Henry quickly made his way through piles of decaying bodies, focusing instead on the tall glass doors not far ahead. Even though his mouth and nose were covered, the stench was stomach wrenching. “Aargh!” he loudly gagged while wiping the perspiration rolling from his forehead, burning his eyes. “Can this get any worse?” he thought to himself, not speaking because doing so only made him inhale more of the putrid air emanating from the rotting flesh around him. Each breath meant subjecting his taste buds to the flavor of death, not to mention the gagging and spitting that would come later to cleanse his palate and nostrils.
There were so many bodies lying everywhere that Henry was forced to stack them like cordwood so that his path was clear. He remembered reading Night by Elie Wiesel and the stories of the holocaust victims being stacked in the pits for burial because the crematory ovens couldn’t keep up with the masses of dead. He tried to be respectful of the dead, but after a few hours gave up and thought only of himself. He knew that he had tried, but it was too much. The path was clear, but his conscience never would be. The shame of his inhumanity haunted him.
A few minutes later he was through the parking lot graveyard and inside the store. “Thank God!” Henry shouted aloud as he removed his makeshift facemask. The air was foul inside Sam’s too, but during his first visit, Henry had removed what few bodies he had found. Since the power was out, the freezers and refrigerators no longer worked. That odor was bad but tolerable in comparison to what he faced outside the front doors.
The shelves were still filled with all that he and his family needed. Either no one else had survived in this part of the city or survivors just hadn’t gotten to this store yet. Maybe other survivors were raiding the Wal-Marts, K-Marts, and Target stores first. Regardless, Henry was going to continue stocking up from this store until the shelves were empty.
He quickly pushed a shopping cart toward the grocery section, collecting canned meats, vegetables, and fruits. On the bottom rack of the cart, he shoved two 24-packs of bottled water. When it was fully loaded, he returned the cart to the front door. He pushed a second cart back to the water aisle, stopping off for a few personal items such as deodorant, toothpaste, and vitamins. As he made his way back to the front, he stopped long enough to load the rest of the cart with batteries. He grabbed a flashlight from the counter, loaded it with new batteries, and clicked it on; it worked. “At least we’ll have light for a while,” he muttered.
When he reached the front of the store, Henry covered his mouth and nose with the wet cloth and pushed the two carts out into the makeshift lane. After carefully tying the two carts together end-to-end, he stepped in front and pulled them slowly along the silent, stinking path through the parking lot-turned-cemetery. A hundred yards later he was in the clear. It was about three miles to his home just outside of town. Pulling the two carts was hard work; he’d make it in about two hours. As he strained against the weight of the buggies, his body began to rebel against the bilious air that he had been forced to inhale; he bent over as spasms twisted his body. His retching lasted for several blocks, subsiding only when he was near dehydration. A drink from the bottled water helped. Henry then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and did the same with his sleeve across his face and head. After a few more steps, he stopped, reached into his pants pocket, removed a small packet, and stuffed a piece of gum in his mouth. “Thank God for Juicy Fruit,” he mumbled, then continued on his path home.
Cars dotted the roads, still sitting where they had been when the first gamma ray burst had hit. Electronics everywhere, not just in cars, had been fried by the electromagnetic pulses from the sun and deep space. Scientists had been warning for years that it could happen, but no one really believed it possible. An Inconvenient Truth had managed to awaken many people to the dangers of global warming, but there was no mention of X-class solar flares or gamma ray bursts from interstellar space. True, some scientists had predicted that the earth was moving into a seven-year period of heightened sunspot activity; however, there was no warning before the catastrophic event of Tuesday, October 4, 2011.
Just after midnight on that day, a giant black spot could have been seen on the SOHO pictures of the sun. Only a handful of scientists even noticed it. What was noticed soon after was the X-class solar flare which blasted toward the earth. The satellites in orbit that monitored the sun suddenly triggered alarms at planetariums around the globe. In a matter of hours, these super flares impacted the thousands of satellites orbiting the earth and then the earth itself. It wasn’t until their television sets flashed momentarily before the screens went blue or faded to snow that masses of people were aware of a problem. Even then, they had no idea that their lives were about to end. The initial impact was felt when cell phones began to drop calls starting with the Middle East. As the earth rotated past alignment with the flares, communications blacked out from west to east. Sometime on October 5th, most modern technology ceased. Only the most shielded systems or those deep underground were unaffected.
The unimaginable had happened. Electronics of all types were fused by the electromagnetic impulses and intense radiation which bathed the atmosphere. Cars, trains, and buses slowly came to a stop after their engines stopped. Ships at sea lost power, drifted, and many eventually sank after their pumps failed to keep up with their leaking hulls. Submarines also lost power and slowly sank to the depths where the pressure crushed their hulls. Airplanes and helicopters dropped from the sky; a few managed dead stick landings, but relief turned to terror as the passengers exited the plane only to be fried by the radiation burning the earth. Elevators stopped between floors, stranding people who were then baked in what then became steel ovens. Subways screeched to a halt as the power grid shut down, leaving commuters wandering the underground in the dark. As soon as they emerged from beneath the streets, they too died horribly, painfully, as their skin quickly blistered, and their eyes exploded from their sockets as bodily fluids reached the boiling point. Few people were spared this grisly fate.
War was no more. Peace was finally upon the entire earth. Armies wilted in the field of battle; soldiers would never again see home or their loved ones. Weapons of mass destruction were rendered harmless by virtue of a lack of living victims. It was the ultimate irony; tools of death with no one to kill.
Anyone lucky, unlucky depending on point of view, enough to survive the first few days and who managed to stay underground until the worst passed, faced a new world, one without technology or conveniences; it possibly even meant a life alone. Whether life would ever be the same was an unanswerable question; whether humanity would repopulate the earth again was doubtful. The horrific events of the first week weren’t the end; they were only the first act with others to follow.
The first time Henry had traveled this route a week before was nerve-wracking. The unknown was facing him, something with which he was unfamiliar. His life had been filled with routine and planning and life. He still had routine in his life, but this wasn’t the work routine of invoices and tax returns and an hour commute to and from work five days a week. His new routine still revolved around taking care of his family, but now he made the trek each morning for food and supplies. There were no more plans for retirement, college tuition, braces for his kids, vacation at the lake or Disney World, or how to care for his parents when they were unable to take care of themselves. Life would be simpler; survive until tomorrow and face whatever new challenge came his way. Life wasn’t just different now; it had new meaning, survival.
As he strained against the weight of his treasures, Henry’s breathing shifted from long, deep breaths to short, shallow puffs. He was by no means a great athlete, but he had been running three miles a day, five days a week. “Maybe I should have pumped iron too,” he thought to himself. Pushups and crunches were the only exercise that he did in addition to the stretching after his runs. “I’m not in this bad a shape,” he mumbled aloud. Suddenly he stopped, clutched his chest, and sank to the pavement.
Since the first days after the cataclysm, the sun had rarely made an appearance. Clouds and rain, more of a constant mist, had been the norm. The extreme heat had subsided somewhat, but the temperature would have been called “Indian Summer.” However, the humidity was stifling, almost fit for the tropics, not the Ohio Valley in mid-October. When Henry’s eyes opened, he was face up, something light falling on his face. As his vision cleared, he at first thought that it was snow.
“That’s another first; snow on a hot, rainy day. What next?” he muttered aloud as he rolled onto his side and then sat up, leaning forward for balance. His breathing had returned to normal, at least what had become normal. The pain in his chest was gone, but now his head throbbed. Henry ran his hands over his head and located a tender bump that hadn’t been there earlier, at least not that he could remember. “Ouch! Guess I’d better get home before something else happens.”
He reached for the shopping cart and pulled himself first to one knee and then upright. When he faced the basket, his eyes widened as he realized that what he had thought was snow wasn’t snow at all. He scooped up a handful and sniffed it. There was a distinct odor of sulphur. “It’s ash.” Henry emptied his hand and tried to hurry. He found new strength in his arms and pulled as quickly as his legs would move. There was no way to know how long he had lain in the street. He only knew that he had to get home as soon as possible.
Survival had been a hobby, actually more of an obsession, since he first discovered a few of the “doomsday” websites on the internet. A faithful listener of Coast 2 Coast AM, he also had followed the rantings of Nancy Leider, a supposed “volunteer to receive an alien implant in her brain which allowed her to communicate with and be a spokesperson for the ET’s from Zeta Reticuli, a star system which was out there to protect us and provide help when Planet X arrived.” While Henry wasn’t completely convinced of her authenticity, he felt that she had earned enough credibility for him to prepare for the worst simply because she provided the public with help for free. She didn’t sell anything or ask for anything. In his book, that was worth something.
“Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best,” became his motto. Of course, when the worst came and no Zeta’s were there to protect his family, he was a little disappointed. However, they had survived the initial disaster because he had built an underground safety room for his family in case of a tornado or other disaster and had stocked it with supplies, though not enough for an extended stay underground. He had Nancy to thank for that. He figured she was wrong because whatever it was that destroyed everything, so far as he could tell, didn’t fit the scenario that she had been predicting. It did closely resemble what he had heard a former U.S. intelligence officer named Ed Dames, who claimed to be a remote-viewer and who trained people to learn the skill (for a price, of course), had predicted. Henry had no way of knowing what had really happened, so who was right was irrelevant.
He and his family had been spending the night, as they often did, in their shelter because it was sort of like going camping. They stayed up late playing card and board games and singing songs around their “campfire,” a series of candles. The shelter was a used 18-wheeler trailer. They had buried it in the ground behind their house, covering it with several feet of soil, and installing air vents for safety. The interior looked like a small mobile home. Bunk beds were built for the kids, a double bed for Henry and his wife, and a small kitchen with storage and a toilet was located at one end. The other end was an open living area with beanbag chairs and cushions. The whole thing was wired directly to the house and accessible through their basement. An emergency exit had been installed; it was a tunnel that went out the side of the trailer and came up behind their garage to the flowerbed. However, using that escape route would have required a lot of effort. Of course, neither Henry nor anyone else thought that it would ever be used. So far, it hadn’t.
At last Henry could see his driveway. “Glad Carol insisted on paving the driveway. Pulling these things through gravel would’ve been impossible.” Still, pulling his load up the hill was no picnic. Staring straight ahead, he thought of giving it all his might again but decided that a second nap might not be a good idea. He might not wake up again. Not soon enough for him, the journey was complete. Dropping the rope, he sat on what was left of his porch steps to rest. Sweat ran down his face, soaking his mask and his clothes. As he wiped his forehead and eyes, his eyes stared at what was once a beautiful home. It had partially burned during the disaster, and jagged pieces of glass decorated the remaining frames or were scattered among the ruins.
“Funny,” he thought aloud for the first time though he had repeated this scene with every trip to get supplies. “My State Farm agent hasn’t been around to bring me a check for the damage. I thought they were like good neighbors?” He caught himself laughing aloud for the first time in weeks.
The “snow” continued to fall while he rested before beginning the job of transferring all of the supplies from the carts to plastic milk crates that he could carry downstairs and into the shelter. It was eerie now, not that it wasn’t at least surreal before the ash began to fall. Henry remembered reading the fable written by Rachel Carson which was the opening of her book, Silent Spring:
“ There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of colour that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the autumn mornings.
Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveller’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The Countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants were pouring through in spring and autumn people traveled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. So it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.
Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.
There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example—where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. One the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.
On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched. The farmers complained that they were unable to raise any pigs the litters were small and the young survived only a few days. The apple trees were coming into bloom, but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit. The roadsides, once so attractive, were no lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless. Anglers no longer visited them, for all the fish had died.
In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams. No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it to themselves.”
Why he was remembering that now, he wasn’t sure; however, the silence was somehow comforting. It didn’t surprise him that he’d not seen any animals since apparently most, if not all, people were dead. Maybe their instincts weren’t enough to save them. Henry certainly didn’t want to confront a hungry predator right now. “I’d better start carrying a weapon just in case. Maybe I should’ve done that from the start,” he thought, berating himself for being short-sighted.
His home was just across the city limits and appeared out of place with the small farms that straddled the highway leading south. The shopping center where the Sam’s was located hadn’t been there long. The town had been expanding in his direction, which might have been a convenience, but he preferred keeping his distance from the crowds and the traffic that they brought. On his first venture out of the shelter, Henry had checked on the few neighbors that they considered friends, but he either found the houses completely destroyed or partially damaged like his. The people had succumbed to the same fate as those in the parking lot or were missing. He had helped himself to whatever supplies he found that were still useful. “I would expect them to do the same if our roles were reversed,” he told himself. Still, he had been a little uncomfortable ransacking their homes.
“I’d better get this stuff downstairs,” he said aloud as he stood to begin the transfer from the shopping carts into the crates. Canned good and bottled water were heavy, so the process took over an hour just to relocate everything to the basement before worrying about what went where. His family could handle that part while he rested. Henry returned to the porch and moved the carts into the garage, or at least what was left of it. Even though he was certain that they were safe, the little hint of doubt in the back of his mind told him to keep their existence secret. It was risky enough going out everyday for supplies; what if he ran into a group of survivors who weren’t harmless? There was plenty in the stores for a small number of people to live for years, but panic and greed and fear could turn honest, good people into monsters.
Once he was sure that everything was clear outside, he returned to the basement, locked the door at the top of the stairs, and blocked the entrance with several sheets of plywood. Then, he descended the stairs and crossed the floor to the workbench that stood in front of the hidden entrance to their shelter. Henry slid the toolbox off of the bottom shelf of workbench away from the small access panel and used a hammer from the bench to tap four times, his signal that all was clear. A moment later, the panel popped open and out poked his son’s head.
“Hi pop!” came the greeting from the smiling face. Mickey, a nickname his son had gotten from Henry’s father because of his love of Yankee great Mickey Mantle, was eight years old and a born optimist. In spite of their predicament, Mickey never complained; he saw their situation as a positive, no school. It wasn’t that he hated school; he just thought it was a waste of his time. Mickey loved to read and had already learned everything that the teacher was teaching them. He had been bored in school, so not going was like being freed from jail. Of course, he had traded one jail for another. That fact hadn’t yet dawned on him, but it would.
“Everybody okay?” Henry asked, pulling his son from the short tunnel and standing him up to help.
“Sure. Of course mom was worried about you since you’ve been gone a little longer today. Did you see anyone out there this time?”
“No, nothing different except no sun at all today. Help me stack this stuff.”
“Sure. You just rest while I take care of things,” replied his son who moved quickly to give his dad a chance to rest.
Just as Henry sat down, Carol, his wife, slid through the entrance and sat down next to her husband, hugging him lightly. “Was starting to get a little worried. Any problems?” she said as she wiped his face. They had been married twenty-two years, and she had an uncanny ability to read his face. “What happened?” she whispered so that Mickey couldn’t hear her.
“I’ll tell you when Mickey goes back inside. It’s okay now though,” he said and kissed her cheek. “What are the girls up to?”
“Jule’s taking a nap, and Ana’s working on dinner.”
Jule was short for Juliet, the youngest at five years old. She had been a pleasant surprise after they had thought that there were no more children in their future. Her long, curly reddish brown hair made her the spitting image of her mother. Her temperament was that of her father, a quiet, confident, thoughtful man who prided himself in never having raised a hand to another person. Jule was loving and kind as well, much like Shakespeare’s Juliet, one of her mother’s favorite characters from literature, her major in college.
Ana was their seventeen-year-old tomboy who excelled in softball and dreamed of someday playing on the U.S. Olympic softball team. Her real name was Anastasia, after the supposed sole survivor of the Russian Czar’s family that was slaughtered during the Russian Revolution in 1917. Carol loved the story of the young girl so chose that name for her first daughter.
“Do we need any of this stuff inside?” asked Mickey when he had finished stacking the new supplies.
“Maybe some of the water bottles,” replied his mom, standing up to receive the 24-pack. As she took it, Mickey slid into the shelter entrance and waited as his mother held it inside for him to carry to their kitchen. “We’ll be just a few minutes.” As her son disappeared with the water, Carol closed the panel to give them privacy and turned to Henry. “Okay, what’s up?”
“I overdid it this time and blacked out for a while,” he told her, looking into her eyes so that she could see that he was all right now. “My chest started hurting; I got very weak and woke up a bit later. I don’t think it was a heart attack because I felt fine afterwards. It must have been something else.” Sensing his wife’s concern, he added, “I really am fine, but I don’t think that I should go by myself anymore.”
Carol took his face in her hands and kissed him again. “I agree. Ana’s old enough to look after the others while we’re gone,” she advised, though she knew that he wouldn’t agree to that.
“No, I don’t want us to both be separated from the kids in case anything happens out there. They need at least one of their parents to survive with them for as long as possible. The logical choice is Ana. She’s strong and tough enough to really help me. She’s wouldn’t panic in an emergency. Besides, I think it might do her good to be outside and aware of the reality of our situation.”
“Okay, but I know Mickey will think it’s his place to help dad.”
“He’ll be fine knowing that he’s here to protect you and Jule while we’re gone. He probably didn’t feel that way with his big sister around; she can be a little dominating at times,” laughed Henry.
It was one of the rare times that the two of them had to share laughter, alone. There had been plenty of laughter in spite of their situation; they saw to that by playing games with their children and using humor as much as possible so that the gravity of their new life wouldn’t become overwhelming. Henry had been honest with his children about the conditions above ground without sharing the horrors in detail. Of course, Ana was going to get her baptism into the new sights, lack of sounds, and the smells outside their haven when she accompanied her father the next day. He was fairly certain that she could handle it, but even he wasn’t positive about it.
“Anything else happen out there that I need to know?” Carol asked, moving toward the water barrel to help her husband wash off the crud before he changed clothes to enter the shelter.
“Yeah,” he said, hesitating as he looked down and untied his shoes.
“That doesn’t sound good. What?”
“It started to snow; no it just looked like snow. It’s ash,” he corrected himself, his tone more serious now.
“Ash? Ash comes from something burning. Is the city on fire?”
“No. It smelled like sulphur. I think that means somewhere there is a volcano erupting. My guess is Yellowstone has erupted,” he replied.
“What do you think that means for us?” she asked, moving back to his side as he stood to undress and bathe.
“I’m not sure, but if it suddenly turns cold, then we’re probably faced with “nuclear winter” or the equivalent.”
“You mean no sunlight for a couple of years?”
“Yes, and freezing temperatures and deep snowfall, maybe even a new ice age,” Henry explained, again looking into his wife’s eyes so that she understood that he was deadly serious about their new situation. “I really don’t know what will happen. Worst case may be that we can’t survive here. We might have to take a chance and head south at some point.”
Carol crossed her arms and walked over to the basement stairs and sat down, wrapping her arms around her knees. She said nothing for the next few minutes while Henry washed and changed clothes. As he finished, she stood again and walked toward him. “I’d hate to leave this shelter, but if it’s either leave or end up like the wooly mammoth under tons of ice, we’ll leave and take our chances,” she told him and hugged him tightly. They embraced for several minutes before opening the shelter panel door, turning off the battery-operated lantern, and joining their kids in the shelter for the night.