THE OAK

by John Weber

September 29, 2019

Dear Shirley,

Hope this letter finds you. Okay poor joke. We have to laugh at the way things are these days. Or we . . . .

To start over, hope all is well with you. Things here in Minnesota seem okay. Yet when you look back six months things are changed, always downhill. The idiots at Channel 5 are still hyping like they did ten years ago. Remember how we use to make fun of it. Now, it is so sad.

Like their smiles and words could bring it all back.

Hear tell, the side roads into the city can hardly be driven by the trucks. There were a few days when it was hard to get flour. My garden is just about done but feel lucky to get what I did out of it. The rain was so poor late in the season. It is crazy the way things have changed. Wet, wet, wet in the Spring and that hard drying the rest of the season. Got enough with some luck to make through the
winter.

Closed off the upstairs. Moved the bed down into the living room with the help of Mr. Solsom next door. He’s younger than I am by a few years but working at that factory, smelling those fumes has made it hard on him. I am surprise we were able to get in down with it and us
in one piece.

With the upstairs closed off and the little wood heater, I should be real cozy this year. I hope there’s no interruption in the gas this winter like last winter. I can cook on the wood heater but can’t bake anything when that happens.

How’s the water down your way? They had us boiling ours in July. Some old manure tank up river collapsed for want of repairs. There was an unpleasant smell to it but boiling made it safe. What a bother. I wonder how many of those holding tanks there are that will give way. Can you remember when they use to have all those turkeys in big sheds, one on top of the other? Always reminded me of those big cities in Asia. Well, the plagues took care of those big cities. I count my blessings that it was so light up here.

What confusion. People didn’t know which way to go. If you have no oil do you go south to avoid the winter and freezing. Of course, the temperatures down there were unbearable in the summer. By the time they figure that out, they didn’t have the energy to move. Yes, literally and figuratively.

The oak is dead.

Bill loved that oak. I remember the day we planted it 50 years ago like it was yesterday.

“This oak will grow and be beautiful just like us,” he had said. You know how he was. He use to love rake the leaves this time of year. Said it was a sign of more to come.

Have you had any more of those terrible sand storms? For a few weeks this summer I thought the wind would never stop blowing. Had to cover the garden at night with whatever I could find to keep the moisture. Hard enough to water each plant by hand. I really miss the sprinkler. Just turn it on and leave it. These changes are so sad.

I hate that the oak is dead. I wish it could have waited until after me. Losing Bill was so tough. Forty seven years together. He just couldn’t weather that damn flu. I’m afraid one of those winds will take the tree down. Lost one of the branches during that blow this summer. Will have to use it for heat this winter. I know I should be thankful that the oak is still giving to me. But it just hurts.

How are your grandchildren? I know it is tough to lose Sammy and Tommy to the flu. I was so sorry for you. Are the other three doing okay? What a world we have given them. Could you have imagined all those years ago that this is how it would be? What dreams we had.

That little child down the block, well, I guess she isn’t so little anymore, is doing fine. It is strange about children. They just adapt, don’t they? Not as easy for us old birds.

In many ways I am glad that Bill and I never could have children. For so many years that was so sad for us. But now, well, it certainly isn’t getting any easier out there.

Did I tell you about the snakes? I know you are use to them but we never had anything like that up here. Only garter snakes and they are harmless. Well, the heat changed all that. They just slithered right up here following the temperature. Now I have to watch were I walk and be real careful in the garden.

I wish the oak could have moved like the snakes. Did I tell you it was dead?

Yours,

Sylvia

****
About the Author: John Weber is a retired psychologist in the process of developing an off the grid small fruit and apple orchard along with a CSA. He’s lived off the grid for 30 years starting in 1973. For the last 20 of those years, he
made my electricity from the sun and wind. During the 70s, he manufactured a solar hot air panel and was active in state and federal alternative energy organizations. Presently, he lives on a lake in Northern MInnesota with a grid-tie solar electric system. The trauma of people not feeling in control of the changes that are happening brings him greater worries than the question of our physical resilience. Of all the defense mechanisms, (besides denial,) “displacement” -blaming another for our own
mistakes – concerns him the most.

You can learn more about Dr. Weber at his blog.

Walk-About: Part Eight – Home

by Rebecca A. Smith

Just because Mary Ellen hated guns didn’t mean she didn’t know how to use one. We all did, startin’ as soon as we were big enough to learn how. Some of us were better at it than others (poor Jane and Tim had trouble hittin’ a barn at point blank range) but we all knew how. Mary Ellen was one of the best shots in the family. Better’n me, if the truth be told. The kids all knew better’n to touch a gun without permission; it was one of the few things that would get’m a whooping, and well they knew it.

It had been so long since I’d seen Mary Ellen with a weapon in her hands that for a moment I just stared. “Mary Ellen? What the hell-”

She set the gun aside, rushed down the steps, and threw her arms ‘round me. “Thank God you’re back. I was afraid you were dead, or worse. Or that anyways you wouldn’t be back in time.”

She was crying. I had never, ever seen Mary Ellen cry. I took her hand gently. “What’s goin’ on? Where is everyone?”

“Over at your place. Everyone but me and Daddy, that is. I figured if there’s goin’ to be trouble, it’s here they’ll come first. Your place is more defensible, on that hill.”

“You’re not making any sense, Mary Ellen. What trouble? Why is Sharkey here if there’s trouble?” And where was Todd, I wondered, when he should be between Mary Ellen and whatever caused her to pick up a gun?

“He’s too sick to go anywhere.”

“He’s sick again?”

“Not again. Still. He’s dyin’, Eddie.”

My stomach did a strange kind of flip-flop and ended up somewhere around my knees. No. Sharkey couldn’t die. We needed him too much. Just then Mary Ellen saw the boys, or noticed ‘em anyhow, and lickety-split she rounded on them. She cuffed Bobby and then grabbed him by one of his ears. “Robert Earl, do you have any idea how much trouble you’ve caused? And you, Timothy Joseph, runnin’ off to see the ocean! You ain’t got a lick of sense between you. I should turn you both over my knee –But I’ll do that later. There’s no time, now. Come in, all of you. And who is that?” Daffodil had been standing back, looking shy.

The house was pleasantly cool. The ac was running, which was strange enough. Mary Ellen explained quickly and coolly, in that matter-of-fact way she had, though she was obviously hurtin’ inside. “It started two days ago. Jane’s tooth finally got so bad she couldn’t put off goin’ to see the dentist anymore. She wouldn’t let anyone go with ‘er. Except for you, and you weren’t back yet. She’d be fine, she said. But she wasn’t. On the way home Jeremiah –curse the man; he’d better hope I never get my hands on him –ambushed her. They beat her pretty bad, Eddie, and did worse’n that to her.”

I winced, thinking of the things someone like Jeremiah would think would be fun to do to a person like Jane. “Is she all right?”
“I don’t know about all right, but she’ll heal. She’s at the clinic, and the Doc says she needs to stay there awhile. She’ll live, which is more’n can be said for some others.” Her voice caught on a sob. I put my hand on her arm. “What happened, Mary Ellen?”

“We couldn’t let that go, and the militia couldn’t either. They decided to arrest Jeremiah and hold ‘im on charges. Todd and a couple of others went up yesterday to fetch ‘im. But there was trouble and Jeremiah-” Her voice broke again. “He killed Todd. Shot him dead. They beat Joe Cratchett bloody but let ‘im go. Now the whole militia’s gathering at Jim Bo’s and they’re going to go after ‘im. It ain’t going to be pretty, Eddie. Jeremiah has almost as many in his crew as the militia. A lot of people are goin’ to die tonight. And if the militia loses Jeremiah’s boys will be sure to start trouble with the rest of us.”

“I’ll see what I can do to stop that. I’ll have to go, Mary Ellen.”

“I know.”

I fired up the shortwave and called Jim Bo’s. “Ed?” He asked in disbelief. “Yore back?”

“Right ‘nough. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“Thank Jesus.”

On my way back down the hall I passed Sharkey’s room. A familiar voice called from inside. “Ed? That you?”

Sharkey was so thin now he looked like a living skeleton. He was lying in bed, propped up by numerous pillows. “It’s me, Sharkey. How you doin’?”

“Not so good. Would you turn up that thermostat? We don’t need to be wastin’ the juice.”

When I didn’t move he rolled his eyes. “No one listens to me anymore. How was yore trip?”

“Awful. But I got the boys back. And I had an insane desire to burn down the City Hall over in Huntsville.”

“Did ya do it?”

“No.”

“Pity. The world needs less useless bureaucrats.”

“I need to go, Sharkey.”

“I know. Eddie –make sure it’s justice. Not a lynch mob. You’re Cap’n of the militia now. I’m resigning, as of now. That makes it your responsibility.”

“I know. I’ll make sure it’s done right. Sir.”

“I told you not to ‘sir’ me anymore.”

“You deserve it.”

Before I left I made sure both the boys were armed and knew they had to listen to Mary Ellen. She had more sense in one finger than the two of them put together. I made Toby stay too. If worse came to worse he’d be a good guard dog. Mary Ellen hugged me ‘fore I left and buried her head against my shoulder for a long moment. “You’d better come back.” She whispered. “I couldn’t stand to lose you too.”

“I will.”

The entire militia was at Jim Bo’s warehouse when I got there, all fifty of ‘em, including Joe Cratchett. He had a busted lip, a black eye, and a lot of bruises. I glared at him as I came up. “What the hell were you two thinkin’, going up there like that?”

He shrugged. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

I had no intention of just walking up and takin’ the Captaincy. For one thing, it was an elected position. For another, I didn’t really want it and wasn’t sure I should have it. But it got taken out of my hands. ‘Fore I’d even got out of sight of the house, Sharkey had hobbled out of his room and radioed ahead. By the time I got there I was all ready elected. I wasn’t happy about it, but there wasn’t much I could do at that point and we had work to do anyhow.

The Mayor was there too (Sharkey had resigned several years before this) and she was nervous that we were going to have a lynch mob. Several of our boys and girls were of a mind to do just that and I had to put my foot down.

“There’ll be no lynch mobs on my watch,” I told ‘em. “If that’s what you want, get yerself another Cap’n. You hear?”

Jeremiah had thirty-seven men on his side and that was too close for my likin’ if it came to an open shoot-out and they had the advantage of knowing the land over that way better. I wanted to avoid that if possible. I sent our two best woodsmen over to Blackberry as scouts. One of them was Jim, and I hated to send him since he was only nineteen, but we had no choice. We had a couple of advantages Jeremiah didn’t; they didn’t have any power over there, and so no shortwaves or the walkie-talkies I sent with the scouts. When they were gone I turned to Jim Bo. He was in charge of the inventory. “What else we got that they don’t? We still have that tear gas we liberated from the trooper station?”

In the end it was almost anti-climatic. Jeremiah had no intention of causing anyone any trouble that night. With me gone, Sharkey dyin’ and Todd dead, he assumed he had us pretty well licked. He left about a dozen people at his mama’s farm to mind the still and took the rest into Blackberry for a party at Janey’s Pub. We went and rounded up the men at the farm first. I had no intention of lettin’ anyone responsible get away and the only way to make sure that didn’t happen was to hold ‘em all until we could sort it out. Jeremiah’s mother was there, of course, and she insisted on talkin’ to me.

“What do you want with my boy?” She demanded.

“He’s wanted for assault and battery, murder, and attempted murder. Ma’am.” I added the last as an afterthought, for she didn’t much deserve the title.

“My boy wouldn’t do that. There must be some sort of an explanation.”

“No ma’am. That’s about it.”

I left some of our people at the farm to guard the prisoners and headed to Blackberry with the rest.

It was well after dark before we got there, but the moon was almost full and that gave us more’n enough light to see by. The bar was in an old run down building on the main street. It only had two ways in or out, both visible from the roof of the old warehouse across the street. I sent Sammy up there with her high-powered rifle. At sixteen she was the youngest member of the militia and also the most unlikely. She was short and slim, not the sort you’d want with you in a close fight, but she was a crack shot. Before the troubles she would’ve had a good career as a sharpshooter. Her papa had been an Olympic-class shooter. I hoped we wouldn’t need her but I wasn’t taking any chances.
Jeremiah wasn’t entirely stupid; he had a guy on guard outside each door. We shot them with some tranquilizer darts Jim Bo had found as we surrounded the building. Then Joe shot a canister of tear gas through one of the windows. Clouds of smoke came billowing out, followed shortly by almost two dozen people, all coughing and gagging.

“Hold it right there, all of you,” I shouted. “Hands in the air if you don’t want to get yoreself shot.”

I sounded so much like a cop I felt like gaggin’ myself.

“Ed?” An all too familiar voice called, fear in his voice as he fought not to gag. “What the hell? I thought you were gone.”

“Obviously not. You’re under arrest, Jeremiah Rhoades, for the murder of Todd Stephenson and the assault on Jane Stewart.”

It was then that Jeremiah grew a backbone for the first and only time in his life. He reached for his gun. There was a loud crack and a bullet hit the dirt less than an inch from his big toe. His hands shot into the air.

That was the end of that. We hanged ‘im, of course, after the trial. We didn’t have much choice. We no longer had the spare resources to waste on keeping someone in prison and you don’t let a mad dog go loose. It didn’t take months or years like it would’ve taken ‘fore the troubles, either. Just a couple of days. It took some work to find a jury that could be considered at all impartial. Jeremiah had pissed off a lot of people. But in the end we did a fairly good job of it, considerin’ the circumstances.

There were a lot of witnesses, both to the murder and to Jane’s assault. Several of Jeremiah’s buddies sang like canaries to keep themselves from swinging too.

I did it, in the end. It was my responsibility and I’ve never been the sort to ask anyone else to do my dirty work. It was private; no public spectacle for us. Only a few members of the militia, the mayors of both towns, Pastor Joe, and Jeremiah’s mama. Mary Ellen was invited but she declined, sayin’ it was enough that justice was being done. As for Jeremiah’s buddies, the ones that were directly involved we exiled and the others we let go and told ‘em to stay out of trouble. Most of ‘em did.

That was the most eventful month we’d had in a long time. When it was all over I went up to see Sharkey. He was clinging to life with the same fierce tenacity that had kept him alive after the explosion that had taken his foot.

“Mary Ellen and the Doc both say yore dyin’,” I told him after we had set in silence for a few moments.

“I reckon they’re right,” He said after a pause. “It happens to all of us, eventually.”

“Yeah, but you’re too young. Mama Jo was nearly eighty.”

“Mama Jo didn’t spend several years being exposed to DU, either.”

“There is that.”

After a few moments of silence I pulled his bottle of birthday whiskey out of my pack. “I reckon you should enjoy this before you go, don’t you?”

He glared at me. “I told you to trade that.”

“I would’ve if I’d ’ve needed to.” I’d held it back in the hope of brining it home so he could enjoy it. Now I broke the seal before he could object and poured him a glass.

“You have some too.”

“Deal.”

It was good whiskey. Better’n anything Jeremiah had ever made. Etsell’s was about as good. We sat like that in silence for some time, sippin’ on the whiskey. Finally Sharkey spoke up.

“I’m glad you came to see me, Edna Jean. I’ve got some things I want to say to you.”

“I’m listenin’. Sir.”

“How many times I ‘ave to tell you not to ‘sir’ me?”

“Not many more, sir.”

“Hmm. Listen, with me gone you’re going to be in charge of this crazy lot.”

“I don’t want to be.”

“It doesn’t matter what you want. You’re it, like it or not. Someone has to make the hard decisions. There’s been plenty of ‘em in the past years and there’ll be more in the years ahead. You’re the best one for it and I’ve made that clear to the rest of ‘em. They all agree. I’m kinda glad Todd’s not around to have his feeling’s hurt. He was a good man but he couldn’t ‘ve done it. I’ve got a bit of advice for you, if you want it.”

“’Course I want it.”

“Yer a bright girl, Eddie. Always have been. A woman, I should say. You grew out of girlhood some time ago. The first thing is, just do the best you can and don’t worry ‘bout it, you hear? That’s all anyone can do. It’s a heavy responsibility but someone has to do it. Just do it with honor. And last, start trainin’ some of the others to take over right away. You can’t be sure you’ll live to old age or that they’ll outlive you either.”

“Hell Sharkey, I’m plannin’ to live to be at least a hundred. But I’ll do it. We need more of us able to lead, anyhow.”

“Yep. You can see that, which is another reason I want you in charge. I should never have been more than a non-comm, certainly not a CO.”

We set and talked for a long time. I told him all about the trip and gave him the letters Fred and Jason had sent.

The rest of that summer was quiet, thank God. We had three more hurricanes come through. By the time they reached us they were no more than heavy rainstorms and didn’t do much in the way of damage. But all the reservoirs, wells, and ponds were full for the first time in years.

Jane hid at the clinic for over a month. She was afraid to come home, especially with her face as scarred as it was and her hair all cut. She had some silly notion that we didn’t want her anymore, and nothin’ we said made any difference. Finally we’d all had ‘nough of waitin’. I borrowed a buggy from the Amish (along with one of their boys to drive it) and went to fetch her, along with Mary Ellen. We both dressed up in our best clothes and took a new dress Beth and Amanda had made just for her. The combination of the gift and the romance of the buggy ride finally did the trick. She came home, and none too soon, for Sharkey was declining fast. As he did so people came to me more and more often for help or advice. They’d come to me for a long while when Sharkey wasn’t available. But now they were comin’ to me by preference, and that bothered me. I really didn’t want Sharkey’s job, no way no how. But it seemed I was stuck with it. He was right; someone had to do it if we were all goin’ to hang together as a family.

Tim and Bobby spent the summer doin’ the hardest, dirtiest jobs on both homesteads. They were banned from fishin’ all that season. They also spent a LOT of time on the new pedal-powered washer. It turned out Beth had a whole list of things she wanted laundered that hadn’t been washed in a while. Mary Ellen too. And some of the neighbors.

Our colt came from the Corys. I spent a lot of time workin’ with him. He was a sweet horse and by the end of the summer I had decided horses weren’t so bad. Toby settled right in. He went with me everywhere, on and off the farm. He was incredibly gentle with all the kids and left the stock alone. Daffodil settled right in too and quickly became one of the family. She missed her parents but having people around who cared about her helped.

‘Bout the end of July I sent Jim and Amanda down to Etsell’s place to try and convince her to come live with us. She finally agreed, and they moved up, lock, stock and still. She said she did it more for Neil than anything, so that he would have kids to play with and a chance to go to school. She certainly wasn’t plannin’ to die anytime soon. She intended to dance at his weddin’, she said. (She did, too. She died in her sleep at one hundred and five, three weeks after the wedding.)

Sharkey lasted longer than anyone thought he would, him included, I think. But one evenin’ in early August I got the call I’d been dreadin’ and we all headed up there. I was the first to say goodbye, even ‘fore Mary Ellen and Jane. He had some things he wanted to say to me, he said.

The old man was thin as a skeleton and looked about as gaunt. I sat next to the bed and slipped my hand into his. He squeezed it. “Don’t worry ‘bout me, Eddie. I’m not afraid to die. You’ve been doin’ a good job with the family.”

“You mean that?”

“Sure ‘nough. Everyone thanks so, not just me.”

“I’ll miss you, you old codger.”

“Hothead.”

“Redneck.”

“Pup.” He coughed, causing Mary Ellen to come runnin’ from the next room. “I’m all right, I’m all right,” he told her and when she was gone he turned back to me. “I got something important to talk to you about, Edna Jean.”

“I’m listenin’ sir.”

He coughed again and this spell left him weak and shaking.

“You should sleep.”

“Ah reckon I’ll sleep soon enough. Longer than I want to.”

“I love you, old man.”

“I love you, too. But I don’t have much time. This is personal. What’s honor, Edna Jean?”

“Doin’ what’s right no matter what it costs.”

“And what’s the right thing to do when you love someone?”

“Take care of ‘em and treat ‘em right.”

“What if they don’t know? What’s the right thing to do then?”

“Tell ‘em. Generally,” I added, thinkin’ of Mary Ellen.

“So why haven’t you told Mary Ellen how you feel about her?”

I was so startled I fell off my chair and had to pick myself up.

“I, uh, how do you know about that?”

“Most of us know. Even Todd knew.”

“Then how come he never said nothin’?”

“He trusted you, ‘course. Well?”

I thought about it. “She was married-”

“Not always, she wasn’t. You loved her long ‘fore she and Todd got hitched.”

That was true enough. My feelings for her went back considerably farther, to the first day we met. I was eight and she was ten. She caught me filchin’ apples from one of their trees. “What do you think you’re doin?” She demanded that day, hands on her hips. I looked down, met those emerald eyes, and nearly fell out of the tree.

“She doesn’t feel the same way.”

“How do you know if you ain’t asked?”

“There’s the not so small matter of my gender-”

“So?”

“I got ‘bout as much chance with her as –as Jane has of findin’ a man, ‘round here.”

“Jane doesn’t want a man. She wants a woman. And she’s got one, too. She and Jim Bo’s youngest girl are gonna get hitched. She told me last night. Mary ain’t happy ‘bout it, but I reckon she’ll get over it.” He grinned. “I might end up with grandkids out of that one, after all. Who knew?”

I felt flummoxed. Jane was, well, Jane. Unpredictable. Herself.
Sharkey was looking at me expectantly. “Well?”

“She’d never speak to me again.”

“You really believe that?”

I shook my head.

“So tell her.”

“Her husband’s not been in the ground even two months-”

“Well, wait a decent time. Then do it. Even if she doesn’t feel the same at least it’ll be out in the open and you won’t be walkin’ on eggshells ‘round her anymore. I want you to promise me, Edna Jean. I won’t have you twisted up like this for the rest of yore life.”

Tears sprang to my eyes. Somehow he wrung the promise out of me. I went back out into the living room to let everyone else have a turn. When we were finished Sharkey slipped into a deep sleep. Somehow he’d been holdin’ on just long enough to say his goodbyes. His breathing quickly became irregular. All night we waited, keeping the old, old, death watch, all crowded into the house so tight we couldn’t move. Nearly three dozen of us, counting the kids. We put the kids to bed. Someone brought out some bottles and we passed them around. An hour before dawn Mary Ellen came to the door. “He’s gone,” she said, tears in her eyes.

We buried him in the woods, like he’d asked, and planted a pine tree on top. He loved pines. Then we went home and got back to work. No matter what, life goes on. Even when yore hurtin’.
And that was the end of that summer.

***

I turned twenty-six that summer. It seems like a lifetime ago. Oh, that’s right. It ‘twas (Laughs.)

What? You want ta hear more? You’re insatiable, son. I’ve been talkin’ all day. It’s the middle of the night. Come back tomorrow. I need some sleep. I can’t stay up all night like you youngsters. Not anymore, anyhow.

Did Tim ever see the ocean? You should know that. ‘Course he did. His grandson did so, too. Different oceans, but still. That don’t make no difference. That’d be your papa, wasn’t it? Good. I was ‘fraid I’d missed a generation. That happens sometime when you get to be my age. You’re the spittin’ image of your great-grandfather, Tim.

What happened with me and Mary Ellen? Ah, you know that too. But it’s another story, for another time. Let me sleep now. We’ll talk more later.

***
About the author:

Rebecca Smith is a writer, activist and small-scale organic farmer who lives on the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama. Her previously published works include the novella Crossroads, published last year in Fantasy Gazetteer. She is currently working on her first novel.

Walk-About: Part Three –Tulu and Mary Ellen

by Rebbeca A. Smith

Tulu was a drifter. There were a lot of drifters in those days. The troubles put a lot of people on the move. We had people come through from as far north as New York City and as far south as Colombia. Most of those who came through our area were men. Some young, some not. There were some women and a few families. Most of them were harmless but some stole, or worse. Most all of them begged. If we had the food to spare we’d give them a meal. One. After that, if they were willing to work we would trade food for work. Some of them stayed and became members of the community. Most moved on.

Tulu was different. He came back two, sometimes three times a year. He wasn’t looking for a place to settle down. The old marine liked to wander. It was the war, Sharkey said. It did that to some people. Back in the old days they might’ve been able to treat him for PTSD and make him ‘normal’ again, but even then he would’ve probably been just another homeless person. He had been in Sharkey’s unit at some point and Sharkey still felt responsible for his boys even all these years later.
The old drifter always camped in the same spot, under an overhanging bank down by the creek that ran by Elvis. He only came into town to trade with Jim Bo and hardly spoke to anyone. He didn’t much care for people. He never begged, never stole, and almost didn’t drink. He was also the best source of information we had found for what was going on outside the area.

“Hail the camp!” I shouted loudly as I made my way down the bank. Tulu was generally harmless but if you startled him he was likely to shoot.

“Is that you, Ed?”

Tulu called back in his damn refined Yankee accent. He was a Chicago native, though his parents originally came from somewhere in Asia. “I knew you or Sharkey would be around soon.”

By this time I was close enough to see him squatting by his campfire, working on some soup.

“It’s me, Tulu. How goes it?”

“Better, if you brought something for the pot.”

I grinned and tossed a package of beef from Jim Bo’s at him. He caught it deftly, smiling.

“Knew you wouldn’t let me down. Not Sharkey’s girl.”

That Sharkey was not my birth father had never seemed to register with Tulu. I finished climbing down the bank and joined him at the fire while he began cutting up the raw meat.

“Where you been, Tulu?”

“Here and there. On walk-about.”

“Got any news?”

“Yes.”

He was silent for a while. You didn’t press Tulu. He would tell you what you needed to know in his own good time. Well, maybe not everyone. But he would tell us.

“Where’s Sharkey?”

“Sick. He’ll come round to see you in a day or two if yer still here and he’s better.”

Tulu grunted in reply. Finally he finished with the beef and got it into the soup pot. He went to the creek to wash his hands. When he came back he dug a bottle out of his pack and tossed it in my direction.

“For Sharkey. His birthday present. Sorry it’s late.”

I turned the bottle around to read the label and nearly dropped it in shock. Whiskey, ol’ Jack. And not the cheap Jack either; this was the premium stuff.

“Hell’s bells, Tulu, where’d you find this?”

“I came down from Lynchburg.”

“I thought it’d all be gone by now.”

“There’s some left, if you know where to look.”

That was a damn valuable gift. In those days liquor was money. Especially good liquor. But Tulu knew that. I put the bottle in my backpack. “Thanks, Tulu. I know he’ll be happy. He’s always liked Jack.”

Tulu’s only reply was another grunt. He picked up a stick and began poking at the dirt with it. Finally he spoke. “I headed west this time. I wanted to see the old river again. The Mississippi, that is. I worked on tugboats over that way a long time ago before I joined up. The river’s still dirty but it’s cleaner than I’ve ever seen it. Maybe all that’s happened has been good for something. There’s still trade going up and down, too. I hitched a ride on an old paddleboat that’s been put back in service. A few things are going up and down. Mostly food, paper, that kind of thing. There’s some man in Louisiana calling himself their Governor, but of what I don’t know. Not with Orleans gone and Baton Rouge next. There’s tolls at every town on the river and on quite a few of the roads as well.

“Memphis is a mess. No one’s in charge there these days. Not even pretending. There’s no power and no running water. They’ve got sewage in the streets. It’s the damn eighteenth century, there. Malaria is back, too. You should know that.”

I sucked in my breath. If it had reached Memphis –coming up the river, no doubt –how long would it be before it reached our neck of the woods? I would have to stop back by the Doc’s.

“Anything else?” I asked finally.

He shrugged. “I made it upriver almost to St. Louie. Word came down that there was a cholera epidemic in that old burg and I cut back east. Cut back by Nashville.”

He was silent again.

“How are things otherwise? The camps still there?”

Labor camps, refugee camps, or ‘displaced person’ camps, call ‘em what you would, they were no place to be.

Tulu started. “Oh yeah. There still there. I skirted the ones around Nashville. They’re holding together up there but the city’s been split in two or three. Some places have held together and some have fallen apart, like Memphis. Some are ruled by gangs and some aren’t ruled at all. I ran into a guy who said he’d walked east from L.A., trying to reach family in Georgia. He said the black and Latino gangs are still fighting out there. Over a piece of desert with no water!” He laughed, but there was no humor in it. “Whoever wins that fight is going to get the worst booby prize in history. This guy said he left after the third time a mayor got killed for trying to stop the gangs fighting. I’ve heard some places still have power but I haven’t seen it. Of course, I skirt around most of the cities. It’s bad in the smaller places but not that bad.” Suddenly he grinned. “I stopped in this one river town in Missouri. The one in charge there is this little old black woman. She’s got the strongest personality of anyone I’ve ever met, bar none. She keeps those people in line, believe me!”

“Oh, I believe it. I know southern-”

“-women” We finished together, and laughed, for real this time.

Especially the grannies, I thought to myself. Don’t fuck with them, and they won’t beat you to death with the nearest stick. Tulu pulled another bottle of whiskey, this one much cheaper, out of his pack and took a swig. He offered it to me.

“No thanks.” I didn’t think he had anything but there was no since taking chances.

He shrugged and put it back in his pack. “I keep meeting people who say there’s a man in D.C. –or what’s left of it –calling himself President, but I certainly didn’t vote for him and I doubt he rules over much more than Virginia and Maryland. Maybe part of Carolina. I think I’ll head that way next and see what’s up. Maybe there is something left of this country. God knows enough of us gave enough of ourselves defending it.” His voice was bitter. His eyes stared into his fire, far away.

“You be careful.”

“I will. Wait, I almost forgot.” He pulled an old baggie out of his shirt pocket and handed it to me.

“For the doc.”

It was filled with seeds. “What are these?”

“Poppy seeds.”

“Why would the Doc want to grow flowers?”

“They’re opium poppies, you nitwit. After all the time I spent in ‘Stan I’d recognize them anywhere. I expect he’ll have some use for them. You know where I got them?”

“Where?”

“Jeremiah Rhoades’ land. He’s growing them. I don’t know why, but it can’t be good.”

I cursed. “He gave them to you?”

“Hell no. I stole them. That man is terrified of you, by the way. He has been ever since that fight at the Saddleback.”

I was surprised that Tulu knew about that, but I shouldn’t have been. It was a local legend. “He shouldn’t have killed my dog.”

“Worst mistake he ever made.” Tulu agreed.

I pocketed the seeds and thanked him, then took my leave. I had a few other stops to make, mostly minor trades, and it was nearly suppertime when I made it home. Well before I made it to the house two of the dogs came running out to meet me, barking joyously rather than in warning. Nothing larger than a squirrel came on our property without the dogs knowing about it, and letting us know. They were better security than any human could be.

There was an unholy banging noise coming from the open windows of the house. The smaller kids were in the yard playing and Maria and the older ones were in the summer kitchen making dinner. I didn’t see Tim anywhere. Maria pushed open one of the screens and leaned out.

“Careful, Eddie, Beth lost her mind.” She tapped the side of her head. “The baby sickness.”

I stopped, and blinked. “Okay.” I wondered what that was (not morning sickness, surely) and decided against trying to find out. Maria’s English wasn’t good enough and my Spanish wasn’t either. We’d both end up confused. The kids might know. They were fluent in both languages.
Little Andrea was sleeping peacefully on the back porch when I got there, oblivious to all the hubbub. The first thing I noticed was that all of the ceiling fans were off and the fridge in the kitchen was unplugged. Secondly I noticed a hose running across the kitchen floor, out the door, and down towards the pond. The banging sound became much louder when I stepped inside. It was coming from the laundry room off the kitchen. I found Beth inside, crying and beating the side of the old washer with a wrench. Her little boy stood in the doorway, watching with wide eyes.

“Beth?” I called uncertainly. “What’s wrong?”

Beth stopped in mid-swing and looked up at me. Her eyes were red from crying. “I don’t miss the radio,” she told me. “I don’t miss the tv or the lights. I don’t even miss the air conditioning or the microwave much. But. I. Just. Want. A. Working. Washer.” With each word she hit the washer again. It was collecting an impressive array of dents.

“Beth? We don’t have running water-”

“I carried water in from the well.”

That stopped me for a moment. Carrying water would still be less work than washing the clothes by hand. We’d had it so easy, once. Push a button and an hour later you had clean clothing. “What were you going to do with the dirty water?”

“We have a pond, Eddie. That’s what the hose is for. But it won’t work. It won’t work!” Her voice scaled up higher and approached outright hysteria.

“The washer up at Sharkey’s still works-”

Right away I knew I’d stepped in it. She brandished the wrench at me.

“I don’t want to have to walk a quarter-mile to wash my clothes! I just want clean clothes.”

She burst into tears again.

I sighed. Clearly this fell under the heading of ‘Things Eddie Must Fix Because She Is The “Man” Of The House’. I would have to find someway to get it working. Keeping Beth happy was too important. My heart ached again for Joey, who’d been as much a brother to me as a friend. He could have gotten it working as easily as me and he would know just how to calm Beth down. There were ways to run the washer without taking juice form the panels. Pedal power, maybe. That would give the kids a way to burn off some energy. Especially Tim.

Where was that boy?

I hugged Beth and gently took the wrench out of her hand. “I’ll fix it. I promise. Tomorrow, when the light’s better. Okay?”

Beth nodded and wiped her eyes.

The screen door banged and Callie, one of the kids who lived at Sharkey’s, came running in. “Eddie! Mary Ellen wants you. She said come quick. Tim’s done something’ again.”

Dear Jesus, what foolish thing had the boy up and done now?

It was still light when I got down the road to Sharkey’s. It was June, after all. Sharkey’s damn horse was grazing contentedly in a pasture near the road. She was still the only horse we had. The Amish and the Cory’s were breeding them as fast as they could but things like that take time. Their stock had been hit by the fever too, which is another reason I think it was the flu.

Having only one horse was fine with me. I didn’t trust anything that big with a mind of its own.

Jane was in the field by the road, sitting on a blanket under a parasol and reading. She was dressed in what I think was a fair approximation of a Victorian lady’s outfit, gloves and all. I had long since eased being surprised at anything she wore. As long as she did her fair share of the work no one cared.

She was different, was Jane. She had been born Mary Ellen’s little brother Bobby Joe. But Bobby Joe hated being a boy the way most folks would hate being turned into a monkey. He spent half his childhood in tears and the other half angry. Finally one day when he was about ten (I was thirteen or fourteen, then, I think), he went crying to his father because he wanted to wear a dress and Mama Jo wouldn’t let him. Sharkey, at his most pragmatic, shrugged and gave the boy a dress. It didn’t matter to him what the kid wore or what he wanted to call himself. There were too many more important things. Thus Bobby Joe became Jane and to my knowledge never wore pants again. Joey and me only had to fight two kids in school before they stopped bothering her about it. Mama Jo, good Christian woman that she was, threw a fit at first but it soon became obvious even to her that her precious grandson was a lot happier being a girl.

Today Jane had a poultice wrapped around her cheek. I winced. “Bad tooth?”

She looked up from the book and nodded. “Doc says I need to go see the dentist in Blackberry.” She sounded scared and I didn’t blame her. Not only was seeing the dentist no cake walk, but Jeremiah tried to make trouble the last time she went over there.

“I’ll go with you.”

“Sure?”

“Sure.”

Jane’s relief was obvious. “Thank you. Be careful. Mary Ellen’s in one of her moods again.”

She picked up the book again as I moved on. Little Women. I shook my head. How had any of us managed to survive this long?

Sharkey was pretending to sleep in a hammock by the garden. He was pale and had lost more weight. I tried not to worry about that. If he was very sick surely the Doc would’ve been up. He opened one eye and winked at me. I felt myself relax. Whatever it was it couldn’t be too bad if Sharkey wasn’t upset about it.

Mary Ellen and Todd lived with their kids and Bobby Earl in one of the trailers. She must have been watching for me from the kitchen for as soon as my feet hit the porch she came flying out the back door, braids bouncing. Mary Ellen was a small woman with a big personality. Her features were too strong to be called pretty but she was the most beautiful woman I ever knew. She had deep black hair that she loved to braid with ribbons. Tonight they were braided with ribbons the same emerald green as her eyes. She still had quite the figure, despite having had three children (including a set of twins), and the red dress she was wearing showed enough of it to thoroughly distract me from the reason I had came.

“About time you got here!” She snapped. “What took you so long? I tell you we have an emergency and what do you do? Stroll up here like you’re taking a walk?”

“Now Mary Ellen-”

“Don’t you patronize me, Eddie! I’m no little girl you can pat on the head and send on her way. Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”

Oh hell. She really was in one of her moods.

When she got like that anything I said was going to get me in trouble. It took forever for me to figure out how Todd stayed out of trouble when she was like that. He did it by simply keeping his mouth shut.
That’s a skill I’ve never managed to master.

“Callie never said it was an emergency!” I protested desperately. “She said Tim had done something stupid and I figered if it was bad, she’d ‘ve said. ‘Sides, Beth was hormonal-”

“Beth was hormonal? Like you’ve never had that particular problem. You pretending to be a man now? As far as that fool brother of yours is concerned, yes it’s bad. Worse’n it’s ever been before. Come in.” She opened the screen door. I moved to go in and she stopped me and then held her hand out.

I stared at her blankly. “What?”

“Your gun. You know I don’t let guns in my house. Give it.”

“Mary Ellen-”

“Give it, Edna Jean.”

Hell, she really was pissed if she called me Edna, much less Edna Jean. Reluctantly I handed over the handgun I kept tucked in my waistband. She sat it on a table just inside the door. Todd’s shotgun and rifle were there as well. Then she held out her hand again. “I want the other one too.”

I managed not to roll my eyes as I gave her the gun I carried in my boot.

“That’s it?”

“That’s all my guns.” I decided mentioning my knives would not be a good idea.

“How’d you get so paranoid, Eddie?” She sounded exasperated.

“Ask your father. He made me that way.”

Mary Ellen leaned out the door and yelled loud enough for Sharkey to hear. “Daddy! Me and you are going to have a talking-to later.”

Sharkey raised a hand in a friendly acknowledgment. He looked like he was trying not to laugh.

I expected to see Tim and possibly Bobby sitting at the kitchen table, looking sheepish. It was a surprise when they weren’t there. Todd was there though, looking slightly grim but also as if he too was trying not to laugh. On the table in front of him was a mapbook –the large kind that would fill your lap –and a note. He shoved them at me. “We found this on Bobby’s bed. The note was sticking out of the top.”

The mapbook was open to Alabama. Someone had taken a pink highlighter and traced a route from our region in Tennessee all the way to the coast near Panama City. The note was in Tim’s handwriting and addressed to me.

Sis, Bobby and me decided to take a walk. We want to see the ocean while we still can. We’ll be back in time for school to start. I promise. See you soon. Love, Tim.
P.S. Please don’t be too mad.

“Well?” Mary Ellen demanded when I’d had time to read the note. “I told you it was bad. What are you going to do?”

I stood staring at the note for a moment. It took some time for it to sink in just how stupid my little brother had been this time. Anger started welling up and then abruptly it changed to humor. I laughed.
Mary Ellen was taken aback. “Why are you laughing? This is serious!”
I looked at Todd. A smile was playing around his lips and he was clearly trying not to laugh too. “How much food they take, Todd?”

“About four days worth.”

“Guns?”

“Nope.”

“What else?”

“A couple of knives, some camping gear, water bottles, some rope. A tent. That’s about it. And my polaroid and most of the film.”

He sounded disgusted and well he should be. Todd had a passion for archaic machines and had kept that camera going far longer than it should have.

Of course they had taken a camera. To take pictures of the beach, no doubt.

Stupid gits. No guns, no trading supplies, and only a few days worth of food. Yep, they were going to get real far like that. And the idiots were planning to take the road the entire way. The road, in those days!

“Well?” Mary Ellen repeated. “Aren’t you going after them?”

I shook my head. “Nope.”

This was clearly not the answer she expected. “Well why in Jesus’ name not? You know those boys can’t take care of themselves out there.”

“I know, but there’s no need to go after ‘em. They’ll be back.”

Todd nodded his agreement.

Mary Ellen opened her mouth and before she could get going I rushed on. “Think, Mary Ellen. Those two ain’t never spent a night away from home before. Remember when they tried camping? They didn’t even last the full night, and that was in the field!” Less than half the night, if the full truth were told. I’d sat up with Sharkey that night, drinking and waiting on them.

“They were younger then-”

“Mary Ellen, it was LAST YEAR. Look, they’ll probably come draggin’ in ‘bout supper time tomorrow, or even later tonight, tails between their legs. And no harm done.”

Mary Ellen glared at me. “You- You are just as bad as Daddy! That’s what he said. And here I thought you, at least, would have the sense to go after them!”

That stung some but I pushed it aside. “I will if they’re not back in a day or two.”

“You had better.” She looked at me with those flashing green eyes. “I don’t want to lose my cousin or Tim.”

“Neither do I. I promise I’ll go after ‘em if need be and fetch them back.”

I would’ve promised a lot more to her than to track down a couple of idiot boys I’d go after anyway. Looking back, she was clearly right and I was wrong. I should have saddled the horse and went after them then and there. I could have brought them home in the middle of the night and been done with it. Except the stupid pups probably would‘ve tried again. And I really did think they would be back.

They didn’t come back the next day. One day stretched into two, and then three, and on the fourth day it became obvious I was going to have to go after them.

*****

About the author: Rebecca Smith is a writer, activist and small-scale organic farmer who lives on the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama. Her previously published works include the novella Crossroads, published last year in Fantasy Gazetteer. She is currently working on her first novel.

Walk-About: Part Two – Elvis

by Rebecca A. Smith

I slipped into the world quietly in Huntsville, Alabama about the time the first troubles began…

Ah, who am I kidding? I’ve always been about as subtle as a forest fire and my birth was no different. My parents had planned a nice, quiet birth at a birthing center across the line in Tennessee. That was before my mother started hemorrhaging one afternoon three weeks before her due date. So I arrived by emergency C-section at the local hospital. Family legend has it that my normally mild, executive father, confronted with this unexpected emergency, completely freaked. Emergencies do that people. They either bring out the best or the worst in everybody. In my father’s case it was probably the best. He picked his wife up –somehow- put her in his sports car, and drove down Highway 53 and Jordan Lane like all the demons of hell were after him. A man who never broke the speed limit suddenly turned into a NASCAR driver.

When they arrived at the hospital they were searched, of course. A bleeding pregnant woman shows up and you search her before letting her into the ER. It wasn’t like they needed to; Huntsville wasn’t Detroit or L.A., or even Atlanta. It was one of those things they did because they could. Things were like that back then. I’m not supposed to know about that, of course, and I wouldn’t if Grandpappy Thompson had not gone on about it every time I saw him until the day he died.

He was an old coot, was Grandpappy. True southern born redneck. He didn’t forgive his daughter for marrying a black man (even one who was mixed) until I was born. He served in ‘Nam and to him anyone he didn’t like was a ‘damn commie’. He had more guns than God (not uncommon in our area) and was always worried ‘someone from the gummat’ was going to try and take them. It never happened, and even if it had, the only one of his that was registered was the one he carried in his waistband. He and Grandma had a huge fight in the parking lot of the hospital over whether or not he should leave that gun in the truck. She won, and it was a good thing since they (naturally) were searched too. Grandpappy nearly got arrested for talkin’ back to the cops. I’m not supposed to know that, either.

I was healthy, despite being premature. I guess I was in a hurry to come into the world. My childhood was happy, I suppose. I don’t remember much of it. We were sheltered from most of the dislocations that took place during that time period. My mother was a housewife who worked part-time once I started school but my father was a high-level executive at one of the defense contractors in town. I don’t remember what his title was or which company he worked for, but he traveled a lot. He also made a lot of money, which is what sheltered us as things began to deteriorate. We had a big house in Harvest that was always warm in winter and cool in the summer. I had a giant bedroom and more toys than I could count.

I was a stubborn, strong-willed child who severely tried my parents. I was a tomboy from the time I could walk and resisted any and all efforts to turn me into a lady. I was my mother’s sorrow. Grandma Davis thought it was funny and whenever I would come to her house she let me climb trees and run wild with the neighborhood boys. Grandpappy Thompson was as happy as he could be that he had a grandchild who liked to go fishing and camping with him. He took me fishing for the first time when I was two and camping when I was four. I was seven when he taught me to shoot. Whenever I was on their farm in Elvis I kept Grandma busy patching me up.

All through my childhood there were problems. There was war and rumors of war. The economy got worse and worse, with periods of stability in between dislocations. We were hardly affected but as I got older I couldn’t help but notice them. Shortages started at some point and just kept happening but it never affected us at home. Papa could just pay more for whatever we needed. Including gas, when it started running short. I first noticed the problems at school when more and more kids showed up without some or all of their supplies. Mother would often take bags of school supplies and give them to my teachers and more’n once she rounded up clothing and even shoes for some of the kids who couldn’t afford them or find them. When her part-time job ended (the business folded, I think) she devoted all her efforts to charity.

I was ten when the fever came through. It was the flu, I think. The public health system had been overstrained for years but it completely collapsed when that epidemic began. The stories are that it turned into a full-blown pandemic but I’ve no way of knowing if that’s the case. When it began Papa drove Mother and me up to the farm in Elvis.

Grandpappy had died the summer before in a car accident and Papa said Grandma could use the help. Mother was very pregnant with Tim. Papa dropped us off and went back to Huntsville, and to work.

That was the last time I ever saw him. One of his colleagues called when he passed away of the fever.

Mother gave birth to Tim two weeks later and he was about a month old when the fever made it to Elvis. It hit hard. Isolation helped some. When it reached Elvis a lot of people just stayed on their farms or in their homes until it was over. A lot of people did the same in the cities. It made it harder to get the fever but also harder to get treatment. About sixty percent of the people around our parts got the fever, and about half of those who got it died. Most of pneumonia. I’ve no way of knowing if it was that way everywhere or if it was worse in Elvis. We didn’t have much healthcare to speak of and it was impossible to get to the hospital in Fayetteville, much less Huntsville.

I was the first to get sick in our family. While I was recovering Mother got sick and passed away. Grandma didn’t tell me until I was well. Tim never got it. A few days after I was back on my feet Grandma passed away. Not of the fever; she never got sick. Her heart just gave out, I think. It had been bad for years and she’d been off her meds for weeks. The power was out for some reason but I managed to get the emergency radio going. Things were bad. They gave a lot of numbers I didn’t understand and can’t remember. I do remember they said the president had not gotten it and was still in charge. I remember wondering why I should care about someone I didn’t even know when my parents and Grandma were gone forever. For a couple of days I managed okay on my own with Tim. But everything in the fridge went bad, we ran out of formula and diapers, and I didn’t know what to do about Grandma. So finally I bundled us up (it got really cold in winter at times, in those days) and walked down the road to Sharkey’s and Mama Jo’s. They’d always been really good friends with my grandparents but I hadn’t seen them in days. Mama Jo opened the door, took one look at us, and sat about feeding both of us while Sharkey –missing a foot though he was –went and buried Grandma.

The power came back on a few weeks later. Several months after that it went off again and stayed off. Why I don’t know.

But all of that was a long time before Tim decided he wanted to see the ocean.

When Tim didn’t show up early that morning I assumed he and Bobby Earl had gone fishing. We were taking things easy for a few days since the planting was done and I had told him to just be back for evening chores. They even left a note on Sharkey’s table that said that’s where they were so no one would look for them.

I had business in Elvis that day. Part of it was ours and part of it was Sharkey’s. He was feeling poorly and had asked me to go in his stead. He often had me run errands or attend to other business for him. I think he trusted me even more than Todd, who was his son-in-law. I know he had taught me things he never taught Todd.

Beth and Maria were sitting on the porch drinking tea when I left. It was shortly after dawn. Beth was nursing the baby. Her daughter really had slipped quietly into the world, naturally and without any complications, only two days after Tim told me he wanted to go see the ocean.

“Leaving all ready?” She called when I stepped out.

“Have to.” I grunted in reply. My backpack was full of trade goods and I had a basket of eggs tied to my belt. “I want to back by supper.”

“You be careful,” Maria told me firmly. “Bring back some blackberries, no?”

“If there are any.” It was early yet, but you never knew. “You have a gun handy?”

In response, Beth lifted the corner of the afghan on the porch swing next to her enough to reveal the butt of the rifle concealed there. I nodded. It had been some time since we’d had any trouble but I didn’t want to risk anything happening to any of my family.

It was another clear, cloudless day. Nice enough for traveling, but worrisome since this made it a week since we’d had rain. We didn’t need another drought. Elvis was three miles from the farm by the road and two-thirds of that cross-country. Blackberry was northwest of Elvis another five miles up the old road. Our Amish neighbors lived juxtaposed in between the two and slightly further west. I took the road but kept an eye out for trouble.

As I walked I scanned the sky for contrails. It was an old habit of mine, one I still haven’t broken. I suppose my fascination with airplanes is due to Papa. When I was a small child he was always traveling and my mother and I would see him off or pick him up at the airport whenever possible. I always wanted to go somewhere in a plane and never did. Suddenly I understood Tim’s fascination with the ocean a little bit more.
Little did I know he and Bobby Earl were heading southwest at that very moment.

There were several other places on the way from ours to town. Some were occupied and some were not. I passed the Heckert place first. They were on my left. Their winter wheat was doing poorly. It didn’t look like it was going to come to harvest and that was worrisome. Only two other families still grew wheat. Their garden was looking good at least, and they had a trial patch of corn this year. It was a different kind than I had seen before and I made a mental note to ask them where they had gotten the seed. I wondered how they made it on their own. There were only three of them, and they were too proud to ask for help.

The McCrays were next. They grew the famous blackberries, some cattle, and lots of sweet potatoes as well as a huge garden. In the old days the big blackberry patch had been a pick-your-own farm and people came from all over, even as far as Huntsville and Chattanooga, to do just that. The entire extended family lived there now –what was left of it –as well as some others they had taken in. The blackberries were not in yet. The last really big plot was the old Smith place. Old man Smith and his wife had both died of the fever and none of their kids had ever shown up to claim it. The year after some of the Hispanic migrants had moved in. There was trouble over that at first, but Sharkey had handled it with his usual finesse. They were good neighbors and had brought lots of seed for peppers, corn, and other traditional vegetables. Without them a lot of people might have starved.

When the state militia tried to evict them on one of their periodic run throughs the entire town swore they owned the place legitimately and had lived there for two generations. It had been years since that militia came through, and no one missed them much. The town militia handled trouble just fine, thank you very much.

Elvis had never been a big town. It had once had another name, before the King’s time, but whatever it was I never found out or have long since forgotten. Suburbanization had never reached it from either Huntsville or Chattanooga, much less Nashville. There had been about five hundred people in the town when the flu came through, and now there were less than three. There might have been a thousand people in the whole region when all this happened. It may sound like a lot but there were more in the subdivision I lived in during my childhood.

My first stop was the medical clinic. Elvis had never rated more than a single doctor’s office, but now it was basically a clinic. It was one of the few buildings that still had any power. Most of the solar panels we had scrounged up went to ensure that. Doctor ‘the Doc’ Hatcher used to practice up near Winchester way but now kept closer to home. His wife had once been a chemistry prof but now she spent her time testing water and helping her husband make what few medicines we head.
Shekina, one of the apprentices, poked her dark head out of the clinic door as I neared.

“I thought that was you, Ms. Davis! How are you?”

“It’s Eddie, Shekina, I’ve told you.” I replied, laughing.

“My momma says to respect my elders, and that it’s Miss, Missus, and Mister when it’s not sir or ma’am.”

“You’re eighteen now, ‘Kina. That means you’re an adult. Call me Ed or Eddie.”

“Long as you won’t tell my momma.”

“Deal.”

I entered the clinic as she held the door open for me. It was noticeably cooler inside. The building was brick, with a full basement and the best insulation in town.

“The doc in?”

“Nah, Rory Cratchett broke his leg in a bad way and he and Bobby Joe went to fetch him. He asked me to stay in case anyone else came in. What do you need? Has your brother done something stupid again?”

“Not that I know of. I just came to deliver these.”

I had a sack of sweet potatoes and assorted salad veggies slung over my shoulder. She accepted them graciously. The Doc always needed food. They didn’t have time to grow or raise much of their own.
Shekina insisted I have a cold glass of water before I left.

“Why didn’t you radio ahead on the shortwave? I would have made you breakfast. I’m sure you haven’t eaten yet.”

“I didn’t want to waste the power. And I had some grits and eggs before I left.”

I took my leave shortly after that before she had a chance to really start talking. Shekina could talk your ears off.

There were a lot of empty buildings in Elvis in those days. Some people had combined housing to make things easier. Others simply belonged to those who had passed away or left. One old building had been converted into the schoolhouse that was now closed for the summer. Widow Harrison was sitting on her front porch as I passed by, fanning herself and looking for gossip.

Some things never change.

“Mornin’ Ms. Davis! How are you?” She called.

“Good, Mrs. Harrison. And you?”

“I’m good. You found yourself a man yet?”

“No ma’am.”

“My boy’s still single.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, ma’am.”

“You’re not getting any younger, you know.”

“I know.”

“You have time to sit and talk?”

“’Fraid not today, ma’am.”

“Pity.”

I moved on, trying not to mutter to myself in her sight. She was the biggest gossip in town. I dared not tell her I had no intention of ever ‘finding myself a man’. Now if I had been a man myself, and Mary Ellen had not married Todd –I pushed the thought away. Such things might have been possible once but not now. Things had changed.

Mary and her husband Jim Bo ran the grocery and dry goods store. Their old big box store had long been shut down but they operated out of an old convenience store next door. They had enough power for some refrigeration cases and a couple of fans. They sold all kinds of things out of their store, and the old one had been converted into a warehouse that held even more. You could buy just about anything you wanted if you had the credit but some things –papers, ink pens, ammo –had to be requested.

Jim Bo was behind the counter when I came in and greeted me enthusiastically:

“What can I do for you, Ed?”

“You can give me a beer to start with, you old codger, and don’t bug me about the credits. You know I’m good for it.”

The old man laughed. “You’re the only woman I’ve ever known who likes a good brew.”

“I’m not an ordinary woman, Jim.”

“True.” Jim Bo took a beer out of the case behind him, unscrewed the cap, and handed it to me. It was an old twenty-ounce soda bottle. The once red label had long since faded, but some of the letters were still visible. I took a long swig and let it go easy down my throat. “Good stuff. How does Mike do it?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care, as long as he keeps doing it.”

We both laughed. “Where’s Mary today?”

“Out and about. She went to see several friends. Said she reckoned I could handle the store on my own for one morning.”

“I reckon she’s right.”

“Hope so, otherwise she’ll be right pissed off. What can I do for you?”

“Eggs, to begin with.” I set the egg basket on the counter. Jim Bo counted and examined the eggs with the eye of an expert. “Twenty-four, eh? That’s quite a lot.”

“We’ve got a lot of hens now. They’re all fresh.”

“I believe you. These are nice. This’ll get you twelve credits.”

“Done. I also have some of Maria’s homemade cornbread.”

Jim Bo perked up and he gazed longingly at the parcel I pulled from my backpack. “That’ll get you six more. But I’m not going to sell that. I don’t know how she does it.”

“The jalapenos, I think.”

“Hmm. Gary’s still not remarried. Tell her that, would you? I wouldn’t mind havin’ her for a daughter-in-law. Anything else?”

“No, but I have a list.”

“Hmm. Thought so.”

We bargained through it. Mary was a stickler on prices but Jim Bo liked to haggle as much as I did. We had good credit, so a baby brush and some bottles was no problem. There were a few other things, including some butter, and when we were done we still had plenty of credits left. Jim Bo tallied up the purchases and marked them in the book.

“Pick them up on your way out?”

“Sure. I got things to do.”

While I was nursing my beer and looking around the store I couldn’t help but notice some pretty red ribbon he had on a shelf. Jim Bo noticed my gaze. “You should get that for her. She likes red.”

“Who?” I asked innocently.

“You know.”

“’Fraid not.”

He gave me a look. “Half the town knows, Eddie. And most don’t care. Those that do ain’t gonna say anything. Not to you.”

“Oh shut up.”

I bought the ribbon.

Pastor Smith was entering the shop as I left. He gave me a semi-dirty look. I returned it.

“Haven’t seen you at church lately, Edna Jean.”

“Nope.”

“We gonna see you soon?”

“Nope.”

“Mama Jo would like you to come to church.”

“Mama Jo is dead.”

“She’s in heaven with Jesus. Don’t you want ta join her one day?”

“Not any time soon.”

“Jesus loves you too.”

“If you say so, Pastor.”

Pastor Joe was the only pastor left in Elvis in those days. There had once been three. He was annoying as all hell. Not as annoying as the Mormon missionaries who came through from time to time, but still. The last time the latter showed up I nearly ran them off at gunpoint. I still haven’t decided which annoys me more: dead guys comin’ back to life or salamanders holdin’ the keys to heaven.

Both are about equally likely.

The Saddleback was my next stop. The bar was still under the same old bar keep. Sallie had never shut down for long, even during the flu. When the trucks stopped coming she just bought moonshine. Every Saturday some of the locals played and people gathered to dance and drink.
The bar was as much a general hangout as anything in those days. It was bright enough in the day with all the windows open and at night there were lanterns. There was a town militia meeting there that day. Sharkey was Captain and I was his chief deputy. The militia was formed a few years after the fever to help keep order. It had been Sharkey’s idea, of course. Well, him and some others who had military experience. Service was about as voluntary as you could get but most of the men and quite a few of the women were in it. I joined as soon as I could, on my sixteenth birthday. It was a loose structure, more along the lines of the old National Guard than regular service. We communicated by shortwave most of the time and got together once a month to exchange reports.

The meeting was short. All had been quiet lately. Even Jeremiah had been lying low, and that worried me some. The people of Blackberry didn’t like him anymore than we did but they weren’t as well organized and if he decided to take full control over there he could.

“He’s too busy trading that rot gut and pot to cause any trouble right now,” Joe Cratchett, Rory’s son, said.

“Trading where?” I asked.

Joe shrugged. “Outside the area, somewhere.”

“What is he trading it for?” I pressed him.

“Does it matter?”

“If it’s ammo and guns, then yeah, I’d say it matters.”

Joe grinned. “Eddie, from all we can tell he’s trading it for food. Lazy sum a bitch won’t grow ‘is own!”

There was general laughter at that. The meeting over, we all had a beer. As I was leaving Joe caught up to me and whispered in my ear.

“Thought you’d like to know, ole Tulu is back.”

“He is?”

“Yep. Saw ‘im yesterday. We traded for some spices. He had some cinnamon from somewhere or other.”

“Same spot as usual?”

“Yep. Thought you’d like to know.”

“Thanks.” I had other things to do, but this couldn’t be put off. If Tulu was here, then I needed to see him right away. I put my backpack on and headed down to the creek.

***

About the author: Rebecca Smith is a writer, activist and small-scale
organic farmer who lives on the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama. Her
previously published works include the novella Crossroads, published last
year in Fantasy Gazetteer. She is currently working on her first novel.

Walk-About: A Story of the Future

by Rebecca A. Smith

Part One –Runaways

Every story must have a beginning, and this one is no exception. I suppose the proper place to begin is with an introduction, but if the truth is to be told, I do not want to tell this story at all.

Why? There seems to be no point. For posterity, Mary Ellen would tell me if she were here. But it seems to me that most of our “posterity” couldn’t give a rat’s ass about my life, or its story. It is their own lives, and their own stories, that they will be concerned with. But Mary Ellen is still nagging me to tell this story, so I guess I will. For her, if for no one else. Yes, she’s dead and has been these past twenty years and more, but she’s still nagging me. She nagged on me for fifty years in life and you would think that would be enough, but no. She still nags me even though she’s dead and gone. I may sound cross about it but I’m not. I’d give both my legs and my arms too if she could still be here to nag me. It never really bothered me, though I groused about it enough at the time. Still do. Sometimes I think I hear her calling me, you know. Usually when I am about to drop off for a nap or when I’m trying to get to sleep at night. I’ll be almost asleep and then I will hear her voice and jerk awake. I look around, expecting to see her walk through the door, and only then do I remember she is long gone.

What was that? Oh, the story. Have some respect for your elders, young man. Kids these days. (Laughs.) No, sorry. I don’t mean that. Every generation from the cave men on down has railed against the younger. It’s the way of the world, I suppose. But at my age I’ve earned the right to ramble if I wish. I’ve outlived all of my contemporaries. Far outlived, in most cases. I guess I’m just too stubborn to die. When I was a kid my Grandpappy used to say I was as ornery as any mule ever born, and it’s true. Believe you me. I’ve known a lot of mules in my time.

But where was I? Oh, the story. I’ve got a lot of stories. Mary Ellen wanted me to tell them all, and have them written down. That’s your job, boy. I’ll do the talking and you do the writin’. I’m running out of time, I suppose, and I promised Mary Ellen on her deathbed that I would do this. It sure took me long enough to get around to it. (Laughs again.) I’ll start with the first one, I suppose, and I can work enough of the back story into that to give you the picture.

But first things first. In case anyone ever reads this who actually gives a hoot, I am Edna Jean Davis, and I am a hundred and three years old, but back then I was still young…

***
Approximately 50 miles north and east of Huntsville, Alabama, near Elvis* and Blackberry* Tennessee.

“I want to see the ocean.”

The remark came out of the blue one warm, late spring day. It was hot, despite the fact that we were not yet into June. Every year it seemed like the heat came sooner and left later. We were on our grandparent’s land, planting sweet potatoes, my brother Tim and I, when he made this odd remark. Tim was always making odd remarks. He always had his nose buried in a book or his head up in the clouds instead of on the ground where it belonged. Had I known how much trouble that simple sounding remark would cause, I would probably have turned around and clocked him then and there. I should point out that Tim was my brother by blood and not just by raising. Not that it matters, but I still haven’t figured out how our parents managed to produce two children as different as the two of us.

“Ed?” Tim called when I didn’t answer after a moment.

“Did you hear me? I said I want to see the ocean.”

I felt a surge of irritation towards the boy and choked it down. He was only sixteen –ten years younger than I –after all, and all boys are prone to make stupid remarks occasionally. Particularly when they are between fifteen and twenty. Not that I haven’t made plenty of stupid remarks in my time, but nothing like teenage boys are prone to do. That Tim was more prone to do it than most was just a function of his personality.
Suddenly I realized that this one was probably my fault. How many times had I told him of the trips our family had taken to Gulf Shores and Panama Beach when I was little?

We were almost finished with the sweet potatoes. Tim had just finished putting the last starts in the last row, and I was close behind him with the hoe, which I used to fill in the trench. One person could have handled the job but it was easier and faster with two. You learned to minimize labor when you had to grow all your own food.

Finally I stopped working for a moment. I took my hat off with my free hand and transferred it awkwardly to the hand that held the hoe. Then I took my handkerchief out of my front pocket and wiped the sweat from my brow. After that I took a long swig from the water bottle at my belt. I took my time, rolling the water around my mouth to wet my parched tongue before I finally swallowed.

Tim was still looking at me expectantly.

There was no help for it.

“Yes.” I said finally. “I heard you.”

“Well?” He replied. “Do you have anything to say?”

“Like what?” I let a bit of my annoyance show as I resumed hoeing.
“So you want to see the ocean. Great. I want to ride in an airplane. Both are about as likely to happen. And so what?”

“That’s not true. The ocean is still there, but no one has an airplane anymore. Or if they do they don’t have any fuel.”

He had me there, I had to admit. It had been at least five years since I had seen a contrail. Maybe six or seven. I tried to remember when the last time had been and gave up. It hardly mattered.

Tim was still talking.

“We could still get to the beach. It’s not that far, maybe not as far as it used to be with the way sea level has been rising.”

“We’re hundreds of miles from the ocean, Tim. You’d have to walk. You don’t even like walking to Elvis. And who knows what’s between here and there these days?”

I was thinking of all the rumors about Huntsville and Birmingham, in particular, but did not say what I was thinking aloud. Maybe I should have. But then, Tim had always been the sort who thought no one would ever try to hurt him. I doubt he would have listened.

“So? We could do it in a summer. Me and Bobby were thinking-”

“Hold it right there,” I stopped hoeing again and gave him The Look.

You know the kind a parent turns on a child who is in trouble. Tim was my son as much as my brother, as I had most of the raising of him.

“Timothy Joseph Davis the Second, I don’t give a rat’s furry ass what you and Robert Earl have been thinkin’. Put it out of your mind right now.”

“But Eddie-”

“Don’t ‘But Eddie’ me. The last time you two got to thinking together you both got hurt and I got to drag your butt to Sharkey’s on a litter and then walk all the way to Elvis to get the Doc. No more ‘buts’. Stop thinkin’ whatever it is you’ve been thinkin’. Now get yerself over to that well and get the water to do the sweet potatoes. Ya hear?”

“Yes’m.” He muttered, almost too low to hear.

“What was that?”

“Yes ma’am.” Tim repeated, this time much louder.

“That’s better. Now get on with you.”

Tim turned and shuffled off, muttering rebelliously to himself. Only a teenager could manage to look that sulky. I finished planting the sweet potatoes and headed back to the house. Tim passed me on the way, a full watering can in each hand.

He glared at me as I passed. “Aren’t you going to help?”

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“I’m going up to Sharkey’s. Water the tomatoes and beans when you’re done with the potatoes.”

The boy said some words as I moved off, none of them very nice. I chose to ignore them. He was still small enough for me to wash his mouth out with soap if I chose but he was getting close enough to being a man to speak his own piece. ’Sides, I knew it would help him to cool off and the sooner he cooled off the sooner he would get back to work and wear himself out enough to get the foolish notions out of his head.
Walk to the beach, indeed.

Maria and her daughters were in the strawberry patch picking the last of the berries. They waved and called “Hola!” as I neared. I took off my hat and waved back. “Hola! How are the berries?”

“Good, good!” Maria assured me, as her children chattered at me in a strange patois of English and Spanish that I had gradually gotten used to. She had seven girls, though only two were hers by birth. She and Miguel had had four of their own, counting the boy, until the fever that had also taken my parents. Miguel too had been carried off that winter, along with many others. Including the parents of her adopted girls. Like Sharkey she had taken in as many of the orphaned children as she could care for. Three of the girls weren’t even Hispanic, and the other two were Guatemalan instead of Mexican.

That hardly mattered, either. We were well past the time of the riots.
Twelve people shared my grandparent’s house back then. At one point we’d all been crammed into Sharkey and Mama Jo’s place like a basketful of puppies but as we’d all grown we’d felt the need to spread out. The day I turned eighteen Sharkey handed me the deed to the land and house. “It’s yours now.” He said simply. “I took care of it like I promised but now it’s yours.”

I looked at it and back at him. “What the hell am I supposed to do with it?”

Sharkey shrugged. “Move over there with some of the folks? You won’t have to walk so far to tend the fields and we need the room.”

So we did.

Beth was sitting on the back porch, sewing. Her feet were propped up on an ottoman and she had a glass of peppermint tea at her elbow. Cold, since we had enough power from the solar panels to run the fridge and ceiling fans, if not the air conditioner. A fan was turning lazily overhead. She was so big with child she could hardly walk. Her two-year-old slept on the porch swing nearby. The boy had his thumb in his mouth. He was the spitting image of his papa, and I was glad for Beth’s sake. Joey had been killed by a stray bullet over the winter.

A supposedly stray bullet. He had been on his way back from visiting the Amish community and cut a little too close to Blackberry. Jeremiah and his crew knew Joey and Beth lived with me, and he might have been trying to send Sharkey and me a message. But I had no proof, and I wasn’t about to do anything without proof.

No matter how much I wanted to.

“You all right?” I asked as I came up the porch steps.

Beth nodded, smiling. “I’m fine. Sister Ruth is coming out to check on me this afternoon. She reckons to stay here until the baby is born. That all right with you?”

I nodded. The unassuming young Amish midwife was always welcome, and I certainly didn’t want to have to try and get the truck going or ride Sharkey’s damn horse pell-for-broke in the middle of the night to fetch her. The Amish didn’t have any of the shortwaves. One of our girls was her latest apprentice, just as another was apprenticing with the Doc. There were certain skills we daren’t lose.

“The Doc’ll be on call, I take it?”

“He’s taught her fine how to do a Caesarean, Eddie.”

I jutted my chin out in my most stubborn manner. “I still want the Doc on call.”

“Fine. But I’ll be okay. I’ve done this before. What do you think?”

She held up her work for my inspection. It was a tiny dress, just the right size for a newborn girl. I stared at it in bewilderment.

“Hell Beth, we have enough baby clothes for all of Tennessee and half of ‘Bama between what we’ve got here and the stockpile up at Elvis. What are you making more for?”

She shrugged, still smiling. “It’s a new baby. I figure she should have at least one new outfit.”

“Your call. Not mine. I’m going over to Sharkey’s. Keep an eye on Tim for me, would you?”

“Sure. What’s he up to now?”

“Jesus only knows. Not me.”

“Well, tomorrow’s Monday so he’ll be back in school and out of mischief then.”

Frankly, I thought having so much school was part of his problem. Sharkey may have taught me everything else he knew, but he somehow infected Tim with his love of books. I stopped inside long enough to have a glass of tea and then walked the quarter-mile over to Sharkey’s. There weren’t as many people packed into the house and the two trailers as there had once been but there was still plenty of people about, most of them around my age or even younger. Most of the household was out working before the heat really sat in for the day. Sharkey had gone into town for a trustee’s meeting and Mary Ellen had gone with him. But Todd, Mary Ellen’s husband, was there and I explained what Tim’s latest foolish notion was. He rolled his eyes.

“Those two! They’re the devil’s own children, I swear. We’ll keep an eye on Bobby, don’t worry, if ya’ll will keep an eye on Timmy. They’ll get it outta their heads soon enough.”

I nodded, and that was the last I thought of the incident, save for keeping a closer eye on Tim for a few days. Two weeks later I had forgotten about it completely. So when he asked to sleepover at Bobby’s I didn’t hesitate to say yes. School was out for the year and he’d been good all week, so I didn’t have any reason to say no.

The trouble was, he didn’t come back the next morning.

Stay tune for Part Two!

About the author:

Rebecca Smith is a writer, activist and small-scale
organic farmer who lives on the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama. Her
previously published works include the novella Crossroads, published last
year in Fantasy Gazetteer. She is currently working on her first novel.