Chapter 1 from “After 2012”
Global nuclear war, instigated by religious fanatical sociopaths, leaving only scattered pockets of desperate refugees and roaming gangs of thugs. The great societies of the world had fulfilled their own prophecy.
Diane and her daughters, Amy and Julie, survived the five-day holocaust and stayed in their home waiting for a return to normalcy. Electric, gas, and telephone services were gone, police and firemen were nowhere to be seen and the news was limited to hearsay and rumors. It was the perfect environment for murderous looters to hunt any unscathed area for anything they desired.
The grayish-black smoke was still rising on the distant horizon as Diane stared out her window wondering when the nightmare would end. She tried her cell phone but it still said, ‘No Signal’. Then she saw people coming down the street. Finally, she thought but when she saw them smash into a neighbor’s house, she realized who they were and ran to the kitchen.
“Amy, Julie, quick… down to the cellar!”
“Why Mom, what’s happening?” asked Amy.
“Don’t talk… just go––Go––GO! Right now… hurry!”
“Uh-oh, we need a place to hide!”
“Over there Mom, the cabinet!”
The dusty old armoire was big enough for all three. They jumped in, pulled the door shut, huddled together at the bottom, and covered themselves with old clothes, rags, and blankets. Seconds later, they heard the sound of heavy boots; clunk, clunk, thump, thump, closer and closer, louder and louder. They shivered in fear.
Then, the armoire door burst open. They tried not to move or scream. The man looked inside and started to pull out the tattered blanket above their heads but its years of dust made him sneeze. “Taint nothin’ but rags, old rags they are…, junk,” he yelled.
“How ‘bout dis one ova here?” said another who had followed him into the cellar.
He dropped the blanket, brushed his hands, and walked away. Several layers below, Diane, Amy and Julie, quaking with fear, could hear the men crashing and banging as they rummaged through the other side of the cellar complaining that there was nothing they wanted.
Seconds ticked by but each one seemed like days and the layers of dust on the old rags made Diane want to sneeze. She held her breath and pinched her nose; choking…, gulping…, ignoring the irritation in her sinuses. Red-faced from the strain, she swallowed the intense urge and finally, the looters stomped back up the stairs.
After several minutes, they carefully, and so very, very slowly, peeked out from the cabinet and listened. It was quiet.
“I think they’ve left,” Diane whispered. “You stay here. I’m going upstairs to check things out. Stay hidden till I come back… and don’t make any noise… understood?”
She tiptoed up the stairs into the front room and gasped at the scene. It looked as if a tornado had destroyed everything in their flat. She looked in each room, crept out to the street and saw her neighbor’s smashed front door.
“Mrs. Hickman…, they broke into her place too” she mumbled as she ran across the lawn. “Mrs. Hickman… Mrs. Hickman, are you all right? Are you here?”
The kitchen, living room and bathroom were empty but, in the bedroom, blood seeped out under a closet door. “Oh no…!” she exclaimed pulling on its handle and finding the woman crumpled in a corner. The schoolteacher, who had become her friend, had been horribly beaten to death. She began to sob and then angrily wiped the tears from her cheeks.
“If I get my hands on those lecherous…” Then it struck her that she and her children could meet the same fate. She looked down at Mrs. Hickman’s lifeless body and shook her head. “I’m sorry… I am so, so sorry!”
The looters had disappeared but she knew it wasn’t over. “They’ll be back or, someone else will come” she muttered as she walked back across the lawn, pushed her own broken door aside and headed down the stairs. “So…, this is how it’s going to be!”
In their post-apocalyptic world, clean water and gasoline had become gold, worth two cases of canned beans or one case of beef stew, and guns had become platinum but life…, a person’s life…, was worth nothing! Marauding gangs were all that remained and the life Diane had worked so hard to achieve had completely evaporated.
“Have they gone Mom… is it safe now?” asked Amy.
“Your hotel…? Oh cool! Does that mean we can take a bath and get something to eat?”
“I don’t know Julie. A few days ago I was told it had been damaged pretty badly, but maybe there’s still some food that nobody’s found… and, maybe some water too. Anyway, let’s go upstairs and gather a few things. We’ll sneak over there tonight.”
“Okay but, why can’t we go now? I’m hungry!”
“I know but we’ll have to wait till after dark. I don’t want anyone seeing us sneaking in…, if we can even get in. We may have to hide there for a while.”
At dusk, they carried what they could and snuck, street by street, block by block, to the hotel. It took hours of hiding behind trash cans or in piles of debris when others came by and then, running to the next corner only to hide and wait again until they finally arrived. The once beautiful resort lay mostly in rubble and Diane just sighed when she saw it in the dim moonlight but there was no time to feel any sorrow. It was almost dawn.
“Let’s go before the sun comes up girls. There’s a basement door over there that might be okay.”
They ran to the service entrance and Amy pushed on the door. “It won’t open Mom” she said with another push on its handle. “It’s stuck!”
“Just a minute honey, this entrance is always locked!” She rummaged through her bag, found her keys and after a bit of fumbling, the latch clicked and the door opened. “Inside… come on, let’s go girls… hurry!” She took a breath and closed the door behind them pinching off their only source of light. “Whew,” she breathed as she twisted the lock. “Boy do I wish I had a flashlight right now. Don’t let go of my hand Amy. I can’t see a thing.”
“Okay, Mom. Just hang on to me Julie. Mom knows where we’re going. She works here!”
Her free hand felt the walls and doorways, her other hand gripped Amy’s and Amy’s other hand held Julie’s. They slowly inched their way through the darkness until Diane found a door. “Okay,” she said. “I’ve got to find a key…, in the dark…, great.” Eventually, she found the right one and they were in.
“Ouch! That was my eye you poked me in Mom!”
“Oh! Sorry, Julie!”
Amy tried to stifle a laugh. “Serves you right for staying so close to me Julie.”
“Shush…, and don’t you start laughing either Amy. Now, move over a little so I can lock the door.”
Her hands guided her across the aisles and down a row of shelves to a back wall. I know there was an emergency flashlight down here somewhere. Oh, fudge face… where is it…? She bumped into something solid. Ouch! Wait… what’s this? Her hands ran over a metal bottle on the wall. She felt a hose on its side.
Fire extinguisher… okay… the light was just past it. I hope it’s still here? She continued down the wall and found another object. “Yes!” she exclaimed in a loud whisper. She ran her fingers over it and found the switch. It worked. She could see.
She glanced around and hurried back to her daughters. “Okay girls, now we can see what we’re doing. Let’s get something in front of this door. I locked it but let’s block it closed for now. I don’t want anyone else to get in here.”
They put some very heavy crates against the door with a hand truck and started searching the storage room. Their first discovery was a case of flashlights and next to it was a case of batteries. Now they all had lights. Up and down each aisle they went looking through the entire room but it was filled only with the hotel’s non-food supplies.
Eventually, Amy sat down in a corner and whined, “Mom, can we find a place to sleep. I’m really tired!”
Diane sighed. “All right… I guess it’ll be okay.” Then, she took a long breath and realized that her own lack of sleep was catching up to her as well. “Whew…, okay! Let’s see what we can do for beds.” Her light flashed across a label on a box. “Ah-ha!” she exclaimed as she read it. “Okay girls, go get some of those mover’s pads. We’ll put them on the floor, then a blanket on top and another over us… that’ll work.” In short order, they were asleep on makeshift beds, still alive for another day.
Sometime later, Diane awoke but she couldn’t tell if it was day or night in the darkroom however, time had become irrelevant. Her dry throat told her they needed water. There were other storage rooms in the basement, and she knew some of them were for food. If she could get to them… if they had not been destroyed or ransacked… if they still had what she needed, they might be able to survive a little longer. She gently woke her daughters.
“Help me pull the crates away from the door girls but be quiet. We still don’t know if anyone else is down here.”
Julie yawned. “Where are we going, mom?”
“We have to find water and food!”
The far ends of the hallways were completely blocked by debris from the collapsed hotel. It prevented anyone from entering and created an underground fortress of sorts. They continued searching and found bottled water and canned food in another storage room.
“Great,” exclaimed Julie, “now we can eat!”
“Not yet! We’re going back to get the hand truck and block that outside door. Looks like it’s the only way in or out and I think this is going to be our home for a while so let’s make sure no one else gets in.”
They pushed the hand truck under a pallet of heavy paper products, pumped the handle to lift it up, rolled it down the hall and positioned it against the door.
“There, now if anyone does get the door unlocked, they’ll think the building collapsed in here as well.”
“Good –– done –– great! Now can we go eat?”
“Beef stew…Ugh…!” whined Amy. “Okay but, there’s some cans of corn and potatoes in there too Mom.”
“Maybe tomorrow, the stew has everything in it and it’ll be faster. Besides, I’m really hungry!”
The chafing dish created a cozy campfire-like scene during their first warm meal in days and neither of the girls complained. Hunger had superseded personal preferences.
The accidental fortress protected them for several weeks but food, fuel and flashlight batteries were running low. Before going to sleep one day, or night –– it was impossible to tell which –– Amy asked, “How long do we have to stay here Mom? It’s been like forever!”
“Um, seems like that, doesn’t it, and this is our last jug of water. Okay, girls, it’s time to check how things are out there. Maybe the police and firemen are back and we can get some help. Let’s go look.”
They moved the crate away from the door, opened it a crack, and peeked out. Sunlight sparkled from the shattered glass on the ground and its low angle created deep shadows on the crumbled buildings across the street. They crept out past piles of debris to the deserted street but when they stepped out from behind the wreckage of a burned-out truck, a group of people at the intersection saw them.
“Hey!” one of them shouted. “Look there!”
Diane heard him and looked in their direction. “Uh-oh,” she said and pushed her children behind her waiting to see how they would react.
Back past the piles of concrete they flew and hid behind a dumpster waiting for the group to pass by but the men split up looking everywhere for their prey. Getting away was not going to be easy. She kept watching their erratic movements until the last one disappeared from sight and, for that moment at least, their path seemed clear.
“Okay girls, we’re going to run to that mound of dirt over there. Then, we can make it to the door. Stay together… ready…? –– NOW, go––Go––GO!”
“Hurry… Get this crate back against the door!” And, just as they lowered the first heavy pallet, they heard yelling. “Come on girls, hurry! Let’s get another pallet in place. One might not be enough.”
The hand truck clanked against the concrete floor when they yanked it to the second pallet. “Shush… quiet,” said Diane but it clanked again when she pushed it under the pallet of paper. “Fudge face,” she muttered pumping the handle as fast as she could. “Okay girls… push… hard!” They rolled it toward the entrance, slammed it against the first pallet and dropped it to the floor with a dull thud.
“I hope they didn’t hear us but that much weight should keep them out… I hope.” Seconds later, the men pounded on the steel door.
“It’s locked!” they heard someone yell.
“Get a crowbar, we’ll get it open!” yelled another.
Then they heard an iron bar scraping like giant fingernails being dragged across a huge blackboard.
“Mom…!” said Julie.
Diane spun around with her finger in front of her lips. “Shush!” she whispered as loud as she dared. “Be quiet! Turn off the flashlights.”
The scraping and prying sounds continued for several minutes until they heard another voice. “Yer wastin’ yer time ya dimwit. They’s nothin’ behind that door but mo’ piles o concrete, don’cha hear the sound? It’s solid!” He took the crowbar and hit the door –– clank, clank. “Ya hear that? They’s nothing in there. The whole buildin’s collapsed, see up there? It’s all piled down here now.”
“Hey, look, there goes a bird” shouted one excited man!
“So what,” said another, “it’s a bird: We can’t catch it. It’ll just fly away if we get close. Sides, we ain’t got no gun to shoot it with neither.”
“You idiot…! Birds have to eat just like us, don’t they? They look for food. Let’s follow it.”
“Maybe you got somethin’ there and they’s nothin’ here. Seems like those people sure didn’t go in this place. Like you said, the whole buildin’s collapsed. They must be someplace else… waste a time. Let’s follow the bird!”
On the way back to the storage room, Julie whispered, “Whew, that was close but, what are we going to do now?”
“I don’t know honey. It looks worse now than it did before.” She thought of her friends who died from the bombs or at the hands of some poor starving soul who was willing to kill just to eat and realized that there was nowhere left to turn. “Girls, this is not getting any better. We have to go. We just can’t stay here any longer.”
“Where Mom,” asked Amy.
“I really don’t know honey but, there has to be someplace better than this. I don’t think we can last much longer if we stay. There’s no more food and I don’t…” She put both hands on her face and gulped. “I don’t know what else…” Then, she choked a little. “What else to ––”
“How are we going to get there Mom?” interrupted Julie. “Our car’s gone and there are no busses.”
Diane forced back her desire to cry. “We’ll have to walk Julie. I know…, it’s another move but, it’s our only choice! It’s way too dangerous here and I don’t think it’s going to get any better for a long, long time.”
“It’s okay Mom. Don’t worry, we’ll all go together.”
They filled their backpacks with the few remaining valuables, waited till the sun dropped below the horizon and Diane went out to scout the area. It looked deserted so she went back and said, “Okay girls, let’s do it!”
They crept from pile to pile and out to the street. Block by block they moved, sneaking from one hiding place to the next until, finally, they were at the city’s edge but the night-long trek had completely exhausted the girls.
“Mom, can we find a place around here to sleep for a while?” asked Amy. “I’m really tired.”
“Yeah, but we can’t stop now girls. We’re obvious targets out here.” They ran past the railroad tracks deep into the forest until Diane dropped her backpack to catch her breath. “Okay!” she said panting. “Get some brush and branches for camouflage. We’ll rest here for a while.”
At dusk, they continued on, all night, to the next nearest city but, when they saw the same horrible scene they had left behind, they stopped. Diane sighed, looked at her map, and changed direction. Hiding by day and traveling by night they continued their journey but every city they found was filled with a slow ugly death from pockets of radiation and remnants of biological and chemical weapons. No place was safe and she wondered which of her family would be the first to succumb to such horrible poisons. Over two weeks had passed and their provisions were nearly gone. She unfolded her map and studied it.
“Where are we going now Mom?” asked Julie.
“Well…,” she sighed, “look at this. I think we should take this route…, along here into those mountains.”
“What’s that blue line…, a river?” Diane nodded. “But, it goes…, it looks like…, Mom, there’re no cities there! It doesn’t look like there’s anything but mountains.”
“You’re right Julie but every city we’ve been to is the same. Maybe there’s a place in the country that wasn’t destroyed by those horrible madmen.”
“You really think so…?”
“Don’t know,” she folded the map and put it away, “but that’s where we’re going.”
She knew it would take days to reach the river but, at this point, there was no other choice.