I basked in the afterglow of being able to talk to my daughter for a solid five minutes. She might be the only member of my family left, but one was way better than none. Then I started thinking about the rest of my family.
I still wasn’t sure that the others were gone, and I didn’t think it was just avoidance on my part. It was plausible that Gabe and Natalie weren’t even aware of what had happened yet, or the scale of the event. If they were out on a camping trip, it could be three or four more days before they were back in touch with society. But if they were out on a camping trip and someone, or several someones, suddenly died, they’d cut the trip short and get help. Okay, don’t head down that rabbit hole.
It was also possible, if not totally likely, that Cece was out on one of the ships, and so out of communication. She’d do that occasionally: take a run on one of the boats, sometimes just to check things out, and sometimes to help run a sting on some crew members. She didn’t do that often though, so the lack of contact with her was a little more ominous.
Karen and Sarah and Taylor were much more concerning. Taylor hadn’t updated any of her social media accounts since Monday night, although I only followed her Instagram and Facebook. Her mother Sarah might be overwhelmed with things right now. She’d been working for the city or county in Portsmouth since before her folks died, in some capacity that I couldn’t recall at the moment, so I assumed that if she was still alive, she’d be pretty busy with helping survivors. But I still would have expected her to respond to my messages after a couple of days.
Karen and Ben, her current husband, lived around Gettysburg. He was a ranger with the National Park Service, and she worked in the tourist industry: two days a week in one of the retail shops, and weekends giving guided tours on horseback.
I remembered that Hannah wasn’t too impressed with Ben even before she came out, although she said she’d never been able to put her finger on exactly why. Then when she’d come out to them one evening, all he’d really offered was “Oh, that’s a shame.” She said he’d tried to walk it back after he saw the look on her face, but it was too late, and way too little. Her mom hadn’t been very supportive either, apparently. She’d wailed about how she had failed Hannah as a mother, and now she’d never have any grandchildren, and so forth.
She’d video-called me on Facebook to tell me, and all I’d really had to say was, “Cool. Got a girlfriend yet?” I couldn’t understand parents who disowned their kids over something like this. I didn’t care who she slept with as long as they treated my daughter well. It was her life to live, and her sexuality didn’t reflect on anything I’d done or not done as a father, and was none of my business, anyway.
When we met after they’d been dating for several months, Ciera had made it a point to tell me how much it meant to her, the way I’d responded to Hannah. “You may never understand how important it is that you were so calm and accepting. I still can’t mention Hannah to my folks. The last time I talked to them, they told me they didn’t want to hear from me again unless I was ‘renouncing this phase of my life.’ There’s way too many gay kids killing themselves over the way their families treat them.” I liked Ciera. I hoped she was okay.
I started working on dinner after that, but it took me an hour to get me and Minion both fed, along with three trips back out to the truck. I’d spread things out in too many totes and couldn’t keep track of what was where. Plus, I’d forgotten to pack his food and water dishes, so he had to make do with the hotel room ice bucket for water, and a pile of food on the tray. Two more things for the shopping list. We were just settling in to channel-surf when there was a knock at the door.
I understood what Hannah had meant earlier about jumping out of her skin.
Minion leaped from the bed, stopping about three steps in front of the door in a very tense sit, all without a sound.
I made my way toward the door, stopping just behind Minion and listening while I tried to remember if any of the other rooms on the list at the desk had been marked off. I drew a complete blank.
I took another step for the door, then remembered I’d already taken my gun off and set it on the nightstand. I hemmed and hawed for about three seconds before going back for it.
There was another knock just as I leaned for the peephole, which nearly made me fall into the door. A white woman stood in the hallway, closer to the door than I felt comfortable with. Thin. Dark, stringy hair. White tank top. Dark shorts. No purse. She was looking off to her left, but I couldn’t see what she was looking at. Her right ear had three earrings, and I could make out a couple of crude tattoos on her shoulder and neck.
I stepped back just enough so it didn’t sound like I was right against the door. “Who is it?” Then I leaned into the peephole again.
She was gesturing to someone on her left, and they were still far enough away that I couldn’t see them. “Karen, from the front desk.”
Seriously? That’s the best you can do? “What do you need?”
More gesturing. She was arguing, and it looked like she was losing. Then she flinched. “Uh…there’s a problem with your credit card. Can you—can you come back down and let us run it again?”
I almost laughed out loud. Yeah, “Karen, from the front desk,” I’m sure there’s a problem with my card. “Just a second.” There were clearly at least two people outside my door, and there might be more. I’d taken a room at the end of the hall, just by the exit door, so there could be half a dozen people around the corner, waiting for me to open up. “You know what? It seems like I’ve lost my wallet somewhere between here and the front desk. If you find it, would you let me know?”
Her head whipped around to stare at my door, then just as quickly looked back to her left. “I told you this was a stupid idea!” she stage-whispered. She disappeared to her left, then a minute later I heard the outside door open and close twice.
I was suddenly reconsidering taking a ground-floor room. I shut off the lights in the room, then peeked out the window, trying hard not to move the drapes. I assumed this was the new version of something that had probably worked very well for them in the past. I’d done a freelance article on scams like this, and from what I recalled, the bad guys usually did it over the phone. They’d call the room, explain there was a problem with the card, and the mark would give them the credit card over the phone. They’d turn around and sell the card info, or order a bunch of stuff, then sell it cheap for cash. This plan was designed the same way, I guessed. The difference here was that instead of losing my credit card info, I’d have been rushed by at least a couple of people who’d planned on taking whatever they could get from the sucker they’d targeted.
It wasn’t surprising that some part of the criminal element had survived. This great dying-off seemed to be pretty random, so far as I’d been able to tell. I certainly couldn’t explain why I’d lived and Kevin had died. But the idea that they’d seemingly adapted so quickly had me curious. Then again, I was probably reading too much into things. I did that on occasion.
I went back to watching TV while I loaded up pistol magazines and added the magazine extension and flashlight attachment that Rory had given me for my shotgun. CNN was changing feeds every five minutes or so, but it all seemed to be automated stuff, like tower and highway cameras. I was about ready to give up and find a regular show to when the screen changed to a studio with a younger black man behind the desk, wearing a dark blue polo shirt with the station logo on it, though I couldn’t read it. He looked down and fiddled with his microphone. “I know we’re live, Cody, but I’m not going to do anyone any good if my mic falls off in the middle of the broadcast.” He looked up, found the camera, and sat up straight. “One. Two. Three. Four. Good?”
Cody was apparently happy.
“Okay. I’m Isaiah Sherwin for KKKK. Good evening. Our lead story—our only story—is the massive loss of life that occurred Tuesday morning. It was a worldwide event beginning late Monday night Eastern Time and lasting eight to twelve hours, based on several witnesses in the area. The exact death toll may never be known. Federally, according to several reports from Washington, it appears that no one in the official line of succession for the office of President has survived. Several members of both houses of Congress are confirmed to have survived and are working on meeting in a secure location to determine their next steps. No one that I’ve been able to speak to can even speculate what the procedure would be to appoint a new president.”
He flipped a page on his script before clearing his throat and continuing. I was impressed he’d put a script together. Their station had to be on a skeleton crew.
“Nationally, it appears the deaths have followed no clear pattern. I’ve spoken to colleagues in several areas, and the survival rate seems to be somewhere between five and fifteen percent. There have been numerous vehicle and aircraft crashes across the country as well, further contributing to the loss of life. One of those crashes occurred just outside Cumming near I-35.” The picture switched to video of a large fire in a residential neighborhood, not unlike what you’d see in a regular newscast. The difference here was that instead of firefighters hosing down the wreckage and a dozen investigators in blue jackets poking around the wreckage, there were a couple of people trying to keep the flames at bay with garden hoses.
After a minute of the video, the station cut back to Sherwin in the studio and he started talking about local conditions. Des Moines was far enough away that I didn’t really care about how things were. I muted the TV and got up to reorganize the totes. After that, I wrote some in the notebook I’d picked up in Kevin’s bedroom. Apparently, I was keeping a journal now. I finally shut down just before midnight, surprised that I’d lasted as long as I had.
Copyright © 2019 Bob Mueller
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