Wednesday, February 16, 2011

For The Greater Good 6


CHAPTER SIX



    Opening his eyes from the night’s sleep, Rick thought about the past three weeks, and the miraculous unexplained events that had brought them both to the shelter, and to each other. The guilt of his family’s deaths was strangely absent, his anger over their deaths wasn’t lacking, just suppressed. Not that he didn’t love his family; he did, more so than anything, but their passing and his drive to survive and move forward was nothing less than a supernatural benevolence from his Creator.

    He smiled as Melissa slept next to him. Her warm body and soft skin created a warm blanket which he wouldn’t rush to come up from today. Waking up next to each other for the past few weeks, with simple soft touches of their bodies and the intimacy of their love, overrode the dates on the calendar and anything else from the outside world. This day would be different, as the squares Melissa had drawn to mark the days were filled in. Today they would leave.

    Rick lit the olive oil fueled lamp he had made from an empty can of tuna and a strip of his t-shirt. The soft glow illuminated their concrete bunker. Melissa stirred and stretched.

    “Good morning, ” she said sleepily, as she did every day.

    “Good morning to you too, how did you sleep?” He said to her, as he did every day.

    They kissed, as they did every day.

    The routine of the past few weeks might have driven some people to anger or frustration, Rick and Melissa found a beauty in their time together. The confinement of the space and the lack of any modern conveniences were simply shrugged off. It was their new found, and deep love for one another which cemented any gaps the outside world and its life might have created.

    “Today’s the day, ” Rick said, Melissa nodded.

    They dressed in their somewhat cleaned clothes. Using the last of the soap, they had bathed the day before and washed their clothes, hanging them up to dry on a line strung from the water pipe to the door. Rick stuffed the sleeping bag back into the ultra small compression sack as Melissa opened a can of cling peaches. Sharing the sugar packed breakfast and then finishing with the backpack, they looked at each other.

    “Ready?” He said

    “Yeah,” she lied. Melissa was afraid of what was outside, but secure in who she was with.

    Rick stood up and started towards the door.

    “Wait, I have something I want to give you.”

    Rick sat back down next to her. Melissa reached around her neck and untied the green twine necklace with the small ceramic beads. “I wish I had a ring for you Rick,” she said as the nervousness of leaving changed to an emotionally charged moment. Melissa tried to put the necklace on him, however it was too small.

    Rick offered his wrist instead, wrapping it around twice and then tying it off. He looked at the bracelet; its value to him was more precious than anything of gold or diamonds.

    “Eat, Drink and be Merry…For Tomorrow You May Die,” she said smiling and offered, “Rick, I umm.”

    “Melissa, I love you.” Rick’s words filled in the incomplete sentence she started.

    “I love you too.” Joyful tears flowed down her cheeks, matching his own. They hugged and kissed.

    The intimate moment lingered, and then passed. Rick again started to get up.

    “Wait. I have one more thing to do, ok?” Melissa took the multi-tool and opened it, scratching into the wall the date of their departure, May 8. Melissa had engraved into the wall a journal of their experiences, hoping that in the future someone might read it.

    “Are you ready?” He asked, wanting to head out of the bunker for good..

   “Yeah.”

    “Good let’s go see if there are any zombies out there,” Rick said, chuckling.

    “Shut up…that’s not funny,” she said quickly. The horror movies of the past came back into her mind.

    Finally they were finished and left the room. The culvert was their new toilet and both pinched their noses as they went to the rat’s nest of debris which they would have to dig through and climb out of.

    Rick and Melissa put on their outer garb. She had the rain gear and he had one of the contractors bags with holes cut out for his head and arms. Wrapping cloth around their faces to guard against fallout dust, he began to pull down debris, finding an opening. Rick climbed through first, being careful not to cut or puncture himself on any of the nails which were everywhere. Melissa passed the pack and the range bag up to him, setting them aside; he reached down and grabbed her hand, pulling her up and out of the mess.

    Both stood on top of the debris and looked around. The devastation was indescribable and total. No homes stood and not a single tree had leaves. The early morning light cast a putrid gray pall over everything. Smoke lingered over the area like a fog while the rotting stench of death was everywhere.   

    They had discussed this moment many times and both knew what to do. Rick started to fast walk along the rubble strewn road. Pausing at his once silver CR-V, which was now heat blistered black with the windows melted and blown out, he continued, shaking his head. They moved through the gray radioactive dust and away from the blast zone as fast as they could. The pair moved continually, sweating in their outer garments, pausing only briefly to take a quick drink from the packs water bladder.

    Rick looked at his watch he saw that they had been moving for an hour, covering maybe a mile. The going was tougher that he had thought. Out of breath and out of shape, they took a breather against the side of a once beautiful home, now a burned out shell.

    “How are you doing?” he asked trying to catch his own breath

    “Ok…this is horrible. I feel sick.”

    “Oh?”

    “Not from the dust, but from seeing all of this,” she said waving her arms around their new world.

    “Yeah I agree,” Rick paused taking a sip of water, “We have to keep moving.”

    Moving forward, it wasn’t too long before they started to see a change in the level of destruction. Finally they had reached the edge of the blast zone. The homes were still standing with their windows blown out, a few were burned, but more and more they saw homes that were in decent condition. Even though the blast damage was moderate here, there were still no people. The roads were covered with the fine ash of fallout, but they were the only ones leaving footprints.

    Taking a road which wound its way through an exclusive area, they found themselves in a cul-de-sac with four large stone houses. The quiet was broken by the sounds of mournful lamentations from a man sitting by the roads edge directly ahead of them. This was the first sound they heard of their new world.

    Rick drew his pistol and held it out of sight as Melissa shielded herself behind him. Approaching the man, it became apparent that he could not see them, as he stared in a slightly different direction away from them. It was the crunching of the stones beneath their feet which drew his attention.

    “Hello. Is anybody there?” The man said. 

    “Hi, are you ok?” Rick asked, drawing closer.

    “Oh, it is so good to hear someone’s voice. I haven’t heard anyone in…I don’t know how long, since that day I guess.”

    Rick looked down at the man sitting on the ground next to the gutter. His skin was blistered and peeling, it had the appearance of torn pieces parchment paper. The man’s eyes were just gone, empty sockets of black gel, mixed with yellow green pus, dripping down his cheeks.

    “My name’s Ira…” he paused, turning in their direction “…what’s your name?”

    “I’m Rick and this is Melissa. Are you in pain?”

    “Yes, very much so.”

    “Is this your house Ira?” Melissa asked.

    “Yes. My wife and daughter are inside making dinner. I came out here to get something to drink. This is the best water, nice and cool. I think it’s much better than bottled water, would you like some?”

    Rick looked at the muddy, fallout filled gutter that Ira was drinking from.  “No thank you, we’re not thirsty right now. Did you see the blast, Ira?”

    “It was the last thing I saw. The light was so bright, and the heat…” he sighed, trying to remember specifics, “…I was in the back yard working in the garden, and just glanced up. You know, I can’t walk now.”

    Rick didn’t know what to say to the man, it was hard for him to fathom how he could have survived in this condition. He looked at Melissa; she started to vomit as Ira’s stench drifted up to them. 

    “Have you seen my wife and daughter?” Ira asked

    “I thought you said they were inside cooking dinner?” Rick questioned and then realized that Ira was bordering on dementia.

    “I don’t know. I haven’t seen them in a while,” he said softly, “Would you do me a great favor Rick?”

    “Sure, what would you like?” Rick said out of politeness.

    “I want you to kill me.”

    Rick stared at the shell of a man, shaking his head. “I can’t do that Ira.”

    “You have to. I’ve tried and can’t find anything…” his words trailed off “…there are no cars for me to get hit by and I don’t have a gun. Please.” He begged.

    Melissa unzipped the range bag she was carrying and took out the .22 target pistol, handing it to Rick.

    Rick pulled the slide back and released it, creating a metallic click from the slide inserting a live cartridge into the chamber. Releasing the safety, he handed it to Ira. “You have one shot Ira; you’re going to have to do it yourself.” 

    Before he could explain how to fire the weapon, Ira put the barrel into his mouth and squeezed the trigger. Although the .22 isn’t a powerful round, its impact into Ira’s head pushed out fluids and gray matter through his eye sockets. Ira fell over instantly dead.

    Rick and Melissa stood silently, sickened by the speed and violence of the episode. 

    Melissa turned and went up the slate walkway towards the house. She stopped at the colonnades that framed the front of the home. “Are you coming?”

    Rick stood and stared at Ira. His mind questioned, “Who was this guy? What did he do for a living? How in the world did he survive? If he could survive this, what about Linda and the kids?” The thought of his family surviving and going through a similar fate with this level of pain was too much to contemplate. Nodding yes, he followed, leaving Ira lying on the ground.

    The foyer was magnificently laid out with marbled flooring, antique tables and gold edged mirrors. Rick unbuckled his pack, letting it down softly. He and Melissa walked into the home, their heads on swivels, gazing at the expansive and expensive interior. “Nice place, huh?’ He said.

    “No kidding.”

    Passing by the living room and on their way into the kitchen, the smell hit. The familiar and disgusting odor of death, filtered down from the upstairs. “I’ll check it out,” Rick offered. He climbed the wide semi-circular staircase, with his pistol in hand. Following his nose to the source, he entered a bedroom. Lying on the bed was mother and daughter. It was impossible to tell what they looked like alive, as their faces were disfigured and blackened from the decomposition and thermal blast. Both women’s bodies were distended due to the build up of gases in their abdomens, making them abnormally balloon shaped. Rick went around the side of the bed and saw an empty bottle of sleeping pills. He left the dead, closing the door on his way out.

    Melissa was going through the kitchen, looking for anything edible or drinkable.

    “Looks like Mom and daughter committed suicide.” Rick said as he walked into the huge kitchen. “Find anything?”

    “Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff, but nothing seems to jump out. The fridge is filled with rotten veggies and meats.”

    “Why don’t we hang out here tonight?”

    “Fine with me, I’m really beat.”

    “Ok, I’ll check the place out. Why don’t you see what we can eat, and I’ll make dinner.” Rick wandered throughout the house. After a while it didn’t bother him to poke around in someone else’s home, as they were dead and he wasn’t. Rick and Melissa’s morals and inner feelings of benevolence towards their fellow man were becoming seared from the outside horrors.

    Slowly walking to the rear of the home, Rick paused at the French doors, which gave a panoramic view of the backyard. Opening them and stepping out onto the neatly tiled patio, he muttered. “Damn this is nice.” The backyard area was quiet and secluded. A large grill sat off to one side, near the separate multi-car garage. Rick remembered seeing a grill like this in one of those specialty outdoor shops; the price was almost as much as his car. The door beneath the polished stainless steel grill revealed two tanks of propane; their gauges indicated they were almost full. Turning on the valve and pressing the ignition button, he heard the familiar hissing of the escaping propane but not the whoosh of it igniting. Opening the heavy lid, Rick lit a scrap piece of paper with his lighter, tossing it inside and heard the propane light. “Hey Melissa, come here.” He shouted to towards the opened doors, as he wanted to show her the grill.

    Melissa came to the door. “Rick these folks must have eaten out a lot, there’s not much here, food wise. I did find a few things, though. When do you want to start dinner?”

    “As soon as possible, I’m really hungry,” Rick said walking to the detached garage. Opening the door and stepping inside, he stood in Ira’s home office. Moving the drapes aside to let in some of the diffused sunlight, Rick glanced at the photos on Ira’s wall behind the desk. Images of Ira and his family, vacations and various gatherings hung neatly on the wood paneled wall. Rick moved the large winged-back leather chair away from the desk, sat down and reclined. It was incredibly comfortable. Next to Ira’s desk was a humidor. Opening the lacquered wood box, Rick smelled the rich aroma of aging cigars. Rick picked one out of the neat arrangement, and drew it beneath his nose, savoring the smell. Rick was also a cigar aficionado, and knew the brand that Ira had stored was expensive. On top of his desk was an engraved name plaque. Rick spun it around and read, “Ira Goldstein, PhD, M.P.A., C.G.P.” Within a few moments he left, feeling completely out of place and ill-at-ease in Ira’s personal space.

    A door off to the side led into the garage. In the dim light, Rick made out a late model mini-van parked against the far wall in the spacious three car garage. He opened the sliding door and flicked his lighter; its interior didn’t have the telltale dust film which covered everything outside. “This is where we’ll sleep,” he said to himself. Looking under the nearest seat for the release lever, he found it and quickly removed the seat from the van. Moving to the far side he did the same, and folded the rear seats into the floor.   

    “Rick?” Melissa called.

    “Hey…I’m in the garage,” he called, closing up the van, and leaving through Ira’s office door. “I found us a place to sleep.”

    Melissa stood at the back sliding door, cans tucked under her arms and holding two pots. “I cleaned these, and found some chili and soup.”

    “Excellent. I’ll start heating them up on the grill.”

    “I also found some things that we can clean up with.”

    “Great,” he said, taking the pots and foods and setting them down on the outside table, being careful not to allow any of the fallout dust onto the inside of the pots. Rick went back inside the house, found his backpack and the range bag which Melissa carried, and took them to the garage.

    Heading back into the house Rick ran into Melissa as she was walking out. “Hey, I found these.” She held out a pack of batteries for both of the flashlights.

    “Fantastic!” He gave her a quick peck on the lips, “I’m going to set the food on low temperature and then take care of something.”

    “What’s that?”

    “I’m going to bury Ira.”

    “Rick Martin…I’m impressed.”

    “Why?”

    “Because you’re showing…” she paused as she touched his chest “…a tender side. You’re not just a Redneck Neanderthal after all; you are a big softie aren’t you?” Looking up at him, she asked, “Is that why you didn’t shoot him?”    

    Rick sighed. “I couldn’t shoot him,” Rick said quietly and took a deep breath. “If Ira wanted to kill himself; that was his business. I couldn’t do it.”

    Melissa smiled, which melted Rick. “When you finish I’ll have something for you. But first I need some help.” They headed back into the kitchen. Melissa led him to the storage closet, inside were four 5 gallon bottled water jugs. “I don’t know why these people needed bottled water; after all, there is a reservoir near here, right?”

    “Yeah there is. I remember a couple of years ago; there was a big flap on the news about a gas station near here that had a leaking tank. The leaking fuel, which was treated with MTBE, got into the ground water. A guy I worked with lived in this area, and said that their choices were to have a very expensive water purification system installed, or use bottled water.”

    She nodded. “If you’ll take a couple of these bottles out to the garage, I also have some things to do while you’re burying Ira.” Melissa picked up a laundry basket filled with supplies she had gathered, and headed out to the patio. Rick followed with a single bottle, and then returned for another.

    Walking around outside Rick found a separate small building, and opened the door. He found a nicely equipped workshop. Locating a shovel, Rick walked around the other side of the large home to the front yard. Looking down at the man who accomplished much with his life, a man who was now no more than a lump of decaying flesh, he said. “Ira, I’m going to give you a final resting place. I want to thank you for letting us use your house. Melissa and I will take good care of it while we’re here.” Rick started digging. He went down a couple of feet, not the typical six feet of a formal grave. Taking Ira by the shoulder, he rolled him into his grave. Rick wiped the sweat from his forehead, thinking of a few final words. “God, I didn’t know this man, like you did. I do know he suffered greatly.” He paused, trying to find the right words. “I ask that you take Ira into your care.” It only took a few minutes to cover him.

    Slowly he moved around to the rear of the house. Rick was exhausted. Melissa had moved the heavy grill to the outside of the garage door, which she had somehow opened by herself. He noticed that she had also mopped the concrete floor with a towel and push broom. “Wow!” He exclaimed.

    “It wasn’t that hard,” she said “The grill is on rollers and moved fairly easily. The garage door was heavy, but once I got it started, it went right up and locked in place,” she said smiling, sweaty and tired.

    “I am impressed. You hippie women are amazing,” he said, smiling.

    Melissa’s exhaustion faded away as she got her second wind. “Look at this,” she said, taking her hands from behind her back and holding out two new toothbrushes in their packaging. “I also found this.” A bottle of roll-on deodorant was in her other hand, with a razor and can of shaving cream.

    On the side burner of the grill sat a large blue enamel pot, filled with water and starting to show vapor as it heated. “Did you find us some crabs?” Rick asked jokingly, as it was the same type of pot used for steaming the Maryland delicacy.

    “No, it’s for washing up. I don’t know about you, but I am filthy and sweaty from walking through all of that dust,” she said, wiping her forehead with her shirt sleeve.

    “I am too.” Rick took the food, which he had neglected to put into the pots before burying Ira, and got them started on the grill. “Now, if we could just get some rain, we’d be in fat city,” Rick said, looking up at the solid gray sky.

    “Rick, why didn’t you bury Ira’s wife and daughter?”

    “If I started burying every dead person we came across, we’d never be able to leave. Besides, I didn’t know Ira’s wife and daughter when they were alive.”

    Stripping out of their clothes and washing each other, as they had been accustomed to doing in the shelter, they shaved, brushed their teeth and used the deodorant. Melissa took the dirty clothes and put them into the vat of hot water, along with a squirt of dish soap. Rick took the two pots with their food and started towards the van.  

    “Stop.” She said taking the food. “I’ll do this. You stay here for a minute, ok?” she said smiling.

    Rick let her do whatever she was planning on. A moment passed and she called out from inside the van, “Ok, you can come in now.”

    Stepping inside the van, the first thing he saw were two tall tapered dinner candles, their flames orange glow illuminated what Melissa had created. She had spread a tablecloth on the floor and had the Goldstein’s fine china and crystal arraigned. Four bowls of steaming chili, chicken soup and another filled with potato chips were the main course. On Rick’s side were two bottles of unopened warm beer; she had a bottle of wine.

    “Oh, this is really nice. Melissa, I am…speechless.” He said as the glow from the candles cast a warm light on her clean nude body.

    She smiled at his appreciation, and leaned over to kiss him. “Glad you like it.”

    “I do, I really do.”

    They opened their drinks. Rick’s beer foamed up, spilling out and along his hand, which he greedily lapped up. “Let’s toast, ok?” she said.

    “Ok…go ahead.”

    “Here is to a long life together, and to peace.” They touched glasses.
 
    It all sounded so normal, and yet surreal. “Here is to you and me, may we see no more death or suffering…and may we grow old together.” Touching glasses again, they drank and ate in silence. Rick looked at her. “Eat, Drink and Be Merry…right?” He said smiling, intentionally leaving out the last part of the phrase.

    They finished eating and gently placed the china and crystal into the laundry basket, planning to clean them in the morning. It was twilight, the first they had seen in almost a month. Looking out the through the garage door to the world outside, they felt at peace with themselves and their surroundings.

    Melissa broke the quiet. “We have had Eat…and Drink, what are we going to do about Merry?” she said seductively.

    Rick smiled. “We could play cards.”

    She shook her head no.

    “Checkers?”

    “No”

    “Hmm…” he said rubbing his clean shaved chin. “…What do you suggest?” he said smiling as he reached out to embrace her.

    Lying side by side in the van, satiated from the food and their sexual intimacy, they looked at each other, savoring the tenderness and touches of the moment. It was painfully hard to stop their brief respite from reality, but it had to be done. Rick was the first to move; he got out of the van and put his pistol and the now recharged flashlight inside. Opening the pack, he dumped out everything, finding the sleeping bag and tossing it inside. They both hung up their clothes to dry, and with everything finished, climbed back inside.

    “There is something I’ve been meaning to ask you about,” he said as they lay together on top of the opened sleeping bag. “Are you concerned about getting pregnant?”

    Some past pain was apparent by the look on her face. “I can’t get pregnant. When I was thirteen years old I had a tumor, and they had to remove my ovaries.” She looked at him and quietly spoke. “There won’t be any kids from me.”

    He held her. “I’m sorry,” he said, kissing the top of her head and savoring the clean fresh scent of her hair.

    It was now dark outside; a distant, loud booming sound interrupted their solitude. Melissa sat up, startled.

    “It’s thunder,” Rick said.

    Melissa lay back down and pulled herself in tighter to him. “So, are you also a Weather Man?”

    Rick chuckled as the sound of pelting rain came through their shelter. He got up and opened the door.

   “No…stay,” she whined.

    “I want to see the rain,” he countered, opening the door and stepping out into the dark garage. Turning on the ultra bright flashlight and shining it on the grill, he said, “Melissa, check this out.” 

    She stepped out with him and saw the rain, black drops of mud, covering everything in a dark gooey mess. “Eww.”

    “Looks like God is cleaning up,” Rick said. They went back inside the van, listening to the rain for a while, and then fell into a deep sleep.

    It rained all night and well into the morning. Waking to the rain and more thunder, they stretched their tired and sore muscles inside the van. It was cool outside and their clothes were still wet from the previous night, so they made the best of the situation, snuggling and falling back asleep.

    The rain stopped in early afternoon. The skies cleared, and for the first time in a month they saw blue. Sometime during the night the rain had cleared out the dust and filth in the air, everything was now fresh. Rick knew it would take time for the fallout to completely degrade, however for now there wasn’t the permeating dust.

    Rick and Melissa decided to stay another night. They washed the dishes from the previous day and found some paper plates, using them instead. Hanging their clothes outside in the sun and the crisp spring breeze allowed them to dry before evening. The pair refilled their supplies, ate and then rested, sleeping throughout the night.

    Morning arrived with gray skies and sixty degree temperatures. Rick had found in the vans side pocket a road map of the area, and in the glove box was the Goldstein’s registration. He now knew exactly where they were. Dressing and covering up with the protective gear and masks, they set out for their next planned stop, Loch Raven Reservoir.

    The roads were abandoned, but still had many cars blocking any possibility of straight-line travel. They arrived at one end of the Reservoir in mid-afternoon. Rick felt they could go another mile along the smooth yet twisting road, and then set up camp.

    Camp was a simple affair. The tarp lay on the ground with the small stove and some twigs to cook their meal. They were situated on a small hill, and had a clear view overlooking the serene and picturesque lake. The only sound was the wind moving through the trees.

    Later that evening Rick had made a campfire, which gave off comforting light and heat. As they sat around the fire, they heard sounds in the distance. A group of five shots clearly indicated heavy machine gun fire. A helicopter’s rotor blades chopped at the air, echoing through their area. Within a few seconds, two large explosions boomed.

    Rick stood up and scattered the fire, stomping it with his feet, and dousing it. “That’s a machine gun, probably a fifty caliber, and it also sounds like a couple of rockets exploding,” he said, becoming fully alert and nervous.

    Melissa looked stunned and scared. “Who do you think is doing the shooting?”

    “I don’t know, but I can tell you that Mr. Joe Blow, the average citizen, doesn’t have heavy weapons like that. We should cover ourselves up and stay out of sight as best as we can tonight.” They quickly moved their tarp and sleeping bags beneath a low hanging evergreen tree. Rick silently drew his pistol, leaving it outside the bag within arm’s reach.

    They slept briefly and restlessly that evening, waking very early the next morning. Rick pressed the stem on his watch, the dial glowing a ghostly green; it was slightly past 4 am. Rolling out of the bag and the warmth of Melissa wasn’t as hard to do, with the fear of getting home alive. They dressed, and ate a can of fruit cocktail together. Stumbling down the hill through the brush in the dark, they made it to the road.

    Before heading off, Rick whispered into Melissa’s ear, “I love you,” and then kissed her good morning. The pair walked along the smooth asphalt dark road, sometimes holding hands, other times single file. They reached the Dam around daybreak. Fast walking non-stop for two hours, left them both very tired. They took a break beneath a tree along side of the road; still apprehensive about the previous night, they shared another can of fruit, some water, and then started out again.

    “How much further?” Melissa asked.

    “We have about five or six miles to go. Once we get out of the Reservoir area, its all houses and developments until we get home.”

    “Home…I like that,” Melissa said.

    Rick didn’t tell her that in order to get to the homes and developments, they would have to hike up and down steep hills. An hour later they crested the largest of the hills, both tired and sweaty with muscles screaming. Resting beside an apparently unoccupied house, they shed the pack, bag and outer garments. They lay down on the grass to catch their breath, listening for anything that might indicate friendly civilization. They heard nothing.

    Eating another can of food, cold green beans, they loaded up again then set off. In the hour break, their leg muscles had tightened up and it took a couple of blocks for them to work the kinks out. They were in a neighborhood now. It was eerily silent, no kids playing, no dogs barking and no horns honking. Melissa noticed a column of black smoke rising on the horizon. Something was burning a few blocks over; they picked up the pace and came upon a large road. In normal times this road was a heavily traveled main artery, with cars lining up for miles during rush hour; today only dead cars blocked the road and no people.

    Walking along the sidewalk in front of the old homes which were being turned into office buildings, a male voice called to them. “Hey!”

    Ricks hand went to his holster.

    The voice said “Don’t do that, if I wanted to shoot you, I would have already done so.”

    Rick looked at the open window of the house where the voice came from. “Hello.” It was all he could say.

    The man behind the voice appeared at the window. ”What are you doing?”

    “We are going home, why?” He said, slightly perturbed

    “No reason. My names Charlie, what’s yours?”

    “Rick, and this is Melissa.” He said stepping to the front gate of the waist high chain-link fence. “Do you mind if we talk?”

    “Come on up to the porch.”

    Rick and Melissa went through the gate and up on the covered front porch. Charlie opened his front door and came out and sat on the floor, shielding himself by the three foot solid parapet, from any outside view. “Sit down, and get out of sight of the road.” He said

    Dropping the pack and bag, both sat down like Charlie, shielded from view. Rick extended his hand to Charlie and they shook. “Nice to meet you too, Charlie. Why are we sitting like this?”

    “You don’t want to get shot do you?” He said seriously. “So where did you come from?”

    “Towson…we got caught in the nuke blast and spent the past month sheltered up,” Rick said.

    “No shit?” Charlie rubbed his unshaven face as if he was trying to determine if he was being lied to. “Tell me about that.”

    Rick gave him a rundown of their previous events, and then asked,”What about you? How did you make it through?”  

    The balding older man took a deep breath. “I figured something like this might happen, so I put in a shelter a long time ago. When the lights went out, I thought it might just be a power failure. Then I saw all the cars stopped…” he said, pointing to the mass of cars clogging the street in front, “…I thought it must be EMP. That’s when I went into my shelter. The blast really shook my house. Anyway, I the last thing I saw on TV was the Weather Channel, they were talking about a front that was blowing this way and then would circle back around, so I just stayed put knowing that we were going to get a double dose of radiation.”

    Rick listened intently and nodded.

    “When I came back out last week…” His voice trailed off “…I don’t see too many people, and the ones that I see, aren’t the most friendly,” he said with a wry gap toothed smile.

    Their conversation was interrupted by a series of distant small pops which caused Rick and Melissa to lower their heads.

    “Aw, they’re a few blocks away, you get used to it after a while”

    “Are you the only one around here that’s survived?’ Melissa asked

    “I don’t really know about any of the others, but cockroaches always seem to survive.”

    “Cockroaches?” Melissa questioned

    “Thugs, riff-raff, whatever you want to call them. About a week after the blast, a helicopter flew over and was broadcasting on a loudspeaker, that everyone should leave and go the Police Station on Harford Road. They came back later that week and said that a curfew was in effect, anybody caught outside at night or caught looting would be dealt with severely.” He paused and then continued, “After that, the gunfire started. I think that the cockroaches felt that they could take over whatever they wanted to. I imagine in time they’ll get tired of fighting each other and gang up on everyone else.”

    “How would you suggest the best way for us to get home?” Rick asked, giving Charlie his address.

    Charlie thought for a moment. “I would say the road you’re on now would be the best bet. The side streets are where most of the shooting is taking place. Besides, you only have about two miles to go.”    

    “Two miles!” Melissa countered and looked at Rick “You told me two miles to go…two miles back!”

    Rick smiled and shrugged his shoulders “Sorry.”

    “Rick Martin…I’ll deal with you later,” she said angrily, and then smiled, her beautiful heart rending smile.

    “Charlie, if you’re ever over by my place, please feel free to stop in.” Rick said.

    They walked down the middle of the road, snaking around the stalled cars, trying to keep them close for cover. Every step closer to home brought a new level of anxiousness. Rick paused before coming into his neighborhood. “I think we should cut through the woods and go in the back way.”

    Melissa didn’t care; she just wanted for it to be over.

    He led her along a well-worn path. In times past, kids would ride their bikes here, and deer would transit in the evening. Their shoes made clear imprints in the damp soil, Rick saw no discernable evidence of anyone or anything using the path recently. Pausing at the edge of the woods, Melissa stood next to him, her arms around his shoulder, propping herself up from exhaustion. “We are going to head straight down the common area between the backyards of the houses.”

    The final stretch only took a few minutes to transit the three blocks. Rick paused at his back fence, on tiptoes he reached up and over to undo the latch, and was as always, unsuccessful. He lifted Melissa up and she opened the gate easily. They entered and closed the gate quickly, walking down a set of rickety steps to the backyard patio. Rick saw his long time friend.

    “Louie.” The Golden Retriever was dead, his tan legs straight from rigor mortis and his body bloated. Kneeling down to him, “I’m sorry boy,” he said, patting his matted and lifeless head. Pulling himself away from the dog, they stepped down the walkout of the basement. Rick and Melissa released their loads as he took the key, unlocking the basement door.

    The interior of the basement was dark. Setting the pack down, Rick looked at the wooden gate, separating the downstairs family room from his work area.

    “What’s the gate for?” she asked

    “Jake…it’s to keep Jake out of my work area,” he said, noticing the stench of death again.

    “Something’s dead.” Melissa whispered.

    “Probably the cats.” Looking for the source of the smell, he found both cats, huddled on the storage shelves. “They slept there a lot, and it looks like they died there too.”

    “Poor things,” she said, concerned for the felines.

    Rick stepped over the wooden gate and into the dark family room. With flashlight in one hand and pistol in the other, he slowly walked up the steps to the main floor. Not knowing what to expect when he walked into the kitchen and living room, he soon found everything was exactly as he had left it on that day. Coffee mug on the counter, remote control for the TV lying on the sofa, both front and back doors locked. He moved over to the living room window and cautiously peered out, everything looked deserted. There was a sense of normalcy as the parking lot was somewhat empty, except for the half dozen cars and vans of the stay at home moms.

    His neighbor Marlene must have had that day off, her pick up truck was in its usual spot next to Rick and Linda’s now vacant space. Heading upstairs, he saw the empty bedrooms weren’t touched. Slowly he went back downstairs, pausing to look at the photos along the stairwell. Taking a framed photo off the wall, and looking at the image of his family, it hit him. Rick sat down on the hardwood floor, photo in hand, and sobbed.

    Melissa walked into the living room, and sat on the sofa quietly, leaving Rick to his personal suffering and emotional pain.

    “I was such a rotten husband and father,” he said looking up at her. Tears streamed down his face. “I spent so much time at work and…”His voice trailed off. “…I miss them all so much.” 

    Melissa said not a word; she sat next to him and gently put her arm around his shoulder. Rick turned into her, crying deeply as his guilt took hold and didn’t let go. After he was finally cried out, he looked up at her. “Melissa, “I’m sorry.”

    “What are you sorry for?”

    “Everything…I just feel like shit right now, a worthless pile of shit.”

    “Rick…” she said, gaining eye contact with him, “…you’re not a pile of shit. Listen to me please, if it wasn’t for you, there would be none of this…”she said gesturing with her arms around the house “…It looks to me, that you did a great job providing for your family. I’m sure that Linda and the kids knew that. You know what I see here?”

    “What?” He asked softly.

    “I see a home filled with love. Look at the drawings that are on the refrigerator. Look at Laci’s drawing that Linda had framed “… she pointed to a large child’s crayon drawing hanging on the wall next the TV. “…you loved your family and it’s obvious that you loved Linda.”

    Rick nodded silently.

    “Now you say that you didn’t spend time with you family. Let me ask you this, when you did have time for everyone, did you have fun?”

    Rick nodded. “Yeah, we did have fun.” A slight smile appeared as pleasant memories started to emerge.

    “Look, I know this must be hard. It’s hard on me too,” she said softly.

    He sighed deeply. “I don’t know what to say.”

    “Let’s make a deal, ok?”

    “Ok…what kind of deal?”

    “You tell me everything that’s on your heart and I’ll tell you everything that’s on mine. The only way we can work through this is to talk it out. That means the good, the bad, the rotten and the secrets…deal?”

    He smiled. “Deal.” They hugged; the physical bond they shared was now evolving into a deeper emotional and intimate bond as well.

    “Good, now let’s get cleaned up, eat and rest. I’m bushed.”


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