Welcome to the “sneak peek” site for “The Road to Summertown—Stories from Tomorrow’s Newspaper”

 

 

We’re glad you found us.

We have two goals:

(1)  We want to share the concept behind “The Road the Summertown,” that is, There are difficult times ahead, but they can be good times if we prepare properly.

(2)  We’d like you to have your own copy of the book.  We believe if you read these few sample chapters, not only will you enjoy the story element, but you’ll have something to share with people you care about but who just don’t grasp how fragile our society is.  And maybe you’ll decide to buy the book and pass it around.  (Look for discounts on multiple copies at check-out.)

We’re not trying to sell prepping supplies.  We’re not even trying to teach low-tech life styles—at least not in this book.  We are, however, trying to give you a foretaste of what seems to be coming down the road—or in the case of George Hollinger’s family, what’s coming down the tracks.  We hope you and your family and your friends will step off dead center and become better prepared.  ”If we are prepared, we need not fear.”

Now, before you jump into the samples, you should know that although each chapter stands alone, later chapters depend on your knowing something about what happened earlier.  They won’t make as much sense and you won’t enjoy them as much if you skip all over the place.

Some of the characters weave in and out of other chapters.  For example, if you don’t read the “Preface” by Jay Summerhill, the whole concept of the time and setting of the stories won’t make sense. If you skip Donald M. Wright’s awkward “Introduction,” you won’t understand his son’s chapter further on, nor will you know what we mean by “Easter Eggs.”

Easter Eggs in computer programming are quiet little “in jokes” that only those who are paying attention will notice.  It’s like that in this book, but a bit different.  For example, Donald M. Wright tells us he will edit the stories for “spelling and grammer,” and, of course, in the process he misspells “grammar.”  Or, in the first chapter, April Farraday disappears.  Not much is made of that, but later in the book sharp readers will recognize her again.  Our Easter Eggs are just for fun, and if you just want to roar through the book, don’t worry about them.

Incidentally, the pages on your screen look different from the book.  The printed book pages are 6″ x 9″ and are open and clear.  

Here we go.  Enjoy!

A novel of a speculated future from the Summerhill Syndicate. . .

Color Cover, The Road to Summertown—Stories from Tomorrow's Newspaper


Legal material which you might want to skip:

Many situations are experienced in common by different people.  None of those offered in this book should be considered related to any particular individual.  All of the characters herein are fictitious.

THE ROAD TO SUMMERTOWN, Copyright ©2011 by George J. Downing.  All rights reserved.  Printed in the United States of America.  Except as permitted under the United States Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed by any current or future technology or stored in a data base retrieval system without written permission of the copyright holder.  

Published by the Summerhill Syndicate,  a wholly owned subsidiary of Summerhill Services, Inc.  Accounting Offices at P.O. Box 21, Sewell, NJ  08080 

 <http://www.SummerhillSyndicate.com>

<JaySummerhill@comcast.net>, Editor

 Library of Congress Control Number:  2011934074, Downing, George J.

The Road to Summertown / George J. Downing.—1st ed.  ISBN 978-1-889565-00-2

First Trade Paperback Edition: August 2011. Printed in the United States of America

Sketches by C.J. Downing.


 

The Road to Summertown—Stories from Tomorrow’s Newspaper

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements   8

George J. Downing—Foreword   9

Jay Summerhill—Preface (read me first)   11

Donald M. Wright—Introduction to Summertown   21

George Hollinger—Mobbers on the Tracks   26

Olivia Flores—Behind the Dryer at Evergreen School   41

Brittani—The No-Goodbyes Girl   49

Elena Ortiz Brown—Chef at the Soup Shack   87

Tom Brown—Foreman Farmer   95

Johnny Presto—Coup d’Etat at the Capitol             107

Bryce Blackstone—The Chief Retires             127

Mildred Volp—Perpetual Mother             135

Howard Winzinger—The Society for Social Normalization              143

Dolly Sorenson—On the Road with the Zars             151

Donald B. Wright—Zars vs. Guardians             159

Billy Young—The S.G.A. and Beyond             179

David McKinney—From Lexus to Nexus           201

Brian Kiefer—Gold and a Silver Honda           221

Arthur Tolman—Evangelist without Portfolio           239

Camilla Peters and Lennie Grant—Sisters Now            261

Lennie Grant—One, Two, and Three           283

Victorina Rabb—Last Prof Standing            293

Drew Blue—A Kidnapping           311

Heidi Sandbergen—Goat Girl in Charge            319

Van Allen—Strange Proposals at the Town Meeting          337

Lorrie Sorenson—Dolly Goes Up, Lorrie Comes Down          343

Oliver Sudden—Talking Love with Lorrie, New Girl in Town           365

Robert Coleman—The End of August at the Hotel Ozone           383

Cap’n Jack—Hermit on a Boat           391

Luther Haun—Proles and Guardians           409

Jeremiah Bradley—Former Idealist           419

Donald M. Wright—Journal Entry          461

Jay Summerhill—Epilogue          463

My List          464


 George J. Downing—ForewordGeorge J. Downing, Author

We live in a marvelous time in the history of the world.  For many of us, our general prosperity, health, peace, and conveniences are more than anyone has ever known.

The flip side is that we have become dependent on a very complex technology, the loss of which would change everything about our daily lives.

What would your life be like if you lost access to gasoline, electricity, water from the tap, food at grocery stores, medicines, or money that others would accept?

We hear worries and warnings every day.  Respected voices urge preparation for such possibilities.   I concur.

But my approach in this book is somewhat different.    This is not “How-to-Prepare-for-the-Apocalypse,” nor do I pretend to great literature.  I write stories.  I’ve written “The Road to Summertown” as the stories told by some twenty-eight quite diverse people, narrated in their own homely voices.   They’re everyday people just like you and your friends.

My hope is that you’ll come to love and enjoy these people as I have.  But more—that you’ll be moved to do something to prepare for what seems to be coming and do it with a measure of optimism and confidence.  “There are difficult times ahead, but they can be good times.”


To Sherry


Jay Summerhill—Preface (read me first)  

I’m Jay Summerhill, and I run the Summerhill Syndicate which many of you read every day on line.  Something happened to me last spring and it still bothers me.  Let me tell you about it, and if you’re interested you can read more.  I’d like to know your opinion when you have read the whole thing.  I’ll give you my e-mail address at the end.

I was kayaking in the marshes out of the Dix Wildlife Management Area down near the mouth of the river.  I’d ventured out on the bay because the water was almost like glass, which is unusual.  By the middle of the afternoon I found myself in an odd fog bank.  It was odd inasmuch as it came on suddenly and at that time of day.  I’d never seen anything like it.  

It was also odd that it seemed to swallow up the sound of the area.  I was reminded of the feeling you get on the edge of the Grand Canyon, where the open space is so vast it seems your eardrums are reaching out of your head for something to respond to, but finding nothing. 

The fog had a dank smell, sort of like the air just before a summer thunderstorm.  It was thick, too.  Even the bow of the long orange kayak was slightly hazy from where I sat, and everything else was a dull white-like gray.  

I got a bit concerned because I’d lost my bearings.  I pride myself on my sense of direction, even in the dark.  Some people have no sense of direction and are constantly getting lost.  I’m the opposite.  I have to admit to fighting a slight sense of panic, like being in a whiteout in the snow and not knowing where you are or what direction you should follow.

Then I ran into some marsh grass, and I could see the water flowing past it.  That was a relief.  I knew it was a flood tide, and if I followed the flow I’d eventually find a creek and the shore rather than being lost on the open water if a storm did come up—or worse, a tanker out of Paulsboro.  

It was difficult following the channel because the marshland is so flat the channel meanders, and what may be a mile of paddling actually gives you only a few hundred yards of net gain toward the shore.  

Finally I saw a small hummock on my right, and the channel was developing into a distinct creek.  Suddenly the bow of a boat appeared directly in front of me and I pulled a hard right hand sweep stroke to swing the kayak past it on the left.

Not to worry.  The boat was moored at what I could make out as a small log dock offering solid footing to the shore.  I tied the kayak to the corner piling and swung myself on to the rough sawn planking of the dock.  

“Ahoy,” I called out.  Nothing.

“Hello,” I cried out, louder.  Still nothing.  I could see the boat was about a 24-foot cabin cruiser, a working kind of craft for a no-frills owner.  The stern read “Li’l Brit—Shellpile NJ.”  There was a small shanty barely on the land.  I found the door open.  Inside was a small woodstove and a bunk with blankets, but no sign of life.

I tried walking a perimeter in the fog as far away from the dock at which I could still see it.  Upstream on the creek I found a tidal dam with a rather primitive but clever water turbine which drove an automobile alternator connected to a golf cart battery.  Since Route 553 had power lines on it,  I decided this must be a breakaway back-to-the-earth homestead of some sort. 

The other end of the arc brought me to a huge pine tree with a ladder attached.  It went up into the fog, and I didn’t venture climbing it.  I kept broadening my perimeter, anchoring it to a new landmark each swing.  I’d never experienced a fog this thick.

I found a small house, nicely built and fairly new.  In keeping with my conclusion, there was no power line going to it.  It was comfortably furnished with books and utensils all in place as if the owners had just left to attend a parade or something and would be back soon.

Moving out further, I finally saw a wall with almost a solid row of windows.  As I approached I found it to be the western wall of a large building.  Entering a door on the long north side wall I found a room of considerable size, partly filled with carefully arranged four-by-eight foot sheets of plywood on saw horses and flanked by wooden benches—obviously a dining hall with easily stowed tables—or perhaps a multi-purpose room of some sort.  A kitchen at the far end confirmed my first guess and a volleyball net and posts in the corner confirmed the second.

I called, “Anybody home?  Hello!  Anybody home?”  

Nothing.  Not a sound.  Not even the hint of an echo from my own voice in this fairly large hall.  In the kitchen I found vegetables, fruit, and some sort of meat on preparation tables.  Curiously for this area there were no houseflies or fruit flies on the exposed food.

Thinking the people might indeed have gone out to the road, I left the building and continued eastward through the woods, the fog still allowing me only about ten feet of visibility.  After more than a hundred yards, I guess, without expecting it, I stumbled into a single strand of wire running at about chest hgt.  Looking to the left I saw it was attached to a post about six feet in hgt.  At the top was what seemed to be an ivory ball, but I quickly realized with a shudder that it was a human skull.  I stepped away with my skin crawling on my back, only to find a similar post about ten feet to my right, with another silent guardian looking out toward the road.  

I let out an unconscious low groan, got the horrors and began to shake.  I turned back westward, retracing my path, stumbling over roots and dead branches until I found myself at the large dining hall I’d recently left.  I wanted to find shelter inside from my own fears, but stopped for a moment to listen for any sound of being pursued.  

Nothing.  No sound.  Not even the rustle of little beasties in the leafy carpet, not a whisper of jets heading for Pomona, nothing.  Suddenly I realized I hadn’t heard a sound except my own footsteps since I’d arrived at the dock.  No birds, no insects—for that matter no life of any kind except the still woods and grasses.

The outdoors, with which I’m usually very comfortable, became weirdly ominous, and I retreated into what I hoped was the comfort of the dining hall.  At the western end, opposite from the kitchen, were three doors, one in the middle of the wall and two others to the right of it.  

Venturing carefully at the center door I found a narrow room with a long table and chairs on either side.  Windows lined the far wall.  To the right was a door leading into a much smaller room, obviously accessed also from the dining area.  It was sparsely furnished with a desk and four comfortable office-type chairs.  A chalk board was on the wall.  Further on was another door to a small room with a single desk and two metal filing cabinets.  

I was intrigued that there was a white laptop computer on the desk.  It was closed up, but was connected to an automobile-type power cord which in turn was connected to golf cart deep-discharge kind of battery.  A steel reinforcing rod came up through a hole in the floor and was wired to the negative pole on the battery.

Ah, I remembered the water turbine and alternator at the tidal dam I’d seen.  I smiled a little inwardly.  They may have sworn off power lines, but they still wanted their computers.   And there must be others, because there was a light blue thumb drive sticking into the laptop.  

I noticed a three-ring binder near a small printer.  It seemed to be a collection of individual journals, complete with sketches of the people involved.  Had this colony all been murdered in some horrible mass killing, and their skulls mounted on posts at the wire fence?

I started to get the shakes again and felt a terrible compulsion to get away from this place and forget I’d ever been here.  But my curiosity got the better of me, and in spite of a nagging conscience pulling at my ear, I took the little blue flash drive from the USB port of the laptop and ran from the building, putting the wall with the blank staring windows behind me.  

I jogged ahead as fast as I dared in the mist.  There was the little house I’d seen, then the tall pine with the ladder, and from there it was an easy grope to the dock and my orange kayak.  Casting off, I found the tide had turned and the water from the creek and the ebbing water from the marsh took me easily through the meanders to the open water.  

Just before clearing the marsh grass, I was surprised to find the fog had lifted, or more accurately, it was just suddenly gone.  I could see the shore line, the tall pine several hundred yards away, and in the other direction the water traffic on the bay and the river.  The sun was setting.  It took all my efforts to paddle upstream to find the creek coming out of the wildlife preserve before dark.  I was spooked and wanted to get back to solid familiar land and my truck.

After pulling my narrow craft up on the little beach where I’d parked, I secured the kayak on the truck and clipped on my red night light where the stern hung over the tail gate. 

I’d almost forgotten the thumbdrive hanging from its lanyard around my neck.  I don’t know what I was thinking in taking it.  Wherever, whoever, those people were, the device wasn’t mine.   I needed to return it.

I headed out to Route 553 and turned south, driving slowly and looking for the entrance to the place.  By the time I’d gotten to Port Norris I knew I’d missed it, so I turned around and drove slowly north.  There was a broken down fruit stand on the left and a grown over dirt road heading back toward the marshes, but I didn’t have much hope for that so I continued until I came again to the entrance to the wildlife preserve.

This was getting frustrating.  I turned around again.  There was the fruit stand further south.  Maybe this group is trying to discourage visitors and is affecting the appearance of an abandoned farm.  I turned into the grassy dirt road and drove slowly in through the gloom under the overhanging trees until I came to what was once a clearing.

It was not a happy place.  I got out of the truck but left the engine running.  To my left, a couple of hundred yards off the highway were the remains of a barn, the roof having long since caved in leaving massive oak timbers sticking up like jackstraws.  Sumac and mulberries grew within the bounds of the old brown sandstone foundation.  I stepped inside the perimeter.  The fallen beams looked sound and had been cleverly worked with mortise, tendon, and peg when they were built.  It’s a construction technique I don’t think has been seen for over a hundred years, except by the Amish up in Lancaster County.

Behind me was the burned out heap of what must have been the farmhouse, gradually turning into the soil from which it had come.  There must have been a well close by.  I’d have to watch my step carefully, and I became conscious of the rapidly fading sunset.  Looking out toward the west I could see a singular tall pine punctuating the horizon formed by the scrub trees between us.  

I thought to remember this place.  Someday I’ll write “the great American novel” and become rich and famous.  Then I’ll buy this property and turn it into a summer retreat for my family and friends.  Yeah, sure I will.

It wasn’t until I’d gotten home, showered, and gotten some supper in me that I turned my attention to the contraband thumbdrive.  When I inserted it into the back of my iMac, it loaded quickly and the screen woke up.  There was a file on the desktop called “The Road to Summertown.”  It was a digital version of the pages in the 3-ring notebook I’d glanced through.  

It will be available on <Amazon.com> soon under one of my writers’ name, George J. Downing, though actually there are multiple authors with Donald M. Wright as the editor.  I think it’s best read in the present order of chapters.

There are a total of about twenty-eight separate but interconnected chapters.  I’d be very interested in your reaction.  You can leave your comments on the author’s FaceBook page for others to see if you’d like, or you can send a FaceBook private message to him, or if you prefer you can e-mail me directly at:

<JaySummerhill@Comcast.net>.

I hope you find all this worth your effort.  Let me know.


Thumb drive pilfered by Jay




Donald M. Wright—An Introduction to Summertown  Donald M. Wright for web

My name is Donald M. Wright, and President Bradley called me to be the clerk of Summertown.  I told him I’m not a writer, but he said I’m a Watcher and that a branch needs Watchers just as much as it needs Movers and Anchors, or Teachers and Binders, or Tinkers and Naymen, though I could do without the Naymen.

He said having Watchers is important.  I never thought of myself as being important, but if President Bradley needs me to be the clerk, I do the best I can.  He said he’d rather have a Watcher who’s not a writer than a writer who doesn’t watch.

He wants a history of Summertown from the beginning, and I’ve been with him since before the beginning.   I’m supposed to interview everybody and write their stories.  Well, like I said, I’m not much of a writer, so I fixed it so that the people will write their own stories, and I’ll correct their spelling and their grammer and transcribe what they write on my laptop when my battery is up.  That way nobody can complain about what’s in their story.

I didn’t want the name Summertown in the first place.  There’s a Summertown in Tennessee, or at least there used to be.  They came out of the hippy culture in California in the ‘70s and migrated across the country in old school buses.  They call themselves “Technicolor Amish.”  I stopped there once to see if I could tour the place but they wouldn’t let me get out of the car because they had “a little bit of hepatitis.”  You don’t have a little bit of hepatitis in a town.  That’s like saying a woman is a little bit pregnant.  So if you want a history of that Summertown, you’re in the wrong place.  

Anyway, President Bradley said we needed to name it Summertown because it would help in dealing with the locals when we were first getting started.  It seemed to work, because they waived the zoning so that we could have housing where and on what size lots we wanted and let the fields average out the required rural density per acre.  

And we signed a covenant that our people would not count in the local school district since we were just a summer town.  They liked that and so did we because it let us keep the rural tax rate and it limits the concern of the local authorities about what we do here.

I’m collecting the stories as best I can, so you’ll see they’re not in any particular order, and not everybody is included yet.  And if there’s anything that is not explained well, it may be clarified in later accounts.  If I really have to insert a note explaining anything, I’ll do that.  

For example, most people refer to other residents by their first names.  If they think that doesn’t sound respectful enough, they use the title “Brother” or “Sister.”  Don’t think that’s hokey, because they mean it.  We teach and live brotherhood.  Among other things, our lives here depend on each other.

And we’ve got sketches.  Lennie Grant sent me one of her students, C.J. Thomason to do sketches of the people who have given me their stories.  I think in general he’s pretty good.  But if you don’t like your sketch, don’t come to me.  I told him I didn’t like mine much, but he said it’s artistic license.  I think if anyone has a license on my face, it should be me, but I let it ride.  I am what I am.

Here are the stories.  


 


 

George Hollinger—Mobbers on the Tracks

Donald Wright asked me to sit down and try to reconstruct my experiences during the time we left our home and came to Summertown. 

That’s easy, because the memories are seared into my mind.  But it’s hard, because I don’t like thinking about what I did back then. 

It started late one afternoon in early spring when I heard a laugh that was to change our lives.  It came from outside, about fifty yards away, up near the Faraday’s house.  It had been a while since I’d heard anyone laugh, but this wasn’t the kind of laugh you laugh with.  This was the kind that stops your breath, makes your heart seem to pause for a second, and raises the hair on the back of your neck.  

I looked over quickly at Julie, who had been cooking supper on the wood stove in the living room.  She had had the same reaction.  Her hand stood still in the midst of her stirring our pinto beans and dandelion greens.  

Yes, dandelion greens.  We had plenty of beans and some wheat and rice we’d stored, but you can’t store greens and we were hungry for fresh things after a bleak winter without them.  The few trucks which were on the road were carrying essentials to the powers-that-be, and we weren’t in those circles.

I can remember the times when we had fresh lettuce all year, fruits like oranges and lemons and even some exotic items like mangos and papayas and kiwis.  We’d gotten to where we never gave it a thought.

But now we’d been looking forward to spring and taking the kids out to forage for greens.  Holly—mother surrogate that she was—really got into it, and little Scott thought it was great fun.  But at the awkward age of twelve, Kevin was afraid his friends would see us and tease him.  I could understand it.  When I was a kid there was a little old Italian lady who would come wandering across the back yards on my block picking dandelion greens.  We would stand around in little clusters and laugh a bit—a little cruelly, I suppose—but she would just smile and nod and go on picking.  I never imagined I’d be imitating her.

That earlier laugh came again, long and loud, almost mechanical.  I was galvanized and quickly put my Euell Gibbons handbook aside and strode to the front door.  Up by the tracks, up by Faraday’s rancher, was a crowd of people gathering on their front lawn.  They were ragtag and strangers.  It was what I’d feared ever since the Collapse.  The roads were patrolled, but they’d come down the tracks from the city.  There were shouts now, a loud curse, and then that overriding laugh again.

I ran to the hall closet and took down the soft vinyl case in which I’d kept my Remington shotgun for the past ten years.  Once before we’d had a worrisome time with riots in the city streets and fears of a collapsing economy.  I’d begun a simple food storage program and then bought the shotgun, a “Wingmaster” model 870 because I’d heard that’s what the police were using as riot guns.  Efraim Kostandin was an old friend who owned a sporting goods store and he got it for me.  We went out together once and shot some skeet so I could get the feel of the thing, but I’d never used it since.  It just hung there in the closet.  Sometimes I’d felt a little foolish owning it, especially after things calmed down, but I still kept it.  Once every couple of years I’d take it down and wipe some oil over it, so that it looked as new as the day it was built.

Julie saw what I was up to and she turned whiter than she had been when she saw the mob.  “Oh, Honey.  Oh, Honey,” she was saying.  I was glad she wasn’t urging me to do nothing.  That wasn’t her way.  Nor was she anxious for me to charge up the street like a cavalry hero.  That wasn’t her way either.  She’d never much liked having the gun around, but she understood why I had it.  And now the time had come.

I loaded a solid elephant slug in the magazine first, then two buckshot shells, and topped them off with two birdshots.  The last would come up first.  I stuffed my pockets with more buckshot, warned the kids to stay in the house, and with a quick kiss to my grim wife I slipped quietly out the back door.  As I rounded the far side of my house I held the shotgun parallel to my body and walked directly across the street to the far side of Webster’s house.  The place was deserted, as were several homes in our development.  

Coming across the backyard of Webster’s toward Faraday’s, I could see that there was a mob of about seventy-five people collecting on their front yard.  Carl Faraday was standing about ten feet from the house with a pistol in his hand, shouting at a huge burly fellow who stood with his hands on his hips, shirt open, and a broad grin across a heavily bearded face.  April Faraday was nowhere to be seen.  The thought flashed across my mind that I was glad they didn’t have  children.  

I stood transfixed from behind a blue spruce in Webster’s back yard.  Suddenly I noticed a short and stocky fellow hunched low and moving quickly along the side of Faraday’s house toward the front.  He had something in his hands but I couldn’t tell what.

The whole scene became unreal to me.  I couldn’t believe this was really happening.  I’d feared it, I’d suppressed it, and for a moment it all became dreamlike, as if I were asleep and this was one of those occasional nightmares in which you know it’s not real but you still feel the wrenching, heart-pounding emotions.  I found myself probing into my mind trying to determine if this were a dream after all and I was about to wake up in the comfort of my own sweet sheets with warm wife beside me.

But as I stood struggling with reality, I saw the stocky figure move swiftly past the corner of the house and up directly behind Carl, who was still passing the barrel of his pistol across the front of the crowd, pausing each time to point it at the chest of the bearded giant in front of him.  Suddenly the jeers stopped and the crowd went silent.  That weird laugh burst out again and Carl glanced into the crowd to find its owner.  And at that moment the hunched figure behind him straightened up, swung a length of a two by four board above his head, and sent it crashing into Carl’s skull.

The pistol went off and I heard April’s scream from  inside their house.  She ran from the front door to her crumpled husband and gathered him into her arms, weeping uncontrollably.  The mob closed up around them until the Beard began to move in.  With his massive hands he pushed and pulled people aside, bulling his way into the center of the group, and picked up the wicked two by four on the ground beside the body.  He shouted a string of obscenities and swung the weapon in a wide arc, clearing an area around the sobbing April.  Then he stood and looked down at her for a long moment, her dark hair flowing down across her pale skin, and slowly the broad grin came back across his face.  He reached down and pulled her to her feet by her arm.  She screamed and pulled away.  He lunged forward and caught her blouse, ripping it in one huge rent from top to bottom.

I was shocked to the core by what I was seeing.  This was my home, my neighborhood, where two of my children had been born, the front yards where they’d played “Red Rover, Red Rover” on hot summer evenings, where we’d all had barbeques on the Fourth of July.  And here I was standing stupidly with a shotgun in my hands while my neighbor is murdered and his wife abused by a mob!

I left the shelter of the blue spruce and sprinted across the Faraday’s backyard and into their house by the back door.  I stood in the kitchen not knowing just what to do, only hearing April’s screams and sobs from the front.

On the kitchen table was an open box, the kind we used to keep canceled checks in.  It was filled with orange and green bills, “orange peels” as we called the new money—worth less than the fruit, for all there was to buy with them.  I scooped them up and ran into the living room.  Propping my shotgun against the open front door, I stepped out on the small front porch and shouted to the mob.  Then I flung handfulls of the worthless bills up into the air where the breeze caught and scattered them, and the ugly degenerates chased them like pigeons for peanuts.  

All of them, that is, but the Beard.  He turned his attention away from April and stared at me with a piercing look, weighing me in his mind.  Then he reached over and picked up the two by four again.  I opened the screen door and took the shotgun in my hands.  He stood there a moment, then stepped toward me.  I shot him.

Beard was rolling on the ground, groaning and cursing, and from somewhere in the crowd that raucous laughter spewed up again.  My heart was pounding and my hands shaking, but I turned and faced the mob with my gun leveled at them.  I swept the muzzle across their staring, silent faces and shouted, “Get out!  Get out!  Get away from here!  Get away and don’t come back!”

A kid of about nineteen, hair all matted and scraggly, the sorry beginnings of a beard covering a bad case of acne, reached down and picked up half a brick from Carl’s marigold bed.  I’d been watching the movement from the corner of my eye, and I swung the gun around toward him and pulled the trigger.  He and a half dozen people near him screamed and little beads of blood appeared on their faces and arms from the birdshot.  

I wheeled around quickly, looking for April, but she was gone.  I don’t know where.  

About thirty of the mobbers turned and were running back up on the tracks, unfortunately in the direction they’d come from.  I wanted them to move on, to get past us and keep going.  A few others started to head down the street toward my home, so I shouted to them and pointed to the thirty or so who were heading up the tracks.  They turned and looked, but kept on.  So I pulled the trigger a third time.  Screams and shouts resulted from the buckshot, but now they turned and scrambled toward their fellows.  The others were melting away quickly.  No sign of April.  

I turned and went back into Faraday’s living room because I didn’t want to have that crowd associate me with anything but that house.  I stripped off my shirt and wrapped the shotgun in it.  In the kitchen I poured a bottle of water over my head.  You’d be surprised how much that can change your appearance.  I went out the back door and headed to the back hedgerow, then cut across to Webster’s.  On the far side of their house my knees weakened and I fell shaking to the ground.  I laid there for a few minutes and retched.

When I felt my strength coming back, I picked up the gun and walked slowly across the street to my home.  I could still see some of the mob up near the tracks, and if they were interested in me they could have seen me.  So I went around to the back of the house instead of directly in the front door.  Julie’s call, in sotto voce, came from the yard near the cold frame.  I found her lying on the ground, well hidden from the street, laughing and crying at the same time as I took her in my arms.

We left the neighborhood to the madness of the mob and headed down into the woods at the end of our street, where she’d taken the children when she heard the first shot.  Smart girl.  No shrinking violet this one.  A real companion for tough times.  

The kids were in good shape, too.  They were in a “fort”  which they’d built last summer by digging out a hole in the side of the ravine and covering it with the remains of a someone’s backyard metal shed.  We settled in there and I laid there exhausted and told them the whole story.  

The boys were excited but rather quiet.  Holly cried a little, but not out of weakness, I think.  I cried a little, too, just from the enormity of the situation.  All the months—perhaps years—of strain and worry over something like this, to finally have it happen was both a shock and somehow a relief.

At the same time, I didn’t find myself in despair.  I was surprised.  I would have thought that I might be frantic to see our civilization come to such a state.  I’m a mild person, actually, and I dislike disorder.  But as the afternoon wore into evening, instead of grieving for a life now clearly gone, I found myself somehow encouraged, somehow anticipating the challenge of a new and unknown future.

This is not the first time this kind of thing has happened in history.  I felt a bond, a kinship for the countless and nameless ancestors of an untold past who had experienced the collapse of their societies and gone on to build anew.  

We laid there in the semi-darkness in the fort with arms linked or around each other, talking a little, thinking, and I slept.

It was the singing that wakened me.  Julie heard it about the same time, coming from our neighborhood.  Scott asked, “What are they singing?”

Julie answered, “I think it’s ‘Goodnight, Irene.’”

“What’s ‘Goodnight, Irene’?” he wanted to know.

“An old song from long before you were born.”

“Who was Irene?”

Julie didn’t respond.

“Honey,” I said, “I’m going up to see what’s happening.  How about if you stay here and keep an eye on things and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Oooh, no,” my little bride protested.  “We’re in this one together.  Holly can take charge here and we’ll both go up.”

“Aw, Mom, does she have to be in charge of me?” Kevin complained.  He was just at the age when having a big sister is a burden indeed.  “It’s my fort, anyway.  Me and Bobby Allen built it.”

“Well, all right,” his mother conceded.  “Holly, you won’t be in charge of Kevin unless you have to.  Kevin, you stay on the straight and narrow by yourself, but if Holly thinks she has to take charge of you, you listen to her just as if it were me.  Understand?”

I didn’t understand.  I’d heard that logic chain before, and it doesn’t make much sense, but it seemed to relieve Kevin or at least he realized it was the best he could get.

We kissed the kids goodbye even though we were only going about a hundred yards away, and set off in the darkness up the ravine to the houses on our street.  The singing was louder and had changed to a more contemporary sound with a heavy beat.  It was coming from our house.

I left Julie by the cold frame in the back yard while I crept up to look into the dining room window.  There must have been fifty people in the living room and dining room.  Our big pot of beans, I suppose, was on the woodstove, and the fire door was open so that the flames cast a wild flickering light almost in time to the singing and dancing.  The dining room table had disappeared, but there was a huge hole where the living room window had been broken out.  I could guess where I could find the dining room table.

Julie and I talked about it.  How long would they stay?  How much more damage would they do?  What would happen when they ran out of wood?  I worried about my books, which hadn’t seemed to have caught their attention yet.

Julie stayed by the cold frame for the time being while I retraced my moves of the afternoon around the back of Webster’s and into Faraday’s kitchen.  I crept quietly through the house, the shot gun at ready, looking as best I could in the darkness but found no one.  I even checked the basement thinking that perhaps April had taken refuge there, but there was no sign of anyone.  The house was a mess, the mobbers apparently having come back and ransacked it after I had left.

On the floor in front of Carl’s dresser I stumbled on what I’d been looking for—a carton of book matches.  I went into his study and looked around with a couple of matches for light, but there just didn’t seem to be anything there I needed.  

In April’s studio, as she called it, I found a prize.  She had a hundred sewing needles of different sizes in a little booklet with ornate European designs on the front.  I slipped the whole packet in my pocket.

The bull I’d wounded was gone, but poor Carl’s crumpled body was still on the front lawn.  As quietly and respectfully as I could I pulled it into the living room.  There was nothing more I could do for this old friend.  It was time to go.

In the cellarway there was a stack of old newspapers which I hurriedly twisted into loose balls and piled underneath the kitchen table.  All around it I draped curtains and cushions from throughout the house.  The coup de grace was to saturate the wall next to the table with white gas from the camping stove the Faradays had been using.  I backed out the door and tossed a match under the table.  In seconds the room was a ball of fire.

By the time I crossed our street heading for our back yard I could see light from the fire brightening Carl’s back hedge, but the flames themselves weren’t visible from the the front yet.  I watched from our side yard for a few minutes until the fire became obvious.  

Suddenly I realized there were two people standing not ten feet from me, apparently having emerged from my neighbor’s house on the far side.  Jacoby’s had been gone for weeks, and I had just come to assume we had privacy on that side.  I didn’t know this couple.  They looked like part of the mob which had come down the tracks.

They had no interest in me at all, seeming captivated by the fire at Faradays’ now beginning to break through the roof of the kitchen.  They walked slowly up the street, leaving me standing alone in the side yard.

The music inside stopped and people began drifting out of my front door to watch the fire.  They, too, began to walk up closer to watch it.  Gradually the house emptied.  The singing started again up by the fire and a few people began dancing on the sidewalk.  I could see in the glare my dining room table in the shrubs in front of my house.

By the time I reached the cold frame, Julie was gone.  I went into the house immediately and found her all alone, pouring dried beans into pillow cases.  The rice she’d already put into doubled trash bags.  If you eat rice with beans it makes a complete protein.  I told you I had a smart girl.  Not just bright but a team worker.  I tossed the rest of the boxes of shotgun shells in with the beans.  

My own concerns had shifted to the long term.  In the back of my closet upstairs I found my old duffle bag which I only used once a year on Fathers and Sons Campouts.  Down in the living room I faced a difficult time.  I’m a bibliophile—a book nut—and I’d spent years collecting, reading, smelling, and just loving (if you can understand that) my library.  I had a whole section on history I knew I’d have to leave behind.  The great novels, new and classic: passed over.  It was back to basics, and I wanted just those books which would help us stay alive.

With the light of the fire up the street illuminating my precious bookshelves, I chose quickly and carefully:  

  • Ken Kern, “The Owner-Built House” and “The Owner-Built Homestead”
  • M.G. Kains’ old “Five Acres and Independence”
  • Robinson’s “Complete Homesteading Book”
  • Jerry Belanger’s “Raising Small Livestock”
  • “The Dictionary of Useful Plants” by Nelson Coon which I’d never read
  • Friedrich Klemm, “A History of Western Technology”’
  • VITA’s “Village Technology Handbook”
  • Richard Langer’s “Grow It!”
  • “Stocking Up,” by the Rodale Press
  • A paperback called “Soap,” by Ann Bramson
  • Three smaller ones by Yankee Magazine called “The Forgotten Arts”
  • Three paperbacks by Eric Sloane: “A Museum of Early American Tools,” “Our Vanishing Landscape,” and “Diary of an Early American Boy,” (each as much a work of art as a resource) 
  • Three volumes of the “Foxfire” series
  • My trusty Euell Gibbons’ “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” 
  • A set of scriptures 
  • A paperback Shakespeare 
  • And a couple of other small books which I just couldn’t leave behind and thought might be comforting on a cold winter night sometime.

Julie was finished before I was and urged me to hurry, though none of the mob seemed inclined to leave the fire at Faraday’s.  As we slipped out the back door she dropped her bean bags and disappeared inside for a moment.  She returned with a pitiful little first aid kit, but it was all we had.  Oh, the things you neglect!

By this time I had the duffle bag of books adjusted around my shoulders so that half the weight hung around each side, with the slack canvas across my neck.  I had two rice bags hanging down my chest.  It wasn’t bad and I was able to carry the shotgun with one hand and keep the load adjusted with the other.

The kids were glad to see us.  They’d seen and heard the fire and were afraid something had happened to us, but they’d kept their wits about them and stayed put.  

“We’re going to the chapel,” I told them, “along the path in the woods.”

Kevin suggested, “Dad, that’s too much to carry.  Let’s get the garden cart.”  He was talking about a four-wheeled steel cart with balloon tires and steel mesh sides.  Of course!  The boy’s thinking better than I am.

“Everybody wait here.  I’ll be right back.”

“Dad, let me come!  It was my idea.”

We found the cart in the shed, but people were returning to the house and we had to hurry.  Kevin found an old set of telephone pole climbing spikes I’d bought for a couple of dollars at a yard sale (but never used) and he insisted on bringing them.  I’m glad I didn’t argue.  Jimmy Chester has used them since to salvage solar panels from utility poles.

I asked Kevin to take the garden cart and I started to wrestle Julie’s and my bicycles down the path to the ravine.   

Kevin again, “Dad, we forgot my bike.”

I hadn’t forgotten but had hoped he would.  Still, how could I deny him his bike?  We tossed it on the garden cart.

Back with the family, we distributed the tasks.  I pulled the cart with books, beans, and bike. Holly and Kevin managed the other two bikes, and Julie brought up the rear with Scott.  There were a few times when Scott rode on top of the cart clinging to the bike and Julie pushed from behind, and we all gained a new appreciation for handcart pioneers.  

Regrets: We hadn’t left soon enough to avoid “fleeing in haste,” which meant we had to leave a number of things we really needed; and we weren’t able to save our neighbors from a tragic end.  I wondered where April Faraday had gone.   

Satisfactions: We did prepare early enough that we had a rough refuge waiting for us, stocked with enough supplies to weather the season.  

Bottom line: We’d extracted ourselves from the mob without being killed, and we joined our friends who were getting ready for a trek to Summertown in the next couple of days.  There was a strange pleasure about the prospects.  I wish we’d left earlier.


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Olivia Flores—Behind the Dryer at Evergreen School  Olivia Flores, age 12, at Evergreen School

 

My name is Olivia Flores and I’m twelve years old.  Before we came to Summertown we lived in a row house near the county building.  There was my mother and father and my little brother, Julio, and me.  My mother worked for the county Board of Elections, but my father was out of work for a long time.

I was in the 7th grade at Evergreen School, but it closed because most of the teachers couldn’t find a way to get there.  Before it closed a truck used to deliver government cheese on the first Wednesday of every month.  

On the first month after it was closed we didn’t know whether there would be cheese or not.  All the neighbors said there would be, so we went there early, except Julio, who wanted to play with his friends.

Even though we were early, there was a big crowd outside when we got there, but they couldn’t get in until somebody went and got Mr. Cerran, the custodian, and we all went into the multi-purpose room like other months.

I had to go to the lavatory, but there was no water, and the room was so gross I almost threw up.  

While I was in there somebody saw a big U-Haul truck drive by slowly.  They said it was the cheese truck, and a couple of men ran out to the street and waved at them until they turned around and came back.  They talked out there for a while, and the men came back.  I came out as the truck was backing up to the door. 

I went down the hall past the washer and dryer that the gym teacher used for gym suits, and found my parents close by it.  Three of the men from the truck came in and told everybody to be quiet.  Somebody in the back called out, “Did you bring the cheese?”

One of the men pointed a shotgun at the man who had asked the question, and some of the people screamed.   The man next to him held a pistol up and pointed it at the ceiling.  He shouted, “Everybody, quiet!” and everybody got quiet.  

He dropped his arm down, but the other man kept his shotgun pointed at us.  The man with the pistol said, “You’ll get all the cheese you want, but this time we’ll have to charge a little something for it,” and he grinned.

Somebody said, “We don’t have any money, and even if we did it isn’t worth anything.”

“Right.” the man said.  “We’re into barter.  Cheese for clothes.  We want your clothes.”

The whole room was crowded, and it seemed like everybody gasped at the same time.  My mother pulled me close to her.  My father started looking around wildly, but I could see that all the exit doors had chains around the crash bars.  They did that during vacations so vandals couldn’t break the glass and reach in and pull the crash bars and get in.  The windows were way high against the ceiling.

One man near the front said, “Who are you guys?  You don’t have any cheese, do you.”  He meant it like a statement, not a question.

There was a loud bang from the shotgun, and the man who said that fell backward on the floor.  Some of the people near him seemed to be hurt, too, and everybody started screaming again.  All of a sudden there were four of these men all pointing guns, and one of them was shouting, “Quiet!  Quiet in here!”

I knew my father had a gun at home, and maybe some other people in the neighborhood did, too.  But in our state you have to get fingerprinted and buy a license just to buy a gun, and even then you can’t take it outside your house.

A few months before that the police came around to all the houses and told us that for public safety they were collecting all the guns, and if we kept any back we would be arrested.  I knew my father had one, but he told them he didn’t.  Afterward when I asked him, he said he had bought it one night in the city, and hadn’t gotten a license.  He was afraid if he admitted he had one he’d get in trouble, so after that he hid it somewhere in the house.  I don’t know where.

Anyway, the first man with the pistol said everybody should form a single line and start taking off their clothes.  A lot of people started cursing and some were crying.  He shouted “Quiet!” again and fired a shot from the pistol into the ceiling.  

A couple of the men from the truck brought in cardboard boxes and put them on the floor at the front.  They put another one on a table there and told people to put everything from their pockets in that box.  Shoes went in another one.  

I don’t know how many people there were.  We have over 300 people in for school plays, and there were more than that there then.

Some of the women just laid down on the floor and curled up and cried.  The truck men tried to get our men to get the clothes from the ones on the floor, and there was a scuffle and some gunshots.

My mother whispered to me, “Go hide behind the dryer.  You’re tiny and you can fit there.”  I did, but there was a small pipe running along the floor, and a bigger silver one that went out through the wall.  It was really hard to squeeze in with all that.

I could hear a lot of crying and low cursing from the people, but I could hear the men from the truck busy moving boxes into the truck that was backed up to the door, and they didn’t say anything.  

When they had got everything they wanted, they told everybody to get down on the floor.  Then they started telling them to do things.  People were really crying and cursing, and the men got mad and shouted at them.  There were two or three pistol shots and it got quieter.  Then the men with the guns started laughing and saying things.  

I heard the shotgun go off again right near where I was, and pieces of splintered wood from the door came whizzing across the floor.  It got really quiet, and one of the men said, “Let’s get out of here!”  

I heard the door where we came in slam shut, but instead of the truck driving away, I could hear it back up until it hit the door.  The engine speeded up and I could smell the exhaust coming into the room.  

Some people began to stir and I could hear them coming up to the door.  They began shouting and banging on it even though it was jammed shut by the truck, but the exhaust kept coming in a hole near the bottom.  After a while I began to get a headache and I wanted to get out of that little space.  I pulled on the big silver pipe to help me get up, and it came apart and daylight poured in.  I pressed my face to the opening and breathed in a deep breath of fresh air.  The truck was still running and the people were getting quiet.  

I don’t know how long I stayed there.  I just know that finally I heard the truck drive away and everything was still.  After a while I wormed my way out from behind the dryer.  The exhaust was still so thick it made me dizzy but there was about a splintered six-inch hole in the wooden door down near the floor, and I knelt down there and put my face against it to breathe.  

I was there all afternoon looking outside and never saw anyone on the street, even though I called out for help.  A white truck drove by once, but he was going too fast and didn’t see my face sticking out of the hole in the door.   Once I had to go to the lavatory again, and when I came out and saw everybody lying on the gym floor, their skin all bright pink, I got sick and ran back there to throw up.  

I was dizzy again afterward and went back to my hole in the door.  I started to cry and call out some more for help but my throat got too sore.  When it started to get dark I was really scared, but then I saw Julio coming and I called out to him.  

He said, “What are you doing there?  Where’s Mom and Dad?”  

I answered, “Everybody’s dead, and I can’t get out.”

He said, “Push the crash bars.”

I pulled my head back, looked up and was surprised to see there weren’t any chains on the bars on my doors.  I stood up and pushed on the door with the hole near the bottom.  It came open and I stumbled out.  I felt really stupid.

I said to Julio, “Don’t go in there.  I want to go home.”

So we went home, and I told him everything that happened.  We cried together off and on and finally fell asleep.  

The next morning we ate some dry cereal even though we weren’t very hungry.  We walked down the block together, but the whole neighborhood was deserted.  I think almost everyone had gone to Evergreen School the day before.  

When we turned the corner I could see that U-Haul truck down the street, and those men were taking things out of the houses.  We ran back home.  I thought we would lock the doors and hide, but then I knew that wouldn’t stop them if they wanted to get in. 

Just as we got to our front door we saw two men on bicycles coming from the other direction.  I was scared, but it turned out to be Brother Hollinger and his son, Kevin.  Brother Hollinger’s our home teacher and they were looking for us.  

We told them what happened, and they said we should come with them because everybody was moving to Summertown.   So me and Julio got our backpacks and stuffed as much as we could in them, and Kevin rode Julio on his banana seat, and Brother Hollinger rode me on his cross bar to the meeting house.  

What did I learn that might help other people?  I learned that as terrible as things might be, you’ve got to keep your head and get on with life.  I miss my parents a lot, but we live with the Chesters and they’re nice to us.  The next spring Jimmy and the Scavengers went back to Evergreen School and chased the rats out and brought the clean skulls back.  Now they’re on the posts all around Summertown, or Zarahemla we call it now, and they scare the proles away.  I don’t know which ones are my parents, but I pretend I know and I visit them and talk to them sometimes.  I like to think they’re happy that they’re watching out for us.  

Sometimes I still cry at night, though.


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Brittani—the No-Goodbyes Girl

 

Brittani—The No Goodbyes Girl  

 

My name is Brittani Athanasius.  Don’t laugh.  I like my name.  It’s the only nice thing I ever had.  My father’s family were Greek fishermen before they came to this country.  His name was John and my mother’s name was Marsha.  I have no idea about my mother’s family.  I never met any of them and she didn’t talk about them.  In fact, she didn’t talk to me about much of anything.  I was just there, and I think I must have cramped her style.

My dad was the light of my life, except he wasn’t home much.  He had trips that took him across the country.  I used to beg him to take me along, but he said the insurance company wouldn’t let him have passengers.  But whenever he came home he always had something for me.  It was never much, but it told me he was thinking about me.  There were things like a piece of petrified wood from Arizona, a little bottle of ash from Mt. St. Helens in Oregon, salt crystals from the Great Salt Lake—things like that.

One time he brought me a baseball cap from the Los Angeles Dodgers, and I wore it every day until I went to high school.  After that my mother wouldn’t let me wear it to school because she said people would make fun of me and I wouldn’t be popular.  I couldn’t see that it made any difference.  I wasn’t popular, anyway.

Actually, my dad wasn’t the only one I didn’t see much of.  My mother worked from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. at the Essex Street Pub.  She made me come home right after school and then she left at 5:30 to go to work.  It fell on hard times and closed for a while, but she still went out.  I don’t know where.  No friends over to the house, no me to go to any friend’s house.  She had her spies in the neighborhood, and when I tried going out while she was gone she’d know it the next day.  Then I’d get whopped up along side the head when I came home and chased with her beating on me until I crawled into bed and pulled the covers up over me.  After that it was long sleeves and pants until the bruises faded.

Sometimes my mother would have friends to lunch and she would get them to stay and take her to work when she had to leave.  Sometimes, depending on the guy, they would tell me I was pretty.  I sopped that up like a sponge.  I didn’t get many compliments.

One day I was coming home from school and I saw my father’s bobtail parked on the empty lot at the end of our street.  I ran home and burst into the house shouting, “Daddy, Daddy!”  He usually swept me up and spun me around, but this time he just stood there in the middle of the living room floor, his face all red and his eyes kind of wild.  My mother was on the couch clutching a pillow in her arms.  She was bruised and crying.

I didn’t know what to say.  I just stood there looking at them.  My father said real dejected like, “I’m sorry you had to see this.  I’ve got to get out of here.  I’m leaving.”  And then he went into the hall closet and got his big suitcase and took it upstairs.

I said to my mother, “What’s he doing?  Where’s he going?  Make him stop!”

She just looked at me and shook her head.

Daddy came down the stairs bumping the suitcase on every step.  “Daddy, take me with you!  Don’t leave me here!”

“I can’t take you.  I’m sorry.”

“Why can’t I go with you?  I won’t be any trouble.  I promise!”

“I just can’t take you.”

“Why not?!”

“Ask her,” he said with a look of disgust and contempt in my mother’s direction.

I turned to her and said, “What’s he saying?  What’s he mean?”

The screen door slammed and I ran to follow him, only to find my mother’s grip on my upper arm so tight I couldn’t get out the door.  I was crying, “Daddy, Daddy!”

But he was gone and I couldn’t follow.  I was twelve.  I’ve never seen nor heard from him since.

Girls at school didn’t want anything to do with me.  Once a girl made a really nasty crack about my mother, and I jumped on her back, brought her down and fixed her good, right in the middle of the hallway.  That cost me three days’ suspension and another beating at home.

The guys were different, especially in high school.  I had my pick, for what little good it did them.  When they realized that, they didn’t last.  One night when I was a junior one of them who was slipping away (I could tell) came around with his older brother who I didn’t know.  My boyfriend’s name was Michael.  He said he really needed to talk with me, but there was no way I was going to have them there with my mother’s spies watching.  He kept pressing me and I got curious.  So I told them to go down to the end of the block and come back up the alley in the rear.

I opened the back door and talked with them through the screen door.  Michael said he knew that he had asked me to go the prom, but his mother’s friend had gotten her to make Michael take her daughter instead.  I was really disappointed because the prom is a big deal and I had already gotten a prom dress from the Salvation Army.  Michael said not to worry.  I could ask his brother Frank and we could go together.  I said I didn’t even know Frank, but Frank spoke up and said he remembered me from last year before he dropped out of school, and that he’d always liked me.   I didn’t know if I believed the story about Michael’s mother, but I knew there’d be no prom if I didn’t go with Frank.

Actually, Frank didn’t seem like a bad guy.  He’d had a lot of troubles and I listened with sympathy.  Misery loves company, I guess.  The prom was okay.  At least I’d gotten to go.  After that he started coming around after dark several times a week.  He’d throw pebbles at my windows until I opened the back door, and then we’d sit on the back steps and talk and talk.

He told me how his parents hassled him, and I wasn’t surprised later when they threw him out.  He crashed with a friend of his until he got a job, and then they shared the rent.  I guess you could say we were going together, except we didn’t go anywhere.

I liked my classes and I liked most of my teachers, but the word was out that Frank and I were together.  So the girls still didn’t like me and the guys mostly gave up.  I had a lonely senior year.

Frank must have been lonely, too.  His roommate left to move in with his girlfriend, and he worked mostly alone during the day.  He took junked cars apart and saved the parts on shelves to be sold by the brothers who owned the yard.

One day I came home from school and my mother wasn’t there.  That happened sometimes, when she stayed overnight with friends.  But when she didn’t come home for two days, I checked her room and found her clothes were all gone.  I walked the several blocks to the Essex Street Pub to see if she was there, but she wasn’t.  The owner said she’d gotten her paycheck three days ago and hadn’t come back.  He thought she was sick and he was really mad when he found out she’d left town.

I hadn’t really thought it through and got scared when he said she’d left town.  He was mad because he’d been keeping her job open.  He asked if I could wait tables, but I said I wasn’t old enough to serve liquor.  He said “Can you help in the kitchen and bus tables?”  I said I thought so, and he got me an apron and had a waitress show me how to do it, right there on the spot.  I’d clear the tables when customers left, then put them in the dishwasher and run the load through.

So suddenly I had my mother’s job, sort of.

It helped in different ways.  The waitresses shared their tips with me because I cleaned up their tables and reset them.  And I got a good meal every day, even if it was at the 2:00 a.m. closing.

It also hurt, because I got worn down.  Senior classes (a couple of them honors classes) all day and then working at the Pub from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. began to take it out of me.  I was tired all the time.  I even fell asleep during a history test.  A test, of all things!  My grades started to tank.

I picked up the mail every day from behind our front door slot and put it in a pile for my mother for when she came back.  Unfortunately, there were some bills I didn’t even think to open, and one day the gas was turned off and the meter was locked.

I only saw Frank on Sundays when we sat on my back steps.   I still wouldn’t let him come in the house.  Our house was an old row house only twelve feet wide, but there were fences on both sides in the back so we had a little bit of privacy.  None of the neighbors said anything to me, but then, they never had before, either.  Frank said I should move in with him and help him pay his rent, but I didn’t like that idea.

One day a letter came for my mother from the Division of Youth and Family Services.  I opened that one.  It said the school had referred my “case” to them because they were concerned about my grades and frequent absences (I was getting sick a couple of times a week).  My mother was to call a number within twenty-four hours.  Well, of course she couldn’t.  She hadn’t been home for weeks.

I knew trouble was coming and I’d better not be there to greet it.  So I took Frank up on his offer to split his rent with him and moved into his dingy apartment in a building even older than ours.  School was a lost cause and my health was bad, so I just stopped going.  At least I got some rest and felt better.

Living with Frank was strange.  He worked 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  I worked 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.  He was asleep when I got home, and I was asleep when he got up.  It was weird, but I also knew it was wrong.  I said I thought we ought to get married.

Boy, did that touch a nerve.  He said he didn’t need a piece of paper from some stranger in city hall to prove that I loved him, and I shouldn’t need one either.  I noticed he didn’t say anything about his loving me, but I understand men find that hard to say.  I said something about what we were doing being wrong and that being married would make it right.

That was even worse.  He began shouting about nobody having the right to tell him what was right and what was wrong, and all that kind of talk came from preachers and priests who didn’t want to get a real job and instead wanted to be supported by wage earners.  And he started using language worse than what I’d hear at the Pub.  I’d known him to get mad, but this was more than I’d ever seen before.  I learned to keep my mouth shut about marriage.

Then came what people called “The Collapse.”  In a matter of a couple of weeks, our money went crazy.  Businesses just shut down because nobody was spending and they couldn’t pay their people.  Trucks stopped running, and the marine terminal up the street went quiet.  We lost a lot of business from drivers who worked to and from the port.  But then we got more business from neighborhood people who didn’t have anything to do all day.  Soon none of that mattered because we couldn’t get deliveries of food and beer so there was nothing to sell even if the customers had money.  It was a mess.

Then the owner of the Pub told me he was closing the place for a while until things got straightened out.  He paid me off with greenbacks, which were practically worthless by then.  I said my grocery store had closed, and could I take some food home?  He said there’s nothing on the shelves, but to help myself if I could find anything.

I found two bottles of maraschino cherries and a can of water chestnuts.  One of the women in the kitchen offered me four stale torpedo rolls, but that was it.

In another blow, I went back to the apartment and found Frank had cleared out.  All that was left of him was a dirty sock in the corner of the closet.  I asked the old woman across the hall if she knew where he’d gone.  She said he went to live with his girl friend.

I said, “His girl friend?  I’m his girl friend.”

“No,” she answered without looking at me, “I mean the one who comes here every evening.”

I remember thinking that the dirty sock he left may have been worth more than he was.  I should keep it as payment in full for whatever claim I had on him.  But I didn’t.  (That joke seemed to make sense at the time, but  I wasn’t thinking too straight then.)

I was alone again, naturally.  All of a sudden I had a wave of yearning for my father, even though he’d never written to me or even sent a card on my birthday or Christmas since he’d left.  Once I had called his trucking company, but the girl there said he wasn’t with them anymore.

When I was twelve he had taken me down to the bay to be on his boat for a week with him.  I think the dock was at a place called Shellpile.  It wasn’t much of a place, just a dock, some gas pumps, and a business trying to raise oysters in wooden trays, and I think a camper or two.  Maybe he would be there, or maybe somebody there would know where he was.

I went back to the Pub and asked if I could have the map they have by the cash register that shows the whole southern part of the state.  Not a problem.  I rolled it up and went back to the apartment to study it.  It looked like about eighty miles to Shellpile.  If I could do twenty miles a day, it would take me four days.

I rolled up some things and stuffed them in my school backpack, and chose a pair of tennis shoes I’d gotten at Good Will and had used for about eight hours a day in the kitchen and busing tables.  Then I locked the door and braced it with a chair in case Frank had changed his mind.

It was hard to sleep that night, trying to decide if I was doing the right thing and worrying about being alone on the road.  My map showed I could take Route 45 for about ten miles to Woodbury, then Route 553 all the way down to Shellpile where the road ends.  There may have been shorter ways partly on the freeway, but I wanted to stay where I could duck out of sight real fast if I wanted to.

I dozed but didn’t really sleep all night.  At the first sign of light I grabbed my stuff and headed out, shivering in the morning chill but maybe more from being scared.  Ordinarily the roads would be humming with commuters going to work.  Blue collar workers start early.  But since the Collapse everybody was sleeping in.  I hardly saw anybody on the road and only an occasional car or truck, and no planes heading to the airport.  It was creepy.

But at the same time, I felt a kind of exhilaration.  I was free from Frank and his moods and put-downs.  I was done with busing tables and crude truckers.  (No, I didn’t “buss” the truckers—joke.)  I didn’t have to live with the embarrassment of my mother and her “friends.”  And I had the prospect of finding my father.  Slim as that may have been, there was a kind of comfort in the effort, like maybe like he was on the other end and expecting me.  “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” I guess.  I think it was Pope Alexander who said that.

I picked up the pace, counting cadence like you see in the movies.  Left, right, left—left, right.  I even sang to myself in time to the march.  I was in Woodbury before noon.  Months of eight hours a day on my feet were paying off.

Coming down North Broadway toward the creek I saw a police car pulled across the street.  Just one cop, but a welcome sight.  I wouldn’t have put anything past the few people I saw on the road.  But when I got up to him at the bridge, he was belligerent.  Where did I think I was going?  Did I know anybody in town?  Okay, but stay on Route 45, and if he caught me anywhere else he’d run me in.  Did I understand?

That sort of stung, but as I walked through town, yes, I understood.  Every shop was closed and some had been broken into.  Looking down one of the side streets I saw a  small group of people breaking into a house and running out with stuff.  Where were the rest of the cops?

My map showed there was an Alternate Route 553 branching right off of 45, so I kept walking through town and a mile or so further before I found it.  At least I didn’t have to leave 45 while in Woodbury and risk being run in.  This stretch was all suburban and a little rural, a lot different from my neighborhood.

By the time I got into Glassboro I was wondering about what to do for the night.  It was still plenty light when I passed the college dorms.  It didn’t seem like classes were running, but I could see a few people wandering around the campus, including the dorms.  They didn’t seem like students.  I joined them, trying door knobs until I found one that opened.  I locked it behind me.

Inside were a nice couple of rooms with a bathroom and little kitchenette.  The water worked.  And, hooray!  They left some dry breakfast food and a couple of cans of beanie-weenies.  There were no sheets or blankets, but beggars can’t be choosy, so I just curled up on the mattress with my spare clothes spread over me.

I guess it was about ten o’clock that I heard breaking glass across the lawn.  I got up and rooted around in the drawers until I found some paper and scotch tape.  I wrote in big letters, “STAY OUT—I’M ARMED!!!” and quietly taped it to the outside of the door.   I propped a chair under the door knob, then went back to sleep and slept the whole night.

Sunlight streaming in the windows woke me up.  I got a shower in cold water (wishing I’d remembered to bring soap) and changed my clothes.  Breakfast was beanie-weenies mixed with raisin bran.  And then it was back on the road.

There wasn’t much to the morning.  Route 553 skirted some small towns but there were occasional neighborhoods along the way and two or three seemingly abandoned new developments.   At an old picnic place called Garrison Lake Park there were some little old summer homes with old cars and some scary looking residents staring at me as I walked by.  I resisted the urge to run, but did pick up my cadence.  I think you have to look confident, like you know what you’re doing whether you do or not.

I crossed over U.S. Route 40, which was empty.  After a while there was another little park on the right with a couple of welcome port-a-pots.  Then there was another dead traffic light and 553 jogged a little and went past the prettiest church with a lacy wrought iron steeple and nice trees all around it.  It was deserted.

I kept going straight as a string until I got to a tiny village with a huge high school out in the middle of a field.  Just past the school was an old restaurant called the Centerton Inn.  There was an old general store across the road with a big sign on the porch: “Don’t bother.  Nothing left.”  Not even people, it seemed.

There was a beautiful lake on the other side of the road where it took another jog, then straightened out again.  I kept plodding along with woods on one side and fields on the other.  I passed some walkers coming toward me, from Bridgeton, I guess.  I felt like telling them there wasn’t much promise where they were going, but I was afraid to get involved.  Better to stay aloof.

About a mile further on was a lonely old building on the right: Friendship Finley Methodist Church.  I could have used some friends about then, but the place was quiet and tight.

A little way past that, 553 took a sudden turn to the left.  I was glad.  It meant I was going to avoid Bridgeton.  There was a little airport off on the left, also quiet, and another little church on the corner.  I checked the side door, which had been jimmied and damaged.  It had been repaired with a padlock in place, but even that had been cut and then put back like it hadn’t.  Still, not a soul in sight, so I slipped inside and found the restroom.  (Never pass an opportunity, Prince Edward used to say.)

Afterward, I washed my face and hands only to find the water petering out.  I guess I got the last of what was in the pipes.

Back on the road, I heard the growling of a car in the distance, only one of three or four I’d seen all day.  The closer it got, the worrieder I got.  I was out in the open with no place to duck, and I was tired and in no shape to run.  This was a long haul, my pack was getting heavier, and my favorite tennis shoes were starting to chafe.

I turned and could see the little noisy car in the distance.  I kept on walking off to the side, my head down and eyes straight ahead.  The car roared past me, then screeched to a stop up ahead.  It seemed like my heart had, too.  It sat there a moment and then started to back up fast.  So did my heart.

There were three young guys inside.  The one in the passenger seat grinned at me.  The driver leaned over and said, “Have you seen any gas stations?”

I answered, still walking, “Not since Route 40, and they were closed.”

“Where’re you headed?”

“Shellpile.”

“Hey, so are we!  Want a ride?”

My brain said, “No, no, no!”

My feet said “Yes, yes, yes!”

My soul said, “Don’t judge people by first impressions.  At least give them a chance.”

My ego said, “If you can handle truckers, you can handle these guys.”

I hesitated, listening to the debate inside me.  My feet, soul, and ego teamed up and won.

“Sure.  Thanks.”

Passenger got out, still grinning, tilted the seat forward, and I climbed into the back with a tall thin guy whose knees were almost bent up to his chin.  Off we went with the straight pipe muffler leaving an echo behind us.

The countryside raced past.  I’d forgotten what it was like to travel fast.  It just added to my discomfort.  This was not a good move, I decided.  I’ll knock off a few miles and then at first opportunity, I’ll get out.

There was a five-points intersection ahead, but the driver took the angle and as the sign flashed by I saw it said 553.  I relaxed a little.

“Do you guys have names?”

“Yeah,” the driver answered cheerfully, “I’m Vic, he’s my Bro (pointing to the passenger), and the big guy back there with you is Lyle.  How about you?”

I said, “Brittani,” with an “i.”  We came to another intersection and Vic slowed down and turned right, heading into Bridgeton.  “Where’re you going?  553 is straight!”

“I think I know where we can get some gas,” he explained.

In less than a mile he slowed down to a crawl.  We passed an auto repair place on the left and another about a hundred yards further.  They seemed deserted.  Vic turned the car around at the end of the block and drove slowly back to the repair shops.  He passed the second one we’d seen and moved on to the light blue place.  It was called “Blanco’s” or something.  He stopped in front of the open gate and just sat there for a minute.  No sign of life.  There were a few wrecked cars in the back, and he drove in and pulled up close to them.  The guys got out.  They had a hose and a half a dozen empty quart oil bottles.

I should get out now and disappear.  But I just got in and now we’re a mile off Route 553.  I hesitated and stayed in the back seat.

Bro got the dirty job.  He pried open the door to the gas tank to a wreck, took off the cap, and shoved the hose down into the pipe.  Then he knelt down and began sucking on the drooping hose.  The others were intent on catching the gas when it started to flow.

“Hey, what do you think you’re doing!?” came a voice from the side door of the garage.  It belonged to a bearded guy in a tank top and tattoos all over his shoulders and arms.  And in those arms was a shotgun.

Obscenities exploded from both sides as my guys dropped everything, ran back and jumped in the car, beard and tattoos approaching fast.  Off we went in a cloud of dust and cinders, out into the road without looking.  A few seconds later little balls of buckshot dinged the back of the car and rear window.

Vic wound it up to high speed.  My heart was pounding and soul wishing I’d gotten out while the getting was good.  The guys, though, high on their own adrenalin, started laughing and punching on each other, the car weaving back and forth on the road.

“553!” I called out.  “We’re coming up on 553!  Make a right!”  And mercifully we did.

As we sped down the road, Bro turned to me and said, “Hey, Brit!  You like poetry?”

I nodded.

“There was an old man from Nantucket . . ,” he began with dramatic flare, the windshield his audience.  When he finished, he turned back grinning, looking for my reaction.

I know that game.  It’s a kind of crude seduction.  And if you grin, you’re in.  That is, you’re fair game.  The others tried their turn with more limericks, songs, and dirty jokes.  I wouldn’t meet their eyes and I wouldn’t respond, even though a couple of the limericks were really funny.

We were bypassing Bridgeton and coming out into the country again.  The road was straight as a string and Vic was driving much too fast.  Suddenly he slammed on the brakes and looked over to the left.  “Do you see what I see?”

Nobody knew what he saw.

“I see a barn and I see a tractor.”

“So?”

“Tractors run on gas.”  And with that he started up again and pulled slowly into the farm lane leading to the barn.  There didn’t seem to be any cars or trucks in the yard.  I prayed nobody would be home.  “He’s got to have some five-gallon cans full of gas.  They’re probably red.  Holler when you see one.”

“Hey, lookee there,” Bro pointed.  At the corner of the barn was a cylinder tank with a crank on one end and hose wrapped around it.  “Jackpot!”

The three of them jumped out.  Vic opened the little gas tank door on the car and took off the cap, while Bro and Lyle looked for a can to fill from the big tank.

Then Vic announced, “Give it up.  There’s a padlock on the pump crank.”  Everybody stared at the uncooperative tank.

“Hey, Bro.  Get the crescent wrench from the back of the car.”

Bro opened up the hatch behind me asking loudly, “What’er you going to do, beat the lock off?”

Vic grinned as he took the wrench and pointed to a drain plug at the bottom of the tank.  He adjusted the wrench on the square plug and beat on the wrench handle with a stray brick until it started to move.  The other two guys came back to the car for more empty oil bottles.  Just as they got into position, the plug and wrench dropped off and gasoline began pouring out on the ground.  Each of them started trying to catch the flow in the little quart bottles, handing the full ones to Vic who ran them over to the car and emptied them in the gas pipe.  Gasoline was everywhere, puddling under the tank and getting splashed over everybody.  This was a bad scene.  Now was the time for me to make my exit.

But when I looked out my window I saw a pickup truck driving up the lane.  “Hey, we’ve got company,” I called out.

“Oh, man. . . ,” Bro complained, dropping his bottle into the puddle of gas at his feet and heading for the car.  Lyle did the same, then elbowed Vic out of the way so he could tilt the driver’s seat and fling himself into the back with me.  I was watching the farmer, who had pulled up behind us and gotten out and then reached in back of the bench seat and pulled out a shot gun.

“Don’t you move an inch, young fella, or I’ll blow your head off!”

Vic hung his head down, muttering “Shotguns.  Everybody’s got a shotgun.”  The guys were saying, “Come on, Vic, get in!  Let’s get out of here!

Vic reached slowly into his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, his head still lowered.  Then his hand went slowly into his pants pocket, retrieving a lighter.

The farmer went ballistic.  “What are doing?  Are you crazy?  You light that and the fumes will blow you sky high!”

Vic turned slowly to look at the puddle of gas getting bigger by the moment.  He flicked the lighter and tossed it into the puddle.  There was no big bang, but a puff of a fireball and the whole surface of the puddle was quickly a mass of flames.

The farmer shouted what must have been insults though I couldn’t understand him.  He tossed the gun on the seat of the truck and reached in the back to bring out a little red fire extinguisher.  He ran to the edge of the puddle, but by this time the flames were cooking the bottom of the big tank and licking up the side of the barn.  And Vic was in the car peeling out, leaving the old guy in a shower of pebbles behind us.

There were shouts and laughs and fake cowboy squeals out of these punks as we raced out onto 553 again, and me kicking myself for missing another chance to get out of their lives.

Bro shouted, “Look at that baby burn!”  I turned and saw a thick plume of black and brown smoke rising in the sky.

Route 553 came to a quiet little town—quieter than ever, I expect—and we roared around a couple of little dog legs before the road straightened out again.

After a while they seemed to quiet down.  They turned their attention to me and asked me about where I was coming from and where I was going.  I was frankly scared of them, and I answered openly, hoping not to aggravate them.

Then as I thought about it, I regretted being so candid.  Maybe they shouldn’t know that I’m completely alone and that I’m going to Shellpile where I’ll probably still be alone.  Were they really going to Shellpile or was that just something to get me in the car?  I was feeling pretty vulnerable.  This was a bad move.  I should have stayed walking.  It got quiet.  Everybody was thinking his own thoughts, I guess.

Vic piped up, “Hey, we have to go back.  I lost the gas cap!”  And they all laughed.

“Not a problem,” Bro answered.  “We can stuff a rag in it.  Anybody got a rag?  Britney, you got a rag?”  More laughing.

I wouldn’t even look at him.

He turned around in the seat, facing me full on.  “Hey, Brit!  What do you say?”

I ignored him and looked out the window.

“Hey, Brit!  You awake in there?”  He pinched me on my upper arm.  I pushed his hand away.

He was back with both hands, poking at me, pinching me.  I flailed my hands at his.

“How about your shirt?” grabbing at my sleeve.  “Can we use your shirt to plug up the gas tank?”

I hit him on the forearm.

Lyle got into the act and began pinching me—pinching me where he shouldn’t.  I twisted around and punched him in the mouth.  It cut his lip and he got really violent.  Bro grabbed at my shirt, tearing it with one hand and pushing Lyle away with the other.

To make a too long story short, it turned into a real brouhaha.  Vic turned off 553 onto a wooded lane and stopped.

A half hour later the little car roared off, leaving me crying on a bed of pine needles with nothing to my name but my tennis shoes.

I was afraid they might come back, so I collected a couple of pine branches to cover me as best as I could.  I limped out to 553 and started walking south, hugging the tree line in case I saw anybody coming.  I don’t know how far I walked like that, the pine needles scratching at me and me trying to see ahead through the tears.

Finally I came to a little clearing.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to cross that in the open.  I stood for a minute and noticed in the gathering evening light that the clearing was really a little pull-off, a small parking lot for an old shack that once must have been a fruit and vegetable stand.  But it was open and had a sign over it saying “SOUP—Noon to Nightfall.”

I straggled over to the dim opening, trying my best to cover myself.

“What has happened to you?!” exclaimed a heavy woman behind the counter.  I was so glad to hear a supportive voice I just put my head down on the counter and sobbed.  The woman turned away from the opening and came back, pushing a raincoat across the counter.

“Here, honey, put this around you and come around the side to the door.”

I got the coat on and left my branches on the ground.  By the time I got around to the side, she had the door open.  I kind of fell through the doorway into her arms.

A deep voice from the back of the shed bellowed out, “What’s this?  We’re starving here and you’re going to dole out good soup to every bum who comes by?  We’ve got kids that will go hungry tonight because of your foolishness!”

The woman answered, “Oh, be quiet, Brian.  This isn’t the time for that.”  Then, speaking to me, “Come sit down over here, honey.  Are you hungry?  When’s the last time you ate?”

“I had a roll and some maraschino cherries about noon,” I choked out, stifling the sobs.

“I’ll get you some soup.  Who did this to you?”

“Three young punks.  In a car.  About a mile back.”   

I saw the owner of the gruff voice move up to the front of the shed where I was.  He was tall, dressed in ragged black, a bushy black beard hangingover his neck, a wickeBrian as Hagridd red gash across his cheek.  In a softer voice he asked, “A silver Honda coupe?  Fast driver?  Came by about a half hour ago?”

“That’s them.”

The woman came back with a soup bowl and some bread.  She said her name was Elena.  She’s a pretty woman in spite of her ragged clothes.  She’s heavy, about thirty-five, I guessed, but with a noticeable limp and clump when she walked.  Oh, no, I realized.  She’s got a block of wood laced to her right leg where her foot should be.  Somehow the shock of this made me forget the hunger which had swept over me when I smelled the aroma of the soup.

“I shouldn’t eat the hungry children’s food,” I told her.

“Don’t pay any attention to Brian, honey.”

“Hey!” from the hulking figure.

Elena continued.  “Here.  Stick your right forefinger in this tube.”

I did so hesitantly.  It came out purple on the last joint.

“What’s your name?  Where are you headed?,” she asked.

“I’m Brittani.  I’m walking down 553 to Shellpile.  My father used to have a boat docked there.  Maybe he’ll be there.  Maybe I can help him go crabbing.”

“Britney.  Nice.”

“Brit-tin-i.”

“Yes.  Britney.  Nice name.  But you don’t know if he’ll be there?’

“No, I haven’t seen him in years.”

At that a voice came across the counter from the outside.  “The sign says ‘Soup.’”

“Yes, we’ve got soup.  Excuse me, Britney.”  Then to the customer at the counter,  “Let me see your right index finger.   Ah, looks a little bluish.”

“Yeah, I was here last week.”

And a deep voice from the back of the shed, “What’s this? We’re starving here and you’re going to dole out good soup to every bum who comes by?  We’ve got kids that will go hungry tonight because of your foolishness!”

The customer cringed a little.  “I don’t want to mess with him.  Give me some soup and I’ll get out of here.”

“I need the bowl back.  Sit over there at the picnic table, and when you’re done I’ll give you a roasted sweet potato for tomorrow.  Dip your finger in this first.  What are you going to pay with?”

“I’ve got a pair of pliers.”

“That’ll do.”

A crazed rant from the back: “Next time you come back, freeloader, you can stay for dinner and some of us will have meat stew!   Mmmwahhhaaaaaa!”

“Is he for real?” asked the customer.

“We have to let him have his way sometimes to keep him manageable.  Go on, eat your soup.  And don’t forget my bowl.”

Elena turned back to me.  I’d just about finished.  “Would you like some more?”

“Yeah, thanks.  It’s good.  What is it?”

“Peas, corn, lintels, some dried tomato, and chevon.”

“Chevon?”

“Goat.  Look, Britney,  you’ve got bruises all over you, your lip is swollen, and you’ve got another issue that really needs medical attention.  If you can sit tight for a while, we’ll close up when we haven’t had a customer for half an hour.  I’ll send Brian for the doc.”

I nodded gratefully as I ate.  Everything tasted so good.  The bread was wonderful!  Good food hadn’t been a routine item on my schedule for a while.  Elena questioned me, focusing on my family.

Mother?  Off on one of a series of relationships, disappeared since the Collapse.

Father?  Gone for years.

Boyfriend?  Disappeared also.

“Do you think the Guardians got him, or maybe he’s joined them?”

I raised my eyebrows at this, wondering what she meant.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “Things were never really good with us,” I admitted.  “I’m a neat freak, and he’s a slob.  I like to set a nice table, and he’s happy feeding at a trough.  I like nice things, and he imitates bums.  I want a house, and he doesn’t want the hassle.  The only interest he ever showed in a house was if it meant he could have a man cave to show off to his buds.  I want babies, and he’s ‘not ready.’  I don’t think he’ll ever be.”

“Doesn’t seem like you have a whole lot in common.”

“Yeah, we do . . . We were both in love with him.”

Elena smiled.

I added.  “He’s got a good line, though.  It’s like he can get inside your head and know what you’re thinking, and then he tells you what you want to hear, even though he doesn’t mean it.   And you kid yourself that maybe this time he does.  Why do people want to hear good lies instead of hard truth?”

“You said you both were in love with him?  Past tense?”

I thought about that.  “Ummm.  Huh.  Yeah.”

A group of about six presented themselves at the counter, mostly teens.   An older woman spoke up while the others stood in cowed interest behind her.   You got the feeling that the spokesman used to be heavier, but walking and scanty rations have melted the weight off her.  “You’re selling soup?”

“Yes,” responded Elena, her voice confident but kindly.

“What do you charge?”

“What have you got?”

“We’ve got some orange peels.”

“They’re not worth anymore now than greenbacks, if they ever were.”

“It says right on them they’re legal tender.”

“What else you got?”

A thin boy behind the woman spoke up, “I’ve got a pocket knife.”  The woman didn’t seem happy with this announcement, but Elena accepted it readily.

“That’ll do,” she answered.  “Let’s have the pocket knife, and you can all stick your right forefinger in this tube.”   Everyone complied, some with revulsion at the purple stain now on their fingers.  But that was forgotten quickly as Elena ladled up six steaming bowls of soup.

“Here,” she said, “it’s getting dark.  Take this lantern over to the picnic bench so you can see what you’re eating.  When you bring your bowl back you can get seconds, or I can just send you on your way with a roasted sweet potato for tomorrow. . . . Don’t forget the lantern.”

Elena sat down with me again and announced, “That ought to be the last of them for today.  Nobody likes to travel at night.”

“That was a lot of soup for a pocket knife,” I noticed.

“Well, yes and no.  Money’s worthless, and somebody here would like a pocket knife.  But that’s not the point.  You have to charge something so they can keep their dignity.  When people keep taking and taking too long, they lose their self-respect.  The next step is depression and hopelessness.  Finally that turns into hatred for their benefactors.”

“You didn’t charge me anything,” I said.

“You didn’t have anything.  Literally, nothing.  You were already at the bottom.  What you’ve been through could completely wipe out a girl emotionally.   Tell me, Britney, do you really think you’ll find your father on his boat at Shellpile?”

There was a long pause.  My spoon went still, and a lump came up in my throat so I had to wait a few seconds to talk.  “If I don’t, I don’t have anybody.  Everybody’s gone, without so much as a goodbye.”

“Britney, you noticed my foot?  Or rather, my lack of foot?”

I nodded.

“Things are a little harder for me.  Me and my husband don’t have any children, but just keeping a home running for the two of us is hard.  And I have the Soup Shack.  How would you feel about staying here with us?  You could help.”

A shout rose up outside near the door where I’d come in, toward the side of the shed, “Get back here, you little creep!  You’re not going to get away from us!”

For the first time I noticed through the side door window a wide chain link fence gate with two log posts holding it in place.  Large yellowish knobs topped the posts, and barbed wire ran the across the top of the gate.  A young boy, a frail teenager maybe, had pushed the gate hard enough at the bottom that he could squeeze past the post and onto the little pull-off parking area.

Avoiding the chained gate, the men after him burst into the back door of the roadside stand, shouting insults.  They crossed quickly and loudly past Elena and me, then out the side door to the front of the stand.  “Get him!” hollered the bearded Brian from the back of the stand.  “Punish him!  Make him hurt!”

The goons caught their victim and began beating him with clubs they’d carried on the chase.  The boy pleaded, “Let me go!  I can’t stay here anymore.  I hate it here.  Let me go!  I won’t tell!  I promise I won’t tell!”  The group at the picnic table sat spellbound, suddenly losing interest in their meal.

Blood began to flow and the boy fell silent.  The blows and threats kept coming for a period, but finally the pair tired of their sport and carried their bloody prize back through the roadside stand.  They stood him on his feet and hustled him out the back, Brian chanting loudly all the while, “Meat tomorrow, meat tomorrow!”

The party of six quickly finished their soup and with wide eyes returned their bowls to Elena.  “What’ll you have?  Seconds of soup, or a nice roasted sweet potato to take with you?”  All decided on sweet potatoes and hurried off into the darkness, the original vagrant returning his bowl and hustling after them.

Elena remarked as they left, “Just as well, there’s hardly enough soup left for seconds for anyone.  Would you like to finish it, Britney?”

I stared at her blankly for a few moments, thinking that my pilgrimage to Shellpile is really just a postponement of hopelessness and despair.  It’s not likely my father will be there.  If he were, would he be glad to see me?  He hasn’t been in touch for years.  Where do you go after end-of-the-earth Shellpile?  The three guys in the Honda are down that way.  Would they even leave me alive next time?

On the other hand, this is a weird place, filled with crazies and violence mixed with unaccountable kindness.  And soup.

“No more soup?  Okay, I’ll take it back to Tom.  He works hard and needs all the food he can get.

“What do you think?  If I can get approval, would you like to stay here with us?  It would be a blessing to me.”

The violence I had seen was disturbing.  The young boy being beaten for trying to escape filled me with misgivings.  Why did the boy hate it here?  Could Elena protect me from thugs like that?  My brain said move on.  But something in my heart said stay.  Was it a naive reaction to Elena’s kindness?   Was it the prospect of being helpful, of belonging?  Or was it just the food?  Any port in a storm?

Finally I nodded.  Elena smiled.  “You’d like to stay with us?”  Another nod.

“Good!  Brian, go find the doc and tell him we’ve got an abused girl out here.   Tell him what you’ve heard.”

The black beard bobbed a couple of times and the ragged hulk moved out the back door, reminding me of an incarnation of Harry Potter’s Rubeus Hagrid.

Elena produced a well-worn zip-lock bag and with my help worried the remains of the large pot of soup into it.

“I generally wait until we’ve had a half hour with no customers, but the soup’s gone and we’ve got other things to do.  Anybody shows up now, they’ll have to settle for a sweet potato.  Let’s close up the front.”

Then, taking one of the two lanterns with us, we went around to the front and lowered the plywood awning to close up the open window of the stand.

“This is going to work.  Look at how much easier this is with the two of us doing it together.”  Elena stood back to look at the effect.  Underneath the “Soup, Noon to Nightfall” sign was the closed awning top with the letters “Come back tomorrow.”

We went back to the side door, and Elena retrieved a length of chain hanging from a nail and wrapped it around the bottom of the chain link fence and around the gate poll where the boy had slipped through earlier, securing it with a padlock.   She motioned to me to go into the shack first, then pulled a heavy solid sliding door across the opening, bolting it top and bottom.   The light door with the glass closed from the inside.

“Look, little girl, we’ve still got some hot water on the woodstove that I didn’t have to use for more soup today.  Why don’t you take one of those cloths and scrub yourself down.  I’ve got a couple of errands to run.  The doc will be here before I get back.  Tell him everything you’ve told me.  Don’t leave anything out.  It’s important.  And don’t leave!  Everything’s going to be fine.  Trust me.”

I felt that if I did get washed and if I did wait, I’d have committed myself to a lifetime back in those pinewoods.  What kind of horrors forced that boy to risk a beating or worse by trying to leave?  They’re hiding something, and they’d never let me escape to tell about it.   And how could someone as compassionate as Elena live here unless she were somehow perverted herself?  What was I getting myself into?

But then, again, I felt a quiet peacefulness—possibly, I thought, a response to Elena’s goodness.  Elena wanted me.  I’d never really felt wanted before.  I wanted to be safe and to be useful for something.   With my disfunctional family and various boyfriends, I never really felt they wanted me.  That is, me as a person.  Even at the Essex Street Pub where I’d worked so hard for them, when the going got tough, I was put out on the street.  Elena seemed to like me.  I could help.  I could be useful.  I could have a place.

I reached for a cloth near the big pot of hot water.  There was a worn bar of yellow soap on the wooden table by the woodstove.  Just as I was trying to make a lather on the wetted cloth, the back door opened and a tall young man stepped in.  “Uh, oh, sorry,” and he turned to go back.

I grabbed the raincoat I’d placed on the chair beside me, having been half conscious that I might need it quickly.  “No, it’s okay.  Come back.  Elena’s not here.”

The young fellow’s eyes followed the plank floor and he moved into the light of the lantern.  He was tall, muscled, a worker obviously.   A stubble covered his lower face, a turned-

 

back baseball cap on his head, and topping that was a hood from his ragged navy blue sweatshirt.  He wore dirty baggy pants and worn out tennis shoes.  He had a doubled tan ShopRite plastic grocery bag in one hand.

“Are you the doctor?” I asked, trying to hide the dismay in my voice.

“No.  I thought Elena would still be here.  I’m going out and thought she could bolt the door after me,” he explained in a soft, almost shy voice.

“She’ll be back, but I don’t know when.”

“Maybe you could bolt it after I go out.  I’ll show you how.”

As we moved toward the door, I was struck by his dirty face and hands and by the dark circles under his eyes.  He looked sick and had a hangdog look, as if he’d been beaten down by everyone and everything.  He seemed embarrassed and wouldn’t look at me in spite of the raincoat now covering me.

As he was showing me the bolts on the heavy door, I noticed the contents of his bag: a coil of rope and a couple of plastic bottles filled with a clear liquid.  Water?  Probably not.  Alcohol?  Was he going out to sell bootleg alcohol?  Why the rope?

He assured himself that I knew to bolt both top and bottom after he left.  “Tell Elena I’ll come back another way.  I know the password.”

I worried that I might be doing something wrong in helping him.  “Are you sure they’d let you go out?  Will this make trouble?”  I pictured the goons tracking him down.

“I come and go as I please,” he said matter-of-factly.  He looked into my face and smiled slightly.  “Don’t worry about me.”  And then he was gone into the night.

I quickly bolted the big door into place and then moved to the back where I propped a chair against the back door.   Back at the woodstove I poured hot water all over me and lathered myself from top to bottom,   I kept rinsing myself with the ladle, basking in the warmth of the water.  The water drained through the cracks in the planks.  A hot bath seems to clean you outside and inside and gives you new eyes for the world.

The only towels were a small dishtowel and a few small dry dishcloths.  I’d almost finished when I heard bumping noises at the back door and the chair I’d set up as a barricade.   “Just a minute,” I called.  “I’m almost ready.”

The raincoat was cold and unpleasant, but it was all I had.  I moved the chair out of the way and the door swung open.  A chunky man about thirty years old came in carrying what seemed to be a plastic tool case.   His face was congenial and his clothing clean.

“Are you the doctor?” I asked again?

“No, but I’m all we’ve got,” he replied.  “Sit down.  Tell me what’s been going on.”

Whether he was a real doctor or not, he seemed very professional, and he was, as he pointed out, the best I had, regardless.  I told him the whole story of my day,  as Elena  had

urged, leaving out nothing.  Somehow, I didn’t feel embarrassed.  I sensed compassion and concern.

“I’ve brought a kit designed for your kind of situation,” he said.  “It should protect you from any lasting physical effects from your experience today.  Would you like to wait until Elena gets back before I treat you?”

“I don’t know how long she’ll be,” I replied.

“I’ll do whatever you say.”

Somehow I felt no threat from this stranger.  Like Elena, there was something about him that inspired confidence in this schizoid setting.  “Let’s go ahead.   You’ve probably got other things to do.”

“Thank you.”

In about fifteen minutes he was finishing and Elena came in at the back door.   “So, I see you’ve met.”

“Well, we’ve had a very intimate evening, but I don’t even know her name.”

“I’m Brittani.”

“Britney.  A beautiful name.”

“It’s Brit-tan-i.”

“Yes.  Well, Elena, I’m glad you called me.  Who knows what might have emerged from this bad experience.”

Turning to me he continued.  “This is not to say that you might not have flashbacks and find yourself suddenly in tears, or having trouble with your self-image.  It’s par for the course.”

I smiled.  “I’ve always had trouble with my self-image.  Why should today be any different?”

The doc smiled back, and seeming to want to avoid probing any further, ended the conversation with the wry comment, “Well, these are difficult times.”

“Thanks for coming,” Elena said, walking him to the back door.  “I knew I could count on you.”

“Yes, thank you, Doctor,” I added.

“Doc,” he corrected.

“Yes. . . Doc.  Thank you.”

As the door closed behind him, Elena turned to me with a broad smile.  “Everything is set.  Tom is aboard, and President Bradley says he’ll rely on my good judgment.  Except that he wants me to emphasize that if you come in, you’re in.  You can’t go out.  It’s a big decision.  What do you think?  Are you still in?”

“I don’t know, Elena.  This is a crazy place.  It’s violent.  It’s harsh.  It’s threatening.  Some of the people are really scary.  And some, like you and the Doc, have such a sweet spirit I don’t know what to think.”

I paused, looking into Elena’s quiet, calm, smiling face.

Then . . . “I guess I’m in.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.  I’m in.”

And that’s how I came to Summertown.  I found my place.  I found true friends, and a whole lot more I never dreamed of, as you’ll probably find, too, after you’ve been here a while.

And that’s the last of the preview.  You either love the book and can’t wait to order it, or you hate it and didn’t even get this far.  Admit it—you’re here and you want the whole book with its promise of great stories from fascinating people.  Come to Summertown!    Click here and get a paper copy sent to you right away.  


I can’t believe it!  You haven’t ordered your copy?  Don’t you care about these people?  Look at some of the chapter titles below.  Are you going to leave them buried down in their pages without your sympathetic ear to listen to their stories?

                      Table of Contents

Acknowledgements   page 8

George J. Downing—Foreword   9

Jay Summerhill—Preface (read me first)   11

Donald M. Wright—Introduction to Summertown   21

George Hollinger—Mobbers on the Tracks   26

Olivia Flores—Behind the Dryer at Evergreen School   41

Brittani—The No-Goodbyes Girl   49

You’ve read the above, so they’ve become old friends.  But what about Elena Brown?  Can you really trust her?

Elena Ortiz Brown—Chef at the Soup Shack   87

Tom Brown—Foreman Farmer   95

Johnny Presto—Coup d’Etat at the Capitol             107

What’s this about an armed takeover at the state capitol?  How would that happen?

Bryce Blackstone—The Chief Retires             127

Yes, he retires, and he goes out not with a whimper but a bang.

Mildred Volp—Perpetual Mother             135

Don’t you love it when the mouse gets the last laugh?

Howard Winzinger—The Society for Social Normalization              143

Look again at the acronym for this group.

Dolly Sorenson—On the Road with the Zars             151

14 year olds going to Youth Conference—with lances and short swords?  Yes. These are unusual times.

Donald B. Wright—Zars vs. Guardians             159

Billy Young—The S.G.A. and Beyond             179

What do you do with same gender attraction?

David McKinney—From Lexus to Nexus 201

Brian Kiefer—Gold and a Silver Honda 221

Remember Brian from the Soup Shack?  He asks, “Is it ever right to take someone’s life?”  How would you answer him?

Arthur Tolman—Evangelist without Portfolio 239

Camilla Peters and Lennie Grant—Sisters Now 261

Lennie Grant—One, Two, and Three 283

So, will the old high school feud continue?

Victorina Rabb—Last Prof Standing 293

Anyone for a lecture on the follies of mankind?

Drew Blue—A Kidnapping 311

Heidi Sandbergen—Goat Girl in Charge 319

How does a 17 year old change the opinions of a whole town?

Van Allen—Strange Proposals at the Town Meeting    337

Lorrie Sorenson—Dolly Goes Up, Lorrie Comes Down     343

What would cause a mother’s primal scream—a startling realization from the depths of her soul.

Oliver Sudden—Talking Love with Lorrie, New Girl in Town     365

Seriously now, just what is love?

Robert Coleman—The End of August at the Hotel Ozone   383

Cap’n Jack—Hermit on a Boat    391

Luther Haun—Proles and Guardians    409

Good becomes evil, evil good.  Persuasive.

Jeremiah Bradley—Former Idealist    419

Donald M. Wright—Journal Entry    461

Jay Summerhill—Epilogue    463

My List    464

“My List” above is your list of “Easter Eggs.”  How many did you find?

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