Donald dreamed that he missed the brake pedal. He stomped and missed again. The Jeep Cherokee surged through the closed garage door and took out a lally column. With a dreamer’s equanimity he watched the garage collapse around him. He felt pressed down to the seat as the collapsing roof crushed his car. He was annoyed because he had paid off the Jeep only a week earlier. His ex-wife had taken the Jetta. Now he needed a new car and all his bank accounts were empty.
Donald awoke. He wondered how he was going to extricate himself from the mangled vehicle. It took several seconds of coalescing consciousness for him to realize that he was not in his vehicle or in his garage. In fact, he had not bothered to garage his Jeep last night. He was in bed.
Don’s relief was short-lived. Something was wrong. Something really did press down on him and the bed tilted at a crazy angle. Don slid an arm from under the weighted covers. He felt loose sheetrock on his chest. He reached straight up over his head; his hand encountered wood framing. A wall must have collapsed. Perhaps the whole house. Through the covers with his toes he could feel joists that had smashed down on the edge of the mattress. Yes, the house had collapsed. Don knew he was lucky to be alive in some random pocket, but he wished his dream about the Jeep had been true instead. He still owed $75,000 to his ex on the buyout of this house. He hoped the homeowner’s insurance was up to date and that it covered whatever had happened.
He couldn’t see anything. People sometimes use the phrase, “so dark you couldn’t see your hands in front of your face,” but for once this literally was true.
Don wriggled from under the rubble-covered blanket and crawled out of bed. He hoped to find a hole to the outside. The sharp point of a snapped 2 x 4 stabbed into his side; his preference for sleeping in the nude was proving to be a disadvantage. Don reached for the wall next to the bed and felt cinderblock. He was in the basement. He stopped to think about the geometry of the house. The headboard had been against an exterior front wall. At the back of the house was a walkout basement with an exposed block foundation. The rear foundation wall, he reasoned, must have shoved outward causing the first floor, including his bedroom, to shift off the front plate and drop to the basement.
If the house had indeed fallen rearward, his best bet was to find a route directly up. He worked his way to the right and found a spot where he could stand full height. He stood on tiptoes and placed one hand over the top block. Sure enough, his hand reached into open air, but there was only a six-inch gap between the block and heavy framing. There was no way he could squeeze through. There seemed to be some movement in the framing when he touched it, however. Perhaps it was unstable enough to be pushed back a foot or two so he could escape. Don braced his back against the foundation wall, reached up, gripped hard on two joists, and pushed with all his strength.
Snaps and cracks escalated suddenly into thunder. The joists ripped out of Don’s hands as the lumber gave way in an uncontrolled collapse. Soon quiet returned except for a single noise that Don recognized as his own scream. Embarrassed, he stopped shouting and cleared his throat which now was hoarse.
Above him his hands now felt nothing. By luck he had survived again. He grabbed the top block. Employing all his strength, he pulled himself over the foundation and tumbled into English Hemlock. He lay there for some time without minding the minor assaults on his bare skin by the twigs of the bushes.
Something was still wrong and it said much about Don’s state of mind that that a full minute passed before he was sure what is was. He was outside but the dark was as deep as it had been in the basement. There were no stars, no streetlights, and no automobile headlights. Nothing. He seriously wondered if he was blind. The still air had a smoky taste to it. He scarcely felt motivated to leave the comforting bushes, but he knew the situation required more action.
Once again he considered the geometry. He knew the Jeep Cherokee was somewhere in the driveway. He crawled in the direction of the driveway, keeping contact with the foundation even though this meant working through plantings. Irrelevantly, he noted that deer had eaten most of the plants but hadn’t touched the hemlock. At last he felt driveway gravel under his palms. Turning a 90 degree angle, he crawled away from the house. Gravel bit into his hands and knees. He stopped after what seemed too great a distance and thought some more. Did he miss the car and crawl right by it? He resolved to go a few feet further and then double back on a parallel course. He lurched forward and banged his head sharply on steel. Don had found his Jeep.
He stood up unsteadily and reached forward. His hands grabbed a tire which spun under his weight and tossed him back to the ground. The Jeep was upside down. More carefully, he located a door. It refused to open even though Don knew he had left the doors unlocked. The roof must have crushed enough to jam it. He worked around to the opposite side, felt for the handle and tugged. It gave. The small ceiling bulb exploded light upward into the compartment. He had opened the driver side door.
Happy to know he still had his sight, he entered and sat in the overturned vehicle. Don turned the rear view mirror toward himself. He was dirty but the cuts and scratches seemed minor. A twist to the headlight switch shot two highly defined shafts of light forward. They just barely extended through the murky air as far as what once had been the garage. The surrounding world was dark as ever. The heavy air was quiet and still. He might have felt cold had there been there any breeze at all. As it was, he actually felt warm. The exception was his posterior which was chilled by the Jeep ceiling. Only the absence of other sounds allowed him to hear a small muffled voice.
He opened the glove compartment in search of a flashlight. He bought a new flashlight every few months and always misplaced it immediately. Somewhere in his wreck of a house there must be a pile of them.
The contents of the glove compartment spilled onto the ceiling. He rummaged through the notes, candy wrappers, screwdrivers, manuals, and expired insurance documents. There was no flashlight but he found a mysterious set of keys. He couldn’t imagine what locks they fit. The key ring had a tiny penlight for illuminating key holes. It wasn’t much but it might help the caller to see him.
The voice seemed to come from the neighboring property of Fred and Judy. Their house was 600 yards away. In this rural bit of
lake country, that counted as close. Don kept the lighted Jeep to his back for reference and walked toward the voice. He clambered over newly fallen pine trees. He noticed all had fallen toward the east. He began to suspect a tornado. That didn’t explain the depth of the blackness though. Maybe there was a forest fire, he speculated, and smoke blocked out the sky. He walked carefully in the direction of the voice while waving the penlight. New Hampshire
“Can you see me?” he called out loudly.
“Yes!” a woman’s voice answered a little louder than last time. “Turn to the left! No! To YOUR left! Straight ahead! Keep coming! That’s right.”
Don hadn’t been joking.
“Keep talking so I can locate your voice,” he said. “Just keep saying ‘here’ or something.”
She complied. The voice now sounded close. His foot caught on a limb and he pitched forward into a fallen tree. A branch smacked his face and numbed his nose, but the penlight in his outstretched hand illuminated the chin of a young woman pinned by the tree. She apparently thought Don’s move was intentional.
“Good navigating. Are there others or was that you hollering before?”
“I’m trapped under this tree. I can’t quite budge it. Maybe the two of us can lift it.”
“Yeah. I think maybe I can get enough leverage near the tree top.”
He was relieved to have thought of something modestly intelligent. Don had a way of sounding stupid in front of women. He was naturally shy, and his efforts to overcome this usually resulted in overcompensation and social blunders of varying enormity. He realized this wasn’t the moment he should be worrying about that.
He worked his way toward the top of the tree and grabbed a good handhold. Don pulled hard and felt the tree lift slightly.
“Can you move?” he asked.
“I think so. Ouch!” she yelped as she slithered out. “OK. You can let go.”
A branch scraped Don’s shin as the tree settled back on the ground.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“I hurt, but I don’t think anything is broken,” she said.
Don sat down next to her on the grass and put a hand on her shoulder. He felt a flimsy nightgown. She reached out to return the touch but drew back when she felt skin.
“Thanks,” she said uncertainly.
Don searched for words. “Do you have a name?” he ventured.
Don tried a more direct phrasing. “What is your name?”
“What name do you like?”
This disconcerted Don which he presumed was the intention. Either that or she had other reasons not to tell him her real name. He covered his fluster with a deadpan response. He resorted to the alphabet, and picked the first name starting with “A” that came to mind.
“How about Anne?”
“I can be Anne.”
“I prefer Anne.”
“No. I’m Don.”
“OK Don, do you have any plans beyond sitting in the dark? Shirtless.”
Don gave this some thought. Without his conscious attention, as he thought his hand stroked her back and shoulder.
With the detachment of an anthropologist observing a chimpanzee she allowed him to continue for several moments. “Do you have any other plans?” she asked at last.
Don quickly withdrew his hand. “Uh, yes,” he said with embarrassment. “Maybe the two of us can rock the Jeep upright.”
“We’d better hurry before the batteries wear down.”
She was right. The headlights already were noticeably dimmer.
“Right. Let’s go.”
“Wait! Don’t you want to check the house first?”
“Survivors,” she explained patiently. “Your neighbors. My boyfriend.”
“Yes. He and I were visiting your neighbors. They’re friends. My boyfriend’s an asshole and I was planning to leave him, but we still ought to look for him. Fred and Judy, too. They’re nice.”
They clambered over trees and debris to the remains of the house. The penlight illuminated only rubble. Remembering his own experience, Don leaned over and shouted downward toward the basement.
“Hello! Hello! Can you hear me?! Are you down there?”
There was no answer. Don pulled at lumber.
“Forget it, let’s go,” said Anne suddenly and firmly.
“I said forget it.”
Don stumbled repeatedly over limbs on the walk back to the Jeep. This would have bothered him less had Anne the courtesy to trip just once. He justified his clumsiness to himself by attributing it to his bare feet. Anne had the protection of sandals. He could hear them flap as she walked. Soon they stood by the vehicle. Don closed the driver’s door, placed his hands on the Jeep, and experimentally pushed. He had not taken proper account of the center of mass, so the Jeep spun around 90 degrees on its roof. This was an improvement; the slope of the driveway now could be used to advantage. He let Anne think the spin was intentional.
“Let’s rock it and try not to spin it further,” he said.
They positioned themselves front and back; they began to rock. On the sixth push the Jeep rolled on its side, continued to roll, perched precariously for a moment on two wheels, and then landed upright with a thud. Don held his breath as it lifted up on the other two wheels. He breathed again when the Jeep tilted back and slammed on all fours.
“Start her up,” Anne suggested.
Don looked at the key ring.
“These aren’t the car keys.”
In the dim light filtering back from the headlights, Anne took note of Don’s absence of pockets.
“I don’t suppose you have the right ones.”
Only then did Don remember he had put a spare set in a magnetic hide-a-key box when he had bought the car 3 years before. He hadn’t looked for it since and had serious doubts that it had survived 50,000 miles of less than cautious driving. He felt beneath the car near the license plate. The box was there, held in place more by crusted dirt than by magnetism. He gave it a yank.
With low expectations, he slipped into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. To his surprise, the V8 caught on the first turn and rumbled healthily.
“The door is locked,” Anne said from the outside the passenger door.
“No, it’s jammed. Slide in this way.”
Don got out and let Anne slide over the driver’s seat and over the center console. He climbed back in. They looked at each other for a moment in the light from the overhead.
Anne was a twenty-something brunette, pretty despite the dishevelment and sooty face. He couldn’t tell the color of the eyes since in the interior light of the car they reflected red. Anne began to speak but bit her lip instead. Don realized she was reserving comment on his undress but that the silence was costing her. He shut the car door and the light went out.
“Thank you,” she said.
He tried the radio but got only static.
“Where to?” she asked.
“Anywhere away from here. Something terrible has happened and we have to drive out of it. South or west maybe.”
“Don’t you know?”
“How would I know what direction is best?”
“I mean don’t you know what happened?”
“Didn’t you hear the civil defense warning on TV?”
“No, I went to bed early. Civil defense? Is there a war?”
“No, an asteroid.”
“And no one saw it until last night?”
“It approached from a south polar direction where they don’t look for them very much. They said last night there was a 20% chance that it might hit. They seem to have underestimated.”
“Why didn’t NASA, the ESA, or the Russians blow it up or something?”
“This isn’t the movies, Don. There wasn’t enough time to do anything effective.”
“Well, our plan is still the same. Let’s drive out of the damaged area.”
“This not local, Don. I went outside last night to see if I could see anything in the sky.”
“No. There was just suddenly a loud noise. Then I blacked out and woke up under that tree. They said last night the impact site would be the South Pacific if it hit at all.”
“We’re blacked out from something that happened on the other side of the world?”
“It’s not that big a world.”
“I guess not, Anne.”
“Actually, speaking about the far side of things, you’re 25 letters out of the ballpark.”
“Zoe. My real name is Zoe.”
Don hoped this revelation implied growing trust rather than diminishing respect.
If Zoe was right, they still needed shelter, food, and personal defenses, none of which was here.
“OK. The first thing we need to do is protect ourselves. There are a lot of scumbags in the world. They’re as likely to have survived as anyone. There’s a gun shop in the mini-mall on 128.”
“You’re suggesting we loot?”
“I’ll mail the owner a check. Let’s pick up a few weapons and move out.”
“Move out to where?”
“To wherever there are buildings still standing. Steel framed buildings probably survived.
maybe would be a good bet. There should be some emergency services, food stores, and other people. Manchester
“Other people with guns?”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“What about Wolfeboro or
? There will be other people but not enough of them to run riot. Schools and public buildings might be standing if you are right about the steel frames.” Laconia
Don felt a breeze from her hand as Anne/Zoe gesticulated in the grimy air enveloping them.
“OK, we’ll try Wolfeboro, but we’d still better go to 128 first.”
The trip was painfully slow because of downed trees. Don was able to drive around or over each blockage that he couldn’t move, but he knew his luck in that regard eventually would run out. He added “chain saw” to his list of necessary survival equipment. They neared their destination.
“The gun shop is just around this bend,” Don said.
At that moment the windshield exploded.
Not everyone eschews random violence only out of fear of the police. Some do, however, and in the newly lawless world, two such citizens had beaten Don and Zoe to the gunshop. One had tried out his new rifle on the Jeep windshield.
Zoe crouched under the dash. Don, showing rather more sense than gallantry, slammed on the brake and rolled out the door. He tumbled into a drainage ditch, scraping his arm on the edge of a drainage pipe in the process. He scrambled up the other side of the ditch and into the brush. Greasy black snowflakes began to fall lightly on his shoulders and back.
He heard shouts and peered through the brambles toward the lights of the car. A man carrying a flashlight and a Remington was silhouetted in the light of the open door. Another flashlight shone on the other side of the car.
Don didn’t seriously consider attempting a rescue and wasn’t sure Zoe would appreciate it if he did. In the current conditions the thug with the rifle might be a more sensible partner for getting on in the world.
A distant rumble could be felt before it could be heard. Coming from the west it grew to a roar. The flashlights froze in their positions. Don plunged through the brush, rolled back into the ditch and crawled into the drainage pipe. Don guessed a violent storm rapidly was approaching. The loudest noise he ever heard smashed over him. The air pressure dropped precipitously. He gasped for breath and his ears popped. His ears popped again and his lungs filled with air. The roar diminished into the east. It was some sort of shock wave. He stuck his head out of the pipe. The blackness overhead had lessened to a dark gray. High in the sky through the clouds or smoke he saw what he at first took to be the moon. He then realized with a start that it was the sun.
He crawled out of the ditch. The Jeep was gone. So were the men and Zoe. The Jeep had been tossed somewhere out of sight. Nothing at all remained of the mini-mall but a slab of concrete and scattered bricks. Had the drainage pipe in which he had taken cover been facing the shock wave, he was sure he would have been blown out of it like a cannon shot.
He called out, “Zoe?”
There was no answer.
Had another asteroid hit? Was the shock wave from last night’s impact going around the world a second time? Don knew he didn’t know. He owed his survival so far to pure luck – luck which evidently had run out for Zoe. His soon would too. He decided he needed help. His best bet was to join up with someone competent.
Don now knew where to go. The gun shop owner, von Kluge, lived only a mile distant up a long private drive. Don knew him from the local Rotary. For once those boring meetings would prove useful. They hadn’t helped with business connections as he had hoped. Von Kluge was a survivalist and the offspring of survivalists. He lived in his family estate, which had been built with a state of the art bomb shelter under his front lawn at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. It had been updated since. The “gun club” of which he was president was really a militia. The club held war games once a month. If anyone was equipped to survive disaster, von Kluge was. Don had to hurry. The sky already was darkening again and he expected it would revert to total blackness soon.
A mile is a negligible distance in a car, but barefooted after a trying day it is a very long walk indeed. Don was exhausted by the time he approached the main house – or rather what had been the main house. It now was a hole in the ground. Everything above the basement was gone. The Doberman whose job it was to kill uninvited guests, however, was still on the property. The dog raced toward Don at a full run.
Don was too tired to run or to fight anymore. He accepted the prospect of being killed by a dog. The Doberman stopped short, planted his front paws on Don’s chest, and licked his face. The frightened animal was in no mood to enforce trespass rules.
Man and dog walked up to the foundation’s edge. Whatever had been in the basement, including the furnace, had been blown clean out of it. Don spotted concrete steps and descended them to the basement slab. Don wondered if von Kluge’s bomb shelter was accessed through the basement. The sky was darkening and walls were shadowed, but Don felt along the concrete. Soon he touched the cold steel of a door. He pounded.
“Von Kluge! It’s me, Donald McCurdy! You know, from the Rotary? Don’t shoot! Please. I want to talk!”
There was no response. Don banged on the door again. He tried the handle. The door swung open with a creak.
The man who all his life had planned for disaster, who actually seemed to relish the prospect, apparently had slept through the asteroid impact as had Don himself. Don wondered idly if the security system had sounded an alarm before the upper house disintegrated.
Don and the dog entered the bomb shelter. He clanged the door shut in back of him and slid in place a steel bolt, the simplest but far the best interior lock. For the first time since waking up he felt secure.
More by habit than by expectation Don reached for and found a light switch. He was rewarded by a dim light, apparently battery powered. This was an antechamber of some kind. Straight ahead was an inner door. On the wall to the right hung four full-body protective suits. Knowing von Kluge, Don was sure they were safe against radiation, bio-contamination and chemical weapons. Overhead, he saw unlit infrared and ultraviolet lights, possibly intended to assist decontamination. They would need more than battery power. In the wall to the left was another door; next to the door were a circuit breaker and a switch marked “generator.” Don threw the switch. Behind the door a mechanical growl began and then settled into a hum. Don opened the door, which was tightly sealed against air flow. Inside was a utility room with a diesel generator, a well pump head, and an electric water heater which already was making crackling expansion noises; the generator fed on outside air drawn through a pipe and vented exhaust back through another one. Don smelled no fumes, so he presumed the pipes to the outside were unblocked. Don assumed the generator was fueled by some underground tank. He hoped it was a big one. He closed the door to the utility room.
The Doberman nudged him impatiently.
“OK, OK, dog. Give me a minute.”
Don opened the remaining door. LED lights lit promptly when he flicked the switch just inside the door. He walked inside. The room was bigger than many urban studio apartments. It contained four bunk beds, stereo, computer, TV, a video library heavy on westerns and war movies, a kitchenette, and 3 more doors. Don tried each. The first door opened to a walk-in pantry with enough canned goods to feed a family of four and a dog for a year. The second opened to a large closet that contained military-style clothing and gear, plus a variety of firearms and ammunition. It also contained art supplies. Don hadn’t known von Kluge was a painter. The third door opened to a bathroom.
“This place would rent for a fortune in
,” Don muttered to himself. Boston
In the bathroom was a toilet, a shower, a sink and an apartment size combination washer/dryer. Von Kluge didn’t intend to face the apocalypse without a clean shirt.
The Doberman nudged his leg and again sat expectantly.
“OK, dog, I get the idea.”
Don removed a can of dog food from the pantry. He found plates in the kitchenette cabinets and an electric can opener on the countertop. The dog started eating from the plate before it reached the floor. Don warmed a can of ravioli for himself while the water heater did its job. He and the dog ate in silence.
The hot shower felt wonderful. Black grime and soapsuds spiraled down the drain. Hardly a square inch of his body was unblemished by bruises, abrasions or scratches. As he became cleaner these began to sting. Quite a lot of superficial damage had been done to his feet. After toweling dry, he wrapped his feet in gauze from a med kit. He put on underwear and a forest camouflage uniform from the closet. Dressed for the first time that day, Don felt warm, cozy and secure.
He looked through the selection of CDs on a shelf. They were far from his taste. Maybe he would learn to like Wagner, but he doubted it. He put one by the Vienna Orchestra into the stereo CD tray anyway and lay back on a lower bunk. The dog jumped on top of him. Don was too tired to argue about it. He drifted out of consciousness to the sounds of violins and horns.
Don was startled awake when the dog used his stomach as a launch pad and bounded to the antechamber door. The music was louder now. Don got up and opened the door of the antechamber. Someone was banging on the outer door. Don ran to the weapons closet. At first he reached for an AK-47, but he had never fired an automatic rifle. This was no time to experiment. So, he picked out a simple twin barreled shotgun instead. He checked the barrels. They were loaded.
Don approached the door and pondered what to do next. He was surprised that von Kluge hadn’t installed some sort of video security camera outside for just this situation. The man dropped a few notches in his esteem. On the other hand, maybe he had and Don didn’t know how to work it yet.
“Donald, are you in there?” a voice sounded through the door.
“Who are you?” he called back.
“Who do you think? Zoe!”
“Are you alone?”
“Wait!” Don did not entirely trust this assurance. She might be under duress by those thugs. He turned off the lights except for the dim battery bulb by the entrance. He quietly slipped back the steel bolt on the outer door and retreated into the dark back room. He lay on the floor and leveled his aim at the outer door. He doubted anyone would get an aim on him before he could fire both barrels accurately. The Doberman stood in back of him. He apparently knew to stay in back of guns.
“OK! Come in slowly and close the door behind you!”
Zoe pushed open the door and walked into the antechamber. Don still expected the gang members to burst in.
“Close the door and throw the bolt!”
She slid the bolt into place. Don stood up and turned on the main lights. By chance he stood under the light in an arrogant posture just as the climax to Rienzi blared and clashed.
“Very dramatic,” she said. “I see you got the gun you wanted. And your fashion sense has improved. Slightly.”
“Where are the others?”
“You’ve got me. I was thrown clear into a ditch as the Jeep went sailing through the air. I’m guessing the guys went flying with it. I’ve been trying to catch up with you.”
“Why didn’t you answer me when I called?”
“I had the wind knocked out of me! And then you just took off down the road like you were on some marathon. You might have looked for me, you know. Put away the shotgun, by the way; you’re making me nervous. And turn that crap down!”
“Oh. Yeah, OK.”
Don returned the weapon to the closet. He walked over to the stereo and turned down the volume. The Doberman approached Zoe and sniffed her thoroughly.
“Is he friendly?” she asked.
“Seems to be.”
“What’s his name?”
“Easy to remember.”
It occurred to Don that, despite her affected insouciance, she was as at least as battered as he was. She was covered in mud and had lost her sandals.
“Look, I’m sorry. Get comfortable. There is hot water. Take a shower. I’ll warm up some ravioli and coffee. Since you admire my clothes I’ll get you something matching.”
“Sadly, that’s the best offer I’ve had today.”
Showered and clad in camo, Zoe sipped coffee.
“Still planning on going to Wolfeboro?” she asked.
“No. I’m staying put. We have plenty of supplies. We probably can scavenge more from other basements. There is lots of fuel in the area in other oil tanks and under old gas stations. Besides, I’m not feeling competent enough to face post-civilization.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve messed up everything I’ve touched. I lost my house. I lost my car. I abandoned you. Twice. The only time I met anyone else besides you I nearly got killed. My only talent is running and hiding. That worked out OK so I think I’ll stick to it.”
“That’s a little harsh. Pretty much everyone lost his house. As for the guys you encountered, so you weren’t Rambo. You’re alive and they’re not. Sometimes you have to have the sense to know when you are outgunned. That is a survival skill too. Now that you’ve had some practice, maybe you’ll do better the next time an asteroid strikes.”
“I can hardly wait.”
“You are right about staying put though. The snows will start getting heavy.”
“It’s only September.”
“No sunlight. We’ll have a really bad winter. Maybe a lot of them. Most survivors will go south. That alone is a good reason to stay here until things straighten out some.”
“Do you think we can manage a bad winter?” he asked.
“Eskimos do it.”
“I once saw a T-shirt that said something like that.”
“What did it say?”
“‘Eskimos do it cooler.’“
“We’re going to have to work on your humor.”
“It looks like we have time, Zoe.”
“You can call me Anne if you prefer. You picked it.”
“Let’s not start that again.”
Don looked at the bare white walls. With lots of time to kill, maybe they could do some murals with the paint supplies. What would future archaeologists make of their shelter art?
They heard a rumble and felt a slight decrease in air pressure as another but smaller shock wave passed overhead. It didn’t cause even a ripple in their coffee.