night after the searchers failed to return from Salado, Krista
awoke before dawn to listen for any sounds of wagon wheels or
the rustle of brambles. But there was nothing. Salado was seventeen
miles away. It was possible they were delayed by having to lie
low while a marauding troop passed by. Maybe they had located
some gasoline to siphon and that had taken extra time.
group had been gone three full days. Tomorrow, would make four.
Perhaps they had found so much bounty that it took longer than
normal to transport. The wagon was old and pulling it on foot
took a great deal of effort, particularly if it was overloaded.
They were running low on everything, so Krista hoped desperately
that was the case. Yet, she feared something else had happened.
Had she somehow sensed or dreamed the capture of their scouting
party? Had Dan sent her some desperate mind-missive? A farewell?
A plea to watch after his children? Krista tried to shake those
thoughts, but she couldnt free herself from the nagging
feeling that they had been gone too long.
from Dan, who was Kristas main concern, Pete, Michelle,
Farris, Albert, William and the three obnoxious adolescents that
Dan referred to as Williams shadows were also
do I always have to stay behind? Krista had asked Dan, knowing
the answer but resenting the situation enough to push the issue.
Youve said yourself that Williams shadows irritate
the hell out of you. Why take them along?
wouldnt want to leave them in charge of my kids, for one
thing. Besides, they have proven themselves valuable when pilfering,
Dan reminded her.
of practice, I imagine, Krista said, annoyed to be left
again with the recently acquired elderly couple and Dans
two small children. She hated the waiting. But for Dan, she would
agree to almost anything.
question of what would happen to them was being replaced by when
it would happen
today, tomorrow, next week? Without armed
foragers, the inevitable moved up a notch. During the day, the
cities could be seen smoldering in the distance. The foreign fighters
were more efficient in their destruction, killing in mass, but
the homeless, hungry, and deranged wandering the streets presented
their own form of terror. Krista did not like to think what she
and Dan had done to escape the throngs of people the day they
fled the city. It was not malicious; she consoled herself with
that assurance. But it was not kind, either, as they drove right
past those pleading, frightened faces pressed up against the car
had met up with Farris and Albert shortly after their car ran
out of gas, not far from their destination. Farris, a tall silvered-hair
man with skin that resembled cracked leather and eyes that missed
nothing, approached their car from seemingly nowhere. He surveyed
its contents and the children before motioning toward a thicket
of shrubs from where Albert suddenly appeared pulling a wagon
half-filled with supplies and draped with blankets. A short, wiry
type, in his early forties, Albert claimed to be a preacher. His
smile and repeated phrases of Praise the Lord and
Amen, Brother seemed genuine, but he made Krista uncomfortable,
was Albert who offered the children a ride on the wagon. Krista
had been hesitant, but Dan noted the rifles and the Bibles visibly
poking out from the edge of a blanket. Theres safety
in numbers, Krista, and we have no weapons, other than the kitchen
knives we brought from home. If they want to join us at your grandparents
place, it might be the best thing. Reluctantly, she had
agreed. They were very close to her grandparents property,
and they could have walked on without Albert and Farriss
help. But the rifles, Dan whispered in her ear, could
save our lives. In a few short weeks, Dans words proved
idea of killing another human would have been unthinkable a year
ago. Abhorrent. But what a difference a year made. Krista had
come to understand that the deranged and aggressive could not
be tolerated. Survival of the group sometimes depended on the
death of outsiders. It was unavoidable, Farris explained
after shooting a wild-eyed man that lunged at him with a knife
in an alley where they had stopped to sift through a dumpster.
Amen, Brother, Albert had added, and that seemed to
absolve all guilt about the matter.
not all strangers were deemed enemies. Albert took a liking to
Pete and Michelle and brought them back from a raid. William and
his urchin band had somehow wormed their way into Farriss
goodwill, which was not an easy thing to do. They were resourceful
and daring, and Farris might have been more calculating than kind
in allowing them to join the group. Krista couldnt stand
the sight of them. But the country cottage was no longer solely
her property, and she had little say over what happened there.
It belonged to the group.
it would all be over if no one with a rifle or ammo escaped from
Salado. Krista did not register fear or despair. She might
when the time came and she was staring into the eyes of some soulless
raider that was as much an enemy to her as any foreign enemy was.
But tonight, she felt very little as she pondered, almost mechanically,
how long the canned milk supply would last. The pond had yielded
no fish in the past week. She listened vaguely to the sounds drifting
through the screen of the opened window, none of them human noises.
small, scavenging creature, a squirrel or a rat, scurried along
the ledge of the stone wall that wrapped around the courtyard
of the small cottage that had once been her grandparents
cherished retreat. They had called it the Haverman Hacienda, placing
two large Hs on the gate that opened to a gravel road leading
to the cottage. The gate had long since been concealed behind
junipers and brush cedars. The gravel driveway had disappeared
beneath the bluestem grass and cacti, camouflaging it from the
and her brothers had spent many holidays here. Back then, it bore
little resemblance to the overgrown sanctuary it had become for
this tawdry little army. Only Krista could conjure up an image
of the place that was anything other than a collapsing hovel.
Its present state of disrepair sometimes grieved her, but Farris
and Albert, the de facto leaders, considered the cottages
deteriorated condition an asset. It appeared abandoned, and that
was beneficial should some unfriendly wanderers stumble upon it.
flapping of heavy wings could be heard in the dark and, though
Krista couldnt see it, she knew an owl had swooped down
from some cloistered perch and captured the rodent. The four others
sleeping in the room beside her heard nothing. The open window
let in the slightest stir of air. Maybe the brief breeze was from
the owls wings. Krista thought about that. A bird of prey
stirring the hot air like a ceiling fan. Oh, to have a fan! Electricity.
Ice! Frozen pizzas stacked high in a freezer! She stopped herself.
This was an old game, and it offered only a few seconds of distraction.
turned toward the sleeping forms stretched out on the Saltillo
tile floor. Andy and Tiffany, the children of Dan Wexler, might
be orphaned, and Krista would be left to decide what would become
of them. It was so unfair. Maybe Dan survived. Maybe he was making
his way back now.
the world turned upside down, Dan had been Kristas neighbor.
Dan was a single parent with two children, friendly, attractive,
and someone Krista had hoped she might get to know better. After
the first six airliners went down over the Atlantic and bombs
were determined to be the cause, Krista had spent evenings at
Dans place watching the newscasts with him, trying to understand
the why behind these latest acts of terror.
simultaneous assassinations of fourteen governors shocked the
nation, but it was followed quickly by a series of bombs set off
in Washington D.C., decimating the federal government, destroying
much of the Capitol Building and most of the members of Congress
with it. London had suffered similar devastation. Attacks were
launched in Amsterdam and Brussels, while riots broke out in Rome
filled with anxiety and horror, those days were actually hopeful,
in comparison. Back then, Krista and Dan and others had believed
the government would recover and organize counterattacks against
those who orchestrated the violence. But that didnt happen.
Major cities around the country were hit by both organized attacks
and panicked citizens turning into looters and, in some cases,
murderers. The National Guard was sent into the worst areas only
to be ambushed repeatedly. Terrorist cells erupted around the
country. Neither the president nor the vice-president appeared
on any broadcast. Dan suspected they were both dead or injured.
The secretary of defense spoke for the nation, vowing swift retaliation.
Then, the networks went down. News was scarce and often hard to
distinguish from rumors. The trucking industry was halted by roadside
bombs and fuel shortages. Store shelves emptied quickly. Hunger
became another enemy, more frightening in its consequences than
a bomb on a subway.
Dan said they had to leave the city, Krista felt grateful that
he included her in his evacuation plan. My grandparents
had a place, Krista volunteered. I havent been
there in years, but my brothers hunt there occasionally. Or they
did. She paused at the thought of her brothers from whom
she had heard nothing in weeks. I dont know if we
can make it all the way on the gasoline we have.
have no other choice. Dan came back, packing each childs
backpack with fruit bars and juice boxes, some clothing, filling
them up, but keeping them light enough for the kids to carry if
walking was determined to be necessary.
things are different in the country, Krista suggested. There
were always roadside vegetables stands and dewberries and blackberries
Dans tone told Krista to stop. She had thought offering
some hopeful ideas would be appreciated, but she saw that Dan
wasnt concerned with what grew in the wild; he was focused
on escaping what was churning in the city. The noises at night
were terrifying. Horns honking, glass shattering, and gunshots
interrupted their sleep. It was only a matter of time before they,
too, became victims.
the sounds of the night were terrifying in a totally different
way. The owl was silent; only the sound of insects broke the silence.
Krista longed for Dans safe return. She didnt feel
capable of caring for herself, much less two children. Inez and
Carlos were sleeping on the other side of the children. For a
moment, Krista thought she could leave the children with them.
and Carlos Compuzano were the elderly couple that Farris and Albert
had rescued from near starvation over a month ago as the group
was returning from a successful raid. The group had found a hoard
of canned goods and peanuts and crackers in a boarded up gas station
and upon making their way back to the hacienda, they had stumbled
upon the Compuzanos, dehydrated, abandoned, and hopeless.
determined to bring them along. He was a religious man; he quoted
the Bible a lot, and he held sway over Farris and the others.
Let not the beggar put up his petition to you in vain,
he quoted as they loaded the ailing couple onto their wagon.
told Krista privately that he was not in favor of taking on any
more dependents, but what could he say against Albert and Farris?
Pete and Michelle practically worship Albert, and William
and his followers all line up behind Farris. So, Dan whispered,
what could I do? I heaved the old man in the back of the
wagon and hoped we didnt see any other pitiful souls before
we returned. Im not trying to fill an ark. Im just
trying to raise my kids until the government takes control again.
hoped Dans vision of the future was accurate. The government.
Control again. When? These questions formed in her mind, but she
didnt dare speak them. She nodded as Dan confided his thoughts
to her because, like Pete and Michelle with Albert, and William
and his group with Farris, she had her own allegiance, and it
was to Dan.
what if the searchers were captured? Or killed? What if some made
it through, but Dan didnt? What if none of them made it
through? What if, Krista shuddered at the idea in her head, what
if she were the most capable member of the remaining group? Carlos
hardly spoke a word of English, and he walked slowly with a cane.
Inez, bent and feeble, spent most of her energy caring for her
husband. Although she was kind and grateful and had shared her
knowledge of edible plants that grew around the area, pointing
out the prickly pear cactus pads, the wild garlic and burdicki,
she was too old to do much other than stir the simmering, shredded,
black mustard leaves or gather dandelions for the morning tea.
Krista glanced over once again to the sleeping forms on the floor
and thought: This is not the life I was born to live.
when morning came, someone would return
someone more capable
than she to manage the situation. The situation. What did that
mean? Oh, god, she thought, holding back a whimper. Alberts
where was He? If Albert made it back, maybe he could
be in charge
but then what? Krista found Albert annoying
and, at times, revolting. But she had kept quiet because he had
the ability to calm the others with his platitudes, and that helped
them focus on the two most important priorities: finding food
and avoiding detection.
without Dan, Krista wasnt sure she wanted to go on. Why
submit herself to enduring Alberts religion or Farriss
orders or Williams gang and their surly looks and barely
contained aggression? Pete and Michelle were okay, but they had
each other and without Dan, Krista had no one.
first light of dawn caught her eye. This would be beautiful, she
thought, if the world was still the old world, and I could grind
some coffee beans and turn on the television and watch CNN before
going to work. Work! A librarian in a post apocalyptic world
how useless she felt. But perhaps libraries were intact somewhere.
Despite the burning of nearly every local or state building in
her city, it was possible that books and buildings survived elsewhere,
and someday she would find them. And if the shelves were turned
over and biographies mixed with mysteries, or reference materials
were being used as doorstops, Krista could fix all that. She had
a degree in library science, and given enough time, she could
restore any library to a proper home for books. Given enough time
stopped her fantasy. The future, if there was one, would offer
what it offered, and dreaming of a library was silly, similar
to dreaming about frozen pizzas in the non-existent freezer. Or
recalling her small house with its azaleas blooming and Dan next
door, washing his car in the driveway, his children playing with
the hose, the mail truck slowly making its way to her house while
she sipped a cup of freshly brewed, hot coffee.
had a knife if she needed it. Defense or offense? Well, she would
think about that later. For now, she would wait. She would wait
for the sound of someone returning. She would believe in Dans
survival until proven wrong. She would watch the sun cut its way
through the darkness. And then, before the heat became too intense,
she would gather black mustard leaves, and she would pump water
from the cistern her grandfather had installed so many years ago.
It had been more a relic from his own childhood than a practical
device. Her grandmother had smiled and shaken her head. Well
water tastes like iron. Im not going to drink it and neither
are the children. Not when they can have Kool-Aid or Dr. Pepper,
she had said with the refrigerator stocked full of sodas and bottled
water. Her grandmother could never have envisioned the future
miracle the ridiculed water pump would provide.
time Krista pressed down the arm of the cistern, she was gripped
by an attitude of gratitude. Thank you, Grandpa, for this marvelous
device, which we laughed about at the time, but has been more
valuable than any inherited fortune! Krista considered her gratitude
a form of prayer. It was as close to thanking Alberts God
as she could come.
the morning, she would prepare some dandelion tea. She would proceed
through the day as though nothing had changed. And she would continue
to behave just that way until she was certain she was the one
in charge. If she was correct, and there was no one returning,
if her night terror proved real, Krista paused. She stared out
at the brilliant sunbursts seraphically spreading across the sky,
vanquishing the owl and the darkness. If no one returned, she
would ask Inez to keep foraging for the limited edible plants
that grew near the hacienda, she would ask the children to help
her gather pecans that collected around the trees near the creek,
and she would plant the half-crippled Carlos near the waters
edge where the crawfish burrowed into the mud and hope the old
man could dig some of them out with his cane.