He shifted his weight from left to right in an attempt to warm his feet. It was only late September, but the morning was chilly enough to sink into him after an hour or two standing motionless on line. His face felt puffy and stiff. He had forgotten his jacket.
The line to the grocery store’s front door stretched around his block, past his front door, and down Sheridan like the procession of faithful to Golgotha or ants toward a distant, discarded cupcake. A shifty-looking man in a yellow shirt with a bowl haircut attempted to jump ahead in the line by talking to someone he knew.
“GET THE FUCK BACK!” someone yelled. It was louder than anything Seth had heard in days, and certainly louder than any sound he could make. He felt like his lungs wouldn’t expand far enough anymore to scream.
The man in the yellow shirt glared back at the line, searching halfheartedly for the person farther back who had chastised him. His face showed the sort of concern that suggested he was more worried about gauging his probability of success in a confrontation than genuinely caring what anyone had to say about his breach of line etiquette.
To Yellow Shirt’s lasting regret, the Good Citizen’s voice was echoed by the cold stares of hundreds of other hollow-eyed, starving Chicagoans. A hand took his shoulder and he brushed it off, whirling to face the offender. It was a small woman with wispy, unnaturally yellow hair. She hissed at him and pointed a finger in the direction away from the line.
“Move it,” she growled.
He grunted and looked away.
This time it was four sets of hands that clawed out at Yellow Shirt, and not as gently as before. He pulled backward and the collar of his shirt split and tore open. His chest was sunken inward above a distended belly. He thrust his arms in front of him and pushed off, but one of the people that had a hold on him rushed forward and bulled him over. He went down hard and the line thickened at that point, swallowing him in a dimpled swarm of fists and boots kicking. The gunmen at the door leaned over to see what was happening, and at a whistle from one of them, the security bars rolled down from the ceiling across the main door.
Some people at the front of the line tried to hustle forward anyway. One man attempted to roll under the grate as it fell and was pushed back with long broom-handles from the shopkeepers inside. The shotguns came up, and their butts shattered the cheekbones of those not fast enough to retreat. The crowd around Yellow Shirt stopped and looked forward. The cry went up.
Shouts of anger on both sides ensued. A man wearing a gray scarf around his neck and sunglasses taunted the guards and brazenly walked into their path, daring them to shoot him.
“Fuck you, you whores. What the fuck you gonna do?”
“Back off,” one guard said lowly, though still clearly enough to be heard by Seth halfway down the line. Gray Scarf didn’t back off. Instead he walked deliberately straight into the barrel of the shotgun, unflinching.
“What the fuck you gonna do?”
“Back away, now.”
“It’s a free country, bitch!”
Seth looked past him to the others closest. Their own boldness was growing and they advanced as well with something between hunger and murder in their eyes. A heartbeat passed, the wooden gun butt socked tightly to the guard’s shoulder. Seth didn’t see Gray Scarf fall; he saw instead the guard’s eyes squint an instant before the sound of a balloon popping. The line of customers drew in a breath in the cordite after-pause of the shotgun blast.
A surge of humanity ground forward toward the door in a rage. Seth knew what would come next and attempted to turn around. A man the size of a bear pushed him forward, twisting his right lower leg under him painfully. He ducked and for a moment was pulled off of his feet by the crowd. By some fortune he was dumped to the side and scrambled away toward the opposite curb. He limped along the sidewalk on his torn ankle till he reached his front door. He had enough time to pull out his key and unlock the lobby door before the line became a swirling mob. He closed the door to banging fists and shouts. Someone had pulled out a kitchen knife and was waving it in the air. More hollow-metallic shotgun blasts could be heard over the roar of the crowd, and shouts turned to screams. Four or five more shots went off, and then nothing remained but the outraged howl of hungry teeth and empty bellies.
He clawed his way up to the top of the landing and into their apartment. None of the other doors were open, and Seth could hear nothing from the stairwell. His neighbors had been in the crowd on the street along with him. Jolene took his arm and as soon as she saw him her eyes went wide. She went to scoop up Charlie and hide in the bathtub as they had planned. For a wonder, nothing came through their walls or windows but the smell of gunfire and the sound of inarticulate madness.
When Seth heard the shuddering clatter of chains pulling loose the frame of the grocery door and the security gate falling to the pavement, he closed his blinds and put furniture in front of his windows. They sat huddled in darkness in the mid-morning and waited for the end.
“Much appreciated, friend,” Amos Kinzer said. He was a tall man with a beard the color of crow feathers. Kinzer was a very common name. Most Amish continued to carry the Germanic surnames that had been borne for hundreds of years by their ancient familial bloodlines in Europe since before Columbus ever set foot on the soil of the New World. Amos was the owner of the forge and his pores were blackened by dust and soot. Nevertheless, his shirt was clean and crisp and his eyes bright and lively. He handed Seth a letter for the pile.
The plain folk were fond of letter writing. Nearly every male household head, every mother with adult children living in another Amish enclave, and every young man or woman with hopes of courtship in their hearts turned out with a letter to post. Marvin had set up a small table in the center of town to receive them, and for two days they put aside their farm chores and accepted the correspondence and well wishes of the town as they trickled in one by one.
Only slightly younger than Marvin and Seth, Amos was in the beginning stages of his own huge family. He had four sons and a daughter, the oldest of an age with Rebecca Helmuth and the youngest only ten. His oldest son was married and had two children of his own already, and the second eldest son Eli had just been married this past year. Eli’s wife Sarah was a lovely, warm-hearted girl of eighteen, and one running game played by the town was to make small wagers on how long it would be until her belly grew big. Thus far, she had disappointed the more optimistic gamblers and earned Eli Kinzer a stream of blush-inducing barnyard suggestions as to how to accomplish it. Like most Amish, Seth liked the Kinzers and especially Eli and Amos. His brother Matthew also lived in town with his wife Kate and their daughter.
“That’s for my sister, Mary,” Amos said. The big man looked uncomfortable standing at the table while the two men sat behind it, so Seth stood up and they both huddled briefly with their hands in their pockets chatting about the upcoming trip and their plans for the crossing.
They would stay briefly in Lancaster on the way through Pennsylvania and resupply. Depending on the weather, the journey south through New York could be arduous, and they would consume a disproportionate amount of their food picking their way through the southwestern half of the state and into the hilly part of northern Pennsylvania. The diversion to Lancaster would add some time to the trip, but with a day or two to rest they could continue fresh on the longer leg of the journey through Ohio and into Indiana. A rider from the Ohio enclave in Holmes County would meet them at a predetermined day and place. If Seth and Marvin failed to show up, the rider would wait one additional day and then return home. The understood agreement was that if they were going to be later than two days they would divert their trip long enough to go to Holmes themselves and deliver the mail. They were going to set out with plenty of time to spare and if all went well they would arrive perhaps as much as a day early and rest at the rendezvous to wait for the rider.
From there, it would be on to LaGrange County, Nappanee, and finally distant Arcola. The villages of LaGrange and Nappanee were only two days from each other on foot, and one on horseback. The Amish were reluctant to let Seth and Marvin borrow horses for the longer trip to Arcola, but at LaGrange they would be able to ride to Nappanee with a third man to return the horses. They also planned to stop along the way in Cleveland to visit Calvin the Bullet Man and trade their Amish cheese, meat, and sugar for hard-to-get items like paper, salt, ink, and ammunition.
They would hug Lake Erie until reaching the other side of Cleveland and then bear west by southwest to the northern Indiana enclaves. After staying in Arcola for a while to recover from the long journey and to distribute the mail that they had accumulated, they would pack up and return home, retracing their steps with the exclusion of Cleveland.
Amos thanked them again and gave them two small sacks of maple sugar from his farm. “One for you and one to trade,” he said, smiling, “or both for you if you like it that much.”
Seth took the sugar gratefully and put it aside. He knew that they would eat little or none of it. It was far too valuable as a trading commodity. Even among the Amish, sugar was relatively rare. Many gallons of maple sap could be boiled down arduously into a small amount of sweet syrup with relative ease so long as one had the patience and persistence to gather enough sap. The dried sugar, on the other hand, required boiling off the moisture of the syrup itself, a much more delicate process that often resulted in the mixture burning and ruining the final product.
Their trip would be long and the sugar would help provision them well. He could think of more valuable things: guns, horses, some medicines. But as foodstuffs went, there was almost nothing that could be traded that enough dried sugar wouldn’t buy.
At the end of the second day, their spare bag was full and everyone who wished to send mail had brought it. They sorted the mail by location: Lancaster, Holmes, Nappanee, LaGrange, and Arcola. The bundles were tied into bricks and stowed in their backpacks in plastic wrap to keep out the rain. Each brick was a town full of kinfolk who would have the familiar handwriting of their distant loved ones to warm them in the winter. Each enclave would bustle briefly as the young men and women received word of those others who would come to visit over the long winter for the bundling. A son would write his father to ask his advice about disciplining his own children. A mother would write her daughter to be sure she was happy all those miles from home.
Into the backpacks the letters went, and onto their shoulders, and on toward the west.
The winter drove them south in great winding lines from Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, Toledo, Denver, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, New Jersey, Baltimore, and New York. Their tenacity exhausted, the hard America of the north ran up the white flag of surrender and decided to take their chances on the highways.
The first year without propane or natural gas killed mostly elderly folk who had an inflated opinion of their cold-weather survivability or no one to help them get away. The following summer, the marginally-fit were culled even further by a blazing drought compounded by rolling brown-outs of the power grids in almost every major urban center. Heatstroke and dehydration morbidity claimed some; skyrocketing food prices drove others to desperation and depravity. The cornfields of the Midwest were transformed in a season from syrup and vegetable oil production to ethanol fuel crops.
Aside from locally homegrown foodstuffs and stockpiles of non-perishables, very little was coming in to the stores to purchase. With ethanol production squeezing other crops to the margins, the manufacturers of cheap, low-cost foods slowly cut back and stopped production altogether. Their chief ingredients, high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils, were now being burnt in engines instead of bellies. In cities, where there was no way to cultivate enough produce of any sort to feed the appetites of their dense populations, hunger began to set in and violence followed. Butcher shops began offering cat and pigeon in the freezers that used to stock beef and pork.
The second winter put a stop to the last realistic hope that conditions would improve. Without food or heat to weather the cold, relatively healthy people began to die of starvation and starvation-related disease. The outrage of hunger took a sharp toll on the civility of those who remained. Small-scale riots broke out overnight when the sitting administration, empowered by martial-style emergency powers, announced its refusal to scale back its strategic military ethanol stockpiling. For weeks afterward pipe bombs and gunfire broke out at random on the streets of Gary, Toledo, Scranton, and Yonkers.
The riots and armed revolts were short lived. A typhus epidemic crushed the Quad Cities, and the entire state of Iowa’s population dwindled from four million to less than half a million people within months. Influenza tore through the states bordering the Great Lakes. People began fleeing south, even in the deep winter, to escape it.
That summer, the first of the fuel corn crops caught the stem rust blight and failed. The following summer, corn was joined by soy and wheat. By the fifth, nothing could grow in the poisoned soil but stunted switchgrass that rotted faster than it could be harvested. Looters in the cities burned furniture, plastics, and wood from the frames of abandoned buildings to stay warm for half a season before even those were exhausted.
By the fifth winter, New York was empty. The island of Manhattan was populated chiefly by seagulls, rats, and other scavengers that picked listlessly at overturned dumpsters and trash bins, hoping for an increasingly-rare morsel of something edible. New Jersey lasted longer, but when the power grid was shut down for the final time that spring, most of the die-hard holdouts joined the long lines of people trudging south from Massachusetts and the rest of New England.
The plain folk observed all of this with curiosity and compassion but not surprise. Their enclaves were mostly overlooked in the chaos, and they continued as they always had in the rising silence.