of want, it was a case of "had to". Out of the 8 big panels that had been delivered just before things turned for the worse, he was using 2 for his house. Two more were in the building, waiting to be installed on the still empty park model RVs at the end of the back yard. Two more were at his grandparents' house, already installed and generating electricity. The last 2 were for Walt, but Walt was in no hurry for them. He said that he preferred his kerosene lamps. Tom thought the old guy was slipping. Life without electricity was an adventure for a day or two, but damned inconvenient when it went on for weeks. The generator was still working fine, but gas was getting a little short. Having the panels up should stretch the supply considerably.

    They were lucky to have the panels at all, and they were luckier still that they were able to make use of them. Either Sarah had not ordered all of the parts need to build the system, or the parts had never made it. If Herb Jackson and his extended family hadn't needed a place to get out of town to, and if he hadn't thought of moving them into Doc Williams' place, and if Herb hadn't brought all his parts and gadgets with him, and if they hadn't found the last store in Mocksville with any deep cycle batteries, and if the guy running the store hadn't still foolishly been taking cash (even if he had gotten $500 each for them), if there hadn't been a lot of wiring that could be salvaged in those big new houses on the other side of the river that had been abandoned, unfinished, a couple of years ago....

    "There are a lot of 'ifs' in our lives these days," he said quietly to himself.

    As he tightened the last clamp in the battery house, Jannie's head came out the door. "I can have you men some sandwiches, if you'll take time to eat them."

    He straightened and stretched. "Let me guess--PBJs again?"

    "Just trying to stretch the food. We have a lot of peanut butter."

    Tom grunted. They still had venison and some beef in the freezer, and as long as they had the generator to keep them running, Tom wanted to try and hang onto it. No going to the grocery store for meat these days, and deer were scarce for some reason. They had decided that they would hang onto as much of it as they could as long as they could. Of course, if the gasoline started to get really short, they were going to have the BBQ of all time.

    He consoled himself with the thought that they were in better shape than a lot of people. Of course, a lot of people were probably dead and had no worries, but those still alive were having a harder and harder time of it from what he could find out. News on the radio was sparse, and none of it local. A few of the folks further up the road had made contact, but they had no news he hadn't already heard.

    Living well off the main road, there wasn't much traffic of any kind--there never had been. Every day, one or two vehicles would pass by. From what he could tell, they were owned by people who lived nearby--at least they looked familiar to him. The drivers would wave, but they didn't' stop. Once, small group on foot had came by. They had some improvised wagons, and they had themselves harnessed to them, pulling them along. Tom, under Jannie and Caleb's watchful eyes and rifles, had walked down to the road and spoke with them. They were from Lexington, and they were Hispanic. In heavily accented broken English, they explained that there was no work, and little food. No one would help them, so they had decided to leave and hope for something better in Mocksville. They had friends there who worked in a chicken processing plant, and they hoped there would be jobs. They had traded the last of the gas in their vehicles for food, and were walking the 20 or so miles.

    Tom debated telling him that the chicken processing plant had been looted then burned by the angry and hungry people of Mocksville. He decided against it, and wished them good luck. He felt sorry for them, but there was nothing he could do. There was no place in Yadkin College for them, and no one would want them hanging around.

    A few days later there had been the one fellow who had actually sought them out. Caleb, keeping watch on the road, had let everyone know when the small group came into sight. A few minutes later he came running out of the back door to Tom, who was on a ladder finishing an antenna feed to the house. Tom came down the ladder in a hurry, ran into the house and made his way to the front door. He looked at the little group through one of the windows. A man in decent clothes, rather dirty, with a pair of kids in tow. No obvious weapons, smallish packs and a large Little Tikes wagon with some stuff in it. They looked beat.

    Jannie's voice came quietly from the rear of the house saying that she was in place. Tom looked at Caleb. "Caleb, go keep an eye on the back in case this is some kind of trick." Caleb ran toward the kitchen without discussion. Their discussions on how to handle this situation were proving useful. Tom stepped out the front door picking up the HK that now always stood beside it. The man continued walking up the drive, pulling the wagon, head down.

    "Can I help you?" he said, carefully pointed his gun near, but not directly at, the man. He wanted the man to have no illusions that this house was an easy target.

    The man startled. He apparently hadn't heard the door or noticed Tom on the porch. Tom arched an eyebrow--they guy must be really tired to be no more alert than that. The stranger gathered himself and spoke. "Ah, I'm sorry to bother you...I was hoping you might have some food to trade."

    Tom was surprised. He had expected a pitch for a handout, and had been preparing himself to refuse it. They had given out a lot of charity to family, friends and neighbors, and had nothing to spare for strangers. Thrown off his prepared script, he had to think for a second.

    "Sure, we can talk a trade. But one thing first. Please don't make any sudden moves. Behind one of those windows is a rifle." He left the rest unsaid.

    The man jerked a little, and cast a nervous glance at the windows, which stared mutely back. Then he shrugged and nodded. "Right. I guess I'd do the same in your place."

    Tom nodded. "I'm glad you understand. Now then, what do you have to trade?"

    "I have a $10 gold piece that belonged to my great grandfather."

    "That really isn't worth much to me. I can't eat it, and no one around here would be willing to trade me anything I could use for it. Anything else?"

    "I have a few things you might find useful, assuming you have a supply of batteries. All of mine are dead now. A couple of good LED flashlights, a shortwave radio, and a GPS unit."

    Tom grunted. The radio would be nice as a spare. He had been caught short in that area, and didn't want to be again. And flashlights were always useful, and the LED sort really stretched a set of batteries. "Let me see the radio, if I may."

    The man spoke to one of the kids. Tom couldn't tell if the kid was male or female. While a bit warmer than it had been, it was still cold, and everyone was well bundled. Digging in the wagon, the kid turned and walked toward Tom, holding the radio at arms length. A girl; maybe Caleb's age. He motioned her up to the top of the steps, took the proffered item, smiled and said "Thank you." She half-smiled and quickly retreated down the steps to her dad's side.

    Tom's eyebrows arched. The radio was a Sony, and an expensive one at that. Opening the battery compartment, there were no batteries and no corrosion.

    The man saw him looking. "I tossed the batteries after they went dead. I hoped I could find some more, but that hasn't happened."

    "Smart move. You haven't missed much; the news--what there is of it--is pretty grim these days."

    "It's been a while since we've heard anything. What's been happening?"

    Tom looked at the man again. The clothes were good quality, but dirty. Same for the kids. He had some expensive things. He seemed intelligent and well spoken, and the kids well behaved. Tom wondered how he had gotten here. Not here physically, but in this situation. How could a smart person not realize that being a refugee was the worst possible position to be in? He counted his good fortune in having a wife who had made sure that her family wouldn't find themselves in that sort of predicament.

    "No good news, if that's what you're hoping for. The national news services are on the air on a few clear-channel stations, but it all sounds pretty canned to me. The best stuff comes from a few local stations still on the air, and from ham radio guys. It sounds like most of our big cities are in bad shape--there's some reports that at least two were nuked, but I think that's just a rumor. I'd bet most of the damage was done by people rioting and just generally being stupid. A lot of people caught in them are dead--diseases, rioters and so on."

    "Our federal government appears out to lunch--nothing from them in way too long, and lots of speculation why. In some areas the local government has stepped up and is keeping things going. The military is apparently trying to get some areas under control. Europe is having some pretty serious problems with their Moslem population--riots and bombings--along with food and fuel shortages and some disease outbreaks, but they seem to be better off than we are. At least their news services are working. We get some US news that way, but it sounds pretty much like what we're getting from our own sources. China is having a convulsion of some sort, but no one seems to know the story--they've apparently shut themselves off from the world. Iran is threatening Israel with those nukes they weren't supposed to make, and Israel has said they'll turn Tehran into a glowing hole in the ground if they do. So on and so forth."

    "The most entertaining thing is the conspiracy theorists on shortwave. There's one preacher down in Louisiana that's a real hoot. He apparently has his own radio station. According to him, The Rapture has already happened, and we're all so evil no one was taken. He seems pretty put out that he and his congregation weren't taken up to Heaven. It's about the only thing entertaining on."

    The man stood there, taking it in but saying nothing. Tom looked the radio again, then asked "So where are you headed? Not far on foot, I hope."

    "Statesville--a little north of there, actually. My sister and her family live on the old family farm. I sent my wife and the baby there after the lights came back on. She had been laid off by that time I figured it had to be better than High Point."

    "So you're from High Point. We've heard it was bad there."

    "Trust me, it was worse than bad. We had to run for it at the end. If we could have had even an hour, we would be in a lot better shape. I was stupid, and hadn't considered that we might have to leave home in a hurry, even when things started to get iffy." He laid a hand on the girl's shoulder. "We've been walking the back roads since, working our way west. Look, if the radio isn't what you want, maybe you have some work we could do? We could really use a meal."

    Tom hesitated. He didn't like thinking the worst of people, but he had to think about his family first. Strangers equaled danger until proven safe. Plus there was the food situation. But he could use some help for a day, maybe even a few days. There was too much to do, and not enough Tom to do it. "And the food isn't that tight, not yet," he thought. Out loud, he asked "So what skills do you have?"

    "Well, I used to do home repairs on my days off. I was an EMT, so I had time to really make that sort of thing pay."

    Tom's ears pricked up at the mention of Emergency Medical Technician. "What's your name?"

    "Jonathan Wyatt. This is Jordan," he gestured to the girl who had handed Tom the radio, "and this is Jenny."

    Tom kept himself from rolling his eyes. He wondered if the wife was named Judy or Janet or anything that would keep that "J" thing going. Some people. He walked down the steps and held out the radio. The man took it and looked downcast. Tom saw the look and held out his hand. "I'm Tom Carpenter." Wyatt took the hand and shook it. Tom continued, "I'll tell you what I'll do. Hang onto that radio a while. I have an outbuilding where you can spend the night. There's a wood stove in it, so you can get warm. Supper tonight and breakfast tomorrow. No guarantees beyond that."

    The man brightened. "Thank you. What do we need to do as payment for the hospitality? We're not asking for charity."

    "That's good, because I'm not offering any. I need some wood split. I've been busy, and my woodpile is getting thinner than I like. Split enough wood for your stove tonight, then a half-cord more for the house. But I also want to hear everything about your trip here--everything you've seen, everything you've heard, everything that's happened to you. We've got precious little knowledge of what's going on in the direction you came from. We've heard the gangs in High Point were on the rampage, and I'd like to know what to expect if they come this way."

    "Ah, thanks. You're being pretty generous with a stranger."

    "Maybe, but in the old days, people would give a stranger a meal just to hear the news he carried, and I'm getting a half-cord of wood split besides." Tom looked the man in the eye. "Back to the future seems to be where we're going these days, Mr. Wyatt."

    -------------------------------

    Tom had taken the man and the two girls to the building, and shown him the accommodations. As luck would have it, he had a couple of folding cots from the tent camping days, and he got those out for the girls. He also had a couple of self-inflating sleeping pads for whoever didn't get a cot. He saw blankets in their wagon, so he didn't offer those. Finding himself feeling sorry for them, he reached into a box and pulled out three random MREs from the supply he had kept for hunting trips. "It's still early, you can grab a quick bite and then get to work. Supper is at dark."

    At the back door, he was met by Jannie, who was armed with one of his AR-15s. She didn't look happy. "I thought you said 'no strays'?"

    "Jannie, the guy has two kids with him. And he's an EMT."

    "An EMT? You're sure about that?"

    "Well, I didn't ask for his diploma, no."

    "Well, I don't like it. What's his story?"

    "Caught in High Point when things got bad. Got out by the skin of his teeth, apparently. Trying to get to family north of Statesville. His sister and her family live there on the family farm. He sent his wife and one kid ahead before the power went off last time."

    "Walking to Statesville?! Now?!" She was incredulous.

    "Well, he didn't drive up the driveway, did he?"

    "And why didn't he send those two other kids? If he thought it was that dangerous, he should have sent them too. For that matter, he should have went along. He's an idiot."

    "No idea, but I agree with you."

    "So what's your plan now?"

    "We feed then supper, get Walt and Alan to come over after and we get the guy to tell his story in detail. Past that, I'm making it up as we go along, but I'm wondering if we couldn't use someone with his background. We don't have anyone out here with a medical background."

    "Well, I don't like it, but I'll send Caleb to tell Walt and Alice."

  26. #26

    Chapter 22 part b

    "Good. Have him get Alan as well. Have them meet us at the building a half hour after dark. That gives everyone time to eat. It also gives him time to finish his work. He's splitting wood for their supper and breakfast tomorrow."

    "How much wood?"

    "What he uses plus a half-cord."

    Jannie smiled. "You aren't quite so dumb after all, are you?"

    ------------------------------------

    As they were clearing the table, Walt banged on the back door. "Come on, boy, I want to hear what he's got to say." He and Tom walked toward the building, where Alice was waiting beside the door, holding a lantern. Alan Washington stood with her. Caleb was there, and Tom ordered him back to the house to watch the little ones so Jannie could be in on the story telling.

    Inside the building it had warmed up nicely. As everyone took off their coats, Jonathan looked nervously from person to person. They were all armed, as had become their practice. They all pointedly ignored his nervousness. After making introductions, Tom asked Jonathan to tell him what had happened to force them out of their home and how they had wound up on foot, walking to Statesville in the middle of the worst winter in recent memory.

    Jonathan obliged, telling them how things had been deteriorating in the city over the last year or more as both the national and local economies had spiraled downward--food and fuel difficult to get at times, city services cut back, violent crime increasing, people leaving. The gangs and other criminals became steadily bolder as the police became stretched thinner. Certain parts of town were effectively ceded to the gangs by the police. Since he still had a paying job as an EMT, and his wife as a nurse, his family elected to stay put. He had taken some steps to safeguard his family--a few days worth of food and water, a battery-powered radio--all the things that Homeland Security said you'd need in the event of an emergency. They lived in a "nice" neighborhood. A cop lived down the street, and a sheriff's deputy a street over. They thought would be safe.

    When the power went out the first time, things got bad, with the police quickly losing ground and officers. The gang members had been well armed, and it was only after several days of fighting, occasionally with citizens joining in, that the tide turned against the gangs. It had been a very near thing, and as it was, a lot of people had died. The police lost a number of cops they couldn't replace. Several neighborhoods had been looted and burned, and a number of businesses as well. To make matters worse, High Point Regional Hospital had been attacked after it had taken in some wounded members from one gang for treatment, and another gang took exception to it. Most of the emergency room wing had been burned, and some of the staff killed. Much of the staff refused to go to work until their safety could be guaranteed. Jonathan's wife was among those who refused to work.

    When the power had finally came back on, things settled into sort of an uneasy truce. The gangs knew they were stronger than the police, but the bloody nose they'd been given was enough to make them cautious. Jonathan and his wife decided that she and the baby should pack up and go to Statesville. She was effectively unemployed, and his sister had given birth to twins a couple of months before, and could use the help. The girls would stay with him for the time being, so they could go back to school after the "winter holiday". His wife would come home after things got back to normal. It had never occurred to them that "normal" might never return.

    Just after Christmas, things started going down hill fast. The gangs got bolder, roaming much of the city at will. A contingent of the National Guard was promised, but never arrived. About the time he began to think he and the girls should leave, the power went out again and all hell broke loose. Gunfire could be heard everywhere, and the light from fires reflected an eerie orange glow off the clouds.

    He had thrown some food, blankets and other things in his SUV and tried to get out of town--along with a panicked mass of other people. Wrecks blocked the roads in short order, and the opportunistic criminals began to ply their trade on a captive audience. He'd decided that they take what they could carry and head out on foot and work their way out of town on the northwest side. He knew another EMT that lived in that direction, and figured that she could help them out.
    It took nearly a full day to get there, even though it was only a few miles. Carrying as much as they could, they had to move slowly because the girls simply couldn't keep up a fast pace. They also had to hide from roving bands of gangbangers and other less organized but equally dangerous criminals.

    When the arrived at his co-worker's house, no one was home. The front door had been kicked in and everything in the house was strewn about. The furniture was mostly destroyed and graffiti covered the walls. Jonathan assumed that she and her family had left town. Rummaging around, they found some canned goods that had been missed, and the Little Tikes wagon. Gunfire down the street caused them to take what they had found and flee quickly. He noticed most of the houses in the neighborhood looked similarly ransacked.

    The next several days were spent moving slowly toward Statesville. They managed to find places to sleep that were dry if not warm, and had broken into several empty houses, finding a little food here and there. He had found some bleach in one house and an empty gallon milk container, and he used that to make safe water to drink. They were able to find just enough to keep them going. He didn't like breaking into houses, but he was desperate and his kids were hungry.

    After they had made it out of town and past the suburbs, scavenging stopped working for them, since many people were still in their homes. There were few obviously empty houses to scavenge from, and they ran out of food. They kept moving.

    On the second day without food, he approached a house, thinking to buy some food. He had some money, and the kids were hungry. Picking out a house that was obviously occupied, he left the girls out of sight, and began walking toward it. Halfway to the house, a bullet thwipped over his head. A loud voice told him to leave or the next one would be lower. He left, quickly. He grabbed his girls and put as much distance between them and the house as possible. They all spent a cold, hungry night huddled in a patch of woods.

    The next day, he tried again. This time he met with a friendlier reception, and an older couple fed them stew and sandwiches in return for his filling their porch with firewood from a large woodshed in the back yard. They explained that there son usually cut and carried wood for them, but that they hadn't seen or heard from him for days. He lived a few miles away with his wife and a granddaughter who was away at college in Virginia. They had driven to his house, but no one was home. The car was gone, so they thought he had went to bring his daughter home. The trip was normally a few hours, and he had been gone for days. They weren't sure what to do. They explained that they would have called the sheriff's office, but the phones were still out, and they were afraid to drive into town--they had heard things were bad there.

    Jonathan had assured them that going to town was a bad idea, and told them a little bit about what had happened. They shook their heads and tsk-tsked. They asked where he was going and why, and why wasn't he driving? He explained his situation. It was getting dark, and they apologized for talking so much, then fed them supper and offered to let them stay the night. Jonathan gratefully accepted the offer.

    The next morning, he carried the wood on the porch while his girls ate breakfast and helped clean up after. With no running water, it was difficult. There was a pond across the road, but water had to be carried from it and boiled for every use. He filled every bucket they could find and set them on the porch as well.

    It was getting late in the morning, and he knew that they had to leave. Making their farewell, they were given with a bag of sandwiches--enough for a day, maybe two by the weight of it. Jonathan thanked them, gathered his girls and made his way down the driveway and west. He wondered if the old folks would make it for long without their son's help. He wondered what had happened to the son. He wondered what would happen to him and his daughters.

    Three days later, they were hungry and cold again--and it was starting to snow. That night, he had found an empty house and broken in. There had been food, blankets and beds. The house had no heat, but compared to where they had been sleeping, it was wonderful. They stayed there two days, eating and resting. Before leaving, he had gathered all the food they could carry, patched the window he had broken as best he could. This house, as opposed to the others, looked like someone was expecting to return to it. The girls had not wanted to go, and had cried bitterly. He consoled them with thoughts of getting to their mother and baby brother. He didn't tell them that they had only made it a maybe a quarter of the way.

    Coming past the east side of Lexington, they had found a sort of soup kitchen being run by a little country church. It was really for the members, but by way of Christian charity, they were fed their first meal in a day. They were given another meal for the road, and sent on their way. Charity, it seemed, only extended so far.

    They ran into one of Lexington's roadblocks, and were told that refugees were not welcome. They slowly pushed on, heading up Highway 64.

    Two more mostly hungry days had found them coming up the drive to Tom's home. Jonathan knew that the cold and lack of food were getting to them. He was taking turns pulling the girls in the wagon to help them out, but he knew that in another day or two, they would be unable to continue. He was out of options, and Tom's house was the first occupied one he had seen after he had reached that conclusion.

    At the end of his story, he shrugged. "And here we are," he said, looking across the floor to his now sleeping daughters. He yawned.

    Tom looked at his watch. 7:43. He winked at Walt, who nodded slightly. "Mr. Wyatt, thanks for sharing your story. Sleep in tomorrow, and come to the house when you wake up. We'll have a meal of some sort for you and your girls. If anyone wakes up and needs a snack, there are a couple more MREs in that box." He pointed.

    "Thanks. You've been very generous."

    "Well, you're welcome, but I expect to work it off of you. Sleep well." The others were making their way to the door, and Tom followed them out. Once outside, he quietly said "Can you all come up to the house for a bit? I think we need to talk." A murmured chorus of assent answered him.

    Going into the house, they all took off their jackets and hung them on the back porch. They went into the kitchen, with Alice, Walt, Alan and Jannie taking chairs. Tom stayed standing.

    Jannie started. "You are not going to take this bunch in. No way. We don't know them. Plus he's a criminal--he's been breaking into houses. How do we know he won't steal from us?" She glared at Tom.

    He looked back at her and blinked. "I think we need to talk about it a bit before we send them on their way. First, he broke in because his kids were hungry. I'd do the same in his place--no doubt in my mind. And outside of simple human decency, there's the factor of their occupations to consider. An ER nurse and an EMT? They could make very good neighbors...."

    "Tom, the girl's got a point," said Walt nodding in Jannie's direction. "You don't know him, and all you have to go on is his word. Now, for what it's worth, I think he's telling the truth. But what about his family? How do you plan on persuading him to give up his little winter walk--foolish and ill-conceived as it may be? Besides, he isn't all that intelligent. How blind do you have to be to miss the signs?"
    "And Thomas, his wife isn't here--she's in Statesville," reminded Alice.

    "We make him a package offer. He gets a house--we can use Mary Alice's house, some food, some firewood...and we go get his wife and kid. We teach him how to survive. He earns his keep working with all of us and providing medical care as needed."

    Alan jumped into the discussion. "Tom, that's crazy. First, you can't just give him that house--it isn't yours. Besides, he's going to join his family on a farm. Why would he want to stay here among strangers? Second, and probably more importantly, we know nothing about what is going on between here and Statesville. We know that Mocksville is in bad shape , at least as of the last time we were there. I doubt things have improved. And we have no knowledge of what's going on further west. The risk is very high. For all we know the roads are covered in armed bandits."

    "Alan, whether we like it or not, I don't think Mary Alice is going to be able to get back here. And the return for our effort high as well, Alan. Right now, we're all out here on our own, and we're doing OK for now. But what if you fell and broke a leg? Sure, we're going to do our best to set it for you, but none of us knows anything except what we've read in books. So we try, and we botch it. You get to limp around for the rest of your life, or maybe die."

    "Tom, that's a maybe..."

    Tom cut him off. "For a maybe from you. We have no way of knowing if he'd consider the proposal without asking. If he accepts, then I'll make the run with him in my truck. My fuel, my risk. You guys stay here and mind the store."

    Jannie stood up, walked over and put her hand on his shoulder. "Tom, what if you don't come back?"

    "Well, I'd hope that you would all look after the kids. The house would be theirs and yours I guess, and we're still well set for stuff."

    Her eyes were moist. "Baby, you're not expendable. You need to stay with us. We're your family. They aren't."

    "Look, this is a great opportunity! I know there's risk, but we're living with risk every day. What if I had fell off the roof when I was stringing that antenna? What if one of the kids gets really sick? We can't just run to town to the doctor or the hospital any more. Mocksville is pretty well closed for business, and Lexington's not much better off."

    The argument continued for a half hour, then an hour. Alan and Jannie firmly against, Tom for, Walt in the middle and Alice taking the part of the Sphinx, watching silently.

    After all the words and tears, nothing was settled. Alan, Walt and Alice went home, and Jannie, weeping, went to their bedroom. Tom sent Caleb, who said nothing but looked very sad, to bed, checked on the kids asleep in their beds, stoked the fire and sat in the dark living room, looking out the windows at the night.

    --------------------------------------------------------------

    Tom finished his sandwich, and wished for the third time he had a glass of milk. Nice, cold milk. Real milk, like he had drank as a kid, not the skim stuff Sarah has always bought because it was "healthier". He knew there was powdered milk in the refrigerator, but that needed to go to the kids. He picked up his glass of water and looked at it as if he could will it to be milk. It stubbornly stayed water, and he drank it down. They needed to find a cow.

    He heard the back door open, and began a rising turn from his seat, hand reaching for the pistol on his belt. "It's me," called Jonathan. He was learning. Tom sat back down.

    "I think that ought to do the wood for a while. There's still quite a bit to be split if you want, but I think it would keep better whole. I also gathered a bunch of kindling for everyone."

    "That's great," said Tom. "Pull up a chair and have a sandwich. I hope you like PBJs."

    "Have the girls eaten yet?"

    "They have. They're keeping Caleb entertained while he watches the road."

    "I guess it's a lot of work trying to get things done here and trying to keep watch at the same time. Who didn't get to sleep before we got here?"

    "It depended on who's night it was to watch. We all pitch in together, the three houses, so that no one had to do it more than one night in three. And it's not quite as bad as it sounds. With no electricity, no TV and very little on the radio, we tend to go to bed early most nights, so we get a lot of sleep. And the night watch can still get some things done, as long as they can do them while keeping an eye out."

    Jonathan considered the answer. "Has anything happened at night?"

    "Not really. We've seen one group of folks go by, but they seemed more interested in making time down the road than anything else. It seems a waste of effort--we live a bit off the beaten path. Of course," he looked at Jonathan and smiled, "you found us."

    "Entirely accidental. When the batteries for the GPS died, I got more or less lost. I know the area in rough terms, and I knew if I just kept moving west and north I'd eventually run into either Highway 64 or I-40. Once I found one of those, I knew where I was again." He looked at his hands. "I've been thinking about your offer..." his voice trailed off.

    "Reached a decision yet? We could use you and your wife here. Yadkin College used to be a going concern a hundred or so years ago. The way things are going, it could be a good place to live again. Quiet, more or less out of the way. The land grows about anything, and the river has never went dry in memory. Good neighbors, I think. You and your wife, with your medical skills, would be a big asset in a rebuilt community." There was a girl's giggle from the living room. Tom smiled. "And I believe your oldest daughter and Caleb are starting to become friends."

    Caleb came pounding into the kitchen. "The Army's coming up the road!"

  27. #27

    Chapter 23

    January 17, 2009

    Daily observations
    Low temperature: 27
    High temperature: 48
    Barometric pressure: 30.4
    Sunny in the morning, becoming cloudy in the late afternoon.


    Yesterday was the best day we've had since...well, for a very long time, I guess. James and a lot of our National Guard guys are back home. It was a complete surprise, but I suppose it shouldn't be--there's no such thing as "the news" any more. There's a lot more I ought to write about, but it's going to have to wait--busy day ahead.


    From the Journal of Thomas Wilson Carpenter


    January 18, 2009
    Yadkin College, NC


    The smell of breakfast cooking in the kitchen was tantalizing. They hadn't eaten a breakfast like this in a while, bacon, eggs and all the trimmings, but this breakfast was a celebration of sorts. It had to be a celebratory breakfast, rather than a dinner or supper, because there were a lot of things planned for today.

    He looked out of the windows at his front yard. Four Humvees and two big trucks--"deuce and a halfs", he mentally corrected himself, sat in an arc facing the road. Several tents were clustered behind them, between the house and the trucks. Men in uniform were moving around, eating, breaking down their tents and preparing to move. It was shortly after dawn.

    His brother James walked into the room, gun in hand. "Man oh man, was that great! I haven't slept in a real bed in a long time. And a shower! I just wish I had a way to let all the men have one as well."

    "Well, Big Brother, if you weren't in such a hurry, we could. We've got enough gas to run the generator for a while, thanks to you. If the generator runs, so does the pump."

    "Another time. We've got places to go and things to see. You still coming along?"

    "Absolutely. I've been putting off going into Lexington for a while. I need some things if I can get them, and the county owes us some food for Caleb. We can do without it, but we've been feeding a lot of mouths that were never planned for, so we could use it."

    "Well, I wouldn't get my hopes up too high on the food. That's a little short everywhere right now. Hopefully it's going to be addressed. I know Bragg is working on it."

    He picked up his M4. "Let's get moving. We have a lot of ground to cover today, and I need to get my teams organized."

    -------------------------------

    Last night, after the panicked run to the front of the house to find out what was going on, and after all of the back-slapping, hugging, handshakes and so on had been accomplished, James had organized his men, putting some to work arranging a bivouac for the night, while sending others on a reconnaissance around the immediate area. That done, he had accepted an offer of a chair in a warm room and some food. Everyone within sight of Tom's house had arrived, and were dying to hear any news from beyond the Yadkin College area.

    First, he filled them in on the trip back from Georgia. After that, it was the state of Mocksville (bad) and the renewal of contact with their higher command (worse). Nation-wide gang attacks, terrorist attacks, unattributed sabotage, biological warfare and not two, but four, attacks with nuclear devices. Military Intelligence, as much of it as still existed, believed that it was coordinated, but had no confirmation. The military was acting as if that were the case. They had no choice.

    To make matters worse, in the chaos that had followed the various attacks, the garden variety criminals had opportunistically taken their toll, as had various "old-fashioned" diseases such as cholera and dysentery. There was widespread starvation since the distribution infrastructure had collapsed. The US population was currently estimated at around 200 million people, and likely to drop further--a lot further. One of the estimates was that it might be stabilized at around 100 million, providing that some sort of food distribution could be organized.

    After giving them the short version, he filled them in on the details. There had been a movement, or at least attempted movement, of illegal aliens toward the south, in an effort to return to their homes. While they had been slowly leaving the country before the attacks due to the declining economy, the attacks had accelerated the process. Correctly concluding that the good times were over, they en mass tried to go home.

    Unfortunately for them, they ran into various gangs and groups, some intent on "vengeance" against any Hispanic; some merely looking for easy targets for their criminal activities. The Mexican government, already shaky from several years of reverse immigration and drug gang warfare, blockaded their own border. People had stacked up for miles. The Mexican Army had opened fire when some had tried to force their way through; more died from disease and gang depredation. Still died when they attempted to walk south through the desert. Those who remained stuck near the border had simply set up typical third world refugee camps, sure that the El Nortes would help them--after all, they always had.

    Except this time. The state governments of the border states, with the partial exception of Texas, had essentially collapsed. The Federal government was busy all over, and spread thin. No help came.

    After a couple of weeks, desperation forced them to try moving south again. This time they simply overran the Mexican army, whose blockade had been weakened in order to send troops to other areas as the situation in Mexico deteriorated further. As they flooded south, they stripped every town, city and farm in the way.

    Some large US cities had been thrown into chaos from biological warfare attacks, which had used a modified influenza virus. Overwhelmed hospitals couldn't handle the load, and those working in them became quickly infected by the highly contagious illness. Many attempted to flee the fast-spreading disease, dying in the attempt, either from the disease itself or killed and their bodies burned by residents of areas where they sought refuge, as word of the plague spread. Those who made it out became the source of new outbreaks. Suburbs and small towns surrounding the big cities were often wiped out within a few days of the start of the original outbreak. The two pieces of luck were that the virus worked quickly and died without a living host in a short period. This meant that the infection burned itself out in relatively short order. If things hadn't already been bad and people had been able to travel as they had some months earlier, it would have been much worse.

    Finally, there were the cities that had been targeted for nuclear terrorism. Of all the events, these were the ones where the least information was available. It was thought that the devices used were tactical nuclear warheads, smuggled into the country by means unknown. At any rate, how they had arrived made little difference to those in New York, Houston, Wichita and Seattle. Those who had not been instantly immolated in the fireballs were currently suffering from the same problems as everyone else, with heavy destruction and radiation sickness thrown in as bonuses.

    As James had been making his matter-of-fact recitation of the situation, Tom and his neighbors listened in shock. When James finished, they all sat in Tom's great room, just looking at each other. Finally, Alice asked James, "What about the Federal government?"

    "No one's sure. I know that the military has received nothing from our civilian leadership, or from any further up the chain than Northcom. I know that attempts have been made to reach every possible part of the civilian leadership, but so far, they haven't been able to reliably make contact with anyone. They thought they had reached Secretary of Energy, but he dropped off the air shortly after and hasn't been heard from since. There's speculation that such a complete loss of the civilian leadership couldn't be accidental."

    Walt grunted. "James, it's January 17th. Do you know what happens on the 20th?"

    "By then, I'm scheduled to be back in Mocksville. Why?"

    "Get out of tactical mode, son, and think big. What happens every four years on January 20th?"

    "Crap! They inaugurate the new President!"

    "That's right. Anyone heard from him?"

    "I don't know--no one's said."

    "Well, I'll bet that your higher ups have tried. If they'd found him, you'd have probably heard. Since you haven't, I think it's safe to assume that they haven't, either."

    Jannie looked puzzled. "So who's running the country?"

    Walt looked at her thoughtfully. "It would seem, my dear, that the US military is in charge."

    ----------------------------------------

    Tom nodded. "So what's the plan, or you can you tell us lowly civilian-types?"

    "I can, and not just because you're my favorite little brother..."

    "I happen to be your only little brother."

    "...but because you're now a 'local leader', whatever the hell that is," James finished without missing a beat. "While we're on these missions, we're supposed to seek out these 'local leaders' and bring them up to speed on current events and our current efforts to get the country back on its feet. By the way, consider yourself up to speed. In turn the local leaders are supposed to disseminate this information far and wide, casting it like seeds in a field, where it will take root..."

    "I get it, I get it already. Good grief, do they teach you sarcasm in the military?"

    "When you've seen the outcome of a lot of our government's policies, you start to find out how full of BS our elected leaders frequently are. You find solace in sarcasm."

    "Uh-huh. So why bother trying?"

    "I took an oath, remember? And as we say, Uncle Sam Ain't Released Me Yet." He pointed to the "US ARMY" patch on his chest.

    "OK, whatever. So what is this plan?"

    "First, we to recon as much of our AOs--that's Area of Operations, for you non-military types--as feasible. For us, at least for now, that's Davie, Davidson and Rowan counties, plus any contiguous areas that we feel we can handle. Of course, we're going to be spread thin. We've about half the strength we should be, more or less. During the process, we find all of you local leaders who have sprung up, clue you in and gain your support."

    Tom snorted. "I'll support anything if it'll get the lights back on."

    "Careful what you wish for. As far as I'm concerned, this situation has 'mo betta disaster' written all over it."

    "Meaning?"

    "Geeze, did you get stupid while I was gone or what? Think, will you!"

    "Give me a break, you know politics was never my big thing."

    "Yeah, and neither was current events. You always had your head stuffed into a computer."

    "Well, it worked out well--I made a lot of money!" Tom said defensively.

    "Sure you did--and Sarah spent it for you. Fairly well, from what I'm seeing. You've got most of the building blocks to be able to keep yourself and your family safe and sound."

    "Hey, I bought guns!"

    "Only because you like to shoot. Look, I don't want to argue with you. For crying out loud, we haven't seen each other in over a year, and we can't make it a day without arguing? Look, what I'm saying is that you can't afford to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else. You used to do it with computers, and now you're doing it with solar panels and chopping wood. You've got to stop that, or something ugly is going to blind-side you. And right now, there's a lot of ugly out there."

    "Like what?"

    James told him, in detail, what had transpired around in the areas when they had passed through around Charlotte. Tom went a little pale. "And, little brother, I'll bet that just as bad has happened near here as well. You just haven't been out there to see it. Consider yourself lucky that it hasn't came looking for you. Remind me to give you some security tips before I leave, because you need them."

    "Why?"

    "We found two old folks, raped, robbed and murdered, about 5 miles up the highway from here yesterday afternoon."

    -----------------------------------------------------------

    On the road toward Lexington, a house had attracted James' attention, and they stopped to investigate. Tom had stayed outside while the soldiers had entered the house. They had been in there for a few minutes when James walked out of the house, followed by his men. He was stuffing what looked like mail into a pocket. He pointed at two of his men. "Burn it."

    As the men grabbed a can of diesel fuel and entered the house, James walked toward Tom, shaking his head. "Not as bad as we've seen, but bad enough. We were able to find names and some addresses. Maybe some day we can let their kids or grandkids or whoever know that they're dead."

    "Why burn it?"

    "SOP. It takes too much time to give them a decent burial. Besides, the house was pretty messy."

    Tom didn't ask any more questions. He wasn't sure that he wanted the answers.

    ----------------------------------------------------------

    The lead Humvee stopped well short of the road block on Lexington's South Main Street. It had been substantially enlarged and improved since Tom had last seen it seen it, a bit less than 3 months ago. It would take a bulldozer to push it aside now. He said so to James.

    "Yeah, but it would be a trivial exercise to walk around it. Besides, why have the thing this far out of town?"

    "Well, the hospital is down here."

    "True, but without power, all that equipment is worthless. They'd be better off with an expedient hospital set up further into town. Strip as much as possible, and move it. Make the area you're defending as compact as possible."

    A sergeant whose name Tom couldn't recall swung out of the passenger door of the Humvee and put a bullhorn to his mouth. You could see the men at the roadblock watching cautiously. At least they the good sense not to threaten the little convoy. Tom knew that if they had, the reaction would have been swift and probably fatal. These men weren't taking chances.

    "I'm Sergeant Andre Ray of the 4th Cavalry," boomed the amplified voice. "Take no threatening actions; our rules of engagement allow us to open fire as we believe necessary. We just want to come into Lexington and make contact with your governing body."

    Tom thought he could hear someone answer, but he couldn't make out what it said. Apparently Sgt. Ray could.

    "I understand. However, we're under orders to make contact with the civilian government in this area. We're just trying to get the word out about the situation in the country and what steps are being taken."

    There was a longer shouted answer this time.

    "No, we aren't bringing supplies at this time. However, there will be supplies in the future. I need you to understand that I'm not going to stand here all day and discuss this with you. You can either open up and let us in so we can talk to your city council, or we can leave. You need to understand that if we leave, we won't be back for quite a while, and you will not be on our A List for supply distribution. I doubt your city council will be happy with that, do you? I wonder how they'll react when the find out how you screwed the pooch over this? You don't suppose you might find yourself on this side of that thing, do you?"

    James yawned and stretched. "Will somebody explain to me why every damn town we've been to since we got back all think that they are running the world now? This is getting old."

    Tom leaned forward. "Well, the last time we were here, they wouldn't let us in either. At least they let us come up to the barricade and talk. The town took a heavy beating in a fight early on--the Cambodians. The Sheriff was killed along with a lot of other people. After that, we heard they were having problems with refugees."

    James grunted. "Well, that all sounds familiar. I guess that no one carried through on that plan to clean up that part of town, huh?"

    "Thank you," the amplified voice boomed.

    The school buses that formed the "gate" in the barricade were being started and moved out of the way.

    James straightened up in his seat. "I will say that Sgt. Ray does have a way with this particular work."

    The convoy slowly rolled through the barricade. The men manning it looked at them with expressions ranging from curious to furious. One man was talking into a walkie-talkie. Tom turned around to see the buses being pushed back into place.

    South Main looked pretty much as Tom remembered it, but without any people. A couple of buildings had burned, and a number of the old dilapidated houses appeared to be in the process of being torn down. Wood from them was piled in the yards.

    As they made their way north on Main Street, they started seeing some signs of habitation. People were outside, working at various tasks. Some were building what looked like defensive positions around groups of houses, while others carried, pulled or pushed wood, salvaged lumber and various nondescript loads in their arms, in wagons or wheelbarrows. James nodded.

    "Someone around here has enough sense to know those barricades won't stop anyone large enough and determined. Defense in depth."

    "I don't understand," said Tom.

    "If you count on just a perimeter defense, if that's breached, the bad guys get to come in and snack on the soft chewy middle of the town. This way, the bad guys will be met time after time by people in prepared positions. Depending on the size and training of the force, plus its equipment, they may be able to take a number of these positions--but each time, they get to bleed. Bleed them enough, and they may decide to leave before getting to the center of town, which is where I'd assume most of the people and remaining goodies are kept."

    "Oh."

    "Like I said little brother, before we leave we're going to give you some lessons. Otherwise, the first seriously bad guys that come along are going to be living in your house, eating your food and probably raping your women. You've been lucky so far, but don't count on that for much longer. If nothing else, when the weather warms up we're going to see a lot of activity as people--good and bad--who have holed up for winter start coming out and moving around looking for food, a better place to live or whatever."

    "That's comforting," Tom said sarcastically.

    "It wasn't meant to be. I keep telling you, there's a lot of ugly out there, and before this is all over, I expect we'll get to see every sort you can imagine."

    The little convoy pulled up in front of city hall and stopped. They quickly attracted a small crowd. Shouted questions came thick and fast. James and his men fended off questions about food, fuel, medicine and the welfare of various members of their unit. Sgt. Ray had dispatched two men to go into the building and find someone in charge, but that person was not making a timely appearance. The people were getting more insistent and closer to out of control. Finally, James grabbed his bullhorn.

    "Folks, FOLKS! A little quiet, please!" He waited as the crowd quieted. "I know you all have questions, but we don't have the time to answer them all for each person we meet. We're going to talk with the people who are running things and give them all the information we have. Then they can pass it around to all of you."

    As he finished his last sentence, the two men detailed to find someone in charge exited the building, bringing with them 2 men, one in a uniform. Tom recognized him as John Dean, who had been acting Sheriff the last he had seen him. Tom waved, and Dean waved back. "He looks older," thought Tom.

    The other man asked for and was handed the bullhorn. "People, we need for you to go back to your work assignments. We're going to talk to our boys from the Army and then we'll report to you latter today on the bulletin boards. I know you all have questions to ask and things you need, but right now, let's give these men a chance to get settled. Please, back to work."

    There was some grumbling, but most of the crowd began turning away. It was obvious that they didn't like what they had been told, but it seemed equally obvious that no one was going to question it too loudly. Tom wondered about that. It seemed unusual.

    James turned to the men and introduced himself. In return, Wilson Summey, the Lexington City Manager and John Dean, Sheriff of Davidson County, introduced themselves. Tom didn't miss that the word "Acting" was gone from his title now.

    Tom couldn't hear what was said, but James, the two soldiers, the city manager and the sheriff went back into the building. Tom supposed that this would be a briefing similar to what he had received. He wondered how long it would take, and supposed that he would have time to walk back to Main Street and see if any stores were open. He expected that to be a waste of time, but it beat standing around waiting.

    The soldiers had already posted guards. Some began quick checks on their vehicles, while other followed the time-honored tradition of grabbing a quick nap while it was quiet. Tom approached Sgt. Ray, who was giving orders to a group of three men. He waited until the men left, and then said "Excuse me, sergeant? Can I have a minute?"

    "Sure, sir. What can I do for you?"

    "I'm going to take a quick walk back up to Main Street and see if anything is still open. We need some things, and I'd like to see what's available."

    "Sir, I'd be more comfortable if you stayed here with us. We're not sure what the situation is here, and until we know, it's best that no one to go off on their own."

    "Sergeant, we're all from this area--this is Lexington, for crying out loud. I don't think anyone is going to kidnap me."

    "Probably not, sir, but a lot has changed in the last few weeks. The town has changed--people have changed. Someone is desperate enough, they might decide to kill you for that nice coat you're wearing, or maybe your boots. I can't stop you from going, but I advise against it. In the most strenuous terms, sir."

    Tom looked at him, then back toward Main Street. He turned back, but before he could speak, Sgt. Ray said "Sir, I know the Captain has told you a lot of what we've seen in the last few weeks and months. Trust me when I tell you that telling is very different from seeing. I've seen it, and I really think you need to stick close to us. Everything's changed, and none of it for the good."

    Tom, suddenly aware that his mouth was hanging open, closed it. He then opened it to say "OK, sergeant, if you feel that strongly, I'll wait here."

    "Thank you, sir. I'd hate for my CO's brother to get in trouble when I'm supposed to be keeping an eye him." He smiled. "If you'll excuse me, I have some things to attend to." He motioned to two men and began moving toward them.

    Alone, Tom wondered what to do with himself. He wondered back toward James' Humvee, opened a door and climbed inside, leaving the door open. Not knowing what else to do, he rocked his head back and drifted off into a nap.

    Some time later, he woke with a start. He had the oddest feeling that he was being watched. Checking his watch, he noted that slightly over an hour had passed. Tom sat up, rubbed his eyes and looked around the area.

    There were a number of people moving about. Some carried tools while others pushed wheelbarrows or shopping carts carrying various goods. A few carried boxes with unknown contents. One pair, a male and a female, passed by, each wearing a red armband and carrying a rifle. "Roving guards?", Tom wondered. Was it dangerous enough here that they needed full-time guards?

    Finally, he spotted them--there was someone watching him. Two someones, actually. He saw them watching from an old gas station that now advertised "BAIL BONDS". They didn't seem to be obviously threatening, but they were definitely keeping an eye on him.

    He reached into his coat as if to scratch an itch, and felt the comforting weight of his pistol nestled in its shoulder holster. He rarely went anywhere without it these days, just on general principle. He really didn't think that it was that dangerous during the day, but still...better safe than sorry.

    The pair had evidently attracted the notice of one of the soldiers, who nudged one of his buddies and nodded toward them. Tom saw them shift their grips on their their M4s and walk across the street. They moved together, but with a lot of space between them. The guns were not aimed at the pair of watchers, but were carried so that there could be no question whether or not they could be brought into action quickly.

    The watchers did not notice the soldiers until they were halfway across the street. One moved as if to leave, but the other put his hand on his arm and said something. The soldiers approached, one moving forward to talk to them, one lagging behind a bit. They spoke for a moment, then the soldier gestured to the other side of the street. The pair started to walk across, one man beside them, the other trailing.

    Once on Tom's side of the street, two more soldiers approached the group. Tom watched with interest as they spoke. One man detached himself from the group and walked toward Tom. As he came around the open Humvee door, he spoke. "Sir, these guys say they know your grandfather and they'd like to speak to you. Do you know either one of them?"

    "It's hard to say from across the street. Can I talk to them?"

    The man thought for a second, then said "I guess that's OK. They don't look like they could cause much trouble."

    Tom slid out of the vehicle and walked over to the men. As he got closer, he recognized one of the men, a local lawyer who had attended Walt and Alice's wedding. He couldn't recall the name, but the face was familiar.

    The man spoke. "You're Tom Carpenter? Judge Carpenter's grandson?"

    "Yes, I am. I remember your face, but not your name. Could you help me out?"

    The man smiled and put out his hand. "I'm David Hendrick. I know your grandfather and one of your neighbors, Walt Johnson. We've all been in court together a few times--more than a few, actually. I hope they're all still well?"

    Tom took the offered hand and shook it. "They are. Walt is as big a pain ass ever, and my grandfather and grandmother are doing fine. I got to see them a couple of days ago, but we talk on the radio at least once a day."

    The man's smile widened. "That's wonderful. We were working on cleaning out this building and saw you when you arrived. The officer--he's your older brother, isn't he? I haven't seen him in some time. I doubt that either of you would remember it, but I would help watch you two on days the Judge brought you to court with him. You were just little guys then."

    Tom smiled. "I remember coming to the court house, but I don't remember much else. That was a long time ago."

    "Indeed it was. A long time ago and a better place, as well." He shook his head. "I have a message--a request, actually--that I'd like to get to your grandfather. You said that you talked to him on the radio, so I assume he still has all his ham gear?"

    "Oh yes--an entire room full of it. My grandmother still complains."

    "Excellent! I guess you remember that a lot of us who worked in the courts here were ham operators?" Tom nodded yes, and the man continued. "We're trying to get a communications network set up here, and we're out of some items we need. If I can get you a list together, would you pass it along to your grandfather? We've tried to raise him, but he hasn't been answering."

    Tom nodded. "Sure, I'd be happy to. I imagine he's been conserving his power. We're all making do with some solar panels and a little generator time, but electricity is at a premium. Knowing him, I doubt he has it on unless he's planning on talking to someone."

    "I understand. We're a little better off, since we were still active in ARES when this all hit. We have power, but not enough coax and connectors to set up all the radios we need. We
    re also short on microphones, antenna parts and a few other things. I hope he has some parts we can beg. I think there are some pads and pens in the office--let me go make a list."

    One of the soldiers put out a hand. "I have a pad and a pen you can use, sir." Velcro ripped, and he pulled them out of a pocket and handed them to the man, who started writing. Ripping off the sheet, he handed it to Tom. He then handed the pad and pen back to the soldier.

    "Thank you, Private..." The man turned so that the name tag on his chest was visible. "...Higgs. Thank you. Tom, I've also included the times for our nets. Please ask your Grandfather to join in if he can. We can trade information about our areas--that's sort of the whole purpose of this--to keep everyone in touch."

    "I will, sir. I imagine he can." Tom shook the man's hand, and held his out for the other man. "I never got your name, sir. I'm Tom Carpenter."

    The man took Tom's hand. "Bradley Johnson. I never had the pleasure of meeting your grandfather; he had retired before I moved to town."

    "You mean you're not a ham radio guy? How'd you get a job in this town? I thought a amateur license was a requirement to practice law in Lexington." Tom smiled. It was something of a local joke.

    "No, I'm a computer sort of guy."

    "I understand--I'm a computer geek by trade."

    Sergeant Ray stepped up. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but the Captain's coming out. I expect he'll want to be moving soon."

    "Yes, of course," said Hendrick. "We really ought to get back to our work as well. Around here, if you don't work, you don't eat."

    Tom considered that last statement and filed it away. "Well, goodbye. I'll pass this along as soon as I can."

    "Thank you, Tom. Give your grandparents my best."

    Tom and the soldiers walked across the street. He mused that it still felt awfully funny to not have to look both ways before crossing a street, but he still did it from reflex.

    As Tom walked up, James, the sheriff and the city manager were shaking hands. James was speaking. "I'm sorry the news isn't better. I'll take your list and start running it up the chain and we'll see what kind of help we can shake free. If nothing else, maybe we can get you some medical supplies."

    Sheriff Dean nodded. "We'd appreciate anything you could do. We've lost a lot of the old folks. I'm getting tired of organizing burial parties." He saw Tom, and stuck out his hand. "Well, Tom! How's life out in your part of the county?"

    Tom took his hand and shook it. "It seems that we've had it a lot easier than you folks. Sure you won't consider the offer and move out with us?"

    Dean shook his head. "No, I'm needed here a lot worse. We're holding our own, more or less. It'd help if we could keep these groups of thugs out of the area. We're slowly taking a toll on them, but they just keep filtering in from over toward High Point and Thomasville."

    "Funny," said Tom. "I can remember reading some of the stuff my wife had accumulated off the Internet, and they always argued about whether the bad guys would descend like a horde of locusts, or it they would be content to loot where they lived until they used up everything and found themselves having to walk to the next place."

    "Well, it isn't either--it's both. We get them in big groups and small ones. Some of them drive in. Those are the easiest, since they have to pretty much stick to the roads. We pretty much have things set up so that they find themselves in a world of hurt." James rolled his eyes, but the sheriff missed it. "But there are a bunch who are on foot, and they're making things hard. Every so often a few get into town, take over a house or two on the outskirts when we aren't looking...and well, then things aren't so easy. We have to go in and root them out, and that's costly. We've lost a lot of people doing that, and burned up a lot of our ammo supply."

    Tom didn't know how to respond to that, so he said nothing. Dean brightened a bit. "Anyway, we're figuring it out. Since the Guard's back, maybe we'll be able to get some help sometime."

    "We'll do what we can, sheriff, but as I've told you, our resources are limited for now. You're primarily going to have on depend on yourselves and your own resources." James was obviously exasperated with the man.

    "Remember what we went over. First, you need to stop trying to defend the entire town--I don't care what the town council and the county commissioners say--you're spread way too thin. That's why these people on foot are getting in. Second, you need to organize patrols to sweep a mile or two out of town on a regular basis--you don't want to be surprised. Third, get your salvage parties moving out of town and see what you can round up. Make them big, arm them heavily, keep your eyes open and you should be OK. But your main thing is going to be to just hang on until something gets organized on a regional scale. That's going to take time."

    He didn't' give the sheriff a chance to reply, but motioned to Sgt. Ray. "Mount 'em up." Sgt. Ray turned and started getting the troops into their vehicles.

    Tom gave Dean a little wave. "John, I'll see you next time."

    "Sure, Tom. See you next time." The sheriff stood there, obviously unhappy.

    As the convoy started moving, Tom reached forward and tapped James on the shoulder. "So, how are things in Lexington?"

    "They've got a wish list about a mile long--food, fuel, medical supplies, guns and ammo--you name it, they want it. Sad thing is that they need it all. Sadder thing is that I can't help them right now. I kept having to explain that we're just getting organized. Maybe by spring we can help them out substantially. Right now, I'll play the dickens just getting them some med supplies."

    James stretched around so he could see Tom. "They've lost a lot of their old folks. According to his count, they've lost almost half of their over-65 population. The ones who needed drugs--blood pressure, heart disease and so on--almost all of them are gone. Diabetics are mostly dead now as well. A few are surviving on highly modified diets, but I don't think that will last long--they're just dying slower. The kids, they've lost a bunch of them as well--got hit with a nasty upper-respiratory. Their docs said they could have saved them all if they'd had antibiotics. People who get hurt, or wounded in a fight have a 50-50 chance. Pneumonia is a killer again. The hospital is closed. They've taken over the old hospital building because it's closer into town and are using it--at least they've had that much sense. But without drugs and supplies, it's probably just a place to go and die."

    "And they're being stupid...just incredibly stupid. Dean is ex-military, and he knows they're being stupid, and he's just doing it anyway. The idiot politicians want to defend the entire town. Hell, that'd be hard enough if you had a battalion to work with. They have maybe 200 people, most of whom have no combat experience. Too many have no military experience at all. It's hopeless. They need to pull back to a core and defend that core. But no, we're going to defend everything. And that means they can defend nothing."

    "They're also hungry--they're all hungry. The city government has taken all the food from the stores, abandoned homes, everywhere they could find it. They're doling it out. The people doing hard labor are getting around 1500 calories a day. Everyone else gets a lot less."

    "That's not too bad, is it? I mean, we were always told how fat we Americans are."

    James looked at him. "The rule of thumb for a soldier in the field is 4500 calories per day. I imagine that labor is a bit less intensive, but not much. If we can't get them some food, or if they won't go further out of town looking, they're going to starve before summer when the first crops come in."

    "Why won't they look out of town?"

    "They've lost a lot of people that way. Of course, it was their fault--they didn't send out teams big enough to defend themselves, Some of these groups that hit them have 25, maybe 30 guys, all armed. They were sending people out two, there, four at a time. Stupid. So now they want to sit there in their perimeter, such as it is, and hope help comes to them. Right now, that's a long wait for a train that's not coming."

    "So what are you going to do?"

    James shrugged. "I'll pass it up the line, along with the requests from Mocksville, Fork and every other place we've been to. I figure by the time any help is available, it won't be needed--one way or the other."

    -------------------

    As they moved slowly through town, Tom looked at things from a different viewpoint. It did seem that people were thin, especially in their faces. Some moved a bit slower than you'd expect--tired or just hungry and low on energy?

    It was just as well that he hadn't went exploring for an open store. There were none. Some were in the process of being stripped, while others were obviously already cleaned out.

    Suddenly, he heard a car horn, then another and another. People on the street started running--some with an apparent purpose, some almost in panic.

    "What the hell is going on?" shouted James. "Get us stopped--up there by that guy next to that white Toyota," he pointed.

    The Humvee pulled up to the car James had pointed out. Before it had fully stopped, the door slammed open and James was out of the vehicle. He grabbed the man, who was furiously honking the car's horn.

    "What the dickens is going on? What's all this horn business?" James had to shout to be heard over the horn. "And stop honking that damn horn!"

    "It's an attack--when there's an attack we start blowing car horns to alert everyone to either get into a safe place or to respond to their defense assignment." As he shouted his reply, he kept honking the horn and looking around the area. Satisfied that everyone had gotten the point, he stopped.

    "Do you know where the attack is--how big?" asked James.

    "Not yet." Gunfire sounded in the near distance. "But I'd guess it's that way." He pointed northeast, along Main Street.

    --------------------------------------

    Tom had never been in a firefight. So far, he wasn't enjoying his first one.

    James had hustled the little convoy toward the gunfire, stopping twice to listen and refine the direction. The route had lead them straight down Main Street, as if they had been leaving town. As the topped the small hill that hid the edge of town, they could see the situation unfolding.

    There were no terrain features to provide a base for a defense line in this area. There was no commanding high ground, no river or stream, not even a ditch. All they had to work with was the US 64 overpass where it crossed US 29-70. Trying to build that, a double line of cars and trucks had been positioned about 50 yards beyond the bridge to completely block 29-70 to vehicular traffic, except for one narrow "cattle gate". More cars were lined up along the bridge. Tom guessed they were to provide cover for those who manned the roadblock from an attack from the east or west. There was no obvious defense from an attack east or west on 64.

    The double line of cars had been breached in two places by large dump trucks which had been crahsed through the barricade. A number of cars and trucks were stopped just beyond the roadblock, and several had followed the trucks through the holes they had created. Tom could not tell how many were attacking, and the attackers had gotten in among them, and the weight of numbers was in their favor.

    Tom saw another defender fall, and at that point the Lexington men decided to make a run for it. The last one was cut down before he was able to duck off the road into some bushes. The attackers began popping up all along the roadblock, scrambling over the vehicles. Pushing their own disabled vehicles out of the way, they began clearing room for those that still ran to make their way past the roadblock. They didn't notice the 3 Humvees sitting at the top of the small hill at first.

    However, they soon did and started shooting in their direction. James moved the vehicles toward the sides of the street and his men deployed, seeking such cover as was available. Tom was told to stay behind a vehicle and out of the way. Sgt. Ray was beside him, aiming his M4 toward the attackers, who were making rapid headway in clearing their path forward. James grabbed townspeople as they showed up, and deployed them where they could do some good.

    James banged on the Humvee. "Open fire!" The .50 caliber M2 machine guns mounted on each began hammering at the remains of the roadblock. Parts of vehicles and people flew as the bullets hit.

    The Guardsman opened fire as well, picking their targets carefully. The attackers started falling. The people from Lexington began firing as well, rifles of various calibers adding to the racket. It was incredibly loud. He reached under his coat and pulled out his pistol, preparing to add to the fire.

    Sgt. Ray reached out a hand. "Don't waste it, you're too far away for that to..."

    He never finished the sentence. Tom had turned toward him just in time to watch his head explode as a round caught him just under the edge of his helmet. Blood and bits of flesh splattered on him. Sgt. Ray's body balanced for a split second, then fell toward Tom, landing at his feet.

    Tom gagged, then threw up. He tried to miss the body and failed. His head spun, and he grabbed the Humvee for support. Distantly, he could feel something wet under his fingers, and his stomach heaved again. He turned and sagged back against the vehicle, sliding down into a sitting position.

    He wasn't sure how long he sat there until he was aware of one of the soldiers, who had grabbed Sgt. Ray's M4 and was thrusting it out at him. "Here! Take this and get into the fight!'

    Tom looked at him dumbly. He heard a scream nearby. The soldier hit him in the chest with his fist, which was still holding the gun. "Take this and use it! We're going to get our asses kicked here! Come on!" He fired his own gun left-handed, then turn back. "Tom, dammit! We need you!" An M2 hammered in the background.

    Tom realized it was his brother James who was yelling at him. He reached out and took the carbine from him and looked at it.

    "That's a boy! Get around the back of the Humvee and start shooting the bastards." His foot pushed a pile of web gear toward him as he turned and fired again. "Take this...you'll need more ammo."

    Tom looked at him, then at the web gear and the gun in his hands. Both had spots of blood on them. Tom thought, "That's the sergeant's blood."

    He stood up and started to slowly walk to the rear of the Humvee. As bullets twipped by him, he heard James yell. "Get down! Get the hell down! Stay behind the vehicle!"

    Tom heard more bullets hit the armored vehicle. Something in him started to wake up, and he realized that he was exposed to fire from the attackers. He ducked down and scrambled to the rear of the Humvee. Peaking around it, he could see an awful lot of men and women running up the hill. They were getting hit, and a lot of them had fallen, but they weren't stopping. Vaguely, he wondered why they hadn't given up.

    He checked the position of the safety. It was in the "semi" position. He pulled back the charging handle, and a round popped out. Letting it snap forward, he brought the gun up to his shoulder, picked a target--he couldn't think of it as a person--and squeezed the trigger.

    He was almost surprised as his target stood straight up, clawing at her stomach. He aimed and fired again, and this time she fell into a flopping heap on the road. Shifting to another target, he saw it drop before he could fire. Someone else had beaten him to that one. He picked another and fired, and then another. At some point, the bolt locked back and he had to fumble for a fresh magazine. He kept shooting.

    So did everyone else. The M2s hammered, the M4s snapped and the heavier caliber guns of the locals cracked viciously. A couple of vehicles caught fire. The attackers kept coming up the hill, the smoke obscuring them a little. It wasn't a tall hill, and they didn't have far to come. It seemed that there was no end of them.

    They got within 50 feet of the crest before they broke. Whatever it was that had pushed them that far into the hail of gunfire finally failed, and those still able to move turned and started to run back down the hill. None of them made it back to the shelter of the roadblock.

    However, that wasn't the end of it. There were still people--"people who want to kill us," he thought--at the roadblock, and those people were still shooting. He heard a high-pitched scream, and looked to his left. He saw a local woman trying to stuff her intestines back into her body. She looked him straight in the eyes, silently pleading for him to help her. Then she slipped to the ground; her intestines spilling out around her.

    Tom could hear the M2s continuing to hammer at "those people" at the bottom of the hill. He also heard shouts. It was James, trying to organize a push down the hill to dislodge them from the roadblock.

    Tom fired at anything that showed itself in the mass of metal at the bottom of the hill. He didn't know if he was hitting anything, but he kept shooting. He saw men moving down the sides of the street, from one bit of cover to another. One fell, but they kept moving and firing, moving and firing. Tom stayed where he was and kept firing.

    "Their guys" kept getting closer, and eventually "the other guys" started to break and run. The scoped hunting rifles carried by some of the Lexington defenders swatted down many of them. Some got away, but it was hard to tell for sure from this far back how many escaped. Vehicles beyond the shattered barricade started backing up, turning around--running from the failed attack. Tom shifted his fire to them.

    The Guardsmen and the locals who had went down the hill with them were in among the vehicles on the bridge. A few shots could be heard. Someone jumped from behind a car and started to run. They were quickly cut down.

    Suddenly, there were no more targets. The vehicles that were still running were out of sight, as were any remaining attackers. It was quiet again.

    Tom looked down the hill and started counting bodies. Reaching 30, he stopped. There were a lot more, but he suddenly discovered he didn't want to know how many. He sat down heavily, the M4 across his lap. He looked down at it, and flipped the selector switch to "safe". Looking to his left, he could see Sgt. Ray's body. Looking right, he saw the anonymous woman. Looking down the hill, he could see "their guys" slowly working their way through the vehicles. Every so often, there would be a shot.

    Eventually, a couple of men came back up the hill, gathered some of the Lexington people and took them back down the hill. A fire truck showed up, went down the hill and put out the fires. Three ambulances and several pickups, one towing a large equipment trailer, arrived. Wounded were attended to, then loaded to go to the hospital. Two more died during the process, one a kid--maybe 16 or so by the looks of him. A man, apparently his father, sat beside him, holding a bloody hand and silently weeping. Another stood beside him, a hand on his shoulder, looking down at them both. The dead were loaded on the trailer, segregated into to piles--"us" and "them".

    Tom sat there for a while longer, thinking, yet not thinking. He had killed today. He wasn't sure how he felt about it. He wondered if he had let James down. He had been so scared--he had frozen. He hadn't went down the hill.

    Tom finally stood up, slinging the carbine over his shoulder. He picked up the web gear and added it to his load. Walking over to Sgt. Ray's body, he found his pistol on the asphalt of the road. He picked it up and looked at it. The Springfield XD was scratched where he had dropped it. He checked the loaded indicator and saw that it was still loaded, then ejected the magazine. The gun had not been fired. Strangely, there was no blood on it. He settled it back into its holster.

    Looking down the hill, he could see people moving among the bodies, collecting weapons and other items. Beyond them, he could see the Guardsmen moving back up the hill in a sort of spread out group. Counting heads, he came up with 6. That left them 5 men short. Turning, he could see a body slumped over one of the heavy machine guns. Two more were still manning theirs, scanning the area. That made 9, and Sgt. Ray was 10. One more.

    Tom went from vehicle to vehicle, fear growing. Looking down the hill, he saw a camouflage-clad heap. He ran to it, afraid of what he would find. He grabbed the body and turned it over...

    ...and it wasn't James. Tom was momentarily ashamed of his relief, knowing that this man was someone's son, maybe someone's boyfriend, their husband or their father. But it wasn't James, and that was what was most important to him in the here and now.

    The group of Guardsmen reached him. James was in the lead. His face was dirty, and, seeing Tom, he smiled with impossibly white teeth. Grabbing his brother, has asked "Are you OK? Did you get hit anywhere?"

    "No."

    James spoke to the men with him. "In the back of my vehicle...there are some body bags. Get a couple and pick up Daryl and Andre."

    Tom spoke. "There's another." He pointed.

    "Shit. Get Harry down from there. Dammit."

    He looked back at Tom. "Are you OK?"

    "I...I...I don't know."

    James reached out and draped an arm over Tom's shoulder. "Come on. We still have some work to do. You can help me. Trust me, keeping busy will help. Have you gotten the shakes yet?"

    "I don't think so."

    "Well, you will. Tell me when they start. I keep a bottle for these emergencies."

    Tom looked at James. James looked back. "What?"

    "Is it...is it always like that?"

    James looked at his brother, and reflected on how Tom had always had it a bit easier than he had. James had been the jock in the family, and Tom, while athletic, had always been more intellectual. James supposed that his world, already turned upside down, had just been turned inside out as well.

    "Pretty much. Sometimes it happens faster, and sometimes you get to see coming. But that is pretty much what combat is like. It isn't pretty, and it damn sure isn't glorious."

    "I was scared--I couldn't move, I couldn't think."

    "That's not surprising. Our training, coupled with experience, lets us overcome that. You've never went through any of that. You did OK. You got in the fight and you fired your rifle. Heck, you didn't even piss your pants--we might just make a soldier out of you, little brother." He smiled, then reached out and took Tom by the shoulder, turning him toward the next task.

    Tom looked down at his watch. It was barely past noon.

    ---------------------------------

    Back at City Hall, a large group was gathered around the 3 Humvees, all of which were considerably worse for wear than they had been a few hours ago, as were the men they carried.

    "I'm not sure we can take many more wins like this one," said John Dean. "As it stands, if you and your men hadn't been here, I don't want to think what would have happened." He looked at the back of one of the Humvees, where three body bags rested. "I'm sorry about your men."

    "Yeah. Well, I'll pass that along." James had gotten over the rush of battle and was now well and throughly angry. As far as he was concerned, this whole thing was the fault of "these idiots in Lexington", and he had read the Sheriff and everyone else he could find the Riot Act. They needed to get their act together and stop trying to defend the entire county, improve their defenses and start patrolling their area. They had gotten caught flat-footed, and had paid a heavy price for it. As far as he was concerned, the Guard had paid far too much for their stupidity. He had went on for several minutes, until he ran out of steam.

    "Look, I said I was sorry..."

    James cut him off. "Sorry? Mister, sorry isn't the half of it. You're prior service--you should know better. You're the sheriff--this is your responsibility. Maybe your people can't be everywhere all the time, but you're going to have to do better than this. I lost three men today--men I can't replace."

    Dean was heating up as well. "Really? We lost over 20 people at last count! Twenty! Somehow, I don't think their families can replace them either."

    "Most of them are dead because you and the rest of the idiots in charge didn't do your jobs. Sure, there is a lot to do and precious little to do it with. And now, there are 20 fewer pairs of hands to do the work. God knows how much ammo they expended in this little party. You can't replace that, either. Get off your ass, Mr. Sheriff, and get this place organized for real. We may not be around to bail you out the next time. Real life isn't a John Wayne movie, and the cavalry doesn't always come over the hill to save the day." He looked for Sgt. Ray and couldn't find him. Correcting himself, he said "Dalton, mount 'em up."

    Dalton bellowed "You heard the man--mount up! We're moving out."

    Sheriff John Dean opened his mouth to say something more, then thought about it and closed it. James climbed into his vehicle without another word, and motioned to Dalton to move out. The little convoy moved out for Yadkin College for the second time that day. To Tom's newly opened eyes, the town looked vulnerable. James had been right this morning--had it just been this morning?--about how vulnerable he and his neighbors were. They had a lot of work to do.

    Driving down Center Street toward Highway 64 and home, Tom leaned forward and pointed toward the west. "Look at the clouds. There's another storm coming. We'll split your guys up in our houses so they don't have to sleep in the rain...or the snow."

    James looked at the clouds, then slouched down in his seat and pulled his helmet down to cover his eyes. "Looks to me, little brother, like the storm is already here." He wiggled a bit, trying to get comfortable. "Wake me up when we get there."

    END

  28. #28
    bump

  29. #29
    I'm happy to see this story get bumped. I really enjoyed this the 1st time through

  30. #30
    Join Date
    Jan 2014
    Location
    Texas
    Posts
    4
    Great read

  31. #31
    Wow. What a great read.

  32. #32
    Join Date
    Mar 2012
    Location
    North Carolina
    Posts
    3,057
    This was an excellent story. Thank you so much to the author. Now, to find if it was continued!!

  33. #33

    10

    I hope that this story would continue. It seems to be half of what it should.



    WAB
    "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."---- Robert A. Heinlein

  34. #34
    Really enjoyed this.
    Looking for part two now.

  35. #35
    Join Date
    Jan 2014
    Location
    So Cal...don't be hatin'
    Posts
    979
    Excellent story. Great dialogue, well written! Enjoying it very much, and I too would like to see more.
    The history of civilization could actually be written by the level of its women ~Archbishop Fulton J Sheen

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