The Second Novel of the Breakdown
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By J.F. Perkins
Copyright 2011 J.F. Perkins
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Chapter One – May 2012
I was hiding from my life when it happened.
Back then, everything was about the money. I was a stupid grad student at Evergreen University. No, that’s not right. I was a smart student, but a stupid human being. I thought it was about the ideals, the principles, saving the planet, that kind of crap. Then I met a man, my career future self, and heard the truth. The idea of education with a capital “E” was a national sales job, well out of date by then. The world was set up so that you couldn’t get a decent job unless you had a degree, and then the economy faltered. The whole scheme turned around so that the more education you had, the less likely that someone wanted to pay you enough to justify the time and money that went into it.
Not that it mattered in environmental science. A man named Hank had been where I wanted to go, and he told me how it would play out. I would get my master’s degree. I would grub around for volunteer work in the field. If I did well and impressed one of the few scientists who had a job to offer, I might get some seasonal work for a few years. Then, if that went well, I might get a term position somewhere. I would jump from one term to the next until maybe someday; I would get a permanent position. It would help if I were a woman or a minority since the government doled out most environmental science jobs and they had quotas to fill. In the end, before I had secured my own future, I would put in more years than a surgeon, and I would end up making less than the factory floor manager who went to work right out of high school. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
I retreated to the forest to think long and hard about where I would go next. I was a smart guy. I could always change my mind and stay in school. What were those student loans anyway? I would be paying on them for years in any case. Why not just keep going? There were other job options, of course, but for a young man who dreamed of doing field work to save the environment, I was on a path that would probably lead to a hard life with little in the way of rewards. For what? Saving the environment?
If I had only known that in a very short time, the problem would not be saving the planet. It would be saving myself. I could have avoided an agonizing two-week confrontation with my own principles.
Let me be clear. It was only painful inside my head. It’s never easy to let go of your beliefs, and mine were strongly held. I fit right in with the Evergreen mentality. I was liberal to a fault. I demonstrated for peace, and whales, and anything else that seemed soft and fluffy and natural. I never understood that those were possible choices only because of the hard money underneath. In America, we did everything wrong, to my way of thinking, but we did it so well that I had food and freedom and the opportunity to choose to think whatever I wanted. What I chose to believe was that we could ignore the fact that everything was built on a powerful economy, an engine that supported the choice to protest the logging industry by living in a tree. In my case, I had set out on a career that held no value to the people who made the choices possible in the first place. My mind circled the paradox for days.
Outside my troubled skull, I was fine. I had my ultra-light backpacker’s tent set high on an eastern ridge in Capitol Forest. I was well-placed to look longingly over the life I was pretending to leave behind. It didn’t escape me that my collection of high end camping gear was also a product of the money engine, but that equipment provided me with enough comfort that I only hiked back to Olympia four times during my sabbatical. I mean, what was the point of camping if I couldn’t grab a mocha when I wanted?
I would hike down the trails and logging roads to town, restocking my supplies with organic-labeled food and grabbing a steamy 20-ounce mocha from one of the hundreds of convenient espresso stands on my way back up into the hills. It never occurred to me that I would live in a time when “organic” no longer means a thing. I was living in self-tortured bliss.
On my third trip back into the hills, I noticed a colorful tent that wasn’t there early that morning. It was tucked into a tight group of conifers, as if it were hiding from the city below. I paused to take another sip of my lukewarm mocha, catching my breath. Being a connoisseur of backpacking gear, my guess was that the tent was cheap, or even one of those tents that kids pitch indoors for sleepovers. I looked up at the steel gray sky and imagined that whoever was sleeping in that tent was in for a tough night. The month of May in the Pacific Northwest is the same as saying, “It’s going to rain.” I shrugged at the thought with a certain arrogance about people who didn’t know what they were doing in the woods.
As I began to walk again, making the last push to my campsite on the ridge, I saw a little girl peering at me from the shadows behind the tent. Even accounting for the clouds and gloom, she was a dark girl. She had long hair, nearly black under her yellow cap, and a creamy coffee complexion, not too different from the drink in my hand. Maybe she was of Native American descent, hard to say from that distance. She was dressed in clothing that seemed suitable for school, which reminded me that she should be in school. After my quick look, part of my mind assumed that her parents were nearby, and I continued on my way. The other part knew something was wrong.
I reached my own tent quickly. Unlike the girl’s tent, it was pitched defiantly in the open. Anyone who knew where to look could probably see the yellow and blue dome from thirty miles away. I slid my pack from my shoulders and sat on the discarded log that I was using for my camp bench. From my seat, I pushed my pack under the rain fly and settled in with the dregs of my drink, preparing for more circular and pointless thought.
The breeze was flowing over the slope from the north, bringing cooler air from the Puget Sound. It brushed my left cheek as I sat, and forced me to decide whether I would dig another layer of synthetic clothing out of the tent. I convinced myself that I was still warm from the climb, and that was enough reason to ignore the cold. Mostly I was just feeling lazy. Even in my current state of life abandonment, I had brought enough material goods to make the thought of dealing with items of clothing seem exhausting. After days on the ridge, I couldn’t seem to shake the longing for human company. I wanted my circle of idealistic friends around me, but not enough to surround myself with everything that came with those friends.
In lieu of real contact, I leaned back and dug a Zune mp3 player out of the convenient outer pocket of my pack. Another product of the money engine, the device was another symbol of my pathetic rebellion. All my friends had iPods, or iPads, or iMacs. Anything with a small “i” on the glossy box. My choice felt like a way of bucking the trend, dodging the herd, but of course that was just ridiculous. The real reason was the simple fact that at the time I bought it, the Zune had a built-in radio, and the iPod did not. I liked the drowsy liberal drone of NPR and the culturally savvy music of KEXP. At a buck a song, I couldn’t afford to fill up my Zune any other way.
I compromised with nature by sticking one ear bud in my right ear and leaving my left ear open to the environment. I tuned to my usual starting point on NPR, expecting to be soothed by jazz music and stories of distant corners of the human spectrum, certainly nothing that could affect me. Instead, the station was delivering a live news feed from another network. I checked my watch and tried to figure why the news was running at this odd time between even splits of the hour. No big deal. The so-called real news never lasted long on NPR. I would be back to jazz any minute.
When the news continued well past the norm, I began to pay attention. The stories were all about tensions with China and mainstream politics. Like every American, I was aware that we were in the midst of economic troubles that threatened to spill all over the world, despite the constant assurances from the President, the Congress, and the few surviving frontrunners in the Republican primary. What I didn’t know was that China had reached the point of threatening to break our legs like a mob collection thug if we didn’t pay up. I couldn’t tell for sure if the problems were legitimate debts from the money we had borrowed as a nation, or if they were simply unhappy that our economy had collapsed to the point that we could no longer afford to keep buying every Chinese product that caught our eye. Within minutes, I understood that it didn’t matter. Their economy depended on ours, and ours was in the crapper. One way or another, China was calling in its markers.
No one was speaking of war. It was just endless commentary on how we could repay the debt, ignore the debt, or convince the Chinese to forgive it. Apparently, repayment would involve austerity measures that no politician could expect to sign and have a career afterward. Any serious discussion of ignoring the problem struck me as not only dishonorable, but foolish and arrogant as well. It seemed to come from an attitude that since we are America, no matter how badly we conduct ourselves, people would continue to treat us with respect. At a minimum, according to one voice on the radio, our credit would be destroyed. We would end up with a crash budget slashing, creating the same deprivation that we would get from simply repaying debt for the rest of our lives. As for asking the Chinese to simply forgive the massive debt, I had to laugh. America had a long history of forgiving debt when it was convenient, but usually as a setup for controlling the recipients of the loan forever. China had no motive to forgive anything, especially at this incredible scale. All they needed was for us to keep buying.
I plucked the ear bud from my ear, and switched off the Zune. I was even more fatigued than when I had turned the thing on. I slid to the bare ground and used the log as a backrest. I was considering a nap when I saw the bright yellow hat bobbing up the slope. The girl approached warily, shoulders hunched against the wind. She moved in an odd rhythm, looking up at me and then at her feet, picking her steps carefully. She stopped well outside of social range and stared at me like I was her enemy.
I said, “Hi. How are you?”
She said nothing.
I continued to meet her eyes. “Are you all right?”
“Do you need anything? I just got a new batch of food.”
She took a few steps closer.
“Are you cold?” It was an easy guess from the way she was hugging herself in her inadequate clothing.
She nodded again.
I leaned back and pulled a fleece jacket from the vestibule of my tent. I bundled it into a ball and tossed it over to her. She pulled the jacket quickly over her shoulders and zipped it up to her chin. In my jacket, she looked very small and very young. Being an only child, I had no real reference, but I guessed her to be ten or twelve. She was still standing on the opposite side of my little fire pit, past the second log I had optimistically placed across from me.
“Pull up a log,” I said. “It’s ok. My name is Ned Stamps.”
She stepped over the short log and sat delicately on it.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
She seemed afraid to answer. Afraid in general.
“Ok… We’ll just sit,” I said, beginning to feel some real concern for this little girl. “You still look cold. Let me get a fire going.”
I busied myself with arranging the sticks I had gathered in a pile nearby. I found that building fires was therapeutic. It somehow appealed to something deep within me, and once I figured that much, I spent much of my time picking up deadfall as my new hobby. I still sucked at fire making, but I patiently shaved little strips of wood from a branch and piled them on a little platform I made from twigs and grass. I lit the bundle with a Zippo my uncle had given me for graduation. I remembered how my mother had argued with her brother over the gift. Mom thought he was encouraging me to smoke. He thought every man needed a lighter, no matter what. When the tiny flame burst forth, I added more twigs to make it grow.
“Here, you want to help? Grab some of these little sticks until it gets going.”
The girl had a knack for it. The fire was soon spreading to the larger wood above. I could tell that she found it as soothing as I did, and something told me that was important for the frightened girl. When the fire was crackling and kicking out some heat into the chilly afternoon air, she finally leaned back against the log, and spoke to me.
“My name is Cindy.” She lowered her head and murmured, “I ran away.”
Chapter Two – May 2012
I took pride in my ability to talk to people, but at that moment I was speechless. The girl, Cindy, was visibly cringing as she waited for my reaction. For long seconds, I didn’t have one. I finally gathered my thoughts and spoke gently, “You ran away? From home?”
She nodded rapidly as tears began to drop from her eyes.
“It’s all right. Let’s just talk about it, ok?”
She sniffed heavily, nodding once again in my direction.
“Things must be pretty bad for you to run away, Cindy. Is that right?”
In a half-whisper that was almost lost in the crackling fire, she said, “Yes.”
I had no idea what to do. I was thinking that a responsible adult would hike the girl into town and take her straight to the police. Fortunately, I had gained the example of some odd friends who did anything they thought would be contrary to the typical idea of responsible adulthood. I decided to treat her as if she had the right to choose.
“Ok. Well, I’ll make you a promise,” I said. “I won’t take you anywhere you don’t want to go. You can talk to me about it or not, but now that I know, I’d like to help.”
Her tears began to subside. She lifted her eyes from the ground and stared at me, I guess trying to discern whether I was telling the truth. I looked right back at her, keeping my face as calm as I could.
She finally made her decision. “My daddy left two years ago. He said my mother had problems he couldn’t solve. She was sad for a while. She drank a lot. Then she met Chet.” Cindy said the name with utter hate. If I weren’t leaning against a log, I would have recoiled from the force of it.
“Who’s… Chet?” I asked quietly.
“He’s my mother’s boyfriend. He’s been living at our house for almost a year. He does bad things.”
“To both of us. I think he thinks he’s my boyfriend too,” Cindy said with a deep frown.
I winced at the implications. She was being abused. Shit. “Ok, Cindy. I think I understand.”
“I tried to talk to Mother. I tried to call the police. They didn’t believe me. They believed him, and Mother took his side. I had to leave!” Cindy was almost shouting at the end.
“Yes, I can see why.” I had a lump in my throat and a strange hollow feeling in my stomach. I was looking at the ground now. When I glanced back at Cindy, she was giving me a silent challenge. For obvious reasons, trust would be slow with this girl.
“Well. I’ll be honest. I have no idea what we should do. How about if we just hang out here and think about it for a while?”
She let out a huge breath in a whoosh. If I had been her, I would have been braced for a responsible adult to throw her right back into a bad situation. Luckily, she met me instead. I was twenty-seven, but I wasn’t a grownup - not by a long shot. “Do you have any food?” I asked, turning to practical matters.
“I have some granola bars, some applesauce and a box of cereal.”
“Yes. It’s a Hello Kitty sleeping bag,” she replied.
Oh, great. Hello Kitty. I knew she would freeze to death in the forty degree weather in these low northern mountains. That could only mean one thing. Another hike into town. The only good thing about being an avid backpacker with a gear fetish was the fact that I had several generations of older gear stowed in my apartment. The bad thing, of course, was the endless credit card statements. It was all good equipment; just not the latest and greatest. I quickly made a plan and got to my feet.
“Cindy, Hello Kitty is nice, but not quite tough enough for this weather. I’m going to do two things – if it’s all right with you. First, I’m going to move my tent down near yours. Then, I have some better equipment for you at my house. You can borrow it, ok?”
Cindy looked instantly suspicious.
“Remember my promise? All I’m going to do is go home, get you some gear, and come back. Will you be all right while I’m gone?”
“I’m not a kid. I’ll be fine,” the little girl said.
“Good. I can move pretty fast, and it wouldn’t be smart to take you into town. They might have people looking for you by now. It’ll take a few hours, I guess. If it starts raining, you get in my tent and wait for me. It’s important to stay dry.”
She nodded, and I began to stuff my loose gear into my pack. When the tent was empty, I took it down. Twenty minutes later, it was back up in the same clump of trees as Cindy’s tent. I was right. The green and purple should have been a dead giveaway. Barney the dinosaur smiled in strangely sinister fashion from a patch over the door. I shuddered.
Before I left, I gave her my Zune. She pulled an iPod out of her jeans pocket and said, “That’s ok. I have an iPod.”
I grinned at her. “Does it have a radio?”
“No, but I have lots of music.”
“The point is that I want you to listen to the radio. Something is happening, and I need you to find out what. Will you do that?”
She shrugged and put the iPod away. “Sure.”
I resisted the urge to ruffle her hair. Then I left a troubled kid I had just met watching all my stuff.
Thanks to the long northwest afternoons, it was still full daylight when I reached my apartment. Two hikes in one day were beginning to draw some complaints from my feet, but I felt compelled to get the job done. Something was nagging at my subconscious, but I was a long way from identifying it. I was soon to get a better hint. Meanwhile, I dug through my spare bedroom, and pulled out everything on my mental list. I stuffed everything into the smallest of my backpacks and went into my closet in hopes of finding anything suitable for the girl. The only find was a nice jacket that an ex-girlfriend had left when she was rejecting me, everything about me, and that included outdoor sports. It would still be too big, but better than nothing.
On another hunch, I rolled out my touring bike. I could save a lot of time riding the bicycle back to the forest. I retrieved my touring luggage from the metal shelves in my “gear room” and clipped them on the bike. I checked for food in the fridge, but it was left in its normal state – empty. I did find a box of crackers and a jar of organic peanut butter in the cabinet, along with a few cans of soup. On foot, a backpacking elitist like me would never bother with heavy cans, but on the bike, the weight mattered less. The rest of my packing was on instinct. I don’t know what was driving me, but I filled the panniers with an assortment of clothing and gear, anything I thought might be useful. Finally, I pumped air into the tires, slid the pack onto my back, and pushed the whole mess through the door.
As I left my apartment, I didn’t know it was for the last time. I locked the door. I spent the first half mile fretting over the weight of the load. The backpack alone was more than I thought the girl could handle. If we were lucky, the bad situation would resolve itself before she needed it. I rolled across the Trader Joe’s parking lot with the intention of getting some extra food, and found myself confronting an angry mob near the door. With a few less-than-helpful words and gestures, I understood the problem. The line stretched around the side of the building. Trader Joe’s could get crowded, but a line at the door?
I apologized to the air in front of me since no one actually cared, and walked the bike around the side of the building. The line stretched down the wall and around the back. This, I had to see. Another corner and another span of people appeared before me. I was astounded. Trader Joe’s was currently out for shopping, but my curiosity was in full swing. I walked up to a young couple and asked them what was going on. The man seemed irritated by my question, but the woman answered. “The government announced a breakdown in relations with China. They advised everyone to get prepared for potential disruptions in basic services.” It sounded like she was quoting the announcement verbatim.
“When did that happen?” I asked.
“About an hour ago. We were here in less than twenty minutes, and you can see how that turned out,” she replied.
“Maybe I should go to Top Foods…”
The man spoke up. “Forget it. We went there first. This line is short compared to theirs.”
“Ah, okay. Well, thanks. Good luck.” I pedaled away wondering why I had felt the need to wish them luck.
I passed under the Highway 101 bridge, trying to decide what to do. I saw a convenience store a short distance farther along Black Lake Boulevard. It seemed quiet from where I stood, and it might not be organic, but they would have some kind of food. Besides, who ever met a kid that didn’t like Cheetos? I strolled in with my overloaded pack and was ignored by the two clerks. They were staring at the television mounted high on the wall behind the counter. Anderson Cooper was throwing to multiple reporters plastered across the screen. The key to the story seemed to be locked in the White House and no one could get it out. After a few minutes of watching, I realized that no answers were forthcoming.
I wandered the aisles, picking up anything that fit my criteria. Lightweight, preserved, and somewhat nutritious. Then I grabbed the Cheetos. I dumped my double armload on the counter and waited for the total before I handed the woman my stressed-out credit card. She looked at me like I was insane, and I probably was at the time. I was afraid of the unknown, but at least I could face it with orange, cheesy fingers.
Having already ruined my reputation at that convenience store, I asked for extra plastic bags. She gave them to me with a swift, surly movement just to get me out of the store. I took my health food treasures outside and divided them up into smaller groups in the plastic bags. I was hoping to stuff them into the tiny remaining spaces in the pack and panniers. I managed to get three to fit, but the rest rode on the outside, tied to random loops on the pack. I must have looked like one of the multitude of homeless people who always plied the streets of Olympia. I set out for the hills with a wobbling pedal stroke and the rhythmic crinkle of swaying plastic bags.
I reached the camp just after sunset, but well before dark. I’m not sure the loaded bicycle saved me much time at all. The looming clouds had swept away to the south, leaving the blues and pinks of twilight glowing on the slopes. The camp itself was in deep shadow, with just barely enough light to set up the third tent. I leaned the bike against a tree and set to work. I erected the dome quickly, thankful for the years of practice with that particular tent. It was a much larger than my backpacking tent, and much heavier. It was designed for three people and four seasons, but I never managed to get more than two to fit at once. The rest of the space was good for stowing packs and gear during the night.
In my rush to set up the tent, I didn’t immediately worry about the little girl. A quick check through the mesh of my first tent revealed no sign of Cindy. I called her name quietly, thinking she may have retreated into her Barney tent for a nap. She didn’t answer. I called again, loudly this time. I heard a small voice from the top of the ridge and surprised myself with the surge of relief I felt. I grabbed the bag of Cheetos and walked up to find her sitting by the fire we had built hours earlier. It was still popping loudly as she continued to feed new branches into the blaze.
“Everything ok?” I asked.
“Sure. It sounds bad on the radio, though. Are you ok?”
“No problems, except for long lines at the grocery store. I hit up the convenience store instead.” I replied, tossing her the bag of Cheetos. The bag bounced from her hands. “People are worried.”
“I’m worried too,” Cindy said, picking the bag off the ground and pulling the sides apart.
“What are they saying?” I sat down against my log and took a deep breath as my muscles relaxed.
“Not too much, I guess. Mostly they are telling people to stay calm.”
I barked out a laugh and said, “It’s not working. You should have seen the crowd trying to get into Trader Joe’s.”
“Yeah, there was an announcement a few hours ago about being prepared. Then, the radio people talked about every word for another hour.” She carefully selected her first cheesy orange victim and crunched it to death.
“That’s what they do. Talk about nothing over and over.” I held out my hand and she handed me the bag. I pulled out a handful and gave the bag back.
“That’s why I don’t pay any attention to grownups. They lie all the time too.”
“They do. Maybe they’re lying to the Chinese right now.” I felt like I should apologize for adults everywhere, but I didn’t expect her to believe me. I crunched Cheetos instead.
We munched contently on our nutrition-free dinner as the twilight eased over into real darkness. New bands of clouds were streaming in from the northwest and the wind shifted over my left shoulder. We were quiet, except for the rattling bag and the sound of chewing in our heads.
When Cindy picked up another piece of wood, I said, “Let’s let it die. We should head back to camp soon.”
She shrugged and set the stick back on the pile.
“We’ll move the firewood down the hill tomorrow.”
“Can we keep the fire here? I like it.”
“Sure thing. I like it here too.” I stood up and kicked loose dirt over the smoldering coals.
We made the short hike down the slope in the light of my LED headlamp. I gave Cindy a quick tour of her new digs, and retreated to my own tent. I didn’t know if that was the right thing to do, but considering where she had been, I decided that she needed space more than company. If she was scared and lonely, she knew where to find me. Five minutes later, I discovered that the little girl could snore like a bear. I stuffed the ear buds in my ears and fell asleep to the sounds of nervous reporters saying nothing at all.
Chapter Three – May 2012
I woke with the glare of the sun on my blue and gold tent. It was unfortunate that my face just happened to be in the gap between the shadows of two tree trunks outlined on the fabric wall. The girl was either awake or had stopped snoring when her subconscious mind gave up on scaring the wildlife. I unzipped my door with a growl of the zipper and slid out of my sleeping bag in one stiff motion. I got to my feet and proceeded to stuff them into the boots by the door. The act of donning my boots automatically stretched my wool socks into their proper positions. I walked over to my old tent and heard the even sound of the girl’s breathing inside. It was oddly peaceful for a few moments.
Then my brain started ticking and I remembered my Zune, and the news. I reached back into my tent and dug around until I found the headphone cord. I reeled the device into my hand. Dead. Gear fetish to the rescue. I unzipped a flat pocket on my pack, and pulled out a black nylon stuff sack. With gear in hand, I wandered back up to the clearing on top and pulled a little solar panel out of the sack. I unfolded the panel and plugged it into my Zune. If I had an iPod, the cord would have worked on its own. Being a rebellious Zune user, I was forced to use a clump of adapters to do the job. I leaned the panel in the direction of the sun, just south of Mount Rainier, and walked back to camp.
Cindy was awake by then. I knew from camping with friends that it’s hard to keep sleeping if anyone else is awake. It’s just not possible to be that quiet once you get up. She looked tired and lost. Her dark brown hair was crumpled around her face. If anything, she looked younger than ever. I once again considered being a responsible adult. I knew I was in over my head. I also knew that I didn’t want to be a responsible adult to a little girl who considered all grownups to be liars.
“Morning, Cindy. Are you hungry?”
She shook her head and rubbed her nose. I understood. Her fingers were pasted with bright orange goo. I’m sure there was an empty bag of Cheetos in the tent.
“Ok. Well, I think I’ll have something to eat. You must be thirsty. Do you have any water?”
She shook her head again.
“No problem. I brought you a water bottle. It’s in the pack. Side pocket.”
Cindy turned to crawl back through the door. She emerged again a few seconds later with a blue water bottle in her hand. She drank almost a full liter before she came up for air. Understandable, considering she had hiked up here from town with no water. I refilled her bottle from my collapsible jug, and she seemed content to carry it with her. I turned to my own breakfast, which consisted of a Cliff Bar and a handful of trail mix. I usually made it a point to have something hot for breakfast, as a substitute for a hot shower, but the odd combination of events made me want to fuel up and go. Go where? I wasn’t sure.
Cindy had her own plans. While I was eating she had collected a large book from her pink and purple backpack, and walked outside the clump of trees to settle on a flat rock in the rare sunshine. She was reading quietly by the time I noticed. I thought it might be a good opening for a conversation until I got close enough to see what she was reading. I could only think of a couple of reasons why a little girl from an abusive home would be reading a book on self-defense. One was homework for Karate class; the other was much worse. I avoided the subject by walking back up the hill.
I gave the Zune an experimental push of the power button, but the battery was still too weak. I turned to face west, and once my attention was focused on the civilized city below, I realized that there were sirens wailing from emergency vehicles. Too many sirens. After almost two weeks on my ridge, I had some understanding of the normal patterns, and this was abnormal. I walked closer to the west-facing slope and sat on a large rock that had been unearthed when the fire road was cut into the mountains. I dangled my feet over the edge like a boy, letting my boot heels strike a cadence on the rock face. Cindy was visible down the slope to my left, still buried in her book.
Ahead of me, I could see a good portion of the trio of cities that blended into Olympia. Tumwater stretched to my right, partially occluded by the tall hills just west of town. Lacey stood off in the distance, slowly fading into the gathering moisture in the atmosphere. Interstate 5 punched through the valley like a swollen blood vessel in the shape of a boomerang. I pulled my bird-watching binoculars from the pouch on my belt to take a closer look. Traffic was heavy on the freeway. I caught occasional glimpses of flashing lights pushing ahead of the general flow. Rush hour was not enough to explain the stop and go traffic. Maybe farther north, but not here. My second guess was that people were on the move, perhaps aiming for family, perhaps for some idea of security in the gathering confusion.
I was a long way from thinking in terms of real conflict, but I got my first dose in the form of jet engines high overhead. The wind had shifted until it was blowing straight out of the west, and the usual layer of marine haze from the Pacific was building in from that direction. Ahead, to the east, the sun was still blazing over the shoulder of Rainier. All that to say I couldn’t see the first jets, and dismissed the sound as part of the airline traffic from SeaTac. My ignorance was shattered when a flight of low flying fighters shrieked by overhead and left a deep rumble in their wake. Now, that was clearly not part of the pattern. My thinking began to shift. I watched the flight follow the Puget Sound north and then turn east towards Lewis-McChord as tiny dots.
When it happened again with another low flying patrol, I began to feel a sense of real alarm. The view of town was congealing into a gridlocked mess. The sounds of sirens and distant horns blended together as I watched from atop the ridge. I was suddenly happy to be apart from everything in my life below. Other than that, I was clueless as to what I should do.
The weather made my decision for me when the haze thickened into a steady drizzle. The sun had climbed up into clouds that headed steadily east to pile up on the Cascades. A few serious showers were foretold by darkening masses of iron gray clouds. I went to collect my Zune before it caught too much of the rain, and stuffed it into my pocket as I went back to the shelter of my tent.
Cindy was yet to say a word that morning, but she waved at me from the door of her tent. I changed direction and stood outside until I was sure. From her second gesture, I decided that she wanted some company. I ducked inside the larger tent and sat cross-legged across from her. Just in time, too. The rain intensified from a standard Olympia drizzle into a spring shower. She held the book closed in front of her own crossed legs, face down.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
She flipped the book over. A Woman’s Guide to Self-Defense.
“Are you in some kind of martial arts class?”
She shook her head.
“Seems like a strange book for a young lady. How old are you anyway?”
“Ah. When is your birthday?”
“October 16th,” Cindy said. I let the “almost” part go.
“Really? Mine is October 21st.”
“Close,” she said. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-seven. Almost twenty-eight.” I smiled. She didn’t get the joke.
She made the face that all children do when trying to comprehend someone living to my ancient age.
“Happens faster than you think,” I said, answering her unspoken question. “So, if you’re not taking Karate, what’s with the book?”
“I just want to know,” she replied.
“I just do.” Her eyebrows closed in to form a wrinkle above her nose.
“Hmm. Well, if I were you, I’d be angry at people. I might even think about hurting some people who had done bad things to me.”
“Would you really do it?” Cindy asked with a relaxing of her features.
“No. I wouldn’t really do it. I don’t think it’s right to hurt people. But I would definitely think about it. I might even want to do it… Very badly.”
“Oh. You mean you wouldn’t hurt anyone, no matter what?”
“I’d like to think so, but I don’t know for sure,” I replied, struggling to be honest. “It’s a hard question. All I know for sure is that I try to do the right thing. People do crazy things. Good people try to be good, but mess up anyway. Bad people don’t even try.”
She nodded slowly. I imagined that she was satisfied with my answer. We sat listening to the rain splattering on the tent fabric for a few minutes. “What would you do?” Cindy finally asked.
“Believe me, if I knew what to do, I would tell you. It’s another hard question.”
“Yeah. I want to go home. I want my mother back. I don’t want Chet to be there anymore. I think he should be dead.” She said it calmly, like she was deciding what to wear to school. It scared me a little.
“I can’t argue with any of that. I don’t know what he did to you, Cindy. I don’t plan to ask, because if I knew, I might start reading your book myself.”
Cindy smiled at me for the first time. It almost broke my heart thinking that a happy little girl was in there, hiding behind a wall of grownup pain. For the first time I could recall, I actually did want to kill someone. I stuffed the urge back into my mental pacifist trunk, and locked it tight. I reached for my Zune, hoping that it had some kind of charge. I was trying hard to change the subject by leaning on a piece of consumer electronics.
The display lit up. I put one bud into my ear and listened. Ten seconds later, I wanted to hurl the Zune down the mountain. The dead computer generated voice droned out repetitions of:
This is not a test. The United States is under imminent threat of attack. If you live within ten miles of a primary target zone, including major population centers, military installations, or other regions of strategic value, you are advised to seek shelter immediately. Shelters include basements outside of target zones, underground structures, and official fallout shelters in your area. Proceed to the nearest shelter immediately. If you cannot find shelter, remove yourself from proximity to target areas. This is not a test.
I listened to the message five times before I pushed the button to turn it off. Cindy was mirroring my expression of shock. “What is it?”
“What should we do?”
I didn’t know.
Chapter Four – October 2049
Bill Carter waved his hand in a circle in the air. Sam’s tavern was packed with Teeny Town residents, all anxious to hear Ned’s story of the Breakdown. Sam was ready. He immediately began to slide fresh mugs of beer onto the bar. Terry Shelton jumped up from his seat at Ned’s table and shuttled the beer back to the storyteller. Bill could plainly see the toll that the story was extracting from Ned’s spirit. He had experienced the same challenge himself. The main difference was that Bill told his story to one person in private moments, and Ned was courageous enough to tell it to everyone, all at once. The other obvious difference was that Bill had gone through the Breakdown as a kid surrounded by his family. It was clear already that Ned had no one to lead him through it. Bill was sure that if he had been in Ned’s position in 2012, he would not have survived the first three days in Coffee County. He was also sure that Coffee County was a cakewalk compared to the West Coast.
Terry finished delivering the beer and sat down next to his new bride, Sally. While Bill had been busy reorganizing the community after August’s brief war, Sally had been planning their wedding. While Bill had been making new arrangements with the State to move into the next chapter of his plan, Terry and Sally Shelton, nee Carter, had been honeymooning out at Sally Bean’s old farm on the edge of the Teeny Town domain. It was no cruise to the Bahamas, but it was definitely private, and that was the best part of any honeymoon – to Terry’s way of thinking. There were the obvious benefits, of course, but if Terry really wanted to tell the truth, he would admit that the real treasure was that Sally finally relaxed. She let down her guard and gave Terry an opportunity to see the woman underneath the feisty redheaded exterior. Since most people were still shaking their heads at his misfortune in getting hitched to the Terror of Teeny Town, the truth was his alone.
Unfortunately, they were back in the middle of a bustling community and her guard was back in place. He would probably spend years being satisfied with fleeting glimpses of Sally’s gentler heart. A solid substitute for her inner beauty was apparently beer. She had consumed several large mugs, and was using her loosened inhibitions to attempt to distract Terry under the table. She had underestimated his willingness to listen to a story and gave up in frustration about the time Ned met Cindy. Now that Ned was taking a well-earned break, she saw her opportunity and began once again to play games with his thigh. Half the tavern was well aware of her efforts, and they were enjoying their own glimpses of a non-hardass version of Sally Carter Shelton. Each time Terry looked over his shoulder, he was met by blushing smiles and a variety of encouraging gestures from the bolder witnesses. Ultimately, he decided to fight fire with a painful pinch to Sally’s backside. She yelped out loud, and turned bright red at the resulting round of laughter. The embarrassment kept her hands in check, for a while.
Bill clapped a hand on Ned’s shoulder. Terry noticed it was his right hand, which meant that Bill’s gunshot wounds were almost healed. The leader of Teeny Town had dropped his limp by mid-September.
Bill said, “Hell of a story, Ned! You need another beer?” Bill was well into his fifth mug and was like most men when they get buzzed. He wanted everyone to join the fun.
“I’m good for now, Bill. This is excellent beer. I bet I walked a thousand miles between good beers.”
“Me too, but I was walking in a circle the whole time. When we found Joe Poole, we got good beer and good whiskey in one shot.”
“My compliments to Joe!” Ned said, raising his glass.
The entire crowd followed suit and shouted, “To Joe!”
Joe was sitting by the front window. He rolled his eyes, downed a shot glass of his own whiskey, and then grinned at the room.
Ned looked around the tavern. It was a strange and comfortable mixture of beautiful wood, salvaged brass fixtures, chrome plated chair legs, and Formica tables with aluminum trim. He knew well the kind of abandoned diner that had given its tables and chairs to this place. The electric lights were the most important element in the scheme. A Friday night in a place with electricity was nearly lost to Americans, and the fact that he was in a brightly lit room was the truest symbol of what he had finally found after a lifetime of wandering the decimated remains of America.
Then there were the people. Ned had literally seen every brand of human behavior he could imagine, from the most perverse and dangerous to the kindest and most self-sacrificing. Never had he encountered a place that didn’t reek of some kind of human-created danger. Sometimes it was subtle, in places where the control was so total that the puppeteer could hide it from strangers. More often, it was blatant, in the form of some power-mad dictator who had taken the opportunity to create a twisted version of himself and to force it on anyone without the means to escape. Occasionally, Ned had literally smelled danger on the wind, and the reeking bands of cannibalistic neo-savages never failed to shock him with how fast all shreds of humanity could be lost. All it took was enough hunger.
Here in Teeny Town, Ned could easily squint his eyes and see a modern take on Mayberry, where the people are happy and cooperate with each other to make life better. He was incredibly suspicious when he first arrived in the middle of Teeny Town’s war. He had been disappointed so many times in the past that he and Cindy kept the crew ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble. After several weeks, Ned was compelled to accept the community at face value, and he was glad he did. It seemed he had been promising this place to Cindy his entire life. Here it was, in a warm tavern on a Friday night, just in time for her birthday.
Part of what he was seeing was the release of tension in Teeny Town. Bill’s community had literally grown in secret. They had lived in fear of discovery for more than a decade, knowing that discovery meant conflict with the outside powers in Coffee County. The conflict had come and gone, and other than the sadness of those lost to battle, the community was untouched by the threat. With that overarching fear removed, the people were enjoying existence in the open for the first time since the Breakdown. The giddy freedom wafted on the air like a drug. Mixed with a modicum of good beer, Ned could almost spoon up happiness and eat it.
“So, Ned… Are you done for the night, or are you going to tell us what happened next?” Terry asked.
“That’s one of the best things about Terry. He’s good at prompting stories, and he acts like he’s actually listening.” Bill grinned over his latest mug.
“Sometimes, I am actually listening.” Terry returned the grin.
Aggie gave her husband a playful swat to the arm. “Easy there, Bill. It’s been awhile since you drank this much.”
“Yep. I’m overdue for a good drunk.” Bill leaned over to give her a kiss. Aggie leaned back and watched his face wobble by. The few people who were paying attention laughed and pointed at their leader.
Ned watched the reactions. It was interesting that Bill’s leadership was so well loved that no one laughed at him. They laughed with him and began to pick up their own drinking pace as if to catch up with the boss. “Well, I suppose this old man can talk a while longer,” Ned announced, drawing the attention away from Bill. It seemed a kind thing to do at the time.
Terry leaned forward to listen. Sally set her chin on his shoulder and closed her eyes. The rest of the room settled into a respectful silence, and Ned picked up his story.
Chapter Five – May 2012
I don’t know what I was expecting. I ran to the top of the ridge to take another look. Maybe the Chinese would roll into town in battle tanks. Maybe thousands of men were landing on the coast and preparing to march inland. Maybe I would hear the drone of the same kind of bombers that I had seen in Pearl Harbor movies. I was woefully ignorant of the ways of war. At least I understood why so many people were on the roads. They were all looking for some kind of shelter. I vaguely remembered one of those nuclear shelter symbols somewhere in my normal stomping grounds, but could not put a location to the image in my head. Dumb as I was, I was certain that wherever the shelter was located, it was packed full by then.
When I reached my viewing rock, I was as clueless as before. The rain had reduced visibility to the point I could just barely see the hills below, much less the sweep of Olympia. It muffled the sounds as well, lending a false air of peace to my observation point. Cindy appeared at my side in the jacket I had lent her. As we watched fruitlessly for a break in the rain, I became aware of a growing thunder of jet engines somewhere in the distance. The sound kept growing in pulsing waves until I was sure that the clouds were hiding hundreds of aircraft. The noise came from everywhere. It was uniform and directionless to my ears. I hoped that those were ours, because if they weren’t, it seemed we would be bombed back to the Stone Age. Then, I remembered the missiles. ICBMs. Did China have them? Would they use them? Would we use ours? My whole American life was surrounded by the idea of nuclear missiles, but the main idea was that using them was too horrible to contemplate. No one would use them. Once I made that decision, I relaxed just a bit. As it turned out, a bit too soon.
Some aspect of the jet engines changed. It sounded as if the rumble of threat spun up into the whine of combat. The high shrieking was answered by a deeper, rougher sound. A few moments later, thunder clapped across the South Puget Sound. The first booms were quickly joined by multiple copies in rapid succession. I thought it was explosions, and I automatically ducked. Cindy did one better by jumping off the rock shelf and pressing herself against the solid stone wall below. I learned later that it was the sound of sonic booms from fighters trying to intercept incoming missiles. I don’t know if they stopped any.
The noise was the reason I was looking north when the first nuke fell. The wall of cloud glared whiter than white. I averted my eyes by instinct. Even as my mind was recognizing the phenomenon, my eyes understood that the pinpoint of light was a color I was never meant to see. When I dared another glance, I could literally see the waveform of the blast rippling the air and trees over the hills. The mist and rain separated into a noticeable rhythm as the wind passed us quickly enough to deliver a punch in the gut. Then the rain stung my face repeatedly as it tried in vain to catch the energy that had flung it outward. My eyes were blurring from the tears that followed the liquid whiplashes when the sound arrived. A thousand clattering trash can lids rolled over my eardrums, followed by the thunder of every train in the world surrounded by stampeding buffalo. Even through the hands clamped to my ears, I heard everything. The noise was using my skull for a tuning fork. It subsided finally, and reverberated for a very long period of time. I imagined the noise bouncing off the Cascade Range, hitting the Olympics, and blasting the ice from the peak of Rainier.
When it was safe to remove my hands, my first idiot thought was, that wasn’t so bad. The misty rain shroud was broken enough to see glimpses of the town below. It looked fine, wet, just another May day in Olympia. My overdriven brain kicked out a seemingly random thought. The flash came, then the sound arrived much later. It hit near Seattle, I guessed wildly. Seattle was a population center. Was Olympia? It was not a big city, but I had no idea what constituted a population center. Military base? Holy crap! I dropped into the slight hollow at the base of the rock about two seconds before Lewis-McChord was hit.
I was pressing poor Cindy into the face of the rock, shielding her body with mine. My own face was inches from the stone, and my eyelids were clenched as tightly as they would go. Even at high noon, all I saw was black. Almost instantly, the blackness ramped up through a thousand shades of pink and became the impossible white beyond white. There was no hiding from it. Every molecule of water in the sky was bouncing that light until I existed inside of a featureless scalding hell. The only real sensory input was the visual echo of a tracery of blood vessels in my eyelids. If there was any sound at that point, I wouldn’t know. It was like the part of my brain that handled my eyes was overloaded until the rest of my gray matter was recruited to help, leaving nothing for sound, thought, or breathing.
Shockwaves pummeled us mercilessly. Gravel rained on our heads from the shelf above. The forest floor danced in agitation beneath us. Wind ripped at the back of my jacket and tried to shred the hair from my head. I retained enough brain cells to remember the sound, and frantically tried to stuff Cindy’s head underneath my body. I clapped my hands to my ears, but it didn’t matter. The sound was the aural equivalent of the flare. My ears were simply not capable of dealing with it. I went deaf within the first three seconds, and after that, I could only hear through my internal organs, which I assumed were being pounded into jelly. At least Cindy was sheltered by my dissolved innards. I actually expected that to be my last living thought.
It ended eventually. It could have been minutes or days. According to my watch, no time had passed at all. I rolled off Cindy and saw her mouth wide open. If she was screaming, I couldn’t hear it. I waved my hand in front of her face until I caught her attention. Her eyes focused and she saw me. I wondered if she was seeing the same pink tint that I was. I mouthed, “It’s ok,” several times until I could see her respond. I patted her hand, and got off the ground.
A surge of panic came with another flare until I realized it was the sun. I looked to the northeast and the sky was clear and pink. I guessed it was actually blue, and I was looking through the worst case of snow blindness in recorded history. A malevolent tower of roiling fire stood on the horizon. Its smaller siblings seemed to be watching it grow, pause, and fold back in on itself. I could not stop staring. A faint diffraction pattern surrounded the monster, and a quick look to my left showed the infinite curvature of the weather itself, pushed back forty miles from the mushroom cloud’s domain.
I called myself an atheist back in those days, but I had the distinct feeling that God had popped open his umbrella to get a good look at me through the banished rain. As I watched, the winds reversed, roared across the ridge on their way back to the black master, and God snapped his umbrella shut.
The rain returned with a vengeance. I suppose no weather likes to be denied by a travesty of the natural order, and the rain was angry for a good long while. I stood there, watching water dribble silently from the edge of my hood. My feet could not decide where to go. They were clearly failing to get any signals from upstairs. I wasn’t even sure if I was alive. My imagination was limited, I suppose, and when reality sprinted past the limits, I couldn’t even find myself any more.
Cindy was more practical. She recovered her wits more quickly. I justified it later by declaring she was more flexible by virtue of living less time in world where nuclear weapons just don’t happen. At that moment, I had no idea how fast she would lose the illusions I held so dear. She tugged my sleeve and started walking for camp. With glacial slowness, my head turned to see her walking away, and my feet decided to follow.
Back inside the larger tent, I wrestled my jacket and boots off my body and tossed them through the door. They were still sheltered by the rain fly, so that was good enough. My shirt was still fairly dry, but my pants were soaked from the mid-thigh down. Without thinking, I pulled them off and draped them across my boots. All the rules of decent society poured back in when I realized how it would look if someone caught me in a tent with a little girl and my pants removed. Then I shrugged and understood that none of that mattered now. Cindy didn’t care anyway. As far as she could tell, I was still wearing bicycle shorts. She was involved in the same process, but her pants were in better shape. My ex-girlfriend’s oversized jacket had sheltered her legs from the storm.
I rolled on my back on the plastic-coated tent floor and used my arms behind my head for a pillow. Cindy slid into my second-string sleeping back and zipped herself up tight. I wasn’t cold at all. Eventually, I knew, the adrenalin would wear itself out, and I would be cold then. I leaned over the girl’s sleeping bag and zipped the door shut. Now I could pretend. I could pretend it was just me and the rain and my tidy misguided life was waiting a few short miles down the mountain. Like all Cindy’s grownups, I was a liar. At least for today, and only to myself.
* End Decay Preview *
Full novel coming soon to the Kindle Store
I’m doing it to you again. Or myself. It’s hard to say. Renewal was a short story that became a series. Somewhere along the way, it became a novel, and now, it’s the first stage of a trilogy. Thank you for reading the preview to Decay, the second novel. Like most second acts in a larger story, it’s going to get messy.
From my side of the desk, it’s an interesting progression. Most of you know, if you’ve done any digging, that I’m new to all of this. I’ve carried entire novels around in my head for years without the motivation or skills to write them. Once I started actually writing for effect, I found it much easier than I expected. But, practice makes perfect. Without the short beginning, I would not have been able to finish Renewal. Without the experience of doing the series, I’m fairly certain I would not be able to hold a novel’s worth of material in my head. Now, as I finish up Decay, I realize that the only way for me to write a trilogy is to be able to hold the entire story in my head. I didn’t see that coming.
If I were to write about writing at this point (which would be silly), I would describe it much differently than I expected. I had this notion of a wall full of 3×5 cards, a solid outline, and a step by step plan to get it all down on paper. I’m sure plenty of people do it that way, and very well, but for me, it’s a lot less precise. I try to herd a bunch of tumbling ideas in the direction I want it to go. Sometimes, it works out the way I expected. Sometimes, I’m surprised. Either way, I try to hold onto the integrity of the characters first, the ideas and themes second, and everything else follows. Because I want everything to happen for a reason, my method forces me to hold a lot of information in my head. I’ve never been a list-maker, or that organized in general. Hopefully, the end result is worth the wrestling match.
So, a lot of questions have been asked about what happens to the characters. I won’t even hint at the answers, but I will assure you that no character will end the trilogy without the important questions being answered. Every character, old and new, has a purpose in the larger story. I hope that you will stick around to experience their answers for yourself.
Thanks for reading!