After waking up, Thad stayed in the bed. The room was quiet, only the soft sound of Mary breathing beside him disturbed the silence. Light filtering through the blinds cut across the room in sharp beams. Thad watched as tiny particles of dust drifted in and out of the beams in a silent dance. Slowly turning his head to the side, he saw Mary’s bare shoulder. They were covered in only a sheet and he could see her form lying beneath it.
A pang of guilt swept over him. The image of Anita and Tony came into his mind. He’d had such a hard time dealing with his feelings for Mary and the ever-present memory of their loss. But he wasn’t disrespecting them. He carried their memory every day with him and thought of them often. And he would never forget them. Looking again at Mary he thought, no, this isn’t wrong. He loved Mary. It wasn’t the same love he had for Anita and never would be. But it was just as strong, and he would give Mary as much as he gave Anita.
Moving slowly Thad slipped out of the bed and pulled his pants on. Glancing back to make sure Mary was still asleep, he eased out of the room and quietly closed the door. He made his way through the kitchen, which was now a useless space in the house. Modern kitchens simply were not designed to function without the luxury of power and running water. It didn’t matter though. Thad had adapted to the new reality a long time ago.
In preparing the house for he and Mary, he’d installed an elevated water tank to supply the house. So, the sinks and toilets worked. You could take a shower, but the pressure was weak. He didn’t have another of the large tanks like the one sitting in the road not far from his house. Instead, he’d connected two fifty-five-gallon drums together and put them on platform eight feet off the ground. He connected the output to the house in the same matter as previously using a garden hose to tie into the hose bib outside the bathroom. And that bathroom was his next stop.
After taking care of nature’s requirements, he picked up a bowl of eggs sitting on the kitchen counter and went out the back door. The house was small, which was fine with him, but it had a terrific patio on the back of the house. Unlike most of the houses in the area, this one was concrete block sitting on a footer directly on the ground. The patio was a solid poured cement pad.
Thad set the eggs on a table and pulled a Weber grill away from the wall. He dropped a double handful of pine needles into the bottom of it and lit them with a lighter. He waited for those to burn away and the small pieces of oak he’d piled onto it turn into a sustainable fire. Once it was ready, he put the grill top on and placed a cast iron skillet on it. Taking a spoonful of bacon fat from a Mason jar, he banged it on the side of the skillet and waited for it to melt down.
While the fat was melting, he went back in the house and collected the rest of his breakfast materials. Miss Kay gave him a loaf of bread the night before when he and Mary left to go home. It was in a basket with a small jar of butter and jar of jelly from Gina. There was also a small piece of bacon wrapped in a towel. As Thad sliced the bacon he smiled to himself, remembering how people used to react to food being left on the counter overnight. Today, no one would throw something out that sat out overnight.
With the bacon sliced he laid them into the grease. He liked to add a little extra grease to the pan when cooking bacon. It would be added to by the bacon he was cooking and create a nice skillet to cook his eggs in. As the bacon popped and hissed, he sliced the bread up. It would go on the grill later for a light toasting. Then he filled a percolator from the sink and spooned some coffee into it. The grounds had been a gift from the old man and he smiled as he watched the dark grounds fall into the basket. He couldn’t help but wonder how it ate the old man up to give it away.
The coffee finally boiled as he was toasting the bread. Two plates sat on the table with eggs and bacon. Initially he intended to wake Mary up and have her join him for breakfast on the patio. Then he had another idea and went into the kitchen to go through the cupboards. In the back of one he found a tray that would suit his needs. It was the kind you’d use in the oven, but this morning it would carry Mary’s breakfast to her in bed.
He carried the little tray carefully towards the bedroom. At the door he fumbled for a minute, watching the coffee as it sloshed slightly. Getting the door open he saw Mary roll over and smile. Seeing the tray, she sat up. The sheet fell away exposing her breasts. She quickly blushed and pulled it up. Thad smiled at her embarrassment and said, “It’s ok. I think I know what they look like now.”
Mary looked down and smiled again. “I guess you do,” she replied and let the sheet fall away. Thad carried the tray over to her and placed it on her lap. “This looks really good,” she said as she picked up the fork.
“I hope you like it,” Thad replied and leaned over. Mary looked up and he kissed her.
She looked around and asked, “Where’s yours?”
“I could only find one tray. Mine is on the table out on the patio.”
She looked at the tray, “This is very nice,” then looked up and said, “but I’d rather eat with you. Can you take it out there and I’ll get dressed and join you?”
Thad nodded. “That was my first idea. But I thought this would be nice.”
“It is nice. Very sweet of you,” Mary replied and held the tray up. “Take this out there and I’ll be right out.” As Thad took the tray she grabbed the coffee cup, “I’ll keep this.”
Thad smiled, saying, “I’ll wait for you.”
Mary jumped out of the bed, sipping on the coffee. The sheet trailed behind her, falling away as she made her way to the bathroom. Thad stood for a minute watching her bare backside until she closed the door behind her. He then carried the tray back out to the patio and waited for Mary. It didn’t take her long. She came out of the house in a small thin sun dress and sat down closely beside him.
Taking a bite from a piece of bacon, Mary smiled at Thad and said, “This is really nice.” She looked around the yard and added, “It’s better than the other house.”
Thad sipped his coffee, “It was kind of crowded there. You really like this house?”
She smiled and nodded eagerly, “Yes! Very much. I like the back porch and the house is nice and small. It won’t be hard to keep clean.”
“It’d be better if we had some power,” Thad said.
Placing one of her eggs on a piece of toast, Mary replied, “It would be. But it’s fine for now. Now that they have power to town, maybe we’ll get some too.”
“Morgan said they were going to run it out here. He told them there wasn’t any hurry. But they said they’re going to do it anyway.”
“Morgan should just let them do what they want. He always seems worried about other people doing things for him. Like, he doesn’t deserve it or something,” Mary replied.
Thad mopped at egg yolk on his plate with a piece of toast. “That’s Morgan. He’ll go out of his way for anyone. But doesn’t want anyone to do it for him.”
“He always seems worried,” Mary added.
Thad finished his breakfast and took a sip of coffee. “That’s just his way. If anything, bad happens he beats himself up over it. Like it was his fault. Like all this is his fault. He needs to relax a little.”
Mary tapped Thad’s mug with her own, “I agree with that. He certainly needs to relax.”
Thad stood up and took the plates. “What do you want to do today?” He asked.
Mary rocked her head back and forth. “I don’t know.” Then she gave him a devilish smile. “We could go back to bed if you want.”
Thad smiled and looked at the plates in his hands. “Should I wash these first?”
Mary stood up and whispered into his ear, “They’ll wait.” Thad left the plates on the kitchen counter and followed Mary back to the bedroom.
The other newlyweds had also chosen themselves a place to live. It wasn’t the best choice tactically, and Aric had been told so by several people. It was on the back road of the neighborhood, past Danny’s house. His was the closest to it and it was still a fair walk to get there. If something happened, they would be on their own until help arrived.
But Fred liked the house. It was a small log home, single story, with a loft. The house had an open design and full porch wrapping all the way around it. This allowed the windows to be open all the time as direct sunlight never came in them to heat up the interior. In northern latitudes, you wanted a southern exposure to allow this light in to warm the place in winter. You didn’t need that in Florida. Any benefit from a southern exposure in winter was trumped by the broiling heat it created in summer. And summer lasted a lot longer than winter down in Florida.
The little house had wood floors, this had obvious advantages when there was no electricity. A broom still worked. Aric had spent time cleaning the place up. Whoever lived there had left a long time ago and when he first went in, it was like looking at a snapshot of a life interrupted. Dirty dishes were left in the sink. A pile of dirty clothes sat in front of the washer. All the cabinets in the house were open as a result of the several trips made through the house in the months after the Day. But nothing had ever been damaged. When the group went through the houses they were careful not to damage anything. At the time, open windows that rain could blow in were closed. As were doors left standing open. The houses were secured in the thought they may be needed later.
This morning, the morning after her wedding, Fred wasn’t feeling well. She was still in bed and Aric checked on her occasionally as he tended to chores around the house. He’d helped Thad put the water drums on the roof of his house and Thad was supposed to come down sometime today and help Aric get the two drums they scrounged up onto the roof his new home. You could live without power. You could live without running water. But living with running water was a lot nicer. Not to mention, having the drums on the roof outside kept the water in them warm. Later, in the summer, that water would get hot. But it kept the toilets working. Allowed for basic washing and general use.
Aric walked into the bedroom and sat on the side of the bed. “How you feeling?”
Fred rolled over onto her back. “I’m tired of throwing up.”
Aric glanced down into the bucket he’d placed beside the bed for her. “Looks like you’ve been busy.”
With absolutely no effort she slapped his shoulder. “Shut up. Don’t remind me. I wish I had some crackers or something.”
Aric patted her thigh under the sheet, “I do to.”
A knock at the door got his attention. Looking up he said, “Let me go see who that is.”
“Whoever it is, tell them I’m not here.”
Opening the door, Aric was surprised to see Miss Kay and Jess standing on the porch. Kay held a large bowl with a plastic lid and Jess carried a pan covered with a towel. “Hey,” was all he could manage.
Jess cocked her head to the side and asked, “You going to invite us in?”
Stepping back and pulling he door open Aric replied, “Oh sure, come in.”
As Kay passed Aric she stopped to hug him. Having to go up on her toes to do so. “Good morning sweetheart. How is your wife this morning?” Kay couldn’t help but smile as she asked.
“She’s still in bed I’m afraid,” Aric replied as he hugged her.
Jess set the pan on the kitchen counter and asked, “She still getting sick?”
Aric nodded. “Yeah. She’s having a rough time with it.”
Kay made her way to the kitchen, placing the bowl on the counter. “This should make her feel better,” she said as she pulled the lid off the bowl. Aric leaned over to see a clear broth in it.
“What is that?” He asked.
“It’s bone broth. It’ll make her feel better,” Kay replied.
“So will these,” Jess said as she pulled the towel off the pan. It was filled with small thinly sliced pieces of bread. Jess picked one up and said, “Not quite as good as crackers, but it’s the best we can do.”
Aric took the piece from her and took a bite. He nodded his head and said, “It’s like melba toast.”
Kay was filling a bowl with broth. She smiled and said, “Exactly. I can’t make crackers, but I can make melba toast.”
Aric motioned with the last bite of the toast and said, “She’s going to like this. Thank you for bringing it over.”
Kay smiled and replied, “Let’s go check on our mother-to-be.”
Fred was sitting up in the bed when they walked in. She smiled when she saw Kay and Jess, trying to look upbeat. “You didn’t have to bring that over here,” she said with a smile.
Kay shooshed her. “You need your strength and something to help your tummy out.” She set the bowl on the nightstand. “You drink as much of that as you can.”
“And these should help too,” Jess said as she handed Fred a small stack of the toast.
Fred immediately ate a piece of the small bread. “Thank you for this. I really wanted some crackers.” Holding one up, she said, “These are better than crackers.”
“I’ll make sure have some every day. You just pick them up at supper time and bring them home, so you’ll have them in the morning.” Kay sat down on the edge of the bed. “And don’t worry. This won’t last forever. It’ll stop soon.”
Taking another bite of toast, she replied, “Not soon enough.”
Kay laughed and patted her leg. “You’ll be alright.” Then she looked at Aric and asked, “And what are you doing today? Besides taking care of Fred.”
“We’re getting the water drums installed on the roof today.”
“Good!” Kay replied excitedly. “You’ll have to have running water when it’s time for the baby.”
“That’s the plan,” Aric responded.
Kay stood up and announced, “Alright. I’ll leave you alone.” She looked at Fred and said, “Take care of yourself and if you need anything, anything at all, you just let me know.”
Fred held out a hand and Kay took it. “I will,” she replied. “I’ll send Aric if I need anything.”
Fred looked at Jess and asked, “Can you stay a while?”
Jess looked at Miss Kay, who gave her a dismissive wave. “You stay here. I can get myself back. I still know how to drive a truck,” she said with a smile.
“Ok. I’ll stay here with Fred for a while then.”
Kay said her goodbyes, gave Aric another hug, and left. Aric had a real soft stop for the older woman. Growing up, his own mother had worked a lot. She was very focused on her career and he was often left to fend for himself. It was how he’d developed a love of the outdoors. Spending most of his time outside to be away from the empty house. His father was very much like his mother. He too was consumed with his career. Aric had often wondered as a young boy why they’d even bothered to have a kid. Was he a mistake? An accident?
But Miss Kay was so unlike his own mother as to be her total opposite. He imagined her as a mother, always there, looking out for her children. He couldn’t imagine her any other way. He almost imagined her as being smothering. Very active and engaged in the lives of her kids. And it made him smile. He loved the old woman and was thankful that his son would only know her as his grandmother. And what a fine one she would be.
“Hey babe, I’m going to go out and work on the water system,” Aric said.
Fred smiled and replied, “Ok. Just be careful. I don’t need you falling off the roof.”
He smiled and leaned in and kissed her. “Don’t worry. I won’t.”
Since their house was so far from the others, he’d taken one of the four-wheelers as his own. Not that anyone cared. There were plenty of them around. Gas was certainly an issue, but for now they had plenty. He’d also found a yard cart at one of the houses in the neighborhood and rigged a hitch up on the machine so he could pull it. The addition made the four-wheeler even more handy. Hoping on it, he started it and sped down the drive towards the gate.
I was under the hood of the Suburban reconnecting the batteries. Focusing on what I was doing, I wasn’t paying much attention to anything else and that’s why I didn’t hear Dalton’s big ass walk up behind me until he whispered, practically in my ear, “What are you doing?”
I jumped, banging my elbow on the hinge of the hood. “Son of a bitch!” I shouted. “Why the hell are you sneaking up on me?”
Dalton shrugged, “I wasn’t sneaking. I just walked up. A train could sneak up on your ass. You really should work on that you know.”
Rubbing my elbow, I shook my head. “I’m going to hang a cow bell around your neck.”
He smiled, “That’s what the world needs, more cow bell.”
Turning my attention back to the battery I was connecting, I asked, “What the hell do you want?”
“How’s the vinegar doing?”
“It ain’t ready yet.”
“Have you checked it?”
I shook my head. “No. It ain’t ready yet.”
“I want to check it.”
“Then go check it,” I replied, annoyed. My elbow was throbbing. Wasn’t a damn thing funny about it.
Dalton looked at the house. “Is Mel in there?”
“No, her and the girls are over at Danny’s.”
“Alright. I’m gonna go check it out.”
“I’ll be done in a minute and I’ll meet you inside,” I replied.
He wandered off towards the house and I wrapped up connecting the battery. Once it was reconnected I checked the other one to make sure it was also good and climbed in behind the wheel of the truck. Holding my breath, I turned the key. The truck turned over a couple of times before catching. The old Cummins rumbled in the typical way it did, blowing some smoke for a bit before settling down to a smooth idle. Satisfied that the truck would run, for a while anyway, I shut it off. Closing the hood, I headed for the house.
Dalton had the cheese cloth off the big crock. He was on his knees looking down into it, a finger in his mouth. “How is it?” I asked.
Without looking up, he replied, “Tastes like shit.”
“Shit like vinegar? Or shit like shit?”
“It’s sour. But it ain’t vinegar. Not yet anyway.”
“I told you it wasn’t ready yet.”
He pulled the cheese cloth back over the open top and stretched my homemade rubber band around it. Standing up he looked down at the crock. “This chemistry crap isn’t that much fun.”
I patted his back and said, “It’s like the old Heinz commercials, patients.”
He looked over his shoulder at me and replied, “I ain’t got any.”
I laughed. “Yeah, me neither.”
We walked back outside. I had some tools to put away. “What are you going to do today?” I asked.
Dalton stopped and looked up into the trees. “Not much. Nothing really planned. I was over at the old man’s place this morning and he’s in a bitchy mood.”
He shrugged, “Something on the radio. Said it sounds like there are other units operating in the area and he’s trying to figure out who the hell they are and why he doesn’t know about them.”
I laughed. “That old fucker needs to relax.”
As we talked Aric pulled up on a four-wheeler. “Nice wagon,” Dalton said.
Aric looked over his shoulder and replied, “I like it.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Thad was going to come help me get the water tank up on the roof of the house. I stopped by his place but didn’t see him.”
“Did you knock on the door?” I asked.
“No. I didn’t want to bother them. Ya know.”
I laughed. “You got a point there.”
“Yeah, you already got the prize out of your box. He’s probably still eating cereal,” Dalton added.
Aric and I looked at one another, then I slowly turned to look at Dalton. “What in the hell are talking about?”
Dalton looked at me, then at Aric. “You mean neither one of you know what I mean? You don’t get it?”
I shrugged, “I get it. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Dalton looked at Aric and asked, “Do you get it?”
Shrugging, Aric replied, “Kinda.”
Dalton shook his head. “You people are hopeless.”
“Right now, I’m waterless. Can you guys come help me get the tanks up there?”
“Sure, why not,” I said. “We’re not doing anything right now.”
Dalton looked at Aric and said, “Chemistry is a slow process.”
Aric looked at me for more. “Ignore Gigantor this morning. He’s off his meds.”
We were at Aric’s house working on the tanks when Thad showed up. We’d already managed to get the two barrels on the roof and were cutting a piece of plywood to make a platform for them. A two-by-four would be screwed to the plywood on the down slope side to give the barrels a flat place on the roof.
“Well, well, look who’s finally out of bed!” I shouted down from the roof.
Thad smiled and waved as he climbed out of the little red truck. “He guys. Sorry I’m late. I got tied up.”
Dalton was leaned over the piece of plywood about to cut it with a Skill Saw as a small Honda generator hummed in the background. He straightened up when he heard Thad.
“I didn’t know Mary was into that kind of thing. Who gets tied up, you or her?” Dalton asked.
Aric and I both started to laugh. I whistled loudly from the roof, just to add to Thad’s embarrassment. He opened his mouth to say something and stopped. Instead, his put his face in his hands and shook his head. This, of course, got us to laughing even harder.
“Don’t worry about them Thad,” Dalton said. Sensing some relief Thad looked up and smiled before Dalton continued. “I can teach you some knots if you need.”
Aric and I both started to laugh again, and Thad shook his head. “You boys is a mess!”
“What’s all this racket out here? I thought you were supposed to be working?” Jess said from the porch. She was leaning against a post and Fred was beside her. Aric looked up and said, “Hey babe, you look better. Are you feeling better?”
Fred nodded, and Jess replied, “She’d feel better if she didn’t have to pee in a bucket.”
“She should he happy she has a bucket to pee it!” I shouted down from my perch on the roof.
“And having a window to throw it out!” Dalton added with a laugh.
Jess leaned out from the porch and looked up. “Who’s up there?”
“I’ll never tell!” I called back.
“Don’t make me come up there!”
“Ain’t nothing up here but work. I think I’m safe,” I shouted and leaned out where I could see her.
I had a big smile on my face and Jess rolled her eyes. “I should have known.”
“If you don’t mind,” I said, “we have work to do.”
“Then quit goofing off and get to it!”
“You talk like you’re the one that’s married now,” I said and rubbed my chin. “When’s that going to happen anyway?”
Jess gave me the finger and disappeared. Aric looked up and said, “I think you pissed her off.”
With a wave I replied, “She’ll get over it. Now, hand me that bucket of blackjack.”
Dalton cut the plywood and the two-by-four for the platform. While he and Aric worked on that. Thad climbed up onto the roof. I was using a scrap piece of wood to spread the black tar on the shingles where we would screw the platform down. The drums would sit on the roof over the porch, but we still didn’t want any leaks. Dalton passed the platform up and Thad and I secured it to the roof once the tar was all in place. Eventually we would pipe it into the house. For now, we used a garden hose and connected the drums to a hose bib on the side of the house.
“I’ll go get the water tank and we’ll get this thing filled,” Thad said. “It’s at Danny’s. I left it there with a hose running in it to fill it. Should be about full now.”
“While you do that, we’ll get the barrels secured,” I replied.
To give the barrels some support and to keep them from being blown off the roof if they got low and a wind kicked up, we used some additional two-by-fours to strap them down. I called down measurements to Dalton that he’d cut and Aric would pass them up. When I finished there was a piece of lumber running up the outside of each barrel that was screwed into one running across the top. Just something to keep them from tipping off the roof.
When I finished I took off my hat and wiped my forehead with a bandanna. It was hot, and it wasn’t even noon yet. “It’s hot as balls up here,” I called down.
“It ain’t just up there. It’s hot everywhere,” Dalton replied.
“And only going to get worse,” Aric added.
I looked up into the sky, then around the neighborhood. “You know, we should go swimming.”
“Smashing idea!” Dalton shouted back.
“Yeah!” Aric replied. “Let’s go to one of the springs or something.”
“Alexander isn’t that far away,” I said. “Last time we were there, there was only one person. And he’s not around anymore.”
“What happened to him?” Dalton asked. I looked down with raised eyebrows, he got the idea. “Ah,” he replied with a knowing nod.
Thad pulled up with the tanker in tow. As we were getting the hose up to the roof we told him about the idea to go to the spring.
“When you want to do that?” He asked.
“Today!” I shouted.
Thad laughed. “You think them women are going to be ready to do something like that today? With no notice?” He laughed again and said, “You better rethink that idea.”
“He’s right,” Dalton said as he pulled the starter rope on the trash pump to push the water to the barrels.
As we were discussing how the ladies were sure to put the squash on our idea, Sarge pulled up in his Hummer. Getting out he walked over to the porch and looked around. After a minute he shouted, “Morgan! We need to go to town.”
“We need to talk to Sheffield. I have an idea to get rid of those commies once and for all.”
“What do you need me for?” I asked.
He looked up at me and shook his head. “Because I said so!” Then he looked around and asked, “Where’s your rifle?”
“At the house. I don’t need it here to put a water barrel on the roof.”
He looked around the other guys and asked, “Where the hell are your rifles?”
Dalton held up his AK, “Got mine Top.”
Aric looked at the house and said, “Mine’s in there.”
Then he looked at Thad and asked, “What about you? You leave yours at home too?” Thad smiled and nodded slowly. The old man shook his head and started in on us. “What fucking good are they going to do you at home? When you need it, there ain’t no time to go get it! What the hell’s wrong with all of you? There some collective case of dumbass all of a sudden?”
“Calm down,” I said. “What the hell’s wrong with you this morning? Someone piss in your coffee?”
“Calm down? You want me to calm down? Tell me this then, dick hole. What’s happened in the last couple of days to make things different? So that we don’t need to keep our rifles close?” He looked around, but no one said anything. “Did you forget what happened at the park?”
That pissed me off. “No. Some of us helped dig the grave.”
The old man pointed at me and shouted, “Did you enjoy it? Do you want to dig more?” When I didn’t answer he continued. “If you don’t want to dig any graves, then you assholes better get your shit wired tight! Now get your ass off that roof! We got to go to town.”
I climbed down and walked over to the Hummer without saying anything to him. I climbed into the truck and waited. He spoke with the rest of the guys for a minute, then got in behind the wheel. Looking over he asked, “You all but hurt now?”
“Hardly,” I shot back.
“Then stop moping like a fat kid that had his candy stolen.”
“I’ll make you a deal. You shut the hell up and drive and I’ll stop moping,” I replied with as much sarcasm as I could muster.
“No deal. I’m not going to shut up. We need to talk,” he replied as he started the truck and backed out of the driveway.
Thad was looking at us and I waved at him. He smiled, shook his head and waved. Without looking over, I asked, “What the hell do you want to talk about?”
As we bounced down the road under a cloudless sky, he said, “We’ve got to get rid of these fucking commies.”
“That’s your job,” I replied with a snort.
The old man looked over at me, total disgust on his face. Then he focused back on the road as we rounded the corner and headed towards Danny’s house. After a moment he spoke. In a voice nearly devoid of inflection, he asked, “What in the hell’s gotten into everyone lately? Mikey is not acting like himself. All of you out this morning and not a damn gun among you.” He looked over and genuinely asked, “What the hell is going on?”
Looking out the window, I replied, “We’re tired. The attack on the park was hard on everyone.”
“So, what are you going to do? Sit down and wait to die? Hide under the covers and hope the monsters go away?”
Finally, I looked over at him. “It’s just that every time we get a leg up, something happens to knock us down. It’s kinda depressing.”
Sarge stopped the truck in the road. “But you can’t just give up. You know, in the Before, there were a lot of people that were always looking for someone else to handle their shit. Always waiting for the government to come take care of them. Those days are gone. You have to take care of your own shit now. All you have to rely on is yourself and your friends. And we’re lucky. We have an awesome group of folks here. Think about them and taking care of them, just as they are you.”
“You really think you need to tell me that?”
“No. But I do think from time to time you need reminded.”
I thought about that for a minute. He was right, and I knew it. But it was also easy to want to forget it all for a while. “Well played,” was all I replied.
Sarge smiled and said, “Glad to have you back old buddy. Now, let’s go talk to Sheffield about getting rid of these commies.”
“Stop by the house so I can get my kit.”
The old man looked over and smiled, “Did you actually think I was going to take you to town like this?”
We pulled into the yard to find Mel and the kids out front. They were all looking up into the trees. I got out and looked up, asking, “What’s going on?”
Little Bit pointed up and said, “Something is making a ruckus up there.”
I smiled and rubbed her head, asking, “A ruckus huh? Where did you learn that word?”
Mel laughed and said, “I asked her the same thing.”
Little Bit shrugged, “Listen to it. It’s making a ruckus.”
There was a squeaking coming from somewhere in the tree. From over my shoulder Sarge asked, “What’s this now?”
Little Bit took his hand and said, “Something’s up there. Can you hear it?”
Sarge smiled looking down at her and replied, “Sure can. What do you want to bet it’s a baby squirrel?”
Little Bit’s face lit up, “Really? It’s a baby?” Then her and Edie held hands and jumped around shouting, “It’s a baby! It’s a baby.”
Sarge pointed up into the tree and said, “There it is right there.”
I looked up and spotted the tiny grey form squirming around in a clump of leaves. Little Bit took a sharp breath and said, “Oh no, it’s going to fall!”
We all watched as it wriggled around and did indeed fall. Mel and the kids all let out a squeal. Without thinking I pulled my hat off, reached out and the little guy dropped right into it. There were cheers from everyone as I took him out of the hat. The poor little guy had ants all over him and I wiped them away and looked him over. His eyes were still closed, but he did have a coat of fine fur and looked good other than the ants.
“Can I hold him! I want to hold him!” Little Bit shouted.
Handing her the tiny creature I said, “Be careful.”
Mel knelt down beside her said, “Gentle, be real gentle with it.”
Edie and Jase gathered around to rub its head with a finger as they all giggled and squealed. Little Bit looked up at Mel and asked, “Can we keep it?”
Mel scooped it up from her hand and held the little guy up in front of her face. “I don’t know what we’d feed it.”
“That’s easy,” Sarge replied, “Baby formula. He won’t eat much, and we can spare enough for the little guy.”
“That’s a good idea,” Mel replied. “I have an eyedropper I can feed him with.”
“What are we going to name him?” Little Bit asked.
“I think you already did,” Mel replied. “Little Bit looked up confused and Mel said, “Ruckus! We’ll call him Ruckus.”
The kids all laughed out loud and Little Bit danced around, “I love it! We have a baby squirrel named Ruckus!”
“That’s a fine name for a limb rat,” Sarge replied with a smile.
Mel took the little rodent into the house and the kids followed her. Sarge looked at me and said, “Hurry up and get your shit.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I replied as I headed into the house.
Mel was in the kitchen with the kids. She’d found a box and was putting a couple of small towels in it for the baby. “Hey babe, I’m going to town with Mr. Personality out there.”
She looked up and smiled, “Alright.”
“We won’t be long.”
She held the squirrel up in front of her and in a babyish voice said, “Ok, were going to go find you some food.”
I grabbed my gear up and dropped the vest on over my head as I headed out the door. Sarge was waiting in the truck when I climbed in and we headed down the road. Sarge slowed as we came to the bunker where a couple of Guard guys were on duty. We had six of them here and they were all good people. They seemed to genuinely enjoy being here as opposed to the armory.
“What’s up?” I asked Chris Yates . He was a good guy to have around as he was a medic and took some of the pressure off Doc.
“Just enjoying the sunshine.”
I laughed, “You’re in the right place for it! Where’s Wallner?”
“He’s goofing off somewhere. He has the night shift later.”
I nodded. “Good deal. You guys need anything?”
Chris shook his head, “No, we’re good here.”
Sarge leaned forward and barked, “Good! Then get your ass back to work!”
I rolled my eyes and Chris smiled, replying, “Roger that Top!”
As we rode towards town I asked, “So what’s up? What are thinking about doing with these commies?”
Sarge glanced over before starting into it. “What happened at the park was just the opening salvo. The commies are going to try and drive a wedge into the community. To sow distrust and fear. That way, when they decide the time is right, they’ll step as the saviors. This is the exact same shit we did in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, just pick a place.”
I took the words in slowly. It made me think of Dad, something I hadn’t done a long time now. He was a crew chief and door-gunner on scout helicopters in Vietnam. He’d seen his share of this sort of thing. In a time when the people of this country didn’t even pretend to support the troops or the mission that detached politicians gave them.
My mind wandered off the topic and onto Mom and Dad. I wondered how they were doing. Dad was a tough old man and I thought, hoped, he and Mom were doing alright. I imagined them working the river for food. He loved to fish and was really good at it. But doing it for fun is one thing, doing it every day to feed yourself, made it something else entirely.
My thoughts were interrupted by Sarge barking at me. “You paying attention over there?”
Rousing myself I said, “Sorry. I was thinking about my Mom and Dad.”
He nodded and asked, “They live over on the St Johns, right?”
“Yeah. That’s where he retired to. The old man loved to fish, and it was the perfect place.”
“You should go over there and check on them.”
I nodded. “I want to. There’s just been so much going on.”
“We can make time,” he said. Then looked over and said, “It’s important, you know.”
I nodded. “It is. I’ll make the time soon. Back to the original topic. What’s the deal with the Russians?”
“It ain’t just Russians.”
“I know, I know, there’s Cubans too. Now answer my question.”
Sarge looked over at me. A half grin cut his face. “I think I can get a B1 bomber to hit them. It’ll blast them all to hell. One run and that’s it.”
I took an exaggerated look out the windshield, at the sky. “So, where’s the bomber? What’s the hold up?”
“It ain’t that simple dipshit.”
I leaned against the door, resting my elbow on it. “Enlighten me.”
“We need to get eyes on them first. I want to make sure that all of them are actually there. At least most of them.” He smiled, “When we were at Eglin, I picked up a piece of equipment for this very thing. A laser designator. Once we have eyes on them and Bone is in the air, we can paint the target and they’ll drop some big ass smart bombs on them.”
I thought about it for a minute. I’d seen YouTube videos of this sort of thing. I had an idea of what he was talking about. “So, what are waiting on?”
“That’s why we’re on our way to see Sheffield.”
“And why am I here?”
Sarge looked over and shook his head. “I know you really just think of yourself as the Sheriff. But you are a very important part of this here. It’s more than you want, I know that. Everyone knows it. But you always step up to the plate. You’re here because I want you here.” He slowed the truck and stopped in the road. Looking over he said, “I need your help Morgan. It’s that simple.”
I nodded. “You saved my life once. I guess I owe you. I’ve got your back.”
The old man smiled and reached out and gave my shoulder a squeeze. “I know you do.”
We’d stopped on the road between Altoona and Umatilla. We were sitting just before the old Pizza Hut. Sitting in the road, just past it, was the bucket truck. I smiled, “Looks like Baker is running power out this way.”
Sarge nodded and put the truck in gear. “Looks that way.”
We stopped at the truck and I got out. There was a crowd of people gathered across the street from the truck. Terry was up in the bucket and Baker and Eric were on the ground. I walked over to Baker and looked up the pole. “You’re uh, moving the wrong direction, you know.” I pointed down the road towards Eustis and added, “Eustis is that way.”
She was stripped down to just a t-shirt with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was looking up at Terry as well and didn’t look away when she replied. “That job is done. Now we’re heading this way.”
I nodded and looked around. “Uh huh. And where are you headed, this way?”
“You know where were going asshole. We’re going to get the power up to your neighborhood first, then we’re going to come back and start checking side lines and restoring power to Umatilla.”
“You have all the parts to pull this off?”
Baker laughed, “Hell no! But we’re scavenging parts as we go. We’ll make it happen.”
Sarge had made his way over and said, “Of course you will!”
“Hey,” I said to Baker, “We’re going to Alexander Springs tomorrow. You guys should come with us.”
“What?” Sarge asked.
“You heard me,” I replied.
From up in the bucket, Terry shouted down, “Hell yes we’ll go! I could use a day off and swimming sounds like a damn fine way to spend that day!”
“When were you going to tell me about this little field trip?” Sarge asked.
“I would’ve earlier this morning. But you had your ass in a knot.”
“Whaaaat?” Baker asked in exaggeration. Looking at Sarge she said, “You had your ass in knot? But you’re such a people person.”
If Baker had been a man, Sarge would have had plenty to say to her. But he held his tongue and worked his jaw. His eyes narrowed as Baker smiled at him, waiting for his response. Finally, he spit on the ground and walked away. Baker laughed and said, “See you next time Top.”
I looked over my shoulder as the old man walked away. Turning back to Baker, I said, “You guys come out to the house tomorrow morning and we’ll head up to Alexander. It’ll be fun. We’ve got some meat we’ll grill, make a day of it.”
“Sounds good to me,” Baker said.
“Me too,” Eric added.
“Alright then, I’ll see you tomorrow then. I guess we have shit to do.” Looking up the pole I shouted to Terry, “See you tomorrow! Bring a swim suit and no banana hammock!”
“Eww!” Baker shouted.
I laughed and headed for the truck where Sarge was waiting, fuming. Climbing in I looked over and asked, “You get your ass in a knot again?”
“Fuck you, asshole. You’re a dick. You know that?” He shot back.
I nodded, “So that’s what you wanted to say to Baker. Whadda you got for me?”
As he started the truck, the old man shot back, “That was for you! I wouldn’t talk to a woman like that!”
I laughed. “Yeah, ok, it’s your lie, you tell it. Let’s get to town so we can get back to the house.”
We didn’t talk for the rest of the way to the armory. Rolling in behind the building we hopped out and I followed the old man inside. Sheffield was waiting for us in the conference room when we came in and took a seat.
“Morning fellers,” Sarge said as he sat down.
“Morning,” Livingston replied.
“What’s on your mind,” Sheffield asked.
Sarge sat drumming his fingers on the table for a moment before answering him. “I’ve been on the horn with Eglin. They want to eliminate the commie issue here in Central Florida.”
“And what do they suggest we do?” Livingston asked.
Sarge looked up and smiled. “They want to hit them with a B1. One strike and wipe them out.”
Sheffield was obviously surprised. “What?”
The old man nodded and replied, “You heard me.”
“Holy shit,” Livingston added.
“Holy shit indeed,” Sarge said. “But it’s the best way for us to get rid of them, with nearly no risk to our people.”
“What the hell are they waiting on then?” Sheffield asked.
“We need to get some people over there and put eyes on ‘em. I picked up a laser when I was up north. They want us to get people in place and paint the target, so there’s no chance of a miss.”
“Let’s get some folks out there then. I’ve been really worried about this. If they hit us once, they’ll hit us again,” Sheffield said.
Sarge nodded, “We’re going to. In a couple of days, I’m going to send Mike and Ted out to identify the target. That’ll give Eglin a couple of days to get the strike organized as well. Things aren’t as easy as they once used to be.”
“That’s great,” Livingston said. “If this works, then we will be rid of the last threat we have.”
“That’s the idea,” Sarge replied. “I’ll stay in touch with you as we work this thing up. Just keep your patrols out in case they try sneaking in. You still have people out on 441?”
Sheffield nodded. “Oh yeah. They’re doing forty-eight-hour watches. Six men are out at a time.”
“Good. Keep that up. If this works, in a couple of days, we can all relax.”
“Damn, I hope so,” Sheffield replied.
Sarge got to his feet and said, “We’ll see you boys in a couple of days. You need anything?”
Sheffield shook his head. “No, we’re good.”
“I saw him on his tractor this morning headed towards his corn patch,” Livingston said.
“Alright, I’ll check on him on the way back.”
I followed the old man out, without having said a single word in the meeting. Why had I come? In the Hummer I asked that question.
“Say Colonel. Why the hell was I there again?”
The old man shot daggers at me. “I already told you not to call me that.”
Seeing he was irritated made me smile. “That’s beside the point. No one said a word to me and I didn’t have shit to offer on the situation. So, why was I there?”
“Just shut up and sit there,” he barked back at me. Looking out through the windshield he shook his head.
I laughed to myself but didn’t push it. He was already irritated. We found Cecil in the cornfield. The corn was tall, over your head. Cecil was sitting in the seat of his tractor, under the shade of the only oak tree around.
Seeing us pull up, Cecil smiled his typical broad smile and waved before climbing down from the machine. “Morning Linus, Morgan. What sort of trouble are you two up to today?”
“Oh, whatever we can find,” Sarge replied with a smile.
“I’m just here to carry his golf clubs,” I said.
Sarge shot me a look, “Oh, dry up Nancy.”
Cecil laughed. “Glad to see you boys are good as usual.”
I looked out over the cornfield. “Looks like the corn is about ready to harvest.”
Cecil nodded and shaded his eyes to look out across the field. “Yes it is!” He said with pride. “We’ll have to get some folks out here soon to get it all picked. He walked out into the field and pulled an ear from a stalk and peeled the husk back. Inside was a beautiful golden ear of corn. He took a bite of it and smiled, juice dripping down his chin. “Oh yeah. It’s about ready.”
“That’s a whole lot of food,” I said.
“We’ll pick some now, to eat fresh. The rest we’ll leave to dry on the stalk,” Cecil said. “This really isn’t fit to eat fresh, but it’ll be a nice change.”
I took the ear from him and took a bite. “It’s sweet.” Looking up, I added, “But it is tough.”
Cecil nodded. “It’s something different so it don’t taste so bad. But you wouldn’t want to eat a bunch of it.”
“Gimme that thing,” Sarge said, holding his hand out. I handed him the ear and he took a bite. Nodding as he chewed the tough kernels, he said, “Yeah. I wouldn’t want to have to live on the stuff.”
“Hey Cecil, we’re going up to Alexander Springs tomorrow,” I said, “you should go with us.”
He thought about it for a minute. “I’d like to. But I don’t have any way to get out there.” He slapped the tractor and said, “It’d be a long ride on this thing.”
“Damn right it would,” I said with a laugh. “How about I come pick you up in the morning.”
He smiled that broad toothy smile again. “That’d be fine. I’d like that. A change of scenery would be really nice.”
“Bring some shorts and you can go for a swim,” Sarge said.
Cecil laughed. “I don’t own any short pants. And I ain’t done no swimming in a long time. But I’d be happy to sit on the side of the spring and soak my feet.”
Sarge smiled, “That sounds like a deal. We’ll collect you in the morning.” We said goodbye and headed back to the Hummer.
“I think this will be good, taking a break from things,” I said as we headed back towards the ranch.
The old man nodded. “Some down time would be good. But I’m sending Mike and Teddy out to put an eyeball on those commies. In a day or so we’ll hit them.”
“That should piss Mike off,” I replied with a laugh.
Sarge looked over at me and smiled, “Good.”
I was dropped off at the house and went inside. Mel and the all the kids were sitting in the living-room passing the little squirrel around. An eye dropper sat on the table with a small cup, a little formula still in it.
“How’s he doing?” I asked when I came in.
“He was really hungry!” Little Bit shouted.
“Did he eat a lot?”
Mel looked up, “Yes he did. I think he’ll be fine. I need a cage for him.”
“I’ll see what I can find,” I answered. Thinking that is was one more thing I’d have to deal with. “Tomorrow we’re going to Alexander Springs for the day. I think we could all use a day to swim and relax.”
“Really?” Taylor asked. I nodded, and she clapped her hands as she got up. “I need to go find a bathing suit!”
Lee Ann, not as much into swimming to her sister, surprised me when she too jumped up to go find something to wear. Little Bit was the most excited, as little kids usually were and jumped around the living-room excitedly.
“What time are we leaving?” Mel asked.
I shrugged, “I don’t know. When everyone is ready I guess.”
“Are we taking food?”
“I think Thad was going to take some meat to grill or something.”
Mel stood up and put the little limb rat in a box. “I’ll go talk to Kay and see what we can come up with.”
She took Little Bit and they headed next door leaving me alone in the living -room. With everyone now occupied I decided to go find Mike. Leaving the house, I walked towards the home he shared with Ted, Ronnie and Sarge. The dogs labored to their feet and trotted after me as I walked down the driveway toward the road.
It was a scorching hot day. The sun high in the cloudless sky. As I walked, sweat began to run down my neck and back. I was already regretting taking the walk. I looked back to see the dogs standing in the road panting. I guess they were smarter than I was because they lingered in the road for a moment, then Meat Head turned and headed back to the house. Drake was immediately on his trail. I laughed and thought of Little Sister as I continued to walk in the direction of the bunker.
Summer days in Florida can be miserable. When the humidity gets up and the temps rise, you’ll sweat like a lawyer in hell, but it doesn’t evaporate, just pools up on your skin until it either soaks everything you’re wearing or drips off. Either way, it really sucks. I tugged at the plate carrier, trying to get some air under it. But doing so allowed the incredible funk that always built up under it to escape and I turned my head to gasp for an unpolluted breath. Shit that stinks! I muttered to myself.
Imagine wearing the same gym clothes every day, all day, and working out to the max. That would give you an idea of what it was like. Oh, and you never washed any of it. Yeah, now you’re getting the picture. I felt for all the people that ever served in any of our desert wars for what they had to endure.
I found Wallner in a lounge chair under the tarp of at the rear of the bunker. He was stripped down to his waist and sweat covered his pasty white bare chest. As I came up, I but a hand up to shield my eyes from the glare.
“Damn man, put on a shirt or something. It’s like looking directly at the sun!”
With his hat pulled down over his eyes he mumbled, “It’s too damn hot. Too hot to even think.”
“Well, tomorrow we’re going to Alexander Springs.”
Before I could finish the statement he bolted upright in his chair and shouted, “Really?” Jumping to his feet he said, “Hot damn! A day of swimming sounds nice. Back at the armory we would swim in the lake. But someone had to stand guard for gators and the water smelled like shit and was as warm as piss.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I know what that’s like. But the spring will be nice and cool. Clean, clear water. I’ll be nice.”
Then his expression changed. “Shit.”
“I know someone is going to have to stay behind to provide security.”
I nodded. “Three someone’s.”
Wallner rubbed the stubble on his chin. “We’ll draw straws. Three of us get to go, three have to stay behind.”
“That’s up to you guys.”
He nodded. “We’ll sort it out.” Then looked at me and said, “Man, I’m looking forward to this.”
“If, you get to go.”
He gave me a mischievous smile, “Yeah, if I get to go.”
“I don’t want to know,” I said with wave of my hand as I walked off.
I found Mike sitting in a lawn chair in the front yard of the house. He was lying there but naked, sunning himself. The tall grass came up to the bottom of the chair and it looked as though he was floating on it. I stopped short when I saw him and said, “Would you put some damn clothes on?”
He was wearing sunglasses and I couldn’t see his eyes. But his head rocked towards me and he replied, “Why? I’m getting a tan.”
“There’s some parts that shouldn’t ever see the sun.”
He adjusted the head of the chair to lay flat and rolled over, putting his pale ass in the air. “There. You happy now?”
I half laughed to myself and walked over and fell into the grass beside him. Resting back on my arms I looked over and asked, “You alright?”
I expected some smart-ass reply. But he was quiet for a moment, then said, “I’m fucking bored Morgan. I joined the Army to go to far away exotic lands, meet interesting people and kill them in a most terrifying manner. This was fun for a while. But, I’m getting bored to death. I need something to do and I don’t mean standing at the damn bunker either. There ain’t shit going to happen there.”
“You seen the old man today?”
“Then you don’t know what you’re about to do?”
He sat up quickly, knocking the sunglasses askew. “No. What is it? Do I get to take my tank?”
“I don’t know about your tank. But he’s lining up a strike against the Russians at the auto auction. Said he’s got a B1 bomber strike planned. You and Ted are supposed to go over there and put a laser or something on the target.”
He jumped to his feet and shouted, “Hot damn!”
I turned my head, “Put something on, would you?”
Mike looked down and smiled. Putting his hands behind his head he started to gyrate his hips, shouting, “Helicopter, helicopter, helicopter!”
Dalton’s voice boomed from the road, “You’re doing it wrong! You have to have something to swing to pull that off.”
Mike looked at him and smiled, “You wanna go for a ride?”
Dalton walked across the yard and snorted, “That little thing couldn’t even get my interest up.”
Mike snatched the sunglasses from his face and pointed at Dalton with them, “You’d fall in love. Hey! We got a mission!”
“What sort of mission?”
As we were talking, Sarge pulled up in his Hummer. He sat in the driver’s seat shaking his head. Mike started walking towards the truck and the old man shouted, “You better go put some damned clothes on before you even think about talking to me! Who the hell walks around naked? What the he is wrong with you?”
“You know the difference between naked and nekkid?” I asked. No one answered so I continued. “You’re naked when you ain’t got any clothes on. You’re nekkid when you ain’t any clothes on and you’re up to something!”
“He better get some clothes on his nekkid ass!” Sarge shouted.
Mike turned and sprinted for the house. He came back out with boots on his feet and a pair of shorts. He was pulling a t-shirt on as he walked across the yard. “So, what’s this mission?”
The old man climbed out of the truck and jabbed a finger at Mike again, “I better never catch you running around in your birthday suit again. If I do, I’ll grab you by the stem and take you on a tour of the neighborhood, got it?”
“Yeah, yeah. What’s the mission? I’m fucking dying here. I’m so bored I can’t even jackoff anymore.” Sarge dropped his face into his hand and shook his head.
“What’s the word, Top?” Dalton asked.
I leaned in close to Dalton and said, “It’s Colonel. But you got to say it with a thick southern accent.”
Sarge slowly lifted his face from his hand and looked at me. Straight faced and through gritted teeth he said, “Morgan, you do not want to start any shit with me right now.” Then, ignoring Mike, he looked at Dalton. “We’re going to set up on the commies at their base of operation. Mark them with a laser so a B1 can drop some serious hurt on their asses.”
“You have the laser?”
Sarge cocked his head to the side and asked, “And just how the hell would we do it if we didn’t? Stop being a dumbass Dalton.”
“Are we taking the big gun?” Mike asked.
“Hell no, shithead. You have to sneak in there and paint the target. You think they won’t see that big bastard come rolling up? Get your head out of your ass. You’ll take the war wagon. Get in somewhere so you can have eyes on the target and wait for the Bone.”
“Who’s going?” Dalton asked.
The old man pointed at him, “You, numb nuts here and Teddy.”
Mike turned and sprinted for the house, “I’ll get my shit!”
“Tell Teddy to bring his ass out here!” Sarge barked after him. Then, looking at Dalton, said, “This is important Dalton. You guys need to stay out of sight. We’re not going there to get into a gunfight. If that happens, then the mission is a failure. We’re going to have one shot at this. If Bone can’t drop on the first pass, there won’t be a second attempt.”
Dalton nodded as Ted came out of the house. Sarge filled him in on the mission and handed him a piece of paper. “Here’s everyone’s callsign. I’m Swamp Rat one, you’re two. Eustis is Gator Hole and the B1 flight is Bone one and two. They’ll contact you when they’re in route and let you know when to light up the target.” He pointed at the house and said, “Keep his ass outta trouble. No shooting or any other bullshit.”
Reading the paper, Ted nodded. “He’ll be alright. He likes to play the jackass part up, but he’s a pro.”
“What about after the strike?” Dalton asked. “We cleared hot on anyone left walking?”
Sarge nodded without hesitation. “Anyone you see upright after the strike is a fair target.”
“Can I get that M1 of yours then? It’ll give me some reach out and touch someone range.”
Sarge nodded, “Come on inside and I’ll get it for you. Teddy, you get your shit together and get ready to go. I want you guys in place with eyes on by this evening.”
“Roger that boss,” Ted replied as he walked away.
As Dalton followed Sarge into the house I said, “Alright guys. I’m gonna take off.” Turning to head up the road I added, “Since there’s no reason for me to be here.”
As he walked into the house, Sarge called out over his shoulder, “Dry up Nancy!” It made me smile.