In the aftermath of the banks rebooting all accounts to zero, the neighborhood is in chaos. One young man travels through the wreckage and anarchy to find his kid sister.
Written by Gregory Patrick Travers
A harsh night wind blew through the deserted suburban street, rustling what few leaves remained on the boney branches and sending a chill up Gerald’s spine. With the streetlights smashed out from the riots, and anyone who was still in their house smart enough to shut off the lights, the glow from his cellphone was the only light to be seen.
Gerald’s heart beat faster. The glow illuminating his face in a pale green was like a beacon, signaling to rioters there was a lone fish with a working phone, a hot commodity in the wild as of late. And if seen, they would come for it–in packs. Like zombies. That’s how Gerald saw them now. Zombies. Willing to murder a man on the spot if it gave them something to barter with.
Bartering was a quick replacement for the missing economy. Cellphones, like the one Gerald was holding, could get you killed. Even though it had been over a week since the cell towers went down, the internet was still working for the moment and Gerald’s WhatsApp app was his only hope of finding his little sister.
He felt a burst of elation as a message box appeared in his chat window. It was from his sister. It read,
>I’m okay. I’m hiding in Windsville Cemetery.
She was alive. Gerald could have howled at the moon, but that would give away his position. Either way, she was alive. He knew that now. Up until right then, he was scared he had been the only one from his family to make it.
His eyes rolled back, trying to visualize the quickest route to the cemetery. He used to run manhunt in that cemetery with Nick and Joey, but it had been years since then. It was far, he knew that. A forty-five-minute drive at least.
He thought of all the violence that would be waiting for him on his way and let out a chuckle, too scared to cry. Well, he thought. Fuck it, then. It’s been real, I guess.
> Don’t move. I’m coming, he replied.
Now he just needed a car. Gerald started down the back roads towards the Wall-Mart on Davis Street. Maybe he could get a ride, or even an abandoned. A lot of people never made it back to their cars after the initial looting. Transportation was everywhere.
As he turned on Pine Street he saw the first one, a black four-door sedan crashed into a lamp post. The left side had some dents in it, and the headlight smashed out, but the driver side door was open, invitingly. There was no driver. Gerald wondered why. What had happened here?
Behind it, a fire hydrant was broken, spraying a thick, hissing stream of water into the night sky and raining down thick globs that clapped on the street like applause. Something had happened here.
As Gerald approached the car he noticed its wheels had been slashed. The glimmer of hope was gone as quick as it came.
He didn’t think it was going to be that easy anyway.
Just as he started to continue on he saw something going on behind the column of water spewing out from the hydrant. A group of guys gathered in a circle, laughing as they poked and prodded at something on the ground. He got a little closer and saw they were gathered around a girl. A blonde girl around Gerald’s age. She was struggling to get to her feet, but every time she came close, one of the guys knocked her back down. She was small and there were lots of them.
Every bone in Gerald’s body told him to turn away and take a different route to Wall-Mart. His sister needed him and he could be no help to her if he was dead. But he just couldn’t walk away. He had to do something, though he cursed himself for it.
He stared at the group of four and imagined that the rioters who killed his parents looked a lot like that. His teeth clenched and his fists tightened. His chest started to pump back and forth as he breathed heavily through his nose. This was it. Fuck these guys and everybody like them, thought Gerald.
Scanning the area for any kind of weapon he could find, Gerald zeroed in on a tench inch pipe laying in the grass next to the crashed civic. He ran over and picked it up and then slowly crept towards the posse.
The water was loud and a good cover. Gerald hoped to catch a big guy by surprise and then maybe the rest would scatter. Or kill them both. He set his sights on his target, a chubby kid with a fat face who was tugging at her pants. But before Gerald could swing his pipe, a deafening blast rang out and the chubby kid with the fat face dropped like a sandbag. A blur of chrome in the girl’s hands swung around and another blast rang out, one of her attackers collapsed. The other two scurried off into the darkness like scared mice.
The girl got to her knees and now her attention was on Gerald. She was holding a gun pointed directly at him. Gerald dropped the pipe, raising his hands slowly in defense.
“What do you want, huh? You come to join them?” yelled the girl, waving her gun at Gerald.
“N-n-no,” Gerald stuttered. He was having a hard time standing. His legs were shaking involuntarily.
She jabbed the gun at him, “Answer me, you stuttering prick!’
“You…You…Holy shit! You fucking shot those guys!” gasped Gerald, trying to catch his breath. His ears were still ringing from the shots. The chubby kid and another, a skinny kid with freckles, were not getting up.
The girl lowered her gun and tucked it into the waistband of her jeans, watching Gerald closely, from top to bottom. “You’re fucking right I did,” she said finally. “Now get out of here before I kill you too.”
Who was this girl? Gerald wondered. A second ago he thought he was coming to the aid of a damsel in distress. Now she was more like a secret agent. The Transformers tank top she was wearing rode high on her waist, exposing a slender, soft midriff and a belly button. For the first time since the riots began, Gerald thought about sex.
“What are you staring at me for? I said get out of here!” she snapped at him, breaking Gerald from his fantasies.
She knelt down and rolled over the skinny kid with freckles, digging into his back pockets and coming up with a wallet. She took out the cash and loose change and left the plastic. Credit cards were nothing but litter now. Gerald stood and watched her.
“Listen,” said Gerald. “I’m going to find my sister, she’s not safe. She’s all the way across town and I could really use the help of someone who has a weapon. Maybe we should stick together.”
The girl had now moved on to the chubby one, stress on her face as she struggled to flip his dead weight. He eventually flopped over. “Sure, that would be great for you,” she said, letting out a breath and digging into the back pockets of her deceased attacker. “But what can you offer me?” For the first time, she showed the signs of a smile. “It definitely isn’t bravery.”
Gerald tensed up. “You were holding a gun in my face after just murdering two people. Anyone would be a little nervous!”
“Look, wouldn’t you feel better traveling with someone who has your back? Someone you can trust?”
She took out the bills from the chubby one’s wallet and pocketed them. “Only person I trust is me.”
Gerald was growing tired of pleading with her. He turned to walk away and muttered, “Whatever. I’ll drive to Windsville myself.”
“What did you say?” asked the girl, suddenly alert. “Did you say Windsville?”
Gerald nodded. “That’s where my sister is.”
She got to her feet. “Where’s your car?”
“Don’t have one yet. I was going to Wall-Mart to find one.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Real nice plan.”
“What do you care?” he shot back.
“My father lives in Windsville. I’m trying to get to him. Maybe we should ride together. I don’t think you’d make it there alive if you went on your own.”
“Thanks a lot,” griped Gerald.
By the time they got to the Wall-Mart parking lot, Gerald had managed to learn a bit more about his attractive yet deadly and, as he was coming to learn, rather snarky traveling partner. She refused to offer up any more than she had to, but he did figure out that her name was Amanda and she was thirty-four, two years older than himself. She didn’t say how or where she had acquired the gun, or how much money she had lost when the bank accounts were wiped clean, but Gerald suspected it was a lot. She carried herself like someone with money.
The quiet walk through the vacant backstreets was over and now that they were in open ground, both Gerald and Amanda were on high alert. Like most places where food and water were still available, the Wall-Mart had turned into a scene of chaos and death. Out in the wild, the cost of life was as cheap as the popular department store’s once advertised prices. It was jungle law.
When the riots first began, the metro police were out in full force to restore order to the city. But when law enforcement discovered that their bank accounts were staying as empty as the civilians, they quickly rethought the danger they were putting themselves in. Cops, after all, were some of the first targets to hit when the chaos began. It was easier for them, and safer, to just switch sides.
The only authority patrolling the streets at this point was the army, dispatched to enforce the state of Martial Law declared by the Federal Government. With their tanks and their guns, the soldiers could flatten out a hundred rioters in the span of minutes. But their camouflage was easily spotted in the suburban setting and most rioters, if warned early enough, could clear a scene long before the cavalry arrived.
As Gerald and Amanda started their trek through the vast parking lot, they took inventory of the damage. Cars had been flipped over and set on fire, groups of rioters were firing off automatic rounds into the sky with manic laughter, wounded men and women screamed out for aid that wasn’t coming, and some people, mainly colored and impoverished types, had gathered around a burning carcass just a few feet away, dancing around the crackling flames.
There was no doubt in Gerald’s mind that the man on fire was someone who had money. When the riots turned from looting to bloodshed, the first to die were the rich. Some by the hands of their own security. Without the law to separate the classes and keep the poor out of the gated residential communities, they were finally free to reclaim what should have been theirs all along. Years of resentment and envy exploded into public beheadings and burning of their once oppressors, sending a message to those who might still be safe, hiding in their mansions. And that message was this…this is our world now.
Gerald tried to hide his face as he passed. Amanda didn’t seem to notice the group or the burning corpse at all.
She pointed to the Wall-Mart entrance. “Look!”
Gerald saw a sedan parked in front of the sliding door entrance. A short, balding man sat inside it, screaming at another scruffy man coming out of the store with an armful of bottled water. The man with the water hopped into the front seat, unloaded the bottles and closed the driver side door. As soon as the car door was closed, the passenger revealed a pistol and shot the driver in the head.
Gerald almost screamed.
The short, balding passenger then got out from the car and walked around to the driver’s side, opened the door and started tugging the body of his scruffy friend out into the parking lot.
Amanda kept her eyes on the sedan, tugging at Gerald and saying, “That’s our ride. Let’s go.”
Gerald’s feet remained planted and he pulled his arm away. “Are you fucking crazy?” he exclaimed.
Amanda wasn’t sticking around to argue. “Fine. Stay here,” she said. Then she jogged off toward the sedan.
Gerald didn’t want to follow her, but he knew he couldn’t stay still. He decided to jog slowly behind her, close enough that he could catch up if things worked out but far enough that he could get a head start if things didn’t.
The gunmen from the sedan had pulled the body out of the car and was now in the front seat. Amanda got to the driver side window just as he started the ignition. Gerald stood and watched as Amanda started up a conversation. By the way she was flirting with him, Gerald was starting to worry she was going to hop into the passenger seat and leave him stranded. But before he could think another thought, he watched as Amanda pulled out her gun from behind her and fired off a shot into the driver’s head. He collapsed dead on the steering wheel. Amanda opened the driver side door and, with some strain, pulled out the driver, resting him next to the other corpse.
Gerald stood in shock as she got back in the car and pulled around to pick him up. The passenger side window rolled down and there she was, looking back at him from the driver seat, with one hand resting on the steering wheel and the subtlest of grins. “Get in. Let’s go.”
Gerald did as he was told.
“I can’t believe you shot that guy.”
It was the first words out of Gerald’s mouth since they drove out of the Wall-Mart parking lot, and off toward Windsville.
Amanda looked upset that he ruined the silent drive. She kept her eyes on the lane separators speeding through the high-beam spotlight as she said, very outright, “That guy was a creeper. He offered me a ride for sex. And he just killed someone. He’s a pervert, murdering cunt and he deserved what he got. I didn’t hear you complaining when I shot those goons that attacked me in the street.”
“That was different.”
“How was that different?”
“They were trying to rape you. It was self-preservation. That guy didn’t do anything to you. You executed him and you didn’t even flinch.”
“He was going to make me fuck him for a ride. He’s disgusting.”
“You can’t just go around killing people because they said something you don’t approve of!”
For the first time, she broke her eyes from the road, hitting Gerald with a fiery glare that knocked him back in his seat. “Hey, I got us a fucking car, did I not? Which brings me to my next point. So far I’ve been the one with the gun, the one who got the car, the one who is basically doing fucking everything. You haven’t done anything but bitch and moan the whole way! I mean, why am I even bringing you along?”
“My sister is stuck at the cemetery. You’re showing some basic human compassion. You’re reuniting a family. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“Listen, George, or Jarred, or whatever the fuck you said your name was…”
“Whatever. It doesn’t matter. You need to realize that we are in a fucking war zone here. You need to sack the fuck up. Compassion will get you killed out here! If you want to make it until they fix the banks, if they ever do, you need to harden the fuck right up, right now, you hear me, Jeremy?”
“It’s Gerald, though.”
Amanda broke from the road again to bark in his ear. “Toughen the fuck up, Jerry! Or go home and cry to mommy.”
Gerald put his hand over his ear so her sharp, infuriating noise wouldn’t blow out his eardrum. “I can’t go home!” he barked back. “Because someone like you shot both my parents so they could steal some fucking jewelry! I walked in on their fucking bodies! They’re both dead!”
He took a breath and forced the tears back into their sockets. He wouldn’t cry in front of someone as heartless her. “My sister is all I have left. I need to get to her. She’s home now.”
Despite her every effort, a sliver of compassion seeped through Amanda’s emotionless facade. “Sorry about your parents…that’s a shitty deal. I don’t even know if my dad is alive. We very well could be in the same boat.”
She turned and looked at him, softer this time. “But that’s my point. You need to get smart, Gerald. Or what happened to your parents will happen to you.”
“Watch out,” muttered Gerald.
“Exactly, you need to watch out.”
Gerald’s eyes opened wide and, with a look of terror on his face, he pointed straight ahead. “No! Watch out!”
Amanda put her eyes back on the road just in time to slam on the breaks and, with rubbery smoke and a screech from hell, narrowly avoid running over a teenage, and obviously suicidal, Indian boy standing in the middle of the road. As the sedan skidded by, Gerald met eyes with the boy and knew right away who it was. The boy recognized Gerald as well and looked relieved to see a friendly.
He started running towards the idle sedan. Amanda had her eye on the rear-view and her hand on the pistol resting on the center console. As the Indian boy got closer, she picked up the gun and went for the door.
Gerald grabbed her arm. “Wait! Don’t! I know that guy!”
It was Matt. They went to school together. He was even in some of Gerald’s classes. From what Gerald could recall he was kind of a laze-about and a stoner. Certainly not someone who posed a threat.
“The fuck do I care?” Amanda returned. She let go of the door handle. Gerald knew she had cooled down.
“He’s harmless,” Gerald reiterated.
“He better be,” she replied. She kept her grip tight on the gun as the boy approached the door.
Gerald rolled down his window.
“Gerald!” said the boy, almost laughing. “Oh my god. Thank god it’s you! I thought I was going to die out here!”
“Hey, Matt…What are you doing in the middle of the road?” asked Gerald. He kept his tone as friendly and soothing as possible to keep Amanda at ease.
“Trying to catch a ride,” he said. “This city has gone to shit and I’m not trying to stick around until people get their savings back. I know of a safe haven but it’s far. Here, look…”
The boy reached behind him to pull out something from his back pocket. Amanda raised the gun. “Don’t even think about it, asshole.”
The boy’s eyes exploded wide and he practically coughed up his stomach when he saw the firearm pointed at him. “Don’t shoot!” he cried with his arms high in the air.
“Turn around!” Amanda commanded.
“Do what she says,” said Gerald. Not as an order but as a friend giving another friend life-saving advice.
Matt listened. He turned around, stiff as a board, arms still stretched way up in the air. The object he was reaching for was a rolled up pamphlet sticking out of his back pocket.
“Grab it,” said Amanda.
Gerald did as he was told and took out the pamphlet, unrolling it on his lap.
“Sunshine Acres,’ he read off the cover. There was a cartoon picture of a farm on an orchard with big sun rays shooting off in the background.
Amanda snatched it from Gerald and had a look for herself. “What is this?” she barked out. She wanted to assert dominance early.
Matt huffed. “Can I get in the car first, please? I’m gonna get shot out here!”
Amanda looked at Gerald pouting next to her like a kid asking to keep a stray. She sighed and nodded towards the backseat. Matt got in.
Once driving, Matt explained that Sunshine Acres was a small off-grid commune about an hour away. He had stayed there for a few months after college on the referral of a friend and had a really good time. It was only a small farmhouse on a few acres of land but they had enough food and weed to go around after a good days work. It was a simple kind of life and, like the Amish, the people at Sunshine Acres didn’t use electricity. None of them had bank accounts in the first place. They probably didn’t even realize what was going on down here, he said. It was the perfect hideout spot until things got better, if they ever did. And in return for a ride, he would get them both in with him.
Upon hearing all this, Gerald turned and glared at Amanda, grinning ever so slightly.
Her face twisted. “What?”
“I guess I did do something useful,” said Gerald.
“No, you didn’t. He did.”
“Yeah, well, if it wasn’t for me you probably would have shot him.”
She rolled her eyes. “Congratulations, Gerald. You did something moderately useful.”
For the most part, the ride into Windsville was quiet. Amanda made sure to stay off the highways, which were a kill-box for snipers, and take the back streets where the riots had already run through. And when they did come across a car fire or a group of rioters, Amanda stepped on the gas and didn’t swerve for anyone. In most cases, they passed without incident. There was just that one time they were shot at. No one was hit.
As they rode down a long stretch of empty road, the three of them listened to a news report on the car radio. A lot of stations had gone to static after zero state. They weren’t getting paid, so why do it? But there were a few stations that stayed on regardless, feeling a duty as press to keep the country united and updated. One of those stations was 106.3 and one of those DJ’s was Ronny Danez from the ‘Danez in the Morning’ show. His usual routine was widely known as juvenile. Not much more than shock value and immature gags. But since zero state, his attitude had completely changed. He had relevant, useful news, tips, and opinions. Gerald listened to him whenever he had a chance. So did Amanda. So did Matt.
“The Army has set up camps with food and shelter in towns all across the country. If you live near a major city, chances are there are some by you by now. If you’re not in the main cities and have no access to food–get to to the cities. But be careful. Stay off the highways. And if you are on ‘em–drive like hell. Pockets of violence are popping up everywhere. If you are one of these people, being violent, stealing, raping, murdering like my callers are describing…may god forgive you. Because I don’t know if I can. Are we savages? Are we nothing more than animals?”
“So, who do you think did it?” said Matt over the report.
Gerald turned down the volume knob and Ronny Danez’ grainy voice disappeared. “I heard it was a Chinese hacker. Just a teen, younger than us.”
“I don’t care how it happened,” said Amanda. “I just want to find my father and get to the camps.”
“Your father?” Matt echoed. “Where’s he?”
“In Windsville. Same as Gerald’s sister.”
“What about your parents, Gerald?”
“They didn’t make it…”
“What about you, buddy?” asked Amanda, watching Matt in the rear-view mirror. “How come your parents aren’t joining you at Sunshine Acres?”
He stared out his window. “They didn’t make it either. It’s just me now.”
“No, it’s not,” said Gerald. “You got us. We’re in this together.”
The three of them walked through the rows of tombstones at Windsville Cemetery. Matt shivered in the wind. Gerald scanned through the darkness for his sister. Amanda followed behind them, glancing back to the street every few seconds at the car. For the moment, it was safe.
Her attention was pulled back when Gerald pointed and whispered, “There she is!”
And sure enough, the little girl was there, crouched beside a mausoleum about thirty feet to their right, her blonde hair blowing in the wind, her face buried in her knees.
Gerald ran as fast as he could. “Cindy! Cindy, thank God!”
The girl looked up, eyes wide open, a smile growing larger every second that her older brother came running. She got to her feet. “Gerald!”
They came together in an embrace. Tears fell down both their cheeks.
Matt rolled his eyes. “What a Kodak moment…”
Gerald didn’t bother to ask what happened to Cindy’s friend Tess or her parents. It didn’t matter. He had his sister back. She was alive and well, in his arms.
“I don’t mean to break up the party,” said Amanda. “But we should get moving…”
The four-door sedan rolled up slow and parked along the curb of Amanda’s fathers’ front lawn. The four of them looked out the windows at the red-brick house. Like the rest of the houses on the street, all the lights were off, inside and out. But unlike some of the houses on the street, the door hadn’t been kicked in and the windows were still intact. That was a good sign.
Amanda clicked free her seat belt and grabbed the handgun from off the dash. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
She got out of the car. Despite her orders, Matt followed. Gerald and his sister did the same.
“There’s no car in the driveway,” said Matt.
“That doesn’t mean anything. Shut up, new kid.” Amanda rushed up the front walkway. The other three remained at the foot of the driveway.
“I’m hungry,” Cindy moaned softly, tugging on Gerald’s shirt. “Where’s mommy?”
“Quiet,” said Gerald. He looked both ways down the street for any rioters approaching. There was no one. He took hold of his sisters hand. “We’ll get food soon, okay? Just hang tight.”
The answer satisfied her for the moment, which Gerald was grateful for. He wasn’t sure how he was going to break the news. How do you tell a nine-year-old their mommy and daddy are dead?
As Amanda reached the porch, the front door opened and a wrinkled, bald-headed man stood at the threshold. His back was hunched, leaning the bulk of his weight on the cane in his left hand. By the way Amanda’s eyes lit up, glossy with tears, Gerald knew this man was her father.
“Thank God,” he heard her gasp under her breath before she threw her arms around him and hugged him tight.
The old man was just as emotional. “You’re safe,” he said. “I was so worried about you.”
Matt scoffed and rolled his eyes, which Gerald found disrespectful, but kept that to himself.
Amanda let go of her father and wiped the tears from her eyes. He stepped out on to the porch, shaky in his steps. Amanda guided him down onto the walkway.
“Are you okay? Did anyone hurt you?”
“A group came by the house,” he answered. “I scared them away with my shotgun. One blast had them scatter like the roaches they were. They came back later and took the car.”
“Bunch of pricks…It’s okay. I’m here now. You’re safe.”
Suddenly a shot rang out in the distance. Multiple shots very quickly, like that of an assault rifle. Everyone was startled and turned to see where it came from. Amanda’s father lost his balance and collapsed on the walkway, his cane dropping beside him.
There was no one to be seen. The shot must have come from a block over.
Once Amanda knew they were safe, she handed her gun to Gerald and went back to pick up her father. When Gerald saw her struggling to get him up, he turned to Matt and said, “Hold this.”, handing him the weapon and running over to help Amanda. Between the two of them, they got her father back on his feet and put the cane back in his hands.
When they looked back to Matt, he was holding little Cindy by her shirt and had the barrel of the gun pressed against her temple.
Gerald and Amanda froze.
“What are you doing? Let go of my sister. What’s wrong with you?” said Gerald.
Cindy was frightened stiff and sobbing. Matt had a grin on his face. “Can’t do that,” he said.
“Stop fucking around, I’m serious. Let go of my sister, Matt!”
“First you’re going to give me the keys to the car.”
Amanda was red with anger. “I knew we couldn’t trust this asshole! Fucking way to go, Gerald! You really helped out, didn’t you?”
Gerald’s heart raced. He felt the wind being knocked out of him. “You said we were going to Sunshine Acres! We saved you! We gave you a ride!”
Amanda’s father stared back at the young man, his teeth grinding.
“Sunshine Acres is a commune, Gerald. That means you work for your stay. This old man is dying and this little bitch isn’t any good to anybody. We’ll never get in with them with us.”
“So what? You’re just gonna kill us? Weren’t your parents killed? Don’t you have any sympathy?” barked Amanda.
“I killed my parents!” Matt shot back, much to the surprise of both Gerald and Amanda. “All they ever talked about was money! You have to make money. Why aren’t you out there making money? You need to be smart with money! Well, guess what! There is no money now, so I guess they’re pretty fucking useless, aren’t they? What good are they to me?”
“So disrespectful,” Amanda’s father said under his breath. Matt didn’t like that at all.
“Shut the fuck up, you dust bag! Preaching! Always preaching! You’re worm food! I’m the fucking future!”
Another shot rang out in the same quick succession as before. This time it was louder. Closer. The back of Matt’s head exploded open in a mix of blood and hair. His eyes rolled back and his body collapsed on the driveway, folding like a discarded marionette. Silence followed and then, the faint rhythm of boots marching on the pavement.
For a second the three of them remained frozen in shock. Cindy ran to her brother and wrapped her arms around his waist as tight as she could, sobbing into his shirt. Then they saw it. A platoon of soldiers in camouflage uniforms and bulky helmets marching down the street, a massive tank rolling slowly down the road behind them. Each soldier had his assault rifle raised, head tilted, looking into the scope attachment. When the street had been cleared of targets, they lowered their weapons. One of the soldiers broke from his platoon and walked up the driveway to meet them.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Still in shock, all Amanda or George could do was nod.
“The streets aren’t safe,” the soldier continued. “There is a refuge camp not far from here. There’s shelter and food. You’ll be safe there. Do any of you have a phone?”
“Uh, yeah. I do,” said Gerald, clicking back to reality.
Gerald took out his phone. The soldier bent down and pried the pistol out of Matt’s dead hands. He handed it to Gerald. “Search for U.S. Refuge on Google Maps. It will direct you to the closest one. Take this for protection. Be safe.” Then he turned, walked back onto the road and joined his platoon as they marched off down the street, the massive metal tank roaring and squealing as it followed behind.
“Thank you, sir!” Amanda’s father called out. “Thank you very much!”
Hoards of civilians were gathered outside the Refuge Center, waiting to get to the other side of the chain fence where tents and food tables had been hurriedly erected. Even as the sedan pulled into the lot, the four of them could hear the soldier on the megaphone directing the arriving masses to form a line of two wide and have their identification ready. If identification was not available they were ordered to join the long line into the Quarantine Zone; a smaller, less comfortable fenced off area at the far end. The refuge seekers obeyed with little enthusiasm. They were hungry, cold, tired, and irritable.
Thankfully, Gerald, Cindy, and Amanda were fortunate enough to fill their bellies with Ritz crackers, Ginger Ale, and whatever else hadn’t expired in Amanda’s father’s pantry before they got on their way to the camp. They were satisfied for the moment.
Amanda shut off the engine and took the keys out of the ignition. “Okay, everyone. Saddle up. We’re here.”
In the back seat, Amanda’s father took his cane in hand, Cindy gathered some heavy blankets they took with them before they left.
Gerald sat silently in the front passenger seat, watching the disgruntled crowds through the window. Though they were packed together like sardines, there was very little eye contact among them. And even less conversation. They just kept their heads down and followed the directions of the voice on the megaphone.
Amanda gave him a smack in the arm. “Are you coming or what?”
“I…I don’t think so,” he said.
Amanda took her hand off the door handle. “What do you mean you don’t think so? We’re here. We made it. Let’s go.”
“I think I’d rather try for Sunshine Acres,” he said.
“What’s Sunshine Acres?” asked Cindy from the back.
“It’s a place much better than here,” Gerald replied.
Amanda was dumbstruck.“Are you serious? We don’t even know if that place exists. Your insane friend probably just made it up so he could steal the car!”
“I don’t think so,” said Gerald. He leaned on his side and pulled out the crumpled pamphlet from his back pocket, ironing out the wrinkles with his hand and staring at the peaceful cartoon farm on the cover surrounded by a plentiful orchard and beams of light. “He was going to kill us because he was afraid he wouldn’t get in. It must be real.”
Amanda was losing patience. “You’re being crazy. Who knows if the place is anything like he said. And who knows if you’ll even make it there alive. The camps are a sure thing. There’s food and a place to sleep. Sure, it’s cramped and not very nice, but it’s a sure thing until things get better.”
“Things may never get better. I don’t want to live my life waiting in line, sleeping beside people I don’t know, and eating government rations. I don’t want to be desperate forever.” He turned in his seat to face his sister in the back. “What do you think, Cind? You want to go live on a farm or you want to stay here?’
Cindy looked at the crowds and frowned. “Farm,” she said. “Is mommy and daddy going to be there?”
Gerald turned forward in his seat, unsure where to begin.
“Well,” said Amanda. “If you’re going, you’re going to need a car.” She reached out and dropped the keys in Gerald’s hand. “And protection…” she added, placing the gun on his lap. Then she leaned over and kissed him gently on the cheek. “Guess you’re kind of brave after all.”
They got out of the car, said their final goodbye, and then Amanda and her father headed towards the long line at the Refuge entrance. Gerald helped his sister into the front passenger seat and then walked around the car, got in, and started the engine.
It was going to be a long drive. Long enough, he hoped, to have a very hard, but very necessary, conversation with his little sister.