It was early September, that time of year when summer was still strong in the bones of the land. I left for work that Monday morning, taking my old black pickup truck. Sure, there are faster and flashier vehicles out there, but they draw attention to the hijackers and thieves looking for a well-heeled victim. But nobody pays attention to an old Toyota with rust and a few dents. I also liked the off-road capabilities and the high stance which gave me an extra layer of safety from any would-be attackers. Not that I expected such a thing to happen to me, but in those days it was better to be safe than sorry.
As I pulled out of my driveway, I looked fondly at my old bungalow built during the Depression. What the little house lacked in size was made up for by comfort. I had added built-in bookshelves, converted the basement to a home theater, and refurbished the kitchen with new cabinets. It would have been a cramped place for a family, but there was no reason why a man made recently single needed anything larger. So far the neighborhood had been free of any looting and much of that had to do with the block watch. I’m sure the men enjoyed playing soldier - toting rifles over their shoulders and stopping any visitor by the blockade of cars at each end of the street.
In the past this time of year was normally for apples and farm markets, but yet again the harvest had been bad with the usual predictable rise in food prices. It was the lack of rain and the oppressive heat that was the real problem. It left the trees looking sallow and lifeless, the leaves small and undernourished. It had been like this all summer, leaving the yards brown and lifeless since no one dared to use water for something as silly as grass. Even for this time of year the heat during the day was still unbearable. I missed autumn, the smell of decaying plants and the snap of brisk morning frost. I wondered if anyone should ever see such days again.
I slowed as I reached the checkpoint. Stopping, I rolled down the window. Out from the corner house came Bill Hayward, who was a chunky man with bald head and all the manners of a longshoreman. He was wearing a pair of worn jeans, brown boots, and a camouflaged jacket that looked to have been bought at the local army surplus store. He gave me a friendly wave with his left hand since the other arm was cradling a new-looking Remington shotgun. Since I left for work every morning, I was hardly an unfamiliar sight, but he still liked to jaw for a few minutes. Like so many others on the block he was unemployed and in need of a little social outlet.
“Hey, Brent,” he said with a half-hidden yawn. “Did you see the news this morning?”
I shook my head and took a sip from the coffee cup I had brought. Personally I had little interest in the news since most of it was bad. There was only so much a sane person could take before you just decided to stop watching. Too much of that kind of information could drive one mad, spending the nights awake with worry, tossing and turning.
He said excitedly, “The police force went on strike – complaining they haven’t been paid for weeks. And me still paying property taxes and all, and they’re worried about money.” He gave a little laugh. “Not that anyone can afford anything these days. What I wouldn’t do for a nice steak, but it’s been nothing but bologna at my house. I’m sure you know as much as anyone the price of groceries.”
I knew since I was paying over half my income on keeping food in the cupboards. For a single man that was a lot of money. I couldn’t imagine what it was like trying to feed a family. “With the police on strike there’s going to be trouble,” I said as I shook my head in disbelief.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. You may want to stay home today, considering every two-bit criminal is going to be out looking for easy pickings. They might take a chance and give a try against us. All of the neighbors will have to stick together if we want to survive.”
I let out an uneasy laugh. “These days we’re all criminals in form or another. But I think I’ll go out anyway. Someone has to go to work, even if it’s for peanuts.”
“Sure, sure,” he said rapidly before pulling out a set of keys. “But still, be careful out there.” He then climbed into a late-model sedan that was parked across the road. The car pulled forward just enough for me to nose my way through.
The streets this time of the morning were eerily quiet. It was only a year ago that I had to fight the daily battle of rush hour traffic. Now I had the entire stretch of blacktop to myself. As I slowly drove along, I kept my eyes busy wandering across the boarded houses and shuttered small businesses that packed the suburban roadside. I was looking for anything unfamiliar – such as a car poised in a driveway – something that could be used to ram or block my movement forward. There was nothing to see but the decay of weed-choked yellowing lawns, stripped cars, and with a majority of the buildings, open doors where the looters had already been.
I drove without incident to the industrial park that was the location of my current job at Rapid Engineering. I was immediately struck by the silence and lack of busy movement. The normal day-to-day activity beyond the high chain-link fence that protected the building was non-existent. Instead of the trucks, cars, and employees there was nothing but an empty lot. I hesitantly drove up the guard shack that protected the entrance to the plant. Impatiently honking my horn, I waited with a sinking feeling in my stomach.
From out of the guard shack came someone I did not recognize. He was a short man wearing black-colored police riot gear with the helmet visor flipped open. An AR-15 was slung on his side. “What do you want?” he barked with a voice that was more of a croak.
“I’m Brent Cohen. I work here,” I replied as I eyed his finger which was resting over the trigger guard.
“Not anymore,” the man spat out. “The whole plant has been closed for now. Everyone has been laid off.”
“But what about my paycheck?” I asked impatiently. This hadn’t been the first time I had been locked out of a job, but I still expected to get paid.
He shook his head from side to side. “I don’t know about that. I’m sure you’ll be contacted by someone.”
“Thanks,” I said sarcastically as I put the truck into gear and slowly backed out.
I was turning around the cul de sac to head back home when I saw another car approaching. It was an old Chevrolet Caprice. From the dent in the front bumper, I could tell it was April VanDyke, who was the plant supervisor. She recognized me and slowed down to a stop. I pulled up. From the height of my truck I could see a silver automatic pistol – a Colt - resting on the passenger seat. These days no one traveled unarmed.
April rolled down her window. She was a middle-aged woman with medium-length brown hair and a prominent nose. Her eyes were stuck in a permanent stare that some found unnerving. However, she was well-liked by everyone at the company since she had an easy manner and was always ready with a good joke.
“Hey, Brent,” she said, “I’m sorry you had to make the trip in.”
“What happened?” I asked. “When I was here on Friday I hadn’t heard a word about the plant closing. Won’t anyone let me in on the big secret?”
She gave a little shrug. “You know how it goes these days: the owner of the company decided he had enough trying to make ends meet. I just found out myself while I was driving in. The vice-presidents have been busy calling all the managers. You were just unlucky to get here before anyone else. I’m sure Bill will call you soon enough.”
Bill Myers was the IT director I reported to. “I’m sure he will,” I said glumly.
“Don’t take it too hard, Brent. I’m supposed to go and wait outside and greet anyone who wasn’t reached. I’m sorry. I really am. Take it easy.”
“You too,” I said. Rolling my window up, I pulled away. I was hardly surprised by this turn of events since it hadn’t been the first time I had been laid off. The fact was that this was now a very common occurrence as company after company folded under the weight of increased expenses, disrupted supply lines, and decreased demand. But still, the idea of trying to find yet another place to work at seemed daunting because each new job was taking longer and longer to find. Perhaps this was the last one for me.
These thoughts were keeping my mind occupied as I drove home, once again taking it slow and easy. I kept my eyes busy scanning the roadside but the motion was mechanical. It took me a moment to realize that a column of smoke was ahead, billowing high against the jagged line of buildings and trees on the horizon. It was coming from the direction of my neighborhood. I stepped harder on the gas, this time ignoring my usual precautions.
I was lucky that the looters were so sure of themselves that they did not notice my approach. As I came within sight of my street, I saw the blockade of cars had been pushed through by a black semi, the diesel smoke still gurgling from the chrome exhaust stacks. The corner house belonging to Bill and Eileen Hayward was burning with high orange flames greedily consuming the wooden exterior. Even with the truck windows rolled up, I could hear a few gunfire shots. All along the shoulder of the road was a fleet of unguarded pickup trucks and vans to be used to haul away whatever the raiding rabble found. I slowed to a stop and parked, hoping my truck would fit in with the motley assortment of vehicles.
Last year the neighborhood had built a wall of sorts to protect the rear of the houses. It was cobbled together with wooden posts, barbed-wire, chain-link fence, and bits of board and corrugated metal. It wasn’t much of a barrier but it was enough to slow trespassers until the block watch could respond. There had been a few intrusions now and then, but nothing of the magnitude that I was seeing now. But I needed to get to my house and take a closer look to see what was going on. If it was bad as it looked, I was also hoping to retrieve my Remington shotgun and Winchester rifle since they would be needed if I planned to make my way out of the city.
Before exiting the truck, I took out the loaded Browning forty-caliber pistol from the door pocket. I reflexively checked the clip and racked a round by pulling on the slide mechanism. I had ten shots which should be enough to see myself out of any quick trouble but certainly wasn’t enough for the long haul. Keeping low and darting behind the assorted vehicles parked along the road, I edged my way towards the street that ran parallel to my own. This area had seen the inhabitants flee, the houses already looted long ago, leaving nothing but the usual broken windows, open doors, and weed-choked lawns. I had little worry of being heard since the screams and shouts coming from my neighborhood would easily cover my movement. I soon reached the home that sat to the back of mine.
The backyard here had a pool, the shallow dreams of suburbia long turned into an empty dry basin that now collected nothing but dead leaves. The grass around the cracked concrete was long and dry and moved easily with the wind. I stood with my back to the wall of house, and through the six-foot tall barbed-wire fence, I could see my own one-story brick home. There wasn’t anyone guarding the back yard, so I stole across until I reached the fence. I had previously made a small crawlspace through the wire, just in case if I needed to leave in a hurry. I’m sure my neighbors also had their own hidden escape hatches and I could only pray that some of them had a chance to use them.
I sat on my haunches and pulled out two loose nails from the other side of the fence. A section on the bottom fell forward. I pulled it off to the side. With the barbed-wire scraping against my coat, I managed to just barely fit as I slowly wriggled through. Raising my head, I saw that I had gotten this far undetected. From my new vantage point, the sound of fighting was now louder than before. There were more screams, a few sporadic gunfire shots – though diminished compared to earlier - and a roaring of triumphant shouts from the assembled mob of looters. I could tell they were many in number and easily overwhelming what little resistance was left.
It was a quick dash and I was at the back door, fumbling with my keys. My hands were shaking as I entered. I was in the kitchen, the cabinet doors were open, the shelves now bare. Anything not food was left on the floor – papers, an old antique rotary telephone that had been ripped from the wall, and broken dishes and glasses. It was quiet here, but from my vantage point, I could look into the living room and see that the front door had been ripped from the hinges and now rested on the front lawn. The carpet was dirty from an army of feet. Through the open doorway, I could see groups of ill-dressed men and women moving in a chaotic fashion. Many were loading cars and trucks with whatever foodstuffs had been found, while others were laughing and passing bottles of booze back and forth. They seemed oblivious to everything, only stopping their manic activity when gunfire would erupt from somewhere nearby. I could only shake my head, thinking what fools they were. Sure, they could feed themselves today, but what about tomorrow? At this rate all the food in the city would soon be gone and these robbers would turn on each other, stealing and killing, until there was nobody left.
I quickly went to the front bedroom which served as a small office. My computer was there along with a collection of books. Standing in the corner, so far unopened, was my gun safe. It was a heavy thing and from the fresh scratches and marks on the green paint, apparently it had lived up to the advertisement and had withstood easy theft. I ran through the combination lock with practiced ease, inserted the key, and then pulled back the heavy doors. Inside were my rifle, shotgun, and a few boxes of ammunition. Slipping the Browning pistol into my coat pocket, I loaded up the shotgun with double-O. A little buckshot does wonders when facing a crowd.
It was time to get back to the truck. However, before I could leave, I heard a great rolling laughter come from outside. Going to the window, I lifted a corner of the curtain up. I saw the crowd outside part for some of my neighbors who were being led down the middle of the street. There was Steve Grant and his wife Terri, Joan Verrick, who lived next door, and Tyler Darby, a teenager of some ill-repute. Each was being guarded by a man on either side. They were marched to the front of the semi that had crashed through the barricade. The captives were forced down to their knees.
Standing on the hood of the semi-truck was a muscular man with short-cropped black hair. The distance was long enough where I couldn’t make out his face but I saw that he was wearing a quasi-military uniform of tightly fitting black pants, shirt, and highly polished boots. With a bullhorn in his hands, he began to speak to the now quiet crowd.
His rough voice said, “As you all know, times have been tough. It has been especially tough on the poor, those who cannot afford to buy their way out of misery. Why do we have to suffer at the expense of the rich? There is no good answer to that question, is there, my friends? Many of us have lost brothers, sisters, parents, and children to the ills of starvation. We know what it is like to feel hungry, but see others thrive. But there is a way out. There is a way to survive. I have given you, my people, food. I have given you weapons. Now that the police are gone, nothing can stop us from taking over the city and taking what is rightfully ours!”
The mob roared with excitement.
He paused and looked smugly over them, his head slowly bobbing up and down like a modern day Mussolini. The man then held up his hands to quiet down the crowd. They readily complied. He continued. “The world is changing and we are going to be the vanguard of a new society. We are going to be the leaders that shape the next world. It is people like these,” he said as he pointed at my neighbors, “with their petty values of working for themselves that are holding us back. We need to work together to survive. Why should we be starving in the streets when we have the power to take what is rightfully ours? I say we kill them as a lesson to others.” He then jerked his hand across his throat in a cutting motion.
To my horror, I watched as Steve Grant was shot in the back of the head, execution style. The crowd laughed and jeered. There was nothing I could do unless I wanted to die myself. I quickly weighed the idea of rushing out, guns blazing, but there were just too many of them out there to do my own version of Custer’s Last Stand. The gun cracked again and Terri joined her husband. Feeling helpless, I turned to leave. I was wrapped in my own miserable thoughts that I didn’t see anything until I ran straight into someone.
He was a tall man with a black beard and a red handkerchief tied over his long, lank hair. His thick arms poked out of a leather motorcycle vest.
“Hey! Who are you?” he asked suspiciously, raising his fist to strike me.
I didn’t even answer but instead brought the butt of the shotgun up and tried to club him in the ear.
He was an obviously an experienced street fighter and easily dodged my clumsy blow. A quick jerk of his hand and the man drew a wicked-looking knife from belt. He then tried to plunge it straight into my stomach.
Luckily I turned aside just in time, the blade cutting through the jacket and into the shirt. The cold steel slid against my flesh, leaving a thin line of fiery pain. The realization that I was hurt sent a wave of hot anger flooding through my veins. I hadn’t been in a fight since high school, but now my life was on the line. I didn’t want to kill, but I didn’t want to die either. There was only one thing left to do.
Stumbling backwards, I tried to bring the shotgun up to fire. It could have alerted those outside to my presence, but that was a chance I was willing to take. My assailant was too quick and stepped inside the arc of the swinging barrel, trying to bat the gun out of my hands. My finger was already on the trigger. In the confines of the room, the sound of the discharging shell was a sonic shock that momentarily stunned the both of us. I had missed but had managed to blow a hole into the drywall behind the man’s head.
I don’t know if it was my experience with guns or just fear, but I was quicker to react. Dropping my left hand off of the stock of the gun, I swung my fist into the man’s throat. It wasn’t a hard blow, but it was enough to send him reeling away, choking. I took the opportunity to give him a hard kick in the rear. He tumbled forward, hitting his forehead on the wall. I brought the butt of the shotgun down on the back of his neck. Unconscious, he crumpled to the floor. I fought the urge to shoot him, but instead ran over and kicked the knife away. I then stared at my handiwork, feeling surprised by my violent actions.
It was time to leave the city.