Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

We stayed on US97 for around 275 miles. We pulled off and switched drivers again after a quick visit to nature’s restroom … behind a vacant building. We changed drivers, got onto US197 and in just over an hour we were pulling through the gates of Nana’s “country house.” It was supposed to look like a rustic log cabin and for the most part did from the outside but once inside whoa buddy, there wasn’t a thing rustic about it.

I was remembering the first time I’d been there when Jonathon said, “I hope she’s here. That’s what she said when I talked to her yesterday … I think it was yesterday … but Nana … well … you know.”

I did know but as soon as she heard Jonathon’s voice in the drive she burst out of the house and swallowed us both up whole in the kind of giant and fierce hug only a pint-sized woman can give. Unless you were blind you could tell where Jonathon got his looks from; it wasn’t his fault the rest of his family were big as I was. I stood back while they got through their emotional reunion and then she ushered us into the house.

Things were bad. Really bad. The terrorist attacks in San Francisco were all over the news but the feds weren’t confirming any particular attack or who was affected. Kind of like when an airplane is rumored to have gone down. The family gets in line to wait … and wait … and wait for confirmation of who was actually on the flight and who was not.

“No one came into work today and the few that were here I sent to their homes. I just couldn’t handle their moaning and wailing when I thought I had … had … oh my boy, I’m so …” Nana stopped and got a hold of herself. “I don’t need to tell you that we need to make plans and then find some place safer to be. The entire West Coast is going to be a nightmare. I’ve called my lawyer but she’s running around trying to take care of her own affairs. They’ve grounded all airports so the private jet is out. My driver has disappeared. And this is just the beginning. It doesn’t sound like anywhere is going to be safe from the chaos soon. Now listen up children, I want you to go get some sleep. No sass Jonathon love. I have some things to do and then we’ll sit and have a committee meeting. And do please try and take a shower both of you while the water is still on. Jonathon, you take your room and show Rochelle to the lavender room please.”

At any other time … well, maybe not. You just didn’t tell Nana no. She was a petite woman that looked very fragile and played it to the hilt when it suited her; but, underneath it all she had the heart of a lion and the temperament of a mother bear. Too bad she was more fragile than she was willing to understand.

Going up the stairs I was too tired to even bother looking around. I’d seen it all before and didn’t want to feel more uncomfortable than I already did. “Rocky you gonna be … you know … OK?”

I looked over at Jonathon, my best friend, and lied straight to his face. “Yeah.”

He nodded and lied right back and said, “Yeah, me too.”

After entering the room that I’d used the last time I was here I crawled out of my clothes and into the shower as I had been ordered to do and have been glad I took the time ever since because it was the last time I’ve felt really clean all the way to my skin. It took three hard washings to get all the gunk and sparkly stuff out of my hair and clean the rest of the makeup off my face. When I realized I had also scrubbed the last of my mother’s perfume off I finally had to let myself cry. I’d grabbed my dad’s cologne but had forgotten my mother’s perfume. It was a special fragrance she made up herself and I knew I’d never be able to duplicate it … it was lost to me forever just like they were.

I wasn’t a girly girl; life just hadn’t allowed me to be built like that. I’d never be comfortable drinking tea from a dainty China cup or sitting on a little poof chair with spindly legs. Growing up none of the girl dolls had looked like me so I quickly lost interest in them preferring the outdoors and animals that didn’t leave me feeling so different. But I never denied being a girl, or fought it or anything like that. Even when I was playing football all the time I still did things that showed I was a girl. I wore earrings, usually plain gold hoops. I wore makeup; just it didn’t look like I was wearing makeup because I stuck with natural shades and a light hand. I had long hair; I just didn’t get silly trying to style it into something other than what it wanted to be naturally. I worried about acne, my weight and figure just like the other girls … there was just more of me to worry about.

When I looked in the mirror after accepting that my parents were gone and so was my old life right along with most of the kids like me in the whole world, the eyes that looked back reminded me a whole lot of my grandmother before she had passed away. She’d outlived most of her kids, both her husbands, and a lot of the family in general. She’d learned to live with a lot of pain; I hadn’t really understood what that meant until that moment. I laid down fully dressed figuring I wouldn’t be able to sleep but I was wrong. I don’t know how long I was asleep but it was still light when Nana burst into the room.

“I’m sorry dear but we have to go.” Her words were calm and civilized but her eyes and mannerisms said something was bad wrong. I jumped up and stuffed my feet into my boots and ran out into the hall. Jonathon was coming out of his room as unnerved as I was.

Nana said, “I had hoped to have more time but we don’t. A friend … it doesn’t matter who so don’t bother asking … called me. We need to get out of here … as in now children. Bring your luggage to the kitchen. I took the liberty of moving the jeep around back. We’ll load from that side of the house.”

I went back in the room and grabbed my two bags that were already re-packed due to the habits Mom had instilled in me over the years. I headed to the kitchen and had to stop in the doorway and stare. “Come in dear, don’t dawdle. Help load these boxes into that excellent vehicle of Jonathon’s.” It wasn’t the boxes I was staring at, it was the two mean looking rifles and half dozen hand guns laying on the breakfast table. “Rochelle dear … now.” I heard that thread of steal and broke out of my trance.

I shook myself yet again and grabbed most of the boxes in just a couple of loads. “So helpful,” Nana said admiringly.

Jonathon was the one asking the questions while we loaded. The boxes held food and equipment and went in the back. Maps were loaded in the front as were the guns that were hidden under some sleeping bags and pillows in the rear seats.

“Now will you please tell us what has you so spooked?” I finally asked, exasperated because Jonathon was dancing around it.

“Always so forthright,” Nana said approvingly and a little briskly. “Children I want each of you to put these around your waists and under your clothes. Rochelle you’ll need to adjust yours a little but it should work; your figure is beginning to come in nicely now that you’ve given up football.”

Trying not to be outraged at having her avoid answering me yet again I grabbed what looked like a padded canvas belt that turned out to be surprisingly heavy. Jonathon acted like he knew what they were and at my raised eyebrow he said, “Money belt. Probably has coins in them.” Nana patted his cheek and I knew he’d been right. It wasn’t until was pulling my shirt back down after tying the belt that he thought to add, “Mostly silver but knowing Nana there are probably some gold in there as well.” Good thing I wasn’t a cussing kind of girl or I would have flung off a real string of them right then and there. “Get a grip Rocky,” he said. “SOP in situations like this in case we get separated and need some cash to get us home.”

I just shook my head at them both; it was like realizing my friends were some alien species from a totally different planet. I had a jar of coins at home I was saving to add to my college fund but the only gold my family had ever seen was the 14 carat variety in my mother’s jewelry, most of which I had barely thought to save from the hotel room and the gold tooth my Uncle Joe had been buried with.

I didn’t know what to say. In the end I didn’t need to say anything because Jonathon asked, “Where is it you want to go Nana?”

Suddenly the old woman became all business. “My first goal is to get to Baker City. I have people that have left us some things at a drop point. By my calculations,” she glanced at a paper in her hand. “It will take us nearly four hours at normal speeds and traffic. It is all interstate so I hope that we can accelerate that a little but I’m not counting on it. From there we are going to Boise.”

“In Idaho?” he asked.

“Last time I checked,” she said more impatiently that I had ever heard her before. “There is no time children; use the facilities and let us be gone from here. Rochelle, please drive as I need to discuss a few things with Jonathon.”

I drove. It gave me something to do while Nana and Jonathon discussed family stuff, business, and what his place would be when “the dust settled.” I still didn’t know what had us running like scared rabbits but it didn’t take an Einstein to figure it was something bad. It took every bit of four and a half hours to get to Baker City no matter how crazy I drove. For long stretches I simply whipped into the medians and dodged as many problems as I could. There were no cops to be seen. They were too busy taking care of the chaos that was spreading out from California in the big cities.

We pulled off the interstate and turned down a couple of streets until we got to a storage facility. A code opened the gate and we went down a few rows until we got to one of the smaller storage units. A key card opened the door and out came three duffle bags and several gas cans. We emptied two of the cans into the tanks of the Gladiator and stowed the remainder under the tarp that was over the boxes. Back onto I84 and three hours later we were in Boise, ID and I was so tired that I didn’t know how much longer I could go.

I nudged Jonathon and he had to blink his eyes in the harsh morning light. I whispered, “I need to pull over and wash my face at least.”

A tired sounding voice from the back said, “Yes dear, do pull over and find an open gas station if you can. We’ll wash and use the facilities. Boise did you say?” She sighed. “I had hoped for better time but it obviously cannot be helped. Jonathon, you’ll need to take over, we aren’t far enough away yet.”

“Far enough away for what?!” I asked finally getting upset passed my ability to be polite about it.

“I’ll tell you when I’m sure Rochelle. We must continue on. I want to be as close to our final destination as we can before things implode.”

“Mrs. Marshall,” I said getting formal. “I’ve had too many bad surprises in too short a time. Jonathon and I aren’t kids any more. We deserve to know what is going on … or at least what you think is going on.”

“Take this exit and we’ll fuel up and grab some type of fast food to go. As soon as we get back on the road I will do my best to explain.”

Extremely frustrated but with no other real option I did as she suggested. When I came back out Jonathon had a McDonald’s bag in his hand and was watching his grandmother disappear into a grocery store across the street. “Come on. We’ll drive over there and see what she’s up to.”

Rush hour traffic made it time consuming to get across and when we pulled into the parking lot Nana was pushing a grocery cart out with a few bags in it. I looked in the bags that had been stuffed around my feet and saw the craziest assortment of stuff you could imagine. Vienna sausages, Spam, canned roast beef hash, a couple of bars of butter flavored Crisco, instant rice, bouillon cubes, instant soups, powdered drink mixes, cans of Cheese Whiz, chocolate bars, dried fruit, Fruit roll ups, bags of M-n-M’s and Reece’s Pieces, and several more bags of stuff like that. “What on earth?” I was beginning to be afraid the old lady had lost it.

“Yes, terrible stuff I know but I’m told that it should suit our purposes until we can get where we are going.”

“Told by whom? And you promised to explain,” I said daring her to put me off again.

“Your farm dear.”

That made me sit up. “What?!”

“Oh, please don’t use that loud voice Rochelle. It is distinctly unpleasant and my head is pounding. Yes, your farm. I sent some of my people out to secure the place and to tuck some supplies and a few odds and ends in there for us. It is the only location that currently makes sense.”

Even Jonathon was beginning to give his grandmother the eye as he fought the horrible traffic along I84. “Jonathon, continue along here. I want to get passed Twin Falls. Get off at exit 182; there is a camp ground there where we are expected.”

“Nana …”

She sighed. “I am not going senile though you may wish that I was. How can I say this and make you understand? Due to my deceased husband’s business contacts I’ve stayed current with the state of things in this world. Even still I did not really believe things would come to the pass that they have. I made a few plans but nothing like I should have and now … but … but that cannot be changed at this late date. We always believe that there is sufficient time when there never is. A friend … highly placed in a security company … has been warning me over the last year that something was coming to a head. Jonathon, believe me, I did try and get your parents to listen to this person but in the end they would always go their own way. I’m sorry dear, perhaps if I had tried harder, truly believed myself what my friend was saying things may have turned out differently.”

She composed herself once again before continuing. “The attack in San Francisco was not unexpected but it was far down the list of possible targets and everyone apparently thought it would be later this year before anything critical happened. Obviously ‘everyone’ was wrong. For whatever reason, the time table has been accelerated.”

“The timetable for what?” Jonathon asked.

“It depends on who you are I suppose. The Twelvers will call it jihad to sanctify it. Those green idiots are calling it The Cleansing to justify and rationalize it. Other groups will call it nothing but an opportunity to strike while the iron is hot. I suspect the history books will merely call it the next world war. Now children, please do as I say. Some type of large scale attack is imminent. I’m not sure what it is but it scared my friend badly enough that it came through his voice and he is not a man that scares easily.”

There wasn’t much that could be said to that. Amazingly I did sleep and didn’t wake up until we were bouncing along a road into a place called “Masterson’s Campground.” We were the only ones there it seemed and Nana asked for and received the most private site they offered.

“Rochelle …”

“Nana, please call me Rocky. It’s … it’s just more comfortable right now.”

She looked at me and then patted my hand and said, “All right dear. Now, Jonathon has told me that you go camping with your family quite often so you should know how to set all of this up.”

“You’ve … you’ve never been camping?” I asked beginning to wonder what we were getting into.

“Of course I have. My father had a cabin by the lake for years.”

“Err … that’s not the same as tent camping.”

“Well … you’re never too old to experience something new,” she said too brightly. Oh brother. We were in trouble. Jonathon had only camped twice and one of those had been in our backyard. To keep myself from panicking I looked over the equipment. It was all never-out-of-the-package new but it was good stuff … just too much of it. To make a decent camp you didn’t need a quarter of what she had packed. And thank goodness she’d picked up some of that stuff from the grocery store because the boxes of food was all Heater Meals, Mountain House junk, and exotic stuff I’d never seen or heard of. There was even a case of canned meats … buffalo, elk, rattlesnake, and alligator for pity sake; I closed that one back up real quick not even ready to think about it.

As Jonathon and I set up one of the tents I casually asked if she’d done her own shopping or had someone done it for her. “Oh I did,” she trilled. “It was such a lark at the time. I loved going through the Cabela catalog and all of those others and picking out just everything I thought would be useful.”

I thought to myself, “Lord save us from rich people with credit cards and an internet connection.” I turned to find Nana and Jonathon making a mess of one of the larger camp stoves and told them that I’d do it if they’d clean out the vehicle, put the bedding into the tent, and then go down to the front gate and get us some wood for a fire in case we needed it. They both looked relieved and I fixed the stove so that it would actually work. I started a pot of hot water and then looked over what they’d picked out for us to eat. It was something called a grab-and-go sandwich. There was a box of four of them and the flavor was bacon and cheddar. I felt the acid crawling up my throat.

I’m a big girl with a big appetite with two people that didn’t seem to get that problem. Not to mention I get cranky if I don’t get my complete proteins, but at the same time I have to watch the fat and calories now that I’m not playing football regularly. It takes a lot of fuel to keep me going in proper working order. Luckily my metabolism was normal, some of the GWB kids ran extra hot and some ran extra cold which really complicated their nutritional and health issues. Jonathon’s metabolism ran a little hotter than mine which was why he seemed so skinny all the time and extra thin as he’d been going through a growth spurt.

I put those sandwiches away and pulled out some of the rice and freeze dried pinto beans and threw together a passable pot of red beans and rice. It wasn’t like Momma would have made it but it filled the spaces a heck of a lot better than those sandwiches would have. I fried some Spam to go with it and had a fun time trying hard not to laugh at their expressions when we all sat down to eat. They didn’t complain though and by the end of the meal they seemed pleasantly surprised. Guess who was stuck with the cooking from there on out?

I was running on fumes despite having just eaten but there was clean up to do and that meant teaching them how to do it the right way and how to keep everything locked up where it wouldn’t attract animals. Even a stupid tree rat can do a lot of damage to your food supplies if you leave it where they can get into it, especially if it is in soft sided packaging. I’ve had the little devil’s crawl into my tied shut backpack to simply investigate the possibility that there was something inside that they could eat. You live, you learn … sometimes you learn the hard way.

It was mid-day but I needed sleep. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. Jonathon asked, “Nana, is someone meeting us here or do you have something else in mind? I don’t know about Rocky but I’ve got to get some sleep if we are going to get back on the road soon.”

“I’m waiting on a phone call dear,” she said pointing to the cell phone in her hand. “We’ll wait here at least for the day so that you two children can get some rest. Don’t forget to take your medicine before turning in.”

I turned to look at Jonathon who was embarrassed. I mouthed, “What medicine?”

After we both got into the tent to get some sleep leaving the old lady to her thoughts and her phone calls he told me, “They didn’t like how many inhalers I was going through. They put me on this one-a-day pill that is supposed to help with the asthma.”

“Does it?” I asked curious since I knew what a bane it had always been for him.

“Sorta. Better than no inhaler but not as good as the inhaler is but it doesn’t give me the shakes. I still keep the inhaler for emergencies.”

That made me sit up real quick, “Your inhaler! How much do you have left? Does …”

“Easy Rocky, I always keep spares in the jeep and have my meds doubled up too. Nana already has another order waiting in a couple of different stops along the way in case I need them.”

“Where did your grandmother learn about caching?”

“Learn about what?”

“Caching … storing supplies in different places in case you need them.”

He thought about it a second. “Who knows? Does it really matter? I’ve got to sleep Rocky. You may be an Amazon Queen but … but …,” a big yawn interrupted him. “But I’m not.”

And neither was I despite him insisting on always calling me that. People always liked to rag on me because of my size but to be honest, after they killed the tumor I pretty much stopped growing height wise. I’d just been so much bigger than everyone else my age for so long that the reputation stuck. I was taller than most girls and average size for most guys, the difference was that I also had the bulk that a lot of tall people lacked and that made me seem taller than I actually was. I wasn’t tall and skinny, I was all filled out and because my parents hadn’t wanted me to have the same problem as my aunt I knew how to keep the “broad” part from turning into fat. The rest of the muscles were just … well … my proclivity towards sports and farm work. You didn’t do either without building up layers on your body. In the last year as my body fat had gotten closer to “normal” rather than what a professional athlete would have and I started looking more female as well … less angles and more curves.

I was old enough to deal with the change and start enjoying it too. Which was one of the things that was making me uncomfortable with Jonathon. Our relationship was trying to change and Jonathon was trying to push it that direction faster; I wasn’t sure that I was ready for it yet, but I also wasn’t ready to lose his friendship over it either. I wasn’t ready to do antyhing just to save his ego however so I made sure that his Nana’s sleeping bag was firmly between us and after making sure that he wasn’t trying to push me anymore I finally fell asleep.

I swear sleep has been hard to come by since San Francisco and that day was no exception. I’ve always been a light sleeper and a gasp from Nana outside the tent kicked my protective instincts in faster than I expected them to.

When she saw me out of the tent and looking around aggressively she hiccupped as she attempted to control a sob. “Oh … oh child … What have I gotten you two into? If I had only listened to him a few days sooner we could have all been tucked away and safe and my family would still be …” I didn’t know what was wrong but I went over and sat down beside her on the picnic table after making sure that the threat wasn’t anywhere in the woods around us.

“Nana, what’s wrong?”

“Oh Rochelle … Rocky … I was on the phone with some friends and … oh it was horrible.” She was crying quietly and I didn’t know what to do. I stuck my head back in the tent and roused Jonathon who could sleep through anything and got him up to come help.

What he finally got out of her scared the bejeebers out of us. She’d been on the phone when she’d heard screaming and then the line go down. She finally reached another friend, business associate really, when he delivered the news that nearly every major high population center around the world was experiencing some type of major catastrophe. He wished her luck and then hung up and she had been sitting listening to the news ever since and had finally broken.

Bombs (dirty and clean), dam failures due to sabotage, fires, destruction of water treatment facilities, and the last which was what really shook her up was several places seemed to be experiencing some kind of fast moving infection that was causing people to drop like flies.

Suddenly the word “defense” started ringing in my ears and I told them, “We need to prepare a defensive position. The roads were bad before, they are going to be impossible now. Forget going any further until we have more news of where we can actually travel to safely. Jonathon, start filling all of our empty water containers. The hand pump is behind the tent, then cover the pump with one of those plastic bags from the grocery. I’m going down and getting some more firewood. Nana, help Jonathon please. When I come back we are going to have to secure all of our equipment more carefully. This campground may be empty now but it isn’t far enough off the interstate for people to miss it if they are desperate for a place to park.”

I walked down to the gate and didn’t see the caretaker any place and the gate was already locked for the night. That was actually a good thing in my opinion. It did mean having to hope over the gate to get to the self-serve wood pile but I took every bit of bundled wood they had. It was crappy wood but it was still wood that I wouldn’t have to chop with that pitiful hatchet that didn’t feel much bigger than my dad’s hammer. I borrowed the hand truck to haul all of the wood to our base camp and put it under a green tarp that I then hid even more with some brush that I asked Jonathon to collect. I took the other large forest colored tarp from the supplies and Jonathon and I draped it over the red and grey tent that stood out too much in my opinion. More brush hid the entrance to the pull-thru site. By that time it was dark and getting cold and Nana wasn’t looking too good. Neither was Jonathon but he refused to go in the tent with her while I sat outside listening to the radio for more clues as to what was going on.

“See, you really are a female warrior. Look at you.”

I gave him the squinty eye and told him to knock it off. “I don’t know what I’m doing Jonathon and I know it even if you refuse to see it. Trying to stay out of the way and not get run over until we can put some travel plans together just makes sense.”

“Sure it does but you thought of it first and put action to words before we did.”

“Humph,” I sounded back at him disgusted at his refusal to see what I was saying. “Things are really, really bad out there,” I said pointing out to the world beyond our campsite. “They’re gonna get worse before they get better. And until we find out what this disease is we aren’t going anywhere. They say it hits the lungs hard. With your asthma and Nana’s … what’s that stuff … emphysema she has from being around her husband’s smoking all those years neither one of you can afford to get whatever it is. And that means that even if anyone shows up here, and I have a feeling they might, you two need to stay away from people for a while.”

“You could get it too.”

“Sure I could but I doubt I’d get it quite as fast as you two and … look, any of us can get it but it would be a death sentence for you and Nana to get even a mild case. I’m not chancing it. Better safe than sorry. We are all going to be careful as much as we can. I ain’t gonna risk getting it and giving it to you guys if I can help it.”

“Ain’t isn’t a word,” he said seriously.

“Stuff it Marshall,” I said letting him know that I wasn’t in the mood for him twisting my words and using them against me.

We sat there for a few minutes more but even with a fire going Jonathon got cold and didn’t have any choice but to go get in his sleeping gear. I hadn’t even started to feel the cold yet. Weather never had much of an effect on me one way or the other. I felt it all right but being used to working outside in all weather types I was more impervious to it than they were. Plus I had my flight jacket which pretty much gets me through the worst weather back home as long as I layer it.

Thinking that thought I pulled on my gloves and pulled up my hoodie sweat shirt that I was wearing underneath. It may have been March but in that part of Idaho it still averages temps in the 40s. Not too bad, assuming you were dressed for it and used to it. I was glad Mom had made me bring my gear on the trip. She hadn’t been prophetic, just we had been told the weather in San Francisco was funny and could be warm one day and freeze your vital bits off the next if the wind kicked up. We’d experienced both and laughed about it and how glad Mom had packed the way she had. Thinking about that made me weak all over again and I had to stuff my grief back in a box and shove it in the furthest back corner of my head. My parents would understand and I at least know they had gone together. One would have been heartbrokenly miserable without the other.

I was dozing by the dying embers of the fire when I heard the first cars start crawling down the road in front of the campground. It was cold enough and far enough away from everything else that sound carried a good distance. I listened for a long time but I never did hear anyone messing with the gate and slowly went to sleep for real.

*******

“Rocky Charbonneau, you did not sleep in this chair all night?!”

Nana about scared me to death with her sepulcher whisper right in my ear as the sun was coming over the trees. I just caught myself before falling over, chair and all. While I wasn’t what you would call a morning person I woke up fast so was able to get my head on straight quickly and answer her without being grumpy.

“I’m fine. Really. The fire stayed warm a long time and I stayed up listening after I heard some cars on the gravel road down there,” I said pointing towards the gate. “I’m going to the facilities and see if the caretaker is around and has any news. I’ll fix breakfast when I come back.”

“Never mind dear, we’ll just eat some granola.”

I rolled my eyes when she wasn’t looking. A handful of granola, yeah, that would certainly get me through the day all right. But it wasn’t worth pulling the stove out if I was the only one that was going to eat so after I got back I ate the granola, a banana that was too green to really enjoy, and some jerky. I could have had an apple but apples keep better than bananas and I was starting to get a bad feeling that Nana and Jonathon thought they knew more about getting by than they really did. I’d be thinking that more and more as time passed.

The caretaker never did come back and other people did show up but not many. The campground wasn’t exactly easy to spot but it was off a hidden switchback up a gravel road some distance from the highway. There was a billboard for it … which is what sent people looking in the first place, but the directions were awful and usually it was the caretaker who flagged people down and showed them where to go when they started calling and hollering they couldn’t find the place.

Not for the first time my size and appearance came in handy. That and the fact that I kind of stuck to the androgynous look. No one could figure out if I was a boy or a girl, especially as I kept my braid under my coat. Most of them leaned towards male when I borrowed the caretaker’s ax and chainsaw and started cutting firewood for everyone. Using the name Rocky pretty much sealed it for them. They gave me a wide berth and I asked Nana and Jonathon to stay at the camp so as not to give away how many supplies we had.

The fact that I shot a feral pig in the first few days and butchered it where anyone could watch added to the invisible “do not disturb” sign that seemed to hang around my neck. Only one family didn’t seem to be too put off by my appearance and that was because the dad looked even tougher than I did. We shared a sad laugh over people’s first impressions but I left it to them to share out the pork that I didn’t take up to our camp to cook up and to turn into jerky. Pork jerky didn’t last near as long as beef and venison jerky but I was starving after only a few days of Nana-style menus and decided to take some things into my own hands.

A week went by like this. Most of the campers moved on as their supplies ran low trying to get someplace else before their fuel ran out as well. In the end the only folks left were those from our camp and an elderly couple that acted like I was a dangerous biker dude no matter what I did. I always made sure they had enough wood and even bagged them a few squirrels but I never bothered them; I guess they were just fraidy cats by nature or maybe life had made them that way. It didn’t matter, even they left before two weeks went by without having ever said more than a half dozen words to me.

Not too many people had been in the campground but they’d created more trouble than I could have imagined. All of the bathrooms were disgusting and I wound up digging us a private latrine out in the woods away from camp and our water source. Wind blew trash everywhere and it took three days after the last car left before the dirty smell of unwashed bodies and cooking fires was completely gone.

Nana and Jonathon were both in a kind of … shock I guess you would call it. They got a little better after everyone else had gone and the ruckus had died down but I could tell they were still pretty crackly around the edges.

“Rocky, we’ve got to get out of here,” Jonathon told me two days after the elderly couple had left.

“Yeah, but I’m not willing to get out in that mess out there, not yet. I’ve been looking at the maps and …”

“Rocky, I mean we really need to get out of here. Nana and I are running out of our medicines.”

I looked up and looked at him. “I thought you said you had extra?”

“Yeah, but not the kind of extra I guess you were thinking we had. We need to get to the next stash. I’ve got a week and Nana has two but if it takes us a while to get there …”

“Where is it? Where’s this stash supposed to be?”

“Someplace called Soda Springs.”

I’d seen that on the road map and went back to check it out. “Jonathon, that’s 175 miles from here by interstate and main roads. You’ve heard what the radio says; it’s bumper to bumper and completely clogged with disabled vehicles. I’m not even sure how …” I stopped, took a deep breath and looked at the map again. “This sucks but if we have no choice we have no choice. Let’s spend the rest of the day packing everything down and getting rid of every bit of packaging that we can. We’ll burn it in the fire tonight. Is there any fuel in that stash coming up?”

I’d done the best I could but the remaining food was mostly freeze-dried hiking meals and junk food full of empty calories. The best of the lot as far as I was concerned was two buckets containing emergency food kits. The problem was that although it said there was “sixty servings” in each bucket when you added the calories up that was a big, fat lie. Sixty servings divided by three meals a day divided by three people meant that each bucket would last us barely a week … a slim week unless I could add stuff to it like I had up to this point.

I also got rid of most of the heavier redundant equipment. I kept all three stoves. One was a propane stove and we still had a couple of days of fuel for it. I also kept the two backpacking stoves because we had plenty of white fuel for them and if we were down to freeze dried stuff all we would need is to boil water anyway. I left the big crew size tent and just kept the three-man that we’d been sleeping in. I got rid of the air mattress and kept the light weight sleeping pads. When Nana asked me what on earth I was doing I told her, “We need to get the vehicle weight down to conserve gas. And worst case if we have to walk we …”

“Walk?!” they both asked shocked.

Like I said, the more time I spent with them the more I wondered just how prepared they really were to get through the rough times ahead. Dad had given me stuff to read and encouraged me to think about if stuff hit the fan but it had always been around the idea that we’d be at the farm. None of us had thought we’d be away from home when the world came to an end. If I was having a hard time processing it, I couldn’t really imagine what was running through Jonathon and Nana’s heads. And that worried me. I was a big girl but I … I was scared too. I didn’t know anything about the mountains in front of us. They looked nothing at all like the ridges and valleys of the Smoky Mountains that I was used to. These mountains were beginning to close in around us and looked like they would be just as happy to chew you up and spit you out before they let you cross them.

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