Chapter 01 (Original Draft)

This post was published to 8:23 at 9:24:10 PM 7/8/2015

THIS CHAPTER WAS LATER REPLACED AS THE FIRST CHAPTER. YOU CAN READ IT IF YOU’D LIKE TO, BUT IT’S NOT PART OF THE ACTUAL NOVEL RIGHT NOW.

Chapter 01

 

04 July, 2015 – 1635 hrs EST

“Shit.” I repeated the phrase again and again in my head. I thought maybe it would stop rattling around in there if I’d just say it out loud and be done with it. I look across my campsite, wondering how we’ll make it through this. I’ve been preparing for this for years, but I wasn’t ready. Hell, can you ever really be ready for something like this?

Jess, my wife, sits in a green and grey aluminum-framed camp chair, her flip flops off and her toes absently making shapes in the straw-covered loamy shore of the Alligator River, a beer in her right hand, eyes expressionless as she gazes out across the brown slow-moving water in front of her. I’m not even sure she’s seeing anything out there but there’s no sense in taking her away from whatever reverie she’s lost to at the moment. At least she’s not crying and we’re not fighting at the moment.

Two Shakespeare surf-fishing rods stand at attention in front of her, their long foam-wrapped bases tied to a couple of sticks I had pushed into the earth and tamped down with the pommel of my knife half an hour earlier. It’s ironic really. I just spent almost a full week at the beach and purposefully left my lake rods at home, their stature and strength not being designed for the heavy surf fishing of the Outer Banks. After three days of not being able to fish, I went out and purchased a couple ten foot rods, some twenty pound test line, and some bottom rigs. Only a few days later I find myself fishing again, but again I’m left with the wrong rods. It’s almost funny. My lake rods would be perfect here. Murphy is an ass. He really is.

“It’ll be ok Logan”, I mumble to myself. “You can make do with these. You have bigger fish to fry.” The irony of that statement is almost too much for me. My eyes water with emotion. I don’t know what emotion it is exactly; frustration, anger, depression, a lack of hope or maybe a combination of all of those depending on the moment.

With most of the rest of my tasks as done as can be, I look around for my son, Mason. When I don’t immediately see him I’m not panicked. He wouldn’t go far. I listen for a moment, trying to tune out the sounds of water lapping and the sounds of nearby angry traffic back on the main road, the sounds of horns distant. We’re too far away to have to deal with the sounds of cars, but the sounds of angry people as magnified through their incessant pounding on steering wheels and the resultant cacophony that it creates is still audible. Maybe I should have moved farther from the highway I think to myself. I mentally chastise myself for forgetting for a moment what I was trying to go. Listen, idiot.

I turn my head and open my eyes and walk a few feet off to the south. Clearing the base of a tree Mason is revealed to me. He’s walking with his head down, his feet kicking at branches or whatever is in front of him. In his hand a pine stick is being used as a walking stick one moment and to swat vines or small plants the next.

“Mason, stay close buddy, ok?”

“Yeah, I will” he says as he continues his foray into the woods surrounding our little makeshift camp, his eves never coming off the ground. That boy can spend days inside his own head, rarely coming out to interact with the rest of the world unless its time to eat.

I’m not worried about Mason, not yet anyway. This is all still too new to him. It is still too much of an adventure. That will change, however, and it will likely change too soon. Then I will have to worry. For now I have other concerns.

I walk back to the truck and pop open the Yeti cooler, grabbing a coke and shutting the lid quickly to preserve the precious amount of ice we have left. The water will stay good indefinitely, but the soft drinks won’t be any good if I can’t get ice to keep them cool, and if I can get ice over the coming days, the last thing I’ll waste it on is keeping my cokes cold. I take a long look at the coke as I make my way over to the chair sitting a few feet away from Jess’s. It’s not facing the water like the other one, but is simply standing mostly opened up where I tossed it earlier. I start to plop down and think better of it, taking the time to look under the chair and resituate it on level ground where nothing is likely to damage the legs. Its one of two I have left, the third having succumbed to the laws of nature after deciding it couldn’t handle one more salt-coated bikini-clad posterior falling into it one more time and finally tearing and being thrown away a couple days earlier. Salt water is hell on canvas, on most things really.

I look over at Jess, but don’t stare too long. Like me she possesses that sense that tells her when she is being stared at, and if I sit here and eyeball the side of her head long enough she’ll look over at me with an inquiring gaze and a raised eyebrow. We’ve been married a little over five years and I still don’t always know what that expression means. It could be a sign of ire, or might be an invitation to discuss whatever is on my mind. I don’t have any answers yet. I have plenty of questions, but no solid answers, so I simply turn my eyes out over the water and start keeping an eye on the fishing poles, hoping to see them show signs of a bite any minute.

“What are we going to do?”

It’s the question I was dreading. The last few hours have been too filled with critical tasks to really sit down and discuss it, but the time was coming for this discussion and now it was here.

“We’re going to get home, Babe. That’s what we’re going to do” I say, hoping I sound more confident than I feel.

I don’t suffer from any lack of confidence at all. Jess would be the first to tell you that. But confidence isn’t always enough. There are a lot of unknown variables between us and home right now.

“Why aren’t we on the road now? We could get halfway home tonight. I don’t understand why we’re stuck out here in the woods. We should be on the road.”

Her irritation at the situation was understandable.

“It’s just not smart to be traveling right now, hon. You saw how bad it was getting this far. We made a total of 30 miles today in the last four hours. We’re barely off the Outer Banks and it’s only going to get worse from here.”

“I don’t get your logic,” she says. “Explain to me one more time how not getting the hell home as fast as possible while we can is a good idea. Explain to me how sitting here in a bug-infested camp site is a good idea.”

It’s amazing; this talent she has for taking a word like “good” and making it sound so obviously bad with just a change of facial expression.

“It’s just for a couple hours, hon. We’ll be back on the road soon enough. As soon as it’s full dark, we’ll hit the highway and see what kind of time we can make before we have to stop again. Believe me, nobody wants to get back home any faster than I do. The short version is, hon, I want to be on the road with as few idiots as possible, and right now there a few hundred thousand idiots at the minimum, and maybe up to a million of them on the road trying to do the same thing we are. Thankfully for us, people are mostly stupid as a general rule. Most of them are sitting back there on the beach now thinking this is going to be an extended camping trip mixed with a minor inconvenience, but things will be fine in a day or so.”

I sighed with frustration. I know losing my cool with Jess won’t make things any easier. It’s going to be a long couple of days ahead and one of us has to keep a cool head. My wife is great and she’s very level headed and works incredibly well under pressure most of the time. This is one of those times though that I think she’s in a little bit of denial. She hasn’t wrapped her mind around the reality of what’s happened and I know from personal experience that trying to force that to happen doesn’t go well. She will simply get more angry overall, then more angry at me in specific, and we’ll get nowhere. I don’t have the luxury of throwing my hands up and walking off for a bit to let her relax and adjust to the new situation. We simply don’t have that luxury.

“Just trust me, Jess. Can you do that?” I asked. “We’ll get through this and we’ve got plenty of time to talk about it all tonight on the road. For now, we need to catch some fish if we can, and keep a cool head, if only for Mason’s sake.”

She looked around for him, eyes wide open, as if realizing she’d forgotten him momentarily and immediately assuming the worst.

“Relax,” I said. “He’s right over there.” I pointed my thumb back over my chair as I moved to the fishing pole on the left. It had just twitched just a little. Maybe it has a bite, I hoped. Sure enough, one second later the fish on the other end realized he’d been tricked and tried his best to run the other way. Thankful I’d been able to catch anything at all in this river with such a thick fishing line and number four hooks, I counted my blessings as I reeled in a decent sized croaker.

This close to the coast of the Outer Banks of North Carolina the waters are brackish for quite a few miles inland. Freshwater coming in from inland rivers and streams mixes with the Intercoastal waterway, and eventually dumps out into Oregon Inlet on the southern end of the islands. Salt water from the ocean mixes with the water and is transferred back upstream for a significant ways. This can result in some surprise catches depending on the day. Freshwater fish can thrive here because the water isn’t too salinated, and salt water fish make their way this far inland because it has just enough salt content to keep them healthy. Removing the hook from the mouth of my soon-to-be dinner, I rebaited the hook from the pack of worms I’d purchased for surf fishing and recast the line, hoping for another catch while I cleaned this one. Croaker are fine, but I’d be happier with a decent bass or two before calling it a day.

I hung the fish by his gills, far enough away from the water that he wouldn’t stand a chance to get back to safety and then turned to head toward the truck in search of a cutting board. I stopped halfway there and just stared at the truck. I don’t have a cutting board. I packed for a vacation and the rental house would have one, right? Who packs a cutting board to go on vacation anyway? Moving slower but still toward the truck I thought over my options. When I spotted the Yeti twenty-quart cooler on the back I had my answer. I can always wash the cooler off in the river without getting any inside. I grabbed the cooler by its handle and headed back towards the river’s edge. Ha. Another one! The same pole I just put in the water was twitching furiously, nodding up and down as if to say “yes, yes, I got another one.”

Settling with my cooler by the shore and now with two croaker, I set to cleaning them while Jess stared back at the water, occasionally throwing glances at the wooded area and cocking her head. I knew she was making sure she could still hear Mason playing back in the cypress trees. There was no sense in reminding her he was fine. Jess is a lot of things to a lot of people, but she is definitely a mother first and on one can tell a mother not to worry about their children.

“Why all the work to catch fish if we’re leaving tonight?” she asked between sips of her beer.

“They’re a great source of protein, as you already know, but more importantly right now it’s a matter of calories. Calories in and calories out. From now on, at least until we get home, everything needs to be based on fuel consumption.” I worked as I talked, my words occasionally interspersed with grunts and I scaled and gutted the slippery little bastard that kept trying to slide off the lid of my cooler. I worked with my Kershaw drop point folding knife I had in my left shorts pocket. The slight bow to the blade wasn’t ideal for fileting, but it made certain parts of this job easier than other blade types and it was a very sturdy little knife.

“Everthing is fuel from now on, Jess. That’s the only way I know to look at it. How many calories can we take in versus how many we have to put out each day. As long as we net a positive result, we’ll keep the energy and health for whatever is next. We really don’t need fish tonight I know. Just bear with me. We have plenty of food for now, but I figure each of these will be about 400 calories each after they’re cooked. If I can get two fish for each of us, we’re fine for the night ahead. Will you do me a favor and keep an eye on the poles while I go get the rest of the stuff setup to cook these? I want to be broke down and done by nightfall if possible so we can move out.”

“Sure,” she said, repositioning her chair more towards the water so she could keep an eye on the poles. “Grab me another beer while you’re up there?”

“Absolutely,” I said as I headed up to the truck to get the portable grill from my pack.

As I walked up to the passenger side of the truck to reach in my bag, I remembered the Weber grill in the bed of the truck. “Ha,” I said out loud. “Screw you Murphy. I even have a gas grill.” I gave the finger to the air in general, waving it around to be sure Murhpy saw it, wherever he was. It seemed he wasn’t paying specific attention to me at that moment, which I was glad for.

Once again I was reminded today that being on vacation had saved our bacon. All the time I spent preparing for just this sort of scenario and it finally happens when I’m on vacation with every outdoor accessory I can possibly think of lying strapped in the bed of my pickup truck. It isn’t going to be this easy for long I thought to myself. Pretty soon no amount of being prepared is going to help if I’m right about what’s happened.

I untied the ratchet straps holding the grill down and hauled the little portable camp grill in its canvas carry bag back nearer the water’s edge and began to set it up. Jess looked at me expectantly with her koozie in her hand, empty.

“I was right on it, dear,” I said as I stood and made an about-face back to the blue Coleman cooler, quickly grabbing another beer, leaving her stash of Blue Moon at only three. Returning to the water with the beer in hand, I placed it in the drink holder and grabbed the other pole from beside her as it began to bob up and down signaling another bite. Jess was already standing reeling one in herself, this one a small bass. Of course she lands the bass I think to myself as I reel in yet another croaker. This one was smaller, about a pound. Normally I’d just throw him back, but things being what they are he’s going on the fire.

“Sorry little buddy,” I said as I hung him on the same limb I’d hung his previous companions on.

“I was going to ask you to clean fish, while I made the fire, but I remembered we still had the little gas grill,” I said as I prepared to start cleaning these two newest additions to dinner. “I guess that’s out of the question since I found the gas grill, huh?”

“If it makes you feel better, honey, you get points for bringing the gas grill,” she said as she tried to make herself smile. She was trying; trying to be at as cheery as possible in a situation that didn’t deserve any cheer at all.

“Thanks,” I said, genuinely pleased with the effort, as I screwed the little Benzomatic propane cylinder into the grill’s gas port and rose to continue cleaning fish.

“I’m going to go get Mason and get ready to eat,” she said as she rose and walked back towards the sound of his playing.

I nodded and resumed my task of getting dinner ready, first cleaning and then fileting the fish. By the time they returned, I was just placing the filets on the fire. When Jess returned she was holding half a bag of Lays potato chips; leftovers from our vacation. Mason was cracking the tab on a Sunkist.

The reality of that scene, the normalcy of it all, pierced my heart. It was an image I’d likely not see again for a long time if things were as bad as I feared. She stood there, ducking under a low-hanging branch, her son at her side. She wore her flip-flops and her blue gelled toenails were flecked with river mud. She wore brown cargo shorts with little bows on the sides of each outside leg, the only identifying mark that told me they weren’t mine when I occasionally picked them up from the laundry basket by mistake and tried to put them on. It was pretty funny actually. We both wore the same size shirts and pants, so there had been more than once I had walked out of our bedroom with her shorts on, paying no attention to it until her lopsided smile made me eventually look down and find what she was grinning at. Her white low-necked peasant blouse top framed her figure beautifully. Her hair was pulled back into her typical utilitarian ponytail.

Mason walked along beside her, stick in hand and occasionally poking and prodding at things on the ground absent-mindedly, with his normal head-down curiosity, his blue tennis shoes, shorts, and buttoned plaid short-sleeved shirt so very different than what I expect of an eleven year old boy. Mason is quiet, always has been, but has a certain amount of fastidiousness when it comes to his appearance. His sandy hair is unkempt and his glasses ride low on his nose. I’ve learned to tell when he’s looking through them and when he’s looking over them. His pale skin is turning slightly tan after a couple days in the sun, but his lightly freckled face still shows the redness of the sun he’d been exposed to for a large amount of time this week.

“Grab your mess kit, Jess, and bring mine too if you don’t mind. Its between the front pouch and the main pouch on my Titan pack in a tan Maxpedition pouch.”

Jess veered back towards the truck to get the kits and I flipped the fish over with my pocket knife, having washed it off in the river a moment earlier. By the time she returned, opening her mess kit, I had the first set of small filets done. I reached into my mess kit Jess has placed beside me, pulled out my fork and knife combo tool, extracted the fork and unfolded it and managed to successfully transfer the filet to the little aluminum plate. I added a second filet to the plate in her outstretched hand and said “Give that one to Mason. I’ll get yours next.”

“I’m not hungry,” Mason said, swishing his feet back and forth in my camp chair.

“Really?” I said. “Looks to me like you’re plenty hungry for those potato chips.”

He looked at his hand, currently inside the bag, and I swear I could see him figuring out a graceful way out of the situation he found himself in.

“You’re busted little dude, ” I said. “Sorry, I know fish isn’t your favorite but it’s what’s on the menu tonight and you have to eat it. No excuses and no lip about it, ok?” I smiled as I said this, trying to keep it light-hearted, but it did no good. Mason has this way of making sure you know he’s unhappy when you’re forcing him to eat something he doesn’t want to eat. He’ll pick at it with his fingers or his fork, sigh loudly, sigh again in case you didn’t hear the first one, and then somehow adopt this pouty expression that he can maintain while chewing incredibly slowly. I wish I could have mastered that expression to use on my parents. The more I think about it, no, I don’t. I know how that would have gone at my dad’s dinner table.

Getting no sympathy from Jess, he committed himself to the act, however reluctantly, balancing the aluminum dish on his knees while he picked at it cautiously, as if it could come back to life and flop off his plate.

In short order and with very little conversation I passed out the fish and we all sat down to eat. I perched on my rear on a nearby fallen log. Only having two of the original three chairs remaining, I was content to eat near the ground. I like being outdoors anyway and I want to preserve some semblance of normalcy and the comforts of home for Jess and Mason as long as I can. Thinking about it made me wonder how long that would actually be.

Jess saw the change in my expression. My thoughts must have been evident on my face. Her brow furrowed in that inquisitive “what’s wrong” look as she looked at me. I shook my head to signify it was nothing and ate my fish with my fingers.

“Hey, Mason,” I said encouragingly. “I can make you one deal. From now until we get home, you are completely free of any responsibility to use utensils. Everything is finger food until otherwise noted.”

He didn’t smile exactly, but he did at least forget to continue frowning as he dropped the camp fork into his plate and picked up the fish with his fingers. The boy positively hated utensils. I’ve never known why, but he can happily eat a variety of things as long as you don’t make him use a fork. It’s a compromise I’m willing to make happily if it will keep his spirits up for a few minutes longer.

“So what’s the plan?” Jess asked after finishing her bass. She had made sure she got the servings of bass rather than croaker. I was happy with the solution as I really didn’t like bass anyway. She put the mess kit bowl on the ground beside her, leaned back in her camp chair, and picked up her beer, seeming to heft its weight in her hand, mentally measuring how much was left since it the volume of liquid remaining was hidden inside her koozie. She always held the koozie so the label faced out. I wonder if that was intentional or just a comfortable habit her hands did automatically. The phrase “Women who behave rarely make history” was readable as she peered at me over the bottle as she took a sip from it. Her legs were crossed and her right foot automatically started its perpetual motion thing. This is a thing she does that both makes me smile and irritates me to no end, depending on the occasion. She is physically incapable of sitting still. One foot is always moving, even when she sleeps. She can be completely unconscious and yet one foot is elevated in such a way as to make it possible for that foot to move like a heartbeat. Its downright weird sometimes.

“I’m glad you brought it up,” I said. “It’s been bouncing around inside my head and I want to run it past you and see what you think before we go much further. We’re about to come to a point that will likely require making a decision that will be significant.”

She didn’t say anything so I continued. “We are in Tyrell county right now, so the next town is Columbia, right?”

She nodded her head, her foot off on its perpetual motion thing.

“We got to the mainland, which was my main goal for today. There’s still one more bridge between us and the rest of highway 64, that little tiny one where the road goes from 35 to 70 miles per hour. That’s going to be the decision maker. The condition of that bridge is going to determine how we have to go. If its open, we have the option to cross there and go home the way we usually would. If it’s not passable we have the option to take that little back road to the left. What’s it called? You know what one I’m talking about? That’s more your neck of the woods.”

“The intersection at Broad street,” she said, nodding. “That way would take us through Fairfield.”

“Right,” I said. I was thinking that. “There’s pros and cons to it, but the more I think about it, the more it’s a smarter solution all the way around. I should have thought about that when we took off originally but my brain naturally focused on the way home that we’ve always used. Stupid, really, but it’s done now. We just have to be careful from now on. Stupid used to mean a minor inconvenience, but being stupid now could have a lot worse consequences for all of us.”

I sat back in my chair, took a cigarette from my shirt pocket, lit it, and tried so slow my thoughts to make sense of them. I have a very fast-working mind, which is great when there is one solution to a problem, but can prove to be a hampering factor when there are multiple scenarios that have to be evaluated. I can multi-track in my mind perfectly fine, but if I have to slow down to explain myself or talk something out, that doesn’t work. I have to simply work out one thought while trying to let the other ones keep silently working themselves through in my mind. Jess is pretty patient with me when it comes to that most of the time. Right now seems to be no exception. She’s content to let me verbalize it without interrupting.

“The biggest fear is the golden horde,” I said. “You’ve heard me talk about that, right?”

She nodded and I continued. “Today is day one. Today there are a lot of people on the road for a lot of reasons. It’s close to the fourth of July. It’s a Saturday. We’re coming out of a tourist location that booms this time of year anyway. Couple that with what happened earlier today and well,” I gestured to the air around me in general, “it’s a complete cluster fuck of major proportions. There are two main ways out of the Outer Banks, north and south. You and I know different though. We grew up here. North isn’t a concern for us because we have no reason to go out that way, so we came out the south end, headed west on highway 64. But there are two ways out to the west, right?”

“Yeah, she agreed. We can take 64 or 264.”

“Right,” I said. “Taking 64 is the fastest way home but it breaks the single largest travel rule regarding survival on the road. I just got us this far on it because its what came to mind as the only option. Up ahead though we can take 94 to 264 and go home on the back roads, avoiding all the four-lane roads, all the bridges, and all the tourist traffic. No tourist that’s not specifically going to Swan Quarter, or happens to be a prepper, would think to take that route out of the county to get back west. The locals are few and far between and probably already home anyway.”

“What about the roads though? They’re only two-lane all through there.”

“True,” I said, “but they’re all fairly wide-shoulder roads, which is good, all surrounded by creeks non-stop, which is bad, but they’re bound to be almost completely vacant compared to taking the interstate. We’ll have to go out of our way a significant amount but we’re a lot less likely to be stuck in a traffic jam. Remember, not all the cars on the road are going to be working. Some of them are going to run out of gas. Others will simply have stopped working altogether and will have died in place on the highway. If one lane on one road gets clogged up on the interstate it will literally take mere minutes to make that road completely impassable. The interstates all have dividers between them, those little wire rail things. The two lane roads, at least as far as Pitt County won’t have those, as far as I know. Do you know of any of those roads between here and there that would have those?”

She shook her head, no.

“Good. Me neither. That means we can go around traffic on both sides, and across both shoulders if we come to a stopped car. The back roads are all built up out of the marsh, not dug out of hills, meaning all the shoulders go down, not up.”

“Why does that matter?” she asked.

“Well, I can’t push a stalled vehicle up a hill, or off into a forest, or through one of those steel cable rails, but I can push just about anything off the side of the road and once it hits the down slope of those raised creek roads. Gravity will take care of the rest.”

Pausing a moment, I asked “Do you know how much farther it would be to go home that way?”

“I don’t know the mileage if that’s what you’re asking, but I’d say an extra hour normally. That’s how I came down here when I came through, so I could stop and see my grandparents.”

“I was thinking about that too,” I said. Bonnie and Ralph are in Fairfield, so if we go that route, we can likely get fueled up. I don’t know what options we’ll have for gas after we start moving again.

“Why can’t we just stop and get gas?” Mason asked. “We’ve got money, right? We just stop and buy more gas. Its not hard. We do it all the time.”

“Mason, son,” I started and Jess cut me off.

“Honey, it’s just not that easy. If Logan is right, there might be some changes coming that we have to get used to. Not being able to buy gas at a store is just one of those things.”

“That’s crazy,” Mason said. “They can’t, like, sell out overnight.”

“You’re right son, they probably won’t.” I said. “But it’s a lot more complicated than that. Remember that bright light we saw earlier? Remember how some places had power and other’s didn’t?”

He nodded.

“Well, I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be like that in a lot of places. We’ll talk about it later in detail, but right now just trust your mom and me. We won’t be able to stop for gas much I fear,” I said.

He seemed to take this as possible, though his look of incredulity was evident. Again with the expressions. That boy and his expressions. You can tell sometimes he thinks adults are just stupid. Then again, I remember that age. And then again, he’s liable to be more right than he ever knew.

“As I was saying,” I continued. “Your granddaddy was a farmer. I know he’s retired but he’s still got a lot of equipment lying around there if he’s not sold it all off yet. I’m betting we can get a little gas while we’re there. The truck was topped off yesterday, and the jerry can is full, so we’re good for 450 miles in normal conditions. I could usually almost make it home on this if I wasn’t running the air conditioner this time of year. I’m going to have to be careful as I can be, but there’s going to be places where we’ll be forced to ride at less than normal speeds, so I can’t calculate what our mileage is going to be.”

Jess picked up her phone and tapped the screen. It had been lying in the other cup holder in her chair in its usual place; never far from her. She looked at the screen and frowned and slammed it back down. “No signal. I was actually going to call them and check on them. Shit. This no phone things sucks.”

“Honey, our phones are fine, but you can bet the towers are dead. Even the GPS works in my Note 3, but it’s only rudimentarily accessible because the Google maps that need to be updated to provide a terrain map are useless because the towers that bring that data are down.”

“Yeah, why the hell is that anyway?” she asked, that irked tone returning to her voice. “I mean what the hell? I thought everything was going to fry if what you’re saying is true. Why does most our stuff still work?”

“Whoa,” I said as I raised my hands to gesture for her to slow down. “One thing at a time. No, an EMP, not even HEMP will likely take out all electronics unless it was a massively gamma-infused bomb situated in just the right place, in just the right time of year, and even then some things aren’t as likely to fail as people think. Too many people get their knowledge from Hollywood or Google, not an actual library. One person says it and they adopt it as fact because it was in a movie.

The fact is most small electronics, especially with the adoption of more and more plastic composites, don’t have enough metal wire in them to be an attractact to an E1 or E2 pulse from an EMP. The smaller stuff has a decent chance to be fine as long as it isn’t directly exposed. That’s why our phones work still, but my laptop is fried. Its larger, has a lot more susceptible parts, and was sitting outside on the deck open to the sky when” I stumbled for the right words to say, “it happened.”

“What about cars, trucks, county facilities?” she asked.

“Those are different. We got lucky. My truck runs, at least for now. It was turned off, which adds a small level of protection, the blast wasn’t close as far as I can tell, which helps a little, and we got lucky, which is what I’m officially contributing as the major factor it’s still running. Anyway, we’ve got time to get into the details of it all later. Right now I’d like to make a plan on getting out of here. But to respond to the other part of that question, I think you can consider all major power gone. EMP and HEMP both attack transmission lines with incredible ferocity. Anything connected to the grid it likely to be done for. The more wire that’s involved, the more attractive that source is to EMP and less than ten percent of the country’s power grid is hardened. Virtually none of the transformers are hardened and that alone is enough to take half the country down for months, assuming it’s able to be recovered from at all. The entire power grid is basically a giant antenna that attracts an E1 and E2 effect from an EMP discharge.”

“Ok, forget about all that for the moment.  Before you get all gung ho with this idea, I see one problem with your logic so far,” Jess said to me.

“If there is only one problem with my logic, I’d consider it a great day,” I responded, smiling “but what did I miss?”

“Two things actually,” she said, raising her left hand to tick off the points on her fingers.

“First, you want to bypass Columbia because of the bridge, right? Well, there’s a much longer bridge on that road you’re thinking of, headed towards Fairfield.”

“What bridge?” I asked, leaning back in my chair, feeling panic well up. “I don’t remember another bridge on that road.”

“Yes honey. It’s there. It’s a lot longer and a lot higher than the one in Columbia. Its way longer,” she said, dragging out the word waaaaaaay to communicate the difference in case I hadn’t got it.

“Damnit.” I smacked my chair arm, then put my hands to my face, as if I could block out the reality of it. I’ve never known why people do that. Why do we scrub our face with our hands as if it will block out the reality we were just faced with? “Ok, so we’ll rethink that in a minute, but what’s the other thing I forgot?”

“Bears,” she said, and after a moment continued “and wolves.”

“Hmmph,” I croaked. “Hadn’t considered that. Ok, let me back up and examine this logically.” I glanced at my watch to check the time. My analog wrist watch was just fine after the event. “It’s a little past 6:30. We’ve got a little time to make a plan but we have to hit the road by 8:30 tonight. That’ll put us at the intersection area sometime close to dark, but with enough light left to navigate any backed up traffic issues and find a work-around. Can you and Mason get things cleaned up and back in the truck while I  work on this?”

“Sure,” she said. As she stood she walked over and patted my shoulder, rubbing for just a moment; her silent way of telling me she’s there if I need it.

I took my chair over to the truck and left it behind the bumber-hitch cargo rack while I went to the truck to get my road atlas from behind the driver’s seat. I carry my GPS with me everywhere, plus a Garmin eTrek20 that has all my important points stored, and of course a cell phone. My truck’s Garmin Nuvi is a great GPS but as with all automotive GPS units, constant use wears the batteries down after a year or two and they become useless for on-foot navigation Once you unplug it from the vehicle you’ve only got thirty minutes or so before you start getting low battery warnings.

The Garmin eTrek is water resistant, has a good sized internal memory, and can be recharged with any usb-mini charger or simply by swapping out the internal AA batteries for a fresh set. Batteries are something I always have a ready supply of. It helps that I hacked the topographic maps off a bittorrent site the week I bought the eTrek, so I’ve got a full topographic map of the entire southeastern United States.

Just out of curiosity, as I started to shut the door of the truck, I reached back in and tapped the power button on the Nuvi. As I figured, it was completely dead. I checked the power supply connected to the lighter adapter to see if it was glowing. It wasn’t. Hmm. Seems that not all of the trucks electronics made it through ok after all. When it comes to dealing with the effects of the E1 and E2 phase of a HEMP event, it comes back down to how much wire is prevalent in the device, it’s length, the sensitivity of the device itself, how well the casing shields it from the pulse, and a whole lot of luck. Between having a six foot copper wire connected to a USB connector and being situated high in the windshield of my pickup with an unobstructed view of the sky, it was a good bet the GPS was gonna bite it. Sure enough, it did.

The same thing happened to my CB radio. I looked down at my radio rig as I sat there leaned over the driver’s seat. I saved for quite a while to purchase my Cobra 168 GTL CB Radio and my FireStik antenna and they worked great together. Having the single side band features on my radio gave me three times the range of most conventional CB radios. All of it was for naught now. The amount of copper coiled on that antenna basically guaranteed it would be a target for an EMP hit. It’s basically an EMP lightning rod, but there’s no way around it. Either you have one, or you don’t. For most any other grid-down situation I would still be perfectly good to go. The only thing that would take it out completely was EMP or coronal flare, giving even more fuel to my already-solid argument about the cause of our current situation.

Shaking my head, I snapped back to the present and pulled the atlas out from its cubby. I walked back around the driver’s side to the rear of the truck and plopped down in my chair to study the atlas, laying it out on the other gear in a fairly flat spot. Having my small portable GPS was fine, but somethings are done better on paper. I flipped to the section covering my part of the state and started tracing out my options.

My mind is full of little facts and best-practices, all bouncing around and vying for dominance on top of my other thoughts. On a normal day I can sit back and run with any of these scenarios in my mind. If I don’t like the outcome I can always start over. Today, sitting here, in this moment those options are gone. If I make a mistake, my family won’t make it home. Even worse, they could die. I could die.

“Ok, Logan, shut up and get it done,” I say to myself, leaning over the map with renewed focus.

There are a few key rules that have to be followed when planning travel directly following a grid-down situation. I’ve been drilling our group on these scenarios since we first formed a couple years back. Always have alternate routes to and from everywhere you plan to go. Always have an overland route back to your bug-out that avoids interstates, bridges, overpasses, and other obstacles that create choke points or provide opportunities for ambush. Always travel during dark whenever possible and hole up during the day. Never stop for anyone or anything that looks unfamiliar, even if it looks innocent. With all these in mind, I started considering the two options before me.

Option one is to take highway 64 west through Columbia, Plymouth, around Greenville, up to Raleigh, and then make my decision as how to get back to home. There are a variety of options available to me from that point on. Option two is to take 94 to 264, cutting south and slightly back east before and then picking up a westerly route again once we get to Hyde county and Fairfield. Option one is four lane interstate all the way with no option to deviate for about 50 miles once I commit to crossing that little bridge. Option two is two lane back-country road the entire way to Greenville, from which there are a variety of other back-road country options to get south of Raleigh, bringing me up to the same general area and presenting me with the same options as I’d eventually have with option one.

Option two is so enticing that it almost glows in my mind with a “pick me, pick me” sign above it. It’s the obvious overland choice. Except for that damned bridge. Jess was right. After she mentioned it, I vaguely remembered that bridge; built decades ago by the Army Corps of Engineers, it traverses the swamp lands of Hyde County like a wandering road. The important distinction is that roads have shoulders, and ways to turn around and change your mind. Getting stuck on that bridge would be the end of this little trip, or would necessitate back-tracking and trying this way again at a later time, lower on fuel and with more stranded motorists on the highway.

Option two is longer, but there’s a pretty decent chance I could top off fuel in Fairfield at Bonnie and Ralph’s place. I’d add almost a sixty miles to the trip, but I’d more than likely be able to get the fuel to make it up. Option one has more gas stations but that doesn’t really equate to much if the roads are clogged with motorists. More time burns more fuel, but maybe I can get the fuel back, at the cost of more time. No net positive gain on that front.

The first seventy-two hours of a grid-down crisis are the key to travel. Recognizing the signs before it makes its way to the airwaves, rumor mills, and before paranoia sets is the only advantage you have. Not everyone is considering the fact that fuel trucks probably aren’t delivering at all, or if so then only a small percentage of them are.

If I can get to Columbia, scout that little bridge on foot and then make it across, there’s a good chance I can make it a significant ways west from there. A light just dawned in my mind. There’s always old 64, the little two lane that wasn’t ever torn up when they built the new interstate. Its not well maintained but it still runs parallel almost the entire way to Plymouth. One route with two highway options running in parallel to each other. That made up my mind. I’m going to ignore my own advice and ignore the road less traveled.

I closed the atlas, stood and turned only to find Jess bringing up the last of the gear. I could see river water running off the lid of the cooler where she’d washed it off in the water.

“Thanks hon,” I said, taking the cooler from her. “I could have gotten that.”

“You looked like you were deep in thought over here. I can handle it hon. Did you come to a decision?”

“We’re taking 64, as long as we can cross that bridge. I know it’s against my own best advice normally but we’re only in the first twelve hours or so of this and I think there’s a more than decent chance that traffic won’t be that bad yet. If we can get west of Greenville on that highway, I’ll feel a lot better.”

Author’s note: Time for a rewrite.. 8,008 words into it, but it doesn’t work. Back to the drawing board.


8 thoughts on “Chapter 01 (Original Draft)

  1. Write a couple chapters before this so we can get to know the protagonists ahead of the inciting event. Then show us the flash, and the mental process of a prepared mind that we are familiar with and care about. What you are writing now is too interesting to be sidetracked with background info detours – get that stuff out of the way before the story gets started. Without the background detours, this is a page turner.

    • That’s in the works.
      I didn’t do that on purpose. I read a lot so I’m used to both ways. One method has a slow start and builds into a great story. That’s ok (in my humble opinion) if you’re Stephen King. People already know the book will be great. The other idea (and they way I wanted to do it) was to get them hooked into the story quick, and then fill in the back bits when I need to. It’s likely to be one of those “Twelve hours earlier….” things.

  2. Good start, Tommy. Another series of post-apocalypse fiction you might want to look at are the Distant Eden books by Lloyd Tackett, beginning with A Distant Eden. These are about a CME event (Coronal Mass Ejection, or solar storm) that hits the Earth and wipes out the grid. Unlike the macro-view taken by A. American in his books, Tackett covers world events in his series, and goes into better detail of how, exactly, most of the world’s populace dies once the power goes out.

  3. Other than minor editing needed, this story is great! I liked the beginnjng, dropping the reader into the story and letting them get a feel for who the characters are as the story develops. Who they were before this event is already starting to become evident…we have an idea of who the characters are, and how they relate to each other. Great way to hook your readers. I am anxious for the next chapter!

  4. Ok, so you have me hooked!! When is the next chapter? I love the way you started this and cannot wait to see where it goes.

  5. Wow that first chapter was sooooo good. Huge fan of “end of the world” novels and SyFi… Actually not surprised at all that it was that good. Don’t know you personally but dream big and finish it! Waiting already for next chapter.

  6. Been months since I’ve last read a novel. I’m already hooked by what you’ve written so far in chapter 1 and its rewrite.
    Excuse me, I have to go read Chapter Two.

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