Another Tuesday At Another Coffee Shop

Another Tuesday at Another Coffee Shop, Pt. 6

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A Drying Off Period

Natalie and Reesie removed Adam’s soaked shoes and socks. They thought about removing his pants but considered the reaction the man might have should he wake up and find himself in a strange bed nearly naked. Instead, they covered him with a blanket and made sure his head was elevated.

“That’s about all you can do for him now,” Amber told them. “He needs fluids and without any way to administer an IV or Hypodermoclysis we’re rather helpless.” She paused for a moment and considered how little she actually knew about the people in the apartment. “Unless someone happened to have a needle of any kind on them. Even a used needle could work. I can do quick sterilization.”

Reesie and Natalie looked at each other for a second and then Reesie turned and walked into the living room. “Anyone here insulin-dependent diabetic or anything?” she asked.

Conversation stopped as everyone looked at her. For a moment, the only sound was that of rain beating hard against the glass patio doors, then a low murmur consisting of phrases such as, “My sister is but I’m not,” and “I had a roommate in college who had to take shots,” filtered among the group.

Reesie returned to the bedroom and shrugged. “No luck. Even if someone was, they probably wouldn’t have their meds with them. No one brought anything. We’re all here without purses or wallets or IDs … Nothing.”

Darrell had been standing in front of the bedroom window looking forlornly at the never-ending rain, not making a sound so it startled the three women when he spoke up. “How big a needle would it need to be?” he asked.

Natalie looked suspiciously at her boyfriend and asked, “Wait, you’re not using are you?”

“Something between 18 and 22,” Amber said, answering Darrell’s question and trying to avoid a fight at the moment.”

“There might be some people on the third floor who have something,” Darrell said. He could feel Natalie sigh in relief but couldn’t help being upset that her first response was to accuse him of drug use.

“Are any of them home?” Amber asked.

Darrell shrugged. “Probably. I’ve not heard any noise down there, though, so maybe their still asleep or something. I can go check.”

Reesie glanced at Natalie, who was still eyeing Darrell suspiciously, before offering, “I can go with you. I don’t think anyone needs to go knocking on doors alone.”

Amber nodded her approval then added. “I can make anything work,” she said. “We’re going to have to rig our own bag system anyway. Anything you can find will help.”

Darrell nodded then glared briefly at Natalie before walking out of the room. 

“Ease up on that judgment, girl,” Reesie whispered in Natalie’s direction. “He didn’t do anything.” She took off after Darrell, who hadn’t said anything more as he left the apartment.

Natalie and Amber looked at each other. “Any chance you have an old t-shirt I could cut the arms out of?” Amber asked. “I’m starting to feel a little chill here and these nipples become lethal weapons when they’re cold.”

Natalie forced a chuckle and walked over to her dresser, pulling open a drawer stuffed full of t-shirts. She felt a bit guilty for having accused Darrell of using drugs but how else would he have known who in the building had needles? One thing she was sure she couldn’t tolerate was having drugs or druggies in the apartment. She pulled an oversized t-shirt from the drawer and handed it to Amber. “Hold on, I’ve got scissors around here somewhere,” she said.

Amber took the t-shirt and examined it, considered how large a hole she would have to make to get her arms through. “How long have you and Darrell been together?” she asked.

“A couple of years,” Natalie said as she rifled through drawers looking for the scissors she knew were there somewhere. “We were, like, the second tenants in the building.” 

“I knew you guys had been here a while,” Amber said. She found a loose string in the seam holding the sleeve to the t-shirt and began removing the stitching from around the sleeve. “You guys seem to know everyone in the building.”

“Where are those damn scissors,” Natalie fussed, then added, “Yeah, when we first moved here we really expected most the people to be younger, like us, and wanted to make as many friends as we could. We’ve been surprised at how many people with little kids moved in, and then older people on the bottom two floors. They didn’t even have an elevator or anything at first.”

Amber didn’t say anything as she continued pulling at the string on the sleeve.

“Ah, here they are,” Natalie said as she found the scissors and handed them to Amber, who already had most of one sleeve unstitched. “Damn, is there anything you can’t do?”

Amber smiled as she took the scissors and started cutting. “When everyone in your family resents you being alive, you learn to do things for yourself,” she said. “My mom decided when I was 12 that she didn’t want to ‘waste money’ buying clothes for me anymore. So, I learned to take the cast off stuff I found in the trash and or wherever and make it work for me.” She paused to examine the hole she had created and seen how well her arm fit through it before starting on the other side. “Of course, I was growing so fast back then that nothing meant for kids my age came close to fitting. I had to take adult-sized clothes and cut them down.”

Natalie watched entranced as Amber easily removed the seam from the other sleeve and then modified the hole to match the one on the other side. Amber then cut out the ribbing from the neckline then slipped the shirt over her head. What had been oversized for Natalie still only came to Amber’s midriff. 

“You make everything you wear look hot,” Natalie said. She grabbed her own A-cup breasts. “These lazy things don’t give me any help at all. I wear a t-shirt and everyone thinks I’m a boy.”

Amber chuckled. “I remember that feeling. I remember the teasing that comes with it, too. That’s why I got the girls,” she said, lifting the shirt to show her breasts. “They made me feel better about myself but then a whole new set of problems came with them.” Amber sighed and let the t-shirt fall back.  “Guys can’t seem to stop themselves from being jerks no matter what we do.”

Natalie had talked with Amber enough on the stairwells to know that all the things people tended to envy about the tall and attractive young woman had come with a pretty severe price. Amber had told her about the bullying in high school and then the sexism and misogyny she’d had to fight in college.

What Natalie didn’t know was that Amber had grown up in rural Kentucky in a family that considered the law something to be challenged as often as possible. Not only were both her parents drug addicts who regularly stole to support their habits, her grandfather still operated an illegal still and ran moonshine while her grandmother ran a phone scam that defrauded people of hundreds of dollars at a time. Amber’s two older brothers had both landed in the state’s juvenile detention facility by the time they were 14. Her sister, born two years after Amber, had died when the child was only three years old from pneumonia because their parents refused to take the baby to the doctor. Their reasoning was that the doctor would likely turn them in to Child Protective Services who would take both girls away from them.

Watching children’s programming on public television had helped Amber become a bookworm, something the rest of her family considered a waste of time. Her parents chided her for staying in school, never attended a parent-teacher conference of any kind, and made fun of her for getting good grades on her report card. School counselors did what they could to help but the sad fact was that Amber wasn’t the only child in the school who struggled to survive such circumstances. The county was one of the poorest in the country. Drug use among adults was so rampant that even the local grocery store had to close because of all the theft and inability to keep people on the payroll. 

Amber had an intuitive talent when it came to mathematics or anything to do with numbers for that matter. Watching astronaut Sally Ride on television had inspired a love of science as well. Her teachers were amazed at Amber’s ability to resolve complex problems in her head and helped her prepare for, enter, and almost always win the various contests throughout high school. Winning academic contests had not helped the social nor the familial situations, though. Amber was already 6’ 3” by the time she was 14 years old, and she kept growing. Tall, lanky, and flat-chested were enough problems for the teenager. Adding intelligence on top of that, especially when she regularly outscored the boys by several points, only made her more of a target for teasing and emotional abuse. At home, her successes were met with insults, accusations that she was “too upitty” and regular charges that she must have been adopted (from her own mother)  and that all that “book learning” wouldn’t do her any good when she got knocked up.

The efforts of her high school math teacher and the school counselor helped Amber land enough scholarships to attend Purdue University in Indiana, a move that got her not only out of her parents’ sorry excuse for a home but away from the state of Kentucky as well, which pretty much guaranteed that her parents nor any other family member would surprisingly show up without any warning. She hadn’t seen anyone in her family in over ten years and couldn’t care whether any of them were still alive.

College hadn’t been a cakewalk either, though. While Amber had breezed through her undergraduate courses easily enough, she had found more than a little bias not only against her but any woman in several of the science and physics classes. Male students were routinely assigned better and newer equipment, given more assistance from professors, and challenged less often on their hypothesis than were female students. Her own faculty advisor had discouraged her from taking a double major in mathematics and physics and continually reminded her that women in science had more difficulty finding jobs and were far less likely to have their research published in leading journals. 

By this point, though, Amber had grown calloused to the constant criticism. She didn’t care what anyone said or what might have stopped her peers, she was going to succeed for no other reason than because it’s what she deserved. She refused to accept anything else.

Eventually, Amber ended up changing her surname from Cox to O’Conner because of all the porn inferences and moved out of campus housing into her own apartment to avoid the constant harassment. 

Her first non-academic roommate, Liza, had introduced Amber to the thrill of bodybuilding competition. Almost immediately Amber was addicted. Her muscles responded promptly to all the attention and she found that the physical exercise had a positive effect on her mental health and intellectual acuity as well. Her height gave her an immediate advantage over other competitors and adding breast augmentation helped fill out a swimsuit because, as she mentioned more than once, all contest between women have a hint of underlying misogyny to them. By the time Amber completed her master’s degree in physics, she was an immutable force on almost every level and she liked it that way.

Amber and Natalie emerged from the bedroom to find the group had once again divided into conversation groups much as they had at the coffee shop. In fact, Natalie noted, the only the missing was the coffee.

“I guess I should make coffee or something, try to be a tad hospitable,” Natalie said, not actually to anyone.

“I don’t think your coffee maker is going to work without electricity,” Amber reminded her. “Do you have anything in the refrigerator that needs to be consumed before it goes bad.”

Natalie thought a second then replied, “Not really. Most of what’s in there had already gone bad before today.”

Amber chuckled. “How long do you think we have before we start trying to eat each other?”

Unanticipated Opportunities

Walking between the Oval Office and his own typically took Andrew a little less than two minutes and today it seemed to be quicker. He hadn’t been there when the order went out for all White House staffers to stay in their offices while Secret Service looked for the shooter. Still, there was enough noise from the open cubicle system that the vice president barely noticed that the hallway was empty except for Secret Service agents running back and forth.

Andrew had been seven years old in 1981 when he watched Ronald Regan take the oath of office for the first time. He had instantly fallen in love with all the pomp and circumstance and decided then and there that he wanted to be president of the United States one day, the first president from the state of Alabama. He had worked hard, went to the right schools, studied public policy at Harvard, made sure he finished in the top ten percent of his class and even took his goals into consideration when deciding who to date. He had never lost an election. He first ran for state senate, then the US Senate, and when he had decided to run for president three years ago, it initially looked as though he was going to win that one, too.

Then, along came Rudolph Blackstone, a loud, brash, politically incorrect billionaire populist from California with good looks, a questionable reputation, and the ability to say things that scared moderates and liberals alike while igniting the conservative base in a way no one had since Regan. His candidacy went from impossible to front runner in a matter of three months. Andrew never gave up until after the last primary and made sure Blackstone’s team came to him first when looking for a running mate. He knew Rudy had no public policy experience and that the Washington machine would chew him up and have him on the ropes in a matter of weeks without someone who understood how things work inside the beltway. 

Having guided the president through one political landmine after another, Andrew had decided that if he could help this president survive two terms, he would be in a good position to run unopposed within the party. Lately, though, it had started looking questionable as to whether Rudy would make it through his first term in one piece. Not only had multiple agencies and courts opened an investigation into the president’s former business dealings, the president increasingly seemed to have difficulty focusing on conversations more than a few seconds at a time. His hastily scribbled notes to White House staff were too often unintelligible and worst of all, his public rantings on social media not only defied White House policies but became immediate targets for ridicule because of his sloppy grammar and spelling. Andrew hadn’t been the first to question the president’s ability to fulfill his constitutional obligations but over the past few weeks, he had grown increasingly more certain that something needed to be done.

And now this current situation, one where the president’s own babbling may have inadvertently caused a disaster that led to his own physical collapse. The reality as he walked into his office was that Andrew could easily be acting President by the middle of the afternoon, and once there, making sure Rudolph Blackstone never returned to the White House would be easy.

The vice president waited until Norma and Graham had taken seats across from his desk and then said, “Let’s talk about what we can get done in a day, a week, and then 30 days. We don’t yet know what’s going to happen. Let’s plan for the worst … and pray.”

Committing Crimes of Humanity

Darrell was happy to get out of the apartment for a minute, even though he wasn’t especially certain about Reesie tagging along. He had offered Amber, Miranda, and Gwen a place to stay when he first noticed the water was over the curb and creeping into their apartments. They had all turned him down at first. No one could have anticipated how quickly the water would rise, though, and by the time they each came knocking on the apartment door, they were all soaked to the skin. Then, before he could find them each dry clothes, Natalie had shown up with an entire coffee shop full of people! He was feeling overwhelmed by the numbers and attacked by Natalie’s implication that he was using. Any excuse to get out of the apartment for a few minutes was welcome. 

When they reached apartment 304, Darrell knocked gently three times, paused, then knocked again. He knew the code because their apartment was directly below Darrell and Natalie and he had heard that particular knock hundreds of times over the past few months since they had moved into the apartment in the middle of the night. He waited, looked at Reesie and smiled nervously.

“I’m impressed that you know their knock,” Reesie said returning his smile. 

“We hear it several times a day,” Darrell said. “I’m sure Natalie knows it, too.” He waited a few seconds more and then knocked again. “They’re usually up and busy by this time of day,” he added. “Their buyers and dealers typically start dropping by around 3.”

Reesie nodded, looking at the door both nervous and excited.

Darrell knocked once more and waited. When no one answered he looked at Reesie and said, “This doesn’t feel right. There’s always someone here and they always answer that knock.”

“Try the door, see if it’s locked,” Reesie suggested.

Darrell looked at her alarmed. “Are you kidding? What if they have it booby-trapped or something?

Reesie rolled her eyes. The white boy watched too much television. “They wouldn’t do that because not everyone knocks. You know, close friends and family, they’re just going to walk on in. No one’s going to to take the chance of blowing away their own grandpa.”

Darrell considered the common sense of what she said and shrugged in acceptance. He tried the doorknob, fully expecting it to be locked, only to be both frightened and excited when it moved. Carefully, still half expecting a booby-trap, he opened the door and stepped into the dark apartment. The curtains were closed and no lights were on. Even in the shadows, he could see that the apartment was a mess of drug paraphernalia and all the equipment necessary for running a meth lab. Plastic bags full of unmarked pills and powders were stacked across the furniture. Alternating fragrances of ammonia and ether reached their noses quickly, causing them to instinctively raise their t-shirts over half their faces. 

In the center of the room stood an old dinette table from the 1960s, the kind with a laminated top on steel legs that once pulled apart so a long-lost extension piece could be added. The top of the table was filled with unopened cans of portable alcohol-based fuel and glass beakers along with more raw ingredients. The chairs were covered with old clothing. Empty pizza boxes and soda bottles filled the kitchen.  There was no sign of plates or dishes of any kind.

Darrell rifled through the bags on the couch and found one with unopened packages of sterilized needles. “What size did Amber say she needed?” he asked.

Reesie thought for a moment. “Uhm … anything between 18 and 22, I think.”

Darrell looked at the packaging. “These are all 20 and 22,” he said. He took a look at one of the needles and added, “Damn, those holes are fucking big. I guess these get you high in a hurry.”

“They kill you in a hurry is what they do,” Reesie said. She found an empty grocery bag and started filling it with the cans of fuel.

“Wait, why are you taking those?” Darrell asked. 

Reesie rolled her eyes again and looked at him incredulously. “So we can cook? Assuming we can find anything to eat.” She walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. The fragrance of rotted food assaulted her nose. “Damn, that was a truckload of funk,” she said, quickly closing the door. “I’m guessing these folks didn’t make too many trips to the grocery store.”

Darrell looked around for anything else that might be useful. “Pizza guy typically makes three deliveries a day,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they tip him in product. It’s always the same guy.”

Reesie started down the hallway toward the bedrooms. She carefully pushed open the first bedroom door. With the curtains drawn, it was too dark to see what might be in there and Reesie wasn’t feeling all that adventurous. She took a couple of steps toward the master bedroom, which, like Natalie’s, had the benefit of a large window along the outside wall. She pushed open the door and then quickly backed away. “Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!” she exclaimed as she grabbed the bag of fuel and stumbled toward the door. “We’ve got to get the fuck out of here now!

Darrell looked at her curiously. “What? Why? What’s wrong?”

Reesie pointed toward the hallway. “Your neighbors didn’t answer the door because your neighbors are dead and they did not die of natural causes! We need to stop touching stuff and get the fuck out of here. Grab the needles and let’s go.”

The scene in the bedroom was as gruesome as anything from a Quentin Tarantino movie. Three bodies were on the floor. Mattresses were up against the walls. Splattered blood covered everything. The cream-colored carpet was wet with crimson. 

There was no way to tell exactly what had happened. The bodies had been cut and slashed to the point of being unrecognizable. Had they done this to each other? Reesie looked around quickly. No one was holding any kind of blade, there was nothing else on the floor. Her stomach wretched and she closed the door as she backed down the hallway.

“They’re all dead, man,” Reesie said, trying to not throw up. “Someone cut ‘em all into pieces and then took off.”

“Oh shit!” Darrell exclaimed. He started to run down the hallway but Reesie put a hand up to stop him.

“Don’t,” she said. “Every second we’re in here we’re creating more evidence to be used against us. We’ve got to get the fuck out.”

From the hallway, Darrell could see into the bedroom enough to know that he didn’t really want to go any further. Blood made him squeamish. He didn’t like slasher movies and he sure didn’t want to see it in real life. Reesie didn’t need to warn him twice. Darrell reached for the bag of needles and accidentally dumped them onto the floor. He shoved them back in as quickly as he could as Reesie’s mantra of “Oh shit, this is bad,” repeated in an endless loop. Grabbing the bag, he followed Reesie out the door then used his t-shirt to pull the door shut, hoping to at least wipe his fingerprints from that one surface.

They both ran back up the stairs and stopped right outside the door to Darrell’s apartment to catch their breath before going inside. “We need to find a way to tell someone,” Darrell said. “Get the police over here to help.”

“Like hell we do,” Reesie answered. “Cops are going to dust that apartment and then they’re going to start asking some very uncomfortable answers, such as why we needed a bag of needles. Doesn’t matter that we’re tryin’ to help somebody. They will put our asses in jail and throw away the key. Cops don’t mess around when meth is involved.”

Darrell looked down at the bag of needles he was holding. “Yeah, I guess out of context …”

“Man, when it comes to cops there is no such thing as context,” Reesie interrupted. “When they see a meth lab, everyone is presumed guilty. They’ll take you, they’ll take all your shit, they’ll take all your Momma’s shit and call it all ‘evidence’ and you won’t get a bit of it back. We want to be well away from here when they ‘accidentally’ find those bodies.”

Darrell looked over the railing at the rising water below. “Maybe no one will find them,” he said softly.

Reesie had no trouble catching the implication. Dump the bodies in the water. No bodies made it difficult to convict someone. She had a feeling there were going to be a lot of bodies showing up somewhere downstream anyway. No one would know where they “fell” into the water. “We can’t do that now,” she said, “but soon. We should definitely do something soon.”

Darrell nodded as he put his hand on the door to his own apartment and walked inside.

Assessing The Situation

Staff Sargeant Alberto Moralez had woken that morning sure that he had to have the most boring assignment in the Marine Corp. He had signed up seven years ago out of a sense of patriotism after a friend’s brother had died in Afghanistan. He was going to go over there and kick ass. He was going to get revenge.

What Alberto quickly discovered is that the Marine Corp, in fact, the entire United States military, did not exactly work that way. Just because someone wanted to go kill people and break things didn’t mean they would get to. His ASVAB scores showed he was good at math and skills that required long-term thought, not so much at quick response skills and thinking on his feet. Boot camp had proven that to be true and by the time he graduated from Parris Island he had been saddled with a MOS (military occupation specialty code) that largely guaranteed he would spend his career pushing papers and attending meetings. “This is a critical aspect of keeping the Corp working and ready,” he was told. This morning, he wasn’t buying that argument.

Perhaps it had been those final three shots of Jack Daniels last night that had him in such a sour mood this morning. Perhaps it was the fifteen shots that had come before those last three. Alberto’s head was pounding as he dressed, checking the full-length mirror a dozen times to make sure that his gray camouflage uniform was perfect before leaving his room. A responsibility of his rank was to lead by example, something he questioned on mornings like this one. He noticed a button was loose and made a mental note to fix it later. He placed a couple of drops of over-the-counter medication into his eyes and blinked hard. Having bloodshot eyes and being hungover wasn’t technically against regulation, but it certainly wouldn’t help any.

“At least it’s only Tuesday,” he thought as he shut the door behind him. The paperwork load wasn’t too heavy on Tuesdays.

Now, as he stood overlooking the massive crater where the bunker had once been, he was thinking that perhaps the paperwork wasn’t so bad after all. By quick count, another 14 Marines had fallen into the pit with the last cave-in. Both Col. Brinkman and Lt. Col. Hawkins were still down there, somewhere. He had no way of knowing whether either of them was still alive. The combination of smoke and dust rising up from the crevice was too thick for him to get a good view of how severe the damage actually was but he knew the entire situation was critical.

The bunker itself, a series of underground labs whose purpose was something well above the staff sergeant’s paygrade, was honeycombed across the valley, connected by massive corridors large enough for two humvees to pass. The Marine station here was technically for protective purposes only, but Staff Sgt. Moralez knew there was more to it than that. Military intelligence personnel was constantly coming and going, attending top-secret meetings whose minutes were locked tightly away in the room directly behind his office. Every person in that bunker, he had been told, held a special skill critical to the national security of the United States. 

The bomb had struck the most central part of the bunker, threatening the structural integrity of the entire system. Moving in heavy rescue equipment would magnify that risk. The staff sergeant looked around, wondering who was left in charge. He needed a quick engineering assessment, a structural assessment, to know how to continue. There were almost certainly survivors down there in all that mess. The question was how to get to them without putting more people at risk. 

Alberto scratched his head and carefully backed away from the opening. His head was pounding more than ever but not from last night’s alcohol. There had to be an officer around here somewhere. They would be responsible for the rescue, not him. He just needed to find that person. 

Reflections In A Disaster

Amber’s ingenuity showed as she rigged a makeshift IV and started Adam on a saline drip using modified bottled water and tubing from the refrigerator’s ice maker. Adam’s blood pressure was extremely low and another blanket was added in an attempt to raise his body temperature. No one felt confident that Adam would survive. In fact, had an anonymous poll been taken at the outset, most of the group would have left him at the coffee shop on the assumption that even before traveling in the rain his chances for survival were too low. Amber and Reesie were committed to saving him, though, and weren’t going to let anyone convince them to take any different course of action. 

Similarly, the older woman who had sat at the back table of the coffee shop and rode over on the table with Adam was slowly recovering with the aid of her granddaughter and the young woman who, everyone was just learning, was the grandaughter’s roommate. They had names, of course, even though no one had bothered to ask what they were. The trio was huddled in a corner of the living room, trying to stay dry and alive. 

The grandmother’s name was Hannah Kamaleski, a first-generation immigrant from Poland who had fled Soviet occupation following World War II along with her boyfriend, Alfred, who would later become her husband. They had raised four children, including her daughter, Rose, who was swept away when Reggie fell into the water. All her life she had been a small woman who no one expected to do much but she had always been strong. That strength was what kept her going now. She had no intention of giving up. 

Gloria Banning was Hannah’s youngest grandchild, the last of 16, and Rose’s only child. Gloria was a musical theater major at the state university and had brought her roommate, Toma, with her to tell her mom and grandmother that she had been accepted as an intern with the Broadhollow Theater Company in East Islip, New York. She was looking forward to graduating and pursuing her dreams despite the fact that her father, Gary, whom her mother had divorced when Gloria was only eight years old, had told her that she was being impractical and unreasonable. Rose had always been Gloria’s champion, a constant source of encouragement. She had been thrilled with the news.

Gloria’s roommate, Toma Pritchet was so quiet and so rarely spoke that many people assumed she was either an immigrant or the child of immigrants who spoke little English. Neither was true and Toma’s English was just fine. The reality was she was a fourth-generation New Jersey native with three very loud and very successful brothers. With all their noise and activity, Toma had found it much easier to stay quiet and lurk in the shadows. She got away with much more than her brothers could, including smoking marijuana and having sex in her bedroom, simply because no one in her family bothered to pay attention. Leaving New Jersey to study engineering was her way of escaping that ruckus, but on campus, she quickly discovered that those same quiet skills she used as a teenager helped her quietly navigate the male-dominated field, moving to the top of the class with hardly anyone other than Gloria and her advisor noticing. Falling in love with Gloria was not something she had expected and had they known her family would have been furious. Rose, on the other hand, had been accepting as was happy to, in her words, have a second daughter to love. 

The shock of the experience from the coffee shop to the apartment had taken a toll on everyone and once the initial activity of getting everyone dry clothes had been resolved for everyone except Barry, they settled into a quiet lull. There was a unifying sense of loss and grief. Even those who didn’t know Reggie, Rose, or Marti felt as though they’d lost a family member. Without the distraction of immediate survival, that pain grew stronger. Sobs were the most common sound punctuating the silence. No one spoke for several minutes. There was nothing any of them wanted to say.

A pallid gray light was all that came through the glass balcony doors. As the storm waxed and waned in intensity, so did the amount of light with shadows at the far ends of the room so deep that it might as well have been night. The steady white noise of the rain punctuated occasionally by distant thunder held everyone in a trance that encouraged depression as their thoughts of loss moved from not only those who had died but also the other ways their lives had changed over the past three hours. 

Reesie had lost her business and everything for which she had worked so hard and had no idea whether Timora and Ravi were safe. 

Without being there, Barry knew that his house had to be flooded. All his computers, his notes, his books, everything he needed to make a living was almost certainly ruined and there was no insurance or savings to replace them. 

Amanda couldn’t stop worrying about her children. She knew that by now they would be scared, wanting Mommy and Daddy, the inability to contact anyone making the trauma worse. 

For Carson, sitting alone in a darkening shadow wearing clothes that weren’t his and didn’t fit was the perfect metaphor for burning trash heap his life had become after losing his job, his car, and quite possibly his marriage.

Natalie had never imagined feeling so alone in her own apartment. Even as she sat on the floor huddled next to Darrell, he felt to her more like a piece of furniture than a person. Her confidence in herself and the world was gone.

Darrell wasn’t feeling much different. How he viewed himself, Natalie, their relationship with each other, and the safety of their existence in this neighborhood had all turned negative with little hope of anything changing.

Miranda and Gwen huddled together on the floor in front of the counter separating the kitchen and living room. Until this morning, they knew each other only in the context of living on the ground floor in the same apartment building. They had both lost everything in those apartments. Each other was the only thing left that was slightly familiar.

Amber stood to the side of the patio doors, staring out into the rain, occasionally adjusting the tights that were about ten sizes too small for her. She would have much preferred to be naked but she had seen the way Carson looked at her and could feel how uncomfortable her nudity made Amanda. She decided she would rather deal with her own discomfort than heap onto the problems everyone else was experiencing. 

The loss of everything in her apartment wasn’t affecting Amber in the same way it was others. She had lost everything and started over so many times in her life that this almost felt like part of a routine. She knew that when the water eventually receded that she would walk away, start over somewhere else, replace what she could and not worry about what was lost. What wasn’t replaceable wasn’t important. There were no baby pictures or family albums. There were no mementos with emotional value. No trinkets sat on her shelves, no concert tickets were crammed in a scrapbook, nothing to tie her to anything in the past existed. She could walk away at any time and pick right back up in another place. 

Amber knew there was something different about this disaster, though. She could tell the difference between the sound of thunder and a distant explosion and she knew there was more of the latter than anyone suspected. Her instincts told her that something disruptive on a universal level had happened with that phone call this morning. She had dropped her phone and fell backward onto the floor at the sound of the disruptive tone. While she couldn’t know all the details of what happened next, she knew that the entire world had changed this morning and adapting this time would not be as easy as it had been before. 

Lightning flashed just outside the glass and the resulting crash of thunder startled everyone from their internalized suffering for a moment. For everyone else, the sight of Amber’s tall frame at the doors was comforting—she was like the sentry protecting them from any further harm. Amber saw something else, though, a shadow lurking in the water below. She was certain it was Djali. He was still hanging around, still waiting to collect the soul of whoever might die next. She knew he wouldn’t care if it was one of them or someone else in the building. His continued presence meant that death, for someone, was imminent and there was likely nothing she could do to stop it.

Only Reesie recognized the slight change in expression on Amber’s face. She stood up and walked over to the patio door, putting her arm around the woman she barely knew, getting close enough that she could whisper without alarming the others. “He’s still out there, isn’t he?”

Amber nodded. “You feel it, too, don’t you?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Reesie sighed. “You don’t grow up in New Orleans not recognizing that feeling. I knew when he came into the coffee shop something was wrong. I didn’t know he was Di Inferni, though. I missed that.”

“We’ll have to keep a close watch on everyone, not just Adam and Hannah,” Amber said. “There’s something here that I’ve not felt before and it’s not a good feeling.”

The two stood together in silence for a moment before Reesie responded, “Adam’s not the most vulnerable among us, is he?”

Amber shook her head slightly, aware that there was always someone watching. “Neither is Hannah. They’re both strong. They were fighting when they got here and they’re not going to stop. If he was able to do anything to them he would have done it before you all got here. Demons like Djali tend to not like spectators. They do their job and disappear.”

Reesie waited a minute before asking the uncomfortable question that had been sitting in the back of her mind since they had arrived at the apartment. “So, you’ve encountered this guy, Djali, before?”

Amber grimaced. She knew this question was inevitable. Had the sight of the demon not caught her by surprise earlier she would have dealt with him privately as she had before. Her public confrontation opened her to questions she would likely have to answer more than once. “Yeah, we have a history,” Amber said. “He tended to follow my dad and brothers around quite a bit when I was a kid. They made his job easy and Djali is one of the laziest demons in the universe. Other members of Di Inferni would come through on occasion all aggressive and brutal but not Djali. He’s perfectly willing to sit back and wait, let nature and circumstances make it easy.”

“So, he’s more of a precursor to trouble and not the cause of it?” Reesie asked.

“Sort of,” Amber said quietly. “Think of him more like a place marker. When he shows up trouble has already started and is heading down a path that can’t be stopped. His presence also sends out a message to others like him that there is a situation to exploit. Djali is content to take the low hanging fruit, so to speak, but he attracts others who compound matters, makes a bad situation worse, increases the body count.”

Reesie shuddered at the thought. This could mean they were all sitting ducks like victims in a horror movie.

“How many bodies did you find downstairs?” Amber asked.

Reesie looked up with a startled expression on her face, one that Darrell noticed. “How did you know about that? Did Darrell say something?”

Amber was careful to not change her expression as she replied. “There are still hints of blood on your feet,” she said softly, fully aware that Darrell was trying to listen in on their conversation. “That Djali couldn’t claim them and leave means they’ve been dead a while. One of his colleagues was probably here when whatever it was happened.”

Reesie looked through the rain-splattered glass of the patio door at the water-filled streets below. The whole scene felt surreal, as though they were living in a different world on a different planet. For the first time in many years, Reesie wished she could call her mom. 

Preserving The State Of The Union

Roger collapsed into his office chair and buried his face in his hands. This couldn’t be happening. The president collapsing put everything else in the White House on hold. No one could do anything until the doctor made a diagnosis and, if necessary, Andrew was sworn in as temporary president. When that happened, everything would change. For the moment, though, all the other trouble he had faced today was back burnered.

By his estimation, Roger figured he had two minutes to gather everything he needed for the ride to the hospital. In addition to a Statement of Presidential Incapacitation that the doctor would need to sign, there were also a half-dozen other forms necessary. One gave the hospital staff permission to treat the president. Another authorized Secret Service to take over hospital security. A third allowed for a search of the entire hospital as well as background checks on anyone who might touch the president for any reason. Not that they could actually perform the background checks at the moment, but the instant it was possible they would have to be done. Hospitals made it too easy for someone to potentially sabotage the president.

Roger also knew that a critical conversation was taking place in Andrew’s office. If there was going to be a transition of power, even temporarily, the vice president needed the cooperation of the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. As much as anything, Andrew needed Graham’s support if the president was going to be out of service more than a few hours. The government doesn’t stop no matter how complicated the disaster might be. Matters of finance, trade, and foreign relations would be especially important over the next several hours. 

“Come on in, Terri,” Roger responded to the knock on the door. He waited only until she was half-way through the door before continuing. “Tell them that the president wasn’t feeling well so he was transferred to the hospital as a precaution. When they ask about a transfer of power tell them that the need for such has yet to be determined but if it is they’ll be the first to know.”

Terri nodded and ducked back out the door.

They both knew the last bit was a complete lie. In truth, there would be several people who knew and who would sign papers before the press was informed of any change. Andrew would have already been legally sworn in but they would put on a repeat performance for the cameras so that no one could charge them with any sort of subterfuge. 

Roger looked at the dead cell phone sitting on his desk and dropped it into the inside pocket of his suit coat. “Who knows,” he reasoned, “they might accidentally come back online. The way this day is going, nothing is going to surprise me.”

A second knock on the door was a Secret Service agent who handed Roger a folder containing all the necessary forms and then escorted him to the black SUV waiting to take him to the hospital. Leaving the White House at this moment bothered him. Sure, technically, Andrew was in charge and could handle any major issues that came up, but the daily operations of keeping the whole mess going were not something Andrew nor his chief of staff fully understood. He settled into the back seat of the SUV flanked by members of the president’s security detail who hadn’t been able to ride in the ambulance. Roger wondered if the hospital was ready for what was about to hit them.

Nothing about this day was going as planned. That phone call was to have been little more than a publicity stunt and a warning to international adversaries that the United States could get a message out to the entire world all at once. After that, the president should have had a meeting with Norman to go over the strategy for pushing his budget through the Senate and then a number of brief meetings and photo ops with people who had donated to the re-election campaign in order to get their cause or issue in front of the president for five minutes. 

None of that had happened, of course. The phone call had set up an international disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Roger still didn’t have any good idea of the severity of the crisis. He knew several thousand had already died, that the nation’s largest cities were in complete chaos, and that there was no reliable estimate for when even part of the nation’s electric grid might come back online. At the moment, the nation was running on generators and sooner or later those were going to run out of gas. When they did, this impossible disaster would get even worse.

Sitting stoically between the two agents, Roger wondered if there could actually be any recovery from a disaster that was so thoroughly devastating. The great experiment that was the United States was now and always had been an extremely fragile thing. Issues that had plagued the country from the very beginning, matters like the states’ autonomy and power versus the overarching authority of the federal government, had never been sufficiently resolved. Ever since Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Governors of Southern states had quietly plotted, looking for any chance of legally seceding and starting a separate country. As ideological divisions had widened, there was a growing caucus in the North that would happily allow such a secession to happen—good riddance to bad trash, so to speak. At the same time, both the Chinese and the Russians had been actively using various methods of subversion in an attempt to quietly overthrow the government, or at least weaken it to the point where a substantial part of the American population would support a significant regime change. That was in addition to the continuing problems of poverty and hunger plaguing inner cities and rural areas of the country alike. The state of the Union was not good before today. Now, a disaster of this size could easily cause the whole thing to collapse. One wrong move on any number of issues was all it could take. Every step, every decision was critical.

Easing The Hunger

Amanda couldn’t help hearing the rumbling of Barry’s stomach growing more frequent as time passed. She had decided when she first met him that his size was not an issue. He had an excellent reputation as an app designer and that was all that mattered. Over the course of the morning, he had proven to be compassionate and soft-hearted as well which enhanced how she thought of him. Barry was a nice guy and none of his physical issues distracted from that.

She knew he had to be hungry, however. 

Getting up from her spot on the makeshift couch, Amanda walked across the room and sat down on the floor next to Natalie and Darrell. Leaning in close, she said, “Look, uhm, I know you guys couldn’t have been expecting this many people just showing up and camping out at your apartment. I’m sorry for all the inconvenience.”

Natalie smiled. “It was the solution that made the most sense. I love having everyone, I’m just embarrassed that we don’t have anything to drink or anything. I can’t even make coffee.”

Amanda reached out and took Natalie’s hand in the way inherent to mothers comforting children. “Don’t worry about it. I saw they brought cans of fuel back. If you have some noodles or something I can probably fix something that would feed everyone.”

Natalie thought a minute. “I know I have a couple of boxes of spaghetti in the cupboard and probably a jar of marinara though I don’t know how old it is. We neither one really like cooking so all we have is some quick stuff. Like, I think there’s a packet of stir fry veggies and rice in the freezer but it’s an individual serving so I don’t know how that helps any.”

“That’s perfect,” Amanda said. “Mind if I snoop around your kitchen and maybe make something?”

Natalie stood up and offered Amanda a hand, “Sure! Maybe I’ll learn something!”

Amanda took Natalie’s hand and laughed. “If nothing else, at least its a distraction.”

The two women went into the kitchen area and started looking for what they would need. Natalie found the spaghetti and then checked the label on the marinara to make sure it hadn’t expired. Fortunately, it was still good. 

Amanda rummaged around and found a pot of suitable size. She turned on the tap, thankful that it was still working. That action brought the attention of others, though.

“Do you think that water is safe?” Carson asked, suddenly interested in what was going on.

“I don’t see why not,” Amanda said. “We’re going to boil it for a while, anyway, so any lingering impurities should be eliminated.”

“How are you going to do that if you can’t use the stove?” Carson continued pressing, his voice sounding rather indignant.

“We have canned fuel,” Amanda responded, keeping the same cheerful tone despite Carson’s grumpiness. It occurred to her that there were times when adults had to be treated like small children in need of a nap.

That response got Reesie’s attention. She hadn’t really paid any attention to exactly what she had put in the bag. She knew there were different labels on some of the cans but hadn’t taken the time to examine any of them. She walked over to the counter and started taking the cans out of the bag, separating them according to their purpose: some for chaffing and warming, others for cooking, and still others for heating. She didn’t think they would have an immediate need for the latter group and set them off to the side. “How many do you need?” Reesie asked.

Amanda looked at the fuel and then at the pot full of water and realized she had a problem. “Well, I should only need one, but I need a grate of some kind between the fire and the pot.”

The three women looked around, not sure what could possibly work without burning or melting. Natalie reached to the very back of a cabinet and pulled out a couple of wire cooling racks. “Think these would work?” she asked, holding them up. “My mother gave them to me and I have absolutely no idea what they’re even for.”

Amanda laughed and took the racks from Natalie. “They should be fine, dear. They’re cooling racks for cakes and cookies and things like that. They should be just about the right height, too.” She placed a rack over one of the cans of fuel the removed the fuel to see how to light it. “Anyone have a match or something that can start a fire?”

Darrell jumped up from his spot on the floor. “Hold on, I’m pretty sure those cans are self-igniting.” He examined the can to make sure then popped off the lid. As soon as the fuel came into contact with oxygen, a clean blue flame sprung up in the center of the can. He sat it down on the counter and placed the rack over the top. “There you go,” he said.

Amanda placed the pot on the rack and, as though by instinct, everyone gathered around as though this was their first time seeing a fire. Everyone, that is except Barry who stayed seated on the in the one chair that he knew was safe for someone of his weight. 

As the chatter in the kitchen came to life, no one noticed as Gwen slipped out the front door. She hadn’t said much all morning and even Miranda didn’t think anything about her new friend not being in the kitchen. 

Natalie leaned back against the counter. This felt a little bit more like the kind of entertaining she was accustomed to hosting. She enjoyed having the company as long as everyone was happy and comfortable.

Amanda was enjoying the distraction of being able to cook. As long as she was busy in the kitchen her mind wasn’t constantly on her kids, though references to them peppered her conversation more than she realized. 

Berry didn’t mind not being part of the group in the kitchen, either. The apartment was small anyway and the kitchen was already crowded without adding him to the mix. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be social but more that he enjoyed having the living room to himself for a minute. He wasn’t accustomed to so much public interaction. A little bit of space and relative quiet went a long way toward calming his nerves.

Amber kept her post by the patio door, looking over at the kitchen occasionally and smiling. She realized that this was already a life-changing event for everyone involved. One didn’t have to be a genius to see how circumstances were already bringing the group together. She watched Barry for a moment, slightly concerned that he hadn’t left his chair but the expression on his face convinced her that he was comfortable and content. 

As the water in the pot began to boil, Amanda took the box of frozen stir fry and added it to the pot. They all watched as the temperature of the water dropped and Amanda wondered if anyone other than Hannah had ever cooked before. The conversation picked back up as everyone recounted memories of a favorite meal or having watched a parent cook when they were little. This pattern repeated itself when Amanda added the spaghetti to the mix. Everyone had a story about noodles, whether it was a matter of taste or the humor of them occasionally being messy. Natalie dug around in her cabinets and came up with a colander she had perhaps used once and had it ready in the sink when the spaghetti reached the proper stage of al dente. Amanda handed the colander to Natalie with the instruction to keep the noodles moving so they wouldn’t stick together.

Heating the marina sauce took very little time by comparison but unleashed an aroma in the apartment that soon enough had everyone’s stomach rumbling. Only Amanda, Hannah, and Reesie had bothered with breakfast that morning. While no one had given much thought to the matter during the trip from the coffee shop, they realized now how hungry they all were and their mouths instinctively began to salivate with anticipation.

Darrell, following Natalie’s instructions, found a bowl large enough to hold the food. Gloria and Toma pulled plates and utensils out and wiped them all down. Amanda poured the marinara into the bowl and then added the noodles and vegetables and stirred them all together. Everyone was eagerly anticipating the meal when they were suddenly distracted by the front door opening and shutting forcefully.

There stood Gwen, once again totally soaked head to foot, attempting to carry a full-grown German shepherd that likely weighed as much as she did. All eyes turned and jaws dropped. 

“I saw him trying to swim in the street,” Gwen explained. “I called to him and he came right over. I think his home’s flooded and he doesn’t know where to go. I couldn’t leave him out there to drown.”

Darrell grabbed one of the discarded towels and rushed over to take the dog from her. He dried the animal as best he could, being careful to clean its paws and making sure its snout was unobstructed before letting it loose on the carpet. The dog took a few cautious steps into the living room, looked curiously in the direction of the kitchen, then saw Amber standing by the patio window. He ran over and put his front paws up on her.

“Hi there, big guy,” she said in the same voice that one uses to talk to infants. “Have we met before?”

The dog gave a loud, sharp bark then ran back over the Gwen and barked again.

Amber looked curiously at the small, wet young woman who was still standing in the doorway, shivering. She looked around and found a couple more towels and took them to her. Gwen was nearly two feet shorter than Amber prompting the taller woman to drop to her knees as she might with a child. Amber wrapped one of the towels around Gwen’s shoulders and placed the other on the girl’s head. “Sweetheart, why on earth were you outside in this mess?” The instant the words came out of her mouth she realized she sounded like a mother scolding a young child.

Gwen leaned in close so only Amber could hear. “I needed to pee,” she said. “I don’t like dark bathrooms.”

Amber smiled and used the towel to help dry Gwen’s long blond hair. “I totally get that,” she whispered back.

The dog barked again and used his snout to push Amber’s arm down, toward Gwen’s abdomen, insisting that she place her hand on the girl’s stomach.

Amber’s expression changed to one of concern. “Gwen, are you feeling okay?” she asked. “This dog seems very concerned about your stomach for some reason.”

Gwen shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been having some mild cramps but I figure it’s just because I’m a couple of days late. Not really a big deal.”

Amber rocked back on her heels a bit. She was in full scientific examination mode now. “What else? Think over the past two weeks or so. How have you been sleeping?”

“Okay, I guess,” Gwen said, her voice uncertain. “I mean, I’m not having bad dreams or anything. I just never seem to get enough sleep. I’m always tired.”

Amber looked toward the kitchen and Hannah worked her way past the others to come over and join the conversation. She studied Gwen’s eyes for a moment then asked, “Have your breast been aching a little, dear?”

Amanda and Reesie both tried unsuccessfully to stifle a giggle.

Gwen looked surprised. “Yeah, how did you know?”

Hannah straightened all the way up which made her just a couple of inches taller than Gwen. “You’re pregnant, dear.”

Everyone in the room gasped, including Gwen. The dog gave another sharp bark and wagged its tail.

“Wait!” Natalie exclaimed. “I have a pregnancy test!” She ran over and took Gwen by the hand. The young woman resisted, shaking her head. 

“No, I can’t go in the dark,” Gwen said, her voice trembling.

Natalie looked around for a moment and grabbed one of the cans of fuel marked for chafing. She popped it open and then took Gwen’s hand again. “Don’t worry,” she said softly. “I’ll light every damn one of these if I have to.”

“I thought it had to be the first pee of the morning to be accurate,” Miranda said, somewhat confused.
“Those are the cheap ones,” Amber explained. “It doesn’t really matter with the newer ones. They pick up the presence of the enzyme rather accurately.”

Hanna shrugged. “I don’t think you need the test. The dog and I don’t lie.”

A chuckle wafted across the room.

Natalie and Amber went into the bathroom with Gwen while the others waited in anticipation, totally forgetting that the food was getting cold. A few minutes felt like an eternity, but the women emerged from the bathroom smiling.

“We’re having a baby!” Natalie announced. 

Everyone in the room cheered. The dog barked. Gwen felt happy, though totally overwhelmed. They all were feeling positive and cheerful as they filled their plates and began to eat.