Things have run from boring to miserable and back to boring back to … whatever you want to call it. How’s this different from my life in Level 5?
We woke in Bumpus Mills, TN to find ourselves blocked into our hidey hole. The hole we had driven through into the “cave” of debris wasn’t small, it had given plenty of clearance to the half-track on all sides, but snow drifts had piled one over the top of another to completely close our exit off. And the wall it created was as hard as concrete.
Donovan had a few choice words to say and I don’t hold it against him. I was thinking versions of them but I was just too cold to get as angry as he was.
It felt like I was moving in slow motion. I was curling over on myself and holding my middle trying to get control of what I was feeling.
“Emma! Look at me. Come on; let’s get back in the cab. We’ll figure this out, don’t be so scared.”
My teeth had started to clack together so hard I could barely make myself understood, “Nnnnot … sssscared … Cccccoooolllllddddddd.” I hated the whimpering sounds that came out of my mouth after that.
I don’t know how Donovan managed it but he put me in the cab and then got in by himself. I was shaking so bad I couldn’t even seem to focus my eyes. I couldn’t stop and it was freaking me out.
“Don’t fight the shaking; it’s you body trying to warm up. Scoot over here … stop it, you’re not going to hurt me … coffee’s almost warm. I’m going to double load it with cream and sugar and - don’t give me that face - you’re gonna drink it.”
He was forced to use a coffee stirrer to get the first little bit into me; I seemed to have lost command of my body. After that I must have slept a little bit because I came to in Donovan’s lap with my weight on his good leg and his good arm holding me close. We were covered head to toe in a cocoon of blankets and sleeping bags.
“Easy. Take a swallow and then I want you to eat this.”
“This” turned out to be a chunk off of one of those nasty survival ration bars we found in the bus. It tasted a bit like a stale and crumbly short bread cookie. I’m not real fond of short bread cookies even when they aren’t stale and crumbly.
“Gag. That’s nasty. What happened? My head is pounding.”
“We need to get more fat on you. Your body is having a hard time with the cold. It’s going into starvation mode and starting to break down muscle instead of the little bit of body fat you can lay claim to. You too @#$% scrawny.”
“Kiss my left big toe. I’m eating the same as you for pity sake,” I groaned. “Four thousand plus calories a day. Why aren’t you reacting this way?”
“Two reasons. I’ve been trained to work and live in extreme conditions and my body is used to the routine. I’ve also got more reserves than you … nor have I been carrying the load of work you have,” he said in a way that made him sound angry. “Eventually if this continues I’ll have the same problems. You just had them first. Here, eat another bite. And keep drinking. Your kidneys are likely taking a pounding too with all the extra protein and us getting borderline dehydrated.”
As I was choking down the nasty bit he shoved at me he said, “I would have turned the heater on but until we can be sure that we aren’t going to kill ourselves with the exhaust …”
“Sure. I understand. We don’t want to waste fuel either.”
He pulled me closer and said, “Fuel won’t do us any good if we freeze to death Emma. I would have if I thought we could get away with it.”
I was still groggy and my brain wasn’t firing on all pistons. It took me a while to fight through the fog of feeling warmer than I had in a couple of days. Finally a few hazy thoughts started stringing together coherently. Me. Donovan. His lap.
“What? Hold still Emma. This coffee might not be scalding but it ain’t cold either.” Then he started laughing, “Well at least I know you’re fully awake now. Stop wiggling or we will have trouble. Here, eat another bite.”
He shoved another piece of pseudo-cookie in my mouth when I opened it to object to my location.
“Emma, survival makes strange partnerships … and sometimes strange bedfellows,” he sighed. “You said you consider me a friend, a good enough friend that you wouldn’t let me die alone. Well, I am your friend and I’m not going to let your modesty get in the way of me helping you to survive. Just relax. We both need the rest and the warmth. It looks like we are going to be here a while.”
He laughed again when I grumbled about the fact that I doubt that he would have willingly crawled up in Charlie Braintree’s lap to get warm. My head was really banging and it went against the grain but between the very real fatigue I was feeling and the food he kept shoveling into me I got drowsy again and eventually went back to sleep. Hours later we both woke to this really weird noise. It was the wind whistling through the debris above our heads. We ate self-heats – how I managed to eat more I can’t imagine – and took bathroom breaks (a hideous experience in that cold) since we doubled our fluid intake. While I was straightening my clothes I heard the sound of metal ripping somewhere above my head and then it was like being in a wind tunnel. I was knocked to the ground and landed hard.
I crawled toward the direction his voice had come from and it was really dark. I couldn’t hear anything anymore over the freight train sound the wind was making. I found the bumper, then the tire. The wind fought my every inch forward. I could literally feel myself sliding away every time I tried to let go long enough to grab for the door. The blowing snow felt like it was shredding my exposed skin. Then a light flashed briefly in my eyes.
Something grabbed my hair and held me so I could pull myself under the open door. I held onto the running board trying to get some purchase to climb up. I felt Donovan grab me under the arm and pull me up. I climbed over him and into the cab with him right after me. He’d used his crutch to keep the door open; he barely had time to pull his foot all the way in before the crutch snapped and the door slammed shut.
We were both breathing hard; he was pulling me over again into his lap and putting our cocoon back in place. I was gasping as I asked, “Shouldn’t I start the motor in case we need to make a break for it?”
“And go where? It’s as dark as the inside of a whale’s belly out there. It’s night and we can’t see which way to go or what else is being blown around. We’re somewhat protected here. If this goes … Emma all we can do at this point is wait this out and I want to do it warm.”
I was kind of stuck. I wanted to be warm too and my high ideals weren’t helping me out with that. On the other hand I worried that Donovan’s recent low opinion of me would develop into something permanent if I just went along without a fight. If I’d had a third hand I could have said it didn’t feel wrong to warm up with Donovan but it did feel dangerous.
“Emma I can hear the wheels spinning and smell the smoke. Stop thinking it to death. We’re just sharing body heat. Don’t make it into some kind of big drama.” So I climbed into his lap and we both finally warmed back up and got some sleep despite the hurricane-like snowstorm that was swirling around us.
The next morning I awoke to a rude poke in the ribs and, “Emma. Hey girl, wake up.”
Talk about shock. The storm was gone and as black night turned to gray and gloomy day we could see so was our shelter. Or at least most of it was gone; there was still a short “wall” that kept the wind and snow from burying the half-track. I got out and looked things over. Thank goodness I’m extra cautious about stuff though on occasion it has been called something ruder. The stuff in the half-track’s trailer bed was double tarped and double netted; tarp over the supplies first, then net, then tarp, and finally the outer net. A few of the “squares” of the outer net had frayed apart and the outer tarp was torn all to pieces but the inner net and tarp held fast with little damage.
Without a crutch and after all of the hullabaloo the day before Donovan was having a really bad time of it. I didn’t stop him from trying but I kept an eye on him just like he would have done if our places were switched. Donovan finally just shook his head and told me to mind my p’s and q’s. I ignored him while he went around a corner of the wall but when he yelled “@#$%,” at the top of his voice I grabbed the pick ax I had been using to dig my own hole and ran his direction.
There were cars, at least a dozen, buried in the debris pile. We drove right passed them in the night. Inside the cars … they were occupied, but not with the living. The cars all had chains on their tires so they were more than likely survivors that had been moving to try and find someplace warmer or at least safer. What had upset Donovan was a car with two car seats in the back. The people had been gone for … a long time. They were all in their seat belts so I’m thinking maybe they were caught in a snow storm and just passed away from hypothermia. They didn’t appear to have died violently. I don’t know that for sure but for the kids’ sake I hope they just went to sleep. And frankly I don't care if it makes sense or not, that's where I'm leaving it.
Donovan had left while I was looking at the gruesome spectacle and was leaning against the half-track when I walked back and pulled up the tarp to get to the tool box. I grabbed a large, flat-head screwdriver and a sledge hammer. I started walking back around to the cars when Donovan acted the snot and said, “Don’t seem like the right tools to use to give them a Christian burial.”
I turned around and looked him right in the eye. “No. Where ever they were going they are already there and the bodies are nothing but husks. Burials are for the living, not the dead and the cars are as good as tombs at this point. I’m going to pop the trunks and see if there is anything useable.”
“Why you heartless little huzzy,” but I ignored him and kept going. It’s not that I didn’t feel bad but I knew without a doubt the people didn’t need the stuff anymore and wouldn’t care one way or the other. I really do believe that they are already at their ultimate destination so to speak. I’m not heartless; I’m just not all ancient Egyptian about stuff and just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was supposed to do what I was doing. It hurt more for Donovan to be nasty again than any grief I was feeling for the poor people that died that way.
I stepped up to the first vehicle and stuck the screwdriver into the key slot and then tapped it in with the hammer. Then I gave it a good whack to drive it in, turned it the screwdriver’s handle and broke the lock barrel out which let me pop the trunk lid.
I heard crunching footsteps behind me. “Do I want to know where you learned to do that?” Donovan asked sounding tired.
“Probably not but I’ll tell you anyway. A … a friend named Moshe thought it was funny to teach his little sister and her best friend how to do it as part of some highschool science project he was working on. My Dad had a fit when he found out.”
“Highschool science project? Sounds like one heck of a highschool,” he said sardonically.
“Yeah, we had some whacked out teachers in the IB program. If I remember correctly it was Mr. Emerson’s physics class. Sarah and I had him too and when we had him the theme was roller coasters that year instead of automobiles. We took a fieldtrip to Busch Gardens and got to talk to some of the head engineers about Kumba, SheiKra, and Gwazi.” I looked over and saw Donovan’s face and said, “Sorry. TMI.”
The first trunk that I opened was empty and so was the second one. The third trunk was crushed but the fourth one had stuff in it. It was mostly cans that had bulged due to freezing but there was some dry stuff in there too; raisins, granola bars, little packages of Kool Aide, crackers. I found some diaper wipes (frozen stiff) and some feminine hygiene stuff in one of the trunks along with some type of energy booster pills for athletes and a woman’s gym bag with some work out gear in it. In the last one I was able to get to there was a couple boxes of kids’ cereal, some oatmeal, and a couple of giant canisters of powdered drink mixes like Tang and strawberry milk. What I didn’t see confused me.
“What are you looking at? Finally getting queasy pawing through dead people’s stuff?”
“Hey buddy boy, I may not be a trained security dude but even I can see some weird gaps here. There aren’t any staples like sugar, flour, beans, or rice. Heck, I don’t even see Ramen Noodles or pasta. I don’t see any pots and pans either or even camping gear, not even a bottle of water.”
Donovan looked at me. “Maybe you won’t be half useless after all.”
I decided to ignore him if he was going to act like that and looked again at what I was seeing and what I wasn’t. I mumbled to myself, “I wonder if the tanks are dry.”
Donovan was looking at every car but the one with the car seats. “Tanks are empty. All the caps are off or missing so someone checked before we did; it’s impossible to say when. The missing pieces could have been taken then, but why leave the food?”
Another question with no answer so after standing there for a moment of silence to put our memories of this place to rest we turned and headed back. The engine was ready to go by the time the little we had salvaged was stowed away and I had replaced the destroyed tarp with another one. As I went to climb into the cab Donovan put his hand on my shoulder. “About … about what I said … I …”
“Forget about it. Living like this is sick. Looks like I might just be sicker than you is all.”
No way was I going to get into another discussion of death with him so we got in and continued as northerly as the landscape would let us. We’d been driving along silently when he said, “So, were you born under a cabbage leaf or hatched?”
I had absolutely no idea what he meant so I turned my head and just looked at him. “Look, you said that I never asked about where you came from. So … I’m asking.”
“I was born in San Antonio, Texas but I don’t remember it. Before I was old enough to remember any different my Dad was stationed at MacDill and we stayed in Tampa while he did remote TDYs. He was home from a three month TDY out near Sacramento when a drunk …” I stretched my neck and skipped the details. “I was sixteen, got my emancipation thanks to the help of my best friend’s family and here I am.”
He shook his head. “Short and to the point.”
“It answered your question.”
He growled, “I swear you are contrary. Every other woman I’ve ever met would have used the excuse to give the novel of her life story. You … you on the other hand don’t even give out enough for an obituary.”
“What do you want to know? It’s no big deal.”
I expected him to ask a stupid question about my childhood or something but instead he asked, “OK, so how did you wind up in Level 5?”
That I hadn’t expected and it took me a while to put my head together and get a distance from the sudden burst of anger I surprised myself with. “Probably like some of the other women. I had a good friend. He lied to me. I fell for it.”
Donovan cleared his throat. “Are you trying to make me angry?”
“Look, I just … oh brother. Remember the guy I said helped me learn to break into trunks?”
He grunted what passed for a yes in his cave man vocabulary.
“My best friend was Sarah Epstein. Her parents helped me get my emancipation but they still asked me to live with them. They were … are … were good people.”
“Which is it? Were or are?”
“I don’t know. I’ll get to that. Anyway, Moshe is Sarah’s older brother. We were … close; more than friends but less than romantic. I got sick and missed going on a … a trip with Sarah and was in my dorm room recuperating over spring break. Moshe went to MIT and worked with a Dr. Rushton that had something to do with the bunker program. Moshe had gotten his family in … but … geez, is this really important?”
“If it is important enough for this to be the first time I’ve seen you uncomfortable about talking about anything then yeah … yeah I think it is important.”
“No psychobabble Donovan or you’re walking.” He grunted again and I continued. “It all happened so fast. Moshe shows up, gives good face and says all the right things just the right way. I fall for it hook, line, and sinker; no arguments, no questions, just because he asked me to and because … they were supposed to be a day behind me. Looking back I was an idiot and don’t have any excuse for it. I never would have known anything about Moshe’s secret life and would have died right along with billions of other people during the tsunamis but I guess I was the only warm female body that Moshe could come up with on such short notice for the Level 5 candidate requirement. I drew the sucker’s card and here I am.”
Donovan was blessedly quiet on the subject for a while and a good thing too because it let me concentrate on the road … only suddenly the road wasn’t there anymore, it was all air and if not for the tracks I don’t know if we would have gotten back on terra firma.
“You OK?” he asked.
“Oh yeah, don’t mind me. I just shake like this when I’m having a bloody good time. Next rest stop however I’m going to need a little privacy to deal with some personal issues.”
“That’s my Emma, heart of gold and tongue of fire. Hand me the binoculars.”
While I put my golden heart back in my chest, Macho Man took a look at the terrain. “Head due west and then when we get to a good place we’ll turn north again.”
“What’s with the weirdness? I looked at the map and I don’t remember it saying we were approaching the Here-Be-Monsters edge of the world place.”
My turn of phrase didn’t even phase Donovan. “Not the edge of the world, but looks like something that might have been caused by the New Madrid fault. I’m pretty sure we are over into Kentucky now, near where the Land Between the Lakes should be. Turning west we should run us into Ft. Campbell which ought to be interesting.”
Or not. We saw a few destroyed buildings and other debris but nothing that would indicate that the base was worth stopping at, assuming that’s where we actually were. “Ft. Campbell, MacDill, and a couple of the other biggies were put on lock down two days before the news was leaked about The Beast. Everyone was told it was maneuvers or reaction to a verifiable threat. It took less time than you would think to empty the base of everything important and they got the personnel off the same day The Beast was acknowledged. The bases were overrun after that. Anything worth taking is long gone.”
I said, “I wonder where the stuff stopped.”
“The buildings, cars, trees … the stuff that got blown away by the blasts of the different impacts. Has it all gotten compacted under the snow or is it still rolling around like some weird tumble weed? Take that storm for instance. …”
Donovan curled his lip indicating a decided lack of respect for my curiousity. “You take that storm. And you ask the strangest questions. Does it really matter where all of that stuff went?”
“It could. So far we’ve used road signs to tell us where we are. What if we are just totally off because signs have been blown miles … hundreds of miles from where they were originally hung. You said you are from around here, does anything look familiar?”
“Emma, don’t go borrowing trouble.”
That ended that conversation. We went westerly and drove into what was left of a small Stop-n-Shop. The roof had been sheered off and the inside had seen a fire but three of the walls were still standing and it afforded some protection from the wind. After an uneventful night we tried to turn north but debris was everywhere. I think I found where a lot of the flying junk wound up. There was also a lot of earth disturbances. We came to what Donovan said had to be I24 and were forced to back track a little south to get passed it. Eventually we headed west again and stopped for the night in a dot on the map called Pembroke.
Next morning Donovan was cranky. I don’t think he is sleeping very well. Who could sleep with someone piled up in your lap like he has me doing? I’m beginning to think he is just being a softy and trying to keep me warm at the expense of his own rest. If it isn’t easy for me to sleep sitting up it’s bound to be worse for him. After telling me to try and go north by following the road barely discernable under the snow drifts the monotonous rumbling of the half-track’s engine put him to sleep.
The day was as clear as it had ever been. There was no sun to be seen but the brightness from the unblemished and unending snow still got to me. Not even my Ray-bans kept my eyes from watering after a while. I thought I was seeing a mirage at first. I was tempted to wake Donovan up but was worried that he’d just think I was crazy on top of everything else.
I could tell it was big whatever it was. Looked like a broke off pencil. I kept driving and it just kept getting bigger. Then I saw the rest of it lying in the snow. It was like the twin of the Washington Monument in DC.
“What in the heck?” I asked not realizing I had said it out loud.
“Not heck ... home.”