Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Whimper: A story about the birds and the bees and the end of the world as we know it.

[A story about the birds and the bees and the end of the world as we know it.]

by Scott Lefebvre

     It was the year the bees died.
     But first it was the bats.
     But no one cared about the bats because they dismissed the scientific evidence by ignorantly indulging in the old analogy that bats are just rats with wings.
     Or maybe mice.
     But first it was bats and then bees and then birds.
     But people only really started noticing when it was the bees.
     Although it’s true that bats devour tons, literally, tons of insects every year, most people didn’t notice when entire colonies of bats died off.
     Because most people associate bats with vampires and Halloween and maybe in their heart of hearts they didn’t really feel that badly about the dying of the bats.
     I’m sure they would feel differently if it was cats, but it was bats and they didn’t.
     And those that did feel badly about the disappearance of the bats watched helplessly.
     The year the bats died was the year before the bees died, but people only really noticed when the bees died.
     You see, bees provide a service.
     Aside from helping to weed out those few people that are allergic to their stings, bees also play an important part in the world.
     Bees collect pollen to make honey and various other bee byproducts, and while going about their business they carry pollen from flower to flower which cross-pollinates the flowers, which is how flowers have sex as near as I can figure.
     The bees and the flowers have developed a delicate inter-dependence.
     Without the bees, the flowers can’t have sex, and there wouldn’t be any more flowers.
     Or at least not nearly as many flowers.
     Flowers might not seem very important in the grand scheme of things, until you stop and think about how almost every fruit begins as a flower on a tree.
     Apple blossoms.   Orange blossoms.    Cherry blossoms.
     You get the idea.
     When the wild bees started to die, the few people who made their living being beekeepers were very busy.
     Farmers paid the beekeepers to bring their bees to their fields to collect pollen from their flowers, thusly helping the flowers to have sex and make fruit.
     But there weren’t enough bees to go around.
     So that year there wasn’t as much fruit as there would usually be, and what little there was, was scarce and went for inflated prices in accordance with the rules of supply and demand.
     All of this caused public outcry, and the people looked towards the people that knew about such things and demanded to know why the bees were dying.
     The people whose field of expertise was bees mostly gave complicated answers, which, in layman’s terms, basically meant that they didn’t know why the bees were dying.
     Every now and then one of them would compare the dying of the bees to the death of the bats, but that footage was edited together to make the person seem eccentric.
     People didn’t care about the bats, they cared about the bees, and they didn’t want to be reminded about the bats because they were already in a bad mood because fruit was scarce and expensive and someone, somewhere, had to have the answers.
     And if it wasn’t bad enough about the bees, then it was the birds.
     Spring arrived as it does every year, but this year when rosy-fingered dawn crept upon the horizon, people didn’t hear the incessant chirping of chicks in the trees outside their windows.
      It felt like February long after the weather had warmed, but still the days grew longer and the birds were nowhere to be found.
     There were no robins.   There were no blue jays.
     There were none of the miscellany of wild birds whose real names only avid bird-watchers knew.
     In the cities there were no pigeons, and the people that lived in the cities didn’t really miss them, but subconsciously they noticed, and they knew that something wasn’t right.
     Every night on the news, the talking heads would talk about the absence of the birds and the bees, because no one cared about the bats.   Remember?
     The birds and the bees and the flowers and the fruit.   But not the trees.
     The gist of it was that the birds were sick and dying or dead.
     The shells of their eggs were too thin and most of their eggs didn’t hatch and those that did hatch gave forth chicks that were too weak and sickly to survive so when the old birds died, there were no new birds to replace them.
     People started to get the notion that maybe somehow we had accidentally done something very bad and maybe we were being punished.
     Around the world those that believed in God thought that it was his doing.
     Some of those that believed very strongly thought that the man upstairs was sending us a message.
    That it was a warning.   That the end of times was near.   That the end was nigh.
    And maybe it was a warning, but it doesn’t seem fair to kill of all of the bats and birds and bees because we had thoughtlessly taken everything for granted.
     So without the birds and the bees, the farmers were out of work.
     There was no fresh fruit.   There were no fresh vegetables.
     Most people didn’t really notice.
     They were aware that there was a problem, but so much of our food is artificial that the change for most people wasn’t very drastic.
     Except for those that had made it their habit to eat mostly natural food.
     And those people are generally viewed as eccentric, so it’s fair to say that most people didn’t notice.
     The government knew that without the raw ingredients used to make processed food that, in time, even the processed food would run out.
     People weren’t scared.   Not yet.   But they were nervous, and people discussed the whole thing in their daily conversations.   Small talk when you bumped into someone you knew in the hallway at the office.   Small talk with strangers while waiting for the bus or the train or the plane.   At least they weren’t talking about sports, politics, or the weather.   Not that they weren’t talking about sports, politics, and the weather, but they were talking about them less now that they had something more important to talk about.   Maybe they were spending the time that they used to spend talking about terrorism and nuclear power and nuclear bombs and global warming and worrying about the impending melting of the polar icecaps and contemplating what the world would look like when sea level rose ten feet in one year, talking about the bees and the birds and joking about what’s going to happen when all of the food runs out.
     Those that knew, made “Soilent Green” jokes and felt smugly superior to those that didn’t get the reference.
     The Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration secretly knew that the problem was much worse than the average person suspected, but took great pains to not let on how much worse things would get in order to not inspire the public to panic and riot.   Widespread civil disobedience and martial law was something that the powers that be would like to avoid if at all possible.
     Scientists were collected and sworn to secrecy and research was commenced and whenever someone at the lab made a “Soilent Green” joke, everyone got the reference, but as time went on, the jokes stopped being funny.
     They all knew that humans can survive on a minimum of water, protein, and a small amount of vitamins and minerals which can, for the most part, be artificially synthesized.
     But who would want to?
     The supermarkets became more and more picked over as time passed.
     All of the good stuff was gone and even the stuff that nobody usually wanted was becoming scarce.
     But you weren’t worried.
     When the bats all died, you were one of the people that noticed and cared.
     You’ve always had a place in your heart for bats and vampires and Halloween.
     The next year when you heard about the bees dying, you knew that something was wrong and it would only get worse and you wondered what would be next and you weren’t surprised when you heard about the birds.
     You had seen a lot of movies about the end of the world.
     Post-apocalyptic films in which, in the absence of civil order, humanity devolved back into savagery.
     You had seen “Soilent Green”.
     You knew you didn’t want to have to get in line and wait to be issued government rationed food stuff that looked and tasted like play-doh.
     So you stocked up before most people realized that there was something wrong.
     You bought dozens of cases of Chef Boyardee and Ramen Noodles and stacked them up in your basement.
     You figured even if it wasn’t the end of the world, it was a good idea to have them anyway, just in case, and you’d get around to eating all of it eventually.
     You had a friend that was in the Army Reserves and one weekend you drove up to the barracks and he helped you load a pallet of M.R.E.s onto the back of your pick-up truck.
     The military has a habit of overspending and no one would probably notice, and even if they did notice they wouldn’t care.
     It’s not like it’s their money.
     Well, it is, but it isn’t.   It’s government money.   So who cares?
     When the supermarkets ran out of stuff, they closed and locked their doors.
     All of the supermarket people were out of work because they ran out of food to sell, and the truck drivers were out of work, because there was nothing to bring to the supermarket, because the farmers were out of work, because there wasn’t any food to farm, because there weren’t any bees to cross-pollinate the crops.
     The government instituted a program.
     Everyone received a ration card and were issued rations.
     Your ration cards were distributed according to the last number of your social security number, which, in turn, determined which day of the week you were allowed to show up and wait in line to get rations at the government appointed distribution center.
     The media was instructed to make it sound like the rationing was universal and voluntary and necessary.
     The television announcers tried to sound upbeat when they would read the teleprompter which fed them a comparison to the rationing of the war effort during the world wars but no matter how hard they tried, the look in their eyes was most decidedly not light-hearted.
     They were just as scared as everyone else was, but they didn’t want to criticize the government.
     They didn’t want to bite the hand that fed them.
     They comforted themselves at night by reassuring themselves that they were doing their part to help, and that unnecessarily panicking the public would serve no purpose, and they thought about all of the wonderful foods that were no longer available and tried to pretend to themselves that they weren’t scared that those wonderful foods would never be available again, and eventually they fell asleep.   Just like everyone else.
     But everyone knew that rich people still had plenty of food.
     Everyone knew that there was steak and lobster to be had, but not by them, and everyone complained about it but nobody did anything about it.
     Eventually, even the stockpiles of generically packaged cheese and rice and macaroni and cheese ran out, but the government knew that this would happen and they were prepared.
     An announcement was made that there was a solution, and everyone was made aware of the fact that humans can survive on a minimum of water, protein, and a small amount of vitamins and minerals, which can, for the most part, be artificially synthesized.
     A protein-based nutrient was being produced but no one really thought too long or hard about where the protein was coming from.
     Except the people that researched and designed it, and they were being taken care of by the government and still had good food to eat, and didn’t have to eat the protein-based nutrient and didn’t want to risk their personal comfort by making too much noise about it.
     The birds may have all died and the cows had all already been turned into food.
     But there were still horses.
     And cats and dogs and rats and mice and elephants.
     The pet shops and the animal shelters and the zoos closed and then all of those people were out of work too, but by then people were more worried about food than work.
     People were getting sick.
     Those that were the most likely to have a predisposition to illness weren’t receiving adequate nutrition and they were getting sick.
     Colds and flus became pneumonia.
     If you cut yourself, it took much longer to heal.
     The social mechanisms designed to handle the deceased were overwhelmed and conventional burial was discontinued, replaced by a newly created governmental system for the disposal of the dead.
     The system had a few problems when it was begun, but it quickly adapted to meet the new demand, and no one really worried about where all of the dead people were going if they weren’t being buried, because they were too worried about their own destiny and distracted by the constant growling of their stomachs.
     The protein-based nutrient continued to be produced and distributed and those that didn’t die from illnesses brought on by weakened immune systems lived on as best they could.
     The protein-based nutrient continued to be produced and distributed even after all of the animals were gone.
     We really should have known better.
     Wasn’t mad cow disease caused by cows that were fed with food that contained ground up cows?
     People started to act weird.
     Surviving on protein-based nutrient and water and an artificially synthesized nutritional supplement of vitamins and minerals, everyone was tired all of the time.
     People didn’t have any energy, and although they hadn’t lost the will to live, they lost their lust for life.
     Then people started dying.
     Sure it’s true that living on the brink of starvation, everyone was in poor spirits and those that were predisposed to depression and suicidal thoughts were that much more likely to decide to end their own lives, but that wasn’t the reason that people started dying.
     On the news, the announcers announced that millions of people were dying, but they weren’t really dying, they were just getting really sick and instead of dying they just looked like they were dead.
     And maybe they had died, but they were still breathing and moving and if they were dead it was a death unlike any we had ever known.
     And they stopped showing up for their rations, which didn’t worry the people that hadn’t died, but not died, because there was precious little to go around, and they figured since they hadn’t died it wasn’t their problem.
     Those that still had jobs, made jokes at work about zombies, those that didn’t know who George Romero was soon knew exactly who he was, but after a while they stopped making jokes because it’s not funny anymore when it happens to someone you know or someone you love.
     But you weren’t that upset, because your parents had died before this whole thing happened, and although you have a few friends, everyone was too busy surviving to really worry about anyone else, and the one person you ever truly loved decided that they didn’t love you as much as you loved them, and they went to college, and they moved away and married someone else, last you heard.
     You call that one person, “The One That Got Away”, and every now and then you think about them and you wonder how they are and you wonder if they’re dead and that’s about the only time you ever get a little sad, but you smoke another cigarette and the sadness goes away.
     One day you get up and walk to work.
     On the way to work, you realize how quiet it is without the birds and planes flying overhead and without cars and other vehicular traffic on the streets.
     Gas has been rationed like everything else, and only governmental vehicles are allowed to use the roadways and even those are heard less and less frequently.
     Those people that aren’t dead, or are dead but not dead, are so malnourished and exhausted that they spend most of their time in bed.
     The sound of children playing is now something you remember but do not hear.
     You get to work and the doors are closed and no one’s there.
     No one called you to let you know not to bother coming in and you almost let yourself think that there wasn’t anyone left to call you but you stash that thought into the back of your mind for some later day because you don’t want to think those thoughts.
     Not yet.
     The TV doesn’t have live shows anymore.
     There are no studio audiences.
     It’s just reruns of sitcoms and news updates and even then the news updates aren’t delivered by people anymore.   It’s just a station identification card with information scrolling across the bottom.
     All of the production assistants are too sick, or dead, to go to work.
     There’s no one left to make TV.
     This doesn’t really bother you, because you never really watched TV anyway, preferring instead to watch movies from your collection.
     You’re proud that you thought ahead and got lots of food and cigarettes before the shit hit the fan and since you eat fairly well you’re not as sick and tired and dead as everybody else.
     One night you’re watching a movie and the power goes out.
     All of the generators in the basements of the stores kick in and the city is filled with the sound of alarms, but you’re not worried.
     The power has gone out before and you know what to do.
     Just hang tight and wait for the power to come back on.
     You go to bed early that night because it’s dark and reading by candlelight makes you sleepy.
     You wake up the next morning and the power isn’t back on, but you can still hear the store alarms going off in the distance and for a second you think that maybe they’re still going off because there’s no one that cares enough to go and reset them.
     Or maybe there’s no one left to go and reset them.
     And even though you’ve always said that you hate people you feel a chill in the back of your neck and you shudder, but you shake it off and open a can of beefaroni for breakfast.
     The power doesn’t come back on the next day.   Or the day after that.
     You adapt.
     Doing what you have to do by light during the day or in the early evening by candlelight.
     Weeks go by and the store alarms die out, one by one, retiring from the discordant chorus and when you wake up one day and feel that something’s missing and realize that what’s missing is that the last store alarm has died out, you realize that your cell phone hasn’t rung for weeks and you shrug and make a non-committal face to yourself.
     You wonder what happened, but you don’t want to go into the city, because there’s smoke on the horizon.
     You imagine the city on fire, and for a minute you’re excited and you’re almost overcome by the urge to walk to the city and check it out.
     But then you think of what a long walk it is, and what a pain in the ass that would be.
     But then you remember that you still have a car and you probably have enough gas to get to the city and back, but you check yourself, telling yourself that maybe you’d better save that gas because maybe someday you’ll need it.
     When and for what you don’t think too hard about.
     Because that’s not the real reason you don’t want to go and watch the city burn.
     You know that somewhere out there, there are millions of people that are dead, but not dead, and you almost laugh when you think, “undead” because that’s for zombies and vampires, right?
     But the dead walk the earth, and they’ve got to be surviving on something, and up till now, nobody knows you’re out here, alone, with a lifetime supply of food.
     So you think that you’d be better off leaving well enough alone.
     You spent so much of your life feeling disappointed by other people and you really don’t mind being alone and the quiet is quite relaxing.
     In fact, you can’t remember when you’ve felt so relaxed.
     Maybe this is just what you needed.
     Every now and then you miss what was, but it passes and you think about it less and less as weeks become months become years.
     Then, one night, you realize that you haven’t been keeping track of the time, and you’re reckoning the passage of time by the passage of the seasons.
     You furrow your brow and wonder if that seems right.
     Then you take a deep breath and let it out slow and accept it.
     Accept everything.
     You think maybe this is what was meant to be.
     You stop fighting.
     You’ve been fighting all of your life and it feels wonderful to finally let it all go.
     You smile to yourself and close your eyes and before you drift to sleep you remember.
     A part of a poem that they forced you to read and try to interpret in school.
     You resented it at the time, but now that you’ve accepted everything, even your resentment has faded like the petals of a flower in the pages of a book on the dust-laden shelves of an abandoned library.
     Unattended.   Unmourned.   Unremembered.  
     You remember the fragment from the poem.
     And in your mind you repeat the lines to yourself as you fall asleep.

     “This is the way the world ends
       This is the way the world ends
       This is the way the world ends
       Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The End Of The World Is Nigh: Why?

The End Of The World Is Nigh: Why?

      Ken Bates was an insurance agent.
      He wasn’t a super-hero or a movie star or a rock star although he would have been glad to have been any of the preceding.   But the world had enough movie stars and rock stars and he had never been bitten by a radioactive spider or exposed to almost lethal levels of gamma radiation and he wasn’t a mega-rich orphan whose parents had been shot down in front of him in an alley and the world needed insurance agents.   It wasn’t a bad way to make a living if you had to work for a living.   He made around thirty-five thousand dollars a year and between his pay and his wife’s pay they were able to provide a decent life for their daughter.
     Ken wasn’t an insurance agent exactly.   He was an Accounts Clerk and as such, he was more like a worker bee in a busy hive or a flesh and blood cog in the machine that is an insurance agency.   Each day he would get into his vehicle and drive to a building and spend most of his day in a grey-upholstered cubicle, processing claims and filling out forms and handling the business of paying the surviving beneficiaries when the inevitable happened.   It was boring work for the most part and to help the days go by less painlessly he would download and listen to podcasts about movies.   Film was his true passion in life, and he had gone to college for film studies, but apparently the world also had enough film critics and directors so rather than run the risk of trying to work in film and failing he settled down and married his high school sweetheart and got a job as an insurance agent and life was not as bad as it could have been.
     For the first few months before the end of the world as we knew it his job became… complicated.
     After all, despite a doctor determining a time of death, if a person returns to consciousness, does that still count as death?   Should a partial death benefit be paid out if a person dies but then comes back to life?   Insurance companies nationwide struggled to develop guidelines and policies to deal with this new dilemma, and the semantical difference between the definition of life and death when the meaning of the terms had changed, but then it didn’t matter anymore.
     Ken’s wife Rosa was a cytotechnologist.    For those of you that don’t know, as a cytotechnologist, her job was the microscopic interpretation of cells.   She examined pap smears, searching the samples of secretions and superficial cells scraped from the uterine cervixes for cancer and other abnormalities.   As you can imagine, in such a widespread medical emergency, her services became quite valuable and instead of examining pap smears she was enlisted to examine samples obtained from individuals that had become sick or dead or dead but not dead as a result from contracting the virus that eventually ended the world as we know it.
s things got worse, Rosa was first required to work double shifts.   Then she was required to work around the clock at the lab, twelve hours on and twelve hours off, taking and testing samples.   The military commandeered a hotel nearby to lodge the staff for the lab so that the staff wouldn’t have to risk the commute back and forth from their homes to the facility.   When Rosa was mandated and as much as enlisted by the local health authorities to deal with the epidemic, Ken stopped going to work so that he could stay home and take care of his daughter, Natalie, who was only two years old at the time and obviously not old enough to take care of herself, and maybe in its own way this was a blessing.   Ken worked for an insurance agency, and towards the end, people technically weren’t cashing in their life insurance policies anymore.   At least not in the conventional sense.   Even if they were the banks weren’t open anymore for anyone to deposit or withdraw their benefits.
     Natalie was three months premature and only weighed two pounds when she came into the world that was.   She spent the first three months of her life on breathing and feeding machines in the hospital and the doctors weren’t sure if she was going to survive but she was a fighter.   Whenever the nurses would do something that she didn’t like she’d ball her tiny fists and squirm and try to fight away the invading alien hands.   Ken and Rosa hoped that this meant that she’d be stubborn enough to make it and they were right.   She was.   And although she would always be small, she was an inexhaustible well of energy and happiness for the two of them.
     Since the world was in a state of emergency and Rosa wouldn’t be allowed to return home until everything was back under control,
Ken would stay home and watch Sesame Street and whatever else his daughter wanted to watch to take her mind off of missing her mother.   When Natalie would get sleepy, Ken would put her to bed and throw in a DVD of one of his favorite movies while waiting for Rosa to finish her twelve hour shift.   He could have watched the news, but watching the news these days was like watching a horror movie that never ended.   Things just continued to get worse and there was no end in sight.   At least no positive end where the powers of good prevailed and a handsome scientist discovered a cure for the virus and everything ended happily ever after.   Instead the scientists on television looked haggard and hopeless and scared and it didn’t really help to inspire much confidence that everything would end happily ever after.
     Ken worked his way through all six Star Wars movies, first in chronological order, then in sequential order.   All of the Indiana Jones movies.   Then all of the Nightmare on Elm Streets.   Then all of the Friday the 13ths.   And each night after Rosa finished her twelve hour shift, extracting and processing blood and tissue samples from the living and the dead and the dead but not dead in the way we used to think about death, she would call Ken on the phone and he would listen to her cry and say that all she wanted was to be home.   Hearing her cry and the fear and homesickness in her voice would make him cry too, but he didn’t want to scare his wife or wake his daughter, so he swallowed the lump in his throat and let the tears well up and roll down his cheeks and put forth a brave front because that’s what men are supposed to do in situations like these.   Not that anyone can really be prepared for a situation like this, but the expectations for the men of this world are pretty clear regardless of the situation.   Keep your shit together and suck it up and handle the situation as best as you can and hope for the best and he was doing what little he could keeping their daughter safe and happy until Rosa could come home.   If going to get Rosa and bringing her home was an option, Ken would have undoubtedly done so, but it wasn’t an option.   The hospital was guarded by the National Guard and admission was strictly on an emergency basis and pretty much if you weren’t sick and almost dying then you weren’t allowed in and if you weren’t dead or at least as dead as dead people got those days then you weren’t allowed out.   The front door was pretty much a one-way street and the dead were either detained in the community college next door or “taken care of” in an expeditious manner and trucked over to a mass grave trench which was excavated into a field across the highway behind a historical cemetery named The Robert Edmonds Burial Ground.   A small plot and twenty-five burials with inscriptions from 1818 to 1840 next to a mile-long trench with twenty-five hundred head-shot bodies stacked like wood, or the way that we brought slaves to America from Africa during a darker time in our nation’s history, packed in side by side like sardines in a can.   Lining the bottom awaiting the next twenty-five hundred head residents and the next twenty-five hundred after that and again until it was closer to twenty-five thousand and then closer to fifty thousand and the field was full of trenches filled with what used to be people and the earth mounded up like Indian burial mounds kept straight and even by the wonders of modern technology.   Soldiers were posted at the trenches around the clock to make sure that the bodies in the trenches didn’t stir and to take care of any wandering dead that were attracted by the smell that hung in the air around the trenches.   Sometimes the soldiers would pick up rocks and try to throw them at the carrion birds that came to eat the insects that swarmed and hummed over this banquet of bodies bloating in the sun.   But the thrown stones only ever temporarily startled the birds as it takes a decent arm and a good eye to hit a bird with a rock unless you’re in the habit of doing it and since birds were usually in the habit of not harassing humans, there weren’t many soldiers that were really good at picking off the birds as they pecked at the eyes of the dead in the trenches.   It wasn’t wise to waste ammunition to pick them off for certain because you never knew what you might need those bullets for somewhere down the line.   These days “somewhere down the line” seemed a lot closer than it had ever seemed before.
     As the days turned into weeks, Ken could hear the sound of distant sirens and the sound of gunfire and the occasional explosion in the surrounding countryside and the cities over the hills coming unexpectedly at all time of day and night.   He was scared, but more worried than scared.   There was definitely something bigger than he was able to handle happening and the likelihood that everything would eventually return to normal seemed less and less likely with each siren wail and gunshot and rumbling explosion in the distance.   Although he always hoped that he would see his wife again he knew that with each passing day, as first cell phone service went down and then cable television went down, that the power grid would most likely be next and it was.
     Living by scented and decorative candles and cooking on the propane grill on the backyard deck would have been adventure under other circumstances.   Like a little urban father daughter camping trip.   But the circumstances weren’t what they could have been and the smell of the scented candles at night, Frosted pumpkin and Gingerbread just reminded Ken of Rosa as he read his daughter If You Give a Pig a Pancake and Froggy Gets a Doggy and Green Eggs and Ham at night to help her get to sleep.
     Ken had an old Walkman from his high school days.   He was glad that he couldn’t part with it for sentimental reasons because the Walkman had a radio and Ken would use it to listen to the radio keeping himself aware of the updates as they were issued with the earbuds from his cell phone plugged into the headphone jack.
     Listening to the constant broadcasts was both terrifying and boring.
     Terrifying because of the edge of panic underlying the announcements.   Although the announcers never broke into open hysterics it was undoubtedly difficult for them to have to report what was happening both locally to places that they knew and loved and to familiar places across the nation as word of widespread civil disorder and atrocities on a scale unheard of since the second world war were happening in their homeland.   Boring because the announcements rarely changed and the constant theme of caution and fear and terror and apprehension and impending doom was so consistent that it almost created a trance like state of exhausted resignation.   Something can only be shocking when it is uncommon and/or unfamiliar.   Unfortunately the symphony of the apocalypse was playing around the clock on the radio these days.   Although no one got used to hearing all of the awful things that the radio had to tell them, it’s not the kind of thing that makes you claw your eyes out, or slit your wrists over or blow your brains out.   Unless it is.   But if you did, your problems were over, but Ken had a daughter and a wife as far as he knew and he knew that no matter how awful everything sounded as it trickled poisonously into his ears through his earbuds he had to be brave and stray strong for them.
     First it was announced that martial law had been declared and that everyone should stay in their homes.   Then it was announced that civil services such as the police and fire department and emergency medical technicians had been strained beyond their ability to help in this time of emergency and panic and widespread civil disorder and would no longer be able to respond to 911 calls in a timely manner if at all.   Pretty much you were on your own until order was restored if ever it was.   Then the people that lived in the major cities were encouraged to seek shelter in emergency management refugee centers designated by city and/or region in the outskirts of the cities.   But as time went on people were instructed to no longer head towards some of the designated emergency management refugee camps and the announcers never reported that the refugee centers had been over-run but they didn’t really have to as the list of relocation camps dwindled down to few, then two, then one.
     Thankfully, Ken didn’t live in the city and his daughter was still young enough that she was still at home as the cities had all been over-run and many were burning and the smoke from the cities could be seen glowing over the hills on the horizon during the night.
     Then one night the announcements finally changed in an interesting way, but interesting doesn’t always mean good.
     The announcer informed everyone that the entire state was being given up as a lost cause.
     That anyone that could hear the announcer should do everything they could to make it to the shopping plazas called The Crossing in Smithfield on Route 44 in Smithfield.
     The plazas were put there originally because of the easy access from the 295 beltway that offered commuters travelling north through Rhode Island the opportunity to avoid the traffic that tended to build up as one approached Providence.
     This was the same reason that the plaza was chosen as an evacuation point although there wasn’t much traffic expected from Providence coming west on 44 from Providence to the east and barricades were constructed across the road every couple miles or so, more to prevent the advance of the dead than to facilitate the orderly transportation of the living.
     Providence was a dead place.
     The downtown was awash with the dead, and the waterways which threaded the city, which had once earned the city somewhat tongue-in-cheek comparisons to Venice were choked with the bodies of the dead, water-logged and drifting out into the bay to spend the rest of their existence being pecked to pieces by the hungry mouths of tiny fish.
     The few survivors had barricaded themselves into the federal era buildings only went out at night, scavenging for food and supplies. Each night there were fewer living souls among the ruins as the predation of the living and the dead was persistent and help was not forthcoming.
     The radio announcers announced that anyone that anyone that could hear the announcer should try to make it to The Crossing and that caravans would be running from there to Westover Air Reserve Base outside of Chicopee, Massachusetts.   The announcers informed everyone that they would be allowed one, and only one piece of luggage and to focus primarily on bringing only what was absolutely necessary.   Clothes.  Any prescription medications if you needed prescription medications to keep you alive.   Food and transportation and medical treatment would be provided in the evacuation camp set up at The Crossing as a military field hospital had been set up for the treatment of the sick and injured and everyone would have to agree to complete a medical screening before they could be evacuated.   Evacuation caravans would be running twice daily from Smithfield to the Westover Air Reserve Base until it was judged that Rhode Island had been evacuated.   The camp would remain to receive any straggling survivors that could hear the announcement and the announcement would play on a loop.   What the announcement didn’t say is that the announcement would play on a loop until it didn’t anymore.   That the base would remain until it was abandoned.   That the evacuation caravans would be running twice daily from Smithfield to the Westover Air Reserve Base until they didn’t and there was no way of knowing for sure when that would be.
     Ken made his mind up that this may be his only chance to get help.
     He figured if they were evacuating the state, then surely any evacuees from the hospital would be at the evacuation center, and if not there, assisting with the screenings of the other evacuees or they had been evacuated to the Westover Air Reserve Base and he would find Rosa and they would be safe and their reunited family could stay at the refugee camp until it was finally evacuated for once and all.
     He took the family luggage out of the closet and packed a bag for himself and one for his daughter and one for his wife, figuring that Rosa would probably appreciate having some fresh clothes.   He took them out and put them into the trunk of his car and then went back inside and dressed Natalie for the crisp autumn weather outside.
     “Where are we going daddy?” Natalie asked her eyes open wide and doubtful.
     “We’re going to see mommy.” Ken said as he threaded her arm through the arm of her little pink jacket like a snake through a stocking.
     “Where’s mommy?” Natalie asked.
     “Where we’re going.” Ken answered “Now help me put your jacket on so we can go see mommy.”
     Natalie seemed satisfied with the circularity of his logic and tried to help her father with the jacket although the wily ways of jackets were still somewhat of a mystery to her.
     Ken took Natalie out to the car and buckled her into the child seat in the backseat.
     For a moment he thought about moving it over to the passenger seat so that he could keep her in his range of vision for the duration of the drive, but he knew that was ridiculous.   She wasn’t going to disappear out of the back of the car and God forbid if they get into an accident on the way and the passenger side airbag deployed and crushed her like an orange.
     He sighed and laughed to himself at the absurdity of the whole thing.
     He was tired.
     Tired and scared.
     The only thing he wanted was for his wife and daughter to be safe and then he could relax, if only just a little, knowing that they were safe, at least for the time being.
     He went back and walked through the house one last time, not knowing if he’d ever be able to come back, trying to take mental photographs of everything.   He stood in the middle of the dividing line between the living room and the kitchen in the open area where the carpet met the linoleum and tried to think of anything he was forgetting,
     It was quiet in the house and it was getting dark outside.
     He realized he was nervously turning his wedding ring in circles around his ring finger as was his habit when he was nervous.   He stopped himself.
     “This is no time to be nervous.” He said to himself in the voice inside his head, because saying it out loud in his empty and darkening house would be too eerie and final.
     He walked out the back door, locking it behind him and got into his car, starting it up and backing down the gravel-covered dirt driveway onto the road in front of his house.
     He looked up into the rearview mirror at his daughter in the backseat.
     “Ready Freddie? He asked her.
     “Ready Daddy!” she replied.
     And he flicked on the headlights for safety’s sake and stepped on the gas.

     Ken was fortunate that he lived in North Smithfield, which, as you may have guessed, was just north of Smithfield, the town that the shopping plaza where they had set up the refugee camp was located.   He knew the area fairly well and was able to take the back roads for the most part.
     As he drove down Pleasant View Avenue, he started to notice cars that seemed to have broken down and had been pushed off onto the side of the road by some large vehicle with what seemed to be a snow plough on the front of it.   Either that or the vehicles had been pulled over and parked on the side of the road where there wasn’t any parking allowed and they had all been sideswiped by the same vehicle because the scrapes and gouges along the sides of the cars were all at around the same height and looked like post-modern punk-rock racing stripes down the sides of the otherwise conservative looking vehicles and the side mirrors had been snapped off and the mirror glass twinkled up at him, picking up his headlights as he drove past.
     He turned onto Cedar Swamp Road and the road was lined with vehicles bumper-to-bumper and sometimes double-parked, pushed into the treeline or onto the yards of houses or parked in the parking lots of the small businesses along the road.
     Ken thought it looked like a carnival, or at least what the parking looked like in the areas around a carnival or a big concert or sporting event when everyone would park wherever they could to be within walking distance of the event except the people waving orange flags and spray-painted signs reading “PARK $10” were conspicuous in their absence and it didn’t feel very festive.   Most of all it looked like a junkyard where cars had been abandoned to die by owners that no longer had any further use for them and the thought gave Ken a chill.
     As he approached Putnam Pike, the road was pocked with small holes and lit by two big floodlights on thick extendable poles.   On either side of the road, a shelter had been built out of raw lumber and sandbags and concertina wire had been strung all around the base and tops of the shelters.   Behind each shelter a soldier stood atop a Humvee and behind a vehicle mounted .50 cal machine gun.   Between the two shelters there was enough room for a single vehicle to pass through and Ken slowed down and approached the roadblock.
     A soldier came out of the shelter on the left of the roadblock, a rifle slung over his shoulder and wielding a flashlight with a red plastic cone on it, like the devices they use to guide airplanes at the airport and the guard waved the wand towards the roadblock, urging Ken forwards until the vehicle was about ten feet away from the roadblock.   The soldier walked up to the side of the car and Ken pushed the button to roll his window down.   The soldier was relatively young and still had the shadow scars of adolescent acne scattershot across his face.   The soldier turned off the flashlight and tucked it into a holster designed for it on his left side.   With his right hand, he popped the button to the holster for his .45 service revolver and rested his palm on the handle as he leaned down and peered into the car.   The soldier looked into the back seat and saw Natalie strapped into her car seat, then looked at Ken.
     “That your kid?” the soldier asked.
     “Of course it is. What kind of question is that?”
     “Just a question is all.   Where you coming from?”
     “North Smithfield.”
     “That’s pretty close. Why did you wait so long?”
     “We were safe. I didn’t see the point in leaving and risking everything. I heard that they were evacuating the state to an air force base and that if anyone wanted to leave they had better leave now so I packed up my daughter and came here.”
     “You’re lucky you came when you did.   We’re only gonna be here in full force for a few more days. Week tops.   Then we’re leaving a skeleton crew to help round up and remaining survivors and then we’re folding up the tents and heading north.”
     “Well, thank you. That’s good to know.”
     The soldier looked at Ken for a second, reaching up with his hand, using the nail of his thumb to scratch the tip of his nose and said, “Drive through the barrier and head towards the Stop & Shop parking lot.   You know where that is?”
     “Once you get there, someone will show you where to park and what to do.”
     “Thanks again.”
     “You’re welcome.” The soldier said and straightened up and gave a thumbs up gesture towards the roadblock.   Ken rolled up his window and drove through the roadblock.
     At the intersection of Cedar Swamp Road and Putnam Pike Ken turned right and then signaled for a left turn and turned into the Stop & Shop parking lot.   The lot was mostly full and cars were parked in all of the spaces and had filled about half of the space available in between the spaces and seemed to be filling in the empty asphalt like Tetris pieces placed by a proficient player.
     A different soldier wielding a similar flashlight with the red plastic cone attached to it waved Ken forward and Ken pulled forward and stopped and rolled down his window.
     The soldier leaned into the window and nodded at Ken, then pointed with his flashlight beacon towards where the cars were parked bumper to bumper, filling in the space between the spots.
     “You see down there where those cars are?” the soldier asked.
     “Uh-huh.” Ken replied.
     “Pull up there.   Pull in all the way till you tap the bumper of the car in front of you.   Take out whatever you plan on taking with you and roll up the windows and lock it.   But don’t set the alarm if you’ve got one, because whoever pulls in behind you is probably going to bump the back of your car and I don’t want to have to listen to the fucking alarm all night. Got it?”
     “Got it.” Ken said, then added, “Wait… what are we going to do when we have to back out? Won’t we all be blocked in?”
     The soldier gave Ken a flat look that spoke volumes.
      “We’ll worry about that when the time comes. Alright?”
     “Alright.” Ken replied.
     “Alright. When you’re done with that bring your gear up here and I’ll radio for a ride to the base camp and we’ll get you processed and set up with a patch of floor for you and the kid to crash on for the night and maybe a couple blankets if you’re lucky.”
     “Thanks.” Ken said, but the soldier shrugged it off with a brisk shrug and walked over to lean against the back of one of the parked cars.
     Ken pulled in snugly until he nudged the bumper of the car in front of him as instructed, then flipped off the headlights, rolled the windows up, and turned the keys in the ignition, killing the engine.
     Ken got out and unlocked the back door and extracted Natalie from her car seat, bundling her up against his chest and locking her in with his left arm, resting her partly on his hip, using his free right hand to close the door.
     “Oof! Who’s a big girl? Pretty soon, if I don’t pay attention, you’ll be big enough to carry me!”
     Natalie chuckled and Ken tweaked her nose and Natalie shook her head to shake away the tickle from the tweak.
     “Okay, sweetheart. Daddy has to put you down for a minute so he can get our stuff out of the trunk. Can you stand on your own for me?”
      Natalie said, “Okay, Daddy.” And ken eased her down onto the ground with a slight groan.
      “God, that kid really is getting heavy.” He thought to himself.
      Ken unlocked the trunk and took out the three pieces of luggage and looked over to make sure that Natalie’s hands weren’t anywhere near the seam of the trunk and slammed the lid.
      He put the two larger bags over his shoulder, the straps criss-crossing across his chest and picked up the third with his left hand, holding out his right hand to his daughter.
     “Alright, honey, now I want you to hold onto daddy’s hand as we walk over to get picked up, okay honey?”
     Natalie slipped her little hand into his big hand and he gently gripped it with his thumb and they walked up the incline towards the road.

     As Ken and Natalie approached the place where the guard was leaning against the back of the parked car, the guard pushed himself off the car and walked with them up towards the road.
     The soldier took a walkie talkie out of a hip-holster and depressed the talk button, saying, “Base Camp, we have two, I repeat, two for transport from Stop & Shop. Over.”
     The soldier held the radio up near his ear and a second later the radio squawked, “Roger that. Be there in five.”
      The three stood silently waiting for the vehicle to arrive. Ken looked down at Natalie to see how she was doing and Natalie seemed to sense it and looked back up at him and then over at the soldier.   The soldier seemed to sense her gaze and looked down at her from the corner of his eyes.   He raised his eyebrows, one slightly higher than the other then gave Natalie a wink.
     Natalie grinned and tried to hide behind her father’s leg, becoming one with the fabric as shy little girls usually do.

     An airport courtesy shuttle minibus approached and slowed, turning a u-turn in the center of the road and pulling up to the curb.   The door opened and a thickset soldier taking up the entirety of the space allowed by the driver’s seat stared at them.
     “Well, get in.” the soldier said with a mix of humorous feigned impatience.
     Ken helped Natalie to step into the bus and climb the steps .
     “Three bags, two people.” The bus driver said. “You know they’re only gonna let you take one bag each.”
     “The third one is for my wife. She was working at Kent County when they evacuated so she should be at the camp waiting for us.”
     The soldier looked at Ken impassively, his face hardening almost imperceptibly.
     “Fair enough.” The soldier said. “Take a seat.”

     The courtesy bus drove towards past the strip malls, all of the lots filled with cars parked bumper-to-bumper and abandoned, to the shopping plaza.
     Across the six lanes of 44 heading east a giant barricade had been constructed with arms trailing off to either side as high as buses with a narrow inlet in the center.   As they approached, Ken could see the muzzle flash and hear the resounding crack of rifle fire as soldiers posted on top of the barrier steadily fired into the unseen darkness on the other side of the barrier.
     The shuttle took a left and passed a Game Stop and a Pizzeria Uno and a Chili’s on the left, a sprawling flower shop on the right and they descended a hill into the bowl of a natural valley that had been terraformed to accommodate a sprawling shopping plaza.
     There was a home Depot and a Target and a Kohl’s.   A Barnes & Noble and a Dave’s supermarket, a local chain that took over the space that used to be occupied by a Bed Bath & Beyond.
     Set up in the parking lots were several huge tents and the scene would almost have a festive carnival or circus fell if the tents weren’t all olive drab and everyone wasn’t wearing desert camouflage and moving around with intent in their posture and their stride.   Alongside the tents were an assortment of military vehicles.   A huge water truck with a hose hanging from underneath it, and capillary branches running to the different tents, there Humvees painted in tans and greys to help it blend in with a desert environment, which made them all the more conspicuous against the black of the asphalt of the parking lot, a small fleet of eight touring buses that looked a bit the worse for wear, and a substantial-looking two-ton cattle truck with a huge wedge of sheet-metal welded to an apparatus rigged to the front of it like the “cow-catcher” that used to be in the front of trains during the frontier pioneering days of the wild west to clear cattle off of the track if any cattle wandered onto the tracks.   It also helped to protect the train, but it wasn’t very helpful to the cows but they were stupid enough to wander onto the track in the first place so I kind of guess they got what was coming to them.
     The airport shuttle pulled up in front of an awning flipped out of the side of a tent and stopped and the driver opened up the door.
     “This is your stop.” The driver said and Ken gathered up his bags and took Natalie by the hand.   As Ken helped Natalie down the stairs the driver said, “Just go through that awning and they’ll tell you where to go from there.”
     Ken said, “Thanks.” But didn’t turn around, preoccupied by maneuvering three bags and a child down the stairs and off the bus.
     When Ken and Natalie had gained their footing, the driver closed the door and drove the courtesy shuttle around to the side of the tent, presumably to wait for the next pick up call, leaving Ken and Natalie to enter the tent.
     Inside of the tent there was a buzz of voices and activity and Ken felt a swell of relief.
     He realized it had been over a month since he had heard the sound of human voices other than his daughter’s in person.
     There was a solid row of plastic folding tables set up across the tent.
     At each table, a civilian in hospital scrubs sat behind a laptop and in front of the tables were posted two competent looking guards in desert pattern camouflage with black leather arm bands with the letters “MP” stenciled on them in white.   Behind the line of tables, lines folding chairs were set up in even rows.   Some of the seats were occupied by normal, but tired, looking people, and medical staff in hospital scrubs with white lab coats over them, holding clipboards were asking questions of the loosely gathered groups and jotting down notes.
     A light-skinned black nurse noticed Ken and Natalie and she smiled a tired but sincere smile and said, “I can help you over here. Just step right up.”
     Ken sway-walked over to the nurse’s table, his balance thrown off by the bags.   Natalie alongside, her hand wrapped around his thumb.
     When he reached the table the nurse said, “Okay, sir, if you could just put your bags down, the MPs are going to look through them to make sure that you didn’t bring anything dangerous with you.”
     “Oh, there’s nothing dangerous in these.” Ken said, dropping the bag in his left hand onto the empty table next to hers and unshouldering the other two bags, placing them beside the first.
     The nurse smiled a polite, professional smile and said, “It’s just standard operating procedures.” As the MP to his left approached and unzipped the first bag and started to gingerly remove its contents, laying them alongside the bag on the table.
     Without bothering to look up at Ken, The MP said, “Any drugs or weapons or anything else that might be considered contraband in any of these?”
     “No, sir!”, Ken said and chuckled.
     The MP shot him a sideways glance and said “Anything sharp in here? I don’t want to get stuck on any needles if you’re a diabetic or whatever.”
     “No, sir, no needles. No nothing.”
     “Alright.” the guard said, taking out folded t-shirts and boxer shorts and placing them down half-respectfully in little piles as he emptied Ken’s bag.
     “Name?” the nurse said, her fingers poised at the ready at the keys of her laptop.
     “Ken Bates.” He paused and she clicked away at the keys. “Kenneth Charles Bates.” He added, and she nodded and tapped in the amendment.
     “And what’s the girl’s name?”
     “Natalie Ann Bates”
     “Is this your daughter?”
     “And do you have full legal custody of her at this time?”
     “Yes, I mean my wife and I share custody of her.”
     “Are you divorced?”
     “No, still married.”
     “And your wife is the mother of the child?”
     “Okay.” The nurse paused. “I’m sorry to have to ask you this, but do you know the current location of your wife?” and she let the unspoken question “Alive or dead?” hang in the air implicit but unspoken.
     “Well, actually, I was kind of hoping you could help me out with that.   She was working at Kent County when the hospital went on lockdown and she was there until they evacuated so I was hoping that she’d be here helping with the intake or maybe she’d moved on to the air force base to help up there. She’s a cytologist. Her name is Rosa Bates. Have you seen her here?”
      The nurse’s demeanor had hardened a bit and her professionalism now had a crispness to it that hadn’t been there a moment ago but Ken couldn’t tell what had caused the nurse to stiffen.
     The nurse said “Social Security numbers?” and Ken provided the nurse with both his and his daughter’s social security number from memory although he couldn’t remember his wife’s because it had always been her responsibility to know it.
     “Alright, if you want to step between the tables and take a seat the MPs will finish screening your bags and a doctor will come over to speak with you in a couple minutes.”
     “Okay. Come on Natalie!” Ken said and he and his daughter made their way to two empty seats, Ken picking Natalie up and putting her in the chair so she could sit like a big girl and as soon as he sat she slumped over into him like a stuffed animal.
     “Doctor!” the nurse called and the four men in white lab coats holding clip boards all turned around simultaneously.   “Doctor Morrissette”, the nurse clarified and a short bespectacled man with dirty blonde hair tied back into a neatly groomed pony tail nodded and said, “Excuse me.” to the group of people he had been talking to and walked briskly over to the nurse.
     “Yes nurse?” he said, and the nurse tugged on his lab coat, and gestured with her hand, letting him know that she wanted to say something to him in relative confidence.
     The doctor bent over and the nurse whispered into his ear for about a half a minute and then looked over at Ken and Natalie with an expression made up of equal parts sadness and dread.
     The doctor looked toward Ken and Natalie but the father and daughter weren’t paying much attention to the exchange, Ken softly petting her hair with his hand.
     The doctor frowned and took a deep breath and brandished his clipboard and walked briskly over to where Ken and Natalie were sitting.
     Ken heard the approaching footsteps and looked up to see the doctor standing in front of him.
     “Mister Bates?” the doctor asked crisply yet courteously in the direct manner that all doctors seem to be taught in med school.
      “My name is Doctor Morrissette. I understand that your wife was volunteering at Kent County during the outbreak.”
     “Volunteering is a funny way to put it, but, yes, she was working there and they wouldn’t let her leave. She’s a cytologist.”
     “Yes, I see. I assure you that those measures were for her own protection.” The doctor paused. “To your knowledge, was she there until the end?”
     “Well she never came back home if that’s what you mean. Why?”
     The doctor took a deep breath and let it out and composed himself, preparing for something.
     “I don’t know exactly how to say this so I’ll just say it outright.”
     “No.” Ken said, quietly yet still audible.
     “The hospital was overrun by the contaminated.”
     “No.” Ken said, more loudly and firmly now.
     “They were unable to evacuate. There were no survivors.”
     “No!” Ken shouted and hid his face in his hands as if he could make the doctor with his terrible news disappear if only he couldn’t see him anymore.
     “If it’s any consolation, I’m sure that she didn’t suffer. The deterioration of the integrity of the site came quite suddenly and unexpectedly.”
     Ken made a high keening sound and then broke into a sob, choking on his gasps of air between his sobs.
     “It seems that some, uh, ‘subjects’ were being held on site as test subjects and an orderly or a soldier was careless with securing the area and became overwhelmed by the test subjects and the situation deteriorated quite rapidly and irrevocably from there.”
     Natalie woke up and seeing her father sobbing started crying too, emitting a high wail of fear and sadness although she couldn’t really comprehend why she was crying but she knew that if her father was crying then something terrible had happened and crying was the natural reaction.
    A woman from a small group of people, a father, a mother and two children, a teenaged boy and a pre-teen daughter looked over with a concerned glance.   She looked at her children, and then at her husband and the husband sighed and said, “Not that you need my say so, but go ahead and help ‘em out. I know you never could bear the sound of a baby crying.”
     The woman reached out and touched his hand and mouthed “I love you.” and stood up, walking briskly to where Natalie was sitting and the woman picked her up, Natalie’s finger slipping out from the fabric of her father’s jacket.   The woman cradled Natalie in her arms and the woman rocked from side to side making gentle shushing sounds to try to calm the crying child. “I know, honey, I know.”
     Ken wept openly, unguarded, the suddenness of his grief naked and raw, an unchecked flood that tore through him breaking anything soft and vulnerable in its way.
     “I know it’s tough to hear, son. It truly is. I wish I could tell you differently but we lost a lot of good men who lost their lives trying to defend that hospital. I know that doesn’t make up for your loss, but at least you can comfort yourself knowing that she gave her life trying to help people and that her sacrifice will be remembered.”
     But the words coming out of the doctor’s mouth were just senseless noises as the black tidal wave of all-consuming loss carried Ken’s sense out to sea.
     “I’ll come back and talk to you later after you’ve had a few minutes to compose yourself.” The doctor said and returned to the remaining members of the family that the women had left behind to continue his questioning while the woman swayed side to side making gentle shushing sounds to try to calm the crying child.

     Later that night, after Ken had cried himself out and Natalie had managed to be somewhat calmed with the help of a fat young black nurse with huge breasts and a giant ass that strained the fabric of her hospital scrub pants that just loved kids, Ken was interviewed about the medical history of himself and his daughter and they both had blood samples taken.   Ken never liked having his blood taken but he was too numb to care. Natalie was a different story as she had never liked having anybody perform anything even close to a medical procedure on her so obtaining her blood sample took some doing and a ton of coaxing and petting before and apologizing and soothing afterwards but it had to be done.
     After they had completed the intake process and their bags had been returned to them, they were driven across the plaza to the Barnes and Noble in a golf cart that would have made Natalie giddy with delight if she weren’t already practically asleep after the events of the evening.   Ken left behind the third bag that he had packed for his wife.   He figured that he didn’t have any use for it anymore and maybe somebody else could use the clothes but leaving the bag behind lent a certainty to the fact that he would never see her alive again and it made his heart hurt as if it were being torn slowly in two as he walked away from the bag sitting by itself on the white plastic folding table.
     The guard helped to carry their bags in while Ken carried Natalie.
     Inside, most of the furniture and a good part of the floor was inhabited by human forms using their luggage or crumpled piles of clothes as pillows.   Most hadn’t thought to bring a blanket and were sleeping in their coats and shoes to stay warm while they slept.
      Strategically around the room, empty metal fifty-five gallon drums had been placed and were giving off a warm-looking orange glow casting flickering shadows across the ceilings and any reflective surface inside the store.   Beside each barrel several piles of books had been laid as fuel for the small heating fires.   Comic books and bodice-rippers and best sellers and books about gardening and horses and bears. Everything was equal as far as the fire was concerned and regardless of how well a book had sold in the days before the collapse what mattered most was the quality of paper it was printed on and how well it burned.
     The soldier walked ahead of them over to a barrel that was slightly less crowded than the rest and dropped the two bags on a knee-high occasional table.
     “Try to get some rest,” the soldier said.   “There’ll be breakfast in the morning.”
     Ken sniffed and said, “Thank you.” And the soldier returned the way he came and left through the front doors of the Barnes & Noble.
     Ken softly hummed the song Mockingbird by Tom Waits to keep Natalie calm and to not wake up anyone else although he usually made up half the words when he sang it anyways so it really didn’t matter.   He walked over to the fiction section and followed the alphabetical signs until he found the letter K, and then he walked won the row until he reached the wall of Stephen King books.
    They were listed alphabetically by title and he picked out a paperback copy of The Dark Tower: Book 1: The Gunslinger and a paperback copy of The Stand.   He figured he could read The Gunslinger to his daughter because none of it would make much sense to her anyway and words were words and King tended to put them together beautifully, and The Stand was for himself to read when she was asleep because he had read the book at least three times through front to back and he figured if he was going to have to live through an end of days scenario he might as well do some homework.   Not to mention that the book was like an old familiar friend, and comfort food for his brain and he was sorely in need of some comfort and a pleasant distraction from the wreckage left behind inside his head after his sorrow had flooded his interior cities.   Ken quietly made his way back to an empty chair next to the fifty-five gallon drum and sat down, Natalie limp with sleep settling into the comfort of his coat like a kitten and fell deeper into sleep.   Ken opened the book to the first page, past the author’s introduction and started reading by the warm yellow-orange light of the fire.

     Ken woke up the next morning and Natalie was still asleep.
     He wasn’t really surprised but more relieved that he had woken up before she had the chance to stumble off and get herself into trouble.
     He didn’t have to check to know that she would need changing, so he grabbed her bag and went to the store restroom to handle it.   Inside the bathroom was crowded.   He could see a pair of pants pooled around a pair of shoes through the space under the stall and there was a man using the urinal and three men lined up behind him to use it after he was done.   The smell of fresh shit and hot piss hung in the air. There was a man brushing his teeth in the sink and to his side another man was looking over his shoulder into the mirror and using water from the faucet and a cheap black plastic comb to comb the sleep stiffness and crazy cowlicks out of his hair.   Thankfully the baby changing station wasn’t being used so he swung the table down and rested first the bag, then his daughter on the table.
     One of the guys standing in line at the urinal quipped, “Oh, man, I sure don’t miss that part of having kids.”
     Ken gave him a weak half-hearted frown with a watered-down smile in his eyes in return for his comment and went about the process of changing his daughter’s diaper.
     When he had finished, he looked over to the trash can but it was already over-flowing with paper towels, but he did the best he could to use the diaper to push the mound of loosely packed towels down and lodge the diaper in on top of the pile.
     He didn’t figure that anyone was going to come around to take out the trash this morning.
     He also figured that it didn’t matter anymore.
     Even if someone did empty the trash, then where would it go? Maybe they could toss it into the trash compactor in the back of the stores, but then no one was probably going to come around to pick up that thing anytime soon either. This was one of the things Ken realized had changed about the world when nobody was paying attention.   There wasn’t anyone left to clean up after everyone else, so unless everyone wanted to live in a pile of trash like the people the reality show Hoarders, everyone would have to pick up after themselves.   He knew it seemed like it was a small thing and seemed to be common sense, but as he was in the habit of saying whenever someone used the figure of speech “common sense”, “Common sense isn’t that common.”
     He tried not to think of all of the things that he would probably never have again.
     He would probably never have another cup of Dell’s lemonade. He would probably never have another order of chowder and clamcakes. He would probably never have another doughboy from a booth at a carnival fresh out of the fryer and powdered with confectioner’s sugar.
     Hell, he thought to himself, now that we’re all abandoning Rhode Island like ticks off a drowning dog, maybe no one ever in the world would ever have any of those uniquely regional foods ever again.
     Then he realized he was standing in a bookstore men’s room with seven other guys breathing their shit fumes and piss stench and on the edge of having a conversation with himself and he wondered if maybe he had lost his mind.
     Maybe he had slipped in the shower and bounced his head off of the tiles and all of this was a coma dream and he would wake up in a hospital room with a feeding tube snaked down into his stomach and a collection of old “Get Well Soon” cards yellowing by the side of his bed and the nurse would be startled and drop her clipboard when he croaked out his first word in years. “Hello.”
     And then the man who was using the urinal grunted and squeezed out a long thin high-sounding fart which lasted at least ten seconds and swept up three steps in tone in the last second sounding like a quickly unzipped zipper.
     The man looked over his shoulder at the man standing behind him in line waiting to use the urinal and said, “Sorry about that. Had to make a little bit more room for breakfast.”   The man behind him in line rolled his eyes and laughed while the man at the urinal shook out the last drop and flushed, tucking what God gave him back into his pants and zipping up.
     Ken closed the lid on the baby wipes and put the plastic box back into the bag full of Natalie’s clothes including eleven spare diapers.
     He shouldered the bag and picked up his daughter and headed out into the hazy interior of the bookstore, sunlight streaming in from the two-story wall of windows at the front of the store.   Ken looked down at Natalie who still looked sleepy and asked, “Are you hungry sweetheart?”   Natalie tried to hide her face in his shoulder.   “Ah well. We’ll see if you’re hungry once we see what they’ve got for breakfast.”   Ken pushed out into the sunlight and squinted at the brightness of the day, using his hand to shield his eyes like a visor.
     In the middle of the parking lot, outside of the bookstore, a big green tent with the sides opened had a plume of smoke coming out of a silver metal tube jutting out of the back of it.   The morning was still crisp enough that when Ken exhaled he could see his breath and he smiled to himself remembering when he used to be smoker in college and he would have a cigarette after a long class out in the cold and the smoke would come out like the residual after-effects of a fire-breathing dragon.  Then he remembered that he had quit smoking because his wife was pregnant with their daughter and it put the lid on that good memory, snuffing it like a match.   Is this what life was going to be like now?   Every good memory tainted by a bad one that reminded him of what he lost?   He took a deep breath and sighed it out and said to himself, “Maybe I’ll feel better after I’ve had some breakfast.” He looked down at Natalie and said, “What do you think Honey Bee?” but Natalie was still too sleepy to appreciate his efforts to lift their spirits.
     Rows of white plastic folding chairs were set up on the asphalt of the parking lot as well as a few folding tables where mostly families with young children sat.   Most of the adults were fine with sitting in the plastic folding chairs because they were well capable of feeding themselves without needing a flat surface to put their plates on since they could balance the plates on their laps just, fine, thanks for asking and the chairs were set up far enough apart to avoid jostling your neighbor with your elbows while you were engaged in the process of feeding yourself which was also just fine, thank you very much.
     Ken got into line and a few minutes later he reached the part of the procession where you were issued a styrofoam plate and a black plastic fork and knife packaged with a small napkin wrapped in crinkly clear cellophane.   Ken put his hands under Natalie’s armpits with his hands along her body to stabilize her and tried to put her down.   She fussed a bit, but stood up on her own feet and reached up and held onto her dad’s wallet chain while Ken picked up a plate and a set of utensils.   For breakfast there was a huge metal steam tray full of scrambled eggs, a huge metal tub of cubed and home fried potatoes, plies of toast, and for dessert, a huge bowl full of industrial quality fruit cocktail swimming in sickly sweet syrup that you could use a ladle scoop out and pour into a red plastic cup.   There was also hot coffee and plenty of sugar, but no cream, because the dairy trucks hadn’t been running for a month or so and neither had the refrigerators, so if you decided to try to take your chances with anything that needed refrigeration the odds were better than even that you’d spend the better part of the day with your pants around your ankles.   There was also all of the salt and pepper and ketchup you could ever want in single serving packets and a five-gallon jug of tabasco sauce for those people that wanted a bit more kick.
     Ken took a bit of everything but not too much because Natalie wasn’t a really big eater, especially when she was fussy and today looked like it was going to be one of those days.
     Ken started to head towards a big wooden picnic table that he saw out of the corner of his eyes but when he turned towards it, he saw that it was full of a family of six, all of them varying shades of pinkish white with dirty blonde hair and varying degrees of close-set eyes and pinched expressions.   Ken turned to find another place to eat when the mother of the brood called over, “It’s okay mister! You and your girl can come eat with us, we’ll make room!”
     Ken called back, “Thanks!” and he and Natalie headed over.
     As they approached the mother told the two children on her side of the bench, “Bethany! Timothy! Scooch over. Make room.”   The two kids shimmied in tighter the boy accidentally elbowing the girl in the side prompting a plaintive whine from the girl. “Mom! Timmy elbowed me in the ribs!”
     Tim rolled his eyes theatrically and let out an equally theatrical sigh, “It was an accident!
     The girl shot back “You did it on purpose!” and slugged her brother in the arm.
     “Mom!” the boy bleated but the mother cut them off before the conflict could escalate any further.
     “Simmer down you two or else!”   She never said what would happen if they didn’t simmer down but they probably already knew well enough because they quieted right down and glumly returned to their respective breakfasts.
     The father at the end of the other side of the table made is if to stand up to make room for Ken but Ken stopped him before he could rise.
     “No, please! There’s enough room for her to sit and that’s fine by me. I don’t mind standing.”
     The man replied with a non-committal shrug and settled back in to wipe the last slice of his toast around to absorb the last fragments of egg and potato from his plate.
     Ken put the plate down onto the table and forked out a small mouthful of scrambled eggs and tried to offer it to Natalie, hanging the steaming forkful of food in front of her mouth but she made a sour face and tilted her head down so her head rested against her chest in an frustratingly adorable gesture of defiance.
     “Suit yourself,” Ken said and dug into the eggs for a normal-person sized forkful, “but don’t cry later when you’re hungry. You never know when the next time we’re going to see food this good is going to be.” And leaned over to shovel the eggs into his mouth, gratefully enjoying the smooth warmth of the eggs.
     “There’s going to be food at the air force base right mom?” the younger of the two boys asked.
     “Of course there is! Don’t be ridiculous!” the mother said a bit sharply.
     The last few days had obviously been rough ones for the family and they all looked under-slept and over-tired.
     The mother had finished her breakfast while the children still listlessly picked and pecked at theirs.   She leaned in and looked at Natalie. “What’s your name little girl?”
     Natalie tried to pout, but instead she broke into a sneaky smile and tried to hide her face in her armpit.
     “Oh she’s shy isn’t she?” the mother asked no one in particular and sighed a musical sound.
     “She has her moments.” Ken said, and sipped his coffee.   Black coffee.   Oh, black coffee never tasted so good!   Hot and bittersweet and oily black.   He took another big sip, slightly scalding the tip of his tongue and not caring.
     The children on Natalie’s side of the table decided to surrender in stalemate in their war against the scrambled eggs and picked up their spoons and began scooping spoonfuls of fruit cocktail into their mouths humming appreciatively at the the sweet fruity taste of it.
     The satisfaction of other children being a better marketing tool than hanging a forkful of eggs in front of her face, Natalie carefully reached out and took the spoon from the utensil packet and tried to get a spoonful of fruit cocktail from the red plastic cup into her mouth.   A bit of the syrup trickled down the handle onto her hand but the cube of pear and segment of peach made the journey and Ken was okay with that. “So what if her hands get a little sticky?” he thought to himself “I can always just wash her off later. At least she’s eating something.” As Natalie inched the cup closer to the edge of the table, Ken keeping a watchful eye to make sure she didn’t dump the whole cup of sticky fruit all over herself.   She seemed to be handling the situation fairly well so he picked up the plate and began to eat the eggs and potatoes with genuine appreciation.
     The mother watched Natalie’s little adventure with the fruit cocktail smiling on winsomely.
     She looked up at Ken who was avidly chewing a mouthful of eggs and potatoes.
     “How old is she?” the mother asked.
     Ken washed his mouthful of food down with a big sip of coffee then cleared his throat and said, “Two and a half. Almost three.”
     “Aw, they’re so cute at that age!”
     “She was born three months premature.”
     “Aw! A preemie! That explains why she’s so cute!”
     Natalie was oblivious to the conversation, trying to use the spoon to fish out one of the scarce red cherry halves floating around in the cup.
     “Where are you guys from?” the mother asked.
     “Just north of here.   North Smithfield actually.”
     “We’re from Foster.   We thought we’d be okay laying in and waiting until things turned around, but what with winter just around the corner and four mouths to feed we figured we oughta get out while the getting’s good. Know what I mean?”
     “I think I do.” Ken said, folding a piece of toast around a clump of scrambled egg.
     “Where’s her mother?” the mother asked and Ken stopped chewing for a moment then chewed up and got down his food with a hard swallow.
     “She was working down in south county at a hospital and got caught behind the lines.” Ken said flatly and picked up his coffee, knocking back the rest of it like a shot.
     “Oh…” the woman said and let it hang in the air.
     The man brought his fist down on the table hard enough to make everyone’s plate jump.
     “Dammit Pamela!   You ought to know better than to be nosing around in other people’s business these days.” he said and thrust himself up from the table, extracting a pack of Marlboros from his shirt pocket.   He walked over towards Ken, popping a cigarette out of the pack and tucked it between his lips then popped another one up and said from around the cigarette in his mouth. “Sorry about that.   You want a smoke?”
     Ken eyed the cigarette but broke the trance it cast over him and said, “No thanks, I quit.”
     “You sure about that?” the man said, holding the pack out.
     Ken looked from the cigarette jutting out of the pack to his daughter, then back to the pack, then back to his daughter, then back to the pack again.
     He reached out and took the cigarette and stuck it between his lips.
     “Fuck it.” He said, and he followed the man as he walked a few paces away, pulling a dark blue plastic cigarette lighter from his pocket and cupping his right hand around the tip of the cigarette lighting the tip in the practiced gesture that habitual smokers do a million times before the cancer finally carries them off.
     The man held out the lighter to Ken and Ken said “Thanks.” And lit his cigarette.
     He inhaled and almost instantly felt the rush of elation that one experiences after returning to the habit after an extended vacation.
     “Been a while?” the man asked.
     “About a year.” Ken said. “Quit so that I wouldn’t smoke around the wife while she was pregnant and then kept quit so I wouldn’t smoke around the baby.   Backslid a few times, but the last time it seemed to stick.”
    The man took a drag of his cigarette and exhaled it in a thin sharp jet, leveling his eyes at Ken and said, “No one ever stops being a smoker. They just stop smoking.   Once you get the hook in you, you can never fish that bitch out.   It just becomes a part of who you are.”
     Ken took another drag and exhaled the smoke appreciatively.
     “You may be right.   You may just be right at that.” Ken said and tsked through a wry grin.
     “What’s your name anyhow?” the man asked “I don’t think we introduced ourselves.”
     “Ken.” Ken said, and changed his cigarette over from his right hand to his left, extending his right.
     “Martin.” Martin said, and gave Ken’s hand a solid squeeze and a brisk pump.
     “Nice to meet you.” Ken said.
     “Same to you.” Martin said and took another drag from his smoke. “Sorry about Pam. That chatty cunt doesn’t know when to mind her own business.   More trouble than she’s worth, that one, but I’m four kids deep so there’s no turning back now.”
      “It’s okay.” Ken said.   “She just didn’t know. I just found out last night so the wound is still pretty fucking raw.”
      “Oh man.   That’s tough.” Martin said and then leveled an appraising gaze at Ken. “You gonna be okay?”
     Ken shrugged.   “I guess I’m going to have to be.   Guess it’s just Nat and me against the world from now on.”   Ken finished the last drag of his cigarette and ground it underfoot and his attention lingered on the black smudge against the sun-bleached black of the asphalt.
     Martin clapped him on the shoulder, the closest that a swamp yankee man will allow themselves to  come to actually hugging another man.   “Keep your chin up.   If you ever need any help you can count on me and mine.   There’s not a lot of us left around anymore so what few of us there are have to learn to stick together.   I’m not sure that this is all supposed to make any sense, but if there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this, I think that maybe that might be it.”
     Martin took his hands off of Ken’s shoulder and pulled out his pack and popped another cigarette out of the pack, pecking it out with his lips and he tapped up another and offered it to Ken.   “Want another?”
     “No, I think the one will do.” Ken said.
     “Suit yourself.” Martin said, and turned, walking back towards his family at the picnic table.
     Ken followed him and looked towards Natalie.   She had the red plastic cup in both hands and was trying to sip the rest of the syrup.   She had managed to glaze her face and hands with the sticky ooze and when it dried it would be a bitch to scrub off and she wouldn’t like that much but at least she ate something and it was fruit, kind of, which is kind of healthy.
     Ken finished his food and tossed his trash into a 55 gallon barrel with a decent fire going inside that everyone was using as an incinerator.   “I guess everyone figures it’s the end of the world, so fuck the environment.” Ken thought to himself as he pitched his plastic into the barrel.   He followed everyone back to the bookstore and everyone started to gather up their gear and pack their bags so Ken did likewise.
     Three soldiers came in through the front door.   Two of them were wearing MP armbands and the third was an older man who moved through the crowd graceful as a machete through a melon, the crowd parting before him as if he had moved them with his will.
     The man mounted the stairs, taking them two at a time in a jog and when he reached the top, he commanded the attention of the entire room which went quiet without him having to say a word.
     “Good morning everyone!” his voice boomed, “I hope everyone enjoyed their breakfast.”
     He paused.
      “For those of you that don’t know my name is Major Bennett and I am the base commander of this operation at this time.   As many of you already know, we will be evacuating all current civilian residents of this camp to the Westover Air Reserve Base.   Since there are just over a hundred of you, we will be taking five buses on this trip.   Although we could reasonably take four buses and have a few of you sitting one each other’s laps, we will be taking five buses in the unlikely event that one of the vehicles breaks down along the way we can distribute the occupants among the other vehicles and still continue forward to our objective.   Failure is not an option.   As some of you may know we will be travelling through enemy occupied territory.   And to paraphrase a quote from the late great Oliver Hazard Perry, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”.
     The Major let his minor witticism hang in the air for a second unappreciated before continuing.
     “I assure you all that this operation is completely safe and we have done this several times without any considerable loss or harm coming to any of our personnel, property, or passengers.   So if you would all gather up your belongings and proceed to the departure area we will get you loaded into the vehicles in as expeditious and orderly a manner as possible and we will be on the road by eleven hundred hours.”
     The Major sprang down the stairs three at a time and his boots met the ground every time with determination echoing behind him.   If there was a man left in this world that you could feel safe putting your safety into the hands of, he was probably it and everyone knew it.
     The survivors in the bookstore gathered together their belongings into their one allotted piece of luggage although “luggage” fails to properly describe the variety of bags, backpacks, duffel bags, rucksacks and rolling luggage units with extendible telescoping handles that were exhibited, proving once again that although we all may share the same continent, we, as individuals are almost infinitely diverse.
     In the parking lot, the loose-knit group of survivors was herded by military personnel towards the first five of the eight buses from left to right, and separated into roughly twenty-five occupants per bus.
     Ken had the questionable luck of being diverted into the bus being boarded by Martin and Pam and their brood of dirty blonde children.   As each person or group of people approached the bus, their name was entered onto a vehicle manifest in a palm pilot in the possession of the highest ranking non-commissioned officer on the vehicle.   Each person would then give their one allotted piece of luggage and three soldiers would bucket-brigade the luggage into the belly of the bus.
     When it was Ken’s turn he stepped up with Natalie one step behind him.
     The man wielding the palm pilot was a tallish soldier with black tinted glasses and thick black frames.
     His name tag read “QUIGLEY”.   He said “Name?”
     “Ken Bates.”
     “Natalie Bates.”
     “Alright. Stow your gear.”
     Ken unshouldered their bags and passed his bag to the soldier to his left who passed it down the line and held out his hand for the other bag.   Ken went to pass the bag off, but at the last second remembered something and took a knee, quickly unzipping the bag and taking out a diaper, zipping the bag back up and handing it off to the soldier to his left.
     Ken smiled a sheepish grin at the soldier with the palm pilot and said, “You know. Just in case.” before helping Natalie onto the bus and up the stairs.
     Inside the dirty blonde devils were already arguing over who would get the window seat.
     Ken just took the first two seats on the left hand side and picked up Natalie, strapping her into the seat as best he could.
    The rest of the passengers boarded and selected their seats and when the last of them had entered, two of the three soldiers that had been working the luggage brigade boarded the bus, followed by the soldier with the palm pilot.
     Outside, Major Bennett climbed into the cab of the two-ton cattle truck with the huge wedge of sheet-metal welded to an apparatus rigged to the front of it.
     The Major settled in and the driver started up the engine of the formidable vehicle and each bus in turn started after the vehicle to its right in a chain reaction of rumbling engines.
     The soldier with the palm pilot and the name tag that read “QUIGLEY” tucked the palm pilot into a pouch custom-made for it out of tan canvas buttoned onto his belt and placed himself into the middle of the aisle at the front of the bus.
     “Good morning!” his voiced boomed down the center of the bus.   “My name is Sergeant First-Class Charles Quigley and I will be the ranking officer on this vehicle as we evacuate you to Westover Air Reserve Base.   The trip is a bit under ninety miles and under ideal conditions would take around an hour and a half.   As you may have noticed, the conditions are far from ideal.   As a result, we are estimating that the trip should take just under three hours if the roads are relatively clear and we don’t run into any enemy hostiles be they living or dead.   Please keep your hands within the vehicle at all times, and conduct yourself in a calm and civil manner for the duration of this evacuation as I would hate to have to pistol-whip any one as it has been three days since my last pistol-whipping and I am trying to break my last record of five days without having to pistol whip anyone.”
     The bus to their right banked right and the bus they were in lurched into gear and followed behind it.
     “When we arrive at Westover Air Reserve Base you will be assigned a bunk and provided with a light lunch.   After that, if appropriate, you will be assigned a work detail suited to your ability.   Things are a little tight up there as we are currently protecting approximately thirty thousand civilians in addition to quartering two-thousand active duty soldiers.   The base was intended to house twenty-seven hundred military and civilian personnel comfortably.   Those of you that are good at math may have determined that we are currently functioning at ten times our usual operating capacity and if so, good for you.   You are correct.   As I said, the quarters are a bit tight, but although you may not be as comfortable as you might wish you will certainly be safe!   Resources are also a bit tight, but if we can all work together to try to help each other get through this trying time then we will all be able to reap the rewards of our cooperation to insure our mutual survival.   Since I trust that there are no questions I will relinquish your attention so that you may enjoy or endure the rest of the ride as you see fit.”
     Sergeant First-Class Charles Quigley turned on his heels and took two steps to the front of the bus, posting himself in the area between the driver and the door and focusing his attention of the back of the bus in from of them in line which is about all that the front view offered.
     The ride to the Westover Air Reserve Base was relatively uneventful.   Since the evacuation crews had been making at least daily trips out from the statewide evacuation center to the base the roads were clear at least the designated route.   The shortest route would have been to take 295 north to 146 north, skirting Woonsocket and through the relatively sparsely populated areas between Woonsocket and Worcester then head west on I-90 / The Mass Pike which is a straight shot to the base.   But Worcester was on fire, burning so brightly that you could see it on the horizon, the flames doing their impartial best to erase the city from the face of the planet.   What wasn’t on fire was equally infernal and rape, murder and cannibalism were the daily routine.   It made the instant death survival trap of Providence seem like a tropical island resort by comparison.   In better times, some might suggest that it was a general improvement and that Worcester had been collapsing in on itself like a dying star for decades but these were definitely not better times.   Those that were able to leave Worcester did while they were able and those that couldn’t or didn’t want to for whatever reason had faces streaked with the soot that was raining down from the sky, cast off from the burning buildings.   Worcester consuming itself in murder and fire made the fastest route an unwise one.   Even if the caravan of buses was essentially an armored column.   The soldiers weren’t the only ones with weapons in the world and disabling any of the vehicles would stop the caravan leaving all of them open to ambush.   Less well prepared survivors heading west on the Mass Pike, fleeing Boston and its outlying areas, hoping to head west towards less populated, less dangerous parts of the country had been pulled in by the deadly gravity of Worcester.   Although the dead swarmed the streets of downtown Boston so thickly that you could walk on their heads and shoulders like human cobblestones, some of those survivors fleeing westward undoubtedly wished that they had taken their chances with the dead in Boston over the predatory living that preyed on any survivors that were unaware enough to come anywhere near Worcester.
     The secondary route secured by the evacuation operation was to head west on 44 into the northeast corner of Connecticut, using secondary roads to head north back into Massachusetts after the intersection at 395 and rejoin I-90 halfway between Worcester and Springfield then head west on I-90 into Chicopee which was just north of Springfield.   Springfield had been abandoned to the dead as most major cities had been.   Any place with any kind of significant population density was about the worst place to find yourself when the excrement hit the air conditioning.   Hartford was just another burning hell-hole whose last living were playing out their lives like a perpetual prison riot.   Smart survivors had headed west when before things went from bad to worse, using 84 and 44 west and then crossing over into the wilds of mid-state New York.   Everyone thinks Manhattan when they think of New York, but north of Poughkeepsie there’s a lot of space and trees and fresh water in the form or lakes and rivers and if you knew how to survive in the great outdoors there were much worse places to find yourself.   Manhattan being one of those worse places, but the less said about Manhattan the better at least for now.
     The ride west on 44 was quick and quiet.   Not having to slow down and stop for stop lights and stop signs helped to expedite the journey and the road had been kept clear by the evacuation operation, the cow-catcher on the lead vehicle pushing any obstructing vehicles off of the road into the breakdown lane or onto the median or into surrounding front yards of fields.   The second leg of the trip went a bit slower, the caravan having to navigate the curves of the secondary roads heading northwards.   But once back onto I-90 the rest of the way west towards Springfield was smooth.
     The caravan passed some straggling survivors heading west on foot along the side of the interstate, weighed down by backpacks or dragging road-worn wheeled luggage behind them or both, but they were few and the caravan drivers ignored their frantic waving.   Their present passengers were their primary concern and once they had delivered their passengers to the base they would stop along the way back to pick up any loose pedestrians along the way as long as they looked relatively harmless and were willing to surrender any weapons they had in exchange for safe passage.
     The caravan slowed down and took the offramp onto Memorial Drive, taking a left and heading north, past the Chicopee Marketplace and taking the first right at the roundabout onto Westover Road.
     As the road approached the base, it was lined with barriers and roadblocks manned by tired-looking soldiers.   The caravan took Patriot Avenue to Eagle Drive taking a right onto Monument Ave North and parking, facing due east in a long row of vehicles, the engines sighing to a stop like tired horses.
     The soldiers of each vehicle exited first and promptly opened the doors to the underbelly storage units to prepare to return the baggage to the passengers as the passengers dismounted.   Ken bundled up Natalie who had been lulled to sleep by the humming motion of the bus and cradled her supported in an arm as he exited the bus.   She was heavy but if nothing else, having a child is good for developing upper body strength as a result of constant lifting and carrying a small human and he figured carrying her would be easier than having to deal with the inevitable fussiness that occurred when she woke from a nap too suddenly.
     Ken was given their bags and he hefted them in his left hand and followed the loose group of arriving passengers as they made their way towards a wide field tent that had been set up to facilitate the processing of incoming survivors who were now more refugees than residents.   Each group was instructed to follow the ranking officer of their vehicle.   The ranking officer turned over the palm pilot to the intake officer who then synched the information with their laptop so they could keep accurate account of the incoming survivors.   After they had been entered into the system they were directed to move in an orderly manner across the field to a fleet of shuttles that would transport them to the quarantine hangar on the airfield where they would spend a few days until it was determined that they would be safe to join the general population of the refugee camp that had taken over the airfield.
     As the new arrivals waited their turn to load onto the smaller shuttle busses, the soldiers from the caravan got back onto the vehicles of the caravan and the vehicles started up and drove off heading back east on the Mass Pike making their way back to the refugee camp in Rhode Island.
     After Ken and Natalie had done their time in the quarantine hangar under constant supervision by armed soldiers, they were reassigned to alternative shelter.
     The base had organized an improvised day-care center for the children that were too young to help with the daily tasks required to maintain and reinforce the base in anticipation of the coming winter.   The general idea was to head westward towards the less densely populated areas of the nation until you couldn’t see the glow of burning cities at night.   But trying to move the survivors from the relative safety of their current location to the next safe haven westward was inadvisable when the weather would be unpredictable at best for the next five or so months.
     Somewhat ironically, there were enough planes on the base to move the entire base westward in two trips including all of the supplies, but due to the present situation when the safety of your destination wasn’t guaranteed it seemed more advisable to wait until the spring thaw and try to make the trip on land in an armored caravan.  It was a much better risk to try the westward sojourn on the ground at fifty miles an hour when you could hit the brakes and stop if you need to, than to find yourself running out of fuel while in a holding pattern over your intended destination as it is in the process of being overrun by the hungry dead.
     Natalie spent the days in day care while Ken fell into the normal routine of the camp.
     Assignments were set for two week periods and after that you could apply to be assigned to another assignment.   Over the winter Ken took his turns at different assignments.   Working kitchen duty opening cases of cans to combine their contents to prepare enough food to make three daily meals to feed the approximately thirty-thousand residents of the refugee camp.
     In the beginning, there were more than thirty-thousand refugees, but over the winter, due to the cold and the stress of living with the lurking dead constantly trying to claw their way through the boundary fence, the immune systems of some of the refugees were weakened and they succumbed to the usual illnesses that the human animal is subject to during the colder months.
     Dealing with the dead and those that had come back from the dead was a daily chore that needed to be done.   During the first month the engineering corps dug a six foot wide, ten foot deep trench around the entire base with the exception of several heavily fortified access routes.   During the first phase of the trench excavation twenty or thirty soldiers accompanied the excavation crews, constantly terminating approaching undead.   The dead were thrown onto the back of two-ton cattle cars with canvas sides to protect the removal crews from the elements.   When the trucks were full, they were driven over to the neighboring Chicopee Country Club where deeper and wider mass grave trench had been excavated for the purpose of disposing the seemingly endless waves of incoming dead.
     The trenches were dug twenty feet away from the perimeter fence.   The excavated earth was used to build a buffer wall of earth between cinder block walls on the inner side of the trenches between the trenches and the perimeter fence, providing an extra layer of protection.   The cinder blocks were scavenged from nearby hardware stores and construction sites.   Once the perimeter wall was built, the dead would topple over into the trench as they made their relatively mindless way towards the sounds of the survivors inside the perimeter walls.   The dead would accumulate in the trenches over the day caroming off each other writhing like a sunken mosh pit.   Flailing futilely at each other with unfocused aggression, unthinkingly angry at finding themselves in such tight quarters with other walking corpses.   Scraping and snapping at each other and tearing the flesh from the weaker amongst the swarming throng in a futile attempt to satisfy the all-consuming hunger that haunted the dead.   Women and children, due to their lesser muscle mass were more often he victims of these spontaneous acts of necrophilic cannibalism and their screams and wails of misery as they were eaten alive but not alive in the way that we used to think of people being alive was still the soundtrack that scored the nightmares of anyone unfortunate enough to hear it.
     Each day a crew would patrol the perimeter spraying down the writhing corpses with jet fuel, tossing in a phosphorous grenade every twenty-five feet to facilitate the ignition of the fuel.   The fuel wouldn’t completely cremate the dead, burning hotly but quickly despite the ready availability of oxygen in the open air.   The fires did a decent job of incapacitating the dead.   Causing damage to the muscles and ligaments required to enable voluntary movement.   The bones and muscle weren’t good fuel, but the fat of the bodies when melted rendered down to grease.   The burning bodies produced a thick, oily black smoke that hung in the air around the camp and the sickly sweet smell of slow-cooked barbecue was a daily reminder that the world was a different place.   It was difficult duty and the turnover was constant.   It takes a special kind of person to be able to pull the pin on a phosphorous grenade and throw it into a writhing mass of what use to be their fellow man.   Usually someone who had lost friends or family or someone that meant something to them during the early days of the end of the world as it once was.   Even then it took a special kind of person to be able to endure the animal wails of the dead as the jet fuel ignited, turning them into screaming scarecrows burning alive or at least as alive as the dead could be considered these days.   Even those few that had the temperament for the task would burn out quickly but it was a thing that had to be done or the trenches would fill to overflowing allowing the dead to pile onto each other until they were able to scale the walls and then there would be a bigger problem than your conscience causing you a bit of occupational insomnia.   If the dead made it over the defensive walls, the perimeter fence wouldn’t hold long and then the base would be overrun and would quickly become another 
     Combat ready military custom Humvees would leave the base each morning accompanied by two ton cattle trucks and sometimes flat bed trailers, travelling to the nearby shopping centers to scavenge for supplies.   The soldiers in the back of the cattle trucks would deploy to terminate enemy hostiles and secure the area with a vehicle mounted .50 cal providing supporting suppressive fire from the back of the Humvee.   Most times the soldiers were able to secure the area and the expeditions were successful.   The soldiers were able to neutralize the threat outside of the stores.   Tactical teams would breach the doors of the stores and neutralize any threats inside, followed shortly after by civilian volunteers that would gather supplies, loading up the trucks under the watchful eye of their military accompaniment.   The sound of these operations would draw the attention of any dead in the surrounding areas that would stagger in the general direction so the soldiers had a constant crop of new arrivals to the scene.   Soldiers were trained to keep their rifles set to single shots, aiming for the head, switching to three shot bursts only when a predetermined perimeter had been compromised, and to full auto only when they were on the verge of being overwhelmed and all seemed lost.
     Sometimes the soldiers were unable to secure the area and had to retreat before the mission was compromised.   Sometimes the expeditions didn’t return as the nearby sources of salvageable supplies were emptied out, forcing the expeditions to travel farther out into enemy territory to find the supplies they needed to support the population of the overburdened air force base.   Thankfully this was infrequent and those that had to make the difficult decisions chalked these accidental incidents up to acceptable losses and went ahead as well as they could.
     The winter was harsh, and the casualties were many but the majority of the camp survived to see the springtime’s gradual descent across the land.
     During the early months when precipitation began to come down as rain more often than snow, preparations were made to move the camp westwards, the ultimate goal being to move to the lesser populated areas and attempt to rebuild a somewhat stable society somewhere where the wails of the hungry dead didn’t drown out the sounds of the night.   A place where crickets could be heard as the sun sets and the sound of rifle fire and burning bodies wasn’t a constant accompaniment to daily life, what was left of it.
     The first leg of the journey westward would be to head northwest towards Albany to stop by the Watervliet Arsenal to stockpile ammunition and then a short hop north to provide reinforcement at the Saratoga Springs Naval Support Unit.
     A functional contingent would be left behind to keep Westover open to provide shelter to any remaining survivors although after the winter the expectation that there would be future waves of survivors had dwindled.   What few survivors that wandered in had bunkered in at their homes and fortified as best they could, waiting out the winter until travel by foot was possible without the added danger of the cold forcing you to find shelter or freeze to death each night.
     The journey west was a difficult one.   During each move and at each waypoint there were losses and new survivors were added to the tide of survivors making their was westward.   The bases were all fortified and became the modern equivalent of the walled cities of mankind’s early history.   One was always free to take one’s chances with the world outside if you weren’t the kind of person that got along well with others, but as the years passed the world outside of the walled settlements continued to devolve into deeper, darker, more previously unimaginable levels of murder, cannibalism, and inhumane depravity.   Personal survival was the first and only rule.   On top of man’s unkindness to their fellow man there were also the dead to contend with.   The cold slowed them down but they didn’t have to be fast to be fatal.   Their persistence was more than enough to make them a match for any mortal man.   Without the need for sleep or the necessity of having to seek shelter their slow pursuit was perpetual and their hunger unquenchable.   Despite your best efforts you would always be outnumbered and wherever there had been a considerable population of people there were now legions of the dead.
     As the years passed Natalie grew and Ken grew older.   After the loss of his wife and her mother his greatest regret is that his daughter would never be able to live in what he used to know as a normal world.   She wouldn’t have the chance to daydream about being a fairy princess or asking for a pony for her birthday.   She wouldn’t go to public school and be able to develop her interests until she decided what she wanted to be when she grew up.   She wouldn’t be shopping for a pretty dress and getting her hair and make-up done so some young man that couldn’t possibly be good enough for his daughter would pick her up and take her to prom.   She’d never go away to college and the chances that she’d start a family of her own was unlikely.   The only thing that most young people wanted to be when they grew up was alive and everything was secondary to that.   Thankfully Natalie was too young to remember much about what the world was like before the kingdom of man consumed itself with fire and death.   She wouldn’t know the things she missed and every day was a gift.   But Ken remembered the world that was and that memory and the memory of everything that she could never have was a constant weight that he grew familiar with carrying in addition to everything else.
    When the westward caravan reached Scott Air Force Base outside of St. Louis, Missouri, Ken decided that he and Natalie would stay behind for a season and help to support the ongoing operation of the base as the caravans continued west.   Natalie was ten years old and Ken decided that the constant push westward wasn’t the most healthy ting for her.   She was thin to the point of gauntness and there were darkened hollows under her eyes that he was worried would be there for the rest of her life if they didn’t stop and rest and live a somewhat stable life for a while.   The kind of life where you knew where you were sleeping each night and had a bed to call your own and you knew where your next meal was coming from.
     Ken stood leaning on the back railing of a watch tower with a samurai sword he picked up along the way, slung across his back with a piece of paracord as a sling, and his M-16 A2 slung across his chest in the other direction. Natalie sat on the steel grid floor of the watchtower beside him eating cold spaghetti and meatballs out of a black plastic MRE bag.
     “How can you eat that stuff all the time? You know that there is fresh food available if you want it.”
     Ken was finishing off an apple, eating everything but the stem, spitting the little black seeds out from between his teeth into a small metal mint tin he took out of his pocket.
     “I like the taste of it.   Fresh stuff doesn’t taste the same.”
     Ken shook his head.   MREs were the modern equivalent of fast food.   Salty and flavorful and full of fat and calories.   Heart food for soldiers on the front lines.   He didn’t mind that much.   At least she was eating and this was better than nothing.
     Natalie looked up at Ken, who was putting the tin which rattled with apple seeds back into his shirt pocket, and pulled a pack of Marlboros out of his other shirt pocket.
     “Why do you keep the seeds, daddy?”
     Ken flicked the bottom of the pack, shooting a cigarette up which he plucked out with his lips, keeping his eye fixed out past the trenches looking for approaching dead.
     “You can use the seeds to make more trees.   The trees make more apples and then everyone has more apples.”
     “How long does that take?”
     “A few years.   But it’s not like we’re in any kind of rush.   You can’t force nature.   That’s how we all got here in the first place.”
     “How did we get here?”
     Ken sighed good-naturedly.   She was a curious kid and he had answered this question before but he knew that this was part of raising a child.   As an adult, he was supposed to have the answers to all of the world’s questions and he did the best he could to humor her when he could.
     “No one really knows.   Back when you were little, there were more people than there was food and people started to get sick and die and then they would come back and try to eat other people.”
     He knew it wasn’t the kind of conversation he should be having with a child, but the times were such that there wasn’t a lot of room for polite avoidance of sensitive topics.   Parents that didn’t tell their children what the world was like directly and often were doing their children a disservice.   If you didn’t know how to handle a knife and fire a firearm as soon as you were able to handle the kickback of a weapon you wouldn’t be prepared for when the inevitable happens.   If you found yourself separated from your group and didn’t know how to defend yourself against one or two walkers you’d probably never be seen again unless it was in the crosshairs of someone on guard duty in the watchtowers strategically placed overlooking the walls and trenches surrounding the perimeter of the base.
     “Why do people come back?   Why don’t they just die when they die?”
     “The doctors say that the brain dies, but then it starts up again, and when it starts up again people forget about who they used to be.”
     “Is that going to happen to you someday?”
     “Hopefully not for a long time sweetheart.”
     “Is it going to happen to me someday?”
     “Hopefully not for a long time sweetheart.”
     Ken, peering out into the middle distance of the horizon, saw a form slowly, staggering approaching the perimeter of the base.   He unshouldered his rifle and checked to make sure there was a round in the chamber.   He lit his cigarette with a zippo he pulled out of the pocket of his pants.   He took a deep drag and snapped the lid closed, sliding it back into his pocket and leaned against the front rail of the watchtower, waiting for his target to stagger into range.
     “Can I smoke too?”
     “Why not?”
     “Because it’s bad for you.”
     “Well if you can smoke then why can’t I smoke?”
     “Because it’s bad for you.”
     “If it’s bad for me, then why isn’t it bad for you?”
     “It is bad for me honey, but sometimes dads do stupid things.”
     “Can I smoke when I’m older?”
     “Yes. When you’re my age.”
     “How long till then?”
     “A long time sweetheart.   I’ll let you know when.”
     Ken leaned against the front rail of the watchtower and put his cheek against the stock of the rifle, peering through the telescopic sight.   He could see the shambling form, and observed that it was a black man in a grime-soaked matching track suit that used to be grey but was now streaked with rivulets of filth that had soaked through.   He imagined what the man must smell like, and even from that distance his memory provided him with the sense memory and his mouth watered up and he swallowed hard.   He decided to wait until the man wandered closer so he could take a clean and certain head shot.   He took his cheek off of the stock and slung the rifle over his shoulder.   He took a drag of the cigarette and exhaled it through his nose, ashing the cigarette and watching the ashes sift through the slits in the metal grate that the floor of the watchtower.
     “Tell me about mommy.”
     “What do you want to know?”
     “What was she like?”    
     “She was kind.  Everyone who met her new that she was a good person. Never said anything bad about anyone.  Always there to help.  She liked to make crafts.  She loved you more than you’ll ever know.” 
     “What was her favorite color?”
     “Blue…I think.  The truth was he couldn’t remember.  Blue sounded just as good as anything else.”
     “Was she like me when she was a little girl?
     “I didn’t know her when she was a little girl.   We met when we were in high school.”
     “How old were you when you were in high school?”
     “Seventeen… one minute sweetheart.”
     Ken leaned against the front rail of the watchtower and placed his cheek against the stock again, peering through the scope.   The dead man had staggered forward around an extra ten meters and Ken could clearly see the man’s dirt-streaked face and empty eyes.   Blood and gore crusted around his mouth from whatever the last thing he ate.   It didn’t look fresh and Ken felt a little relief at that.   It’s always a bad day when you lose a member from the camp.
     Ken inhaled and held the breath, the way that the soldiers taught him to when he was learning how to use the weapon.   He squeezed the trigger, and the firing pin hit the primer, almost simultaneously a red dot appeared in the center of the forehead of the shambling man, his head jerking back and the insides spraying backwards out of the exit wound.   The lights went out of the man’s eyes and the dead man, a little deader than a moment before, fell to his knees, then buckled over onto his face.
     Ken took a walkie talkie out of the holster clipped to his belt and keyed the talk button, saying, “Watchtower three.   One shot, one kill.   Two hundred yards out.”
     A second later the radio squawked, “Good work, tower three.   Stay frosty up there.”
     Ken put the radio back in its holster and slung the rifle over his shoulder.   He inhaled the last drag of his cigarette, the ember meeting the filter and he flicked it out over the perimeter fence into the no man’s land between the perimeter fence and the barrier wall.
     Natalie sporked out the last bite of her black bag of spaghetti and meatballs tucking it into her mouth and chewing it a couple times before swallowing it down and folding the black plastic bag in half and tucking it back into the olive drab pouch of the MRE.   She asked Ken, “Did you get it dad?”
     He fished out a tin of breath mints from his pocket and popped the lid, using his fingertips to pick a pink cinnamon mint out of the box, tossing it into his mouth, closing the lid and returning the tin to his pocket.
     “Can I see?”
     “No, honey.   You don’t want to see it.   Nothing much to see anyhow.”
     Ken unscrewed the inner lid of a thermos sitting on a flat square shelf jutting out of one of the supporting posts of the watchtower.   He poured hot black coffee over the last sip of cold coffee in the lid of the thermos which was also mostly used as a cup.   He wrapped his hand around the warm plastic and took a sip, giving it a quick swish to mix the hot black coffee with the cinnamon impregnated saliva in his mouth.
     Natalie reached into the MRE and fished out a roll of Life-Savers.   The old school rainbow colored variety.   She used her nail to scratch open the tin foil and wax paper from one end and tore the layers of paper back, exposing the top ring of candy, which was a red one.   Her favorite.   She pried it from the next one, a yellow one and popped it into her mouth.   “Will people ever stop coming back?”
     Ken took another sip of his coffee and put the cup down, taking his pack of cigarettes out and flicking the bottom of the pack, popping up a cigarette which he plucked out with his lips and lit with his zippo.   He took the first drag, exhaling it out his nose.
     “I don’t know, sweetheart, I don’t know.   Maybe someday.   Time will tell.”
     “When will I be able to shoot zombies?”
     Ken chuckled.   “Don’t call them that, sweetheart.   They’re people just like you and me, just a bit more dead and dangerous.”
     “Fine.   When will I be able to shoot people?”
     Ken furrowed his brow and took another drag of his cigarette, chasing it with a shot of coffee.
     “Do you really want to shoot people?”
     “If they’re zombies I do.”
     Ken let it slide the second time.   She wasn’t so far from the truth.   He just didn’t want her to get into the habit of using a nickname to refer to the dead like that.   There’s a power in names and what you call something.   He wanted her to remember that whatever the dead people were after they died and came back they were still once human, and he didn’t want her to lose any more of her humanity than she already had growing up in the world as it was now.   They’d never had the chance to go to Disneyland.
Although from what few reports they’d managed to receive, Disneyland was no longer the happiest place on earth.
     “When you’re older.”
     “How much older?”
     “We’ll see.   For now focus on your schoolwork.”
     “I’m doing good at weapons training.”
     “Well.   You’re doing ‘well’.   And that’s good, but focus on your schoolwork.”
     “I’m able to hit center mass with my sidearm nine out of ten times and I’m even better with my rifle.”
     “Well good.   Keep practicing.   But it’s not up for discussion.   I’ll let you know when you’re ready.   In the meantime, focus on your school work.”
     “I don’t see the point.   Why should I have to learn math and history?”
     “I know.   But imagine if you find yourself surrounded by dead people.   You need to be able to figure out how many bullets you have and how many bullets you’ll need and how many bullets you have left afterwards so math is important.   And history is important because if you don’t know anything about your past, you won’t be able to figure out how not to do the same thing in the future.”
     Natalie thought about that, picking the yellow life-saver off the top of the roll and popping it into her mouth.
     “I know, sweetheart.   But you’re just going to have to trust me for now.   You’ll see someday.”
     “Okay dad.”
     Ken took another drag and took a set of binoculars off of a hook that had been set up to hang binoculars from.   He used the binoculars to scan the horizon.   All clear for now.   Thankfully.
     “I don’t really remember mommy.”
     “I know sweetheart.”
     “Did you ever think of getting me another mommy?”
     Ken chuckled to himself.   “It’s not that easy.   I can’t exactly go down to the mommy store and pick one up.”
     “Yeah, but Miss Hannaway is single.”
     Miss Hannaway was the teacher for Natalie’s school or what passed for a school on the base where the younger children would go to learn reading, writing, arithmetic, self-defense, and proper weapons handling and maintenance.   She was pretty and in decent shape.   Around Ken’s age.   She used to be married but what happened, happened, and now she was widowed.   She used to be a librarian which made her knowledgeable enough to be a teacher and she was good with the kids.   Ken thought about it for a second.
     “I’ll think about it, but I don’t know if that would be a good idea.”
     “Why not?”
     “It’s complicated.”
     Ken sighed and finished his cigarette, flicking it out over the perimeter fence into the no man’s land between the perimeter fence and the barrier wall.   One of the patrol dogs that lived in the run between the wall and the fence trotted over and sniffed at the butt, hoping it was a bit of food.   Realizing that it wasn’t edible the dog huffed and looked up at Ken with what he’d swear was a disappointed look.
     “Sorry doggie.   Maybe next time.”
     “Nothing honey.”   He knocked back the last of the coffee in his plastic thermos lid cup and unscrewed the inner lid to pour another cup, the steam tendriling out from the inside as he poured.
     “Why not?”
     “Why not what?”
     “Why not ask Miss Hannaway out?”
     Ken smirked, secretly admiring his daughter’s tenacity.   She could be stubborn when she wanted to.   She’d sink her teeth into something and shake it till the stuffing fell out.
     “Just because.”   He took a sip of his coffee.   “How do you know Miss Hannaway wants to be your new mommy anyhow?   Did you ask her?”
     “She always says that if she could she’d adopt all of us.”
     “Sweetheart, that’s just the kind of thing that people say.”
     “So she doesn’t really want to adopt us all?”
     “Well… maybe she does.   I mean, she means what she says, but she means it in an abstract sort of way.”
     “What does abstract mean?”
     Ken laughed.   “Ask Miss Hannaway.”
     “What if she doesn’t know?”
     “I think she does.   While you’re at it, ask her to explain irony and sarcasm.   I figure you should learn that stuff before you’re a teenager because it will come in handy.”
     “Why will it come in handy?”
     “Trust me.   It will.”
     Natalie looked puzzled and just shrugged it away, deciding that that line of questioning wasn’t worth pursuing anymore.   She tore the wrapper of the life savers down enough to expose the next candy in the roll.   A green one.   She shrugged at that too.   Green candy was better than no candy at all.
     “I think I’m going to try to find Sarah.”
     “Alright.   Just be careful.   Stay away from the fences and don’t feed the dogs.”
     Ken knew that Natalie liked to sneak snacks to the dogs living in the run between the perimeter fence and the barrier wall but he also knew that that’s not what the dogs were for.   They were there for protection and not for pets and distracting them with snacks wasn’t how she should be spending her spare time.   Mostly he just wanted her to know that he knew what she was up to when he was on duty and couldn’t keep an eye on her.
     Natalie smiled a mischievous smile and tossed the tail end of her life savers roll into the canvas pouch she carried as a purse.
     “Alright daddy, I will.”
     Ken leaned over and craned his head over to her and she gave him a quick peck on the cheek, rubbing her mouth after because his beard stubble tickled.
     She climbed down the metal ladder to the watchtower calling up “Love you daddy!”
     “Love you too jelly bean!” Ken said and reached for the binoculars again.
     He scanned the horizon again.   Nothing.   Slow day.   Thankfully.   Certainly beats the alternative.   Less walkers meant less spent and less work for the clean-up crew tomorrow morning.
     The camp would be moving west again soon.
     Ken figured that head sign Natalie and himself up for the next convoy heading west.   Maybe check to see if Sarah’s family was heading west too.   There weren’t a lot of children left that were Natalie’s age and the fact that she had managed to make a friend was a nice thing in an awful world and he didn’t want to take that away from her if he could help it.
      Sure she’d miss her teacher and maybe she’d work herself up into a short squall of tears over the matter, but it would pass like the weather.
      In his own way he’d miss Miss Hannaway too.   She was nice and pretty and good with the kids and good with Natalie and she seemed to genuinely like his daughter and maybe in her own way she liked him too.   But Ken wasn’t ready to explore the possibility of getting involved with a woman other than Rosa.   He knew it had been years since he had touched a woman outside of a hug or a handshake but the world was a different place these days.   Most good things didn’t last and more often than not they ended unexpectedly and in the worst possible way.
     Ken wasn’t ready to try developing an interest in another woman only to have her die one day and to have to keep one imagining what her last moments were like as she was eaten alive.
     He had enough ghosts haunting him.
     Almost everyone he used to know was dead or at least he could assume they were.
     His parents.   His sister.  His nephews.   His wife.
     Ken sighed and took a sip of his coffee.
     He had Natalie and that was enough for him in this world.
     Sure he slept alone at night but at least that meant that there was that much less that the world could take away from him.
     They’d be moving west again the next time a convoy headed west.
     It was relatively safe here but the plaza under the Gateway Arch was littered with the dead and the undead.   It was unlikely that anyone living would be looking out the windows of the arch in Ken’s lifetime.   Maybe at some unknowable point in time in the distant future, but there was a lot of work to be done before the few survivors would be contemplating vacation destinations.
     From St. Louis the next stop westward was Fort Leavenworth, northwest of the ruins of Kansas City.
     Then it was pretty much a straight shot across Kansas to Colorado Springs, Colorado where the largest settlement of survivors had begun the process of trying to rebuild some semblance of society.
     It was safe, and although food wasn’t plentiful yet there was enough to go around.
     Word was that there was a decent library and that you only had to work five eight hour duty shifts a week and the rest of your time was your own to do with as you pleased.
     All of that was nice to think about, but mostly Ken just wanted Natalie to have someplace safe to grow up.   Ken thought that everyone that had been living in the world before had taken everything for granted.   You could get into your car at two in the morning and someone wasting their life working for minimum wage would sell you a hot fudge sundae.   Sure it was nice, but there was so much wasted potential.   The person working the drive through window should have been free to do something better with their life.   Read a book.   Write a book.   Fuck it.   Jerk off and play video games if that’s what they wanted to do with their life.   So much wasted potential.
     These days you could have as much freedom as you wanted, but it was expensive.
     It required constant vigilance and the willingness to compromise and to lower your expectations drastically from what they used to be before the world changed.   You got used to disappointment and maybe having to miss a meal or having to go to bed having had less to eat than you would have liked to have had to eat but that was the way the world worked these days.   You either dealt with it or you didn’t.   There was always the alternative.
     Ken took another swig from his coffee.   He took out his cigarettes and flicked one out, picking it out with his lips, extricating his zippo from his pocket, snapping it open and lighting the end of it, taking that first deep drag he’d done thousands of times before.
     Ken thought about Colorado.
     Maybe there’d be a baseball team out there.   Certainly someone had a bat and a ball and had thrown together a pick-up league.   Sure there probably wasn’t the same pool of talent that there used to be in the major leagues but the world was a different place and beggars can’t be choosers.   Ken wasn’t ever really good at baseball but he liked watching a decent game more than he liked playing the game.   He thought back to sitting on the couch of what used to be his home watching the Red Sox in the World Series.   A cold beer in his hand.   He chuckled remembering at time when millionaires playing a child’s game seemed important.  On one hand it seemed pretty fucking stupid, on the other hand he would have given anything to have such simpler times back.   He let himself enjoy the memory for a few seconds, then he reached for the binoculars to scan the horizon again, softly humming Sweet Caroline.