What Happens Now?
“Sitting there, with so many people surrounding me. Knowing Mom, Dad, and Chris weren’t there. That after all this time, they must be dead and that I was alone now—just Jacob, David, and Tina. I wanted to stand up and walk away from it all. Start down another road, to search for a place that the war hadn’t touched and where no one would look at me with suspicious eyes, or pity, or disgust. But I sat there, I ignored their stares, and I kept telling myself, ‘Here is where I belong. Here is where I need to be.’ It didn’t get any easier, not for a long while, but, eventually, I think I accepted it, and was accepted, by those who counted most.” – Jess’s Journal
“Hey Jess,” a hand shook her shoulder lightly, rousing her. Sarah’s warm brown eyes were smiling down into hers. “Todd is back from checking out your house. He says it needs work, but you can stay in it tonight if you would like. Or we can find you lodgings at some of the nearby houses if you would prefer.”
A soft dog tongue licked her fingers and she could feel Quincy’s soft, warm weight against one leg. Jess shook off the fog of sleep. “How long was I asleep?”
“A couple of hours,” the reply came from David. He was standing nearby, his arms full of a large box filled with cans of food and a large bag of oatmeal. “It’s mid-afternoon, and they rounded up a cart and horse to take us over there. How far is it, anyway?”
Jess sat up, Jacob squirming in his wrap against her, also waking up. “Oh, about a 25-minute walk. By horse? Something less; I’m not totally sure.” She changed Jacob’s diaper, which was a cloth diaper lined with moss and sweet grass. She gingerly pulled a sodden wad out of the diaper, then added more of the dry mix before pinning it on the wiggling, and now fully awake, baby.
Sarah watched her, one eyebrow raised. Jess smiled at Sarah’s dubious expression, “It helps absorb, and means I need to wash the diaper itself less often.” Sarah just shrugged and looked thoughtful. She knew of several families who might try this out; one of the women had been complaining non-stop that there were no disposables left in the town stores. Of course, she also deemed cloth diapers ‘disgusting’ so Sarah wondered how bad she would react to the moss and sweet grass. Not well at all, to be sure. Others might be amenable though. She made a mental note to ask Jess more about it later.
They headed out of the tiny little apartment behind the café and into the crowd. The faces were different, but it was just as packed and just as curious. Jess saw several familiar faces and nodded to them. One of them had been her teacher at Kentucky Trails Elementary when she was a kid. Jess could see how much was changed in Belton. Many of the buildings were gone, especially those that bordered along Highway 71, which ran through the middle of the town, the ‘old’ side to the west and the ‘new’ side of town on the east of the highway. The town had never been large by city standards. There were three sets of exit ramps and overpasses, another to the south, halfway to Peculiar, and all of them were now blown up and gone.
Todd explained this to them as they followed Y under one of the ruined overpasses and the horses plodded on through a maze of concrete rubble and twisted rebar. “What the troops didn’t destroy, we did. And then we put up rows of concrete barriers at the borders—on 155th and Highway 58 exits. Any single vehicles can usually make it at a crawl, but a big unit would be stopped in their tracks. Well, at least, that’s what we hope will happen.” He changed the subject quickly, not wanting to get into the long and steady arguments in the militia headquarters of why that was such a bad idea, considering they didn’t have the sheer numbers of militia fighters they would need to defend against another major incursion. “Looks like the herd’s been moved over toward your neck of the woods.”
A large herd of cattle, some 100 strong by the looks of it, were lounging on each side of 163rd Street. Two of the town militia members were standing near a tall fence that stretched in each direction, north and south, until the ends disappeared into the trees. The militia wasn’t just in charge of town security, but also the cow herd, Todd said with a grin, “Which means we handle the distribution rights when it’s butchering time.” He went on to explain that the herd had ambled in from Raymore one day, walking just as nice as you please down Highway 58. They had investigated the tags, driven through Raymore and south to just outside Peculiar, and found devastation wherever they looked. “If anyone had survived the m******e they were long gone,” Todd explained.
The cattle herd, along with about two hundred goats and literally thousands of chickens, had been the only things untouched by the rampage. “They killed the farmer and took what they could scavenge,” Todd told them, “but the fools missed the huge corral and chicken house behind a stand of trees. We had gotten hit hard here in Belton. Raymore had pretty much been wiped off the map. We would have starved that winter if it hadn’t been for all of those animals.”
They approached the fence and one of the militia men approached, nodding at Todd, and casting a long, curious glance at Jess and the kids, before noticing Sarah and her kids and nodding again. He undid the chain and opened a section of the fence for them to pass through. The horse and cart proceeded through and Jess heard the gate close behind her. It made her a bit nervous. They were being locked in?
Todd noticed her discomfort, “It’s only for the cattle, you understand. We have several sets of gates and fencing systems in the area. And you and the others can come and go as you wish with no restrictions.” Jess just nodded, feeling the fears rise up. This wasn’t Tent Five, she reminded herself, I have nothing to worry about here. This is my home.
The landscape around them was both recognizable and not. She saw ruin where houses used to be. Some were still standing and showed signs of fire, along with broken windows. Others were water-filled pits, the houses gone and only the rain-filled basements remained. The devastation was widespread.
“It wasn’t just the troops,” Todd said quietly, “There was also a bad storm last year. Straight-line winds; some even reported seeing a small funnel cloud. But the lightning was what did several of these houses in. And it was summer, as well, and it had been dry for weeks. The lightning started fires, which spread to several of the houses and, before we knew it, a good part of the neighborhood was on fire. Your street had some damage, but your house is fine.”
And with that pronouncement, they turned the corner and she was on her street. Most of the houses were gutted and empty. After a year on the road, she could usually tell in a glance which was occupied and which wasn’t. It was as if they had a certain presence, one that declared that they existed for a purpose, that of sheltering a family within. Seeing the devastation around her left her full of dread and Jess stared in dismay at the state of her family’s home.
Todd had been kind enough to do a quick fix on the front door.
“It had been hanging by a thread, mostly off its hinges,” he told her. “The fix won’t last forever, but it means you can at least open and shut the door for now. Maybe we can find a new one for you; there’s plenty of abandoned houses on the west side of town to choose from.”
She thanked him and walked into the house. It felt like a familiar stranger—someone she had known well and then lost touch with. Most of the nice touches, her mother’s touches, the things that had made the house feel like a home, were gone. What wasn’t gone was covered in cobwebs. No wonder Sarah had insisted on bringing a broom.
Jess and the kids began by knocking down all of the spider webs and sweeping what they could of the floor in the living room, kitchen, and front entry. Several of the townsfolk, including Todd Stevens, Mr. Banks, and Sarah helped clear the house enough for Jess and the kids to sleep in the living room and had promised more help in the morning. Jess and the kids had met Sarah’s two children, Cody and Laura. Cody was two years younger than Jess and Laura was four years younger, just one year older than David. She was delighted with the baby and insisted on holding Jacob while Jess helped clear out trash and broken glass from the kitchen. The clearing of the living room and kitchen was a good start, and the rest would wait until morning.
Night had fallen and the house was chilly. Unbelievably, the pot-bellied stove in the living room was still in place, although it looked as though scavengers had tried their best to move it. Deep grooves were cut into the wood floor where the stove had been dragged. One leg had actually broken through the floor and the scavengers and simply given up at this point. It took all of Mr. Banks’s, Todd’s, Sarah’s, and Jess’s strength combined to return it to its original position and then re-attach the vent. David and Jess had then built a fire in it and lit two candles.
The back sliding glass door in the kitchen was boarded up and, along with the newly fixed front door, provided safety from any larger marauding vermin. The windows of the house were intact for the most part, with only one window in the master bedroom shattered.
The others had left and Jess and her little family were now huddled together on the floor of the living room, which had been swept clear of broken glass, dirt, and blown-in leaves. Outside the moon had risen in the sky. Just a crescent sliver, with a vast array of stars surrounding it—identical to the moon she remembered, and the home she had grown up in. They had eaten a small dinner—two cans of green beans and one of Vienna sausage—straight out of the cans, too tired to bother trying to heat them up.
Sarah had instructed them to just come and eat at her café in the morning and Mayor Farley had grudgingly offered some of the community food stores to get them started. Other families had offered them a rotation of daily meals. No one had much, but many were willing to share what they could.
The house had been ransacked, and not just by the invading Western Front troops. Every canned good was gone, and so was most of the furniture, clothing, and what little jewelry Jess’s mother Julie had owned. Jess didn’t blame the townsfolk; after all, she had done the same while on the road. For that matter, so had David and Tina—you did what you had to do to survive.
Surprisingly, nearly all of the books were still there. Jess’s mom had collected books the way some women collect shoes. The classics, science fiction and fantasy, some biographies, and stacks of antique books she had scouted from antique stores or inherited from her grandparents. Considering that most people had used books as kindling in the hard times, Jess was amazed to see most of the books right where they had been left, undamaged and untouched.
Mice had definitely moved in, along with spiders, and what appeared to be a nest of birds. The floors and walls were filthy and Jess suspected that, if she had been able to better see the extent of the damage and filth her family’s home had suffered in the gloom, she would have been unwilling to stay the night inside. Only Jacob was able to sleep. The rest were huddled close together, jumping at every creak and groan, straining to listen for the telltale scurry of vermin, and uneasy at the thought of one of the large spiders invading their bedding.
“What happens now?” David’s voice asked, just as Jess had begun to slip into an uneasy sleep. She jumped, and Jacob whined quietly and sucked on his fist.
Jess didn’t answer at first and they both could hear the subtle scratching and scuttle of a mouse nearby. No doubt it was distressed to find so many large predators within its comfortable and quiet home.
“We get some furniture, plant the garden, and…” Jess paused, stunned with the realization that her parents’ home and extensive gardens were now hers and, more importantly, her responsibility to care for. “We…survive, I guess. And…make this place our home—a place for all of us.”
A few moments passed, and Jess listened to Jacob’s and Tina’s steady, rhythmic breathing. David spoke again, his voice thick with exhaustion, “It’s…nice, Jess. I’m glad me and Tina came with you. It feels…safe.” And with that, his breathing deepened and Jess lay there for a few minutes before also succumbing to the oblivion of sleep. It had been a very long day.